Book Review: “P&O Before The Cruise Ships (Himalaya To Canberra: The Last Great Liners)”

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Well-known shipping author, cruise journalist and cruise ship lecturer Peter Newall’s “P&O Before The Cruise Ships” is a lavishly illustrated, 99-page tribute to the P&O ships built between 1931 and 1961. These were, of course, the less grand but equally fascinating Blue Water equivalent of the great Atlantic liners, undertaking voyages from the U.K. to Australia and the Far East.

Newall doesn’t just merely assemble the dates and facts (although there are plenty to savor) in this magazine-style book, which is formatted like an edition of Ships Monthly, the book’s publisher. He also offers refreshing insight into the progression of the ships’ design decor and is not shy in sprinkling in learned personal observations, which make it an interesting and compelling read. For instance, he offers that the first pair of STRATHs, the 1931-built STRATHNAVER and STRATHAIRD were a bit “boxy looking” and that the interior decor of the three more graceful ships (STRATHMORE, STRATHEDEN and STRATHALLAN) that followed, paled in comparison with Orient Line’s brilliant ORION and ORCADES, which shared the same basic hull form. He is just as honest and keen in his observations of the ships that followed.

Although the main focus of the book is the Post War fleet, with each ship getting its own chapter, including the STRATHs enables the reader to understand the influence these ships had on the form and flow of the 1949-built HIMALAYA, the 1950-built CHUSAN and the 1954-built ARCADIA and IBERIA. There would be no significant evolution in the design of P&O’s liners until the advent of the engines-aft CANBERRA of 1961, which was a complete departure from all that came before her.

Newall also includes a chapter on the Belgian Congo Liners BADOUINVILLE and JADOTVILLE, which were purchased by P&O in 1961 and renamed CATHAY and CHITRAL for the Far Eastern service. As often as they are overlooked, these twin beauties are unrivaled for external sleekness. The author illustrates them with images from the Newall-Dunn collection in their Compagnie Maritime Belge and P&O prime and a selection of the former CATHAY in her final guise as the run-down Chinese liner SHANGHAI, taken on her last Hong Kong to Shanghai voyage in 1995.

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The author has culled the collections of esteemed outside contributors (Luis Miguel Correia, Stephen Berry, Stephen Moore and Victor Young) for some breathtaking images, including a stunning two page spread of the mechanically troubled IBERIA entering Honolulu in 1967 and equally sigh-inducing views of the beloved ARCADIA, CHUSAN, HIMALAYA and CANBERRA in their prime.

By the 1970s, P&O had entered a catastrophic decline and those magical, crumbling liners with their cluttered teak decking, glowing woods, linoleum, etched glass and polished nickel fittings were withdrawn and sold off for scrap at an alarming rate. Within a few short years, the company would rebound in the cruise market and ultimately get consumed by the Carnival empire. Today, of course, P&O is bigger and stronger than ever with its gargantuan newbuilds (and questionable new livery) but the allure of its Post War era and buff-funneled fleet of “The Biggest Bloomin‘ Ships” will forever resonate. We owe Mr. Newall kudos and a round of applause for bringing them back to life in his splendid “P&O Before The Cruise Ships”.

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P&O Before The Cruise Ships


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