Union Company

Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Limited —when there was no chance of confusion casually referred to as Union, Union Company, Union Steam Ship Company (USS Co), or Union Line— was once the biggest shipping line in the southern hemisphere and New Zealand's largest private-sector employer. It was incorporated by James Mills in Dunedin in 1875 with the backing of a Scottish shipbuilder, Peter Denny.[1] Bought by shipping giant P & O around the time of the First World War it was sold in 1972 to an Australasian consortium and closed at the end of the twentieth century.

Head office, Water Street, Dunedin designed 1883
Five directors (back) of the Union Steam Ship Company in 1881, including John Richard Jones, John Cargill, and George McLean; David and James Mills in the foreground
Hawea run ashore at the entrance to the Grey River, 1908


James Mills had worked for Johnny Jones and his Harbour Steam Company. After Jones’ death in 1869 Mills tried twice to float a Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand Limited without attracting enough interest from local investors but in 1875 he found backing from Scottish shipbuilder Peter Denny in return for Union Steam Ship orders for Denny's Dumbarton shipyard. The Denny-built Hawea and Taupo, both then large by local standards, arrived in mid 1875 and entered service. Union Steam Ship took over the Harbour Steam Company's vessels on 1 July 1875.[2]

Local competition

Union Steam Ship became a major shipping line dubbed "The Southern Octopus" with a near-monopoly on trans-Tasman shipping.[1] It steadily mopped up trans-Tasman and coastal shipping businesses including Anchor, Canterbury Steam, Richardson & Co and Holm.


From 1889 there was three-way competition between Union Steam Ship, Huddart Parker and Tasmanian Steam Navigation Company (TSNCo) on the Tasmanian routes (Melbourne – Launceston, Hobart – Melbourne and Hobart – Sydney). TSNCo did not have other routes to absorb their Tasmanian losses and was bought out by USSCo in 1891. The rivalry between USSCo and Huddart Parker lasted to 1895 despite an earlier agreement in 1893. There was undercutting of fares and there were steamers shadowing each other from port to port. USSCo's Rotomahana and Mararoa would sail alongside the Miowra and Warrimoo, with other ships like the Te Anau and Manapouri sailing before and after and bracketing the Huddart Parker ships. The 1895 agreement between the two lines pooled the Auckland-Sydney profits and losses; the Melbourne-Launceston profits were divided 4/7 to USSCo and 3/7 to Huddart Parker. The Sydney-Hobart passenger trade was excluded but the cargo and stock trade was divided 2/3 to USSCo and 1/3 to Huddart Parker.[3] Mark Twain criticised travel conditions on a Union Company ship in 1897 in his travel book Following the Equator.

Mills was knighted in 1907 and raised to K.C.M.G. in 1909. He was a UK resident after 1907 and died in London in 1936. By 1914 Union Steam Ship had 75 ships. It was the biggest shipping line in the southern hemisphere and New Zealand's largest private-sector employer.[1]

Union Steam Ship Company's 3,721 ton MV Kaimiro loading cargo in Lyttelton, New Zealand, in 1968

P & O

In 1917 P & O shareholders were asked to confirm their directors' prior purchase of Union Steam Ship with the information that USSCo had a valuable coasting trade within New Zealand, connections with India and Australia and a line of steamers running between Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The Union Steam Ship fleet was described as 74 high class steamers with a tonnage of 237,860 and of an average age of 12 years.[4] In November 1920, rumours surfaced that the head office of the company would shift from Dunedin to Wellington.[5] At the end of 1920, it became known that the board of directors would remain in Dunedin, but that all headquarters staff would transfer to Wellington.[6] The move happened in late 1921, with all head office functions in Wellington after the New Year holidays. About 70 staff transferred to Wellington, ending 46 years of Dunedin as the company's head quarters.[7]

Union Airways

In the 1930s Union Airways of New Zealand was formed by Union Steam Ship and it built an air service through New Zealand. Union Airways was nationalised by the government in 1947 and renamed National Airways Corporation.

Union Travel

Union Travel remained a substantial operation as travel agents and tour operators.


Australian road transport business, Thomas Nationwide Transport, had a substantial road transport stake in New Zealand. With New Zealand investors TNT bought USSCo from P & O in 1971.[8]

In 1990 Union Steam Ship operated seven ships, and was involved in ship management, tourism, real estate and other ventures. By 2000, the Union Bulk[9] barge made its last voyage.[10]

Brierley Investments

At the end of the 20th century Brierley Investments bought all the shares, broke Union Steam Ship into components and sold up what it could.

Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand owned more than 350 ships and has been the subject of a number of books.

Steamer Express TEV Hinemoa, built in England in 1946 and scrapped in Hong Kong in 1971


Steamer Express Wellington to Lyttelton

Union Steam Ship began regular sailings between Wellington and Lyttelton in 1895 with the Penguin making two round trips a week. In 1905 this became a daily service year round. In 1933 the name "Steamer Express" was adopted for the service.[11] Over the years a number of ships were used, including two Maoris, two Wahines, two Rangatiras, and a Hinemoa.[12]

TEV Wahine entered service in October 1966 and foundered and sank at the mouth of Wellington Harbour 18 months later in April 1968. The TEV Rangatira entered service in 1972 and was withdrawn in 1976, bringing the Wellington–Lyttelton "Steamer Express" to an end.[11]

Tamahine, built in 1925 and scrapped in 1962

Wellington to Picton

In what has been described as "a fatal mistake",[13] the Union Steam Ship announced in 1956 that the Tamahine was to be withdrawn from the Wellington-Picton route in 1962 and unlikely to be replaced (despite an offer of a $3 million government loan).[14] The designer of the replacement ferry the GMV Aramoana recalled that, "The media said the whole thing was a red herring", adding, "In their view, if the Union Steam Ship Company couldn't make the service pay, Railways definitely couldn't."[15]


Name Built In service Gross tonnage Notes
SS Aorangi (1883)18831883–19154,163 GTSunk 10 August 1915 at Scapa Flow
MV Aorangi (1924)19241924–195317,491 GTArrived 25 July 1953 at Clydeside for breaking up
TSS Arahura19051905–19261,607 GT
SS Hauroto18821882–19151,988 GTMissing off the China sea after acquisition by Hauroto Steamship Co. Ltd., Hong Kong
TEV Hinemoa19461947–19676,911 GT
SS Maheno19051905–19355,323 GT
TSS Maori19061907–19463,399 GT
TEV Maori19521953–19728,303 GT
SS Marama19071907–19376,437 GT
SS Makura19081908–19378,075 GTArrived 8 April 1937 at Shanghai for breaking up
SS Manapouri 1882 1882–1915 1,783 GT First to have electric lights[16] Sunk 1945.[17]
TSS Maunganui19111911–19577,527 GTSold 1948 as SS Cyrenia; arrived 1957 at Savona for breaking up
SS Monowai19251925–196010,852 GTEx-SS Razmak (1925–1930); sold 1960 in Hong Kong for breaking up
SS Ohau18851885–1899411 GTShe and sister ship, Taupo, were built by William Denny and Brothers.[18] The Ohau arrived on 14 January 1885[19] and Taupo on 10 March 1885.[20] Ohau sank whilst carrying timber and coal. She was supposed foundered in a heavy gale. Last seen off Cape Campbell on 12 May 1899. Some wreckage was found near Castlepoint. Lost with all 22 crew.[21] An inquiry into the loss dismissed claims that the ship was too low in the water.[22] A council-published heritage trail says locals still find coal on the shore near Cape Campbell, likely from the Ohau.[23]
SS Penguin18641879–1909874 GTSunk 12 February 1909 off Cape Terawhiti; 75 deaths
TEV Rangatira19301931–19656,152 GT
TEV Rangatira19711972–19769,387 GT
SS Rotomahana 1879 1879–1921 1,727 GT The name was used by at least two other ships of the era. The first mild steel ship in the Union fleet.[24] Built by Denny shipyard. Scrapped in 1926.[25]
RMS Tahiti19041904–19305,323 GTEx-RMS Port Kingston (1904–1911); sunk 12 August 1930 off Rarotonga; no death
SS Tararua18641864–1881563 GTSunk 29 April 1881 off Waipapa Point; 131 deaths
TSS Wahine19121913–19514,436 GTRan aground on the Masela Island Reef off Cape Palsu in the Arafura Sea
TEV Wahine19661966–19688,948 GTSunk 10 April 1968 after hitting Barrett Reef during an extra-tropical cyclone; 53 deaths.
SS Waihora18821882–19032,003 GT
SS Waihora19071907–19274,638 GT
SS Wairarapa18821882–18941,786 GTSunk 29 October 1894 off Great Barrier Island; 140 deaths
SS Warrimoo19011901–19143,326 GT
SS Whangape (1900)[26]19001900–19282,931 GTSister ship to SS Mont-Blanc (1899)[27][28]

