Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Anchor Line: Scottish Ships for Scottish Passengers

As I start writing the book I promised my father about our Muir family from Scotland, I've noticed that many of those ancestors immigrated to Canada or the United States on ships owned and operated by Anchor Lines. Why?

That question led me to a wonderful book about the steamship company by Martin Bellamy and Bill Spalding entitled The Golden Years of the Anchor Line, which answered my question on the first page:

"The Anchor Line was one of the great shipping companies of the Clyde. It grew out of the flourishing engineering and economic development that transformed the Clyde from a shallow meandering river into one of the world's great ports and shipbuilding centers. From the 1880s to through the 1930s, the Anchor Line was famed for its sleek liners operating between Glasgow and New York. For a long time, its beautiful black-funnelled transatlantic liners were the largest ships to sail regularly from the Clyde, and they came to symbolize the romance of Glasgow's great shipping and shipbuilding industries.

The Anchor Line was not in the same league as Cunard, which had very large and luxurious ships. The largest Anchor liner was a little over half the length of the Queen Mary. Instead, the company built its reputation on providing comfort at an affordable price. It bolstered its image using bold marketing materials showing highly idealized views of ships and their destinations. It also played heavily on its Scottish heritage, advertising 'Scottish ships and Scottish crews for Scottish passengers.' This not only attracted local custom but also appealed to the American tourist's nostalgia for the 'old country'."

Anchor Line poster from 1928; photo courtesy of
The Golden Years of the Anchor Line

The book includes this quote by Patrick Dollan from the 1930s:

"Every Scot thrills with pride and memories of the adventure and enjoyment of travel on hearing of the Anchor Line. When I was a boy, it was the ambition of every youngster to sail across the Atlantic on an Anchor liner which for us was synonymous with safety, comfort and America. We could not then think of traveling on any other ship than an Anchor liner -- to young Scots the vessel of romance and daring."

Sailing day, courtesy of Glenvick-Gjonvik Archives

But this must have been a reputation they acquired over time. In the early days, things were a bit rockier. Robert Louis Stevenson recalled his experiences in steerage aboard the Anchor Line's Devonia in 1879 in Notes of an Amateur Emigrant:

"...an adventure that required some nerve. The stench was atrocious; each respiration tasted in the throat like some horrible kind of cheese; and the squalid aspect of the place was aggravated by so many people worming themselves into their clothes in the twilight of the bunks."

An American, writing under the name of Windy Bill, described traveling on the Furnessia, another Anchor Line ship: "the odors in the steerage are worse than those in a slaughter house and the conditions not much better."

A steerage compartment in an Anchor Line steamship, obviously improved

But by 1882 Anchor Line operated the City of Rome, its first truly high-class transatlantic liner. After World War II the line was left with only five ships and these were in terrible condition after been used for troop transport by the military. The company never achieved its pre-war glory and in 1967 its transatlantic service ended.

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