Following Phileas Fogg
Updated: Apr 1
Or The (real) First World Cruise in History! Quite a few sources, incl. Wikipedia, will have you believe that the first around-the-world cruise was the 130-day voyage of Cunard’s RMS Laconia in 1923. But that is not so! Four decades before a couple of British entrepreneurs launched the world's first designated cruise line with an ambitious world cruise offering, that was very likely inspired by the fictional voyage of gentleman adventurer Phileas Fogg.
English ship broker John Lockie Clarke was 21 when Jules Verne's Around the world in 80 days was published and might very well have read it, as it fed right into his passion for leisure travel, shipping and exotic destinations. Who is to say if that is what inspired him to embark on a short, ambitious but ultimately failed career as history’s first World Cruise operator? Though honestly, in a world where this had never been done before, where else would a young entrepreneur have gotten that audacious idea?
Along with his friend and business partner, James Culliford, Clarke he had established a successful steamer brokerage, Culliford & Clarke, in London in 1875, but while he and Culliford became quite successful pioneers of tramp steamer brokerage, he always dreamt of going into leisure cruising – an arcane phenomenon only 30-odd years old at the time and barely considered a sustainable market in itself. There were not yet any designated cruise ships, nor cruise lines or any regular cruise schedules and most people in the shipping industry agreed that it was - at best - a quirky little pastime with a modicum of PR value or - at worst - a troublesome and time-consuming fool’s errand, difficult to turn a profit on.
First designated cruise line
But Clarke was convinced of the potential of cruising and eventually persuaded Culliford to pursue a new venture; in 1881 they set up the Inter-Oceanic Steam Yachting Company Limited (IOSYC), possibly the first company in the world established with the exclusive purpose of operating leisure cruises, i.e. the world’s first designated cruise line. Obviously, the tramp steamers that Culliford & Clarke normally dealt in would not work as cruise ships for the target clientele of late-Victorian elites – a suitable cruise ship was needed. Clarke made some inquiries in the London shipping circles and quickly came upon an ideal candidate.
A Company which has lately been formed, under the title of the Inter- Oceanic Yachting Company Limited), has bought from the Peninsular & Oriental Company their screw steamship CEYLON of 2,110 tons register in which it is proposed to make an expedition round the world for the pleasure of any persons who have time enough on their hands to join in it.
Daily News, 17 September 1881
The SS Ceylon was a single-screw, iron-hulled auxiliary steamer (a vessel with both sails and steam engine), built by P&O in 1858 for use on the regular service from Southampton to Malta and Alexandria. She was 93 m / 306 ft long, 12,5 m / 41 ft wide and weighed in at 2.110 gross register tons – barely even the size of the smallest expeditionary cruise ships of today. In her original configuration, she had accommodation for 130 first and 30 second-class passengers. She had the range, capacity and seaworthiness for Clarke’s visions and in June 1881 he bought her from P&O for £9.235 (about £1.130.000 in 2021 £), gave her an extensive refit and placed her on public display in Victoria Dock, East London to gin up publicity and interest.
An inaugural world cruise
Meanwhile, the IOSYC launched an extensive marketing campaign for the inaugural cruise of their new company flagship – a daring and revolutionary voyage around the world. Just like that of Phileas Fogg, except with more time for sightseeing. Departing from England and going East-about to make optimal use of wind conditions, it would take guests into the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal, through the Red Sea and across the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, via the South China Sea into the Pacific, across the Pacific and down the west coast of the Americas to round the Cape Horn, back up the east coast of South America, through the Caribbean and across the Atlantic back to England. The voyage was to take about 10 months, from late October 1881 to late August 1882, and rack up an impressive 37.500 nautical miles, interspersed with many exotic and alluring stops along the way.
Had Phileas Fogg chosen to come along it would have set him back £500 for the full cruise for himself but only £150 for Passepartout (as servants travelled at reduced fare). That is the equivalent of £61.195 / $75.491 / € 69.640 in 2020 purchasing power for the primary cruise ticket – or in 19th century terms, more than three times the average annual salary for an English middle-class worker. Guests could book the entire cruise or - as many seemed to prefer - just an individual segment of it for a reduced fare.
Interestingly, much of the World Cruise logistics established in 1881, still hold true today - World Cruises still favor the East-about route (though less for wind conditions than for time zone adjustment), World Cruises still take place over the winter period of the Northern Hemisphere to take advantage of summer weather and ideal sailing conditions in the Southern Hemisphere (and because most World Cruises originate in the Northern Hemisphere and winter is the perfect season to get away from), World Cruises still offer shorter or longer partial segments for sale, in addition to the full cruise in itself, and while certainly more popular and financially accessible today, they are still among the most expensive cruise products on the market (special offers notwithstanding, count on burning through at least $180 - 200 per night per person). Durations are considerably shortened though - these days world cruises clock in between 3 and 4 months duration, rather than 10.
