The Beginning of the White Star Line

Oceanic (1871)
1868 - 1871

The North Atlantic is one the harshest oceans on the planet. In the early days of overseas travel the passengers were exposed to awful unsanitary conditions and were likely to die of disease or to be shipwrecked and drowned. These were the days of sail and it would take weeks or even months to get from continent to continent. While traveling to Boston, Charles Dickens wrote about his ship and described it as being like "a gigantic hearse with windows in the side." And of his bunk he wrote: "Nothing smaller for sleeping in was ever made, except coffins." Even though ships sailed on fixed schedules, out of every 100 ships to set sail 16 would never make it to their destination, some vanishing without a trace. Towards the late 19th century travel across the North Atlantic was increasing. Ships needed to be more comfortable, stylish, and fast. Shipbuilders advance to meet these needs and with each advance the voyage across the Atlantic or the Transatlantic run takes less time. Not only did ships need to carry passengers they also needed to carry mail. Ships were needed and so the era of the of the North Atlantic shipping lanes had begun.


Thomas Henry Ismay
On January 18, 1868, Thomas Henry Ismay, a Liverpool business man, purchased the house flag, trade name, and goodwill of a bankrupt shipping line called the White Star Line that was originally founded in 1845. It was a fleet of clipper ships that operated between Britain and Australia. Ismay's intention was to establish a service of large steamships on the North Atlantic between Liverpool and New York.

One night during a game of billiards at a pool hall in Liverpool, Ismay was approached by Gustav Schwabe, a prominent Liverpool merchant, and his nephew, Gustav Wolff. Schwabe offered to finance the new shipping line only if Ismay had his ships built by Wolff's shipbuilding company, Harland and Wolff in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Ismay agreed, and the beginning of a long lasting partnership between White Star and Harland and Wolff was created.

The agreement was that Harland and Wolff would build the ships at cost plus a fixed percentage and would not build any vessels for the line's rivals. 

In 1870, Ismay and his long time friend William Imrie form a new managing firm called Ismay, Imrie and Company. Ismay incorporates the White Star Line as the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, Ltd. Despite this complex organization, the shipping company was known publicly throughout its existence as the White Star Line.

White Star places an order with Harland and Wolff for a class of six revolutionary liners. They will be called, Oceanic, Atlantic, Baltic, Republic, and then followed by the slightly larger Celtic and Adriatic.

The first ship of the class, Oceanic, will set sail on her maiden voyage in 1871.