The Onedin Line

The Onedin Line
Soren Larson, one of the ships filmed

The Onedin Line is a BBC television drama series which ran from 1971 to 1980. The series was created by Cyril Abraham.

The series is set in Liverpool from 1860 to 1886[1] and deals with the rise of a shipping line, the Onedin Line, named after its owner James Onedin. Around this central theme are the lives of his family, most notably his brother and partner, shop owner Robert, and his sister Elizabeth, giving insight into the lifestyle and customs at the time, not only at sea, but also ashore (mostly lower and upper middle class). The series also illustrates some of the changes in business and shipping, such as from wooden to steel ships and from sailing ships to steam ships. It shows the role that ships played in affairs like international politics, uprisings and the slave trade.


Story outline

James Onedin (Peter Gilmore), the younger son of old Samuel Onedin, a miserly ship chandler, was a penniless sea captain with aspirations to greater things. He married Anne Webster (Anne Stallybrass), who was some years his senior (Stallybrass, however, is actually seven years younger than Gilmore) and the spinster daughter of Captain Joshua Webster, owner of the topsail schooner Charlotte Rhodes (portrayed by the schooner Meta Jan). James's only motivation was to get his hands on the ship. A shrewd and often ruthless operator, James soon built up a fleet, assisted by the loyal Mr (later Captain) Baines (Howard Lang). His other sailing ships included the Pampero, the Medusa, the Soren Larsen, the "Neptune", the "Falcon", the "Trident", the "Osprey", the steamship "Shearwater", the " Christian Radich", the "Thorsoe", the steamer "Black Pearl", the "Jenny Peak" renamed the "Letty Gaunt", the "Ondine", the "Orlando", the "Star of Bethlehem", the "Teawind" and the "Lady Lazenby". He also initiated the building of a steamship, the Anne Onedin (until the death of his wife, to be named the "Golden Nugget").

James's volatile sister, Elizabeth (Jessica Benton), became pregnant by seafarer Daniel Fogarty (Michael Billington) but married wealthy Albert Frazer (Philip Bond), developer of steamship technology and heir to the Frazer shipyards, a connection James soon turned to his own advantage. Elizabeth gave birth to a son, William, who later died as a young man in a street accident.

Robert, James's older brother, took after their father and counted coppers in the family shop, though he later expanded it into a profitable department store, urged on by his thrifty and socially ambitious wife, Sarah. They had one son, Samuel, who cared more for the sea and ships than shopkeeping. Robert was elected as a Member of Parliament, and he and Sarah moved to a smart new residence but Robert's life abruptly came to an end when he choked on a bone at a family dinner. His widow, Sarah, made attempts to contact him through a medium then, despite her son Samuel's objections, almost married the fortune-hunting Captain Dampier. She was last heard of as having undertaken a tour of the world but, at a certain point, abandoned its itinerary. Since she did not reappear in Liverpool, she may even have settled abroad.

At the end of the second series, Anne, whom James had come to love, died giving birth to a daughter, Charlotte. James considered two possible replacement brides for a while, wealthy widow Caroline Maudslay and the young heiress Leonora Biddulph (Kate Nelligan), before settling for his daughter's governess, Letty Gaunt. In due course, Letty also died, of diphtheria and, by the last series, James was married to a third wife, the exotic Margarita Juarez and was, by then, a grandfather.

The eighth and final series ended with news of the death at sea of Daniel Fogarty, whom Elizabeth had finally married after the death of her first husband Albert and also with the birth, at last, of a son and heir for James. Born aboard ship, the child was named Will after Captain Baines.


An article in Woman magazine published in July 1973 featured an interview with Cyril Abraham where he recalled how he came up with the very unusual family name Onedin.

He wanted something unique. He had decided to call the leading male character James but still had not found a surname when the BBC agreed to film the story. Then some inspiration - he said:

One day I stumbled across the word Ondine, a mythological sea creature. By transposing the "e", I had James Onedin, a sea devil.

The music behind the opening credits of the series is an excerpt from the Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia from the ballet Spartacus by Aram Khachaturian and other background music includes excerpts from Ralph Vaughan Williams's Symphony No. 5, Manuel de Falla's The Three-Cornered Hat, Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 and Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 1. The programme was recorded in Dartmouth, Devon,[2] as well as certain scenes in Exeter, Falmouth and Gloucester (many of the dock scenes). The last series was filmed in Pembroke Dock, Wales, where the 18th Century naval dockyard and surrounding streets became Liverpool, and various coastal locations in the Pembrokeshire area substituted for Turkey and Portugal.

