Introduction to the P&O 'M' Class

M Class

P&O and Mail Services

From Tudor times until 1823, the British Post Office Packet Service used small, fast, lightly armed ships to carry state papers to overseas destinations on a regular schedule. From 1823 this service became the responsibility of the Admiralty. During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the packet ships were targets for privateers and warships seeking prize money. Although some were captured, others managed to fight back. Originally mail vessels were sailing ships but steam vessels began to be introduced around 1830; at around the same time The Admiralty decided to privatise the service.

The Peninsular Mail Service

In 1834 The Admiralty issued an invitation to tender for the UK/Peninsular (Spain and Portugal) mail delivery. The Peninsular Steam Navigation Company, forerunner of P&O, was founded in that year and put in a successful bid and started running the service in 1837. Paddle steamer Tagus was one of the first to be deployed on this route; she also had sails as did most of the earlier steamers travelling deep sea routes.

Paddle steamer Tagus [7]

Ships carrying mail used the prefix RMS (Royal Mail Ship). The RMS marking was seen as a mark of quality and gave the owners of these ships a competitive advantage. Passengers could also rely on punctuality of the RMS ships because the contracts imposed penalties if mail was not delivered on time.

The Alexandria Mail Service

In 1839 the company successfully tendered for a service from Falmouth to Alexandria via Gibraltar and Malta and this service started in 1840. The company was granted a Royal Charter in the same year becoming the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company with 'limited liability' status.

One of the paddle steamers purchased by P&O for this service was the Great Liverpool which was unfortunately lost in 1846. The vessel, originally named Liverpool, struck a reef off Cape Finisterre on 24 February 1846 whilst en route from Alexandria to Southampton. She was refloated but was badly damaged beneath the waterline and after a while the engines were swamped and stopped working. The vessel drifted and beached near Corcubion in Spain. Although everyone got into boats and the mail was saved, two women and a child drowned getting ashore. The wreck was looted by locals with little effort made by Spanish officials to help. The Captain was consumed with guilt and committed suicide by cutting his own throat a few days later.

Great Liverpool
Paddle steamer Great Liverpool [8]

The importance of the Alexandria service to P&O was that passengers going to India and beyond would be able to follow P&O's 'Egypt' steamship-based service along with the mail as an alternative to the East India Company's 'Cape' route using sailing ships. Before the building of the Suez Canal the route was quite arduous as you will see.

Drawing of Alexandria in 1845 [5]

James Barber, writing 10 years after the service started in his book 'The Overland Guide-book' of 1850 [ 5], gives a great deal of information about what a traveller to India by this route could expect:

The carpet-bag, containing the traveller's necessaries for three days in Egypt, he should keep charge of, and take to the hotel on arrival in the omnibus, or, if he ride, make the donkey-boy carry it with him, and the same on leaving the hotel for the boat. The other luggage he must leave, after seeing it on the steamer's deck, to be landed and transported in the luggage-lighter alongside, in charge of the transit-clerk, to whom he should hand a list of the same. These he will, perhaps, hear or see nothing of until he reaches Cairo, where they are exposed, before dispatched to Suez, for recognition, in the British Hotel yard. It is understood that the passenger sees to his carpet-bag, on changing boats at Atfeh and on arrival at Cairo, where it is given up and sent on camels, with the other luggage, after he has taken out the necessary articles for use in crossing the desert, which are expected not to exceed five pounds' weight to each passenger in the carriage.

Landing at Alexandria, the passenger will find three good hotels, situated in the grand square, about two miles from Mahoram Bey's, that part of the Mahmoudie canal where the passengers embark on board commodious boats, to be towed up to Atfeh (a distance of forty-eight miles) by powerful steam-tugs. The names of the hotels are "Hotel de l'Europe," "d'Orient" and "de Suisse." The rates of charges at all are piastres forty, or 8s. per diem, for board and lodging, exclusive of wines, beer and spirits. Those who prefer living a la Francaise, will give a preference to the Hotel d'Orient. At the other hotels the style of entertainment is more English.

