A Brief History of P&O Cruises


In 1835, Arthur Anderson, one of the founders of P&O, had started a newspaper called the Shetland Journal. Faced with some empty space to fill, he produced an advertisement for an imaginary two-week leisure trip around Shetland, the Faero Islands and Iceland by steamship. In 1844 P&O tried a variation of his idea with a cruise in the Mediterranean which is generally considered to be the beginning of the cruise industry. The company continued offering Mediterranean cruises until interrupted by the Crimean War (1853-1856).

In 1886, the North of Scotland and Orkney and Shetland Company started offering cruises to the Norwegian fjords in SS St. Rognvald at an inclusive cost of £10, and in 1889 Orient Line offered cruises to both Norway and the Mediterranean. In 1904 P&O acquired both companies and expanded this aspect of their business by converting 1881-built passenger ship Rome into a cruise ship and renamed her Vectis.

Lloyds List 31 May 1904 [5]
Vectis - date and location not known [10]

On 15 June 1904 the Evening Post reported on P&O's plans to carry tourists to Norway and Sweden on Vectis. It also noted that shore excursions would be arranged by Messrs. Thomas Cook & Sons.

History History
Cutting from The Evening Post 15 June 1904 [6]

There is an interesting item near the end of this article that says, 'The Australian Commonwealth have refused to renew their mail contracts unless the P. and O. carry white crews in the Australian steamers'. The company responded that '... the Lascars are more reliable, sober, and trustworthy than their white brethren, who are in latter days, too prone to drunkenness and insubordination'.

The Homeward Mail announced a cruise on Vectis to the 'Baltic and Northern capitals' leaving on 10 August 1904. It notes that the vessel has 'saloons, card, recreation, smoking and photographic rooms' and that an experienced surgeon will be on board. Vectis could carry 150 first-class passengers.

The Homeward Mail 11 July 1904. [7]
P&O official postcard of Vectis [8]

Merger with British India Steam Navigation Company

There was a surprise announcement in 1914 that P&O would be merging with the British India Steam Navigation Company. The companies operated largely different routes which complemented one another. The plan was for the companies to operate as separate entities but with common aims and interests. The combined company had 201 steam ships.

Impact of WW1

Cruises ceased sometime during WW1 but I have been unable to confirm the date. Two-thirds of the P&O fleet were requisitioned for war service, and many became troop carriers or 'Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMCs)'. By the end of the war, and rather surprisingly, only 17 of them had been lost.

In December 1918, shortly after the signing of the Armistice, P&O purchased a majority shareholding in the Orient Steam Navigation Company.

Between the Wars


P&O and Orient Line purchased 20 new passenger liners between them during the 1920s and P&O re-started cruises in 1925 with Ranchi's maiden voyage being a cruise to Norway. Incidentally, Ranchi had a much longer working life than Moldavia and was not broken up until 1953.

Ranchi From Allen C. Green image H91-108/2680 [9]

The poster from this period below advertises both Norway and Mediterranean cruises on Ranchi.

Ranchi cruise poster - date not known [15]

Viceroy of India

By 1929 cruises were in full swing and P&O were offering 15 cruises including some on its brand-new Viceroy of India - the fleet's first turbo-electric passenger ship. This vessel was torpedoed in 1942 near Oran in the Mediterranean with the loss of 4 lives.

Viceroy of India in a Norwegian fjord at an unknown date [10]

Viceroy of India could carry 415 1st class and 258 2nd class passengers and was luxuriously fitted out with an 18th Century music room, a dining saloon with blue marbled pillars, an Adam-style reading room, an indoor swimming pool and an ornate 1st class smoking room styled like a Scottish baronial hall.

Viceroy of India postcard [15]

The Great Depression

The Great Depression was a major economic downturn that started in the USA in 1929 and spread around the world. It is hardly surprising that this had a huge impact on cruises, but some people could still afford them - at least for a while.

UK press coverage for P&O cruises seems to have disappeared by 1930 but there were still plenty of advertisements for 'business' sea passages in an age before the availability of affordable flights.

P&O published the poster below to advertise Caribbean cruises planned for the Winter of 1932-33.

Winter Cruises poster 1932-33 [10]

Cruises picked up again as the decade progressed and regular Mediterranean cruises were available by the mid-1930s. In January 1937, P&O was offering cruises in Moldavia leaving Greenock and visiting Bergen, Copenhagen returning to Leith at a price of £9.

Advertisement for cruise to Bergen in The Scotsman 26 January 1937 [11]

On 5 April 1937, the Western Morning News and Daily Gazette ran what may have been the last advertisements for cruises on Moldavia. After her cruise on August 21 1937 she would make a last voyage to Australia, be laid up on her return and scrapped in April 1938.

Advertisement for cruises on Moldavia and Mongolia 5 April 1937 [12]

In January 1938, P&O were advertising cruises to the coast of Dalmatia - then part of Yugoslavia and now Croatia.

P&O advertisement for cruises to Dalmatia from the Mercury and Guardian 7 January 1938 [13]

As late as June 1939 P&O were still advertising cruises. The last on the advertisement below was to Venice, Dalmatia and Egypt and due to depart on 9 September 1939. Given that the UK declared war on Germany on 1 September 1939, and attacks on British ships had started on the same day, it seems very unlikely that this cruise went ahead.

P&O advertisement for cruises from The Tatler 7 June 1939 [14]

Impact of WW2

At the time the UK declared war on Germany, P&O had 21 passenger ships and 15 cargo ships. During the war, 8 of the passenger ships and 11 or the cargo ships were sunk. Many of the surviving passenger ships were used to bring troops home and maintenance had been minimal during the war years so there was a huge backlog of maintenance work to do. All needed refits but there were limited funds and limited capacity, so this took several years to complete. The last ship to be returned to P&O was Strathnaver on 5 January 1950.

P&O Cruises Post WW2

As far as I can see from the literature, P&O did not get back into the cruise business until the company took over Princess Cruises in 1974.

At this point I have to confess that I have absolutely no interest in modern cruise ships and will end the topic here. I recommend that anyone interested in them takes up the story at the Wikipedia entry about Princess Cruises HERE.


The books referenced at [16], [17] and [18] were consulted during the construction of this page.