Bank Line - Part 12
Narative by Alistair Macnab; Edited by Fred Henderson
For practical and technical reasons, the Articles covering Bank Lines's 20 Century history are presented in the following parts: -
- Part 1 – The transition from sail to steam, then to motorships
- Part 2 – The Inter-War Years
- Part 3 – Bank Line at War & Post-War Rebuilding
- Part 4 – Backing the Multipurpose Ship Concept
- Part 5 – The Varying Fates of the Liner Services
- Part 6 – Bank Line and British Shipbuilding
- Part 7 – The end of Bank Line's Multipurpose Ship Liner Services
- Part 8 - The Sailing Ship Fleet in the 19th Century
- Part 9 - Early 20th. Century Developments: Basrah, Hong Kong, and Rabaul
- Part 10 - United States and Mexico: Western Hemisphere Developments
- Part 11 - Participation in the Petroleum Industry
- Part 12 - Passenger Ships
- Part 13 - Bank Line London
- Part 14 - The Bank Line and the British Merchant Navy
Coolie Carrier to Typists' Cruises
It goes without saying that if a person nowadays wants to travel anywhere overseas, it is always by air. The days of the passenger liner are long gone and the extensive migration of peoples looking for a new future in far-off unpopulated lands is now only a footnote to history. The first half of the 20th Century proved to be the swansong of passenger shipping but it was a glorious finish! The finest, most glamorous, and fastest passenger liners dashed across the North Atlantic practically on a daily basis, smart white ships linked the Northwest European nations to their world-wide colonies, and more modest inter-colonial passenger-cargo vessels tied overseas possessions with each other.
The famous passenger carrying ships of Cunard, Peninsular and Oriental, Union Castle, and Royal Mail transported the great and the good in a splendour that was in all ways, greatly superior to their own homes, whilst the not-so-great but just as good, had to make do with sharing a cabin with total strangers, public ablutions, and indifferent food as the price of transportation.
As a step down from the first tier, but with no diminution of importance, came ocean carriers like the British India Line which connected practically every port city around the Indian Ocean with each other in comfortable five classes - first: for sahibs and memsahibs, second: for commercial persons, third: for native families travelling together, fourth: for the paying riff-raff on deck, and fifth: for the poor indentured labourer destined to work at a back-breaking job in conditions not attractive to the local population but whose passage was paid for by his employer to whom he was bound by contract for a number of years.
Photo 1: British India’s Rajula. A typical BI Indian Ocean steamer. She officially had accommodation for 37 first class; 135 second class and 4,300 deck class passengers, although on one Hadj voyage in 1928 carried 5,113 deck class. She was built in 1926 and served with BI until 1973, mainly on their Madras – Penang – Singapore service.
Other colony-holding nations had similar arrangements but the United States having had a glorious start to ship-owning and operations had declined from the beginning of the 20th century owing to political and public apathy and become a continental economy rather than a maritime economy.
Such was the wide variety of passenger shipping in the early days of the 20th Century. It’s all still within living memory even as we sip our gin-and-tonics on the lido deck of the latest gargantuan cruise ship or watch the sunset from our private balcony suite whilst we look over the brochures for tonight’s on-board Broadway performance in the theatre or plan for tomorrow’s shore excursion at the next sunny resort if it’s not already fully booked.
I have a bee in my bonnet that condemns the careless usage of the phrase “luxury liner” for a cruise ship. Surely, “luxury” is in the eye of the beholder and the ship in question may be large, elegant, and white but is certainly not a “liner” but is actually a “tramp” in that the ship is constantly following where the business is to be found?
But I digress!
Let’s look at Bank Line’s involvement in passenger-carrying. This activity was never a particularly significant sector in corporate strategy but for some sixty years, passengers were catered for on the Oriental African Line and the two Bay of Bengal – Africa services.
Thanks to research conducted by Mr. Ken Dagnall, the initial contract for transporting Indian indentured labour to South Africa was awarded to Bullard King in 1906 following the introduction of sugar cane plantations in the Natal Colony. Bank Line also entered this trade with chartered ships: “Florida”, “Bombay”, ”Brand”, and “Mandal” which were followed by the first manifestation of Weir’s formal passenger-carrying by the purchase of the SS. “Tinhow”(1) which was delivered from Russell’s Port Glasgow in the same year The Bank Line Ltd. as an incorporated company had been formed the year before, but “Tinhow”s registered owners were the Hong Kong Navigation Co. Ltd., with Andrew Weir as managers. Depictions of this vessel clearly indicate a larger midships island and three lifeboats on each side when compared with her purely cargo-carrying contemporaries also built by Russell’s for Weir, so it can be deduced that passenger-carrying was one of “Tinhow”s functions.
