Union Steamship Company of NZ Archival Collection


The Royal Mail Express Steamers of this Line are despatched from Sydney every fourth Monday and proceed via Auckland, Samoa, and Honolulu to San Francisco taking passengers for all European Porta on through tickets. Passengers have the privilege of stopping over at any ports en route, and also of traveling to or from Samoa by the Company's Regular Island Steamers.


Front Cover, MUnion Steamship Company of New Zealand - Merchant Fleets #32

Union Steamship Company of New Zealand - Merchant Fleets #32

This book is the story, from 1875 until the present day, of one of the greatest ever shipping companies. The Union Steamship Company of New Zealand must surely hold the accolade for having owned the largest number of truly beautiful passenger ships; both large and small.


History of Union Steamship Company of New Zealand

The Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, Ltd., was established in Dunedin, New Zealand, in July, 1875, for the purpose of taking over the business and plant of the Harbour Steam Company, a small local proprietary which had been in existence for some years, and whose trade, initially confined to the carriage of passengers and cargo between Dunedin and Port Chalmers, had afterwards been extended to ports of the Middle Island.

The steamers taken over consisted of three boats of small tonnage, "Maori" (118 tons register), "Beautiful Star" (146 tons), "Bruce " (460 tons), employed in the coastal trade of the Middle Island, and two steamers, "Hawea" and "Taupo," of what was then considered excessive tonnage (720 tons gross register each), which had been ordered some months previously, in view of the Company extending its operations to the North Island.

The policy which the Directors of the Union Company adopted at the initiation of their services, and which they have consistently carried out until the present time, was to look ahead and to make provision for all probable requirements, and also to have reserve plant available for unforeseen emergencies, or for new channels of trade which might offer employment for tonnage.

The business of the Company was at first confined to the coastal services of the Colony, with an occasional extension to Sydney. During the following year (1876) the Company took over the plant and business of the New Zealand Steam Shipping Company, a Wellington proprietary which had for some years been engaged in the coastal trade of the Colony.

The next important step taken by the Directors was the purchase, in 1878, of the intercolonial fleet of Messrs. McMeckan, Blackwood, &. Co., which at that time ran a weekly service between Melbourne and New Zealand.

This acquisition strengthened the Company materially, as it completed the chain of communication between Melbourne, New Zealand, and Sydney, and practically placed the entire coastal and intercolonial carrying in its hands.

Seeing great possibilities in the development of the intercolonial trade, more particularly between New Zealand and Sydney, which was, in no small extent a free port, and offered a good market for New Zealand produce, the Directors decided upon procuring a steamer superior in every way to anything hitherto seen in The Colony, the result of which was the appearance in these waters in September, 1879, of the splendid steamer "Rotomahaua," soon to be known as the "greyhound of the Pacific," a sobriquet which she has enjoyed to the present time although in size and accommodation she has been surpassed by subsequent additions to the fleet.

It is worth noting that this steamer was the first trading vessel built of mild steel, and this material is the means of her escaping severe damage on the occasion of one or two mishaps in her earlier career, the fact was widely chronicled, and led to a revolution in ship-building, mild steel being now almost universally employed in the construction of the most valuable steamships.

The courage of the Directors was rewarded by seeing the fleet fully occupied, and in pursuance of their policy to keep well ahead of the Colony's requirements, they continued to order steamer after steamer, each more luxuriously fitted than its predecessor.

Every scientific improvement, either in the machinery or the fitting of vessels, was brought into requisition for their construction, so that from the modest beginning already recorded, the fleet of the Union Company has grown to be the largest and most powerful in the Southern Hemisphere.

The connections of the Company have extended with their fleet. In 1881 it embarked, in the South Sea Islands trade, beginning with service between New Zealand and Fiji, a service which has gradually been extended until it now includes regular monthly connections between New Zealand and Australia and the Island Croups of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Saratoga, and Tahiti.

In 1885, in conjunction with the Oceanic Steam Ship Company of San Francisco, it took up the mail service between the Colonies and the United States and had retained it ever since.

In 1891 the Company purchased the plant and business of the Tasmanian Steam Navigation Company, which for many years had carried on the trade between Tasmania and Australia.

This acquisition completed the natural circuit of the Company's Australian trade, and the later absorption of a small local company working in close connection with the Union Company's business enabled the latter to make provision for the increasing trade brought about by the rapid development of the mines in the Western districts of Tasmania.