Series Breakdown

  • Drama Playhouse - The Onedin Line: 7th December 1970 (1 50 min episode)
  • Series 1: 15th October 1971 to 28th January 1972 (15 50 min episodes)
  • Series 2: 17th September to 31st December 1972 (14 50 min episodes)
  • Series 3: 21st October 1973 to 27th January 1974 (13 50 min episodes)
  • Series 4: 25th April to 27th June 1976 (10 50 min episodes)
  • Series 5: 26th June to 28th August 1977 (10 50 min episodes)
  • Series 6: 18th July to 17th September 1978 (10 50 min episodes)
  • Series 7: 22nd July to 23rd September 1979 (10 50 min episodes)
  • Series 8: 31st August to 26th October 1980 (9 50 min episodes)


The series made the careers of Peter Gilmore, who played James, and Anne Stallybrass, who played Anne, and Howard Lang who played Captain William Baines, as well as being an important break for Jill Gascoine (Letty), Warren Clarke (Josiah Beaumont), Kate Nelligan (Leonora Biddulph) and Jane Seymour (Emma Callon). Other cast members included Jessica Benton (Elizabeth Frazer), Brian Rawlinson and James Garbutt (Robert Onedin), Mary Webster,(Sarah Onedin), Michael Billington / Tom Adams (Daniel Fogarty), Philip Bond (Albert Frazer), Edward Chapman (Thomas Callon), James Warwick (Edmund Callon), John Phillips (Jack Frazer), Caroline Harris (Caroline Maudslay), James Hayter (Captain Joshua Webster), Ken Hutchison (Matt Harvey), Laura Hartong (Charlotte Onedin), Marc Harrison (William Frazer), Christopher Douglas (Samuel Onedin), Roberta Iger (Margarita Onedin), Jenny Twigge (Caroline Onedin), Cyril Shaps (Braganza), Hilda Braid (Miss Simmonds), David Garfield (Samuel Plimsoll), Robert James (Rowland Biddulph), Sylvia Coleridge (Mrs Salt), Sonia Dresdel (Lady Lazenby), Nicolette Roeg (Ada Gamble), John Rapley (Dunwoody), Stephanie Bidmead (Mrs Darling), John Sharp (Uncle Percy Spendilow), Heather Canning (Mrs Arkwright), Keith Jayne (Tom Arnold), Frederick Jaeger (Max van der Rheede), Edward Judd (Manuel Ortega), Elizabeth Chambers (Miss Gladstone) and Jack Watson (Dr Darling).


Among the historic ships and boats featured in the series was the steam pinnace 'Hero', then owned and lent by John Player & Sons,[3][4] and the following tall ships:


There are six novels based on the series. The first five, The Shipmaster (1972), The Iron Ships (1974), The High Seas (1975), The Trade Winds (1977) and The White Ships (1979) are all by the creator of the series, Cyril Abraham. The books are not straightforward novelisations of the television episodes, since the author introduced additional material and also changed a number of details, though dialogue from the series that Abraham had penned himself is utilised. In print, Elizabeth's child is conceived in a private room above a restaurant, not on the Charlotte Rhodes; George Callon lasted considerably longer and died in bed after suffering a stroke, not in a warehouse fire; Emma was Callon's daughter, not his niece; Captain Webster remarried, his new partner being the irrepressible old crone Widow Malloy, an entertaining character with a repertoire of coarse remarks; Albert did not abscond to Patagonia but died aboard ship following his involvement in retrieving a kidnapped Elizabeth from Daniel Fogarty; Caroline Maudslay and Matt Harvey were omitted altogether (though Matt did appear in a short story - see below); Jack Frazer's life was extended and he lived to see both Emma's death and Daniel's return from Australia, though his television discovery that William was not his grandson never took place.

The sixth novel, The Turning Tide (1980), was written by Bruce Stewart. This deviated even more from the television series and probably from Cyril Abraham's intentions as well. Letty was depicted as a jealous harpy aiming unpleasant remarks at Charlotte; Elizabeth and Daniel ended up emigrating to Australia permanently and James became the owner of the Frazer Line. The book is, nonetheless, an entertaining read with a moving final speech from James.

