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Ocean Liner History and Stories from the Sea, Past and Present. With an In Depth focus on Holland America Line

A Gentlemen’s cruise to the opening of the Kieler Kanal

The opening of the Kiel Kanal was a major affair in the 1890’s. For Europe it had an importance not unlike the opening of the Panama Canal had for the USA in 1914. The digging of the canal gave ships the option to move from the Baltic to the North Sea without having to sail around Denmark. To create a short route for commercial shipping was the official explanation by the German government for the project. What was not announced but happened to be very convenient as well was that the canal would make it possible to get the German Imperial War fleet very quickly from the Baltic to the North Sea and vice versa in case of an emergency. This secondary reason made it a occurrence that all governments in Europe took a close interest in. The Official name for the Kieler Kanal was Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal and after Germany had become an republic it became the North-Ost See Kanal. However since its inception everybody has called it the Kieler Canal, after the major town that is located at the Eastern entrance.
In this article we will follow the Tantallon Castle on a Baltic cruise, a cruise which just happened to coincide with the opening of the Canal and most of the guests on board just happened to be important politicians, including Lord Gladstone the ex British Prime Minister.

The Tantallon Castle of 1891.

The Tantallon Castle was a passenger liner, normally employed on the Southampton to Cape Town service for the Castle Line (Later to merge with the Union Line to form the Union Castle Line) A ship of 5636 tons and a length of 440 ft. It had been commissioned in 1894 and could carry 200 first, 150 2nd. and 140 3rd, One Quadruple steam expansion engine gave it a speed of 17 knots. At the time it was the fastest steamer on the Capetown service and the company’s flagship. The owner of the Castle line, Sir Donald Currie invited a number of distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen for a cruise to the Baltic on his newest vessel. The ship left Tilbury (outside London) on the 12th of June 1895 with on board about a hundred guests (coming from such diverse backgrounds as Statesmanship, Politics, Art, Literature, Science and International commerce) The opening of the Canal was planned for the end of the cruise, thus the first call was Hamburg, where the Lords an Ladies made a city tour and were offered a banquette in city hall.

The Gentlemen on board. In the centre with his hat on is Lord Gladstone, next to him with the white whiskers Sir Donald Currie owner of the ship, the gentlemen around them were mostly involved in politics in someway or the other

There was ample time to enjoy the city before the ship sailed around the North of Denmark to its Capital Copenhagen. Here Tivoli Gardens was visited, as was Rosenborg Castle. The definitely highlight of the visit was the inspection of the ship by, followed by a luncheon with the King and Queen and of Denmark, with children accompanied by the Prime Minster of Denmark. Their presence on board resulted in large crowds gathering at the dockside and when the Royal party was about to leave, Sir Donald Currie, opened up his ship to all on the dockside to come to have a look. While the public streamed on board, none of them approached or bothered the well-known guests. All went well, without a single security guard in view. (Things have changed since then (Ed)

The Ladies on board. The lady on the far left is the wife of Lord Gladstone

From there the ship went on to the Kiel side entrance of the Kieler Canal, which is the Baltic side. The ship anchored at Kiel roads, amongst many other vessels. As this was a great occasion, both for the International Shipping as well for the Worlds balance of power, many Nations were present. The USA, Great Britain, The Netherlands, Denmark and Italy had sent their biggest warships and quite a few shipping companies’ including the Tantallon Castle of the Castle had sent a ship to attend. One of those other Company’s was the Holland America Line, which had sent their flagship the Rotterdam. This ship would have the distinction of being the first Merchant Vessel to transverse the canal. It had been decided to give the honour to the Netherlands, as this country was neutral in any power play that was going on in Europe at the time. (As we all know that continuous power play ended 19 years later in the First World War) With so many important people gathered, there was of course a lot of informal politicking going on, which included a visit of the American Minister Mr. Bayard to Lord Gladstone.


The German Emperor, Wilhelm II himself opened the canal, named after his father. First he laid the final stone of the canal and then his yacht led the whole armada through the canal. So many ships had to go through, that the Tantallon Castle had to wait until late in the evening before it was her turn. Approximately 50.000 people attended the opening; either on the ships or sitting on temporarily erected stands on the locks, or standing along the canal. It had been the intention to return back to England after the canal, but such a good time was had by all, that the ship went up the coast again for a call at Gothenburg. While there, word arrived from London that the government had been defeated in Parliament. As there were quite a number of politicians on board, this news created quite a stir. This was the government from which Lord Gladstone had resigned the previous year. The ship returned after a day at sea to England and stopped at the entrance of the river Thames, giving those who were in a political hurry the chance to get back to London quickly.

Although Lord Gladstone had retired the year before as Prime minister of Great Britain, upon returning home he a few difficult moments. Queen Victoria had heard that he had been on a cruise, without asking her leave. Under the rules he was supposed to do this, even after being retired from office, as the ship left British territorial waters. Her Majesty was not amused.

Note: the photo of the Tantallon Castle comes from my own collection, the other photos are scans from a booklet written by a Mr. W.C. Lucy who was on board for the cruise. The booklet is called “The log of the Tantallon Castle” and can be found in the library of yours truly.

1 Comment

  1. Nice article. The first commercial vessel to use the Kieler canal was actually a Holland America Liner on a special cruise to the opening of the Canal. the ss Rotterdam 2 (1886/1895) Actually this was the first official cruise made by a Holland America line ship.

    Small history of the ship.

    Build 1878 at Harland & Wolff Ltd., Belfast-North Ireland.
    As BRITISH EMPIRE fore the British Shipowners – LTD England.
    Sold inn 1886 to Nederlandsch-Amerikaanshe Stoomvaart Maatschappij Rotterdam Nederland (Holland Amerika lijn)
    3.329 grt
    12 knots
    86 first class passengers
    70 second class passengers
    350 third class passengers
    67 crew.
    Inn 1894 NASM/HAL the Rotterdam received new engines.
    NASM/HAL renamed here (to make the name free fore a new build) ss Edam in 1895 and finally sold the ship in 1897 fore scrap.

    Greetings frome Rotterdam the Netherlands Ben van Zeijl.

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