In the period of optimism that followed the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, trade between the new German Empire and America boomed. However, some Hamburg merchants argued that the Hamburg-America line had too few ships to cope with this increasing demand. Fearful that competitors from outside Germany would muscle-in, they resolved to set up another Hamburg-based steamship line.
Two groups sprang up at first. One aimed to set up a new line that would be called the ‘German Atlantic Steamship Company;’ the other was to form the ‘Hamburger-Lloyd Line.’ Prominent among those with an interest in the former group was Rob M Sloman junior, owner of a transatlantic sailing packet line. He had strong reasons to set up in competition with Hamburg-America.
The Sloman line had been founded in Hamburg by William P Sloman, who in 1793 left his native Wales for Germany. When he died in 1800 the line passed to his son, Robert Miles Sloman – or Rob M Sloman, as he preferred to be called. In 1836 three of Sloman’s sailing packets began regular services between Hamburg and New York and by 1846 this fleet had grown to seven.
But the Sloman Line soon gained a formidable local competitor in the Hamburg- Amerikanische Packenfahrt Aktien-Gessellschaft – known from its initials as HAPAG or the Hamburg-America Line – which was formed in May 1847. When their first sailing packet, Deutschland, left Hamburg on her maiden voyage in October 1848, they started a long and fierce rivalry in which the Sloman Line eventually came off worst.
Sloman senior responded in 1850 with a bid to upstage his rivals and change from sail to steam. However, his new, British-built, 800 grt, iron-hulled screw steamship, Helena Sloman, was lost on only her third transatlantic voyage. Another iron screw ship was ordered by Sloman in 1853, but no sooner was this announced in the press than Hamburg- America decided to switch from sail to steam. Sloman immediately offered to run a joint service with his rival’s steamships, but they rejected his proposal.
Hamburg-America’s transatlantic steamship service began on the 1st of June 1856, when the 2,349 grt Borussia set off for New York with sister-ship Hammonia following a month later. They never looked back; and while Sloman gave up on steamships and remained a sailing packet line, Hamburg-America’s steamship venture went from strength to strength – so much so that they had sold off all their sailing packets by 1867. In that same year Rob M Sloman senior died, passing on to his son the sailing packet line and some very bitter feelings towards Hamburg-America.
Four years later, Rob M Sloman junior leapt at the opportunity to set up in opposition to his father’s old rivals. But there was not sufficient trade for the proposed two additional steamship lines. Realising this the two groups met on 16th January 1872 and amalgamated to form the Deutsche Transatlantische Dampfshiffahrts Gessellschaft (German Transatlantic Steamship Company) – thereafter known as the Adler Linie (Eagle Line) from the symbol on its house flag. Appointed as chairman of their Board of Directors was Rob M Sloman junior.
On the 28th March 1872 the Eagle Line directors placed orders for nine new ships with three Clydeside shipbuilders. Three were to be built by Robert Napier & Sons, five by Alexander Stephen & Son and one more by J&G Thomson. Eight of these new vessels were to be iron-hulled screw steamships of over 3,400 grt; 375 feet in length, 40 feet in beam and with a depth of 33 feet from spar deck to keel. Each would carry a crew of 120 and accommodate up to 90 first class, 100 second and 800 steerage passengers – for emigration, as with most German lines, was to be the mainstay of their business. These ships were to be almost identical, except that the Napier-built vessels would have two funnels and the others just one. It was aimed that they would be superior in all respects to the ships of their German competitors on the North Atlantic run. For increased speed they would each have four double-ended scotch boilers and a 550 nhp compound engine delivering an effective 3,000 hp. Their passenger cabins and steerage quarters were to be unmatched for comfort and convenience.
The third Eagle Line ship to come into service was Schiller, 3,421 grt, which like its Napier built sister Goethe sported twin funnels. Her launch at Napier’s yard on the 26th August 1873 took place during a violent thunderstorm. Many who witnessed the event thought the ship was actually struck by lightning as she entered the waters of the Clyde. After this ominous beginning Schiller sailed on her maiden voyage on the 5th February 1874 under the command of Captain George Thomas, who had served eleven years as an officer on P&O ships. His passengers numbered just two in cabin class and 67 in steerage, and the outward passage took fifteen days.
Schiller sailed from Hoboken on the afternoon of the 27th, but as the pilot refused to take her over the bar at Sandy Hook because of low water she then lay off Long Island until noon next day. This delay proved fatal. Approaching the Isles of Scilly at 14 knots in thick fog on the night of the 7th May, Schiller’s captain, George Thomas, belatedly had her speed cut to dead slow and her course changed from easterly to southerly in an attempt to position her in mid- Channel. It was too late: after three days of dead-reckoning, where errors were compounded, the ship had over-run her charted position by many miles. Without warning Schiller ran onto the Retarrier Ledges – semi-submerged reefs close by Bishop Rock lighthouse. Her lookouts had neither seen its light nor heard its fog bell. The wreck was horrific and the third worst in casualty terms of any transatlantic steamship at that time. Over 340 people died, including Captain Thomas, while a mere 43 survived. A Board of Trade Inquiry blamed Thomas’s “entire neglect.”
Rob M Sloman’s rivalry with Hamburg-America was resumed in the 1880’s, when he joined forces with his nephew Edward Carr to form the Can-Union Line. But when Carr was bought out by Hamburg-America in 1888 the rivalry ceased and they ran joint services with Sloman’s Union line until his death in 1900. However, during the years 1872-5, when Sloman directed the Eagle Line, it was a rivalry so bitter and intense that pressure to keep to the timetable may have induced their captains to take unnecessary risks. Several contemporary shipping pundits attributed the wreck of the Schiller as more a result of cut-throat competitiveness than bad seamanship or neglect.
Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - September 2010 Issue
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