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The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company or White Star Line of Boston Packets, more commonly known as the White Star Line, was a prominent British shipping company, most famous for its ill-fated luxury flagship, the RMS Titanic, and the World War I loss of her sister ship, Britannic. In 1934 the line merged with its chief rival, Cunard Line, which operated as a separate entity until 2005 and is now part of Carnival Corporation & PLC.


The first company bearing the name White Star Line was founded in Liverpool, England by John Pilkington and Henry Threlfall Wilson, and focused on the U.K. - Australia trade, which had increased following the discovery of gold there. The fleet initially consisted of chartered sailing ships, RMS Tayleur, the Blue Jacket (later renamed White Star), the Red Jacket, the Ellen and the Iowa. The fate of Tayleur, the largest ship of its day, would haunt the company for years, for it was wrecked on its maiden voyage to Australia off the coast of Ireland. The company acquired its first steamship in 1863, which was called the Royal Standard.

The original White Star Line merged with other small lines, the Black Ball and Eagle Lines to form a conglomerate called the Liverpool, Melbourne and Oriental Steam Navigation Company Limited. This did not prosper and White Star broke away and concentrated on the Liverpool to New York service. Heavy investment in new ships was financed by borrowing, but the company's bank, the Royal Bank of Liverpool, failed in October 1867 leaving the company with an outstanding debt of £527,000, and it was forced into bankruptcy.

The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company Thomas Ismay, a director of the National Line, purchased the house flag, trade name White Star Line, and goodwill of the bankrupt company for 1,000 pounds sterling on 18 January 1868, with the intention of operating large ships on the North Atlantic service. Ismay established the company's headquarters at the Albion House, Liverpool.

Over a game of billiards with Gustav Christian Schwabe, a prominent Liverpool merchant, and his nephew, Gustav Wilhelm Wolff, Ismay was told that if he agreed to have his ships built by Wolff's company, Harland and Wolff, Schwabe would agree to finance the new line. Ismay agreed, and a partnership with Harland and Wolff was established. The shipbuilders received their first orders on 30 July 1869. The agreement was that Harland and Wolff would build the ships at cost plus a fixed percentage and would not build any vessels for the White Star's rivals. In 1870 William Imrie joined the managing company. As the first ship was being commissioned, Ismay formed the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company to operate the steamers in the process of construction.

Six ships were initially constructed for the Oceanic class; the Oceanic, Atlantic, Baltic, and Republic, followed by the slightly larger Celtic and Adriatic, and the line began operating again in 1871 between New York and Liverpool (with a call at Queenstown (Cobh)).

It has long been customary for many shipping lines to have a common theme for the names of its ships. In the case of the White Star Line, this was to use the suffix -ic (e.g. Titanic, similarly to Cunard's use of -ia (e.g. Carpathia) or the Allan Line's use of -ian (i.e. S.S. Parisian). The line also adopted a buff-coloured funnel with a black top as a distinguishing feature for its ships, as well as its distinctive house flag, a red broad pennant with two tails with a white five-pointed star.

For the rest of the nineteenth century the White Star Line would own such famous ships as Britannic, Germanic, Teutonic and Majestic. Several of these ships would eventually take the Blue Riband, awarded to the fastest ship to make the Atlantic crossing.

In 1899 Thomas Ismay commissioned one of the most beautiful steam ships constructed during the nineteenth century, the Oceanic (II). She was the first ship to exceed the Great Eastern in length (although not tonnage). The building of this ship marked the point where White Star departed from competition in speed with her rivals and concentrated solely on comfort and economy of operation. Between 1901 and 1907, a quartet of ships known as The Big Four, all around 24,000 tons, were brought into service: Celtic, Cedric, Baltic and Adriatic. These ships were designed to carry massive numbers of passengers as they each had the accommodations for 400 passengers in First and Second Class, and over 2,000 in Third Class. In addition to that, they had extremely large cargo capacities, with large holds able of containing up to 17,000 tons of general cargo. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the efficiency of coal engines only allowed a feasible speed of about 24 knots (44.4 km/h/27.6 mph). Going above this speed introduced a logarithmic proportion in direct relation to fuel consumption and speed, in that for every knot increased, the required fuel was the previous fuel required plus itself. For this reason, the White Star Line committed to comfort and reliability rather than to speed. As an example, the Titanic was designed for travel at 21 knots (39 km/h), while the Cunard Line's Mauretania held the speed record in 1926 for 27 knots (48 km/h).

