On the 23rd January 1957 P&O placed an order with Harland & Wolff to build a ship which promised to 'shape the future’. The news was met with great enthusiasm at the Queen’s Island ship yard in Belfast. Nine months to the day the first keel plates were laid and construction began in earnest on job number 1621. The ship remained a number until until 17th March 1958 when P&O’s Chairman Sir Donald Anderson announced that the company's new liner would be called CANBERRA after the native aboriginal word meaning ‘the meeting place’. In name and purpose CANBERRA would symbolise Britain's strong links with Australia and the part played by P&O in connecting two far flung corners of the commonwealth.
John West, an up and coming naval architect in P&O’s design office, was given the task of designing the new ship. He had four main principles in mind. Firstly the new ship must prioritise the needs of its passengers and incorporate “progressive thought and good design”. In construction and operation, the ship had to be efficient and economic and the need for repairs and maintenance had to be kept to a minimum. P&O’s management welcomed West's approach and seized the opportunity to create a ship which was truly futuristic in its design.