Peninsular & Oriental Line Archival Collection


The story of the P. & O. Company may be divided into two eras—the first reaching from its foundation to the opening of the Suez Canal; the second from that date to the present day. During almost the whole of its career, the company has acted as the agent of the British government in the conveyance of its mails, first to Mediterranean ports, and afterward to Egypt, India and the Far East.


Third Class (Steerage) Passage Contract for The Stevens Family of Four sailing on the P. & O. Line SS Commonwealth on 18 August 1921.

SS Commonwealth Passage Contract - 18 August 1921

Third Class/Steerage Passengers' Contract Ticket for The Stevens Family of Four sailing on the P. & O. Line SS Commonwealth from the Port of London to Melbourne, Australia dated 18 August 1921.


Front Cover, P & O RMS Strathmore First Class Passenger List - 24 August 1954.

RMS Strathmore Passenger List - 24 August 1954

First Class Passenger List from the RMS Strathmore of the P & O, Departing 24 August 1954 from London to Sydney via Port Said, Bombay (Mumbai), Colombo, Fremantle, Adelaide, and Melbourne, Commanded by Captain A. G. Jenkins.


History of the P. & O. Line

(Continued from Above)

From time to time the government has made efforts to procure some other means for transmitting its mails, but on every occasion, it has found it advisable to return to the P. & O.

In 1835 Messrs Wiltcox & Anderson, a firm of London merchants, began to run steamers to the principal ports of the Peninsula. Their vessels observed greater regularity than the sailing-ships then employed to carry the mails, and the first mail contract was entered into on the J2nd of August 1837.

This was awarded to them after another company, which was unable to fulfill its obligations, had been engaged for the work. Messrs Willcox & Anderson had shortly before, in concert with Captain Bourne, R.N., founded the Peninsular Company.

This contract arranged for a monthly service between Falmouth and Vigo, Oporto, Lisbon, and Gibraltar. About two years later, another step was taken. Hitherto the mails to Egypt and India had been conveyed by the Peninsular Company to Gibraltar, by an admiralty packet from Gibraltar to Malta, by another admiralty vessel from Malta to Alexandria, and from Egypt to Bombay by one of the East India Company's steamers.

It was resolved to substitute for this unsatisfactory mode of conveyance a direct system of carriage by one line of ships from London to Alexandria. The Peninsular Company again secured the contract, which was put up to public competition, and built two steamers of 1600 tons for the purpose this being a large tonnage for those days.

The annual subsidy was fixed at £34,000, by which the government saved £10,000 of the amount formerly expended on their own inefficient means of transport. The company then, by a charter of incorporation, dated December 1840, assumed the name by which it has ever since been known—The Peninsular & Oriental Company.

The charter was granted only on the problematic condition that steam communication with India should be established within two years.

The first steamer, the " Hindostan," was despatched to India via the Cape of Good Hope on the 26th of September 1842. She was one of a small fleet destined to ply between Calcutta, Madras, Ceylon, Aden, and Suez. It was an adventurous undertaking, for the East India Company promised no definite subsidy, only a small premium on a certain number of voyages.

The apparent advantages of a direct conveyance of mails between Suez and Bombay by a sufficient regular service were becoming evident, and the P. & O. Company offered to effect this at a significant saving on the existing system; but, for some reason or other, the East India Company showed the most considerable reluctance to allow the control of this route to pass out of their hands, in which, in fact, it remained until 1854.

Fortunately for the P. & O. Company, the government decided to establish regular monthly steam communication between England and Ceylon, Madras and Calcutta, and also from Ceylon, eastward to Singapore and Hong-Kong.

Only the P. & O. could at that time have contemplated undertaking such a service. In 1844 the contract was signed, and by it, the company was to receive a subvention of £160,000.

The Indian portion of the service opened on the 1st of January 1845, and during that year the extension to China was effected, and nine new steamers were put on the stocks.

The organization of the overland route was due to the P. & O. Company, which brought it into regular working to convey its passengers from Alexandria to Suez.

It was a picturesque but uncomfortable passage by canal-boat and steamer to Cairo, then by a two-wheeled omnibus for ninety miles across the desert to Suez.

Even the coal for the boats at Suez had to be transported in this fashion, which was cheaper than sending it by sailing vessel around the Cape. The construction of a railway across the isthmus in 1859 greatly simplified the transit.

It may be noted that the company had to establish coaling stations between Suez and the Far East, and also depots of provisions, a business of no less magnitude than that of the steam service itself.

