Written by C. Christian Monson
Immortalized in films, books and museums, the Titanic is certainly the White Star Line’s most famous ship. Its dramatic and tragic sinking into the icy waters of the north Atlantic in 1912 is always portrayed as a sad wake-up call for a company that thought it could push the limits of engineering with no consequences. And considering that one of the Titanic’s sisters, the HMHS Britannic, also sank soon after in 1916, one would think that the White Star Line would have curtailed its ambitions.
Far from it, though. Instead, the White Star Line set their sights even higher, developing plans for the RMMV Oceanic in 1926. With a proposed gross tonnage of nearly 85,000, its designers wanted it to be almost twice the size of the Titanic, which had a GRT of a measly 46,000 tons. However, majestic as it was on paper, the Oceanic never even made it as far as its baby sister. Financial and engineering problems killed her in the shipyards, and she never hit the water.
Still, it wasn’t all for nothing. The Oceanic left a significant engineering, financial and even material legacy.
DOWN BUT NOT OUT
The White Star Line started its Olympic class of passenger ships with the RMS Olympic, laid down in 1908 and put into service in 1911 for a cost of $7.5 million. The largest ocean liner in the world at the time of its maiden voyage, the Olympic was highly cost effective for the company because it could carry so many passengers while maximizing speed and efficiency thanks to powerful coal-powered steam engines.
Naturally, the White Star Line built more ships to cash in on this, the Titanic and Britannic. However, the Titanic sank on its maiden voyage, and the Britannic never saw passenger service. Rather, it was enlisted into the UK’s Royal Navy in World War I as a hospital ship and sank off the Greek island of Kea in the Aegean Sea in 1916, most likely due to striking a mine. In other words, a venture that started well for the White Star Line was losing steam, no pun intended.
The end of World War I saw a gleam of hope. As part of their war reparations, Germany was forced to give the White Star Line two ocean liners: the SS Columbus and the SS Bismarck. The White Star Line renamed the ships the RMS Homeric and RMS Majestic, respectively, and assigned them to transatlantic service alongside the still-surviving Olympic. However, while the Majestic was the largest ship in the world at the time with a gross tonnage of over 56,000, the Homeric was a smaller, slower ship that just wasn’t living up to the White Star Line’s expectations. They decided they would have to replace it with a ship closer in size, speed and ambition to the Olympic class vessels.
The stars seemed to align financially for the project as well. Up to that point, the White Star Line had been owned by the International Mercantile Marine Company, a trust formed by JP Morgan in an attempt to monopolize the shipping industry. However, in 1926, the same year the White Star Line decided they wanted to take on the Oceanic project, International Mercantile Marine decided to liquidate their holdings outside the US. They ultimately sold the White Star Line to Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, the largest maritime conglomerate at the time owned by Owen Philipps, 1st Baron Kylsant.
Lord Kylsant was enthusiastic about the plans for Oceanic. Since he also owned the Harland & Wolff shipyards in Belfast, he ordered the ship be built there. Construction began on 18 June 1928. Everything was looking up.
A LONG WAY TO GO
Lord Kylsant didn’t just want to build a big ship. He wanted to build the biggest ship. Specifically, there were two symbolic marks that no vessel had been able to reach up to that point: a length of 1,000 feet, or over 300 meters, and a speed of 30 knots, which is about 35 miles an hour or 55 kilometers per hour. The Oceanic was designed to exceed both.
Altogether, this would give it a gross tonnage between 70,000 and 85,000, which would by far make it the largest ship in the world. Even the French SS Normandie, which took the record of largest ship away from the RMS Majestic in 1935, was just over 83,000 GRT. That meant a lot of room, with a planned 12 decks carrying over 2,800 passengers: 722 in first class, 464 in second and 1,096 in third.
While the massive size wouldn’t be too much of a problem to accomplish, the speed wasn’t so simple. Originally, the White Star Line wanted to equip Oceanic with four propellers run by electric motors powered by 40 diesel generators. However, the Harland & Wolff shipbuilders felt that the untested nature of new diesel-electric systems wasn’t a sure way to break the 30-knot speed barrier for such a large ship. They wanted to use standard steam turbine propulsion instead.
In the end, a compromise was reached. Rather than electric motors, Oceanic would use actual diesel motors, referred to as cathedral engines due to their massive size and cathedral-like appearance when walking through them. Four of these engines would directly drive each of the four propellers, which would have made Oceanic the first quadruple-screw motor ship, most of its predecessors being triple-screw ships.
Unfortunately, this innovative and cutting-edge design severely slowed Oceanic’s construction. By 1929, after £150,000 of initial costs, which is over £10 million or $12 million today, Harland & Wolff hadn’t gotten farther than building the ship’s keel. With the start of the Great Depression, the company postponed construction and painted the keel in preservative oil, but an internal crisis was soon to prove a deathblow for the project.
