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The Onedin Line

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Original language(s)

Final episode date
26 October 1980


Country of origin
United Kingdom

First episode date


The Onedin Line httpsimagesnasslimagesamazoncomimagesMM

Peter GilmoreAnne Stallybrass

Opening theme
Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia by Aram Khachaturian


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 and deals with the rise of a shipping line, the Onedin Line, named after its owner James Onedin. Around this, it depicts the lives of his family, most notably his brother and partner Robert, a ship chandler, 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 such matters as international politics, uprisings and the slave trade. Additionally, the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal is mentioned during one series.


Classic BBC drama series set in 19th Century Liverpool, and narrating the changing fortunes of the ambitious Captain James Onedin and his family. The series pilot played in Drama Playhouse - The Onedin Line: 7 December 1970 (1 50 min episode).

Series 1 (1971)

Series 1 played from 15 October 1971 to 28 January 1972 (15 50 min episodes).

Series opens in 1860 Liverpool, as 28 year old Onedin establishes a new shipping company, marrying the owner of a ship to do so. Main characters and story arc are introduced. Narrative unfolds around historically contemporary events, such as a Phylloxera outbreak affecting Portuguese wine, establishing a theme of incorporating real events around the fictitious family drama.

Series 2 (1972)

Series 2 played from 17 September to 31 December 1972 (14 50 min episodes)

Series 3 (1973)

Series 3 played from 21 October 1973 to 27 January 1974 (13 50 min episodes)

Series 4 (1976)

Series 4 played from 25 April to 27 June 1976 (10 50 min episodes)

Series 5 (1977)

Series 5 played from 26 June to 28 August 1977 (10 50 min episodes)

Series 6 (1978)

Series 6 played from 18 July to 17 September 1978 (10 50 min episodes)

Series 7 (1979)

Series 7 played from 22 July to 23 September 1979 (10 50 min episodes)

Series 8 (1980)

Series 8 played from 31 August to 26 October 1980 (9 50 min episodes)


James Onedin (Peter Gilmore), the younger son of Samuel Onedin, a miserly ship chandler, who left his money to eldest son Robert. He was a penniless sea captain with aspirations to greater things and in order to become a ship-owner, he married Anne Webster, who was some years his senior. She was the spinster daughter of Captain Joshua Webster (James Hayter), owner of the topsail schooner Charlotte Rhodes. At first, it was purely a business transaction on Onedin's part; but a warmer relationship gradually developed. On her death, at the end of the second series, James had come to love her. James considered two possible replacement brides: wealthy widow Caroline Maudslay and the young heiress Leonora Biddulph (Kate Nelligan), before settling for his daughter's governess, Letty Gaunt (Jill Gascoine). Tragedy struck in the first year of the marriage when she, unfortunately in James's view, became pregnant. The memories of Anne always remained in his thoughts. 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. He was framed for theft and imprisoned. He was freed when Elizabeth, Baines, and Samuel sought evidence to clear his name. On his release, he took to the sea again with Captain Baines on business to South America that would stabilise his life for the next twenty years, only to find Margarita as a stowaway. On the voyage home, she revealed that she was pregnant and unable, as was Baines as a cargo captain, to deliver the baby, so the cook was left to do the job. A baby son was successfully delivered, with both mother and son well. James named the boy William after Captain Baines.

Anne Webster/Onedin (Anne Stallybrass), entered into the marriage in full recognition that it was a business transaction. She was the conscience of James and, when she could not take his ruthless business nature any more, left him and lived hand to mouth in the Liverpool slums, seriously affecting her health. On her reconciliation with James, she ignored the doctor's warning not to get pregnant, knowing how much James wanted a son and heir, and died giving birth to a daughter, Charlotte.

