The Union Steam Ship Company
The Great Days of the Union Steam Ship Company
Consider a modern innovation such as the internet and how it has changed our day-to-day lives. Even though the Victorian era has been dubbed the Age of Invention, because of its life-changing innovations, the steam engine stands out.
In the last decades of the 19th century steam ships had taken the dread out of 'the doldrums' forever. At the far end of the empire, but with close links to mother England, steam shipping was vital to New Zealand. When the young country had few roads and unreliable land transport it was also important for coastal shipping - and it was our link with bigger markets in Australia.
It was in this environment that the Union Steam Ship Company was formed, in 1875 in Dunedin. The nucleus of the fleet, in the early days, was five small vessels: the Beautiful Star, Bruce, Maori, Hawea and Taupo were the first of 42 vessels built by W. Denny and brothers of Dumbarton, Scotland for the Union Company. By 1875 the Union Steam Ship Company had 32 vessels, and by 1913 the fleet had grown to 75. From the late 1870s the Union Company had branched out from the coastal trade to establish passenger services to Calcutta, Vancouver, San Francisco and Australia. Control of the Union's New Zealand operation was acquired by P&O Line in 1917, but the Company retained its own identity.
Until the 1920s, the Union Company provided Nelson's main passenger and cargo service, including the ferry service to Wellington. In fact the Union Company's Rotoiti was the first vessel through the Cut when it was opened in 1906. For this occasion the popular ferry was decked with ribbons, packed with 800 passengers and accompanied by horns and sirens as she sailed through.
The Union Company's main vessels out of Nelson in the early 1900's were the Mapourika, Pateena and the Arahura, running a service to the West Coast and Picton. Union pulled out of the Nelson passenger service in January 1922 leaving this to the Anchor Company . However, Union continued to offer the main inter-island ferry service from Lyttelton to Wellington, with a succession of vessels - named Maori, Wahine and Rangitira.
Launched in 1906, the first Maori was also the first purpose built inter-island passenger ferry, commissioned to connect the newly completed main truck railway service. She would wait for the Christchurch express train if it was delayed, but always made up time overnight to arrive in the capital at 7am. Car-owners used to watch nervously as their vehicles were slung on board, before the introduction of new roll- on roll-off Maori III in 1966.
Union also introduced the rail ferries Aramoana and Aranui on the Wellington-Picton run, taken over by NZ Railways in 1971.
But back to the Union Steam Ship Co's role in Nelson shipping. ln the middle years of the 20th century the Union Co. operated a big fleet of smaller freighters between NZ and Australia. One of Port Nelson's Shipping Service Managers, John Westbrooke, served on two of these, the Karamu and Waikare: "At one stage the Union Co had 63 freighters," he recalls. "A high percentage would have been on the trans-Tasman run, mainly out of Tauranga. They still referred to the trade then as ‘Inter-Colonial!"
Union was out of the coastal shipping picture at Port Nelson, at this stage, but in March 1982, the Union Nelson replaced Anchor's ageing freighter Titoki, offering a fully containerised coastal service with calls at New Plymouth, Lyttelton, Nelson and Onehunga. It brought in sugar for the Griffins' factory and the Apple and Pear Board cannery, fruit trays, building materials and other general cargo. On the return trip north it took canned and frozen fish, cans of fruit and stone chips to be used in making roof tiles. This service continued until 1985, when it was abandoned due to falling cargo - a victim of the Cook Strait rail ferry service.
Meantime, on the trans-Tasman front, the Nelson Harbour Board built a linkspan at Brunt Quay in 1976 for the ships Union Lyttelton and Union Sydney. But by 1982 this was made obsolete when the service was taken over by the Union Endeavour, capable of carrying over 1000 containers and with six 25-tonne cranes to lift them on and off.
The Union Rotoiti, introduced in 1988, was a return to roll on-roll off, but with its own ramp lowered onto the wharf. The Rotoiti, Rotorua and Rotoma have been familiar callers at Nelson over the last two decades, under the ANZDL (Australia NZ Direct Line) flag since 1999. When the Rotorua departed on February 10th 2005 it ended a link with Port Nelson that can be traced back to 1875.
This article was first published in Port Nelson Limited Report March 2005, p.12 (updated 2022)
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Further sources - The Union Steam Ship Company
- Farquhar, I. J. (1976) Union fleet 1875-1975: being a list of ships owned by the Union Steam Ship Company of N.Z. Ltd, since its inception in Dunedin in 1875, together with a list of some of the significant dates in the history of the line (2nd rev.ed) Wellington, N.Z.:New Zealand Ship and Marine Society
- Mclean, G. (1989) Ships of the Union Company. [Wellington, N.Z.] : GP Books
- McLean, G. (1990) The southern octopus: the rise of a shipping empire. Wellington, N.Z. : New Zealand Ship & Marine Society and the Wellington Harbour Board Maritime Museum.
- The Union Steam Ship Company. In The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Provincial Districts] (1906) The Cyclopedia Company, Limited, 1906, Christchurch
- Waters, S.D.(1952) Union line: a short history of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Ltd 1875 - 1951. Wellington, N.Z. :Coulls Somerville Wilkie Ltd]
- Kirk, A.A (1967) Ships and sailormen Nelson Historical Society Journal, 2(2), 13
- McDougall, R.J., Kirby, N.J. & Leahy, P.J. (1982) For the record. New Zealand marine News v.32 (2,3,4); v.33 (1,2) [NZ shipping to 1982, inc Union Nelson]
- Meat and Related Trades Workers' Union of Aotearoa & Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand (Contributors)(1970) Various papers - New Zealand meatworkers, Canterbury, Marlborough and Nelson Branch Trade Union Seminar etc [includes sase for New Zealand control of Union Steam Ship Company]. Held Alexander Turnbull Library
- Anchor shipping and Foundry Co. Ltd. (n.d.) Retrieved from New Zealand Coastal Shipping, 13 May 2010
- Mclean, G. (n.d.) Union Steam Ship Company - History & Photos. Retrieved from NZ ship and Marine Society, 13 May 2010:
- McLean, G. (2009) Shipping - The Union Company expands. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
- Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Memorabilia and Ephemera (n.d.) Retrieved from the New Zealand Maritime Record, 13 May 2010:
- Union Steam Ship Company (n.d.) Retrieved from the Ships List, 13 May 2010
- The Union Steam Ship Co.(1966; 2009) McLintock, A.H. (Ed) An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand: Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand
- Union Steam Ship Company flag (2008) Retrieved from NZ History Online (Ministry for Culture and Heritage)
- Union Steam ship Company of New Zealand. In The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Otago & Southland Provincial Districts] (1905). Christchurch, N.Z. :The Cyclopedia Company, Limited