Moments In Time: Australia's First Cruise Ship

RMS Strathaird

The atmosphere on the wharf when Strathaird let go the lines on Circular Quay on 23 December, 1932 was filled with gaiety. It was like a big carnival. Normally they were emotion-filled occasions. Family and friends might be parting for months or years on end when their loved ones left on the long sea voyage to Britain. but this occasion was different. This was no time for sadness because Strathaird would be back in just a few days. As she inched slowly away from the berth, the departure of P&O's new gleaming-white ship, RMS Strathaird, heralded the beginning of a new era, though few of the hundreds of people lining the ship's rails or waving from the shore realised the magnitude of the occasion. Strathaird was sailing away for a five-night cruise with just two ports of call - Brisbane and Norfolk Island. It was the beginning of P&O Cruises' first cruise from Australia and was one of the world's first cruises.

Two of the passengers on that first cruise were Isobel Bennett a distinguished marine zoologist, and her sister, Jean. "Christmas Day at sea was just fantastic," she recalls. "There was much celebrating, beginning with a carol service and the highlight was dinner with all the trimmings. Tables were laden with food, the boar's head, the pheasants - it was superb. We had lots of activities during the cruise including deck games, fancy dress ball, dancing every night." Miss Bennett (below as she was in 1935), also clearly remembers the call at Norfolk Island. "The splendid Norfolk Island Pines were still there - later to be cut down for the building of the airstrip. It was a big occasion for the island - they had never before been visited by such a big ship," she says. "Strathaird stood off the port and we were ferried ashore by the ship's lifeboats. We visited the little church built by the Melanesian missionaries, which is still one of the island's attractions."

The cruise had a profound impact on Miss Bennett's life and destiny when she met Professor and Mrs W.J. Dakin onboard. By sheer luck, Professor Dakin, the Chair of Zoology at Sydney University, was in a position to help Miss Bennett into her own distinguished career. "I was out of work because the office of the Royal School of Music in Sydney had been closed as a result of the Depression [and] Professor Dakin offered me some research work at the Mitchell Library." As a result, Miss Bennett went on to become a marine zoologist of note, wrote several books and had a 40-year association with the University of Sydney before her retirement. She describes the turn of events as simply "another romantic story of the sea".

The main attraction of cruising 70 years ago was the experience of being on a big ship. In those days, the only way to enjoy an experience of this kind was to travel from Australia to overseas ports, usually to England via the Suez Canal. As Australia's coastline was serviced by smaller ships, unless they had done the 'big trip overseas', many Australians had never been on an ocean liner before. P&O Cruises changed that on 23 December 1932. Strathaird's Christmas cruise was the exciting beginning of a new type of holiday experience for Australians. Incredibly, the ship was fully booked three days after the cruise was advertised. Encouraged by this eager and positive response, P&O Cruises developed a program of cruising holidays throughout the 1930s to cater to the growing cruising market in Australia.

RMS Strathaird was converted into a troup carrier in World War II.

P&O Cruises' next step was to send representatives all over the South Pacific to ascertain which island ports would be attractive for cruise passengers during the Australian winter months. This led to our ships sailing at full capacity to Fiji, the Solomon Islands, Papua, New Britain and New Caledonia. New Zealand and Tasmania were added to the list of cruise attractions for the spring and summer months. Australians warmed to these cruise holidays with the relaxing days at sea featuring deck sports, movies, 'horse racing' and ballroom dancing (discos were to come much later). An insight into the delicacy with which this expansion of horizons was handled is reflected in a letter which was circulated to passengers on Strathaird during a cruise to Papua in August, 1933.

It conveyed a message from the Lieutenant-Governor of Papua in which he expressed appreciation of such visits by the ship. However, it also carried a warning about the general tendency among adults on the island as well as children to ask "ridiculously exorbitant prices for insignificant services". That included "a native demanding four shillings for the privilege" of taking his photograph and small children "clamouring with outstretched hands for sixpences and shillings". The letter concluded: "The Lieutenant-Governor ventures to suggest that you should call the attention of tourists to the dangers of this thoughtless liberality, and to ask them to join with the Government, the missionaries and the older men among the natives themselves, in helping to keep the character of these people unspoiled by such practices as indicated." Australian cruising by P&O Cruises and the associated Orient Line (which would fully merge with P&O Cruises in 1960) was brought to an abrupt - if temporary - end by the outbreak of World War II.

Ninety-seven-year-old Eris Taylor (December 2002) paid £8 to travel to Norfolk Island 70 years ago on Australia's first pleasure cruise. Her girlfriend Irene came rushing into her Pitt Street dressmaker's shop one morning, telling her she had booked them on a cruise. "I didn't have the money, I was 26 and it was hard to save in those days," she said. "I don't know how I saved it but I did."

It was 23rd December, 1932 and the Harbour Bridge had only just opened as they boarded the P&O liner, RMS Strathaird at Circular Quay. Mrs Taylor, then of Newtown, spent five nights on the cruise, during which she remembers lunching with the administrator of Norfolk Island. She wore a white evening dress to Christmas dinner on board the ship where they ate turkey and pudding and danced through much of the night. There was no alcohol consumed by the young women and they spent most of the time playing games. On the 70th anniversary of the first P&O pleasure cruise, Mrs Taylor, then of Engadine, travelled aboard the Pacific Sky on a 10-day voyage to Vanuatu and New Caledonia with her son, Dowrie, and daughter, Jeanette. Mrs Taylor's recollections of the sea were a little rougher than cruise ships today. A storm hit one night and they were all rushed down to their cabins.

"I didn't like it but I couldn't say whether I was frightened. The waves were beating over the top of us, and I wonder now, whether they would beat over the top of this ship. I don't think so." Mrs Taylor says she was not particularly interested in meeting any men - a common pastime on cruise ships today. "I was already engaged so I didn't bother with all that, I just went on the cruise to see what things were like." The new ship was a "big improvement" on her last adventure, she said, and the dinner on board the cruise, where Mrs Taylor is a commemorative guest, was "all different, all fancy".

Six months after she returned from the first voyage, she married Reginald Taylor, a fitter and turner with the railways. Some years later, the couple would win lotto, acquiring some $5000. "I still have the paper with the ticket on it" she said. "We bought a block of land and went to live in Bankstown and had a lovely cottage there where we bought up our four children." Mrs Taylor said on both her trips she has been paid great attention, and everything has been done to make her happy. "But what really makes me happy is four children and a good husband - which is a secret these days!"
Story: Sydney Morning Herald, December 2002.

Grace Brothers models on a photo shoot on the Strathaird

RMS Strathaird on her maiden voyage, December 1932

RMS Strathaird in Sydney on her frinal voyage, 9th May 1961
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