William Baines (Howard Lang), first mate to James Onedin. Taught by Anne Onedin to read and write, he became a captain and served on all of Onedin's ships. Appalled at Onedin's business dealings and treatment of ship's crew, even though he was prepared to use his own fists to maintain discipline, he left to work for a rival shipping line for a short time but returned to Onedin. Another falling out led Baines to buy his own ship, but a fire broke out destroying the ship and killing Tom, a boy he and James took on first as a cabin boy and then as an indentured lad. Blaming James, he left again and was tricked in the plot to frame James for theft. He then helped to clear James' name. On their last voyage together, James' wife Margarita had a baby son, which was named in Baines' his honour.

Elizabeth Onedin/Frazer/Fogarty (Jessica Benton), James's volatile sister, became pregnant by seafarer Daniel Fogarty (Michael Billington / Tom Adams). To avoid disgrace, she 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 Frazer. The marriage was unhappy and Albert took trips away on business, finally settling in South America where he died. Albert's father died leaving his shipyards and shipping line to Elizabeth for William to inherit on coming of age so the Frazer's name would live on. Daniel Fogarty returned from Australia, where he had amassed a fortune, and married Elizabeth, who he still loved, to help and advise his son, who retained the name Frazer. Elizabeth and Daniel became estranged as their business interests differed and he rose in political circles to become ambassador to Turkey. She refused to go with him and remained to run "Frazers". As time went, on a reconciliation between Elizabeth and Daniel was in the offering as they exchanged letters. Daniel resigned as Ambassador and on his return to Liverpool his ship was in a collision and he was declared missing.

Robert Onedin (Brian Rawlinson/James Garbutt(one series)), James's older brother, took after their father and counted coppers in the family ship chandlers, though he later expanded it into a profitable department store after visiting the United States to see new methods of selling. They had one son, Samuel, who at first 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 his life abruptly came to an end when he choked on a bone at a family dinner.

Sarah Onedin (Mary Webster), wife of Robert was always looking to improve her station in life as her husband status rose. She was upset how her husband's brother James borrowed money from him to further his own ambitions. When her husband died she and her son Samuel ran the business. She was shocked when her son married Charlotte after William got her pregnant. Sarah made attempts to contact Robert through a medium, despite her son Samuel's objections She almost married the fortune-hunting Captain Dampier. She was last heard of as having undertaken a tour of the world.

Letty Gaunt/Onedin (Jill Gascoine), employed as governess to James's daughter Charlotte. She reconciled the two and grew to love James; his feelings repressed by memories of his first wife Anne. Letty started her own business employing, at a fair wage, women whose men were out of work. James, recognizing that she was a force in her own right, softened and they married with his proviso, remembering Anne's death, that they had no children. Letty fell pregnant, as did Charlotte by her cousin William, and James returned from a voyage to discover that, like Anne before, she was having a difficult childbirth. The baby, James's male heir, died. Charlotte had a baby boy, Robert. Letty threw herself into work and built a house for foundlings of prostitutes and destitute women to the disbelief of prominent townsfolk. After some time, diphtheria broke out amongst the children at the home; Letty nursed the children and died from the disease.

The cousins

The cousins were all born within months of each other and Charlotte as a young child moved between Elizabeth Fraser and Sarah Onedin' home, and her aunt Mary's homes.

Charlotte Onedin (Laura Hartong), her mother Anne died when she was born and as a young child felt rejected by her father James as the cause of the death of her mother. Reconciled with her father by Letty her governess who married her father. She fell in love with her cousin William Frazer, but he abandoned her when she became pregnant by him. Instead, she married her other cousin, Samuel Onedin, who initially loved her. She had two children, Robert (by William) and Anne by Samuel. Following William's death, Charlotte and the now successful Samuel were increasingly unhappy and Charlotte ran off with Seth Burgess (Michael Walker), a sea captain who owed money and his ship to James. Her father pursued her and she realized that her sea captain had no feelings for her when Burgess traded the ship for her. She returned to England with her father suffering a serious head injury when hit by a falling block and tackle. Samuel divorced Charlotte, citing her infidelity with Seth Burgess. Charlotte, after staying with her aunt, left to take up a career as an actress and music hall singer "The Lancashire Rose" much to the horror of her father; although alleviated by the money she was earning. When her father was in prison, she returned home to help run the business and had secret meetings with Samuel to discuss their children.

