White Star's Financial Postition

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Matthew O'Brien

If the Titanic had avoided disaster would the White Sar Line had survived the depression rather than merge with Cunard? It seems that Olympic would not have been removed from service for a refits, and Britannic may have seen passenger service before the first World War; would this three ship service have saved the line, provided that all of the ships survived into the thirties?
Jan 5, 2001
If this hypothetical thingy helps:

1921: Britannic returns to service following conversion to oil after Olympic at Harland & Wolff.

1922: Titanic returns to service following oil conversion and extensive refitting.

1923: Although White Star had not lost such a large vessel during the conflict, the HAPAG Bismarck falls under their ownership as reparation for several smaller ships. Her sister Imperator went to Cunard, (to be Berengaria) while Vaterland was being refitted for Atlantic service in the USA for the United States Lines. White Star’s express service is complete: Olympic, Titanic, Britannic and Majestic. Commodore Bertram Hayes transfers to Majestic after a little over a year on Britannic.

1924: Britannic makes her fastest crossing Eastbound, covering 3,150 miles from Ambrose to Cherbourg in five days eleven hours and nine minutes, a speed of some twenty-four knots, aided by the current.

1925: During an Eastbound passage, Titanic clocks-up 28 knots due to an extremely favourable three knot current and favourable wind behind her. She overtakes Mauretania for four hours.

1925: In a severe storm, a wave crashes over Britannic’s foredecks, breaking the B-deck stateroom windows and filling the five damaged cabins with green water, although one cabin door bursts and floods the forward companionway. The damage is temporarily repaired, but permanently solved during the 1926 overhaul. Fortunately, none of the passengers were hurt although one lost a picture book containing photographs of Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, plus P. Rockefeller, travelling on Olympic (‘The Film Star Liner’) in 1921. It was badly damaged.

1926: Aboard Titanic at Southampton, fire breaks out. The blaze occurs in the forward cargo hold, but repeated steam injection has little effect and the port’s fire-fighting facilities have to be called-upon. The blaze is brought under control after five hours, but causes structural damage at F-deck and G-deck level, forcing cancellation of her next voyage and a lengthy refitting. During the refitting, as with Majestic, Titanic’s third class accommodation is reduced but improved in standard, with the addition of far more bathrooms.

May 1927: Britannic undergoes overhaul. Her third class accommodation is improved considerably; hospital relocated to the same area as Olympic, while the hospital is replaced by a cinema and the smoke room above, and general room are refurbished extensively. Second class’s aft enclosed promenade on the port side becomes a ‘sidewalk’ promenade café, to compliment that on the first class promenade deck.

The BoT inspection notes Majestic is suffering from ‘severe extensive structural breakdown.’

December 1927: Olympic undergoes overhaul, refitted with a cinema in the first class lounge, extra private baths and general improving of accommodation.

Early 1928: Majestic undergoes major refitting, her forward promenade is glassed-in.

Slight repairs are completed to several small cracks in Britannic’s forward starboard plating, originally replaced during 1917/1918 following her striking a mine on November 21st 1916 with the result of serious extensive structural damage. The repairs had been originally completed in a hurry and these cracks had come to light following a minor collision, and denting in that area, between Britannic and Baltic, the latter travelling at four knots following a ‘full astern’ order. Baltic’s passengers report that they were all awoken by a tremendous shaking, which one likened to the San Francisco earthquake, and which broke crockery and damaged furniture toward the stern. Britannic's number three forward hold was badly flooded, although the second hold was kept reasonably dry by pumping.

February 25th 1928: Douglas Fairbanks reports that some personal items have gone missing from his private promenade on the port side of B-deck. Enquiries reveal a Steward to have taken the items, which are unearthed during a search. Further details are not made public.

White Star commissions Harland & Wolff to construct the 1,000-foot 60,000+ ton liner Oceanic at Belfast. To be diesel-electric powered, she is to have a service speed of 25 knots, but with a capability for doing as much as 30 knots.

November 1929: Britannic is shaken by the underwater earthquake while crossing the Atlantic in the opposite direction to Olympic, which also suffers.

January 1930: Britannic beats Olympic’s pre-war record of 24.2 knots Eastbound for one day, logging 24.3 knots aided by the current.

1930 — 1932: Olympic, Britannic and Majestic make occasional cruises from New York while there between crossings, and bank holiday cruises, but Titanic proves very popular on an extended cruising program.

Britannic makes her first cruise in 1931.

May 1933: In a severe Atlantic storm, Britannic’s A-deck promenade windows on the port side are damaged; seventeen of the thirty-eight odd windows are smashed, the promenade partly flooded, while the bridge wing is damaged and the forward port gantry davit and its six boats are damaged, two of the boats being smashed to pieces.

