RMS Oceanic (1899)

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OCEANIC - Sjöhistoriska museet - Fo57172.tif
RMS Oceanic
United Kingdom
  • HMS Oceanic (1914)
  • RMS Oceanic (1899-1914)
OwnerWhite Star Line
RouteLiverpool/Southampton to New York
BuilderHarland and Wolff, Belfast
Yard number317
Laid down1897
Launched14 January 1899
Completed26 August 1899
Maiden voyage6 September 1899
FateRan aground off, Foula, Shetland, 8 September 1914
  • Superstructure above water salvaged 1923-1924;
  • remaining hull salvaged 1979.
General characteristics
Tonnage17,272 gross tonnes
Length704 ft (215 m)
Beam68.4 ft (20.8 m)
Installed powerTriple expansion reciprocating engines; 28,000 horsepower.
PropulsionTwin propeller
Speed19 knots max 21 kn
  • 410 First class
  • 300 Second class
  • 1,000 Third Class.
NotesFunnels: 2 Masts: 3

RMS Oceanic was a transatlantic ocean liner built for the White Star Line. She sailed on her maiden voyage on 6 September 1899 and was the largest ship in the world until 1901.[1] At the outbreak of World War I she was converted to an armed merchant cruiser. On 8 August 1914 she was commissioned into Royal Navy service.

On 25 August 1914, the newly designated HMS Oceanic departed Southampton to patrol the waters from the North Scottish mainland to Faroe. On 8 September she ran aground and was wrecked off the island of Foula, in the Shetland Islands.


In the late 1890s the White Star Line's existing prestige liners Majestic and Teutonic, both launched in 1889, had become outmoded due to rapid advances in marine technology: Their competitors the Cunard Line had introduced the Campania and Lucania 1893, and from 1897 the German Norddeutscher Lloyd began introducing four new Kaiser-class ocean liners which included the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. In order to compete with these ships the White Star Line needed to produce a new flagship which could rival them.[2] Oceanic's maiden voyage came only a few weeks before the death of Thomas Henry Ismay, founder of the White Star Line (officially named the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company). As with White Star's first liner (placed in service in 1871 and bearing the same name), this second Oceanic marked a turning point: the company thenceforth emphasized ships of "great size and exceptional steadiness," aiming to compete on travel comfort rather than high speed.[3]

Design and construction

Oceanic under construction at Harland & Wolff shipyard.
Oceanic's elaborately decorated dome.

Their new flagship Oceanic was built at Harland and Wolff’s Queen's Island yard at Belfast, as was the tradition with White Star Line ships, and her keel was laid down in 1897. She was named after their first successful liner RMS Oceanic of 1870, and was to be the first ship to exceed Brunel's SS Great Eastern in length, although not in tonnage. At 17,272 gross tons, the future "Queen of the Ocean" cost one million pounds sterling (equivalent to £113,400,000 in 2019),[4] and required 1,500 shipwrights to complete. Oceanic was not however designed to be the fastest ship afloat or compete for the Blue Riband, as it was the White Star Line's policy to focus on size and comfort rather than speed. Oceanic was designed for a service speed of 21 knots (39 km/h; 24 mph). She was powered by two four-cylinder triple expansion engines, which were when constructed the largest of their type in the world, and could produce 28,000 ihp[5][2]

In order to build the ship a new 500 ton overhead gantry crane had to be constructed at the yard in order to lift the material necessary for the ship's construction. Another innovation was the use of hydraulic riveting machines, which were used for the first time at Harland and Wolff during her construction.[2]

Oceanic's bridge was integrated with her superstructure giving her a clean fluid look, this design feature would later be omitted from the next big four White Star ships, Cedric, Celtic, Baltic and Adriatic with their odd but distinguishable 'island' bridges. "Nothing but the very finest", was Ismay’s policy toward this new venture.[6] The architect Richard Norman Shaw was employed as the consultant for the design of much of the interiors of the ship, which were lavishly decorated in the first-class sections.[2]

Oceanic was built to accommodate 1,000 third-class, 300 second-class, and 410 first-class passengers, plus 349 crew.[2] In his autobiography, Titanic and Other Ships,[7] Charles Lightoller gives an account of what it was like to be an officer on this vessel.

