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Romance of a Great Transatlantic Line - The Allan Line

Two years before the Battle of Waterloo, when the Duke of Wellington was campaigning in the Peninsula, a trim little brig named the Hero was engaged in conveying supplies to Spain for the Duke’s forces.

Her commander was Captain Alexander Allan, a young Scot, a native of Saltcoats, Ayrshire, who had early in life taken to a seafaring career, and had risen in the service by his own ability. The war being over, Captain Allan cast about for some new employment, and eventually, in 1819, built at Irvine the brigantine jean, and the same year set sail in her from Greenock for Quebec with a view to opening up trade with Canada—then just beginning to attract the more adventurous spirits in the world of commercial enterprise.

The first voyage of the jean to Canada proved very successful. and the trade was so profitable that Captain Allan established a regular service of four large clipper packets, himself taking command of the Favorite.

Thus was inaugurated the service which developed into the famous Allan Line, the oldest of the North Atlantic steamship companies running to Canada At that time the navigation of the St. Lawrence, always difficult, was far more formidable than it is now, for the channel was badly lighted, and the pilots were frequently incompetent. There were no wharves then at Montreal: vessels had to be towed up St. Mary's Current by oxen, and cargoes unloaded by means of planks from the ships to the shore.

Chairman of the Allan Line Steamship Company: Mr. Hugh A. Allan. Mr. Hugh A. Allan is the son at the late Mr. Andrew Allan, partner with his brother, the late Sir Hugh Allan, In Montreal. Mr. H. A. Allan Is also a Director of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.

The perils and hardships of those days are described in a little booklet called "A Short History of a Great Steamship Company," written a year or two ago, by Mr. Randolph Carlyle. "

Anyone," he writes, " however lacking in imagination, could form at least a moderate idea of what it meant for Captain Allan to surmount in his day, with his fragile wooden vessels, the same winds, the same ice-floes, and the same rocky coasts that in this twentieth century, against all the advantages of advanced engineering skill, sometimes make prey of the great Leviathans of the deep."

These words sound almost prophetic in the light of the disaster to the Titanic, and in that connection it may be recalled that two modern Allan liners—the Virginian and the Parisian—were among the vessels which caught the Titanic’s wireless cry of distress, and immediately hastened to her aid, but were, unfortunately, too far away to be able to reach her in time.

To revert to early days – Captain Alexander Allan continued to command the Favorite until 1831 when he set up an office in Glasgow to promote the Canadian trade.  He had five sons, the eldest of whom, James Allan, and another, Bryce Allan, commanded ships of their father’s fleet. James and his brother Alexander succeeded to their father's business in Glasgow under the style of Messrs. j. and A. Allan.

Captain Bryce Allan settled at Liverpool, where he was agent of the line for twenty years. Meanwhile, the second son, Hugh— afterwards so well known throughout Canada as Sir Hugh Allan—, who was born at Saltcoats in 1810, had, as a boy of fifteen, sailed with his father in the Favorite to Montreal, landing there in May 1826.

A few years later he became a partner in the firm of Millar, Edmondstone and Company of Montreal, as also did his brother Andrew: and in 1860, when Mr. Edmondstone retired, the firm took its present name, that of Messrs. Hugh and Andrew Allan. Thus, of the five sons of Captain Alexander Allan, the founder, three were in the old country and two in the new, all being concerned in the growing interests of the Allan Line.

The quintet of brothers continued to manage the great business for forty years. The most prominent of all, Hugh Allan, was knighted by Queen Victoria, in 1871, for his services to Canadian commerce. A similar honor was afterwards conferred by King Edward on Sir Hugh's son, the present Sir H. Montagu Allan. He and his brother, Mr. Bryce J. Allan, and their cousins, Messrs. Hugh A Allan and Andrew A. Allan, sons of Mr. Andrew Allan, succeeded to the management when the elder generation passed away. 

The Atlantic in St. Lawrence Railway, from Montreal to Portland, had just completed, and Hugh Allan saw that his vessels could call at Portland in winter to connect with the new railway. Accordingly, the Allan’s and some other merchants formed the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company and a contract was placed with William Denny, 0f Dumbarton, to build two iron steamers, the Canadian and the Indian.

These vessels had a gross tonnage of about 1700 tons, with engines of 350 horse-power; they were lamp- rigged, and cost some 250,000 dollars each; their speed was about eleven knots. These new boats were used as military transports during the Crimean War.

In 1855, the Canadian Government made a contract with the Allan for the fortnightly conveyance of the mails, giving them a subsidy of 120,000 dollars a year, afterward increased to 208,000 dollars, and later to double that sum for a weekly service. This naturally gave a great impetus to the line, and a number of new and improved steamers were built.

At first there were serious losses amongst the steamers running to the St. Lawrence, and insurance premiums became prohibitive. The Alians, however, did not despair, and eventually fortune turned, and for thirty-three years, they lost only one ship and that without loss of life.

A memorable event in the evolution of the lint was the introduction of turbine-engines in 1904, the first two boats thus fitted being the Victorian and the Virginian, each of 12,000 gross tonnage. The Allan’s were pioneers in putting the turbine theory into practice in ocean-going vessels.

They were also the first to build an ocean steamer of steel, namely, the Buenos Aries in 1881, and the first transatlantic line to adopt bilge keels, in 1884, on the Parisian. The latest Allan liners are among the most comfortable passenger vessels afloat . The firm is ever progressing, and a new addition to their large fleet, the Alsatian is now being built my Messrs. W. Heardsome at Delmar and a duplicate steamer, the Calgarian by the Farsted Company at Govan. 

In September 1909, the cousins Allan brought out all the British shareholders save col. Smith Park, and have since carried on the line with even greater success than in the past.

Source: Supplement to the Illustrated London News, 21 September 1912, Page XII

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