Boarding a P&O ship in the 1930s

1920-40 – A brave new world

Like much of the country, P&O recovered slowly from the effects of the First World War. However the company continued to work positively, acquiring smaller shipping lines and opening new booking offices in London’s West End. By the mid-1920s, P&O had become the largest shipping company in the world. During this decade of innovation, P&O turned turbo-electric, give much more economical results.


‘If you pass through the Suez Canal at night, darling, it is worth while waiting up to see it, because the boat carries a big 5000 candle power arc light on the masthead which lights up the whole canal and it is a wonderful sight.’

– Passenger writing to his ‘Sweetheart’ from CHINA, 1927. Reproduced by kind permission of P&O Heritage.

The 1930s saw P&O turn a century old. Ever the optimist, the company introduced a new ‘tourist class’ to cater to a public hit by the depression. Despite the state of the country’s economy, the era saw a growing number of people take to the cruise lines. 

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Despite the financial crisis, life on deck maintained its glamorous image, and so too did the fashions. The following comes from fashion illustrator and blogger Lucia Emanuela Curzi:

‘On the 180th anniversary of P&O Ferries, I travel back to my favorite fashionable time, the Roaring Twenties! These years inspired the most established fashion trends in the history.

To create my unique design I  have been inspired by the old fashion illustrations of the era, geometric architecture and motifs, travel posters and Man Ray’ pictures.

In the 1920s, cruising on the extravagant ocean liners was a fashionable pastime for the very wealthy and in Paris fashion designers started specialising in holiday wear

Parisian couture dominated, led by Chanel, Schiaparelli and Vionnet.

Women understood that both luxury and simplicity were needed for sea travel. Practical knee-length, pleated, drop wasted dresses set a new standard of elegance, liberating the figures from their stereotypical fashion silhouettes.

Art Deco inspired dazzling Cubist and geometric motifs, the backdrop to the garments were as important as the clothes themselves and depicted a theatrical world of opulence, luxury and the glamour.

By the end of the 1920s  the cosmetic industry exploded and for the first time in history the use of make up  was accepted as a form of expression and femininity.’

Cheaper passage meant that the luxury of cruising was now open to more than just the wealthy upper classes. To board a ship was a form of escapism in both a literal and figurative sense. Colourful flyers lured people to the freedom of the open sea, where you could forget about all the troubles at home.

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On board you were encouraged to catch some rays while lazing with a book in a sun chair, before getting your fill of fresh sea air and exercise with organised sports on deck. Evenings were glamorous affairs with live entertainment, regal galas and dancing into the small hours.

“I mean to slip away next month in a P.& O. steamer, the most comfortable place in the world to be in…to spend a few weeks in the Sunny South, not to do any work, but to play deck quoits and, at intervals, if the Captain will permit me, to go on the bridge, or to recline in a long deck chair…”

– The Rt. Hon Lord Inchcape, 1923. Reproduced by kind permission of P&O

Lord Inchcape on a P&O ship

But the glorious era of sea travel was soon to come to an end. On the 3 September 1939, a broadcast from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had the nation at a standstill…

All images © P&O Heritage Collection, used by kind permission.

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