Proposed sister ship 'Olympic'

As White Star typically ordered ships in pairs, a sister ship for Oceanic to be named Olympic was proposed. However following the death of the company chairman Thomas Ismay in November 1899 the order was postponed and then cancelled. Instead the company decided to deploy the resources to produce a set of larger liners which would become the "Big Four" class. The name Olympic was later bestowed upon the RMS Olympic of 1910.[5][2]


Old colour postcard of Oceanic

Oceanic was launched on 14 January 1899; an event which was watched by over 50,000 people. She would be the largest and last British liner to be launched in the 19th Century. Following her fitting out and sea trials, she left Belfast for Liverpool on the 26 August that year, and when she arrived she was opened to the public and press where she was received with great fanfare. She departed Liverpool on her maiden voyage to New York on 6 September, under the command of Captain John G. Cameron. Thomas Ismay had planned to be on board but was by this stage too unwell. She completed the voyage in 6 days 2 hours and 37 minutes at an average speed of 19.57 knots and arrived at New York to a rapturous welcome. One disappointing feature which soon became apparent in service, was the tendency for the ship to experience excessive vibration at full speed, this was due in part to her long and narrow design. To avoid this problem it was soon found necessary to operate her at a service speed of 19.5 knots (36.1 km/h; 22.4 mph), lower than her planned service speed of 21 knots (39 km/h; 24 mph).[2]

The early years of Oceanic's career were fairly eventful: In 1900 she was struck by lightning while at dock at Liverpool and lost the top of her mainmast. On 4 August that year while berthed at New York harbour, she was threatened by a serious fire in a cargo hold of the SS Bovic which was docked adjacent to her. Fortunately the fire was brought under control before it could spread to Oceanic.[2]

On 7 August 1901 in a heavy fog, near Tuskar Rock, Ireland, Oceanic was involved in a collision with the small Waterford Steamship Company SS Kincora, sinking the smaller vessel and killing seven.[6][2]

On 18 November 1904, four days out from New York, Oceanic encountered strong gales, stormy seas and snow, the battering the ship took from the sea stove in two portholes, which allowed a considerable amount of water to enter the ship.[2]

In 1905, 45 of the ship's firemen mutinied in protest at the unpleasant working conditions in the ship's boiler rooms, which resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of 33 stokers.[8][2]

In April 1912, during the departure of RMS Titanic from Southampton, Oceanic became involved in the near collision of Titanic with SS New York, when Oceanic was nearby as New York broke from her mooring and nearly collided with Titanic, due to the large wake caused by Titanic′s size and speed. A month later, in mid-May 1912, Oceanic picked up three bodies in one of the lifeboats left floating in the North Atlantic after Titanic sank.[lower-alpha 1] After their retrieval from Collapsible A by Oceanic, the bodies were buried at sea.[9]

World War I

Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Oceanic was included in a deal with the Admiralty, which made an annual grant toward the maintenance of any ship on the condition that it could be called upon for naval work, during times of war. Such ships were built to particular naval specifications, in the case of Oceanic so that the 4.7 inch guns she was to be given could be quickly mounted. "The greatest liner of her day" was commissioned into Naval service on 8 August 1914 as an armed merchant cruiser.

On 25 August 1914, the newly designated HMS Oceanic departed Southampton on naval service that was to last just two weeks. Oceanic was to patrol the waters from the North Scottish mainland to the Faroes, in particular the area around Shetland. She was empowered to stop shipping at her Captain’s discretion, and to check cargoes and personnel for any potential German connections. For these duties, she carried Royal Marines and Captain William Slayter RN was appointed in command. Her former Merchant Master, Captain Henry Smith, with two years' service, remained in the ship with the rank of Commander RNR. Many of the original crew also continued to serve on Oceanic.



Oceanic headed for Scapa Flow in Orkney, Britain’s main naval anchorage, with easy access to the North Sea and the Atlantic. From here she proceeded north to Shetland travelling continuously on a standard zigzag course as a precaution against being targeted by U-boats. This difficult manoeuvring required extremely accurate navigation, especially with such a large vessel. In the event it appears to have been poor navigation, rather than enemy action that was to doom Oceanic.

An inaccurate fix of their position was made on the night of 7 September by navigator Lieutenant David Blair RNR (previously assigned to, then reassigned from, the Titanic). While everyone on the bridge thought they were well to the southwest of the Isle of Foula, they were in fact an estimated thirteen to fourteen miles off course and on the wrong side of the island. This put them directly on course for a reef, the notorious Shaalds of Foula, which poses a major threat to shipping, coming within a few feet of the surface, and in calm weather giving no warning sign whatsoever.

Captain Slayter had retired after his night watch, unaware of the situation, with orders to steer to Foula. Commander Smith took over the morning watch. Having previously disagreed with his naval superior about dodging around the island, he instructed the navigator to plot a course out to sea. Slayter must have felt the course change, as he reappeared on the bridge to countermand Smith's order and made what turned out to be a hasty and ill-informed judgement.

The ship ran aground on the Shaalds on the morning of 8 September, approximately 2.5 nautical miles (5 km) east of Foula's southern tip. She was wrecked in a flat calm and clear weather. She was the first Allied passenger ship to be lost in the war.


