P&O in the 1950s

The 22,592grt Saxonia was built in 1954 by John Brown at Clydebank. In 1963 Cunard renamed her Carmania and in 1973 she was sold to Black Sea Shipping and renamed Leonid Sobinov. On 1st October 1999 she arrived at Alang to be broken up. (Nigel Lawrence collection)

Towards the end of my studies at Southampton University for Marine radio and radar qualifications in 1956 there was much talk about who we students should approach for a job if and when we passed our exams. The choice was mostly between the three companies which provided radio officers for most of British shipping companies, Marconi, Siemens and International Marine Radio, but, always wanting to be a bit different, I said I wanted to join P & O, which had its own department for radio officers. Some said I would have no chance, others (especially the lecturers) gave dire warnings of all the loads of bull**** for which P & O was famous, although all admitted they had some nice ships. During our year of study the lecturers had sometimes told us of the nicknames seafarers gave to shipping companies. Shaw Savill and Albion was called Slow Starvation and Agony, etc. So, learning of my choice of P & O, one of the lecturers had great fun informing me that P & O stood for Poverty and Ostentation.

Undaunted, however, in due course I applied to P & O and went for an interview. Entering the imposing office of 122 Leadenhall Street, I ogled at all the large models of big white liners, before I was sent up to the mezzanine floor and to the Electronics Department. The people there, led by Commander Dennis Barnes, ex-RN, were very friendly and encouraging but I had to have a medical and an interview with one of the directors.

The medical wasn’t much of a problem, the main requirement being that I should not be colour-blind (important for anyone connected with electrical wiring and their colour-codes), and the surgeon seemed more interested in telling me about his recent escape (carrying a bottle of whisky) from the Empire Windrush, a New Zealand Shipping Company operated troopship which had gone down on fire in the Mediterranean.

The interview was rather strange, however. I was asked if I knew where the Queen was that day and fortunately I had read the newspaper and knew she was in Malta, so that went down quite well. Then he wanted to know what my main interests were and, feeling I knew what was wanted, I enthused about radio and radar and overseas travel, which did not seem to impress as much as I had hoped and I was then asked if I liked sport. At school I had hated all sports but felt I needed to be positive and said I liked cricket, about which, thankfully, I was not asked to expand upon. There were some other questions which I cannot remember and I was sent back to Mr Barnes.


Mr Barnes regretted that there was no vacancy at the moment but that he would write to me when one arose. If I had been more worldly in those far off days I would have taken that as a sympathetic rejection, but in my youthful optimism I felt I had done quite well and left in good spirits.

I joined International Marine Radio, who sent me to the Cunard liner Saxonia as third radio officer, sailing between Liverpool, Montreal and Quebec, and waited for the call to join P & O. I should have been surprised that after only one and a half round trips aboard the Saxonia I received the letter saying P & O had a vacancy and I could join them when possible, but I had been expecting it. I immediately sent a letter of resignation to IMR from Montreal.

At the end of that voyage, I duly returned to Leadenhall Street, where I was sent to join the Empire Fowey in Southampton as fourth radio officer. Being a troopship, the Fowey was not the typical P & O passenger liner that I had been expecting, nor did I expect to be sent straight off to war when the Suez conflict broke. Southampton was full of troopships at the time which were all being refitted to carry as many troops as possible. It would not have taken a very clever spy to see what was going on. However, after that episode and one routine trooping trip to Hong Kong and back via the Cape, and a couple of month’s dock staff on ships in Tilbury, I was finally sent to my first real P & O liner, the Strathmore, built in 1934, about to set off for Australia in April 1957.

I had learned a lot about P & O procedures during my time aboard the Fowey, and there had been a lot to learn, mostly about things that were ‘done’ and things that were ‘not done’ in daily life aboard and when contacting the company. One of the latter was that all letters sent to anyone in Leadenhall Street had to be addressed to ‘The Managing Directors’, even if it was only of interest to the Electronics Department, also that I would have to end the letter with the words “Your obedient servant” before signing it.

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