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Shaw Savill's Gothic was refitted to become the royal yacht for a tour of Australia and New Zealand.

The Royal Yacht Britannia was commissioned by King George VI on 4 February 1952, to replace the 50-year-old yacht Victoria and Albert, but sadly the king died without every seeing the great ship. She was launched on the Clyde on 16th April 1953 and came into service in 1954

However in 1952 Shaw Savill’s ss. Gothic was sent to Cammell Laird shipyards to be refitted to become the royal yacht for a tour of Australia and New Zealand. Although the tour was canceled due to the death of King George VI, considerable work had already been completed and she returned in 1953 to complete the refit, which included a white-painted hull. In 1954 the Queen's visit to Australia occurred and Gothic was used for the visit.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh joined the Gothic in Jamaica on 22 November 1953, along with two ladies-in-waiting, three private secretaries, a press secretary, an acting Master of the Household, two equerries, 20 officials and staff, 72 naval staff, nine members of the press and a band of the Royal Marines.

Gothic sailed via the Panama Canal to Fiji and Tonga, before spending three months visiting New Zealand and Australia. The return trip included calls at Cocos Island, Colombo and Aden, arriving there on 27 April 1954 to enable the royal party to disembark where the newly completed Royal Yacht HMY Britannia was waiting, and carried the Queen and the Duke the rest of the way to Britain.

Gothic in Sydney Harbour

flying the Royal Standard

Crossing the Line

Prince Philip in Attendance

Gothic returned to normal service later in the year and continued on the UK-New Zealand run until a devastating fire broke out onboard in August 1968, killing four crew members and two passengers. The ship's master, Captain Brian Agnew, was awarded an OBE for helping to save the ship but the company decided repairs would not be viable and Gothic was demolished in Taiwan in August 1969.

Unfit for a Queen

by Randolph Magri-Overend

The s.s. Gothic was very much like any other ship that plied the high seas for umpteen years. A passenger-cargo ship on the regular U.K.-New Zealand run, she was showing signs of maritime dementia when I boarded her at London’s Royal Albert Docks for my first stint as a fully-fledged Purser. I was only 23 at the time, one of the youngest Pursers Shaw Savill had employed. I have always been naturally iconoclastic and even in those early days I knew my rapid promotion was due not because of any merit on my part but because I had fallen foul of authority again, and my new posting was purely a question of ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

The London docks are a depressing sight at the best of times but on that dreary, drizzly afternoon in the winter of 1963, they held as much charm as a football supporter sprawled in a city gutter after his favourite team had lost. The storehouses alongside the docked ships, all freighters by the way, looked as dark and derelict as anything Dickens had described in the middle of the 19th century. Rampant rats competed with screeching seagulls and flea-infested tabbies for every scrap of food. Pigeons perched on rafters overlooked the scene. Protected from the rain by overhanging eaves, they preened themselves, their heads darting feverishly like a clutch of maiden aunts arguing over last Sunday’s sermon.

It was slightly more cheerful on board. The Gothic was one of the ‘Ic” class of vessels that carried cargo between either Australia or New Zealand and the United Kingdom. The European Union was still a pipe dream and trade between Commonwealth countries was very much alive.

The Gothic was different to others in her class, however. She made three trips per year to New Zealand carrying 100 or so passengers from London to either Wellington or Auckland. She would then ply the Kiwi coast for two months, doing her bit for the balance of payments of both countries, before re-embarking the original passengers and any others who fancied a lazy trip back to London via the Panama Canal. Enroute she’d stop long enough to help the economy of the long-boated, postage-stamp-enriched, come-regardless-of-the-weather, I-can-carve-you-a-wooden-facsimile-of-any-tortoise-in-any-size-you-desire, named-either-Christian-or-Adams people of Pitcairn Island!

The round trip from London back to London usually took just under four months. What set Gothic apart from other ships, however, was her commissioning in 1954 by newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II. Britania, of course, had just been launched but her range was limited and the distances within the Pacific and Indian Oceans would have proved too challenging.

Gothic- The Royal Yacht Queen's Drawing Room.

So Gothic was chosen. Her hull and superstructure were painted white, the interior stripped, the public rooms refurbished and the staterooms spruced up to accommodate HM and HRH and an entourage that included ladies-and-gentlemen-in-waiting (what would we do without hyphens?) and a contingent of the Royal Marine’s Band. No expense was spared - even air-conditioning was installed to take the sting off the southern summer tropical heat.

When I joined the ship, the royal trappings had long disappeared. All that was left was a plaque screwed next to the Purser’s Bureau commemorating the occasion and a tape player that sounded remarkably healthy.

In addition, two public-room stewards had survived. Percy and Cecil were a most appealing couple and literally a pair. In retrospect, it would appear they’d signed the Official Secrets’ Act because whenever the subject of queens came up, they’d always plead the fifth! They shared everything - holidays, cabin etc. In appearance, however, they couldn’t have been more dissimilar - Percy was short, dumpy, bespectacled, pasty-faced while Cecil was tall, urbane, clear-visioned and ruddy.

My cabin on the Gothic faced as far forward as you could get without stumbling over clove-hitches and anchor chains. It was directly underneath the bridge, and I could hear the ringing of the telegraph every time it sent messages to the engine room. Full ahead was music to my ears; it meant silence until the next port hove in sight. I had a view real estate agents would kill for. But it was a vista marred by unexpected tropical downpours, followed by choice words and a mad scramble for the window handle and mopping-up materials. That happened quite often and with no warning, especially when we were navigating the South Pacific Ocean.

