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Strathmore - My First Passenger Ship The Proberbial Sun, Sea and Cadets

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

by Nick Messinger

RMS Strathmore - Launched 1935 by the Duchess of York

The telephone in the hall rang; it was P&O Head Office, Fleet Personnel Department, Cadet Training Officer, Russell Peters. “Do you have whites, mess kit and uniforms? You’ve been appointed to the Strathmore. She’s at Southampton. Report on board on the 12th.”

A passenger ship at last. I could hardly believe my good fortune. A big white ship sailing into the sunshine. Meditteranean cruising. Launch-driving duties. Girls!

My Mother organised a private car to take me to Waterloo station. I expected a Riley or something like that, but a massive Austin Princess Vanden Plas, the size of a Rolls Royce collected me from number eighty-five Queens Road on the 12th September 1963, and whisked me, in some style, to Waterloo.

British Rail were still running steam trains on the line, and there were porters on hand to help with my tin trunk, suitcase and Pusser’s grip. The trunk and suitcase were consigned to the guard’s van at the back of the train, while my holdall stayed with me. A two bob tip to the cheery porter, and I was on my way. Arriving by limo, tipping well, he probably thought I was royalty.

Southampton Central was all hustle and bustle, there was a Cunarder alongside the art deco Ocean Terminal and a big white liner, with a buff yellow funnel, immediately astern of her. The trans-Atlantic liner Queen Mary, with her three, black-topped bright red funnels and Built-in towering, riveted black hull, dwarfed P&O’s Strathmore. Built in 1935, she was one of the last of the Company’s five famous ‘White Sisters’. She, and her sister ship, the Stratheden, were enjoying the final days of a highly successful career on the Australia run, carrying thousands of migrants to a new life ‘down under'. To say nothing of her war record, carrying thousands of troops all over the world. In 1961, she had been refitted as a one-class ship, carrying 1,200 tourist class passengers, but now, she was to be sold to the Greeks, on completion of her last cruise, on the 27th October. I felt a tinge of sadness that I would be on board, albeit in a lowly position, for her final days under the house flag of the P&O.

Once on board, I reported to the Chief Officer and checked into my cabin, which was way down in the bowels of the ship, back aft in what had originally been tourist class accommodation. It was a tiny, two-berth cabin, with bunks one above the other and a washbasin and two cane chairs. The top bunk had already been taken by a fellow cadet, and there was kit scattered everywhere. ‘P&O have really pushed to boat out for us, this time I thought to myself. The cabin was even smaller than on board my last cargo ship. There was another cabin opposite, occupied by two more cadets, and a bathroom and toilets just down the passageway. I didn’t know any of the others, but we soon exchanged names and settled in, with a growing sense of excitement. Boat driving was going to be fun.

My mess kit and two white uniforms had arrived, from S W Silvers of Fenchurch Street, and the first thing I did was take them down to the laundry for washing and starching. Amazingly, they arrived back the following morning, stiff as cardboard, and whiter than white. I spent a happy half hour inserting the brass buttons and pinning on my cadet insignia, two little black patches with gold thread and a brass button. There was just enough space in the wardrobe to stow everything away, in preparation for the lazy days ahead, cruising the Mediterranean.

Since the days of the Southern Railway before the Second World War, trains called ‘Ocean Liner Specials’ carried passengers from Waterloo to the passenger ships docked at Southampton. Steaming majestically into the massive dockside departure hall, there was palpable excitement as carriage doors opened and passengers alighted, to be greeted by rows of stewards, British and Goan, in their spotless white jackets, drawn up and waiting to take their luggage.

Then beyond, glimpsed through the wide open doorways, the glistening white paint of the Strathmore’s hull and superstructure; and the prevailing atmosphere of polite efficiency as boarding passes were checked by the purser’s officers, and the overwhelming atmosphere of luxury and willing service, as over one-thousand men, women and children, stepped across the gangway, and into the foyer of our great white ship. Unforgettable for me; probably more so for the goodly folk who had saved hard for their cruise ‘of a lifetime".

