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History of the Allan Royal Mail Line of Steamers - 1914

Hugh Allan arrived as a boy in Montreal, sailing from Greenock in Scotland with his father on the brig Favorite. We can imagine the scene of landing from the state of the development of the port at that time.

Hugh went into business as a bookkeeper to William Kent & Company, but in 1831 he entered the office of Messrs. William Edmonstone & Company, ship agents and shipbuilders. Andrew, his brother, joined him later and they both married sisters, daughters of R. John Smith, a wealthy importer.

These two brothers represented the Allan line in Montreal, while Glasgow and Liverpool were served by the three other sons. Meanwhile the Allan fleet, especially since 1834, had been growing with such ships as the clippers Glennifer, Abeona, the Corinthian, and their first steamship Sardinian, of which Captain Dutton, a religious-minded but capable seaman, known as "Holy Joe," was the commander, afterward becoming the commodore of the fleet.


The firm now owned a fleet of fast sailing vessels of about three hundred and fifty tons register—full-rigged ships which, with ice-blocks around their bows, pushed their way through the ice, so that sometimes they would arrive in port on the 15th of April.

In 1853 Mr. Hugh Allan, who was a man of great tenacity of purpose, and at the same time of remarkable foresight, saw that the time had come for the building of iron ships for the St. Lawrence trade. Besides, there was the consideration that they would run to Portland in the winter time, and connect with Montreal by rail.

He enlisted the support of several wealthy men, including Mr. William Dow and Mr. Robert Anderson, of Montreal, and formed the Montreal Ocean Steamship Company. The Canadian and Indian were the first two boats built by the company.

The boats cost about two hundred and fifty thousand dollars each and had a speed of eleven knots.

They were wonders at the time and made a great impression, as the people had not been accustomed to seeing iron ships. Thus it happened that when about this time the Crimean war broke out, and the government was at its wit's end to provide transports, the Allans went into the business, and while the war lasted made substantial profits.

Contract with the Canadian Government

The Canadian Government now made a contract with Mr. Hugh Allan for carrying the mails, paying an annual subsidy of $120,000 per annum. The Anglo-Saxon, a new boat, ran from Quebec to Liverpool in nine days on one occasion. This was thought to be fantastic, as the people had been accustomed to a voyage of forty days on the old sailing vessels.

At that time the ships got 30 cents per bushel for carrying grain. Contrast this with the 2 cents of today, or the carrying of grain for nothing, as is done by New York shipping at certain periods of the year, to get ballast on an outgoing trip.

The requirements of the service in 1858 demanded more accommodation, and the Allan brothers determined to run on a weekly service.

Larger and faster boats were introduced. The government paid subsidies to the new service totaling $416,000 per annum. Year by year the Allans launched new boats, always bigger and faster, though speed was never the chief consideration with the company.

In 1861 they had a fleet of over twenty vessels, but a lousy fortune befell the company in the first ten years of its existence. Eight ships were lost in as many years.

In 1857 the Canadian, in 1859 the Indian, in 1860 the Hungarian and the second Canadian, and the North Briton in 1861, and later the Anglo-Saxon, the Norwegian and the Bohemian—all became total wrecks.

The river was poorly lit, and the tides did not run right. The pilots were incompetent. The compass deviated, owing to some strange local attraction due, it was said, to mineral deposits in the gulf. Anyway, disaster followed disaster, and, as was announced at the time, any other man than Mr. Allan would have given up in despair. But that gentleman had something of the firmness of his native granite in his composition, and he never wavered. Difficulties in time were overcome; the Allans began to prosper and from this on their boats were singularly free from accidents.

However, to show how little even the most perceptive can see in advance of their time, it may be stated that at the banquet which the citizens tendered Mr. Hugh Allan in 1850, he said that ships of 1,700 tons were the most suitable for the Montreal trade. He lived to see his boats grow to 5,500 tons.