In 1902 the White Star Line was absorbed into the International Mercantile Marine Co. (IMM), a large American shipping conglomerate. By 1903 IMM had managed to absorb the American Line, Dominion Line, Atlantic Transport Line, Leyland Line, and Red Star Line. They also came to trade agreements with the German lines Hamburg-Amerika and Norddeutscher Lloyd. Bruce Ismay ceded control to IMM in the face of intense pressure from shareholders and J.P. Morgan, who threatened a rape war.

The White Star Line during the Golden age of Immigration[]

During what is called "The Golden age of Immigration" many thousands of people moved from Europe and the Middle East to the United States or Canada. The White Star Line was among the first shipping lines to have passenger ships with less expensive accommodation for Third Class passengers, in addition to First and Second Class. Liners of the Oceanic Class were built to carry up to 1,000 Third Class passengers; as time went on that number increased. The second Celtic was built to carry 2,350 Third Class passengers. The White Star Line did a great deal of advertising for immigrants traveling to America and Canada. Most passengers came from Great Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Austria-Hungary (Present day independent countries of Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Slovakia, certain areas of the Czech Republic, Poland, and several other nations in Eastern Europe). Passengers also came from Central and Southern Europe, and later from as far away as Lebanon.

Olympic class ships[]

The Cunard Line was the direct competition to White Star Line as their fame and success mounted. As a competition piece the White Star Line began construction on their new series, the Olympic class; the Olympic, Titanic, and Gigantic. While the Cunard Line was famed for the speed of its ships, the Olympic class were designed to be the biggest and most luxurious ships in the world. Gigantic was a bit larger than Titanic; her name was changed to Britannic shortly after the sinking of Titanic. The name was changed because of Titanic getting the name Unsinkable. They thought Gigantic is a unlucky name so they changed the name to Britannic which they thought was lucky. The Olympic was the only ship of this class that gave White Star Line a profit. Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, while Britannic sank without carrying a paying customer, as she had been requisitioned by the British government before she was fully fitted, and used as a hospital ship during World War I.


In 1927 the White Star Line was purchased by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (RMSPC), making RMSPC the largest shipping group in the world.

In 1928 a new Oceanic (III) was proposed and her keel was laid down that year at Harland & Wolff, but the final ship was never completed. She was to have the new diesel-electric propulsion system and maintain the thousand foot dimensions that had originally been planned for Gigantic and the unbuilt Ceric (1913). Oceanic's keel was dismantled and the steel was used in two new smaller ships built for the White Star: RMS Georgic and RMS Britannic (1929). Both of these ships entered service in 1930 and were the last liners White Star ever built.

The RMSPC ran into financial trouble, and the British government investigated its affairs in 1930. As a result chairman Lord Kylsant was imprisoned in 1931 for misrepresenting the state of the company to shareholders. RMSPC was liquidated in 1932, and a new company, Royal Mail Lines Limited, took over the ships of RMSPC proper and those of other group companies trading to South America.

In 1933 White Star and Cunard were both in serious financial difficulties because of the Great Depression, falling passenger numbers and the advanced age of their fleets. Work had been halted on Cunard's new giant, Hull 534 (later the Queen Mary), in 1931, to save money. In 1933 the British government agreed to provide assistance to the two competitors on the condition that they merge. The agreement was completed on 30 December 1933.

The merger took place on 10 May 1934, creating Cunard White Star Limited. White Star contributed 10 ships to the new company while Cunard contributed 15 ships. Because of this, and since Hull 534 was Cunard's ship, 62% of the company was owned by Cunard's shareholders and 38% of the company was owned by White Star's shareholders. A year after this merger, the last of the "Olympic Class" ships the Olympic was removed from active duty. Two years later, in 1937, she was scrapped.

In 1947 Cunard acquired the 38% of Cunard White Star it did not already own, and on 31 December 1949 it acquired Cunard White Star's assets and operations, and reverted to using the name "Cunard." From the time of the 1934 merger, the house flags of both lines had been flown on all its ships, with each ship flying the flag of its original owner above the other. After 1950, only Georgic and Britannic, the last surviving White Star liners, continued to fly the White Star burgee on a regular basis above the Cunard house flag. All other ships flew the Cunard flag over the White Star flag until 1968.

White Star Line today[]

The White Star Line's London offices, named Oceanic House, still exist today. Located just a block off Trafalgar Square, here one can still see the name on the building over the entrances. The Texas Embassy Cantina (restaurant) is located on the main level of the building.

The French passenger tender Nomadic, the last survinder the auspices of the Nomadic Preservation Trust along with the assistance of her original builders, Harland and Wolff. She is intended to serve as the centerpiece of a museum dedicated to the history of Atlantic steam, the White Star Line, and its most famous ship, the Titanic.

Also, the Cunard Line has introduced the White Star Service as the name of its brand of services found on its ships, the Queen Mary 2, the Queen Victoria and the future Queen Elizabeth 3. The company has also created the White Star Academy, an in-house programme with the purpose of preparing new crew members for Cunard ships.

