Poly at Sea
Updated: Oct 24
The British auxiliary steamer SS Ceylon made cruising history in 1881 by being the first ship in history to not only take on a full-time luxury cruising role but also to carry out the first world cruise under the banner of the Inter-Oceanic Steam Yachting Co. Ltd., but having read my previous article Following Fogg, you of course already know this. What you probably do not know, is that this was only the first half of her long and illustrious cruise career.
After John Lockie Clarke and his partner failed to make a viable year-round cruise business of the SS Ceylon and turned to other things, she was sold in 1885. It is not clear what the new owner, Michael Drury-Lavin, used her for in the following years, though presumably leisure charters because in 1892 she was first chartered by the Regent Street Polytechnic for the purposes of educational leisure cruising for their students. This led to repeat charters, then an outright purchase by the Polytechnic in 1896 and to the SS Ceylon returning to her full-time cruising role, though for a very different clientele. Instead of catering to the wealthy few, she would democratize cruising for the average working class, pioneer educational cruising and become known as the Poly at Sea - possibly the world's first expedition cruise ship.
The Regent Street Polytechnic was founded in 1838 as the Royal Polytechnic but did not gain its Regent Street designation until 1881 when British merchant and Christian philanthropist Quintin Hogg combined it with his Young Men's Christian Institute and moved it into 309 Regent Street, creating the publicly funded Regent Street Polytechnic. It is still located in Regent Street to this day, but you will now know it as University of Westminster and among its alumni you will find Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Richard Wright who formed the band Pink Floyd here in 1962 (this tidbit has no relation to the subject at hand – I’m just a fan).
Unlike prestigious universities of the time the Polytechnic was an educational opportunity for the common man, by original charter 'an institution where the Public, at little expense, may acquire practical knowledge of the various arts and branches of science..'. This mission was continued enthusiastically by Quintin Hogg, whose Christian Institute had also been focused on providing practical instruction and healthy recreation for the poor and artisan classes. Consequently, the 'student body' of the Polytechnic was very much from the lower rungs of the social ladder - people with little more to their name than the desire to learn and better their standing. Clerks, accountants, maids, secretaries, hairdressers, tailors, plumbers, butchers and a myriad other lower-class workers of all ages flocked to the Poly, either in day programs or evening classes (as their work life permitted) to improve their careers or pursue their passions.
To enable these students to make more of their leisure time, the Polytechnic started offering affordable holiday trips to the students from the late-1880’s, at first using the holiday homes of founder, Quintin Hogg, in the English countryside but soon expanding out into package holidays to the low countries, France and Switzerland. By around 1890 this practice had developed into the formalized Polytechnic Tours, later Polytechnic Touring Association (PTA) - the 'official' travel agency of the Regent Street Polytechnic, charged with providing students and their families affordable and wholesome travel opportunities.
The germ of the idea for the PTA actually came from Robert Mitchell, Secretary of the Polytechnic, who made an eye-opening observation one day in 1888:
Stopping to listen to a geography lesson one day, [Mitchell] asked both master and boys if any of them had seen the mountains and glaciers, torrents and waterfalls that were being described. Not one had …
From Robert Mitchell: A Life of Service
by Ethel Wood, p. 23 (London, 1934)
From this observation grew the ambition to show the Polytechnic students the world and the drive to give the PTA activities a strong educational emphasis from the start. These trips were not intended as mere ‘idle leisure’ but as continuations of the study of natural sciences in the field and as opportunities for self-expression and self-improvement. The latter tied into a prevailing ideal of the time known as ‘rational recreation’, aka ‘serious leisure’ ( a term coined later by sociology professor Robert A. Stebbins).
