The story of the Lancastria is one that spans the height of the global boom in shipbuilding and ends with Europe in complete turmoil and Britain facing defeat after their rout at Dunkirk. At the heart of that global boom was the River Clyde in Glasgow, at its time the greatest shipbuilding river in the world. From its shores such famous liners as the Queen Mary and the Lusitania were launched along with the QE2. Clydeside also launched numerous battleships and naval destroyers and by the end of 1919 some 177,300 tonnes of shipping had been built and launched there.
It was 1916 when the Anchor Line first approached the shipbuilder Beardmore in connection with building the vessel which would become the Lancastria. At that time ship number 557 was originally to be named the Tyrrhenia. Her sister ship Cameronia was built first, in the main yard, and was launched on the 23rd of December 1919 by Lady Cameron of Lochiel. The ship had taken only nine and a half months to build and was a post war record for a ship of her size. Tyrrhenia, whose ownership was transferred to the Cunard Line shortly after the keel was laid down, took longer to construct and it was over a year before she was ready to be launched.
Plans for the Tyrrhenia were first drawn up in early 1916. The ship’s keel was laid down on the 2nd of June 1919. Cunard acquired the vessel from the Anchor Line whilst she was being constructed.
She had a contract price of £1,359,907 to build. Her eventual construction cost was £1,220,908 netting her builder, William Beardmore and Company a gross profit of £138,999 in 1920. – (Source “Beardmore Built”, Contracts List)
The building of the Tyrrhenia and Cameronia represented the first major merchant order for Beardmore, although the yard did have a modest record in passenger liner construction. Only two years after the Tyrrhenia was launched the vessel was renamed, reportedly because American passengers had difficulty pronouncing the vessel’s name. Many sailors believe it is bad luck to change the name of a ship after it has been launched. Even Tyrrhenia’s sister ship, the Cameronia, was later renamed The Empire Clyde. There are no records of a formal renaming ceremony and the only reference to it came in the Editor’s Diary of “Syren and Shipping” on the 27th of February 1924 when the following discreet announcement was made:
“… and that the designation of the Tyrrhenia, whose name has proved a stumbling block to so many people, has been changed to Lancastria.”
These two orders and the others, which followed in quick succession firmly, established Beardmore in the shipbuilding industry. But it was not only in shipbuilding that he made his name. Apart from submarines, liners and warships the company were also responsible for manufacturing heavy armaments, such as tanks and field guns, steam locomotives, aircraft and airships, the largest of which, the R36 was almost 700 feet long and could carry more than 50 people.
The first true aircraft carrier ever built, HMS Argus, was constructed at Beardmore’s Dalmuir Yard. This ship began life at Dalmuir in 1914 as the Italian liner Conte Rosso but when hostilities broke out in August 1914 all work on the liner ceased. Work began redesigning the vessel to become the world’s first completely flush-decked aircraft carrier. The final conversion bore no resemblance to the design that had been intended for the cruise liner and one writer said of the Argus:
“The general appearance of the vessel was somewhat grotesque, rather in the nature of a furniture removal van, sharpened at the fore end.”
After the war ended the Italian buyers of the Conte Rosso placed a second order at Dalmuir and the yard delivered to them the finished liner in March 1922. The 18,000-ton vessel was later sunk off Syracuse by a British submarine on the 24th of May 1941 with the loss of 800 lives.
William Beardmore typified many shipbuilders of his time. The legacy of the Dalmuir Yard of William Beardmore is still felt 70 years after the company closed the shipyard.
The birthplace of the Lancastria today bears no resemblance to what it once was, a bustling, industrialised workplace employing more than 4000 men and which was the economic lifeblood of Clydebank. The fitting out dock has now been filled in and the construction slips have been replaced by a state-of-the-art private hospital and next to it a hotel, “The Beardmore”.
The Dalmuir Yard during the early 1920s was hit by a series of protracted strike action by workers, as were most of the yards up and down the River Clyde during that period. Employers sought to lower wages by the removal of special wartime and post war bonuses. The average shipyard wage per week at the time was £4. On December the 1st the joiners came out on strike over the proposed removal of bonuses of twelve shillings a week. Four thousand men took part in the action which went on for some nine months and eventually fell in favour of the employers.
Within a year a further nine shillings per week was removed from the men’s wages. The men returned to work on the 26th of August 1921 but the delay had affected all construction considerably.
The Cameronia was sailed to Cherbourg in order that her joinery work could be completed and she was not ready for service until March 1921. Sporadic industrial action continued with engineers and the main shipbuilding unions all coming out on strike over the removal of overtime payments and post-war bonuses.
This delay all resulted in the Tyrrhenia taking much longer to build than had been planned. Eventually she was ready and launched on the 31st of May 1920. The launch party included the Marquis of Graham, who was one of the main financial backers behind Beardmore and also a Director on the company’s Board. Newsreel footage of the launching ceremony has sadly decomposed, although there are a few still photographs which remain.
