The Blue Funnel Line

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"P" Boats

SS Peleus; 10,093 tons, L 489 feet, 18 knots.

The Blue Funnel motor vessels "A" class, was part of a major post war re-building program that shipping companies partook in, during the first five years after hostilities ended in 1945. Being motor vessels, they were cheaper by comparison to steam turbine, but on the other hand they were much slower. The four "P" boats that were introduced, starting with the Peleus in 1949, was also part of the post war frenzy, but far more strategy was involved in their conception. Blue Funnel had prided themselves in their supremacy of the U.K. to Far East trade. And they needed a class of ships that could keep their fleet at the top. Four vessels would be required for the run, so that a monthly sailing schedule from the U.K. could be maintained. Cammell Laird, Birkenhead, would build the Peleus and Pyrrhus, with Perseus and Patroclus completed at Vickers on the Tyne. Steam turbine was the only option for these ships, with a service speed of 18 knots, and a reliability that motor vessels could only dream of, the "P" boats were a perfect answer to Alfred Holt's prayers. For example, in the three round the world trips that I did on the Perseus, not once did we stop through engine problems.

When new, they carried up to 35 passengers, and as you can see in most of these photographs, they initially had six lifeboats, but by the mid sixties, and its ever increasing availability of air travel, the number that they carried dwindled, and passengers were eventually dropped altogether. On my first trip on the Perseus in 1969, we had a retired Commodore of H.M.S. Conway, and his wife with us for the whole trip, but they were the only passengers that I ever saw on any Blue Funnel cargo vessel.

The quartet plied their trade for years without fuss. Peleus being the most popular of the four, because of their tight schedule, she was always home over the Christmas period. In November 1964 the Pyrrhus had a rather nasty fire on her in the Gladstone Dock Liverpool. And if it wasn't for the expertise and bravery of the Liverpool Fire Brigade, it would have been much worse. During the twelve long hours it took to get the inferno under control, she had to be evacuated twice incase she capsized, because of the sheer volume of water that was pumped into her. But on the whole these vessels enjoyed a comparatively incident free career with the fleet.

In 1967 following the closure of the Suez canal after the six day war, Blue Funnel found themselves in a bit of a pickle. As I mentioned earlier, these four ships were introduced so that the company could have a fast monthly sailing from the U.K. to the Far East, but now with the canal closed, ships had to face the arduous journey around South Africa and it's infamous Cape, and also add weeks on to their trips to boot, and a four vessel timetable would have been impossible to keep. But true to form, someone in the company came up with a simple but clever solution, they would sail west instead. Every month, one would sail from Birkenhead, bunker at Curacao, then through the Panama canal for Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo in Ceylon, bunker at either Durban or Cape Town, and still be back in Liverpool in just over three months. And this is what they did, more or less, up until they went to the breaker's.

In the late 1960's the world shipping industry was heading rapidly for it's biggest revolution since the sail. We in the industry at the time should have seen it coming, well I didn't anyway, and I can't remember anyone mentioning it to me then either. Containerisation was to change our way of life for ever, and the speed of it was breathtaking. If you look at the tonnage figures from 1970 to 1975, the thirty plus year old statistics would even make your average accountant blush. Whole shipping companies simply diapered over night, some amalgamated to try and stay with the flow, others like Blue Funnel and P&O were getting on the container boat "Band Wagon", and disposing of vessels almost daily. To add to this relentless flurry, oil prices went through the roof, with Middle Eastern instability. The steam turbine, gas guzzling "P" and "H" boats, which only a couple of years earlier were the pride and backbone of the fleet, were now looked upon in the Blue Funnel boardroom, as a wheel-less orange Austin Allegro, up on bricks outside Buckingham Palace. In 1972 all eight of them were disposed of within weeks of each other, as well as several "A" and "D" boats. But unlike the motor vessels the steam turbines went straight to the breaker's, as no one could afford, or want to run them.  

By the end of 1972, four  OCL (Overseas Containers Ltd) 59,000 ton container vessels. Owned by Ocean Steam Ship Co. The "Liverpool Bay", "Kowloon Bay" "Cardigan Bay" and "Tokyo Bay" (pictured), had taken over the run from the U.K. to the Far East. These four 950 foot long, 27 knot giants, could do the work of over thirty conventional cargo ships. And to add insult to injury, these new "Box Boats" only had a handful of a crew on them, so consequently, throughout the industry, thousands upon thousands of seafarers were thrown out of work. By 1973, 50% of the Far East cargo trade was containers, and by 1978 this had risen to a staggering 90%.

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Timetable for 1959

Vessel Japan Hong Kong Manila Malaya* Colombo Port Said Liverpool Dublin Glasgow
Patroclus Aug 2nd Aug 6th July 12th Aug 17th Aug 22nd Sep 1st Sep 9th Sep 14th Sep 17th
Perseus Sep 2nd Sep 6th   Sep 17th Sep 21st Sep 30th Oct 8th   Oct 16th
Pyrrhus Oct 2nd Oct 6th Sep 11th Oct 17th Oct 21st Oct 30th Nov 7th   Nov 15th
Peleus Nov 2nd Nov 6th   Nov 17th Nov 21st Nov 30th Dec 8th**   Dec 16th

*Probably, Port Swetenham for Rubber and Latex.

**Notice that the boys on the Peleus were home for Crimbo!!!

 

"P" Boats

Built                          In the Blue Funnel Fleet Tonnage
Patroclus 1950 Re-named Philoctetes late 1972, for her last voyage. Scrapped in 1973. 10,109
Peleus 1949 Scrapped in 1972. 10,093
Perseus* 1950 Scrapped in early 1973. 10,109
Pyrrhus 1949 Scrapped in 1972. 10,093

 

*In December 1972 and January 1973, there were two vessel named Perseus in the fleet. The Glen Line Super "P" boat Radnorshire, came over to the Blue Funnel Line, in late 1972, while this old girl was on her way to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, to be Torched.

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End of an Era

In July 1972 I joined the Pyrrhus at Liverpool, we sailed for Sluiskil in Holland, a small port up one of the countries many canals, there we loaded a full cargo of bagged fertiliser for Sumatra and Java. As you can see I left her on the 25th. The next day Pyrrhus sailed from Europe to the Far East for the very last time, after discharging her cargo at various Indonesian ports, she went to the breaker's yards of Kaohsiung Taiwan. She was to be the last Blue Funnel vessel that I sailed on.

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Many thanks to;

Mr Gwyn Jones, for the 1959 Timetable.

Capt Neville Lester, Capt Gwilym Owen and Mr R Williams, for the photographs.

 

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