In 1852 the first mail service to Australia was undertaken by the company, and the same contract included an arrangement for a fortnightly service to India and China, though a service running once every two months via Singapore and Sydney was thought sufficient for the requirements of Australia.

The year 1854 saw the abolition of the East India Company's service to Bombay, the P. & O. taking its place. This arrangement saved the country £80,000 per annum.

The Crimean War made high demands on the company's resources for the conveyance of troops, and the Australian service was for a time interrupted. By 1859 the company had all the lines of steam communication between England and the East.

In 1864 the service to Australia was increased to one sailing a month, and in 1868 the Bombay mail left weekly. About the same time, the fourth India and China contract was entered into, and at the end of 1869 the opening of the Suez Canal led to a severe crisis in the company's affairs; and also, after these difficulties had been surmounted, to a complete revolution in its methods.

The opening of the canal led to a prolonged controversy with the post-office, which, with real official perversity, would not allow the company to use the channel for the conveyance of its mails.

A serious falling-off of the company's revenue was the result, as the competition of the canal steamers was killing Its trade. At length in 1874, a new arrangement was made by which the mails were to be carried through the canal, the subsidy granted to the company being at the same time reduced.

Under these conditions, however, it was now able to construct vessels capable of competing successfully with its rivals. A prolonged dispute "between Victoria and New South Wales for a long time prevented the Australian service from being as efficient as it might have been. Sydney insisted on the Pacific route being adopted.

In consequence of this controversy, the Australian headquarters of the company were for some time fixed at Melbourne, and it was not till 1888 that a general contract was entered into with the post-master-general, acting at last for all the Australian colonies ae welt as for the Imperial government.

This stipulated for an accelerated service—India, China, and Australian mails being all worked from Aden in connexion with the steamer which conveyed them from Brindis'u There was for long a service between Venice, Brindisi and Egypt, and a mail contract with the Italian government; but this came to an end during March 1900.

The company's first ship, the " William Fawcett," built in 1820, had a gross tonnage of 206 and 60 h.p. Down to 1851 the vessels of the fleet were all constructed with paddles; after that date the screw took their place, though for the Marseilles to Malta express service particular famous fast paddle- steamers were subsequently built.

A later exciting development was the abandonment of Brindisi as a port of call for the ocean mail steamers, which reverted to Marseilles, whence they run across to Port Said direct.

The mails leaving London every Friday night are despatched from Brindisi in specially designed twin-screw vessels, which land them at Port Said little more than 06 hours after their despatch from London.

On this service, the "Osiris" and "Isis" are employed, and they have the distinction of being the only vessels in the mercantile marine which cross the seas with mails and passengers only.

The company is under contract with the British government for the conveyance of mails to India, China, and Australia, ts services are as follows—India: Brindisi to Bombay, weekly.

China; Brindisi to Shanghai, fortnightly; Australia-Brindisi to Sydney, fortnightly. Apart from the mail services, the company runs independent lines to Malta. Colombo and Calcutta; also between Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, Hong-Kong and Shanghai; and between Hong-Kong, Nagasaki, Hyogo, and Yokohama.

There is likewise a direct fortnightly service of through steamers to China and Japan at special rates. The mails are despatched weekly to Bombay, going one week by direct mail steamer and the next by the fortnightly Australian liner as far as Aden.

A fast twin-screw vessel—the "Salsette" — built after the idea of the "Isis" but of thrice her tonnage—takes the Bombay mails from Aden on the weeks when there is no steamer.

For the Indian and Australian mail services a new type of liner known as the "M" class has been, provided. There are already no less than ten such vessels, all twin-screws of similar design, commencing with the"Moldavia," built 1903, of 9500 tons and 14,000 i.h.p. and running up to 12,500 tons and 15,000 i.h.p. in the " Maloja " and " Medina."

In 1910 a new service was acquired, the Blue Anchor fleet of Mr. Wilhelm Lund being purchased. This gave the company an entry into the South African trade, the Blue Anchor steamers calling at Cape Town and Durban on their way to Australia, and new and larger vessels are being provided for this branch also of the company's activities.


"Steamship Lines: Pacific Steam Navigation Company," in The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature, and General Information, Volume XXV Shuválov to Subliminal Self, New York: The Encyclopaedia Britannica Company, 1911, p. 857-858.


Return to Top of Page

Peninsular & Oriental Line Collection
GG Archives

Steamship Lines

Ocean Travel Topics A-Z