Aberdeen Line

From the brush of David Bray

Sea Breezes issue: March 2023

The paintings this month represent three phases in the history of the Aberdeen Line, a shipping concern that flourished and prospered but eventually was subsumed into rival organisations.

The company was established by George Thompson (always referred to as George Thompson Junior or GTJ) in 1835 on the amalgamation of the Aberdeen Steam Navigation Company, and the Aberdeen and London Shipping Company. GTJ became a director of the new company. Prior to this he had acted a shipbroker and agent in Aberdeen, and held shareholdings in a variety of small schooners, brigs and brigantines mostly engaged in the coastal, Baltic and America trades.

Instrumental in the development of Aberdeen harbour from 1839, GTJ was also from 1842 a partner of Walter Hood, a shipbuilder established on the North side of Aberdeen harbour. Hood’s were to build many vessels for Aberdeen Line.

During the 1840s and 1850s, company vessels traded world-wide, with many cargoes of copper ore lifted from Cuba, and guano from the Chincha islands landed in the UK. The first sailing to Australia was undertaken in 1846 to Sydney by the 343 ton barque Neptune. From worldwide tramping voyages, the company now concentrated more on liner services to Australia and China, both developing markets. The first cargo of China tea was loaded at Woosung in 1849.

In 1850 Thompson took his chief clerk William Henderson into partnership in the company, and two years later Henderson married Thompson’s daughter. Thenceforth the Thompson and Henderson families were to be associated with the management of the company for many years.

By 1856 the line was running 11 clippers on their Australian service, advertising a monthly sailing from London. All these vessels had accommodation for passengers. At this time the company was often referred to as the Aberdeen White Star Line, carrying a white star on its houseflag. It was about this time that the company adopted the distinctive “Aberdeen green” hull.

By 1860, Aberdeen Line was firmly established in both the Australian liner service, and the China tea trade. This latter service required very fast ships of around 900 tons, a few of which were of composite construction (wooden hull and deck planking laid on iron frames and beams). The most famous vessel of this fleet was the 991 ton Thermopylæ of 1868. Ships designed for the Australia run were larger, around 1,100 tons with significant passenger accommodation. From 1869 most new ships were constructed of iron. Aberdeen Line vessels were renowned for their excellence of construction, maintenance and management. Fast passages were the norm, and the company was able to maintain a genuine liner service on the Australia run. One of this fleet was the wool clipper Patriarch which was an iron ship built by Walter Hood of Aberdeen in 1869. She was of 1,339 gt and 231 feet registered length. She was the first iron-hulled ship in the Aberdeen Line fleet. She was sold to the Norwegians in 1898 and finally lost in 1912. Patriarch made many successful voyages on the Australia service, and enjoyed great popularity.

By the 1860s a new technology was making its presence felt – steam power. Prior to this time, steam powered vessels were limited in range due to the fuel inefficiency of simple-expansion engines and low-pressure boilers. Steamships were unable to operate to Australia or China until the advent of compound steam engine using high pressure steam. The pioneer in this technology was Alfred Holt, who had introduced three compound-engined steamers to the China service from 1866. These vessels, together with the opening of the Suez canal in 1869, spelt the demise of the sailing clippers on the China route. These three steamers, the Ajax, Agamemnon and Achilles were the forerunners of the huge fleet of the Ocean Steamship Company, or the Blue Funnel Line.

The technological successor to the compound steam engine was the triple-expansion arrangement. In this type of engine the steam is expanded successively in three cylinders, instead of two, allowing higher pressure boilers with concomitant economies in fuel consumption. This was the pioneering arrangement chosen for Aberdeen Line’s first foray into steam. The Aberdeen of 1881 was the first successful ocean-going ship powered by triple-expansion engines, although she was preceded by the Propontis, built in 1874 by John Elder. This latter vessel featured high pressure watertube boilers which proved troublesome and the vessel was not a great success. The Aberdeen was fitted with two conventional Scotch cylindrical boilers generating steam at 125 psi from the newly developed Fox corrugated furnaces. The engine was of three cylinders, of 30″, 45″ and 70″ bore and 54″ stroke, producing some 1,800hp. The vessel was of 4,720 tons deadweight, and at 13½ knots burned about 44 tons of coal per day; about half of that of more conventional vessels of the day. Aberdeen was clipper-bowed and rigged as a three-masted barque. She was a very bold experiment, representing considerable courage on the part of Thompson and Henderson. She traded on a triangular service from London to Australia, thence coal to Shanghai and tea home. Alternate voyages saw her loading wool direct for the UK from Australia. She was the forerunner of many thousands of ships featuring coal-fired scotch boilers and triple -expansion plant.

A major dispute with the members of the UK – China liner conference saw Aberdeen Line withdraw from the China service in 1889, thereafter concentrating on the Australian routes. Further steamships followed, with emigrants forming an important part of their service. The sailing vessel fleet was progressively reduced although their last sailing ship, the barque Strathdon was not disposed of until 1905. By 1893 the fleet consisted of four steamships which were refitted in 1893/4 for the carriage of refrigerated cargoes.