Following the increase in free / leisure time and salary the working classes enjoyed in the late 19th century, meddlesome social conservatives from the middle and upper classes grew increasingly concerned that 'the great unwashed' would squander their free time and resources getting drunk, going gambling or even just idly resting, rather than doing something constructive or socially beneficial, and that this behavior would ultimately corrupt the very fabric of civilized society. A great number of social clubs and associations formed in this period, guided by religion, social causes and / or temperance and dedicated to offering wholesome counter-attractions to depravity and idleness - in particular adult education, sports or travel - to those not enlightened / capable enough to pursue these virtues on their own (i.e., the lower classes). As philanthropy went it was well-intentioned, but with a tinge of condescension.
Quintin Hogg's original Christian Institute (and indeed his entire mindset) was very much based on this philosophy, so naturally it came to influence the work of the PTA, but thankfully not dominate it. The inherent risk of letting religion and temperance guide your activities is how easily it can tip over into zealotry and puritanism and spoil an otherwise pleasant and fun-filled activity (like what happened to poor Mark Twain in his 1867 cruise adventure, Innocents Aboard). But credit to Quintin Hogg and the board - that never happened at the PTA. They struck an admirably balanced mix of religious values and scientific educational content, blending temperance and wholesomeness with simple, secular fun and leisure, creating affordable and educational experiences that were good clean, down-to-earth fun at the same time and - for that exact reason - became hugely popular. From fairly modest participant counts of a few hundred, the PTA would go on to move around 16.000 people a year on holidays in the first two decades of its existence, not just from Regent Street Polytechnic but from Polytechnic institutions around Great Britain and from kindred Christian or social movements.
In 1892 the PTA decided to branch out into cruises, possibly looking to the Scottish mainstream cruise boom of the late 1880’s for inspiration (read Northbound), and approached Michael Drury-Lavin for a charter of the SS Ceylon to Norway. That became the first of many highly popular summer cruise outings to Norway and the ship became a beloved fixture of the PTA travel almanac, so much so that Quintin Hogg eventually decided to buy her outright for exclusive PTA use in 1896, paying (or contributing - that is actually not clear) around £4.000 out of his own pocket for it (£535.000 in 2021 currency). To refresh your memory of the Ceylon: She was a 2.110 GRT iron-hulled, single-screw steamer with a barquentine rig, built in 1858 as a mail steamer for P&O and transformed into the world's first full-time cruise ship in 1881 by the Inter-Oceanic Steam Yachting Company Ltd. That made her a remarkable 38 years old when she entered PTA service – long past the normal life expectancy of 20-30 years for a mid-19th century iron-hulled ship – but apparently still holding up nicely.
She arrived with the PTA in much the same configuration as she had received during the 1881 cruising refit: two passenger decks, 49 cabins - the majority on Main Deck outside, the rest on Promenade Deck. Aft on Main was the principal saloon (dining room) and forward the secondary saloon. On Promenade Deck aft were the two lounges (one for the ladies, one for the gents, as Victorian social protocol demanded), amidships the galley and forward a smoking room for '..the adherents of the noxious weed' (quote from Polytechnic Magazine, May 1896). During the PTA charter years, 1892 - 1896, she operated largely unchanged, but there is evidence to suggest she received a major refit once she passed into full-time PTA service. Photographs dated post-1896 show her with her mainmast and rigging gone and with her remaining masts and bowsprit considerably shortened, changing her designation from auxiliary steamer to screw steamer. Maybe she got an engine upgrade (unlikely at her age) or maybe she had just not used her sails since her last engine upgrade in 1881 and now was as good a time as ever to get rid of them - that's anyone's guess. She also received a coat of white paint at some point - a color scheme the Prinzessin Victoria Luise pioneered at the same time (read The White Princess) and made fashionable... nay, standard for ships of leisure.
