photo O.G. Keen

"Pretoria Castle" and tug "John X. Merriman"


The story was always told that the reason the "Pretoria Castle" and her exact sister the "Edinburgh Castle" were steam turbine rather than motor ships was that Harland & Wolff at Belfast had on their hands the turbines and boilers destined for naval ships the orders for which were cancelled in 1945.   More than likely true for in all other respects the ships were simply larger versions of the "Capetown Castle".   The fact was that with the austerity then prevailing, there were shortages of just about everything, importantly including the finance for building ships, the two new mail ships were built as cheaply as possible.

The "Pretoria Castle" was noteworthy in that she was the first (and possibly only) ship to be launched electronically by radio.   The Company wanted Ooma Smuts the wife of General Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa to launch the ship, Ooma Smuts was too frail to make the journey to Belfast and thus this unique radio connection was set up so that she could set the ship down the slip way from her home in the Transvaal. 


                                                                                                                                    photo Peter C. Kohler


With the "Transvaal Castle" the "Pretoria Castle" was transferred to Safmarine in a 'one old and one new' deal.   Although the ships were to the larger extent manned by British & Commonwealth officers & crew and managed by Union-Castle they were registered in Cape Town.   In point of fact the transfer of the ships was political, at about the same time B & C 'sold' (they were sold for 1£ each) seven cargo ships to Safmarine.   See below

As with the "Transvaal" the colour scheme did not precisely enhance the "Pretoria".


e-mail 19th June 2009

You state that both these sips were sold for £1 each, which is incorrect.

Sanlam had threatened to enter the mail run and B&C were fighting rearguard actions with Safmarine.

When B&C agreed to build the the three refrigerated ships at GDC for Safmarine. They(Safmarine) wrongly believed that B&C had surrendered the fruit rights to Safmarine.

They were somewhat miffed when B&C ordered the four Clan R's.

In the meantime the new mail agreements had stalled.

Sir Nicholas Cayzer travelled to Cape Town in order alleviate the problems.

He agreed that Safmarine could purchase the Pretoria Castle and the Transvaal Castle for £19m and that Safmarine would be responsible for ordering a new mail ship in the early 70's.

The purchase agreement, allowed for repayment over a period of ten years.

Both ships owned by Safmarine were bare boat chartered back to U-C and manned by B&C personnel.

Sir Nicholas also agreed that Safmarine would have fruit rights provided that they supported B&C in their bid to win the new mail contracts.

Safmarine were true to their word and B&C were given the new mail contract in 1967.

This a potted version of what happened.

(This précis of events taken from G.R Berridge's book "The Politics of The South African Run" was sent to me by a correspondent).


Note:  It is not correct to say the ship's were entirely manned by B&C personnel, Captain Norman Lloyd, the first master of the SA Vaal was relieved by a Safmarine master, Captain Robin Thompson, who, upon the ending of the Mail Service reverted to command of one of the 'Big Whites'.   There were also other Safmarine personnel employed on both the Vaal and Oranje.  There had always been a clause in the mail contract that a percentage of crews, where possible, were to be South African, as was the clause regarding ships to be registered in South Africa, this clause for many years being filled by the war time 'Empire' ships, Drakensberg and Good Hope Castles.