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.  

Railway wharf at Nelson, 1878-1894Railway Wharf at Nelson, between 1878-1894. Tyree Studio, Alexander Turnbull Library,10x8-0176-G [Union Steam Ship Company co. premises are  bottom of picture] Click image to enlarge

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.  

Ships of the Union Steam Ship CompanyThe Old And The New Ships As Of The Union Steam Ship Company.[Some well-known ships, Old and New, of the Union Steam Ship Company's Fleet. From top (left): The "Hawea, " the "Beautiful Star," the "Maori," and the "Taupo," Right: The "Taroona,"the "Monowai," the "Rangatira," and the "Aorangi."]Retrieved from NZETC. Click image to enlarge

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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  • Require names of Union fleet...
    Already have, KINI,KOWHAI, KUMALLA, KACKARIKKIE. Ed. we have the lists, but unable to email them to you

    Posted by PETER HOLMES, ()

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Further sources - The Union Steam Ship Company




  • 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

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