The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 4 (July 1, 1935.)
How the U.S.S. Coy. of N.Z. grew to be one of the World's Mightiest Fleets of Merchantmen.
The picture which decorates the title of the article portrays the new trans-Tasman steamer whose red funnels will be seen in our harbours late next year. This luxury liner is so far unnamed, but it represents the latest gesture of progress of the Union Steam Ship Company.
We have become accustomed in the Dominion to U.S.S. Company's service, but few New Zealanders appreciate the colossal nature of the achievement of those Dunedin pioneers who created it. Founded in the smallest of the four provincial capitals of the smallest of the Dominions of the British Empire, there has grown one of the greatest steamship lines in the world, ranking at wartime among the first half dozen of the world's mercantile fleets. It is a feat of such stupendous magnitude that it remains among the important phenomena of modern commercial history. Every New Zealander's heart should beat faster at the sight of the red funnel. It is the sign of a nobly conceived enterprise, faithfully brought to fruition, and crowned with world-wide success. Its title to world leadership in many directions is not to be lightly dismissed, and it was the work of our fellow countrymen.
The following pages tell the story, or as much of it as can be told in the time; but let it be remembered that the very glory of the annals of these adventures in steel and steam makes the task of doing them justice one of profound difficulty.
I Was talking to Jascha Heifitz, the great violinist, in a Wellington hotel bedroom when the telephone rang. His tone was most decided as he replied, and I learned that he was refusing to go to the South Island. I asked him his reason. “I will not go on a ferry crossing,” he said. “I have tried so many and have suffered so much and it is for me too unpleasant.” I found from him the name of the boat on which he had travelled here from Australia and explained that the “ferry” steamer was rather larger and just as comfortable. He looked at me as if I were trying to sell him a home-made fiddle as a “Strad,” but after searching enquiries, he made the trip. I saw him again on his return, and he said “Marvellous! the best in the world, that is all.”
The word “ferry” is the root cause of much of this misconception about our Cook Strait express steamer service, and New Zealanders who wish their country well should ban the expression.
Heifitz did not exaggerate. Nowhere in the world is there a trio of ships of the standard of the “Rangatira,” the “Wahine” and the “Tamahine” making express crossings. They leave and arrive with the regularity and punctuality of the Paris “Metro.”
The “Rangatira” is the latest of them and is a six thousand ton turbo electric liner. The cabins have their own bathrooms and luxurious beds. There is a reading lamp over every pillow in every cabin on the ship and there are splendid lounges, smoking rooms and vestibules. The consort is the aptly named “Wahine,” 4,436 tons, a triple screw turbine steamer, also beautifully equipped. These ships have a speed of twenty-two knots. They slip in and out of Wellington and Lyttelton harbours like motor launches, and any dilatory reveller who is saying “just one more word” will find that 7.45 p.m. on the departure announcement does not mean 7.46 p.m. At 7.48 p.m. at Wellington the stern of the “Big Green Beauty” is roaring past the wharf-end at railway speed, and in five more minutes the porthole lights are moving jewels flashing past Point Jerningham. Then there is the flying “Tamahine,” a well-appointed ocean greyhound of two thousand tons which has brought the wonderful Marlborough Sounds to within an hour and a half of open water from Wellington.
These boats handle the crowds that move between the two islands with ease and expedition and the connecting time-tables are a record of ingenuity and efficiency. You can leave Wellington after dinner on Monday evening and dine in Dunedin or Queenstown on Tuesday. You can leave Napier or New Plymouth on Monday morning and reach Invercargill—more than 700 miles by rail and sea—for supper on Tuesday evening.
The two big boats constitute a night bridge between the two islands on which you sleep your way over in sheer comfort.
The Company is also largely responsible for the fine service across the Bass Strait, of which the leading ship is the magnificent modern ship, “Taroona.”
However, the U.S.S. Company goes far abroad. Its ships “Sail the Seven page 10 Seas.” The queen of the fleet is the “Aorangi,” which, with the “Niagara,” maintains the service from Auckland to Vancouver via Fiji, Honolulu and Victoria. This floating palace of 17,491 tons, was the first great passenger motor vessel. Her trial trip caused as much excitement as that of the “Normandie.” She still remains one of the model liners of the world. She has a Louis XVI dining room and music room of artistic beauty, a Georgian lounge, nursery, gymnasium, electric passenger lifts, and all the refinements of luxury of the newest modern ocean hotel. The R.M.S. “Niagara” is the lieutenant of the “Aorangi,” and is exceedingly popular—particularly with our own consistent New Zealand travellers. She is a triple screw giant of 13,415 tons, and these two great ships form an integral part of the famous “All Red Route.”
Our illustrations also show the “Monowai,” another 11,000 ton vessel whose luxury cruises have carried thousands to the glorious fiords and sounds of our delectable country.