If the PTA made any changes to the interior of the Ceylon during this refit, they were likely more functional and cosmetic, than structural. The overall layout remained the same but likely many designations and functions changed. The PTA did not subscribe to the strict Victorian gender ideology of 'separate spheres', so they likely did away with the separation of men from women in different lounges (which was more like upper crust etiquette anyway). More than likely the lounges were converted into a library / study / reading room to further the educational goals of the voyages and an assembly hall - a multi-purpose lounge that would have enabled them to hold lectures, conduct religious services and put on entertainment and dances (the Ceylon carried its own band). I have to confess I am guess... eh, deducing here, since I have found no specific written documentation of the refit, but going by PTA travelers accounts this seems to be what was done. The PTA did install one new feature on the ship which was advertised prominently; a dark room, possibly the first of its kind at sea - amateur photography was really taking off in the 1890's after the invention of the Kodak #1 camera in 1888 and the PTA was able to offer onboard development for their guests.
PTA records indicate she continued to operate with 49 cabins (same as with Inter-Oceanic) but that her official occupancy was now 195 berths (as opposed to 100 berths under Inter-Oceanic) which suggests a lot of additional bunk beds and a PTA occupancy standard of 4 people to a cabin. That was 30 guests more than what she had originally been built for and 90 guests more than what she had been refitted for in 1881 so she would likely have felt crowded. Imagine an area 4 tennis courts long and 1 (double) court wide - now put 300 people on there (200 pax, 100 crew) and you have an idea of the occupancy of the Ceylon.
Two features you would not have found on the Ceylon were a casino and bar (at least of the alchohol-serving kind). No intoxicating liquors and gambling will be permitted on board, and the regulations of the Poly on land will be applied to the Poly "on sea", stated the Poly travel flyer. Hardly surprising given the 'serious leisure' philosophy underpinning the whole enterprise. That same flyer described the onboard fare as '... plain, but good in quality, and plentiful in quantity.' However, this had nothing to do with religious asceticism or moderation of appetites, but was more based on the PTA's ambition to keep costs low while still providing value for money. And if this all sounds a little mundane and restrained for your cruising taste, you are clearly not considering it from the viewpoint of a typical lower/middle class PTA guest, for whom all of this would have been sheer luxury and whose thrill at being on a grand travel adventure (likely their first outside the UK) would surely have trumped any fleeting service and product imperfections.
The cabins were actually quite large and lofty for their time, which was fortunate as they now had to accommodate 4 people in each. If your cabin mates were also your travel companions, this could of course be both jolly and familiar, but the PTA records also show a significant amount of solo travelers, so you might also have ended up bunking with complete strangers. The cabins and public rooms had electric lighting installed (a feature novel enough to earn top billing in the advertising), possibly even electric fans as these were in common use in the 1890's, but that would have been about it for creature comforts. Electric room heater technology was still in its infancy in the 1890's so that would likely not have been a feature. The cabins also featured a washstand with a basin/pitcher for your daily ablutions but for all other business communal wash- and restrooms were still the norm, possibly featuring both running water and flush toilets given the privy tech of the times.
The days would have been spent doing scenic cruising in the fjords, leisurely gliding by towering cliff sides, tumbling waterfalls and breathtaking vistas. To pass the time guests could engage in games and other hosted entertainment events out on deck. Popular deck games included quoits, deck billiards, bull boards, potato and spoon, cockfighting, tug of war and 'cigarette and needle' (whatever that is, but shout-out to Mrs Ball and Mr Middleton who took first prize in this event on the July 16 sailing of 1904). Lectures on Norwegian geography, flora/fauna and culture would have been offered by the ships knowledgeable hosts in the salon, if not out on deck for some practical show and tell. For meal times a uniformed bugler would appear on deck and signal everyone to the dining room and after dinner some sort of organized entertainment would take place in the main lounge, be it the ship orchestra leading a dance, an entertaining lecture or an amateur variety show with talents sourced among the guests.
When in port, guests would have boarded one of the ship's steam-powered pinnaces to shore as docking facilities were a rarity in tiny Norwegian ports. Here, they would have organized into excursion groups under the leadership of their experienced hosts, chartering local horse carriages or even horses for outings to local landmarks or places of interest. Given the pervasiveness of the 'serious leisure' maxim, it's unlikely anyone would have chosen to just saunter about in port and relax - that would have run counter to the whole idea. Some shore excursions were more physically taxing than others and gathered smaller numbers, but in general; when the PTA guests moved about, they moved en masse. I imagine it must have been quite a logistical feat .. and quite a sight to see 190+ excursionists fan out over the Norwegian countryside in long convoys of horse carriages and buggys.
