The original company bearing the name White Star Line was founded in Liverpool, England by John Pilkington and Henry Threlfall Wilson, and focused on the Australian trade, which had increased following the discovery of gold there. The fleet initially consisted of chartered sailing ships, the Blue Jacket (later renamed White Star), the Red Jacket, the Ellen and the Iowa but it acquired its first steamship in 1863 with the Royal Standard. One notable ship was Tayleur, whose fate would haunt the company.
The company merged with other small lines, the Black Ball and Eagle Lines to form a conglomerate called the Liverpool, Melbourne and Oriental Steam Navigation Company Limited. This did not prosper and White Star broke away and concentrated on the Liverpool to New York service. Heavy investment in new ships was financed by borrowing, but the company's bank, the Royal Bank of Liverpool, failed in October 1867 leaving the company with an outstanding debt of £527,000, and it entered bankruptcy.
The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company
Thomas Ismay, a director of the National Line, purchased the house flag, trade name and goodwill of the bankrupt company for 1,000 pounds sterling on 18 January 1868, with the intention of operating large ships on the North Atlantic service. Ismay established the company's headquarters at the Albion House, Liverpool.
Over a game of billiards with Gustavus C. Schaube, a prominent Liverpool merchant, and his nephew, Gustav Wolff, Ismay was told that if he agreed to have his ships built by Wolff's company, Harland and Wolff, Schaube would agree to finance the new line. Ismay agreed, and a partnership with Harland and Wolff was established. The shipbuilders received their first orders on 30 July 1869. The agreement was that Harland and Wolff would build the ships at cost plus a fixed percentage and would not build any vessels for the White Star's rivals. In 1870 William Imrie joined the managing company. As the first ship was being commissioned, Ismay formed the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company to operate the steamers in the process of construction.
Four ships were initially constructed for the Oceanic class; the Oceanic (I), Atlantic, Baltic, and Republic between and the line began operating again in 1871New York and Liverpool (with a call at Queenstown (Cobh)).
It was (and still is) common for shipping lines to have a common theme for the names of its ships. In the case of the White Star Line, this was to use the suffix -ic (e.g. Titanic, in contrast to Cunard's use of -ia (e.g. Carpathia). The line also adopted a buff-coloured funnel with a black top as a distinguishing feature for its ships, as well as its distinctive house flag (or burgee), a red broad pennant with two tails with a white five-pointed star.
For the rest of the 19th century the White Star Line would own such famous ships as Britannic (I), Germanic, Teutonic and Majestic (I). Several of these ships would eventually take the Blue Riband, awarded to the fastest ship to make the Atlantic crossing.
In 1899, Thomas Ismay commissioned one of the most beautiful steam ships constructed during the 19th century, the Oceanic (II). She was the first ship to exceed the Great Eastern in length (although not tonnage). The building of this ship marked the point where White Star departed from competition in speed with her rivals and concentrated solely on comfort and economy of operation.
Between 1901 and 1907, a quartet of ships known as The Big Four, all over 20,000 tons, were brought into service: Celtic, Cedric, Baltic and Adriatic. In the 19th and early 20th century, the efficiency of coal engines only allowed a feasible speed of about 24 knots (44.4 km/h/27.6 mph). Going above this speed introduced a logarithmic proportion in direct relation to fuel consumption and speed, in that for every knot increased, the required fuel was the previous fuel required plus itself. For this reason, the White Star Line committed to comfort and reliability rather than to speed. As an example, the Titanic was designed for travel at 21 knots (39 km/h), while the Cunard Line's Mauretania held the speed record in 1926 for 27 knots (48 km/h).
In 1902, the White Star Line was absorbed into the International Mercantile Marine Co. (IMM), a large American shipping conglomerate. By 1903, IMM had managed to absorb the American Line, Dominion Line, Atlantic Transport Line, Leyland Line, and Red Star Line. They also came to trade agreements with the German lines Hamburg-Amerika and Norddeutscher Lloyd. Bruce Ismay ceded control to IMM in the face of intense pressure from shareholders and J.P. Morgan, who threatened a rate war.
Olympic class ships
The Cunard Line was the direct competition to White Star Line as their fame and success mounted. As a competition piece the White Star Line began construction on their new series, the Olympic class; the Olympic (II), Titanic, and Britannic. Britannic was originally to have been named Gigantic, but her name was changed shortly after the sinking of Titanic. .