Photo 2: The first Tinhow after she was sold to Sobrinosde Herrera S&C, Cuba, in 1913 and renamed Chaparra
As additional confirmation of passenger-carrying capability, some square windows were incorporated into “Tinhow”s superstructure as opposed to round portholes which were the usual means of permitting natural light into crew quarters. Your writer chanced by a dusty half-model of “Tinhow”(1) in the Calcutta godown in 1965 and it became an interesting wall decoration in the Officers’ Lounge aboard the new Doxford-built MV ”Ernebank” in the same year.
“Tinhow” seemingly, was first used to connect cargo and passengers at Colombo with the Indian African Line sailings for on-carriage to the Far East and based in Hong Kong where a Bank Line office had been set up around 1905. But the formation of the Oriental African Line with direct sailings from South Africa to the Far East, without trans-shipment, was inaugurated in 1912 with “Tinhow” (1) but she was soon replaced by the more suitable ship, the SS. “Salamis” built in 1899 and bought second-hand from G. Thompson of Aberdeen by the Bank Line in 1911. This elegant vessel was clipper-bowed and carried 50 first-class passengers as well as 650 deck passengers. “Salamis” was sold for further trading in 1919, her service also having included government troop transport duties.
Photo 3: George Thompson's Aberdeen Line ship Salamis retained her name when she was bought by Bank Line
The next passenger venture, and this is easier to detail, as three ex-Bucknall passenger-cargo ships were acquired by Bank Line in 1913 with recorded pedigrees as Bucknall’s Southern African liner service from the U.K. as their previous occupation. These steamships originally called “Johannesburg”, Fort Salisbury” and “Buluwayo” were built by Armstrong Mitchell and engined by Hawthorn Leslie at Newcastle upon Tyne in 1895. In 1913, the trio entered Bank Line service after reconditioning, on an upgraded Indian-African Line, which had been established in 1906 with chartered tonnage. Their introduction now provided 25 berths for first-class passengers as well as deck passenger and cargo services from Bay of Bengal ports to and from ports in Southern Africa. Renamed respectively “Surat”,“Gujarat”, and “Kathiawar”, their incorporation into this regular service did much to strengthen the Indian African Line.
Photo 4: Fort Salisbury
But the ex-Bucknall trio were getting along in years having originally been built in 1895. The three newbuildings that would replace them would be motorships instead of steamships and ordered from Harland and Wolff, Glasgow as part of Weir’s record order of 21 motorships for delivery starting in 1923. So when the new “Gujarat”, “Kathiawar” and “Luxmi” came out from Glasgow as the first three units of the order in 1923, only the “Surat” (ex-Johannesburg”) was around to make only four passenger carrying ships, mainly for the India service and occasionally for the Far Eastern service to and from Southern Africa, the “Tinhow” (1) and “Gujarat” (ex- “Fort Salisbury) having been sold for further trading and “Kathiawar” (ex-“Buluwayo”) shortly to be sold to the breakers.
The new “Gujarat” class of 1923 had accommodation for 12 first class, 20 second class and 400 deck passengers. The profile was quite interesting as no fewer than five lifeboats were fitted on each side. Recalling that after RMS “Titanic” had been found to have too few lifeboats for the number of persons aboard, the safety of life at sea rules (subsequently SOLAS) had been substantially changed, and the “Gujarat” class certainly reflected this important change.
Photo 5: Gujarat. In this photograph a pair of lifeboats have been removed from the davits on her forward deckhouse
The “Surat” (ex-“Johannesburg) was finally sold for breaking up in 1926 but in 1927, two “coolie carriers” were bought from James Nourse Ltd. which had previously operated them on their “coolie” trade from the Bay of Bengal to the West Indian Islands. This had been a traditional trade route for Nourse but now, the ss. “Betwa” and the ss. “Hughli” had become surplus to their requirements and were sold to Bank Line. “Betwa” became “Surat” (2) and “Hughli” became “Tinhow” (2). The new “Surat” brought the Indian service back up to four ships and again, a new “Tinhow” was available for the Far East service.