See also


  1. McLean, Gavin (20 November 2013). "Mills, James". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
  2. "Telegraphic News". New Zealand Times. 30 June 1875. p. 2 via Papers Past.
  3. McLean 1990, pp. 49–66.
  4. "The shipping fusion". Evening Star (16462). 28 June 1917. p. 6. Retrieved 16 June 2021.
  5. "The Union Company". Mataura Ensign. 13 November 1920. p. 3. Retrieved 16 June 2021.
  6. "Untitled". Otago Daily Times (18120). 16 December 1920. p. 4. Retrieved 16 June 2021.
  7. "Shifting headquarters". Evening Star (17822). 19 November 1921. p. 2. Retrieved 16 June 2021.
  8. "Bids Deals and Mergers". The Times (57963). 5 September 1970. p. 16.
  9. "New Zealand Maritime Index". www.nzmaritimeindex.org.nz. NZNMM. Retrieved 29 March 2016.[dead link]
  10. "Union Steam Ship Company flag". New Zealand history. Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  11. "Steamer Express". New Zealand Coastal Shipping. Retrieved 8 February 2015.
  12. McLean, Gavin (13 July 2012). "Page 6. The Union Company expands". Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
  13. McLean, Gavin (2009). A Voice for Shipping (PDF). New Zealand Shipping Federation Inc. p. 60. ISBN 978-1-877448-76-8.
  14. "New Zealand's Cook Strait Rail Ferries". The New Zealand Maritime Record. Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  15. "Cook-Strait ferries changed the nature of shipping in New Zealand" (PDF). The Marlborough Express. 13 August 2012.
  16. "Red and Black". Auckland Star. 14 October 1933. Retrieved 23 August 2020 via Papers Past.
  17. "Manapouri 1882–1915". New Zealand Ship and Marine Society. Retrieved 23 August 2020.
  18. "New Boats for the Union Company. EVENING POST". paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. 6 January 1885. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
  19. "SHIPPING. EVENING STAR". paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. 14 January 1885. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
  20. "TELEGRAMS. EVENING POST". paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. 11 March 1885. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
  21. "Return of Wrecks and Casualties to Shipping reported to the Marine Department from the 1st April, 1899, to the 31st March, 1900". Retrieved 17 June 2021 via natlib.govt.nz.
  22. "INQUIRY INTO THE LOSS OF THE S.S. OHAU. COLONIST". paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. 29 June 1899. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
  23. "Marlborough Heritage Trails". www.arcgis.com. Retrieved 21 May 2021.
  24. "Old steamer doomed". New Zealand Herald. 12 April 1928. Retrieved 23 August 2020 via Papers Past.
  25. "Steamer Rotomahana". Auckland Star. 12 May 1926. Retrieved 23 August 2020 via Papers Past.
  26. "Steamers & Motorships". Lloyd's Register of Shipping (PDF). II. Lloyd's Register Foundation. 1933. Retrieved 15 June 2019.
  27. Amended Plan of the Midship Section of a Steel Screw Steamer Mont Blanc, Lloyd's Register Foundation, 6 May 1898, retrieved 15 June 2019
  28. Engine and Boiler Arrangement for Mont Blanc, Lloyd's Register Foundation, 6 May 1898, retrieved 24 June 2019


  • Farquhar, Ian (2001). Union Fleet. Wellingotn: New Zealand Ship & Marine Society. ISBN 0959783474.
  • McGregor, Rae (2009). Sailing to Success: The Union Company Cadet Scheme. Wellington: New Zealand Ship & Marine Society on behalf of Union Company Cadets Reunion Committee. ISBN 9780473152178.
  • McLean, Gavin (1989). Ships of the Union Company. Wellington, NZ: GP Government Print. ISBN 0-477-00016-9.
  • McLean, Gavin (1990). The Southern Octopus. Wellington, NZ: New Zealand Ship and Marine Society & Wellington Maritime Museum. ISBN 0959783431.
  • McLauchlan, Gordon (1987). The Line that Dared: A history of the Union Steam Ship Company 1875–1975. Auckland: Four Star Books. ISBN 0-9597853-0-2.