The steamship fleet continued to expand with larger cargo and passenger capacities, refrigerated cargo and higher speeds. A setback occurred in 1899 when the steamship Thermopylæ II was wrecked at Green Point in Table Bay. The fleet was further reduced when the Salamis was chartered by the government for troopship duties during the Boer war. As a replacement the White Star liner Ionic was bought and renamed Sophocles. In 1902 two new vessels were ordered from the Linthouse yard of Alexander Stephen. These were the Miltiades and Marathon , both around 6,800 tons. Powered by twin-screw triple expansion engines of 6,000 hp they had a service speed of 14 knots. Five hatches gave access to a substantial cargo capacity, including 100,000 cu ft of refrigerated space. Around 180 passengers were carried in two classes. The ships were configured with full-length double bottoms, and they were the first ships in the company to be fitted with wireless telegraphy. With clipper bow, counter stern and raked masts and funnel these ships were very good looking. Entering service in 1903/4 the ships took pride of place on the Australia route.

By 1905 the company was experiencing financial difficulties. Until then the company had been run as a family business led by George Thompson Junior and William Henderson. GTJ had died in 1895, and William Henderson in 1904, but the company had continued under the leadership of Thompson and Henderson family members. In 1905 the company was refinanced with shares issued. Control of the company effectively passed to Shaw, Savill and Albion, and the Oceanic SN Co (White Star) although the Thompson and Henderson families were still represented on the board. Management of the company moved from Aberdeen to London. Competition on the Australian services was keen, the company being in competition with P&O, Alfred Holt as well as Shaw Savill and others. Aberdeen Line had always been regarded as an “outsider” in respect to the conference arrangements. Six further steamers were built for the company between 1908 and 1922, all by the Belfast yard of Harland and Wolff. In 1912 the Miltiades and Marathon were both lengthened by 50 feet by their Linthouse builders. This was primarily to increase their cargo capacity in order to remain competitive on the service. Their profile was altered by the installation of a dummy forward funnel, although their machinery plant remained as-was. The Marathon is shown some time after her lengthening. She was of 6,795 gt originally, becoming 7,848 gt after lengthening. An amusing anecdote relating to both these vessels concerns the additional funnel added during the lengthening operation. This was a new forward funnel, and was a dummy, fitted to balance the ship’s profile. Unfortunately, the paint on the “hot” funnel dried to a darker shade than that on the “cold” dummy funnel, giving the chief officer a permanent headache! As related earlier, she, together with her sistership Miltiades was sold to Royal Mail S P Co in 1922, scrapped in 1925. 

During the Great War all of the company vessels were taken up from trade for war service. Miltiades and Euripides, chartered by the Australian government, took Australian troops to Alexandria en-route to Gallipoli, then sailed for the UK for further trooping duties. The remaining three ships, Themistocles, Demosthenes and Marathon were all chartered by the Australian government for trooping duty. In 1917 all five ships were requisitioned by the UK government to bring US troops to the UK after the USA had entered the conflict. After the war the ships were engaged in repatriation duties until their release back to commercial service in 1919. It was 1921 before all refitting was completed and the company was able to resume its fortnightly service to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Two new vessels,  Sophocles and Diogenes entered service in 1922, and the Marathon and Miltiades were laid up for sale. They were bought by the Royal Mail S P Co, renamed Oruba and Orcana for the West coast of South America service. Uneconomical in this service they were both sold for scrap in 1923/4.

Trading conditions on the Australia routes were difficult in the 1920s, especially when the Australian government entered the fray, building five modern liners to their own account through the Australian Commonwealth Line. These were the Esperance Bay and her four sisterships. In addition to this unwelcome competition from a government-subsidised entity, the  Aberdeen Line ships were plagued with strike action in the Australian ports. In 1926 the company was taken over by Shaw Savill and Albion, itself subsumed into the Kylsant empire. Thompson staff were still represented on the board but the company was run from Royal Mail house. In 1928 the Australian government sold its seven ships (the five Bay class liners plus two Dale class cargo ships) to the Kylsant group, creating the Aberdeen and Commonwealth Line under Thompson management. In 1932 the Kylsant group collapsed and Shaw Savill assumed ownership of the Aberdeen Line fleet. Earlier, the Sophocles and Diogenes had been renamed Tamaroa and Mataroa respectively, and the Demosthenes had gone for scrap in 1931. The final sailing under the Shaw Savill – Aberdeen Line joint service was in 1937, when the Aberdeen Line name was finally dropped. The Euripides was refitted for the New Zealand service in 1933, and renamed Akaroa, serving until scrapping in 1954. Themistocles remained in service in Shaw Savill colours until scrapping in 1947.

For the information in this resumé of the history of this company, I have drawn heavily on the contents of the excellent volume “The Aberdeen Line” by Captain Peter H King FNI. I am grateful to Peter for scrutinizing my copy and suggesting improvements.

Reference: “The Aberdeen Line” by Capt Peter H King. Pub the History Press 2017

This article, and others,  follow a series which Sea Breezes magazine is publishing, featuring David’s paintings, and the stories behind them.