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Black Ball Line History and Ephemera

Black Ball Line - Illustrated Packet Ship

The Black Ball Line operated one of the first Sail / Steam powered packet ships that offered regular passenger service between the ports of Liverpool, England and New York beginning in 1818. The service later expanded to include Boston and Philadelphia twice each month. Their reputation was for fast ships, excellent seamanship and often brutal treatment of low ranking seaman. By the 1880s, all of the packet ships were removed from regular passenger service and Black Ball Line faded into history.

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Black Ball Line was owned by C. H. Marshall & Co. and served the North Atlantic trade.

The Black Ball Line

The packet ships treated their passengers well, judged, of course, by the standard of the time. The famous Black Ball Line and similar lines of ships must not be confused with the cargo tramps hired by emigration agent swindlers.

The Black Ball liner, James Baines, before leaving Portsmouth with troops for India, for wich service she had been chartered by the Government, was visited by Queen Victoria, who is said to have declared that she had no idea such a spleandid merchant ship was owned in her dominions.

The James Baines was 243 feet long and of 2093 tons register; her owners, Messrs Baines of Liverpool, also owned many other vessels famous in the annals of the sea. Two of these, the Lightning and the Chapmpion of the Seas, were among the smartest clippers ever built. When the James Baines had all her sails set, the whole numbered thirty-six, and she carried three skysails and a moonscraper; the last tiny kite has long become only a tradition in ships.

This was the kind of vessel that only forty years ago occupied the pride of place in our merchant service, now filled by the Cunarder or White Star steamer of 12,000 tons and twenty-knot speed. Many of the famous Black Ballers remained afloat until quite recently, ending their days under a foreign flag or as colliers, but the James Baines was spared this ignoble ending -- she was burned while in dock at Liverpool in 1858. The traditions of the line have been perpetuated in sea song and story, and even now occasionally can be heard a capstan shanty singer rolling out as the anchor is being weighed :-

"In the Black Ball Line I served by time,
Oh rise and shine in the Black Ball Line."

Walter Jeffery, "The Black Ball Line." In A Century of Our Sea Story, London, John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1900, P. 129.

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