A series of Onedin short stories by Cyril Abraham, set between Series Two and Series Three, appeared in Woman magazine in 1973. The plots involved Robert's encounter with the attractive Amelia, a social gathering that revolves around the naming of the first Onedin steamship and an appearance by Sarah's destitute sister Constance, who is on the streets. A later tale by Abraham, For Love of the Onedins, appeared in a short-lived magazine called tvlife. This story, covering Leonora Biddulph's wedding, occurs between Series Three and Series Four and features Matt Harvey, who was Elizabeth's love interest during the fourth series. There is a slanging match between Elizabeth and Sarah, who each disparage the circumstances of the other's wedding day until Leonora intervenes to restore peace.

Cyril Abraham had planned to write a whole series of novels that would follow the fortunes of the Onedin Line into the twentieth century, but he died in 1979 after completing The White Ships. The only clue as to where the story might ultimately have led is that Abraham saw James and Elizabeth as eventually becoming two wizened old autocrats, both determined not to relinquish their hold on the shipping business.

Additional books

Peter Graham Scott's autobiography British Television: An Insider's Story (McFarland & Company, 2000) includes a full (25 page) chapter on the setting up of the series and his time as producer (and occasional director/writer) on the first 42 episodes, along with 6 behind the scenes B&W photos.


Originally screened as a one-off BBC Drama Playhouse production transmitted on the 7 December 1970, it was announced in September 2010 that the recording - previously lost - was discovered in the American Library of Congress. The story and the cast were basically the same (with the exception of Sheila Allen, who played Anne Webster/Onedin; Anne Stallybrass took over the part for the series.

The series was originally aired in the UK by the BBC, from 15 October 1971 to 26 October 1980. In the Netherlands, broadcasts started in 1972. In the mid 80's, the BBC reran the series in a daytime slot. In 2007, MAX restarted a broadcast of the first series, with one episode every workday (Monday through Friday), starting 10 July 2007. As of mid-August, it is uncertain whether they will also show the other series.

The UK digital channel Yesterday is running the whole series from 27 July 2010, starting 4 PM (Monday through Friday) and repeated at 7 PM, also showing an hour later on Yesterday +1. As with many of the vintage series run by the channel, the episodes are slightly cut, from the c.50m length standard in the 1970s to the c.46m standard on Yesterday.

Home video and DVD releases

Home video versions of the series have been made available in various versions over the years. For series one, edited versions were made available by BBC Video on VHS in the 1990s. These edited masters saw a re-release in the UK on DVD from Universal Playback in 2003. The Australian (from ABC) and Dutch (from Memphis Belle) DVD versions of series one also derive from these edited versions. In North America, Canadian company BFS Video released the first four episodes uncut on VHS in 2001, with these and the next four episodes arriving on DVD in two double-disc sets two years later.

It would not be until 2007 that all 15 episodes of the first series became available uncut on DVD, in the UK from 2 entertain in a four-disc set.

Series two follows a similar pattern, with edited versions arriving on VHS and DVD in the UK from the same companies listed above. The version from Holland is sourced from the same masters. The Australian version, however, has all 14 episodes uncut on four discs, and was released in 2008.

Series three to eight are available on DVD from Memphis Belle in Holland, and all are uncut. All series are also available in Germany.

Series three was released through ABC in Australia in 2010 (four-disc set) and series four in 2011 (three-disc set).

In summary, the first five series in their uncut and unedited format are only available for home viewing in the form of the 2 entertain series one set, the ABC series four sets and the Dutch sets for series three to five.

Episode list

  • see main article: Onedin Line episode list

External links


  1. ^ Jeff Evans The Penguin TV Companion, London: Penguin, 2006, p.624
  2. ^ "Things to Do | Indoor | Outdoor | Dartmouth Museum". Dartmouth Museum. Retrieved 10 August 2011. "Bayards Cove was used in the BBC period drama The Ondedin Line, to represent the wharves and buildings of Liverpool Docks." 
  3. ^ Series 2, episode 1 credits
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Tall Ship Soren Larsen Sailing adventure for all ages". Retrieved 2008-11-06. 

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