PortCities London

Passengers and the port

The people carriers

The major shipping lines

Many lines carried people into and out of London, but several giants emerged during the 19th century. The routes to the United States carried enough emigrants and other pasengers to be economically viable. However, most long-distance routes out of London could not be sustained by passenger traffic alone.

Loading the Corfu (1931) at the King George V Dock.
View full size imageLoading the Corfu (1931) at the King George V Dock. © NMM
Most of the major lines began life as mail carriers. Mail contracts brought guaranteed business and financial security.

Cargo was also vital - even the great liners carried cargo, well out of sight of the passengers.

Some lines specialised in carrying government officials, troops, businessmen and their families, for example, P&O rarely carried emigrants until it bought the Blue Funnel and Orient Lines.


The P&O

The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company's ships, Indus and Ripon.
View full size imageThe P&O ships Indus and Ripon. © NMM

The Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company was founded in 1837 to carry mail to Spain (the Iberian Peninsula). It branched out in the 1840s to carry mail to key British possessions in the East - India, Singapore and Australia.

The Shannon (1881).
View full size imageThe P&O liner Shannon (1881). © NMM
P&O absorbed several smaller lines and became Britain's major shipping line trading with the Empire.

P&O had started its services from London, but then found Southampton far more convenient. It returned to London in the 1880s. Its vessels then sailed from the Royal Docks and Tilbury.


Union-Castle liners in the East India Docks.
View full size imageUnion-Castle liners in the East India Docks. © NMM

The Union-Castle Line also had its beginnings in mail carriage.

The Union Line started as the Southampton Steam Shipping Company in 1853. Four years later it secured the mail contract for South Africa.

The Moor (1881).
View full size imageThe Union-Castle liner Moor (1881). © NMM

The Castle Line, founded in 1862, originally ran from Liverpool. It later set up London services to South Africa and India, and won a share of the South Africa mail contract in 1876.


In 1900 the two lines merged to become Union-Castle. Their steamers used the East India Docks.  

Shaw, Savill & Albion

The Lady Jocelyn (1852).
View full size imageThe Lady Jocelyn (1852). © NMM

This line was formed in 1882 out of the merger of Shaw, Savill & Co (founded in 1858) and the Glasgow-based Albion Line (founded in 1856).

The company's main service was to New Zealand via South Africa. It also ran services to South America and, from 1933, to Australia.

Unlike P&O and Union-Castle, it specialized in the carriage of goods, particularly the the import of meat and fruit from New Zealand. 

The Dominion Monarch (1938) in the King George V Dock.
View full size imageThe Dominion Monarch (1938) in the King George V Dock. © NMM

Even so, the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line carried large numbers of emigrants and other travellers out to New Zealand.  Its magnificent Dominion Monarch (launched in 1938, 27,155 GRT) was the largest regular user of the inner London docks.


Other lines

The Tekoa (1890).
View full size imageThe Tekoa (1890).
Many other lines carried substantial numbers of passengers and emigrants. Some, like the New Zealand Shipping Company, were eventually taken over by giants like P&O.



The Mauretania (1939).
View full size imageThe Mauretania (1939). © NMM

The main shipping lines dealing with transatlantic traffic were based mostly on Britain's western side - in Liverpool or Glasgow, and rarely used London. However, some of the giant liners did occasionally come into London. The White Star-Cunard Mauretania briefly served the London - New York route in 1939.