The White Star flag is raised on the Queens on every 15 April, in memory of the Titanic disaster.

Disasters of the line[]

In 1873 the Atlantic was wrecked near Halifax, costing 585 lives.

In 1893 Naronic vanished on the Atlantic ocean with 74 passengers and crew after departing Liverpool for New York. Her wreck has never been found.

In 1907 Suevic ran aground off the coast of England, but in the largest rescue of its kind, all 456 passengers and 141 crewmembers were rescued. The ship was deliberately broken in two, with the stern half being rebuilt with a new bow.

The RMS Republic before she sank

In 1909 the Republic was lost after a collision with the liner SS Florida. Four lives were lost in the collision and the ship remained afloat for over 36 hours before foundering.

In September 1911 Olympic was involved in a collision with the warship Hawke in the Solent, badly damaging both ships.

In April 1912 Titanic was lost after colliding with an iceberg, taking 1,502 passengers with her.

The first White Star ship lost during World War I was Arabic (II), torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale Ireland on 19 August 1915 killing 44.

The following November, the second sister ship of Titanic, HMHS Britannic, was lost after striking a mine in the Kea Channel off Greece. She sank in less than 50 minutes with the loss of 21 lives and was the largest vessel sunk in the war.

In 1915 the Ionic is narrowly missed by a German torpedo in the Mediterranean Sea. No lives were lost.

On 3 May 1915 the former Germanic (then in service as a Turkish troop transport) was torpedoed by the British Submarine E-14. The ship survived the attack with no fatalities.

In May 1916 Ceramic was narrowly missed by two torpedoes from unidentified U-boat in Mediterranean Sea.

In 1916 the Cymric was torpedoed 3 times and sunk by U-20, killing 5.

On 25 January 1917 Laurentic (I) stuck two mines laid by German submarine U-80 and sank with 354 loss of lives.

In May 1917 Afric was torpedoed and sunk by the German coastal minelayer sub, UC-66, in English Channel, killing 22 crew members.

In June 1917 Ceramic was narrowly missed by one torpedo from unidentified U-boat in English Channel.

In July 1917 Ceramic was chased for 40 minute by unidentified U-boat firing its deck guns.

In August 1917 Delphic was torpedoed 135 miles off Bishop Rock by German U-boat UC-72 and sank with the loss of five lives.

On 19-20 July 1918 Justicia (owned by the British Government and managed by White Star) was torpedoed twice by U-46 but she remained afloat. Later in the same day, she was torpedoed two more times by U-46 and again managed to stay afloat. In the next morning, she was tow by HMS Sonia, she was torpedoed two more times by U-124 and she finally sank, killing 16 crew members.

In September 1918 Persic was torpedoed by U-87 off of the Scilly Islands, but was able to limp off and out run the sub. She was towed in and repaired, resuming her service.

In October 1917 Celtic ran up on a mine laid by U-88 near Cobh, Ireland, killing 17. She was repaired and put back into military service. In June 1918, she was torpedoed by UB-77 in the Irish Sea, killing 7. Once again, she was able to escape the sub and limp in to port with her own steam. She was repaired and once again put back into service, serving through the remainder of the war without incident.

In 1940 Runic (II) (by then the Norwegian whale factory New Sevillla) was torpedoed and sunk by U-138 off of the Irish coast with the lost of 2 lives.

In November 1940 Laurentic (II) was torpedoed and sunk by U-99 off Northern Ireland with the lost off 49 lives.

On 17 July 1942 Zealandic (by then owned by Shaw, Saville and Albion and in service as a dummy aircraft carrier) was torpedoed and sunk by U-106 after going aground off of Cromer, England. All 73 were killed.

On 18 September 1942 Medic (by then the Norwegian whale factory Hektoria) was torpedoed and sunk in North Atlantic Ocean by U-608, loss of 12 lives.

In 1942 the Athenic (by then the Norwegian whaling ship Pelagos) was torpedoed two times and sunk by U-69 with the loss of 4 lives. Later, she was raised and returned to her owner.

On 6 December 1942 Ceramic (by then owned by Shaw, Saville and Albion) was torpedoed three times and sunk by U-515 with 656 fatalities.

Of the three Olympic-Class ships, two never completed a commercial voyage. However, the Olympic, the first of the three to be built, did have a long and successful career and was the only merchant ship in World War I known to have sunk a warship. On 12 May 1918 she rammed and sank the U-boat U-103 which had tried, and failed, to torpedo her. In 1934, while steaming in a fog, the Olympic rammed the Lightship Nantucket, sinking it and killing seven of the crew.