Following Phileas Fogg
Updated: Oct 19, 2020
The (real) first world cruise in history.
Wikipedia and other select sources will have you believe that the first around-the-world cruise was the 130-day voyage of Cunard’s RMS Laconia in 1923. Today I will be setting that record straight.
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 love of 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 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.
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, gave her a flashy 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 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, obviously 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 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.
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 smart, contemporary and luxurious. First class passenger capacity was cut from 130 to 100 pax, 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 much better appointed than your average passenger liner. 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 tiny and box-like with bunk beds 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. 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). 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.
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, including those who 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 leisure time at sea (despite all technological advancement of the 1880’s, long sea journeys were still an inherently risky venture).
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 on 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.