P&O's ships steamed over thousands of
miles of ocean carrying a significant number
of people all around the globe
P&O Archives at National Maritime Museum
The majority of P&O Archives are on permanent loan to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The collection takes up some 500 metres of shelving and includes records dated from 1837 to the 1990s. Prior to 1971, P&O subsidiary companies operated relatively autonomously and their archives reflect this. Their archives may be filed separately either in the National Maritime Museum's collection or elsewhere. After 1971 most independent subsidiaries were absorbed into the P&O Group records and are therefore included in the P&O Archive. The archives were deposited by the company in several instalments between 1971 and 2008 and are accessible in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Certain exceptions are made particularly where staff records are concerned and where data protection legislation may apply.
The following is a brief guide to the contents of the archive relating to the P&O Steam Navigation Company.
Charter & Incorporation
The National Maritime Museum holds copies of P&O's Royal Charter of Incorporation (P&O/30/25-27, P&O/51/17) and Trust Deeds with supplementary charters 1840 to 1940 (P&O/30/22), while other early records include the Register of Original Proprietors 1840 to 1847 (P&O/24/1); the Proprietors' Ledger 1840 to 1850 (P&O/24/5-8); the numerical register of new and paid-up shareholders, 1849 to 1914; writs of dividend, 1841 to 1956, and quotations of P&O shareholding stock 1898 to 1959.
Records relating to the Board include: the minutes of a committee of the Board of the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company 1840 (P&O/2/1); reports and proceedings of the Nautical Committee of the Board 1849 to 1901 (P&O/3/2-7); the minutes of the Managing Directors' Committee 1868 to 1899 (P&O/3/8-17); of the Management Committee 1872 to 1887 (P&O/3/18); and the minutes of a sub-committee of the Board charged with the search 'for all possible economies' 1875 (P&O/2/6). There are a large number of loose papers relating to business between the main board and various committees 1868 to 1883 (P&O/2 series); the Secretary's agenda (with commentaries) for Board meetings 1921 to 1952 (P&O/1/1-20); the minutes of the 'economy committee' 1928 to 1936 (P&O/2/10-11); an independent financial consultant's report of 1932 on the company, commissioned by the Directors (P&O/36/1-3); and papers of the Finance Committee, 1932 to 1938 (P&O/2/7-8). The printed, twice-yearly, 'Reports from the Directors to the Proprietors' or shareholders are complete, 1840 to 1979 (P&O/6/1-29).
There are also some incomplete series of correspondence, including two letterbooks of the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company 1838 to 1843 (P&O/15/1-2); Egypt letters 1843 to 1868 (P&O/13/1-3); Australia letters 1851 to 1858 (P&O/14/1); Peninsular and Levant letters 1854 to 1857 (P&O/15/4-5); Government letters 1866 to 1893 (P&O/11/1-18); Oriental letters 1867 to 1868 (P&O/16/1-6); foreign letters 1893 to 1895 (P&O/18-1-5); and passenger letters 1885 to 1913. There is a considerable amount of correspondence relating to the mail contracts, 1849 to 1929 (P&O/30 series).
The financial records include: the schedules to the annual accounts, which contain the basic information for the trading position of the company, 1856 to 1878 (P&O/3/25-30) and 1905 to 1961 (P&O/3/32-45). There is a full run of cash ledgers, 1840 to 1851, but the accountants' department retained only a ten-year sample of their records, 1860 to 1861, 1870 to 1871 and so on until 1930 to 1931 (P&O/5 series). Journals (a daily record of transactions) have been kept in a similar sample; they are complete from 1842 to 1851, and then exist only from 1859 to 1861, 1869 to 1870, etc until 1930 to 1932 (P&O/5 series). There is a complete series of ships' voyage ledgers 1939 to 1971 (P&O/5 series); ships' cost and repair ledgers 1855 to 1859 and 1864 to 1941 (P&O/5 series); summaries of ships' voyage expenses 1881 to 1890 (P&O/5 series); ships' voyage results and analysis 1919 to 1965 (P&O/5 series). Import and export freight ledgers survive for the years 1940 to 1952 (P&O/5 series). The internal economy and working of the company are presented in detail in the Annual Departmental and Agents' Reports, 1893 to 1970 with the Agents' Reports commencing in 1905 (P&O/4/3-84).
