Shipping Lines: Black Ball Line Shipping Lines: Old Line (Black Ball Line)

Old Line

Black Ball Line

The original Black Ball packet line existed between 1818 and 1878 and seems to have orginally been referred to as the Wright, Thompson, Marshall, & Thompson Line of Liverpool Packets of New York. It came later to be known as the Old Line (or from the 1840s generally known as the Black Ball Line). The regular sailings on Liverpool were discontinued in the 1850s.

It was founded by the New York textile importers Isaac Wright & Son, >Francis Thompson, Benjamin Marshall, and Jeremiah Thompson in association with the house of Cropper, Benson & Co., Liverpool.

The first announcement of the sailing of the Black Ball Line of packet ships appeared on October 27, 1817, in the Evening Post, New York,. From this announcement we find that four vessels will be involved:

"And it is the intention of the owners that one of these vessels shall sail from New York on the 5th, and one from Liverpool on the 1st of every month."

This line of Liverpool packets is sometimes confused with the Black Ball Line of Australia Clippers founded by James Baines in Liverpool in 1852 and which existed until 1871. However, no connection besides the same is known to have existed between the two lines.

It also seems that the Saint John-Liverpool Packet Line which existed during a couple of years in the 1850s and was managed by Richard Wright, St John, and William and James Fernie, Liverpool, was known as the Black Ball Line.

House Flag.

The house flag of a shipping line was a distinguishing mark and this flag could be recognised long before any other part of the ship could be seen if the wind was favourable. Judging from B/W copies of paintings of Black Ball packets, the house flag of the Old Line seems to have been dovetailed and with a black ball on a light background (yellow?), but not white.

Other packet lines used equally well recognisable house flags and were also known after these flags.

Without having any evidence at hand I suggest that the house flag of the Old Line was a black ball on a white background and that the black ball on the fore topsail was not added until the line became known as the Black Ball Line, i.e. in 1840s.

It appears that I was wrong about the theory that the black ball on the fore topsail was not used before the company became known as the Black Ball Line. Most of the paintings of ships featuring the black ball which I have been able to find have been from the latter period, but there are two examples in Albion's Square riggers on Schedule of earliar ships showing this.

E.g., the painting which is said to be of the first New York (1822-1834) shows this feature. This painting is attributed to Robert Salmon (1775-c1859) and there is nothing to suggest that it was not painted at the time. The second New York was built in 1839 and served the Black Ball Line until 1854.

The other example is of the ship Albion (1819-1822), which shows a large "A" in the lower part of the fore topsail and a black ball in the fore topgallant sail. The quality of the reproduction in Square Riggers on Schedule is too poor to let us say if this is a painting contemporary with the ship or not.

The location of the black ball is invariably in the lower part of the fore top-sail, between the lower reef-band and the lower leech. Later ships, with double topsails, mostly have the black ball on the lower fore topsail.

This device was however also used by other ships at that time. The brig Mermaid of Charlestown, MA, built in 1828, has a (somewhat) smaller black ball in her fore topsail.

Passage Times.

Albion gives the following average passage times for the (Old) Black Ball Line, 1818-1827:
Eastbound: 24 days, based on 188 passages with a variation of 16-37 days.
Westbound: 38 days
Monthly average passage times:
Eastbound: 22-25 days
Westbound: 33-48 days

The announced schedule obviously allows two months for a complete cycle for each ship. This gives on average a time of one month in Liverpool to unload and load.


1818 January
Advertisement of the first sailing appeared in the Evening Post, New York, 27th of October, 1817.
Line of American Packets, first announcement of the Old Line (from the 1840s generally known as the Black Ball Line) of New York, 27 October 1817.
1822 March 16
The New York - Liverpool service was increased from four ships to eight ships.
Sailing of the Yorkshire 1 June 1847 advertised in the Liverpool Mercury, May 21, 1847.



Updated 1999-06-18 by Lars Bruzelius

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Copyright © 1996 Lars Bruzelius.