Following the reconditioning of her engines, Olympic is performing better than ever before.

August 1934: Signs of strain are showing on the Britannic’s A-deck supports beneath the aft starboard gantry davits, in addition to the aftermost port set. The supports undergo strengthening, but otherwise her hull survey is satisfactory, as Olympic’s is for 1934 following hull repairs in 1931.

January 1935: Olympic, Britannic and Majestic make far more cruises as the depression begins to lift.

April 1935: Majestic and Titanic are placed on a two-ship Mediterranean service, following extensive refitting and modernisation of both ships.

The 60,000-ton Oceanic is launched, following construction delays due to problems finalising the design of her propelling machinery.

The plan is for her initially to join service with Britannic on the express New York service, while Majestic will be scrapped and Olympic will join Titanic on the Mediterranean cruise service.

April 1935: Majestic is taken out of cruising, but as her hull construction was always considered inferior she is laid-up and later sold to the scrappers.

1936: At the last-minute, Majestic is sold to become a cadet training ship to the navy. Olympic is laid-up for the year, while Britannic cruises the Mediterranean with Titanic as the Oceanic is attracting a huge following, which leaves other ships half-empty due to the still-low levels of Atlantic traffic. A few slack rivets are found and repaired in Britannic’s hull.

Mid-1937: Cunard and White Star merge to form the White-Star Cunard Line, White Star controlling fifty-five percent of the new company. Cunard’s new 80,000-ton liner is completed to sail with Oceanic, on the express service to New York.

1937: Olympic makes several cruises following a slight refitting, following Britannic being laid-up for a refit in 1936. Britannic is fitted with new propellers, giving her a service speed of 24½ knots, but she will actually run at 22 knots for cruising with a considerable fuel saving.

1938: As Britannic is performing better with her new propellers, giving her a 2½-knot speed increase or a reduction in fuel costs if running at the original speed, Olympic is fitted with the same propellers: two twenty-foot four-bladed wing screws (running at 78 r.p.m.) and a central five-bladed sixteen-foot-nine-in ch screw (running at 169 r.p.m.). Britannic’s speed is now 24½ knots, with a possible maximum of twenty-six, although twenty-four is usually maintained.

June 21st 1939: Although Olympic has cruised since 1937 with Titanic and Britannic, she is now twenty-eight years old and as traffic is not high enough to occupy so many ships, she is laid-up. Britannic and Titanic remain cruising the Mediterranean.

1940: Following the outbreak of world war 2, Titanic and Britannic are taken-over for war service. The Olympic joins them in 1941.

1942: Titanic suffers a breakdown while approaching Southampton, in her starboard engine, forcing her to steam at a slower speed. It takes five months to repair due to the war time scarcity of supplies.

March 18th 1944: Britannic suffers damage from a magnetic mine, which floods boiler rooms 6 and 5, having just penetrated the inner skin, although the flooding was slightly more than pumps could handle in those compartments. A further explosion occurs off the after port quarter about five hundred yards away, causing concern to her escort of two destroyers, one of which also reported a torpedo sighting. Britannic easily makes it back to Southampton unaided but escorted by the destroyers, having used twenty boilers at maximum pressure to make the trip at twenty knots.

1948: Britannic and Titanic, having been in service to Canada, are no longer both required. Britannic is laid-up while Titanic continues service until late 1949 with Olympic.

11.40 p.m., April 15th 1950: Titanic strikes an iceberg in the Atlantic, severely damaging her double bottom and causing flooding to her forepeak, holds 1 and 3, and boiler room 6. Pumping keeps the damage barely under control, but the ship is able to return to Southampton aided by tugs. As a result of the collision, a SOLAS conference is convened to recommend improvements to safety at sea.

April 29th 1950: Following a survey of the thirty-eight-year-ol d ship, it is decided to scrap Titanic. She leaves for Inverkeithing, and is completely gone by November 1951.

1951: Although both ships are ageing, Olympic and Britannic are placed on a service to Australia transporting emigrants, along with the motor ship Georgic, which had been commissioned in 1932. Olympic is modernised extensively.

1954: As Georgic had been never fully restored from wartime damage, she is scrapped.

1955: Olympic undergoes engine maintenance, her starboard engine in particular. For four months, she undergoes further hull repairs.

1958: Due to diminishing demand on the Australian run, Britannic is retired and scrapped, being gone by 1960. Olympic had undergone more extensive maintenance and modernisation, which is the prime decision, although it cannot be denied that both vessels are showing extensive signs of ageing, Olympic being forty-seven.

