RMS Magdalena (1889)


United Kingdom
NamesakeMagdalena River in Colombia
OwnerRoyal Mail Lines House Flag.svg RMSP Co
OperatorUnited Kingdom Royal Navy (1915–20)
Port of registry
  • United Kingdom (1889–1915)
  • United Kingdom (1915–20)
RouteSouthamptonBrazilUruguayArgentina (1889–1905); Southampton – Caribbean (1905–15)
BuilderRobert Napier and Sons, Govan
Yard number417
Launched2 May 1889
CompletedJune 1889
Maiden voyage2 August 1889
FateScrapped 1921
General characteristics
Tonnage5,373 GRT
Length421.3 feet (128.4 m) p/p
Beam49.9 ft (15.2 m)
Propulsion1 × 3-cylinder triple expansion steam engine; single screw
Sail plan3-masted schooner
Speed17 knots (31 km/h) maximum
Capacity540 passengers

RMS Magdalena was a British steamship that was built in 1889 as a Royal Mail Ship and ocean liner for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. In the First World War she served as the troop ship HMT Magdalena. After a long and successful civilian and military career she was scrapped in 1923.


In the 1880s RMSP introduced a series of larger new ships to improve its scheduled services between Southampton, South America and the Caribbean. The first was the 4,572 GRT Orinoco, built by Caird and Company and launched in 1886. She was RMSP's first new ship to have a hull of steel rather than iron.[1] After her success RMSP ordered two more ships to an improved and enlarged version of the design from Robert Napier and Sons of Govan. Atrato was launched in 1888, followed by Magdalena launched in 1889. Before these were completed RMSP ordered two more from Napier: the slightly larger Thames in 1889 and Clyde launched in 1890.[1]

Orinoco had only a small amount of deck housing and was the last square-rigged sail-steamer to be built for RMSP. The Napier ships were more modern, each with a full superstructure deck and rigged as a three-masted schooner.[2] The smaller sail plan was based on the increasing economy and reliability of their engines.[1]

Magdalena had a three-cylinder triple expansion steam engine that drove a single screw, giving her a top speed of 17 knots (31 km/h).[3]

Civilian service

Magdalena's maiden voyage on 2 August 1889 was a charter by the Lord Mayor and Corporation of the City of London in which they attended the Royal Naval Review at Spithead. The review was held by Queen Victoria to honour her grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II.[4] Magdalena was the only merchant ship to take part.[5] In September 1889 Magdalena joined RMSP's regular scheduled route between Southampton and the east coast of South America.[6]

The five sister ships' furnaces suffered from heat damage, so in 1891 they were lined with zinc.[7] In 1899 Day, Summers and Company of Southampton raised the boats on Atrato, Magdalena, Thames and Clyde "to a boat deck clear of the promenade" at a cost of more than £5,000. In 1903 Atrato, Magdalena and Clyde were fitted with bronze propellers costing another £5,000. That December the cabins-de-luxe on Magdalena, Thames and Clyde were refurbished and the ladies' saloon on each ship was converted into more cabins.[8]

There were occasional incidents in Magdalena's career. In 1894 she was at anchor in Bahia when she was "fired at". On New Year's Eve 1904 in Montevideo she collided with the Norwegian barque Ilos.[9]

Just after the turn of the 20th century Magdalena and her sisters had their hulls painted white, perhaps to reflect more heat in warmer latitudes. This was short-lived as the new colour showed any grime, rust and soot, and white paint was three times the price of black. In 1902 RMSP reversed the policy and the ships were returned to their original colours.[4]

By 1905 she was deemed to be too small for the route and was used mainly on the West Indies service.[citation needed] In 1909 the 5,525 GRT RMSP liner Trent grounded on a sandbank in the Caribbean and Magdalena tried unsuccessfully to tow her clear. The following year Magdalena grounded on the same bank.[10] On 12 June 1912, while en route to Barbados, Magdalena went to the aid of a barque that had been becalmed; her crew had been living on a single biscuit per man per day for 40 days.[11] At the end of 1912 Magdalena took the England Cricket Team on a successful tour of the West Indies.

War service

When the United Kingdom entered the First World War in August 1914 Magdalena was 25 years old and near the end of her useful life. However, on 16 December 1915 the Admiralty requisitioned her as the troop ship HMT Magdalena. She was armed with two guns and a Royal Navy gun crew.[12]

Magdalena brought Australian troops across the Mediterranean[13] and bringing West India Regiment troops to Europe. An influenza outbreak on board in January 1917 forced the ship into quarantine.[14] In August 1918 Magdalena brought the Gold Coast Regiment home at the close of the East African Campaign.[15]

In Gibraltar in January 1917 Magdalena's armament was augmented with 45 boxes of type "E" smoke canisters, designed to create a smoke screen in the event of enemy attack. On 29 May 1918 the ship was berthed at Suez when the canisters caught fire. The fire took hold on the port side of the ship, and fire floats came alongside and eventually brought the fire under control.[12]

RMSP claimed £12,475 compensation but the Admiralty contested liability. In 1921 the company concluded that it could not win, and reluctantly discontinued its claim.[16]


Magdalena was the last of the five sisters to survive. The Government returned her to her owners in 1920,[17] who laid her up.[citation needed] Late in 1921 RMSP sold her to shipbreakers in Birkenhead for £1 8s 5d per ton.[17]


  1. ^ a b c Nicol 2001b, p. 87.
  2. ^ Nicol 2001b, p. 88.
  3. ^ Cameron, Stuart; Biddulph, Bruce. "SS Magdalena". Clydebuilt database. Archived from the original on 19 December 2011. Retrieved 22 January 2015.CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  4. ^ a b Nicol 2001b, p. 92.
  5. ^ Haws, Duncan (1982). Royal Mail Line. Merchant Fleets. 5. Cambridge: Patrick Stephens. ISBN 0-946378002.[page needed]
  6. ^ Nicol 2001b, p. 84.
  7. ^ Nicol 2001b, p. 89.
  8. ^ Nicol 2001b, p. 90.
  9. ^ Nicol 2001b, p. 91.
  10. ^ Nicol 2001b, pp. 92–93.
  11. ^ "Found Starving at Sea" (PDF). The New York Times.
  12. ^ a b Nicol 2001b, p. 93.
  13. ^ "Chapter 14: Arrival in France". Percy Smith, ANZAC. 2 April 2007.
  14. ^ "British West India Regiment: Barbados contingent. Forwards report by Dr John Hutson..." The National Archives. 12 January 1917.
  15. ^ Clifford, Hugh (1920). Gold Coast Regiment In The East African Campaign. London: John Murray.[page needed]
  16. ^ Nicol 2001b, pp. 93–94.
  17. ^ a b Nicol 2001b, p. 94.

Sources and further reading

  • Nicol, Stuart (2001). MacQueen's Legacy; A History of the Royal Mail Line. One. Brimscombe Port and Charleston, SC: Tempus Publishing. ISBN 0-7524-2118-2.
  • Nicol, Stuart (2001). MacQueen's Legacy; Ships of the Royal Mail Line. Two. Brimscombe Port and Charleston, SC: Tempus Publishing. ISBN 0-7524-2119-0.