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The rise of the cargo liner

Regular freight service

Cargo lines develop

As the owners of the early steamers became more confident, they extended their routes.  First across estuaries, then across short stretches of open water such as the Irish Sea or English Channel, and then further afield, across the North Sea and to the Baltic and Mediterranean.  Although passengers were usually carried, cargo also became important, especially high value or perishable goods such as manufactured items or foodstuffs.  The steam ship provided a service which sailing ships could not match, offering regular sailings independent of the wind and with timetabled arrival dates.  Thus, regular cargo liner routes were established, with steamers guaranteeing to sail on a given date whether or not they were full of cargo.  Merchants, shippers and importers came to rely on these services, which meant they could guarantee deliveries to overseas customers.  Their customers had the certainty that, with regular deliveries, items would always be in stock. 

The steam ships on cargo liner services were designed to carry relatively small packages of goods, for instance, chests of tea, cases of butter, bales of cloth or barrels of wine.  Their holds usually had an intermediate deck, known as a ‘tween deck, which gave an extra ‘floor’ to stow such items.  It was important that cargo could be loaded quickly and remain accessible.  For instance, it wasted time if some items for the terminal port had to be moved to get at cargo destined for an intermediate stop on the route.

Lines to the east

By 1860, steam cargo liners had become established on routes around Europe and even across the North Atlantic.  But longer distance routes tended to remain the preserve of sailing ships.  To steam from Europe to Australia the steam ship had to carry almost as much coal as it did cargo, so inefficient were contemporary steam engines.  It was possible to make calls at intermediate ports to take on coal, but as this had to be brought by sailing ship, it was expensive.

The man who solved the problem was a Liverpool ship owner and engineer, Alfred Holt.  His experience as an engineer building railway locomotives led him to install high-pressure compound engines in three ships he had built in 1866, Achilles, Ajax and Agamemnon.   These engines were so much more efficient than those previously in use that his Agamemnon sailed from Liverpool to Mauritius – 6,000 miles – before needing to coal.  As a result, his company which came to be known as the Blue Funnel Line could operate a profitable cargo liner service to China and other parts of the Far East.

Cargo liners to the world

An important event for cargo liner operators was the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.  It reduced the distance between Europe and Australia by several thousand miles.  The Canal put sailing ships at a strong disadvantage, as they were better suited to the wide oceans than to sailing in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, as they would have to do to use the Canal.  Cargo liner services developed to most parts of the world, given another boost by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.  Cargo liners carried much of the world’s higher value manufactured goods and raw materials.  Only in the 1970s did they succumb, and that was to the much more efficient container ship