Strangling the competition
After the depression that lasted into the 1890s, the New Zealand economy recovered. Trade at the regional ports surged in the early 1900s and encouraged some new operators to import modern 500-ton British or Dutch steam coasters. Much larger and more efficient than the little steamers the Union Steam Ship Company had been content to ignore, they aroused its concern. In 1905, therefore, the Union Company’s chairman James Mills decided to buy into these regional carriers.
He began in 1906. That year he bought half the shares of the recently formed Canterbury Steam Shipping Company, as well as George Niccol’s new steamer Squall. Other purchases followed. In 1908 the Union Company bought into the Anchor Shipping and Foundry Company of Nelson, and the Maoriland Steam Ship Company. In 1912, after a struggle, it bought a chunk of the Napier-based Richardson & Company. It did all this in strict secrecy. With the conference lines controlling the deep-sea trades and the Union Company owning or controlling all the coastal lines apart from the small Northern Steam Ship Company, there was now very little competition in New Zealand’s shipping services.
Carping at the big fish
American writer Mark Twain criticised the powerful Union Company for exploiting the lack of competition. He sailed with 200 others from Lyttelton on the Flora, licensed to carry only 125, and which he compared to a cattle scow. He slept in a berth that was ‘as dark as the soul of the Union Company, and smelt like dog kennel’. 1
The Cook Strait ferries
The good news was that the Union Company’s near-monopoly enabled it to build fancy new ships. On the coastal routes the railways took away much of its passenger business, but the coal and general cargo trades grew fast, providing work for even bigger ships. In the late 1890s the company built new passenger ships for its isolated West Coast and Nelson services, but the glamour service was the overnight ferry between Wellington and Lyttelton.
The company had started with second-hand ships, but in 1907 it commissioned the trendsetting 19-knot Maori. In 1913 it added a partner, the 4,436-ton, 20.5-knot Wahine, as big as many trans-Tasman liners. The size and performance of these ships led the company to describe the Wellington–Lyttelton run as the ‘steamer express service’. Over the course of 70 years the ships linking north and south were replaced and upgraded – there were two Maoris, two Wahines, two Rangatiras, and a Hinemoa. They became household names. Everyone travelled on them, from school parties and family groups to commercial travellers and MPs returning to their electorates.
From the late 1890s the Union Company also upgraded its services across the Tasman Sea to Australia, replacing the 2,000-ton ships of the early 1880s with a series of 3,500–4,500-ton ships – vessels like the Waikare, Mokoia and Moeraki. The 5,282-ton Maheno of 1905 was one of the world’s earliest passenger ships to adopt efficient smooth-running marine turbine engines.
Generally, smaller, older ships were used to service the Pacific Island trades, which lacked the population and the cargo flow to enable shipping lines to operate without subsidies. Sail and second-hand steamers persisted here, but in the early 1900s the Union Company built the Navua and the Atua, ships nearly as big as its trans-Tasman liners.