To-day the U.S.S. Company's fleet, with the “Aorangi” and the “Niagara,” totals forty-two vessels with a tonnage of over 175,000. Since its start, with replacements and losses it has handled a tonnage of half a million. This is not the end of the story, however, for the Company's subsidiary interests are widespread. It owns the Grand Pacific Hotel at Suva, known to the uttermost ends of the earth; it owns its ship repair works, and runs the Wellington Patent Slip; it has coaling plant, oil tanks and laundries, and now the air service across Cook Strait is to have its assistance. The towering fourteen storey office building in Sydney, the perfection of whose design is well-known in the architectural world, is one of a chain of fine buildings in the Dominion and the Commonwealth. The Head Office building shown in our picture is in our own capital city.
The new boat for the Tasman crossing has not yet been named. She will, as has always been the case with each, successive major ship built by this Company, be the “last word.” She will be approximately 14,000 tons with an expected speed of twenty-three knots, reducing the journey to Sydney to two and a half days. No single item of luxury that can be conjured by the imagination of the most exacting globe-trotter will be missing. Inter-telephone communication, up-to-date talkie plant, cabins with private bathrooms, men's and women's clubrooms, a gymnasium and ornate lounges, verandah cafes and dance rooms will adorn her. The staterooms will be furnished exactly on the lines of a good bedroom in the best type of modern hotel.
That is a little about the present day structure of the fleet.
It is an imposing edifice, this U.S.S. Company. It is almost unbelievable that it was planned in our own small country by our own folk, that it grew to its present proportions solely through the efforts, the energy, and the brains of our own countrymen.
No tribute in words can be made to the qualities of the man who makes great dreams become realities, and the very magnitude of this feat of truly British enterprise takes it outside the pictorial possibilities of cold print.
On Sunday, 16th April, 1848, the Revd. Thomas Burns preached his first Presbyterian sermon in Dunedin. Approximately two hundred and fifty souls had arrived in the first two ships. I have always had a respect for the Scotch preacher since I bought on one journey to Invercargill six pennyworth of peppermints. I got a small sugar bag full of large, comfortable white mints, about the size of draughts, and learned that they were for use during the preacher's remarks. This sermon must have been particularly good for it started great things. In twelve yearse' time, the University of Otago was founded, and in the next couple of decades, Dunedin citizens commenced a series of business enterprises which were destined to spread through the whole of the Dominion and many of them over the wide world. The well-known Scotch mixture, compounded of daring and caution, of liking for profit and love for culture, of foresight and swift action, has been a dominating force in the progress of New Zealand. One of these days, some historian of Gaelic ancestry will write with zest and accuracy, the extraordinary history of Dunedin leadership. No other of our cities has an answering case. I would like him not to overlook the fact that the first Dunedin Jockey Club Handicap was run there in 1863, two years before the first New Zealand Cup.
Very easily the greatest enterprise emanating from the “Edinburgh of the South” was, however, the U.S.S. Company.
On the return of Mr. Mills to Dunedin, the various ownerships were combined, the name “Union Steam Ship Company” was born, and the certificate of incorporation was issued on 12th July, 1875.
In one of our illustrations, we show the “First Four Ships.” There they are, none of them much larger than a harbour tug. They tell their own story.
One misconception should be at once removed. Even where there is some knowledge of the wonder of the U.S.S. Company's development, it is often believed that theirs was an easily obtained leadership, achieved against little competition after a bloodless struggle. The facts are far different.
A screw steamer, the “Queen,” had steamed up to the Dunedin jetty in 1858. She was in the Wellington-Dunedin trade, and I have a record of her excursion trip to the Christchurch races in March of that year. The fare was £5 cabin, single; steerage, £3/10/-, but the return fares offered a substantial reduction to £8/8/- and £5/10- respectively. Quite palatial boats, the “Pirate” (built regardless of expense for the Liverpool-Glasgow trade and costing her Australian owners £15,000), and the “Geelong” were trading to Oamaru and other distant ports in 1859. Then there was the famous “City of Dunedin,” who mysteriously disappeared with all hands on a trip to Hokitika in 1865. In the North, both at Wellington and Auckland, companies were formed. In 1859, the Wellington “Independent” of 18th February, says: “Wellington presents a more than usual bustling, gay appearance, there being no less than four steamers, three ships, three barques, two brigs, six brigantines, and nine schooners at anchor in the harbour.”
(S. P. Andrew, photo.)
The Board of Directors of the Union Steam Ship Company, 1935.
Standing: C. W. Rattray, Esq.; C. G. White, Esq.; Sir A. F. Roberts, K.B.E.; Walter Green, Esq. Sitting: N. S. Falla, Esq., C.M.G., D.S.O. (Managing Director); Sir James Mills, K.C.M.G (Chairman); G. R. Ritchie, Esq.
Wellington was proud of having the first lighthouse in New Zealand, and it became the centre of the long, desultory warfare in shipping that struggled on for many years. The Wellington Steam Navigation Company, the New Zealand Steam Navigation Company, and many Australian Companies were not only fighting for the trade to Australia but for the coastal business as well. There were also endless hostilities arising from mail contracts and subsidies. Naturally, also, the enormous business interests of the continent of America cast eyes on the shipping trade to Australia and New Zealand, and there began, in 1870, the “Thirty-eight Years' War” with time and distance over the San Francisco mail service.
