Browse The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives Home Page

History of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (RMSP)

Soon after British-owned steamships began to run to America a company was formed by leading business men interested in the West Indies, to carry the mails from England to that part of the world. The charter of this company, to be known as the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, was granted in 1839.

The government believed that the institution of a line carrying the mails regularly to British possessions in the West Indies was likely to prove of benefit to the empire, and granted it a large subsidy. The first contract with the government was entered into in March 1841.

No less than fourteen large paddle-steamers capable of carrying the largest guns then used by the Royal Navy were at once ordered, and the service was opened with the " Thames " on the 3rd of January 1842, followed by other vessels in fortnightly succession. These steamers started from Falmouth and returned to Southampton, which was the company's headquarters, though it had no dock accommodation in those days.

In 1846 the company began to carry the mails for places on the western coast of South America, the Pacific Steam Navigation Company receiving them at Panama. In January 1851, the company by contract with the government inaugurated a monthly service to Brazil and the river Plate, and new steamers were built which greatly increased the rapidity of transit.

This company was therefore the first to institute direct mail communication by steamer between Europe and the countries of South America, as it had also been with the West Indies. The company's vessels were employed continuously during the Crimean War in the transport of troops.

It is interesting to note that it was from one of the company's ships, the " Trent," that Slidell and Mason, the commissioners of the Confederate states, were taken on their way to Europe by a United States man-of-war.

In 1872 the service to Brazil and the River Plate was doubled. At the beginning of the 10th century the company seemed to be on the downward grade. But a change came over its fortunes. A new chairman, Sir Owen Philipps, took over the reins and new enterprises were started in several directions.

The interest of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company in the Orient-Pacific Line to Australia was purchased in January 1906, and steamers despatched once a month from London to Australia through the Suez Canal. This enterprise, however, was discontinued when the new mail contract came into force in May 1909.

New twin-screw steamships of much greater tonnage than any they had hithertofore owned were constructed for the mail service to South America, and an extension was made into the tourist and cargo trade to Morocco, Madeira and the Canary Islands by the purchase of the old-established Forwood Line. Part of the fleet of the Shire Line to the Far East was also acquired.

But the great development took place at the beginning of 1910, when the directors made the startling announcement that they had purchased the whole of the share capital of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company - a business established in Liverpool only a year after the grant of their own royal charter. This absorption brought some forty ships - many of them modern twin-screw steamships of a high class - into the fleet, which was then placed amongst the big lines of the world.

Another move was made when Sir Owen Philipps joined Lord Pirrie in organizing a company to take over the numerous enterprises of Sir Alfred Jones. The West India Line steamers leave Southampton for the West Indies every fortnight, and after calling at Cherbourg proceed direct to Barbadoes, thence to Jamaica and Colon, whence they proceed to Savanilla and other local ports. From Barbadoes, Trinidad, La Guaira, branch lines run to Demerara and the islands.

The Brazil and River Plate Line comprises a fortnightly service of mail steamers to Pernambuco, Bahia, Rio, Montevideo and Buenos Aires. The Shire Line steamers sail to the Far East every fortnight, as do those of the Islands service, whilst the Pacific Line despatches twin-screw passenger steamers and large cargo vessels alternate weeks from Liverpool to South American ports, besides maintaining local services up the West Coast. There are also cargo services to the West Indies and Mexico, and to the River Plate and intermediate ports.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica 1911

Return to Top of Page