Lord Invernairn was present and his wife, Lady Invernairn, was given the honour to launch the vessel. Up to that point Tyrrhenia had only been known by her yard name, No. 557.
After her launch, tugs towed the liner to the fitting-out basin. She had completed her sea trials by 12th June 1922 and on the 13th of June began her maiden voyage from Glasgow to Quebec and then onwards to Montreal.
Tyrrhenia’s (Lancastria) Yard number was 557 prior to her launch. Her call sign was KMGS and her official registration number was 145943. Once complete she weighed 16,243 tons and was almost 553 feet long and 70 feet wide. She relied on twin screw propulsion and could reach 17 knots. Her steam Brown-Curtis turbines produced 13,500 Shaft Horse Power. She carried two masts and one large funnel and seven passenger decks – sun deck and promenade deck; beside those of “A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, “E” and “F” deck. Tyrrhenia’s normal maximum capacity was 2,151 and included accommodation for 280 First class passengers, 364 Second class and 1,187 Third class or steerage passengers. Tyrrhenia had a crew of 320.
1924-25. LANCASTRIA, ex. Tyrrhenia. Call sign: KMGS. Official registration #:145943 Rigging: steel twin screw steamer; 2 steel decks and steel shelter deck partly sheathed in wood; 3rd steel deck in holds; 10 partly cemented bulkhead up to steel deck; flat keel; Water Ballast: cellular double bottom 461 feet long, 2,218 tons; deep tank forward 45 feet, 1,516 tons; Forward Peak Tank 71 tons; Aft Peak Tank 102 tons; cruiser stern. Tonnage: 16,243 tons gross, 12,147 under deck and 9,645 net. Dimensions: 552.8 feet long, 70.4 foot beam and 38.8 feet deep; Bridge and Forecastle 455 feet long on shelter deck.. Buil : 1922 by W. Beardmore & Co. Ltd. in Glasgow. Propulsion: 6 steam turbines double reduction geared to 2 screw shafts; operating at 220 p.s.i.; 2,527 nominal horsepower; 3 double ende and 3 single ended boilers, 36 corrugated furnaces; heating surface 29,163 sq. ft.; forced draught; engine built by the same company as the hull. Owners: Cunard Steam Ship Co. Ltd. Port of registry: Liverpool. Flag: British
Built by W. Beardmore & Co Ltd, Glasgow in 1920 as the “Tyrrhenia” for the Cunard SS Co, she was a 16,243 gross ton ship, length 552.8ft x beam 70.4ft, one funnel, two masts, twin screw and a speed of 15 knots. There was passenger capacity for 280-1st, 364-2nd and 1,200-3rd class. Launched on 31st May 1920 she left Glasgow on her maiden voyage to Quebec and Montreal on 13th Jun.1922. In July 1922 she made her first Glasgow – Liverpool – Quebec – Montreal voyage, and on 6th Sep.1922 started her first Liverpool – Queenstown (Cobh) – Boston voyage. The first of three Liverpool – Queenstown – New York sailings commenced 19th Oct.1922 and on 21st Feb.1923 she started her first Hamburg – Southampton – Cherbourg – New York sailing. Her eighth and last voyage on this route commenced 20th Dec.1923. In 1924 she was renamed “Lancastria” and refitted to carry 580-cabin and 1,000-3rd class passengers. Started the first of two Liverpool – Queenstown – New York sailings on 22nd Mar.1924 and on 21st Jun.1924 transferred to the Southampton – Cherbourg – New York service. On 21st May 1926 she sailed from London for Havre – Southampton – New York and in Nov.1926 was refitted to cabin, tourist and 3rd class. Her last NY voyage commenced 17th Aug.1932 and she was subsequently employed mostly cruising. On 3rd Sep.1939 she sailed Liverpool to New York and then ran between New York and Bernuda. She returned to Liverpool in April 1940 and was requisitioned as a troopship. On 17th June 1940 while trying to evacuate British troops from St Nazaire she was bombed and sunk, with the estimated loss of over 5,000 lives. This was the worst disaster ever to befall a British ship and the death toll was kept secret from the British public until after the end of the war. [North Atlantic Seaway by N.R.P. Bonsor, vol.1, p.164]
The vessel had been fitted out to the highest standard. There was a veranda café, which had large glass doors at either end allowing in plenty of light. Highly decorated arched trellising covered the walls and large potted floor plants brought a more homely feel to the room according to passengers. Flowers adorned each table, which in turn were surrounded by white wicker chairs on a chequered wooden floor.
Tyrrhenia’s smoking room was the height of elegance. The tiled floor supported eight marble pillars towards the centre of the room and mahogany panelling covered the walls. High-backed, arched chairs allowed passengers to relax in complete comfort.