Directly below my cabin and extending the width of the ship, was the forward lounge, where afternoon tea was served and where tinkling the ivories was allowed if you could first locate the piano key and a tinkler! It was also home to the tape player and the venue for the interdenominational service every Sunday morning which I was expected to preside over - and me a lapsed altar server! Percy would help me choose the hymns and then accompany the congregation on the baby grand, while Cecil turned the music pages for his chum, Percy.

They did breach the Official Secrets Act once, however. I happened to mention to them I was planning to use the tape player - a handsome piece of furniture in rich red cedar - in a series of Sunday night concerts. That set them off, side-glancing and ‘tut-tutting’ like two conspiratorial members of the Senate.

“Shouldna tell you this!” Percy confessed in his quiet tremolo, appearing guilty while Cecil nodded in agreement.

“Yonder machine!” Immediately the word yonder told it all; only genteel folks use the word.

“It were a bugger even during Her Majesty’s voyage.” It was Cecil’s turn to confide, his speech pattern robust, direct.

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked, intrigued.

“Oh nowt at first.” This time it was unison. Tutti with perfect cadence.

After that, silence. Cecil put his finger to his lips to indicate he had said too much. Percy nodded the nod of one whose fearful eyes bespoke of declining years spent in the Tower ‘if they oottered another wor’’.

A mystery of gothic proportions, obviously. As I was left to discover for myself.

I had always been a classical music buff. Ever since my grandfather played his Rigoletto 78s after dinner, much to the annoyance of my grandmother but to the delight of both my brother and I because it got us out of doing the washing up. I had always fancied myself hosting a classical soiree. This opportunity would be the closest I’d ever come to fulfilling that ambition and I wasn’t about to let two shrugging-head-shaking doubters deter me.

Armed with a few seasons’ experience at the Royal Albert Hall Promenade Concerts and copious readings of programme notes from evenings spent at the Royal Festival Hall, I was familiar with the formula for recitalist success. The ship’s music library of reel-to-reel tapes included the likes of von Karajan, van Cliburn, Beecham and Menuhin in a sundry collection of overtures, concertos and symphonies. I couldn’t fail.

The first Sunday Night Concert was an all-Beethoven affair. It kicked off with the Leonora Overture, then the 3rd Piano Concerto and climaxed with the 5th Symphony. It was a knockout - the fifth with its rousing last movement always leaves you with a satisfied smugness and elevated spirits. The sound, although not stereophonic, was as close to hi-fidelity as you could get in the 50s and quite superb. The passengers - all 6 of them - crowded round me, slapping me on the back, vying to be the first to buy me a drink. I had arrived as a musical host!

The second Sunday was just as thrilling. I mixed Tchaikovsy’s Pathetique with Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and Grieg’s Piano Concerto. Word had got around. I had an audience of 8 passengers and two stewardesses pressing their luck (they were not supposed to be there, but they kept out of sight on the top step of the companionway).

The third Sunday saw Sandy the First Officer make an appearance. It was quite an achievement - Sandy was a hardened Beatles and Rolling Stone fan. The passengers had swollen to 23 plus the two unobtrusive stewardesses.

For the occasion I brought out Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, the 1812 Overture and the love duet from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Programmatically wrong, I planned to end the concert with a bang by playing Tchaikovsky’s obituary of Napoleonic folly – the 1812 overture.

Hector was admirable. The sweeping crescendos in the fifth movement, those little snippets of the Dies Irae - all poured out beautifully with ne’er a hint of distortion. Richard’s love duet was subtlety and romance at its most endearing - Flagstad was the ill-fated sop, but the tenor’s name escapes me.

Only one word can explain Peter Ilych’s masterpiece - bombastic. The advancing canons boomed, the bells echoed, the double-basses descended to the depths of defeat and then......and then.....oh no!...oh no!...disaster!

A few minutes before it happened there had been a slight variation in pitch, as if a 78 needed winding up, but it was only momentary. Then it happened. First a static stab from the speakers, then silence and a whooshing sound. We all looked at each other. A mixture of amazement and then horror. Percy and Cecil hid their faces and carried on with their duties of waitering – quietly, of course

I rushed to the player, lifted the heavy wooden lid, and couldn’t believe my eyes. The machine was devouring the magnetic tape in an accelerating rivulet of mangled brown ribbon. And relishing it too. The speakers burped alternately in paroxysms of complaint and disgust. That’s how I felt too. Except in my case you can also add an immeasurable degree of rage, extreme annoyance and bewilderment.

I untangled the mess as quickly as I could and restarted the concert. But the magic had gone.

Afterwards, when the passengers had left the lounge, I noticed Cecil and Percy tidying up. Looking very sheepish. As I approached, they averted their gaze.

“You knew about this,” I accused.

Silence. “You could have stopped me from making a fool of myself!”

Percy shrugged his shoulders. Cecil continued emptying ashtrays

Cecil finally muttered something I couldn’t hear.

“What? Speak up man!”

“It was the only thing left she behind.....” one commenced.

“......obviously for a reason,” the other concluded.

Couldn’t get a word out of them after that.


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1 Comment

Tim Dick
Tim Dick
May 29, 2023

Terrific as always... There was a lot to be said for those slower days... Although they could be interminable at times...

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