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National Maritime Museum

Royal Mail Steam Packet Company


Reference code(s): GB 0064 RMS

Held at: National Maritime Museum

Title: Royal Mail Steam Packet Company

Date(s): [1826-1969]

Level of description: Collection


Name of creator(s): Royal Mail Steam Packet Company


Administrative/Biographical history:

In 1837 James MacQueen (1778-1870) put a plan to the Government for a steam packet service between England and the Caribbean; this was quickly followed by more ambitious proposals embodied in a 'General Plan for a Mail Communication between Great Britain and the Eastern and Western parts of the World; also to Canton and Sydney westward by the Pacific'. On MacQueen's initiative the West India Committee, an association in London of merchants and planters, gave its support to the formation of a company. Under the chairmanship of John Irving (d.1845), a merchant banker, the first meeting of the Directors of the Company was held in 1839. James MacQueen was appointed 'General Superintendent of Affairs'. In the autumn of 1839 the new company was granted a royal charter and the first mail contract was signed with the Admiralty in 1840. It provided for a service of steamships, twice in each calendar month, from a Channel port (eventually fixed as Southampton) to islands and ports in the West Indies. Connecting with this main line of steamers at the various points there was to be a feeder service of seven steamers and three sailing vessels, serving all the principal islands and countries of the Spanish Main, with an extension northwards to New York, Halifax and Nova Scotia. An annual subsidy of ?24,000 was written into the agreement. Because the contract was with the Admiralty (the first contract with the Postmaster-General was made in 1864) the Royal Navy exercised a great deal of influence over the running of the ships. In an unprecedented building operation, fourteen large steam vessels and three small sailing ships were commissioned in time to start the service in December 1841. In 1846 the service was extended to link up with the west coast of South America (served by the Pacific Steam Navigation Company) over the Isthmus of Panama. A further extension followed in 1850, when a monthly service to Brazil and the River Plate was added to the extended West Indies contract. This new service was of great importance to the subsequent development of the Company. Royal Mail tried three times between 1852 and 1869 to get a foothold in the Australasian trade via Panama, but without any long-term success. A fourth attempt was made in 1906, in conjunction with the Orient Line (q.v.), but the partnership lasted only a year, after which the latter company obtained the mail contract for itself alone. There was a short-lived attempt to acquire berthing rights to Morocco, the Canaries and Madeira. This route was abandoned in 1919. The last five-year mail contract for the West Indies, signed in 1911, was not renewed owing to the advent of the First World War. However, the Canadian mail contract, for a fortnightly service between Canada, the West Indies and British Guiana remained in force from 1913 throughout the war; thereafter it was renewed by short-term extensions, until the increasing use of Canadian Government ships on the route brought it to an end in 1927. In addition, the company known as 'R.M.S.P. Meat Transports Limited' was formed in 1914 in order to put additional refrigerated tonnage on the Plate route. At the end of the First World War, the Company was allocated fourteen standard 'War' type freighters, as well as eleven ships of the Russian Volunteer fleet. From the beginning of the twentieth century the Royal Mail offered cruises on its vessels of which the most notable were Arcadian, Atlantis and Andes. From 1903 the policy of the Company under its Chairman, Owen Cosby Philipps (1863-1937), created Lord Kylsant in 1923, was to broaden the base of its operations by acquiring a controlling interest in a great number of shipping companies in diverse trades. Before the First World War, besides other less important enterprises, the Pacific Steam Navigation Company (1910), Lamport and Bolt and Elder Dempster (1911), the Union Castle Line (1912) and the Nelson Line (1913) became members of the group, with MacIver joining in


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. There are copies of the Royal Charter granted to the Company in 1839 and subsequent renewals: a continuous series of minute books of Directors' meetings, 1839 to 1934 (three volumes); of General Meetings, 1842 to 1933 and a less complete set of Directors' reports, 1850 to 1902. A minute book of the Stores Committee, 1842 to 1843, illustrates the deployment of the very large stocks of coal necessary to maintain the services. The Mail Contracts for the various services are well documented. In- and out-correspondence, 1842 to 1868, with 'Public Departments' (the Admiralty, the Post Office and Board of Trade) is contained in nineteen volumes. A very early letterbook, 1826 to 1828, contains letters from the Post Office to Lieutenant Edward Chappell R.N. (d.1856) who subsequently became Secretary of the Company. A Marine Superintendent's confidential letterbook, 1826 to 1899, casts light on staff selection. General correspondence, 1904 to 1943, both in and out, is largely about the carriage of mail, legal matters and inter-company communications. Four memorandum books (1860 to 1904, 1884 to 1902, 1905 to 1909 and 1915 to 1917) are Directors' 'vade mecum's', containing a valuable cross-section of information about the Company's operations. Route books and 'Details of Service' 1841 to 1920, locate the services geographically. Agency arrangements are dealt with in nine books, 1876 to 1954, containing details of agreements entered into by the Company, including mortgages, leases or purchases of properties, powers of attorney and commissions. The technical part of the collection includes builders' specifications for ships, 1876 to 1954; fleet regulations for officers and engineers, 1850 and 1950; instructions to pursers, 1876; a treatise by Captain Chappell on 'Smith's Patent Screw Propeller', 1840; a Fire and Boat Station Bill for the Avon, 1845; reports on the stranding of the Magdalena, 1949, and a number of early log books, 1842 to 1869. The only account books are two cash books, 1839 to 1849, and some day-to-day cash books from the West End passenger office, 1959 to 1969. There are no service records although there is an album of photographs of captains, 1870, and information about pensions, national health and unemployment insurance. Finally the collection contains a wealth of publicity material of various dates. (Section 3: RMS/: 100ft: 30m) Ships' Plans: consist mainly of linen tracings of general arrangements, profiles and deck plans of nine Royal Mail steamships, 1850 to 1880, and paper prints of cargo spaces on six early twentieth-century vessels.


Language/scripts of material: English

System of arrangement:

Conditions governing access:

Please contact the Archive for further information.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Please contact the Archive for further information.

Finding aids:

Detailed catalogue online at the: National Maritime Museum website .


Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

The records were deposited on permanent loan by Royal Mail Lines in 1966 and subsequently presented by the successor company, Furness Withy (q.v.), in 1981.



Archivist's note: Edited by Sarah Drewery, Sep 2011.

Rules or conventions: Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions: 2011-05-11

Shipping | Maritime transport | Transport
Ships | Vehicles | Transport
Water transport

Personal names

Corporate names
Board of Trade
Post Office
Royal Mail Steam Packet Company