For first class passengers a large writing room was available. Its white walls contrasted with the wooden floor and at the centre of the room a large fireplace was set below a decorated ornamental mirror. Draped curtains covered the windows.
Tyrrhenia’s 1st class dinning saloon had a large ceiling decorated with wooden panelling on both walls and supporting pillars. Again ornate marble Greek style pillars were used to support walls and roof. Napkins, cutlery, a lamp and a small floral display sat neatly on each table.
The Tourist Saloon was much bigger. It had a small chequered wooden floor. Seven double-paned windows stretched the length of the saloon each with its own elegant curtain drape. 10 equidistant pillars supported the low ceiling, but in the centre of the room, brightness streamed down from the large skylight. Passengers on the top deck could look in through this and to the dinning saloon below.
The 2nd class dinning saloon also doubled as a dance floor. Looking up from the centre of the room the arched and partially glazed ceiling was beautifully decorated, each circular window surrounded by an engraved marble wreath. At night up lighters in each of the four corners of the ceiling lit up the alabaster walls and roof. Again wonderfully decorated marble pillars, each with a highly polished mahogany base surrounded the room. 12″ circular fans were carefully placed around the room to help cool off passengers who were becoming too hot from their efforts on the dance floor!
On the top deck the ship also had a fully equipped gym that had climbing apparatus, a boxing bag, an assortment of weights and even fencing equipment. A weighing machine was also available to ensure that those crucial pounds were being lost. The walls were covered to half height with vertical wooden panelling and the upper portion of the room was painted Cunard white.
A typical Tourist stateroom included hand basin with wash mirror above and a standard radiator fitted below the sink, two wicker chairs, bunk beds on one side of the room, each with two brilliantly starched white pillows and official Cunard bed linen. A double bed was placed on the other side of the room underneath the porthole window. A short pile rug covered the floor. Decency curtains were fitted on both sides of the room and drapes covered the porthole window. The walls were wood panelling but painted standard Cunard white throughout.
After her maiden voyage Tyrrhenia crossed the Atlantic twice on the Liverpool to Boston route on the 15th of September and again on the 28th of October 1922. From November through to the end of January 1923 she sailed the regular Liverpool to New York route before beginning the Hamburg to New York sailing.
Her last sailing from Hamburg arrived in New York on the 19th of November 1923. By early 1924 Cunard made the decision to change Tyrrhenia’s name and the vessel left Liverpool on route for New York on the 5th of February 1924. After the return voyage the Tyrrhenia name would never sail again and the vessel was given the new name, RMS Lancastria. Cunard had identified the growing role in the market place for Ocean-going cruising and Lancastria was given a full refit to accommodate this new role.
From 1924 to 1930 Lancastria crossed the Atlantic Ocean more than 55 times. During the thirties she sailed numerous and varied routes to the Mediterranean and the Bahamas. In 1934 it cost £125 to sail First Class from Liverpool to the West Indies. A year later Cunard were advertising a 22-day cruise to Gibraltar, Tangier, Villefranche, and Lisbon for 22 guineas. Sir Charles Baring, Cunard’s Assistant Cruise Director travelled regularly on Lancastria.
“The Lancastria was essentially a North country ship and sailed out of Liverpool and many of the first passengers I had to look after were on holiday from the cotton mills and used to arrive on deck in their clogs.” – Sir Charles Baring, Extract from the “The Cunard Story”.
In 1936 Lancastria set sail for Galipoli as part of a pilgrimage organised by many of the men who took part in that bloody campaign during World War One. These specialised cruises were typical during the late 1930’s as the demand from transatlantic travel began to drop. During her Mediterranean trips she had her entire hull repainted white in line with her new cruising role.
In 1936 Cunard arranged for Lancastria to sail to Dublin for a special cruise taking the largest contingent of pilgrims from Ireland to Rome. Among them was Ireland’s former Leader, William T. Cosgrave. At that time Lancastria was the biggest vessel to dock in Dublin. British Movietone News covered the story in a newsreel and showed several close-ups shots of Lancastria both aboard and from the quayside.
On the 22nd of October 1936 on her way back to her homeport of Liverpool, Lancastria ran aground in bad weather off Egremont Pier. Stranded high up on a ledge, her propellers and rudder clearly visible, she had to wait for high tide before tugs assisted her and pulled her clear. Again British Movietone News were present to record the drama.
Her final peacetime cruise came in September 1939 when she sailed to the Bahamas. After that voyage she was sent to New York to await orders. The world was now at war. In late March 1940 the British Government notified Cunard that the liner was to be requisitioned for national service as a troop transport. On April the 13th the Authorities were notified that the ship was at their disposal. Lancastria’s hull had already been painted battleship grey whilst in New York and in preparation for entering the war. One, 4″ gun mounting was placed on her aft-deck, next to the swimming pool to deter submarine and air attacks. Her days of peacefully cruising the high seas had come to an end.