FUDGING THE NUMBERS
If it seemed like the Oceanic project wasn’t on track before, Lord Kylsant’s arrest in 1931 was the nail in the coffin. Upon returning to England after a vacation to South Africa with his wife, Kylsant as well as Harold John Morland, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’s auditor, were charged with fraud under the Larceny Act of 1861.
Basically, the company was not doing so well. However, Kylsant and his accountants had tried to hide this fact using “secret reserves.”
Back in World War I, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company had indeed been highly successful, mostly because the government had paid handsomely to use their ships as military supply and troop transports. Kylsant and the rest of the company leadership decided to save most of the profits, around £1 million at the time or over £47 million now, for a rainy day… which arrived just a few years later.
Profits dropped significantly between 1921 and 1925, and starting in 1926, they began paying dividends to shareholders with money from the reserves, something they continued through 1928. For example, in 1927, the company reported a profit of £478,000, but they’d actually made a loss of £507,000 pounds. This required them to draw £750,000 from the reserves to cover the losses and pay a dividend to the investors. They then continued trying to attract new investors by using these reports to claim the company was making an average profit of £500,000 per year.
Of course, this wasn’t sustainable. By 1928, the company’s reserves were gone, and Kylsant didn’t have enough to pay his creditors, much less the company’s shareholders. He had to apply for an extension for a loan from Midland Bank, prompting a government audit. Representing the British government, accountant William McLintock led an investigation that found that not only was the Royal Mail Steam Packet not profitable, it was some £10 million in debt. Today, that’s nearly half a billion pounds.
Kylsant and Morland were tried at the Old Bailey in summer 1931. Both pleaded not guilty. Their lawyers argued that supplementing income and profit with reserves and not specifically declaring it as such was common practice, even for firms “of the very highest repute.” The court actually agreed, finding the two not guilty of issuing fraudulent reports in 1926 and 1927. Unfortunately for Lord Kylsant, though, they did find that he had committed fraud when he had encouraged people to invest with his 1928 claim of profitability. He was sentenced to 12 months in prison and served 10 of them at Wormwood Scrubs before being released in August 1932.
The trial had many legal and social implications. For one, it severely weakened the public’s trust in large companies going into the Great Depression. Moreover, it prompted companies to begin disclosing their use of reserves in supplementing income and profit. This culminated in the government passing the Companies Act of 1947, which required it to be included in financial statements.
It was significant for the Oceanic project, too. After the trial, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company was liquidated and reconstituted as Royal Mail Lines Ltd., backed by the British government. The new leadership decided Oceanic was impractical and preferred to focus on constructing the Britannic and Georgic, two smaller ships. It was time to dismantle the small amount of Oceanic that had already been built.
THERE IN SPIRIT
The work put into the Oceanic project wasn’t all for nothing. While Britannic was considerably smaller at just 27,000 gross registered tons and 684 feet, or 210 meters, in length, it did borrow a lot of Oceanic’s design features, including its packed funnels, shorter and stockier than the usually tall exhaust pipes of ocean liners. Plus, Britannic also took advantage of diesel-engine propulsion, though it only had two propellers.
Britannic was launched in 1931 and followed by Georgic, which had a similar design and launched in 1932. Both ships were actually built with steel plates that had been used to build Oceanic’s keel. Georgic was used as a troop ship during World War II and sank in a German bombing raid. However, it was refloated and remained in service until it was scrapped in 1956.
By then, Britannic was the last liner from the original White Star line in Service, White Star and the Cunard Line having merged to form Cunard-White Star Limited in 1934. They finally sold Britannic for scrap in 1960, eliminating the last physical remnants of Oceanic.
However, Oceanic has a spiritual legacy that you can go visit if you want. Since Britannic and Georgic were so much smaller, they couldn’t take over the workload of Cunard-White Star’s larger ships, Majestic and Olympic, both of which were scrapped before 1940.
As a result, Cunard-White Star finally built the RMS Queen Mary, which took its maiden voyage in 1936. Weighing over 80,000 gross registered tons, measuring over 1,000 feet in length, and reaching a top speed of almost 33 knots, Queen Mary could carry 2,140 passengers and was everything the company had hoped for Oceanic and more. She operated in the North Atlantic between Southampton and New York until 1967, when Cunard decided she was no longer profitable. They didn’t scrap her, though. Instead, they sold her to the City of Long Beach, California.
Today, Queen Mary is permanently moored in Long Beach’s port where it’s home to restaurants, a hotel and even a museum. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the famous ship is still open to anyone who wants to get a taste of the golden age of ocean liners and see the marvel of engineering and human ambition that projects like the Oceanic represented.
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“Philipps, Owen Cosby, Baron Kylsant (1836-1937), ship-owner.” Dictionary of Welsh Biography. https://biography.wales/article/s6-PHIL-COS-1863
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