William Frazer (Marc Harrison), the result of a relationship between Elizabeth and Daniel Fogarty. Elizabeth married Albert Frazer before he was born and Albert brought him up as his own son. As a young man, he came under the influence of Josiah Beaumont (Warren Clarke), an ambitious banker. Daniel Fogarty returned to marry Elizabeth and together they thwarted the plans of Beaumont. Denied access to his son by a bitter Samuel and Charlotte. Shortly afterwards, William was killed by a runaway horse and wagon.

Samuel Onedin (Christopher Douglas), son of Robert and Sarah and heir to his father's department store. As a youngster grew up with William and Charlotte and was more interested in the sea and ships. He became a stowaway on one of James's ships. On his father's death began to run the department store with his mother. Always fond of Charlotte he married her when she became pregnant with William's baby. Charlotte never reciprocated his feelings leading to an acrimonious parting after she went off with a sea captain leaving her two children. After a trip to the United States, he returned with a new bride, Caroline. An heiress to a fortune, she immediately put Charlotte in her place by taking full control of the children's upbringing. When Caroline's ambitions for Samuel's election as an MP in Daniel Fogarty's seat failed, she grew colder. Samuel secretly saw Charlotte.

The Charlotte Rhodes

The Charlotte Rhodes is frequently listed as being portrayed by a schooner built in 1900, originally named Kathleen & May;. Whilst there is a strong resemblance the Charlotte Rhodes was a victim of arson in the mid/late 70s in Holland before the end of the series. This first link between the Kathleen & May and the Charlotte Rhodes is not until 2005. 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 Søren Larsen, the Neptune, the Falcon, the Trident, the Osprey, the "Orphia", the "Oberon", the "Osiris", 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).


Series creator Cyril Abraham had originally envisaged The Onedin Line as being about a modern shipping company with its boardroom battles and seagoing adventures, but then he discovered that almost all such companies were run by boards of anonymous executives. However, he noticed that most of these companies had their origins in the 19th century, mostly started by one shrewd and far-sighted individual who, through his own business acumen, built up a shipping line from nothing. Abraham stated that James Onedin was not based on one individual but was rather an amalgamation of several characters. Suggested real-life inspirations include Victorian era shipping line owner James Baines & Co. of Liverpool (a leading character in the series was named 'Captain Baines'), Sir Samuel Cunard and various members of the Allan Line family.

An article in Woman magazine published in July 1973 featured an interview with Cyril Abraham in which 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 programme was recorded in Dartmouth, Devon, 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.

Due to its popularity in Sweden, the series inspired the name for a real-life shipping line in Stockholm, the Ånedin-Linjen, founded in 1973, which until recently operated cruises in the Baltic.


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. 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 and Jean Sibelius's Tapiola, symphonic poem for orchestra.

Traditional music, including folk songs and sea shanties in particular, are heard in abundance throughout the series, including such songs as "The Maid of Amsterdam," "Ruben Ranzo," "South Australia," "Maggie May," "The Sailor's Hornpipe," "Botany Bay," "Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes," "A Hundred Years Ago," "Blow the Man Down," and "On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at".


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

  • Statsraad Lehmkuhl
  • Kathleen and May playing the part of the Charlotte Rhodes
  • Christian Radich
  • Sagres
  • Søren Larsen
  • Danmark
  • Sir Winston Churchill - one early episode
  • Gorch Fock
  • Thorso
  • Nora-av-Ven from Ven, Sweden. An 82 feet long twin-masted topsail schooner built in 1825. Used in Series 1.
  • Actors

    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 Gaunt), 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), Jack Watson (Dr Darling), Paul Lavers (Francis Polter/David Teal) and Maurice Colbourne (Viscount Marston).