The ship had eight decks for the accommodation of passengers, and a total of twenty-four lifeboats, including six ‘nested’ and two power-driven boats with 4-cylinder diesel engines Several hours before sailing, we launched the two starboard motor boats, for a practice run, fully loaded with Indian sailors and stewards, my boat managed to maintained an average speed of over eight knots, which was most impressive. Safely hoisted inboard, and stowed on the davits, my boat seemed to gleam in the afternoon sun, filling me with a sense of pride. My first P&O command.

“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, this is the Officer of the Watch. Strathmore will shortly be sailing. All visitors ashore. All visitors, and persons not sailing in the ship, are kindly requested to proceed ashore now, by the gangways situated on ‘C-deck’ in the forward section of the ship.”

With the band of her Majesty’s Royal Marines Portsmouth heartily playing Rule Britannia on the quayside, and tugs fast fore and aft, the Strathmore slowly slipped from her berth and proceeded down Southampton Water, bound for Madeira, Lisbon and the Mediterranean.

First night at sea, P&O custom dictated we did not dress for dinner, which was served in the old first-class restaurant. This gave we four cadets, our first opportunity to gaze upon the young lady passengers while dining with the junior female assistant pursers, children’s hostesses and nursing sisters. A lively bunch, they regarded us with interest, and soon invites were forthcoming, to pre-lunch and pre-dinner drinks and of all things, Scottish Country Dancing.

Aggie, the children’s hostess was an instant hit with me. Tall, slim, with long dark blonde hair and a wonderful, sexy, upper-class lilt to her voice, she was the daughter of a gentleman farmer from the Home Counties. I was enthralled by her and soon learned, that her father had recently succumbed to a dreadful accident, when a newly purchased combine harvester had become blocked, and in attempting to free the blockage with his walking stick, it had dragged him in, completely severing his arm. Finding that I came from a farming family myself, gave us a common bond, and an invite to her perfumed cabin, to gaze upon her as she went about her toilette. I spent hours simply watching her as she brushed her hair and applied makeup and did all those feminine things that up until then, only my Mother had permitted me to observe.

With her, wearing a tartan sash about her waist, and a white silk blouse, I did my very best to master the intricacies

of Scottish Country Dancing.

No longer required to dine with the junior officers, I found myself taking all my meals with Aggie, in the children’s dining saloon, surrounded by happy, screaming youngsters.

After the rigours of a cargo ship, and the constant pestering of the Chief Officer, the Strathmore was sheer heaven. Gliding through the Straits of Gibraltar, early one blissfully warm Sunday morning, we shaped a course for Palma, Majorca and thence to Portofino, where we launched our boats and hoisted red ensigns aft, and tiny P&O house flags at the bow, and manoeuvred in formation, before coming alongside the gangway pontoon to embark our very first passengers. Each boat had an engineer on board, and a crew of two Indian sailors, smartly turned out in blue tunics, white trousers, red sashes and beautifully embroidered brimless black topis, with red cap bands. Uniformed stewards assisted the passengers in boarding, while I stood proudly at the tiller, resplendent in starched whites, ready to give the orders to cast off fore and aft and get underway. Having an engineer on board had proved to be a necessity as the old diesel engines were becoming unreliable, and there was nothing like a young man in a white boiler suit to get them started again.

In charge of the shore party was the First Officer and he was not impressed by our little smoke screen. He was tall, good-looking, and had a permanent, youthful smile, hence his nickname, ‘Smiler’. He had half a dozen smartly turned out stewards and two sailors to help him, and a small, garden-sized round table adorned by a sunshade on a telescopic pole and four deckchairs. Taking pride of place on the table was a large, varnished wooden box, containing a two-way radio, with which he was able to communicate with Strathmore’s bridge, in a rather crackly sort of way.

The ship was just out of sight, round the headland, anchored firmly to the seafloor, and gleaming white in the sunshine. ‘Strathmore, this is shore party. First boat alongside. Engines need to be run hot. This one’s making too much smoke. We’ll be ordered to move if it happens again.’ He turned and smiled at me. At least I thought he smiled at me. ‘What’s so funny, he demanded?’ Then it dawned on me; as to precisely why he got his nickname. It was disconcerting to be admonished by a senior officer, who had a permanent smile on his face.

