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Southampton’s Present Prosperity Due To Railway Company’s Improvements (1921)

Modern Docks Have Replaced Ancient Wharves – Home Port for Express Passenger Liners

By A. Vernon Thomas

From several points of view, Southampton is one of the most interesting ports of the British Isles. It is, for instance, the outstanding example of a port developed by a railroad company for the sake of the passenger traffic commanded by a favorable location.

Then it possesses the extraordinary phenomenon of four tides a day. The explanation of this natural endowment will be understood by a glance at the map. It will be seen that Southampton lies some six miles up Southampton Water and that opposite the end of this deep inlet stands the Isle of Wight.

When a tide comes sweeping up the English Channel it sweeps up Southampton Water also, but when the ebb tide begins through the Channel and sweeps again past the Isle of Wight the flood is held in Southampton Water and cannot get out. The result is that two hours after every high tide in the English Channel it is high tide for a second time at Southampton. Thus Southampton has practically four hours of high tide every twenty-four hours.

Port At Low Ebb

Some thirty odd years ago, the fortunes of the Port of Southampton were at a low level. The first dock had been opened in 1843, though the place had been a port from time immemorial, with old-fashioned wharves. However, the tendency in the seventies and eighties of last century was for ships to take their cargoes as near as possible to the big industrial areas.

Southampton was near no such areas, being 79 miles from London and much further from Britain’s great manufacturing districts. Trade began seriously to leave the port and something of a crisis was reached in the late eighties, when the city definitely decided not to take over the docks or make the port improvements, which further progress called for.

Then it was that the London & South Western Railway Co., which serves Southampton and all the important ports on the south coast of England west of Southampton, came to the rescue. In 1892, the Railway Company purchased the dock estate from the Southampton Harbor Board and during the ensuing period of close on thirty years has spent, on an average, about a million dollars a year on port improvements.

It is perhaps not generally appreciated to what an extent railway control is exercised over marine terminal facilities in Great Britain. While Southampton, and Hull and Immingham on the Humber, are the outstanding examples of railway ports, there are many others.

During the sittings of the parliamentary Committee on Railway Agreements and Amalgamations, in 1910, a list was acquired containing the names of no less than 72 docks, harbors, piers, wharves and quays, either owned, worked, leased or controlled by British railway companies. Many of the enterprises were admittedly small, but substantial proof was afforded that the influence of the railway companies over the foreign and coastwise trade of
Britain was increasing and had obtained considerable dimensions.

While there may have been times when Southampton felt it a little irksome to be dominated by one railway company, and while it may often have sighed for competition, it is but fair to say that the London & South Western Railway Co. has given the port efficient service and has been the big factor in building it up to its present proportions.

Southampton is now established beyond all probable rivalry as the express passenger port between Great Britain and the United States. When released from their war-time service, the Aquitania and the Olympic, the two largest British-built ships, were placed on this express ferry between Southampton and New York. These two vessels, as well as the Mauretania and the ex-German Berengaria have all been in the big dock at Southampton at one and the same time, forming a unique spectacle.

By the way, this dock is, from long usage by the White Star Line, called the “White Star Dock.” The Cunard Company, whose big liners are also obliged to use it, of course, not exactly relishes the name. Particulars of the White Star Dock, which is the largest and deepest at Southampton, are as follows: water area, 16 acres; length of quayage, 3,800 feet; length of dock, 1,600 feet; width of entrance, 400 feet; depth of high water, ordinary spring tides, 53 feet; depth at low water, ordinary spring tides, 40 feet.

Harbor Board's Duties

While the Southampton docks are, as stated, owned by the L. & S. W. Railway, the work of dredging, buoying, lighting and collecting dues is undertaken by the Southampton Harbor Board. This body is composed of 26 members, representing a large number of different interests. The city council of Southampton has seven members; owners of foreign going vessels, four; the L. & S. W. R. Co., three; owners of coasting vessels and the Southampton Chamber of Commerce, two each. Several other interests have one member each, including the Admiralty and the War Office.

It should have stated that the London & South Western Railway Co. has itself a considerable fleet of vessels. These are chiefly passenger boats plying to the Isle of Wight, the Channels Islands and the south coast pleasure resorts. The company also owns five cargo boats.
When the writer recently strolled around the Southampton docks it seemed to him as if he were wandering about a huge railroad yard rather than inspecting a steamship terminal.

Tracks were everywhere, and everywhere, too, little shunting engines were as busy as bees.
A plan of these docks shows railroad tracks like a nervous system encircling every building and expanding from time to time into classification yards, sidings, etc. Nor is it freight traffic alone which is handled here, right on the waterfront.

The Cunard and White Star boat trains come right on to the dock and discharge their passengers a few feet from the vessel’s side. These boat trains, it may be remarked en passant, are spectacular affairs. The hustle and bustle at Waterloo, the big London terminus of the London & South Western Railway Co., before the departure of one of these trains, is one of London’s not least interesting sights. The run to Southampton is done in a little less than two hours.

The White Star Line R.M.S. Majestic Entering the King George V Graving Dock at Southampton

The White Star Line R.M.S. Majestic Entering the King George V Graving Dock at Southampton. Photo from the Maritime Collection of the GG Archives.

At the time of the writer's visit the great bulk of the Berengaria, undergoing minor repairs, could be seen broadside on in the White Star Dock. Opposite it was the Adriatic, while in the adjoining Trafalgar Deck the ex-German liner Berlin, now the Arabic, was laid up. Beyond the Adriatic were the Kinfauns Castle and the Balmoral Castle, two large liners of the Union-Castle Company.

The latter was being coaled by baskets from barges on either side of the ship. The hoisting power was derived from a kind of box-car on the quay. It seemed a crude and dirty process and one could hardly believe it would survive much longer. In Southampton Water were a long string of Union-Castle liners riding at anchor, testifying to the general slump in shipping.

In one of the large freight sheds was noticed a consignment of boxes bearing the legend Czecho-Slovakia. On inquiry they were found to contain sugar and had reached Southampton via Hamburg. There must have been hundreds of tons in the consignment.

The Kangaroo, a large vessel with its home port at Freemantle, West Australia, was in the docks and not far away rose the Royal Mail steamer Almanzora, looking spick and span in a fresh coat of paint. Across the River Itchen, which bounds the docks on the east, one gains a view of the finely situated Netley Hospital, one of the important institutions of the British army.
Space does not permit a due description of Southampton’s shipbuilding yards.

It may be said, however, that Harland & Wolff built a repair yard at the port in 1907 and have considerably added to it since. This firm does the Southampton jobs of the White Star Line on the west side of the port, while John I. Thornycroft & Co., Ltd., do the work for the Cunard Company on the east side.

Thomas, A. Vernon, “Southampton’s Present Prosperity Due To Railway Company’s Improvements,” in The Nautical Gazette: America's Oldest Shipping Weekly -- Founded 1871, Volume 101, No. 13, Whole Number 2614, New York, Saturday, September 24,1921, P. 204-205

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