Film and museum display tell Union-Castle’s story

The Border Historical Society held a film screening of Castles to the Cape at the Courtenay-Latimer Hall on Tuesday night.

ALL ABOARD: A vintage poster advertising the Union-Castle Line

The documentary, supplied by the Ship Society of SA, documented the history of the Union-Castle Line’s involvement along the lucrative England-to-SA shipping route.

Union-Castle was a British shipping line formed in 1900 after the merger of the Union Line and Castle Shipping Line.

Along with the documentary, the EL Museum had a number of artefacts on display relating to Union-Castle including first-class tickets, event programmes, branded playing cards and even a top-hat box.

In addition to their iconic lavender hulls and strict punctuality – “you could set your watch by its sailing schedule,” the documentary boasts – Union-Castle was famous in particular for its three “super liners” which often travelled between their home port in England and Cape Town.

The first of these ships was the Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Pendennis Castle, which was launched on December 24 1957.

It could house 197 first-class passengers and 473 tourist-class passengers.

In addition to being one of the largest ocean liners of its time, the Pendennis Castle was also the first Union-Castle ship to employ stabilisers to assist it in heavy wind or waves.

With a maximum speed of 22 knots (abour 41km/h), a journey from England to SA South Africa would take on average 11 days.

The next Union-Castle super-liner was the RMS Windsor Castle, which was first launched in 1959.

In a move that surely confused some, The Windsor Castle shared its name with another Union-Castle mail ship launched in 1921, however, the first ship was sunk by Nazi Germany in 1943.

At the time, the new Windsor Castle was the largest ship in the fleet, carrying 191 first class passengers, 591 tourist class passengers and 475 crew members.

With a service speed of 22.5 knots (42km/h), it was also one of the fastest ships on the SA mail route during its service.

The last of Union-Castle’s super-liners was the RMS Transvaal Castle, launched in 1961. While not as big as its sister ship Windsor Castle, it was still a mighty vessel.

The Transvaal Castle was the first “one-class” ship in the Union-Castle line, carrying 728 “hotel class” passengers and 426 crew.

In addition, it was the first Union-Castle ship to allow waitresses among its service crew.

While Union-Castle was one of the most popular liners along the England-SA shipping route, the increased popularity of air travel, especially air freight, put the company under severe financial strain.

In 1964, they purchased their first dedicated cruise ship from the former Pacific Steam Navigation Company, the Reina Del Mar.

This shift in business tactics wasn’t enough and in 1966 Union-Castle was forced to sell the Transvaal Castle to Safmarine, where it was rechristened the RMS SA Vaal.

Union-Castle was able to hold out for another ten years but in 1977, they were forced to cease all shipping operations.

GALLERY: Some of the artefacts on display during the film screening, courtesy of the EL Museum. Pictures by Matthew Field

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