First full-time cruise ship
The refit was reportedly quite comprehensive and lavish, giving the 23-year-old passenger steamer a much-needed facelift from worn, outdated and workaday to elegant, contemporary and luxurious. First class passenger capacity was cut from 130 to 100 pax in 49 cabins over two decks, opening up more space for public areas. The main saloon was upgraded to a proper, elegant dining room and for after dinner retreat a luxurious boudoir was available to the ladies and a capital smoking room to the gents. A ship orchestra and a steam-powered fairground organ provided musical entertainment for guests.
Accommodation standards were significantly improved and the cabins larger and much better appointed than your average steamer. But however luxurious you may imagine the Ceylon to have become, it bears remembering that we are talking in terms of 1881 standards. By any modern standard the cabins were small and box-like and completely lacking electricity, ventilation, plumbing and private bathrooms and as for 19th century steamship travel in general, any modern cruiser would likely describe it as dirty, noisy, smelly, confined, spartan and very prone to motion. Plus with a top speed of 13 knots in favorable conditions, you had better be a skilled conversationalist and keen people person to enjoy being cooped up with the same people for weeks on end as the steamer chugged across the major world oceans. Nevertheless, the SS Ceylon was state of the art for her time and as she would go on to do primarily cruising for the rest of her career, she fully earns the epithet ‘first full-time cruise ship in history’.
Around the world in 299 days
The Ceylon left Southampton on 29 October 1881 and returned safely back to Southampton on 22 August 1882 – what took Phileas Fogg 80 days in a dash over land and sea, took the Ceylon 299 days at sightseeing speeds across the oceans. I am not going to go into details of the actual voyage but for those interested, a young English lawyer, Hugh Wilkinson, joined a segment of the world cruise and penned a diary account of it that was later published under the title ‘Sunny Lands and Seas, a Voyage on the SS Ceylon’ (available as facsimile reprint at online book sellers) but as with most early cruise travel reporting the account is almost entirely destination-centric and does not reveal much about the logistics or onboard experience of the journey.
Another full account of the voyage was penned by Reverend William Alfred Essery who was one of the few guests onboard for the entire voyage and apparently detailed a lot more about the onboard experience. That handwritten 280-page account has never been published and remained in private ownership until the summer of 2022 when it was sold at Dominic Winter Auctions in London to an undisclosed buyer – if anyone knows who that is or how I can get my hands on a copy, please do let me know. Even though the participants undoubtedly had the travel experience of a lifetime, the world cruise did not qualify as a commercial success – which probably goes a long way to explaining why it has been largely forgotten by history and why it would take another 40+ years to try it out again.
The end of a dream
Even with the best of intentions and most sincere efforts, Clarke and Culliford were not able to conquer the stigma of cruising as a fool’s errand. Only about 60 paying guests joined the world cruise, of which only about 40 joined the entire cruise (the rest only did individual segments), and for a ship of 100 pax capacity that did not yield an impressive bottom-line. Staging an Around-the-World-Cruise as the first commercial offering for a fledgling leisure cruise company had clearly been overly ambitious, but subsequent, shorter outings to Scandinavia and the Mediterranean did not fare much better in terms of participation. The clientele for this level and frequency of cruising simply did not exist in sufficient numbers or – if they did – were not quite ready to spend their money and leisure time at sea (despite all technological advancement of the 1880’s, long sea journeys were still an inherently risky adventure).
In 1883 the company went into voluntary liquidation, only to reconstitute shortly thereafter - following a brief reshuffle of names, addresses and assets - as the Ocean Steam Yachting Company Limited (OSYC). However, that did not do much to improve results. In 1885 - after yet again struggling to make short-voyage cruise formats work and profit - this company too went into voluntary liquidation. Dispirited, Clarke left leisure cruising behind, went into a coal contracting venture instead and never looked back. The SS Ceylon was sold in 1885 as part of the liquidation and changed hands a couple of times before ending up with the PTA – the Polytechnic Touring Association of the Regent Street Polytechnic (now University of Westminster) – where she would go on to have a long and popular cruise career as the ‘Poly at Sea’…. but that’s an entirely different story.
John Lockie Clarke passed away on 23 October 1935 at the ripe old age of 84, by all accounts a much-respected shipping magnate, business man and polymath, whose entrepreneurial successes ultimately far outweighed his failures. He may not have had much luck in pioneering leisure cruising, but more for reasons of unfortunate or premature timing than for any lack of appreciation of what potential it held. He did live to see many of the milestones of cruise history; the formation of a diversified, year-round cruise market, the arrival of purpose-built cruise ships, the genesis of the Caribbean cruise region, and much more. And if he took any notice at all of the 1923 sailing of the RMS Laconia on what Cunard touted as ‘the first World Cruise in history’, I like to think it was a snort of derision.
John Lockie Clarke’s legacy and milestone contribution to the history of cruising was to create the first World Cruise and to allow a select few pioneers to experience the world in much the same spirit as Phileas Fogg did in that popular book he (may have) read in his youth.
This is the third article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and ability and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.