Photo 6: Hughli was the HAPAG ship Valencia, which was ceded to Britain as war reparations and bought by James Nourse in 1920
Photo 7: Hughli became Bank Line's Tinhow in 1927
Perhaps something should be mentioned about the so-called “coolie trade”. Today, this may seem a pejorative term with somewhat ‘racial’ overtones, but soon after the British government outlawed the slave trade in 1807, colonial interests had lobbied for a ‘voluntary’ system of imported labour to work in their plantations as it had become clear that indigenous natives could not be made to perform such back-breaking work. This replacement to slavery was designed along the lines of the old English system of apprenticeships to a master tradesman. Now, overseas jobs would be offered to poor and hungry natives in another country under a contract of servitude for a specific length of time usually measured in years. This contract, called an Indenture, provided for transportation, food, accommodation, remuneration, hours of work, social protection, health care and eventual repatriation and had to be voluntary on the part of the native entering into the agreement.
Factors such as hunger and poverty were not considered to be significant impelling forces as the paternalistic legislators of the day thought that they had crafted a very liberal alternative to slavery. Sea-going apprentices of a later time will readily recognize just what an Indenture really entailed with such a system being in existence up until the 1970s!
The number of ships and berths may have been satisfactory for existing traffic as an initial measure, except that the Indian trade was beginning to boom, several pure cargo ships had been added in, and a competitor, Bullard King, operator of the Natal Line to the Bay of Bengal, which had been part of the fated Kylsant Empire through Union Castle was bought out by Bank Line and an ambitious passenger-cargo update implemented. Three new ships were ordered and delivered from Workman Clark (1928) Ltd., in Belfast in 1934.
These three ships were the twin-screw motorships “Isipingo”, “Inchanga” and “Incomati” with a cargo deadweight of 7000 tons and passenger accommodation for 70 first class, 20 second class and 500 deck passengers. They had white hulls and superstructure with a yellow sheer line. The heavily raked buff-coloured masts and squat “Belfast” motorship funnel presented an almost yacht-like appearance and soon they were attracting quite a lot of cruising passengers from Capetown and Durban who wanted to take advantage of the picturesque voyage up the East African coast to Mombasa or Zanzibar on one ship to return on the next southbound sailing by a sister ship. This arrangement was called the “Typists’ Cruise” as the affordable cost and luxury appointments on board the ships were attractive to the young South African and Rhodesian ladies looking for an adventurous holiday. The very large swimming pool overlooked by the bar veranda was a unique and much-favoured feature.
Photo 8: Incomati
Northbound and southbound ships would often meet in Zanzibar where a barbecue would be set up on an off island. Baggage would be transferred from one ship to the other at this time, with passengers then boarding the other ship for the return voyage. The passenger accommodation has been described previously in an earlier chapter of this series and will not be repeated. Suffice to say, that a very high standard of shipboard facilities and services made these “White Ships” as they were affectionately known, very popular indeed.
Other collateral benefits of the service were the connection with the P&O liners in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) permitting Australian passengers to reach East and South Africa one week sooner than by staying aboard until Bombay (Mumbai) for the British India (BI) connection and the Calcutta-Rangoon-Calcutta link which provided an express round-trip voyage between these two ports much favoured by government officials of the Raj.
All of these arrangements provided a twice-monthly service on the India – Africa link with the White Ships performing the “A” service as the Indian African Line and the “Gujarat” (2) class delivering the “B” service on which inducement seasonal calls at Madagascar and outports in Mocambique and Tanganyika were offered. This secondary service was called the India-Natal Line, although calls were often made at South African ports south of Durban.
Photo 9: Kathiawar (2) with all ten lifeboats
Unfortunately, “Kathiawar” (2) was wrecked at Goa, Mocambique in 1937 and with the intervention of WWII, the “Tinhow” (2) was sunk by submarine torpedo off Mocambique in 1943 with heavy loss of life. The “Incomati” too, suffered the same fate when sunk by a torpedo from a submarine off Lagos also in 1943 when on government charter. In this case, however, of the 221 persons aboard only one life was lost.
At the conclusion of the war, only four passenger-carrying ships remained: the “Isipingo” and “Inchanga” of the White Ships and the “Gujarat” (2) and “Luxmi”. It was not any precognition of the coming air travel threat that hastened the decision not to rebuild the passenger service as the fact that the demand for deck passenger facilities had vanished and the only passengers of this class were repatriating crews to India from Natal Line ships (Bullard King) on the London service at the end of their Articles of Agreement.