The Aberdeen trawler Glenogil was the first vessel on the scene, and although she attempted to pull off the massive ship, it proved an impossible task, and with the hull already ruptured, Oceanic would not have stayed afloat long in open waters.[10] Other ships in the area were called in to assist in the rescue operation that was to follow. All of the ship's crew transferred to the trawler via the ship's lifeboats and were then ferried to the waiting AMC HMS Alsatian, and HMS Forward. Charles Lightoller, the ship's First Officer (and also the most senior officer to survive the sinking of the Titanic), was the last man off, taking the navigation room's clock as a souvenir.

The 573-ton Admiralty salvage vessel Lyons was dispatched to the scene hurriedly, and in the words of the Laird of Foula, Professor Ian S. Holbourn, writing about the disaster in his book The Isle of Foula:

The launch of the Lyons, a salvage boat which hurried to the scene, was capable of a speed of ten knots, yet was unable to make any headway against the tide although she tried for fifteen minutes. Even then it was not the top of the tide, and the officer in charge reckoned the full tide would be 12 knots, he confessed he would not have believed it had he been told.[11]

Commander Smith is said to have come ashore at the remote island’s tiny pier, and on looking back out to sea toward his stranded ship two miles away, commented that the ship would stay on the reef as a monument and nothing would move it. One of the Foula men, wise to the full power and fury of a Shetland storm, is said to have muttered with a cynicism not unknown in those parts "I‘ll give her two weeks".[11]

Remarkably, following a heavy gale that had persisted throughout the night of 29 September, just two weeks after the incident the islanders discovered the following day that the ship had been entirely swallowed up by the sea, where she remains to this day scattered as she fell apart under the pressure of the seas on the Shaalds.

The disaster was hushed up at the time, since it was felt that it would have been embarrassing to make public how a world-famous liner had run aground in friendly waters in good weather within a fortnight of beginning its service as a naval vessel. The revelation of such gross incompetence at this early stage of the war would have done nothing for national morale.


Lt. Blair was court-martialled at Devonport in November 1914, when he was found guilty of "stranding or suffering to be stranded" HMS Oceanic, and was ordered to be reprimanded. He offered in his defence that he was exonerated by the evidence given by Captain Slayter and Commander Smith that he was under their supervision, and that the stranding was due to abnormal currents.

A similar charge was made against Commander Smith at a second court-martial; the evidence for the prosecution was the same as in the previous case, but witnesses were cross-examined with a view to showing that the position of the accused on Oceanic was not clearly defined by the naval authorities, and that he was understood to be acting solely in an advisory capacity. He was acquitted the following day, as he was found not to have been in command on 8 September.

Captain Slayter was also acquitted.


One of the Oceanic's propeller blades is preserved in Fife.

In 1924, a salvage company which had been engaged on the scuttled German warships at Scapa Flow attempted to salvage what remained of the wreck however they were unsuccessful. In 1973 another attempt was made to salvage parts of the wreck and the propellers for scrap.[12]


  1. Thomas Beattie, a first class passenger, and two crew members, a fireman and a seaman.


  1. "R.M.S. Oceanic (II)". Jeff Newman. Retrieved 18 January 2010.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Kerbrech, Richard De (2009). Ships of the White Star Line. Ian Allan Publishing. pp. 81–86. ISBN 978 0 7110 3366 5.
  3. Bonsor, N.R.P. (1978). North Atlantic Seaway. pp. 739–40.
  4. UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 2 February 2020.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Haws, Duncan (1990). White Star Line (Oceanic Steam Navigation Company). pp. 52–53. ISBN 0 946378 16 9.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "RMS Oceanic". Darrel R. Hagberg. Retrieved 12 December 2008.
  7. Lightoller, C.H. (1935). Titanic and other ships. I. Nicholson and Watson. Retrieved 13 December 2008. republished as a Gutenberg of Australia eBook
  8. "Mutiny Aboard A White Star Line Ship". Titanic and Other White Star Line Ships. Retrieved 13 December 2008.
  9. Bartlett 2011, pp. 242–243.
  10. "Oceanic". The Great Ocean Liners. Retrieved 28 March 2008.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Holbourn, Ian Stoughton (2001). The Isle of Foula. Birlinn Ltd. ISBN 1-84158-161-5.
  12. "Navy News" (628). United Kingdom Ministry of Defence. November 2006: 14. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)


  • Chirnside, Mark (2018). Oceanic: White Star's ‘Ship of the Century’. Stroud, Glos: The History Press. ISBN 9780750985789.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • The Other Titanic, Simon Martin (Salvage report, 1980).
  • Osborne, Richard; Spong, Harry; Grover, Tom (2007). Armed Merchant Cruisers 1878–1945. Windsor, UK: World Warship Society. ISBN 978-0-9543310-8-5. Unknown parameter |lastauthoramp= ignored (|name-list-style= suggested) (help)

External links