The White Star Line was a successful shipping company that was founded in 1845 by John Pilkington and Henry Wilson. The company initially focused on the UK-Australia trade, which amplified following the discovery of gold in Australia.
The company’s charted sailing ships included RMS Tayleur, Red Jacket, Blue Jacket, Ben Nevis, White Star and more. The company, however, suffered its first maritime disaster when RMS Tayleur when she was ran aground on her maiden voyage in 1854, which was due to inexperienced crew members and faulty equipment. Only 290 people survived out of 650, and the vessel has since been described as “the first Titanic”.
The White Star Line acquired its first steamship in 1863, the Royal Standard. The same year, the company merged with The Black Ball Line and The Eagle Line to form a conglomerate: The Liverpool, Melbourne and Oriental Steam Navigation Company Limited. However, the union proved to be unsuccessful, leading to the White Star Line leaving the company. As a result, they chose to focus on Liverpool to New York Services, significantly investing in new ships. However, as the company was soon left with a £527,000 debt following the failure of the company’s bank, the Royal Bank of Liverpool, and was forced into bankruptcy.
The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company
Thomas Ismay, the director of the National Line, bought the White Star Line’s house flag and trade name for £1,000 on 18th January 1868. His plan was to begin operating large ships for a North Atlantic service, and so established the company headquarters at Albion House, Liverpool.
Over a game of billiards, Ismay received an offer from Gustav Christian Schwabe, a Liverpool merchant, and his shipbuilder nephew, Gustav Wilhlm Wolff, to finance his new shipping line on the condition Wolff’s company build the vessels. Ismay agreed to the partnership, and Harland and Wolff received their first orders on 30th July 1869 for Oceanic.
Harland and Wolff built ships exclusively for the White Star Line at cost price, as well as a fixed percentage. Whilst Oceanic was being commissioned, Ismay formed the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company to operate the steamers under the construction.
The White Star Line started with six Oceanic class ships: Oceanic (I), Atlantic, Baltic and Republic, and was later followed by the Adriatic and Celtic. It began operating in 1871 on a New York and Liverpool voyage, calling at Queenstown. The newly-formed company, however, suffered a its first loss when the SS Atlantic sunk following a violent storm near Halifax, Nova Scotia. 535 lives were lost at sea.
It was in 1899 that the White Star Line established themselves from the competitors, as they created one of the most stunning steamships constructed in the nineteenth century, the Oceanic (II). The vessel led to the shipping company departing from competition in speed from its rivals, as the liner chose to focus primarily of comfort, luxury and economy of operation.
Following growing pressure from the White Star Line’s shareholders and J.P Morgan, an American financier, the White Star Line was absorbed into the International Mercantile Marine Co. (IMM), with J. Bruce Ismay, Thomas Ismay’s son, as chairman. The IMM would therefore control subsidiary operating corporations.
The Olympic Class Ships
Following Cunard Line’s launch of Lusitania and Mauretania, the White Star Line ordered three Olympic class liners: RMS Olympic, RMS Titanic and RMS Britannic (II). However, unlike Cunard that was renowned for its speed, the White Star Line decided to create the most luxurious vessel in the world.
RMS Olympic was the only profitable ship for the White Star Line, as RMS Titanic sunk on its maiden voyage when she hit an iceberg on 14th April 1912. Over 1,500 people lost their lives following the event, whilst 705 people were rescued by RMS Carpathia.
RMS Britannic was requisitioned by the British government as a hospital ship during WWI, before she took her maiden voyage as a passenger liner. She sank on 21st November 1916 after hitting a mine.
Life After the Olympic Class Liners
The White Star Line received to former German liners, Majestic and Homeric, as war reparations for the vessels lost following WWI. The two vessels and RMS Olympic proved to be a success on the Southampton to New York service. However, the impact of the Great Depression led to the White Star Line being purchased by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (RMSPC). The White Star Line was now the largest shipping company in the world, and led to the company attempting to build a thousand foot liner that would be propelled by a diesel electric propulsion system. However, financial issues halted the construction, and the ship’s keel was dismantled and used on smaller motor ships. Due to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s growing financial struggles, Royal Mail Lines Limited acquired all the ships.
The new company proved to struggle just as much as its predecessor, though, as the White Star Line merged with the struggling Cunard Line in 1933, as both companies failed to cope with the falling passenger numbers caused by the Great Depression. The mergence was called on by the British government who only offered to provide assistance if the two companies formed their North Atlantic operations. The merger occurred on 10th May 1934, creating Cunard-White Star Limited.
As the White Star Line only offered 10 ships to Cunard’s 15, 62% of the company was owned by Cunard shareholders, whilst 38% was owned by White Star Line shareholders. However, it didn’t take long for Cunard to acquire the rest of the 38%, as they bought the assets and operations on 31st December 1949, and reverted back to the Cunard name on 1st January 1950.
The White Star Line’s headquarters still exists on James Street, Liverpool. It is now 30 James Street – Home of the Titanic, and we are passionate about preserving the architectural history whilst paying tribute to RMS Titanic’s passengers, crew and historical connections.