1961: Olympic is taken-out of service on the Australian run, and laid-up at Southampton.

1963: Olympic, undergoing further modernisation and the addition of a more extensive air-conditioning system than that fitted previously, is placed on a service to the Mediterranean, cruising for six months of the year. As she proves very popular, as a one-class ship, regularly carrying her full complement of 900 passengers despite her age, the service is extended.

1967: Sea travel undergoes further troubles. Due to aeroplane competition, Oceanic and Majestic (the re-named 80,000-ton Cunard flagship) are retired. Majestic goes to Long Beach, California, to become a floating hotel.

August 21st 1968: Following a visit to Southampton, Liverpool, Belfast and Cherbourg, where re-unions of previous passengers and extensive celebrations occurred, Olympic leaves Liverpool for Long Beach, California, to become a floating hotel, aged fifty-seven. She has steamed seven million miles, carried three million people, and earned the nicknames ‘Old Reliable,’ ‘Film Star Liner,’ and ‘Old Granny.’ Among those seeing her off is 100-year-old Charles Bartlett, who had first commanded Britannic in 1916.

1988: Olympic's and Majestic's ownership is turned-over to a new company.

2001: Record profits are announced from Olympic and Majestic.


P.S. I'll be on the other unsinkable debate tommorrow -- am worn out by now.
Oct 28, 2000
I think you forgot the collision between Olympic and Titanic in the fog off Nantucket.

--David G. Brown

Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
It seems to me that Titanic's survival, alone or with Britannic also surviving, would probably have made no difference to White Star's long-term survival.

Even without two of the three Olympic class liners, White Star was consistently profitable until 1930 despite the fact that in the post-war years, IMM was running on a shoestring. Then, the triple whammy of the Depression, U.S. immigration restrictions and the financial manipulations of the Royal Mail Group (which sucked up White Star's profits to pay dividends to other constituent companies and to make needlessly expensive acquisitions of other lines)pushed it into the red.

True, its front line service of Majestic/Olympic/Homeric may not have been quite the equal of Cunard's Mauretania/Aquitania/Berengaria trio due in large part to Homeric's substandard performance. But remember that the German lines were wiped out by the Treaty of Versailles; as a result, of the major prewar players, Cunard and White Star had the Europe-US trade virtually to themselves until NDL and Hapag regrouped, and remained among the top three (with Canadian Pacific) in the Canada trade. Plus which, White Star's Australia and New Zealand services (the latter operated jointly with Shaw, Savill and Albion) remained strong.

By the time the War ended, though, IMM was looking to cut expenses as much as possible, since Morgan's shipping empire as a whole had never been as profitable as he had expected, even with White Star's success. One result is that only one ship---Doric---was built for White Star from the end of the War until the Royal Mail acquisition of White Star in 1926. (A second, Laurentic, was ordered before the sale but didn't enter service until late 1927.) The rest of the additions to the fleet from 1919 to 1926 were German war reparations (Majestic, Homeric and Arabic), British War Standard vessels purchased from the government (Gallic, Bardic and Delphic), or transfers from other IMM lines (Vedic, Regina, Pittsburgh and Haverford). And yet, throughout the decade, White Star remained profitable even without two of the planned three ships of the Olympic class.

White Star's fate was not sealed until the late 1920's, after IMM sold the line to Royal Mail. By the early 30's, the combination of the Depression and US immigration restrictions had badly hurt numerous lines, including White Star and Cunard. (It's important to remember that by the early thirties Cunard was in nearly as dire financial straits as White Star---work on 534 was halted in December 1931 because of lack of funds.) In White Star's case, this was compounded by the Royal Mail fiasco, so that by 1934 White Star was clearly the weaker of the two partners in the Cunard-White Star merger. But that was a late-breaking development that had nothing to do with the loss of Titanic or Britannic.

Although the thought is sometimes expressed that thet the loss of Titanic eventually led or contributed to White Star's demise, I've never seen any meaningful support for that thought. Ten years of postwar profitability, and the almost parallel decline in Cunard's fortunes, it seems to me, are to the contrary.

Sources: Anderson's White Star; de Kerbrech & Williams' Cunard White Star Liners of the 1930s; Green and Moss' A Business of National Importance: The Royal Mail Shipping Group, 1902-1937; Haws' Merchant Fleets; Mallett and Hall's The Pirrie-Kylsant Motorships; Moss and Hume's Shipbuilders to the World: 125 Years of Harland and Wolff, Belfast, 1861-1986; The New York Times for various dates in 1926, 1927, 1933 and 1934; Oldham's The Ismay Line.
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