Mahmoudieh Canal
Through the Mahmoudieh Canal with steam tug [4]

For the next part of the voyage, passengers and luggage were put on a steamer on the Nile as far as Bulaq (then called Boulac) which at the time was the port area of Cairo. In the 1840s this stage of the journey took about fifteen to twenty hours.

Paddle steamer at Bulaq [5]

The ordeal of the passengers was far from over as the next stage of the voyage was overland for 84 miles from Cairo to Suez along desert 'roads' - either in horse-drawn vehicles holding 6 people each, or on horseback or a donkey. There were seven resting/horse changing stops on the way and this stage of the journey took about twenty hours. Barber [5] describes the 'station houses' in the extract below. Baggage meanwhile was carried along the same route but on dromedaries.

The distance (ordinarily accomplished in about twenty hours, including stoppages) from Cairo to Suez is eighty four miles, and along the route through the desert there are seven station-houses. These station-houses are numbered from 1 to 7, and contain the following accommodation:

No. 1. Nine miles from Cairo, stabling and a resting-room.

No. 2. Twenty miles from Cairo, contains two public rooms (one for ladies, and the other for gentlemen), two private rooms, and a servants' room.

No. 3. Thirty miles from Cairo, stabling for relays of horses, with one resting-room.

No. 4. Forty-one miles from Cairo, the centre station, contains a large saloon, a ladies' room, servants' room, kitchen, a number of commodious bed-chambers, large water-tank, stabling, &c. Here, also, will be found, liberally provided, those "creature comforts," which so essentially cheer and sustain the traveller on his way. Ladies, however, would do well to take in their basket, on leaving the steamer, a bottle of good water.

No. 5. Thirty miles from Suez, stabling and a resting room.

No. 6. Twenty miles from Suez, two public rooms, private rooms, and servants' rooms. The same as No. 2.

No. 7. Nine miles from Suez, stabling and resting-room.
Desert Carriage
A 'Desert Carriage' [5]
Central Station
The Central Station en route from Cairo to Suez [4]

In 1859 the journey between Alexandria and Suez was greatly improved by the construction of a railway which cut that part of the journey to 8 hours but an overland route had to be used until the Suez Canal opened in 1869.

At Suez passengers and baggage would be put on another steamer for the remainder of the journey to India and beyond.

Beyond Egypt

The governance of the expanding British Empire required people, mail and goods to be sent between the UK and countries throughout the Empire. In the following decades, P&O added to their mail contracts as follows:

  • 1844: Extended to Ceylon, Madras and Calcutta
  • 1845: Extended from Ceylon to Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong
  • 1849: Extended to Shanghai
  • 1852: Singapore service extended to Australia
  • 1854: Bombay service taken over from the East India Company

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 resulted in upheaval for P&O as the infrastructure they had put in place to support the overland route suddenly became obsolete and competitors could enter the field. The new Assistant Manager Thomas Sutherland, who would become Chairman in 1880, oversaw reconstruction of the company and its vessels.

Another innovation that affected P&O (and other shipping companies) at around the same time was the invention of the telegraph. This led to the establishment of the 'tramp' trade; anyone wanting goods moved rapidly could organise shipments by telegraph rather than having to rely on 'liner' services that followed strict timetables. A tramp steamer could be rapidly directed to wherever it was needed providing a new way of doing business and creating competition for companies like P&O.

The engines of paddle steamers were very inefficient and by the time P&O started operating mail services were mostly of the 'side lever' type. This was a development of the land-based 'beam engine' where a beam transmitted the power between the cylinder(s) and the crank operating the paddles. Starting and controlling these early engines was very labour intensive and potentially dangerous work.

Side lever engine
A side-lever engine from around 1860 [9]

The next generation of vessels had more efficient compound engines and most traces of the older designs including sails, figureheads and bowsprits were gone. One of the biggest problems for P&O was the logistics of getting coal to the various places en route so the ships could bunker. Compound engines, improved boilers and propellor propulsion led to far less coal being needed but P&O still depended on colliers to make sure coal was available at the various bunkering points.