Through all this rough and tumble of ceaseless struggle, one company steadfastly held its course. The little Dunedin venture, overlooked in the early part of the combat between the Titans, kept on growing. Its movement was in an accelerating progression, each new boat a definite advance on the last, each step considered before taken, but action following swiftly upon decision.
The next years are records of steady growth, invincibility against attack, and, above all, a genius for adopting revolutionary improvements in mechanical and shipping design. In 1913 the fleet consisted of the vast total of 75 vessels with an aggregate tonnage of 232,147.
The outbreak of the Great War, filling the world with smoke and bloodshed, brought all commercial progress to a trembling standstill. But it demonstrated the tremendous value to the Empire of our great carrying organisation and its vast fleet. Union Company boats took over 60,000 New Zealanders to the front, and 45,000 other troops. The two hospital ships, the “Marama” and the “Maheno,” carried 47,000 wounded and sick soldiers. At one time, no less than eighteen vessels aggregating one hundred thousand tons were in the service of the Empire, and U.S.S. ships steamed altogether three million miles in military duty. One great passenger steamer of fifteen thousand tons was transformed into a cruiser, the “H.M.S. Avenger,” only to fall to an enemy torpedo. During the War, the Company's losses were ten ships, eight of them due to direct enemy action.
The world over, golden opinions were expressed as to the assistance rendered by this New Zealand institution, but perhaps this note from the Defence Expenditure Commission of 1918 is the best human tribute of all; “The bargain of transport vessels is the most favourable that can be learned of anywhere.”
It is a proud record. I will say at once that I regard the marvel of its growth, the sureness of its progress, its steady and certain defeat of competitive attack, all to the fact that one great man was at the helm.
His courage may be seen from the collection of facts which, for clarity's sake I am enumerating. It is a record that will live for ever in mercantile history and is unique in the world's history of navigation.
- 1. The first ocean-going merchant ship built of steel.
- 2. The first ship with bilge keels.
- 3. The first steamer lit throughout with incandescent electric light.
- 4. The first steamer steered by hydraulic machinery.
- 5. The first ocean-going turbine vessel.
- 6. The first passenger vessel to use oil under Board of Trade certificate.
- 7. The first large passenger boat driven by motor engines.
It is colossal. All these innovations, regarded as daring at the time, are to-day world-wide practice. It is a new thing in the story of commercial undertakings.
It means that not only had Sir James Mills supreme ability and initiative genius, but that he had selected and surrounded himself with a general staff of great men.
Here again the principle of continuity arrives. That great Scot, Sir George McLean, was Chairman of the Board for its first thirty years. Sir Charles Holdsworth joined the Company in 1885, and even then had much experience in shipping management.
The jubilee of the company in 1925 was a revelation as a parade of veterans. Joining the Union Company seemed to have earned a ticket to longevity. Men who had started before 1880 were there in plenty.
Let us consider what these dates mean in a new country such as this.
When the Company was formed Dunedin was approximately the size of Timaru. Sir George McLean, though he had won the Dunedin Cup in 1868, with Lady Emma, had been Chairman of the Board for ten years before Carbine was born. Dunedin, when the Company was incorporated, had been a borough (the first in New Zealand) for only ten years, but its gas lights in the streets were two years older.
(Continued on page 16.)page 14 page break
The Romance of the Red Funnel.
(Continued from page 13.)
Facsimile of the Union Company's first advertisement, “Otago Daily Times,” 1st July, 1875. (The Company acted as agent for the “Samson.”)
The magic of the sea makes everything different that it touches, somehow, and that difference is intrinsic even in the commercial enterprises that work upon its waters.
The U.S.S. Company's history, is, after all, the history of the men who made it, men who dealt with the things of the sea. It is their qualities that defied the storms that beset them. It is their human attributes that created this world-ranking achievement.
This far-away land, as I have said so often before, is strangely like our Homeland in its constituents of soil and cloud and sky and its sea-girt contours. We should be proud that here the maritime tradition that is our rightful heritage should have had such tried and true knights-errant.
It would have been of no avail, either, if it had been merely a matter of keen brains. The U.S.S. Company present the miracle of sea and shore forces working amicably. The heads of this enterprise were good, but so were their hearts. I do not suppose, in the history of business gatherings, there has been such a spontaneous exhibition of brotherly warmth and the rich fellowship of service as was given at the Company's Jubilee in 1925.
This month is the Company's Diamond Jubilee. The good work has continued. The Union Company remains a distinctive New Zealand achievement, officered and administered by New Zealanders, and made by New Zealanders. We show the picture of the present Board. Under the wise counsel of Colonel Falla, the present Managing Director, the great tradition of this great fleet will be nobly maintained.
May I, as a concluding word, pay a tribute to the efficiency of the passenger and publicity department whose help in my search for records was given readily and, it seemed, without once being defeated in finding an answer to any question, however obscure.
The U.S.S. Company, in its essence, in the personality of its great founder and the unswerving loyalty of its people, simply remains a reminder that we, in these distant islands, can be mindful of the land from which we came.