We were just over half-way through our second Mediterranean cruise when the news reached us. The announcement from Head Office hit the ship like a bombshell on Tuesday 22nd October. Strathmore and her sistership the Stratheden had been sold to the Greek shipowner, Mr John Latsis of Athens. He proposed to use the two ‘White Sisters’ as hotel ships at Jeddah for most of the year, with pilgrim voyages when he could get the bookings. The effect of this news on the ship’s company was, quite simply, devastating. Our Commander, Captain Williamson, gathered all the ship’s officers in the wardroom and gave us the news shortly before lunch.

Prior to his announcement, most of us had been leafing through the ship’s daily news sheet, which the Second Radio Officer had just brought down from the wireless office. Back home in England, a new, prototype BAC One-Eleven airliner had just been reported as having crashed near Chicklade, with the loss of all on board. The aircraft had been on its fifth test flight to assess stability and handling characteristics during the approach to - and recovery from - a stall.

The pilot was

Lieutenant Commander M J Lithgow OBE, RN, and several of the RNR officers on board knew him.

With the news from Head Office, the atmosphere on board changed dramatically - but Captain Williamson was having none of it. Her Majesty the Queen Mother had always taken a special interest in the Strathmore, having launched her back in April 1935, when she was the Duchess of York, and if the ship was to go to Greece, then we would present her with some items of personal interest from the ship. These were to include the fine tapestry of Glamis Castle, the portrait of her as Duchess of York, and one of her when she was the Queen Mother.

Unperturbed by the news of our fine old ship’s imminent demise, the cadets decided to go out in style - with a ‘Toga Party’. Almost directly opposite our accommodation deep in the bowels of the ship, was a large communal bathroom, with enough steam to power a sauna. Invites were sent to the most nubile young ladies on board, and bed sheets quickly fashioned into togas. Buckets of ice and Champagne were produced, and a Dansette Bermuda record player, borrowed from the engineers.

With a full head of steam, the party got off to a terrific start, with the girls scantily clad in bikinis and sheets, proclaiming it was the best entertainment of the whole cruise. I hooked up with a gymnast, an Irish girl called Aoibheann, whose name I simply couldn’t pronounce. She hailed from County Antrim and was a member of the Irish national squad. She told me I could call her Little Eve, and that in the Gallic, her name meant ‘radiant beauty’. She could certainly dance and all was going well until the heavy wooden bathroom door burst open, and there, wreathed in clouds of steam, stood ‘Smiler’ the First Officer. Fortunately, the bathroom had two doors, and Aoibheann, grabbing my hand, dragged me off to her cabin. She was Catholic, of course, but not totally inhibited as some of their girls are, and a couple of hours of what used to be called ‘heavy petting’ followed. She was travelling as nanny to the Irish Prime Minister’s children, who were all asleep in an adjoining cabin, so noise had to be kept to a minimum.

In the early hours of the morning, I made my weary way back to my own cabin, three decks down, only to discover that my cabin mate was indulging in very noisy sexual activity, with a youngish lady in the top bunk - the one immediately above mine! Fortunately, he had had the good manners to turn the lights out, but I was angry. very angry indeed. He had contracted syphilis in the Far East, and in the secondary stage, most of his hair had fallen out. At only twenty years of age, this gave him a rather startling, but somewhat mature, demeanour. He was drunk, and so was his partner, but he assured me he had used a condom, and that there had been no risk of him having infected her. I wasn’t so sure. I had an abiding fear of all things venereal, studying the subject in medical journals and undergoing blood tests and examinations, due to my own recent experiences with Oriental ladies of the night.

All too soon the short two-week voyage was over, Mediterranean cruising had been great fun, the ship so welcoming, comfortable and elegant. I was genuinely sorry to see her go - and to the Greeks of all people!

Thanks to Nick Messinger for allowing me to use his story.

Commander Nicholas Messinger

RD*, FNI, RNR Retd

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Jamie, The Purser
Jamie, The Purser
Aug 22, 2022

Interesting tale of first experience of joining a passenger liner in Southampton, almost mirrored my own, when I joined Shaw Savill’s Southern Cross, in December 1967. Thanks for sharing your experiences, brought back many similar experiences in my life.


Great yarn - thank you for posting :)


Great story. Many stories to be told about boat driving.

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