The line prospered; the number of boats was increased continuously to meet the need; the Northwest was opened up, and the Allan boats brought in many thousands of immigrants. Also, the company branched out to South America.

The building of the Parisian in 1881 was supposed to be about the last word in shipbuilding. She was far in advance of anything to be seen on the route. Today she is, by comparison with the leviathans of the route, almost as antique as the old Favorite was when steamships came in.

In 1887, the Canadian Government decided to subsidize a line of fast steamships. They asked for twenty knots an hour and that the vessels should call at a French port. The Allans held that the first demand was impracticable since high speed would be dangerous because of the fogs in the gulf; while, as to the second, it was deemed to be out of the question.

The Government played with a tender from another firm, Anderson, Anderson & Co., of London, which, however, did not come to fruition; and the fast Atlantic service, in spite of much discussion and tentative efforts on the part of the Government and the shipping people, has never come to anything to this day. The C. P. R. offered to build a fast service, but the terms were deemed by the government to be too harsh.

The line increased, however, in ships, in business done, in reputation, both from our own and the American ports.

Mr. Hugh Allan was knighted in 1870. In 1877 he determined to associate his name with the C. P. R. enterprise. He, in fact, formed the first syndicate to build it. The fall of the Macdonald Government defeated his plan.

He succumbed to an attack of gout in 1882, at the age of seventy-two years. His remains were brought out to Canada in one of his own ships and laid to rest in Mount Royal Cemetery.

Alexander Allan died, at Glasgow in 1892, leaving a fortune of three million dollars. Andrew, so well remembered by Montrealers for his public spirit, his identification with good works, his "canny" Scotch caution, compatible, at the same time, with an enterprise and boldness in the conduct of his business, died in Montreal in the '90s.

The business today is carried on by Mr. Hugh A. Allan, chairman, resident in London, and Mr. Andrew A. Allan, vice chairman, resident in Montreal.

The Fleet of the Allan Line

The firm has broadened out in many important ways. It was the first to introduce turbines on the St. Lawrence, and it is still augmenting the fleet.

Of the Allan fleet, the steamers on the Montreal-Quebec-Liverpool service making the port of Montreal are Tunisian, 10,576.38 tons; Victorian, 10,629.09 tons; and Virginian, 10, 569.62 tons.

The steamers on the Montreal and Glasgow line are Corsican, 11,436 tons; Grampian, 10,90o tons: Scandinavian and Hesperian, 12.100 and 10,900 tons respectively.

Those in the Montreal and London service are Ionian, 8,267.61 tons; Sicilian, 6,229.49 tons: Scotian, 10,490 tons: Corinthian, 6.229.49 tons; and Tunisian. 10,576.38 tons.

Those in the Montreal and Havre service are Ionian, 8,267.61 tons; Scotian, Corinthian, Sicilian, 6,229.49 tons; and Tunisian, 10,576.38 tons.

The Introduction of Liverpool Service

The year 1914 also saw the introduction to the Liverpool service of the Allan Line the new steamers Alsatian and Calgarian, quadruple screw turbine steamers, ships of 18,000 tons, 21 knots speed, the largest, fastest and most luxuriously equipped steamers on the St. Lawrence route.

Among the great mercantile fleets of the world, no house flag is better known than the red pennant and tri-color of the Allan Line, and none represents to the ocean voyager a higher degree of safety and comfort.

To the Allan Liner Corsican, Captain John Hall belongs the honor of being the first ocean liner to make the port of Montreal in 1914, arriving here at 12:30 p.m. in., Wednesday, April 29th.

Following the time-honored custom, Captain Hall was presented by the Harbor Commissioners with a gold-headed cane and a silk hat.

Excerpt from Atherton, William Henry, Ph.D. Montreal, 1535-1914 Under British Rule, 1760-1914, Volume II, The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company: Chicago (1914) 581-583. Edited by P. K. Gjenvick in 2019.

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