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A Brief History of P&O-Orient Lines

Around The World in the 1950's and 1960's

"The Biggest Bloomin' Ships Sailing The Seven Seas"

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In the 1950's, two of Britain's oldest and biggest passenger shipping companies cooperated to extend their traditional Britain-Suez-Australia-New Zealand routes across the Pacific to the West Coast of North America. The new service was so successful that by the end of the decade, the missing homeward leg through the Panama Canal via Florida and the Caribbean to Britain was in place. Thus both lines had an extensive route network that completely circled the globe.

ss Orcades of P&O-Orient Lines
ORCADES of 1948, first of the post-WWII liners, cut the sailing time from England to Australia from 36 to 26 days. She also made the first Orient Line sailing via the Panama Canal in 1955.

In 1960, these companies merged to create the world's largest ocean-going passenger fleet. P&O (Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company), with 11 liners and the Orient Line with five, became known as P&O - Orient Lines. At the time, jet aircraft were carrying more passengers across the Atlantic than the shipping lines. But it would be 10 years before Boeing's 747 "Jumbo Jet" would win over the busy UK to Australia run.

ss Himalaya of P&O-Orient Lines
HIMALAYA completed the first P&O-Orient voyage from the West Coast of North America directly to the Orient in 1958.

In a three year modernization program, all nine pre-WWII ships were retired. The post-war ships were refitted and completely air-conditioned: P&O's Himalaya, Chusan, Arcadia and Iberia plus the Orient Line's Orcades, Oronsay and Orsova. Each group had similar design and style, and all were between 24,000 and 29,000 tons, completed between 1948 and 1954.

ss Chusan of P&O-Orient Lines
CHUSAN originally served only the UK - Far East route until 1960, when she began calling at Australian & North American ports as well.

At the time of the P&O-Orient merger, each line had under construction, the biggest, fastest and most luxurious liner ever built for a service other than the North Atlantic. Orient Line contributed the 42,000-ton Oriana in 1960. At 27.5 knots, she cut the travel time to Australia to three weeks. P&O designed the flagship, 45,000-ton Canberra of 1961, slightly larger and half-a-knot less speedy.

ss Oriana of P&O-Orient Lines
ORIANA, the fastest liner ever built for the Australia service.

Though not included in this study, the 13,000-ton 240-passenger cargoliners Cathay and Chitral joined the fleet in 1961. They sailed 10-week round voyages between Britain and Japan via Suez until 1970, and were sold in 1975.

This combined fleet of 11 ships soon had the reputation of being the finest outside the North Atlantic service, and P&O ("Orient" was dropped in October 1966) adopted the slogan: "The Biggest Bloomin' Ships Sailing The Seven Seas".

ss Canberra of P&O-Orient Lines
CANBERRA was the largest liner built for a service other than the North Atlantic.

While there were several important factors which ended this romantic form of travel, the 1973/74 oil crisis (when fuel prices soared from $35 to $95 per ton) was the defining event, the final straw. While hundreds of these great liners met their end at the scrapyards, some (including P&O's Canberra & Oriana) were converted into full-time cruise ships.

ss Arcadia of P&O-Orient Lines
ARCADIA spent her last years cruising from the West Coast of North America and finally from Australia to the South Pacific. Finished in 1979, she was the last of the post-World War II liners to be scrapped.

Here we take a closer look at this remarkable era, when fleets of long-distance ocean liners carried passengers from point to point on fixed-route "line voyages". Imagine the year is 1965 when P&O-Orient Lines was at its peak, before the 1967 closing of the Suez Canal and the 1971 introduction of the Boeing 747 in the UK-Australia service.

"We steamed all day westwards towards the Gulf of Aden, passing nothing save a handful of ships, and flying fish by the hundred, and a single island, Minicoy, set in the usual pattern - low lying, with palms circling a pale blue atoll, and fishing boats drawn up on the beach, and a tall lighthouse to ward off mariners..." - Nicholas Monsarrat (aboard Canberra, 1966)

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