Apartheid laws in South Africa had begun to sour Indian-South African relationships, even as cargo flow continued. The Deck Class was eliminated leaving only first and second on the remaining ships. This proved mainly satisfactory for the available trade but involved some interesting political machinations when wealthy Indian passengers had to be berthed in second class until outside South African waters and hard-up European and Australian students were forbidden to avail themselves of the cheaper second-class accommodation which was reserved for ‘people of colour’ only! Thank goodness this archaic situation has now been done away with and consigned to history!
First-hand experience of the ridiculousness of apartheid is demonstrated by the passage of a family of the Durban-based Tamil family of a millionaire Indian magnate required to board the “Inchanga” as second-class passengers before being moved to first-class on the next morning before the ship arrived at Lourenco Marques (Maputo). During the voyage, attitudes between the Indian and the white Southern African passengers noticeably improved and by the time the ship reached Madras (Chenai), the European passengers who remained aboard after Colombo were invited to the arranged wedding ceremonies of a grand-daughter who had been a typical skirt and blouse South African high school-girl on boarding and on the voyage but showed up, all-resplendent in her bejewelled wedding refinery when her elephant-riding groom and retinue came to call on her at the Madras dockside likewise in Hindu traditional wedding outfits.
As certified passenger capacity declined, so did the lifeboats fitted aboard the ships. Eventually, lifeboats were reduced to two-a-side and passenger-carrying to twelve, doing away with many officer and petty officer positions The final days serving aboard these ships were just a faint shadow of the glory days with no confectioners, plumbers, barmen, waiters, barbers, or laundry-men to make a two-year trip more than bearable! “Gujarat”(2) and “Luxmi” were disposed of in 1961, and “Isipingo” and “Inchanga” in 1964 to end the passenger-carrying ventures of the Bank Line, and there the situation would have remained except that the Round-the-World (SoPac) cargo service connecting northwest Europe with the South Pacific island nations was raised to a passenger-cargo service in 1990 when four of the six “Corabank” class – mvs. “Forthbank”, “Moraybank”, “Ivybank” and “Clydebank” were retrofitted with four, two-berth cabins and a glassed-in passenger veranda to cater for the heavy passenger demand occasioned by the uniqueness of the voyage and its exotic ports-of-call. Previously, any passengers had been catered for passage on the cargo-only ships as supernumeraries berthed in spare cabins, but the acceptance of passengers as passengers was a positive sign. Up to seven supernumeraries could be accommodated on most Bank Line ships by this time.
Photo 10: Clydebank after a passenger lounge was retro-fitted at the after end of the passenger deck
This development was further strengthened when the four Finnish-built ships of the “Tiksi” class were purchased for the SoPac service in 1995. These ships came with existing 12-passenger accommodations but the entire operation came to an end when the last of all remaining ships were sold and the company dissolved in 2009.
Photo 11: Teignbank was a member of a very flexible class with ro-ro, container, heavy-lift facilities and vegetable oil tanks as well as accommodation for 12 passengers
Even so, there is still a footnote as far as passengers are concerned in that the successor company, Andrew Weir Shipping, has managed the RMS “St. Helena” (128 passengers) and the ex-Ellerman container ship mv “City of London” (12 passengers). Even the West Highlands cruise vessel mv “Hebridean Princess” (49 passengers) has been managed on a technical basis for a season or so. This magnificent rebuilt MacBrayne’s ferry has been fitted out to an extremely high standard and has even been chartered by H.M. The Queen for a private Royal Family cruise of the Scottish Western Isles.
Photo 12: St Helena sailing out of Aberdeen to undertake sea trials
Photo 13: City of London
Photo 14: Hebridean Princess
Many of the photographs used to illustrate this article are from the Ships Nostalgia Galleries, which are available for use in the Directory. The individual photographs used in Part 12 have been provided as follows: -
Frontespiece - Ships Nostalgia - Charlie Stitt
- Ships Nostalgia - Petroc
- Bing Images
- Tyne Built Ships
- Ships Nostalgia - Brent Chambers
- Ambrose Greenway Collection
- Ships Nostalgia – Brent Chambers
- Ships Nostalgia - Brent Chambers
- Ships Nostalgia - Brent Chambers
- Alistair Macnab
- Ships Nostalgia - Brian Dodd
- Ships Nostalgia - jagpottinger
- Ships Nostalgia - Brent Chambers
- Ships Nostalgia - Kelpie
Article written and compiled by Alistair Macnab with valuable contributions from Mr. Ken Dagnall.
Formatting and presentation only, by Fred Henderson
© RVW Productions LLC, 2013
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