The White Star Line
The White Star Line was first founded in 1845 but by 1869 the company was bankrupt. The trading name of the company, including its flag of a White Star on a red background, was sold to the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company for £1,000. The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company was founded by Thomas Henry Ismay and was officially registered as a company on 6 September 1869. Immediately, an order was placed with the Belfast shipyard of Harland and Wolff for four liners, followed by another two to the same design. The first of these, the Oceanic, was launched on 27 August 1870. The vessel was some 420 feet in length, 41 feet wide and had a gross registered tonnage of 3,707.
The company soon expanded its fleet with vessels sailing on routes from Liverpool to New York, South America (later disbanded) and the Pacific. Some thirty years after the first Oceanic was ordered, Oceanic (II) was launched. She was dramatically larger than the first Oceanic at some 686 feet in length, with a breadth of 67 feet and a gross registered tonnage of 17,272. A sister ship to Oceanic (II) was cancelled when on 23 November 1899 Thomas Henry Ismay died at the age of 72. The last vessel ordered by Thomas Ismay, the Celtic, was launched on 4 April 1901. At this time, Joseph Bruce Ismay succeeded his father in charge of the company.
In 1902 the American conglomerate IMM (International Mercantile Marine) consolidated its position as a major shipping line owner by acquiring the White Star Line for £10 million. In 1907 plans were drawn up for the three largest liners in the world, the Olympic class. The first, the Olympic, was launched in 1910; the second, the Titanic was launched in 1911; and the third, the Britannic, was launched in 1914.
During the Great War, vessels of the White Star Line were requisitioned and used, for amongst other things, as hospital ships and Armed Merchant Cruisers. Notable vessels lost during the conflict were Oceanic (II), wrecked when she ran aground; and Britannic (II), mined in February 1916. Throughout the conflict, White Star Line vessels had carried over half a million troops and over four million tons of cargo; the fleet had sacrificed thirteen ships.
In 1922 the Treaty of Versailles ceded the German vessels Bismarck and Colombus to the White Star Line as reparations for war losses. The Bismarck was renamed the Majestic, the Colombus was renamed the Homeric; these two vessels would become running mates to the Olympic and from the spring of 1922 the three vessels formed White Star Line's Atlantic express service.
In 1927 the company was purchased by the Royal Mail group for £7 million. It was an ill-timed purchase and the group, headed by Lord Kylsant, had insufficient funds to expand and maintain the fleet. The Laurentic was built by Harland & Wolff at a fixed price unlike all other White Star vessels which were built on a cost plus an agreed profit for the builders. Other vessels were sold off or scrapped; in 1928 plans for the 1,000 feet long, 60,000 gross ton Oceanic (III) were cancelled.
By 1933 the White Star Line was bankrupt, and an enforced merger with the Cunard Line occurred. On 10 May 1934 Cunard-White Star Ltd came into existence with the White Star Line contributing eight ships. By the end of 1936 only three, Laurentic (II), Britannic (III) and Georgic (II) remained. Within weeks of the final demolition of the Olympic, Joseph Bruce Ismay died in London on 17 October 1937.
On 3 September 1939 Britain entered the Second World War and the three remaining vessels of the White Star Line saw service, as had their predecessors during the First World War. On 3 November 1940 Laurentic was torpedoed and sunk by U-99 with the loss of forty-nine lives. On 14 July 1941 Georgic was attacked and half-sunk by German aircraft. She was deemed repairable and again saw service from December 1944 onwards.
Britannic survived the Second World War and after a post-war refit she returned to the Cunard-White Star fleet on 22 May 1948, sailing from Liverpool to New York via Cobh in Ireland. The Georgic too returned to the fleet albeit on charter from the Ministry of Transport. Both ships retained the buff-coloured funnels of the White Star Line and still flew the house-flag of the company.
In 1947 the Cunard Steam Ship Company purchased the remaining White Star Line shares. On 31 December 1949 the name of the White Star Line was erased from the title as the company reverted to the Cunard Line. The Georgic and Britannic, both still proudly carrying the colours of the White Star Line, continued in service until 1956 and 1960 respectively. On 16 December 1960 the Britannic sailed her last voyage to the breakers yard.
The vessels of the White Star Line fleet were some of the finest, most beautiful ships to be seen. The company leaves behind a historic legacy of famous liners which are still appreciated to this day.