Union Castle Memories

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Durban Castle. Click to see our page other ships called Durban.


By Tim Gallwey – August 2017

An integral part of the old Durban scene were the lavender coloured mail ships of Union-Castle. They would leave Southampton at 4 pm every Thursday and, if my memory is correct, they would arrive in Durban on Wednesday three weeks later.  As a consequence the latest issues of weekly magazines from the UK would be on sale in Durban on Thursday. The return trip to the UK left every Thursday afternoon around 4 pm. Because of the mail contract they were able to charge passengers less than their competitors such as the “City” ships of Ellerman & Bucknall, which made them popular with the travelling public until their demise in 1977. Separate from the mail service they also had a round Africa service which was more orientated towards cargo.

The inaugural monthly mail service was with the Union Line of the Union Steamship Company. Their first ship, the Dane (530 tons), with combined sail and steam, left Southampton on 15th September 1857 and was lost later after striking the Dekeeder Reef near PE on 28th November 1865. Their second ship was the Celt (531 tons) on which my great-grandfather arrived at Cape Town on 27th November 1857. To reach Durban on 8th December he had continue on the Royal Mail’s Madagascar as the through service to Durban commenced in only 1863. In 1876 the Cape Prime Minister, John Molteno, ordered a renegotiation of the mail contract to avoid a monopoly. He awarded the contract jointly to both the Union Line and the Castle Line with a condition that they would not amalgamate. But the contract eventually expired and the heavy traffic engendered by the Boer War led to co-operation and eventually a merger on 8th March 1900 to form the Union-Castle Line (see Wikipedia). One of their best known ships in Durban’s history was the Armadale Castle (13 000 tons) as it was the first liner to enter Durban harbour in 1904 after the removal of the ‘bar’ at the entrance. An impressive model of it was on show for many years in Castle Arcade.

Their ships were commandeered in both WWI and WWII for troop transport. One of the latter was the Llangibby Castle (11 951 tons) which left Durban in a convoy on 15th October 1940 for Mombasa with a large contingent from Durban including my father in the Natal Mounted Rifles. That night Radio Zeesen (Erik Holm?) announced their departure and assured their listeners (falsely) that all would be sunk. It is alleged that this intelligence was fed to the Hitler regime by a spy based in a cottage just above the railway station at Wyebank with a wonderful view straight down into Durban harbour.

The passenger service flourished after WWII by which time the ships were bigger, such as the Capetown Castle (27 000 tons) and the Edinburgh Castle (28 700 tons). The latter gave me my first experience of sea travel in the early 1950s as I had the dubious distinction of attending boarding school in Grahamstown. Initially I had travelled by train via Bloemfontein but then someone decided we should go by mail boat to PE and then the train. We were excited by all the novelties of the ship, such as timber pieces on the edge of the table to tip up to prevent crockery from sliding off, the life boats, the rescue buoys with a light which came on once it was tipped upright in the water, and the long way down if we had been forced to go overboard.

They usually moored in the area around B and C sheds and the departure was always impressive.  Tugs pulled the ship sideways and backwards towards Salisbury Island and then it was full ahead with the ship’s engines. The sand on the bottom would be churned up in a mighty maelstrom behind us as the motion gradually changed to forwards direction. We proceeded out between the breakwaters and the pilot would be dropped half a mile to a mile beyond. Then she turned to go down the coast and we would watch as the South Coast disappeared from view and we saw lighthouse flashes from first Clansthal and later Port Shepstone.

On Friday morning we went up on deck to find ourselves tied up in East London. What to do next? Our unvarying plan was to head for the beach just north of the harbour where the water was always noticeably colder than in Durban. The swimming was good but with little else to do we drifted back to the boat in time for lunch and a departure in the early afternoon, arriving the next morning in PE. The railway station was relatively close to the harbour but getting our luggage there was a real sweat. Most of us had two suitcases, one large and one small, and, in a desire to save money we carried one forward 20 to 50 yards and then came back for the other. The train left at 11.55 pm so we had to use the Left Luggage facility but then had 15 hours with nothing to do.

Our group decided to walk to Humewood beach not realising how far it was. Having got there we were somewhat disappointed but hung around for a bit before going back into town and a Danny Kaye film. Others spent the whole day watching movies and some even went to the Bio-Café which supplied one with a cool drink and one could enter or leave at any time I think. After arriving at the school our PE school mates were horrified as their mothers would not let them go there – it seems that prostitutes used the place for picking up custom.

The worst part of these trips, which prevailed for about two years, was sea sickness. One of my contemporaries would get queasy even when in dock. One ghastly trip we had was on the Warwick Castle which rolled like a tennis ball and he just managed to puke into our basin instead of onto the floor. His attempt to flush the basin resulted in a blockage and we spent the night with the sound of this mess sloshing back and forth as the ship rolled, combined with its nauseating smell. He resumed train travel after only a few voyages, thankfully.

The heyday of these boats was in the 1950s and 60s when the “overseas trip” was almost de rigeur for many young white South Africans, especially when the Overseas Visitors Club chartered the whole mail boat and sold tickets at about half the usual price. That was never part of my experience, as I started my trip by going up the East Coast on the Lloyd-Triestino Africa, but I am sure there are many others who can contribute good stories about their Union-Castle experiences.

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