Ships’ Sailing Schedules
The schedules of the ships themselves are contained in time tables and proposed monthly sailing lists for the mail packets and for certain subsidiary services, outwards and homewards, 1889 to 1928 (P&O/41/1-50); lists of Australian mail service sailings 1880 to 1886 (P&O/41/53-55). Sailing lists, rates of passage, notices to passengers, etc are contained in the 'Handbooks of Information' 1907 to 1939 (P&O/42/13-33); there are printed tables showing rates of passenger carriage for 1847 (P&O/71/28), 1861 (P&O/71/22) and for certain years 1894 to 1934 (P&O/71/1-21). For the first P&O cruise ship, the ‘steam yacht’ Vectis, sailing and passenger lists and cruising itineraries for 1904-1914 exist (P&O/44/5-15) and there are handbooks of information on later P&O cruises 1925-1938 (P&O/44/16-26).
Ships’ Logs & Nautical Reports
Log books of individual ships were not retained by the company, but abstracts from the log of each voyage by each ship were transcribed when received at Head Office into the series of ledgers entitled Nautical Reports which date from 1846 to 1955 (P&O/40/1-39) although there are substantial gaps in the 1920’s and 1930’s where volumes have been lost. Books of ‘Regulations and Instructions for the Safe and Efficient Navigation of the Company’s Ships’ were issued at intervals to commanders, officers and engineers and several of these issued in various years between 1869 and 1959 are to be found (P&O/8/20-30), together with books of circulars, which updated or amplified existing instructions, again, for intermittent years, 1877 to 1922 (P&O/7/10-17). A copy of the first book of ‘Instructions for Chief Engineers’ which appeared in 1867 also survives (P&O/9/1). Pursers, stewards and clerks also received similar instruction manuals and several of these have survived, 1860-1941 (P&O/10/10-30).
Individual Ships’ Records
Records of ships owned by the company may be compiled from several sets of fleet lists, 1837 to 1960 (P&O/62 series); on the sale and acquisition of ships, there are bills of sale, 1841 to 1856, 1880 to 1925 (P&O/63 series); and a list of ships sold by the company 1895 to 1954 (P&O/63 series); there are books of registers and dimensions, 1852 to 1970 (P&O/64/1-4); deadweight capacity tables, 1894 to 1923 (P&O/64/6-7); tables of measurement of holds, reserves and bunkers, 1884 to 1956 (P&O/64/8-10); and a register of load lines, 1898 to 1939 (P&O/64/15-16). Among other items there are lists of crew complements for various years 1914 to 1938 (P&O/64/18-21), materials on individual ships, 1873 to 1928 – for example papers arising from the loss of SS Bokhara in the Pescadores with heavy loss of life, 1892 (P&O/65/8) as well as folders of miscellaneous papers on most P&O ships 1837-1970 (P&O/65/28-382).
Staff Records that have been preserved and placed on permanent loan include, most importantly, the officers’ registers 1849 to 1957 (P&O/75/1-11); the engineers’ registers 1847 to 1957 (P&O/76/1-12); stewards’ registers 1891 to 1940 (P&O/77/12-37); petty officers’ registers 1900 to 1949 (P&O/78/1-2). Aside from giving dates of individuals’ entry into the company and listing their subsequent appointments, these registers will usually contain a reference to a man’s ability and conduct and his career within the company may be easily plotted therefrom. The comparable records of pursers have not survived, but there are volumes containing confidential reports on pursers and stewards in charge 1879 to 1926 (P&O/86/1-2).
Also surviving is a certain, small and mainly discontinuous quantity of material on wages, salaries and pensions – eg records of salaries paid to London and agency staff 1882 to 1920 (P&O/80/3-14); retired lists 1880-1914 (P&O/83/1); employee deposit account records, a type of company savings bank and pension fund 1915 to 1960 (P&O/81/1-52); pay department records such as cash books, journals, pay cards, income tax and graduated contribution returns, etc 1958 to 1965; employees’ housing account records, 1932-1950. A most fascinating survival is the ‘Death Book’, which records the deaths of P&O staff and pensioners, with approximate cause of death and sometimes the place of burial 1848 to 1922 (P&O/88/3).
There are several items of a very general nature associated with mergers and take-overs, but little in relation to the wave of acquisitions which took place between 1910 and 1920 including Blue Anchor Line in 1910, the British India Steam Navigation Company in 1914, the New Zealand Shipping Company in 1916, General Steam Navigation Company in 1920. The then chairman Lord Inchcape was, however, in the habit of producing memoranda for the Board on 'deals' over which he presided and copies of most of these are included in the Board Minutes from 1916 to 1923 (P&O/1/119).
As with all substantial archive collections, there is a large amount of miscellaneous matter from the general to the more specific. Select examples include a log of events in the history of the company, 1836-1961, compiled by a member of Staff (P&O/91/1), a personal diary of a voyage to Singapore in two of the company’s steamers dating from 1854 (P&O/92/1) and files of congratulatory letters and telegrams on the occasion of the company’s centenary in 1937 (P&O/91/16).