It is unnecessary to record in detail how, year after year, the fleet and trade of the Company have grown to their present dimensions. It need only be stated that at the present lime the fleet engaged in regular employment numbers 55 steamers, of an aggregate tonnage approaching 74,000 tons, and of these, fourteen range between 2,000 and 4,000 tons register.

The passenger arrangements in these steamers are all of the most modern kind, and nothing has been spared to make travel by the sea smooth and comfortable.

While the newer boats are fitted with all the luxuries that the skill of the ship-builder has made possible, many of the older ships of the fleet have been modernized by the introduction of improved machinery, electric light, and other arrangements which add to the pleasure of a voyage.

As examples of the growth of the Company's business, it may be noted that at the close of 1876 the fleet comprised 9 steamers, and it now numbers 55. In 1876 the number of passengers carried was 25,000 and the cargo 95,000 tons. In 1897 these figures had increased to 173,330 and 1,131,535 respectively.

The number of miles steamed by the fleet in 1876 was 171,000 and in 1897 1,819,680. The number of the Company's employees, i.e., those afloat and those on the permanent staffs ashore in receipt of monthly pay, and apart altogether from casual laborers, in 1876 was 223 and in 1897 close on 2,500.

The Directors take a particular interest in the welfare of the Company's employees. Their crews enjoy peculiar comforts and privileges. A Benefit Society has been established in the interests of their men afloat, to which the Company contributes an annual subsidy; and also provides a considerable proportion of the annual premiums of its officers' life insurances.

Although the progress of the Company is mostly the result of the prosperity of the Colonies, and the state of trade of the latter has a barometric effect on the Company's operations, it could not have attained and held its present position without wise heads and sound judgment to direct its affairs.

It has always been fortunate in numbering amongst its directors, men who hold leading positions in the commercial community, and whose energy and judgment are mutually recognized.

The Chairman of the Company, the Hon. George McLean, M.L.C., has filled that position since the formation of the Company, while the general operations of the Company's business have been continuously controlled and administered by its first and present Managing Director, Mr. James Mills.

The remaining members of the Board, Messrs. E. B. Cargill, J. R. Jones, A. W. Morris and J. M. Ritchie are all well-known men in business circles and have for many years past devoted their energy and ability to the development of the Company's business and the administration of its affairs.

In the regular trades of the Company, there may be included the Annual Excursions to the West Coast Sounds of New Zealand. These have been run without interruption since 1877, and from small beginnings have developed into trips that attract excursionists from all parts of the world.

During January and February of each year the the Company runs two, and occasionally three, trips, each occupying nine days from Port Chalmers, during which the most attractive of the Sounds are visited.

The steamer remains two days in Milford Sound to give excursionists an opportunity of visiting the Sutherland Palls, and as the Government has been steadily improving the track to the Palls during the last few years, they are now easy of access.

The social enjoyment of passengers is made a distinctive feature of these excursions, the whole trip taking the form of an extended picnic.

In January 1899, the Company had in view, making a new departure in connection with its West Coast Sounds trips. It has on many occasions been asked to extend its trips to include Stewart Island and the beautiful Sounds in Cook Strait, Queen Charlotte, and Pelorus Sounds.

Besides their natural attractions, these possess a particular interest on account of their connection with the great navigator, Captain Cook, who, on each of his visits to New Zealand, spent some time in Queen Charlotte Sound. To meet this generally expressed desire, the Company proposes to utilise its splendid new steamer "Waikare" in making a complete circuit of the Middle Island, calling at Half Moon Bay and Paterson Inlet, Stewart Island, proceeding thence to the most attractive of the West Coast Sounds, and afterwards to Pelorus and Queen Charlotte Sounds.

The round trip from Dunedin and back will occupy 15 days, and the journey from Sydney to Melbourne, including the New Zealand excursion, 30 days, while passengers will be permitted to break their journey at any port en route.

In addition to the Special Sounds Excursions, the Company has organized several excursions to the Coral Islands of the South Pacific. The last of these, made by the "Waikare" in July, August 1898, was a most brilliant success and was the means of creating a great deal of interest in these islands.

It is proposed to repeat the excursion in July-August, next year, and to vary the route slightly to break new ground to excursionists. The "Waikare" will leave Sydney about 1st July 1899 and will visit in turn Auckland, Tonga, and Samoan Groups, Wallis Island, Fiji, Rotuma Island, New Hebrides, and New Caledonia, arriving back in Sydney about 10th August.

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