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The Orient Line's beginnings can be traced back to the formation of a shipbroking company by James Thomson and Co in 1797. The firm went on to be shipowners, mainly operating sailing ships to Australia.
The company was operating a small fleet of sailing ships by the early 19th century, and by the middle of the century they were sailing on routes all over the world.
By 1863 the company had been restyled Anderson, Thompson and Co of Biliter Court.  with the addition of James Anderson and his nephew James G K Anderson as partners.
1866 The inauguration of a liner service to Australia with the packet Orient saw the company trade as The Orient Line of Packets, regularly shortened to Orient Line.
1869 The Andersons set up in business as Anderson, Anderson and Co when the last of the Thomsons retired in 1869. Other members of the Anderson family joined in 1870. James Thomson and Co continued with the rest of the business.
1874 Chartered a steamship from Frederick Green and Co. The first steam voyage to Port Phillip, via the Cape, was successful. The two firms decided to establish a regular steamship service on the route.
Pacific Steam Navigation Co had over-expanded during the period 1869/74 on its South American service and, as a result, had 11 passenger ships laid-up in Liverpool.
1877 Anderson, Anderson and Co and F. Green and Co entered into a profit sharing agreement with Pacific Steam Navigation Co, with a purchase option, covering 4 passenger ships. The new service was a success
1878 Orient Steam Navigation Co was formed to buy the Pacific Steam Navigation Co ships. The major shareholders in Orient were the Andersons, Green and Pacific Steam Navigation Co. Having a monopoly of the direct route to Australia (outbound via the Cape and homeward via Suez) enabled them to make a profit even without a mail contracts.
1879 P & O announced a fortnightly service to Australia. Orient responded with its first new ship Orient (the largest passenger ship in the world at that time) as well as 4 more Pacific Steam Navigation Co ships, beating P & O into service.
1883 Gained their first New South Wales mail contract. This required all sailings to be via Suez. To avoid disputes at the P & O coaling facility in Aden, Orient established its own coaling station on Diego Garcia.
1888 a new joint Orient-P & O mail contract was awarded, which called for complete co-operation between the two companies.
1898 The joint contract was renewed. Each company had a vessel sailing from England to Australia every two weeks, resulting in a weekly service of fast mail ships.
1900 The company was reconstructed under the same title and the present company was registered 1 August. 
Royal Mail bid for the 1908 Mail Contract renewal but the contract was again renewed jointly with Orient and P & O, enabling Orient to finance the construction of 6 splendid 12,000 grt liners.
Rapid expansion of the Orient Line, with a succession of larger ships being built. All had names starting with 'O', such as Otway, Osterley, Orsova, Otranto and Orvieto — a quintet of 12,000-ton ships entering into service in 1909.
1909 Royal Mail Steam Packet Co, having acquired Pacific Steam Navigation, sought to control Orient; when this was resisted, Royal Mail served notice to withdraw its 4 ships from the joint service.
WWI All of the company's ships were commandeered for war service, with inevitable losses. Those that survived returned to the England-Australia service in 1919.
For many years Sir Kenneth Anderson and Sir Frederick Green (1845–1927) alternated annually as Orient Line chairman, until the Greens sold out their interests to Lord Inchcape when P&O acquired a controlling interest in the Orient S. N. Co in 1919.
1919 A new firm, Anderson, Green and Co Ltd., then managed the Orient Line on its new owner’s behalf until the subsidiary was formally absorbed into its senior partner in 1960.
1920 The Orient Line fleet was upgraded following the war with the purchase of second-hand former German vessels from the British Government, made available through war reparations. They included the SS Zeppelin which Orient bought in 1920, refitted and renamed SS Ormuz, which ran between Great Britain and Australia from 1921 until 1927.
More new ships were acquired in the second half of the 1920s, most built at Vickers-Armstrongs in Barrow-in-Furness.
The company managed to trade through the depression and returned to profitability and new ship building in the mid-1930s. The company engaged a New Zealand-born marine architect, Brian O'Rorke, to design the Orion and Orcades, which became the focus of great interest from the British design fraternity.
WWII Again Orient Line ships were requisitioned, with all eight seeing service. Four were lost, with the other four returning to the England-Australia mail service in 1947. It took a number of years for the company's fleet to be returned to full strength due to the slow industrial recovery after the war.
Three new ships of 28,000–29,000 tons entered service between 1948 and 1954: the Oronsay, Orcades and Orsova. All had increased speeds that allowed them to reduce the sailing time from England to Australia by eight days to 28 days. However, the 1950s also saw air travel beginning to eat into shipping companies' passenger trade. Ships were increasingly diverted to cruising for part of the year, and the Oronsay began a trans-Pacific service in 1954. Despite this downturn in liner traffic, both P&O and Orient Line ordered new, larger vessels — the Canberra for the former, the Oriana for the latter. These ships were the largest and fastest ever for the England–Australia route, with the Oriana reducing the voyage time from 28 days to 21 days due to her top speed of 30 knots. The career as passenger liners for both ships was short-lived though, with full-time cruising undertaken from 1974 onwards.
The Oriana was the last ship ordered for the Orient Line, and the last one to fly the Orient Line flag.
1960 P&O and Orient Line were formally merged to form P&O-Orient Lines.
1960 Anderson, Green and Co Ltd became a shipbroking firm until renamed Anderson Hughes following further rationalisation in 1975.
In 1964 the Orient Line colour scheme of corn-cream coloured hulls was dropped in favour of P&O's white livery, and Orcades and Oronsay transferred to the P&O fleet. The name Orient Line was dropped altogether in 1966 when Orsova and Oriana were also transferred to the P&O fleet. Symbolically, the last, largest and fastest ship of the Orient Line, the Oriana, wore the Orient Line flag for her final voyage prior to retirement in March 1986. The Oriana managed to survive another nineteen years after retiring and being sold, a career as a floating tourist attraction ending in 2005 with her being scrapped. The memory of this ship and the Orient Line lives on with a P&O cruise ship named Oriana launched in 1995.