    Victoria Thomas is a female child actress, who played Charlotte Onedin in Month of the Albatross, A Clear Conscience and Undercurrent.


    There are six novels based on the series.

    The first five are all by the series creator, Cyril Abraham:

  • The Shipmaster (1972) ISBN 9780426071143
  • The Iron Ships (1974) ISBN 9780426132660
  • The High Seas (1975) ISBN 9780855230456
  • The Trade Winds (1977) ISBN 9780426172673
  • The White Ships (1979) ISBN 9780352304001
  • 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) ISBN 9780352305732, 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.

    A series of Onedin short stories by Cyril Abraham, set between Series Two and Series Three, appeared in Woman magazine in 1973.

    The first one was called For The Love Of A Lady; the final one was entitled The Choice.

    The plots involved:

    two of James' crew who were rivals for the same woman; Robert's encounter with the attractive Amelia;

    a social gathering that revolves around the naming of the first Onedin steamship;

    an appearance by Sarah's destitute sister Constance, who is on the streets;

    the first appearance in James' life of Leonora Biddulph.

    A later tale by Abraham, For Love of the Onedins, appeared in a short-lived magazine called tvlife.

    This story, covering Leonora'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 about the Onedin Line, but he died in 1979 after completing the fifth book, The White Ships.

    The story was eventually to have seen James and Elizabeth as two wizened old autocrats, both determined not to relinquish their hold on the shipping business. James would have died as a very old man, leaving the family divided over control of the company.

    Cyril Abraham had intended the Onedin saga to continue right up to the 1970s.

    Additional books

    In June 1977, "The World of The Onedin Line" by Alison McLeay was published. The hardback book (ISBN 978-0725043850) was a historical and factual look at the world and places in which The Onedin Line was set.

    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 six behind-the-scenes black-and-white photos.


    The pilot was produced by Anthony Coburn and was broadcast as a one-off BBC Drama Playhouse production on 7 December 1970.

    It was announced in September 2010 that a copy of pilot episode was discovered in the American Library of Congress. Until the discovery it was thought that there was no recording of the episode in existence.

    The story and the cast were basically the same as the resulting series with the exception of Sheila Allen playing Anne Webster/Onedin; Anne Stallybrass took over the part for the series.

    The series was originally aired in the United Kingdom by the BBC, from 15 October 1971 to 26 October 1980.

    In the Netherlands, broadcasts started in 1972.

    In the mid '80s, the BBC repeated the series in a daytime slot. From 1992 UK Gold repeated the series in full, ending repeats in 1998, before moving to sister channel UK Gold Classics in October 1998 when that channel was launched, although it was only available on Sky Digital on weekends between 6pm-2am and the showing only lasted around six months.

    In 2000 it reappeared on UK Drama and has been repeated in full on that channel in more recent years.

    In 2007 MAX restarted a broadcast of the first series, with one episode every weekday (Monday through Friday), starting 10 July 2007.

    The UK digital channel Yesterday began running the whole series from 27 July 2010, starting at 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.

    Contribution to Romanian revolution

    The programme was extremely popular in Romania, but following his visit to North Korea the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu opted to replace the programme (and other popular shows) with broadcasts designed to show off the success of his policies. Consequently, the population tuned into foreign stations to follow the series. In 1989 these channels carried news broadcasts of events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, which were absent from Romanian television news. This in turn contributed to the uprising which brought down the Ceaușescu regime.

    Home media

    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 the Netherlands 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 the Netherlands, and all are uncut. All series are also available in Germany.

    Series three and four are available uncut in the UK and Australia.

    In summary, all current DVD editions are uncut apart from the Australian series one and the Dutch series one and two. The earlier edited UK versions of the first two series are still available from a number of sites.


    The Onedin Line Wikipedia

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