Wednesday, February 14, 2024

End of an Era - Head Line

 I was fortunate enough to be present as the last of the great cargo ships called in Halifax. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s containers were taking over the world but it didn't happen over night. So called "third world" countries did not have the wherewithall to invest in costly port infrastructure such as cranes and mobile gantries and so the traditional type of general cargo vessel still served those parts of the world. Using union purchase derricks and labour intensive handballing the ships spent days or even weeks in some ports handling cargo. That inefficient means of transport did not last long as even minor ports shifted to the ubiquitous boxes.

Within a few years those impressive ships were gone, but in the meantime they still called in Halifax - some with a few containers stowed awkwardly - but with the holds (including tween decks) stuffed with a wide array of goods to or from ports chiefly in Africa and Asia.

It was not just the ships that did not survive the shift to containers. A number of shipping companies also disappeared. Some joined continer consortiums, but others just withdrew from shipping altogether. Their ships were sold and redeployed until they were too old to maintain.

This article is one of a sporadic series covering some of those ships and shipping lines, which I will post from time to time. 

The Ulster Steamship Company, as the name implied, was based in Northern Ireland, in the port of Belfast and traded primarily to Canada. Its founders, the Heyn family, although Prussian in origin, were prominent ship owners from the 1850s and the days of sail. G.Heyn + Sons Ltd founded the Ulster Steamship Company in 1877.

They had what we would now call superb "brand identity". They named their ships for prominent headlands in Ireland (north and south) and were thus known as the "Head Line". They also adopted a motif from legend, the "red hand" or the "bloody hand" of Ulster. The story was that two chiefs were racing by sea to claim some rich land. The first to reach shore would get the land and the loser would get nothing. One chief cut off his hand (the left one of course) and threw it ashore to win the race and get the land. This gruesome legend did not deter Heyn's from displaying a "bloody hand" on their ship's bows, funnels and house flag.

A black and white photo does not do justice to the crimson hand with blood dripping from the wrist. It was probably necessary to touch up the famous trade mark regularly to ensure that it remained highly visible - and sufficiently gory. (This photo was taken of the Carrigan Head in Montreal in August 1965.) [Built in 1958, sold 1972, scrapped 1980.]

Head Line ships were irregular callers in Halifax - they usually ran from Liverpool to Montreal in season (and into the Great Lakes) and Saint John, N.B. during the winter months. Their Montreal agents, MacLean Kennedy, had close ties with the Heyns. Alfred E. Francis, secretary treasurer of MacLean Kennedy, an Ulsterman by birth, had started his working life with Heyn's and came to Canada in 1914 to work at MacLean Kennedy. McLean Kennedy, their owners the Eakin family, and Mr. Francis became significant shareholders in the Ulster Steamship Company. Ships of the line regularly saluted while passing his summer residence on the shores of the St.Lawrence.

 All this is getting around to my surprise on April 15, 1970 when the ship George sailed into Halifax and tied up at Pier 23.

Built in 1953 by none other than Harland + Wolff in Belfast, the 7439 gt, 9381 dwt turbine steamer was named Rathlin Head and made its first call in Halifax April 7, 1954. At that time the 15 knot ship was not exactly "state of the art" but was of proven reliability and of a type common from the 1930s on. Like most Head Line ships it also had accommodation for twelve passengers. It was a regular on the St.Lawrence River and I had seen it there in its heyday.

It had only recently been sold to Kimon Shipping of Famagusta, Cypress and arrived in Saint John on its last trip for the Head Line in March 1970 and handed over there to the new owers. It sailed February 14, 1970 for Cuba - presumably with a cargo of potatoes - and was back in Halifax for more of the same, except this time it was likely Prince Edward Island potatoes instead of New Brunswick potatoes. 

The ship did not see long service under Cypriot flag as it was laid up in Rotterdam (unknown date) and departed that port in tow July 17, 1972 for Vigo, Spain where it was broken up in August. 

The Head Line purchased the Scottish Donaldson Line of Glasgow in 1967 and operated as Head-Donaldson Line for a time, but eventually melded with Manchster Liners into Canadian Pacific's CP Ships. The company exited shipowning in 1973 but G. Heyn + Sons Ltd remain in the Belfast agency, stevedoring, warehousing, freight forwarding and customs clearance business. 

The last Head Line ship to appear in Canadian waters was built in 1965 by Austin + Pickersgill, Southwick (Harland + Wolf was too busy building tankers) as Inishowen Head. In 1970 it was converted from a 8621 gt, 10,380 dwt general cargo ship to a 9,099 gt cellular container ship. It was chartered out as the Cast Beaver from 1973 to 1977 then reverted to Inishowen Head. In 1977 it was sold to the Canadian company Boréal Navigation and operated as the Sunhermine on a Saguenay Terminals charter until 1982. It was then renamed Catalina and operated on the ACE Montreal - St.John's service. It was finally sold for scrap in 1986 and broken up in Busan, South Korea.


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