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Life on Board

'Life on board a P&O steamer is one continual round of pictures kaleidoscopic in its quick change and variety of colour' Harry Furniss, 1898

The artist William Whitelock Lloyd travelled on board Britannia, Arcadia and Mirzapore observing and sketching as he went and later publishing his drawings as 'P&O Pencillings' in 1892.

Both WW Lloyd and the illustrator, Harry Furniss, who published his ‘P&O Sketches in Pen and Ink’ in 1898, painted a witty, intimate and accurate picture of the daily habits of P&O passengers and crew, travelling to India and Australia.

There were, according to one commentator, six chief occupations on board: 'to eat, drink, sleep, flirt, quarrel or grumble'! Of these perhaps the most time-consuming was eating and drinking. The day was punctuated by the dinner bell announcing breakfast, tiffin, dinner, tea and grog. By the 1890s, the Company’s traditional policy of providing free and unlimited drinks (wine, porter and sometimes champagne) had come to an end with the opening of the Suez Canal.

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Entertainment was the essential antidote to boredom and no sooner had a steamer left shore before the first notices went up seeking volunteers for the various sports and amusements committees.

'A few hours after leaving [port] notices were posted in the companion calling a meeting at eight o’clock in the Second Saloon. Attendance was good and Mr J. Longman was unanimously voted to the Chair. He explained that the meeting had been called for the purpose of organizing a committee for the successful carrying on of concerts, sports etc., and a chairman, general secretary, hon. treasurer, editor of the journal, manager inside games and a committee of three for outdoor sports, and a musical director were appointed.’ 1896

Besides a little music, provided by the crew, entertainment was the preserve of the passengers and anyone with a ‘talent’ was encouraged to perform at concerts or recitals.

A competitive spirit was all that was required for cards, deck sports and the myriad of games concocted from anything that could be thrown, caught or pulled from ‘bull’ to ‘buckets’.

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Teams were formed to take part in all manner of challenges from cricket to chores:

'NOTICE!! In consequence of the daily inspection of cabins, it is currently reported in the suburbs that for tidiness the men’s cabins take the cake! Fie! Ladies. We suggest offering a prize for best-kept cabin. This might cause young misses to be more particular in their habits.’ The Himalaya Observer, 1896

Fancy dress balls were a perennial favourite, dancing a must and no voyage was complete without a sweepstake on the daily log charting the steamers progress. Solemnity returned on Sundays, when strict Victorian values and naval traditions were upheld, with a church service taken by the Captain followed by an inspection of the whole crew.

Entertainment and the particular rhythm of life on board itself, remained largely unchanged until late in the 20th Century, when air travel consigned travelling by sea to the pages of the past.

‘In the OCEANA the passengers dress for dinner – proof that it is the habit of the Indian Ocean to be smooth. I have never seen the custom before at sea although I knew it existed in these latitudes. Beautiful dresses, low necks, vivid colours, officers in uniform at the head of each table, electric light, richly decorated dining saloon – why it looks like a swell banquet.’ Mark Twain, Oceana, January 1896