By 1890 P&O routes were worldwide as can be seen on the map below:

Routes 1890
P&O Routes in 1890 [6] Click image for enlarged view in new window

The next big change in P&O ship construction was to equip them with twin engines and propellors to increase reliability. The first of these was a cargo liner Candia completed in 1896 by Caird & Co. of Greenock. Several more twin-engined vessels would be delivered by the end of the 19th Century by various shipbuilders but Caird & Co would go on to build half of the 'M Class' liners of the 20th Century with which we are concerned on these pages.

Comparison of 'M Class' Vessels

The table below compares the class members

Name Year 1st Class Pass. 2nd Class Pass. Total Pass. Cargo Knots GRT Builder
Moldavia 1903 350 160 510 89,995 cubic feet 16.5 9500 Caird & Co Ltd
Mongolia 1903 348 166 514 206,794 cub. 74,281 insulated 16.5 9505 Caird & Co Ltd
Marmora 1903 377 187 564 233,320 Cu. Ft. inc 84,205 insulated 17 10509 Harland & Wolff
Macedonia 1904 367 187 554 196,580 cubic feet) 18 10512 Harland & Wolff
Mooltan 1905 348 166 514 192,800 Cub. Ft. inc. 68,478 refrigerated 18 9621 Caird & Co
Morea 1908 407 200 607 N/K 16 10890 Barclay Curle & Co
Malwa 1908 400 200 600 203,041 Cu. Ft. inc 85,964 refrigerated 18 10883 Caird & Co
Mantua 1909 400 200 600 202,896 Cu. Ft inc 81,171 insulated 16.5 10885 Caird & Co
Maloja 1911 458 218 676 224,576 Cu. Ft inc 102,826 insulated 19 12431 Harland & Wolff
Medina 1911 450 220 670 N/K 16.5 12350 Caird & Co


This bar chart compares the number of passengers carried by each vessel. It is interesting to note that there was more 1st Class than 2nd Class passenger accommodation across the entire class and that, even though there was a gradual increase in the total passenger-carrying capacity, the ratio of 1st to 2nd class accommodation remained much the same.

Passenger-carrying capacity of 'M Class' vessels [3]


This bar chart compares the net tonnage of each vessel. 'Net Tonnage' is a calculation based on the volume of the cargo spaces of a ship and so indicates the cargo-carrying capacity. By contrast the 'Gross Tonnage' is a calculation based on the entire enclosed space within a ship including passenger accommodation, engine rooms etc. and does not show cargo-carrying capacity.

Net Tonnage
Net Tonnage of 'M Class' vessels [3]

Impact of WW1

No less than six of the ten 'M Class' vessels were lost during WW1.

  • Moldavia: Served as an Armed Merchant Cruiser from 1915. Torpedoed and sank in 1918.
  • Mongolia: Remained on passenger services during the war. Sunk after hitting a mine in 1917.
  • Marmora: Served as an Armed Merchant Cruiser from 1914. Torpedoed and sank in 1918.
  • Macedonia: Served as an Armed Merchant Cruiser from 1914. Survived the war and returned to service until broken up in 1931.
  • Mooltan: Remained on passenger services during the war. Torpedoed and sank in 1917.
  • Morea: Served as a troopship in 1915 then returned to merchant service. Requisitioned as an Armed Merchant Cruiser from 1917. Survived the war and returned to service until broken up in 1930.
  • Malwa: Served as a troopship from 1917. Survived the war and returned to service until broken up in 1932.
  • Mantua: Served as an Armed Merchant Cruiser from 1914. Survived the war and returned to service until broken up in 1935.
  • Maloja: Remained on passenger services during the war. Struck a mine and sank in 1916.
  • Medina: Remained on passenger services during the war. Torpedoed and sank in 1917.

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