In terms of operational area, the Ceylon rarely strayed far away from Norway or the Baltic / British Isles. I was in fact ready to declare her a stricly Northern European cruise ship, until I came upon a trove of old 'Polytechnic Magazine' copies - one of which (August 1898) advertised a very ambitious 35-day Mediterranean cruise from Marseille to Rome in January-February of 1899. Whether that voyage actually took place or whether it was the only one of its kind, I cannot say, but I have not found any evidence, written or photographic, of that or of any other Mediterranean cruises. But I did find reference to the Ceylon getting laid up in Harwich at the end of a Norway summer season, so perhaps the Med cruise was just an unsuccesful one-off and she was in reality a strictly seasonal activity, hibernating her winters away in port.
For the popular Norway sailings the preferred cruise format seems to have been around 13 days, starting and ending in Grimsby, North Lincolnshire. Guests would have made their way there by train (apparently also arranged through the PTA) and boarded the Ceylon in the harbor. From there it was the better part of a 2-day sail to Norway (top speed 13 knots), followed by a lengthy succession of scenic cruising and landfalls in villages small and large, before a 2-day sail back to Grimby ended the experience. For the most adventurous and physically fit of guests, there were overland treks / excursions across the Norwegian mountainscapes, complete with local overnight and meals, to meet up with the ship in the next port. Other itineraries were occasionally put on, like Baltic cruises going as far as Russia or trips around the British Isles, but Norway cruises remained the centerpiece of the PTA cruise program throughout.
The inclusion of the train fare into the experience makes this one of the earliest examples of a commercial 'cruise travel package' I have come across. Prior to this, cruise organizers were mostly content to let guests find their own way to the advertised embarkation point, but then the majority of guests were usually quite wealthy and well-travelled and had no problems getting places or paying their way. The less affluent and less travel-experienced Poly travelers could only hope to make their way to the ship by cost-effective, organized group travel and so the PTA assembled some of the first commercial cruise packages to enable them to do so. The PTA was already routinely splicing continental package tours together from various forms of transportation (trains, boats, carriages etc.) so they probably did not even give it a second thought that they had just invented 'the cruise package'.
The PTA also seems to have pioneered 'cruise staff' in its earliest form, as in onboard 'social and activities coordinators'. Whereas previous cruises had mostly left guest entertainment and activities to their own devices with minimal assistance from the (mostly nautical) staff, the PTA staffed the Ceylon specifically with 'a conductor' to run the educational lectures, coordinate the entertainment and recreational activities and arrange the shore excursions on land for the inexperienced guests. This post was held singlehandedly for a pretty remarkable 15 years by J.H. 'Johnnie' Deas. How can one person run all of that for 200 guests at a time, you ask? Simple - Delegation! Johnnie did have a couple of assistants to help with logistics but the real trick was to rope in cruise guests to form committees, usually 'Sports' and 'Entertainment', and have them schedule and manage the activities under his guidance and supervision. This was apparently already a tradition on the other PTA holidays and was considered both an honorable task and good fun, so it likely took very little persuasion to man these committees for each sailing. This may not be the very first instance of 'cruise staff' charged exclusively with the social and logistical dimension of the guest experience, but it is one of the first I have come across.
Despite her popularity the Ceylon did not make much money for the PTA and at the start of the century, PTA bean counters started to advocate for her retirement. She was simply too old and too costly to run for the amount of revenue the PTA could make on her in a brief summer season. Even at peak popularity she barely took 1600 guests per season - the equivalent of 8-9 cruises per year at an average occupancy. And the 8 months she (presumably) spent in cold lay-up between seasons must have cost a pretty penny too. Combined with the low profit margin on sales, this was turning the cruise operation into a money pit rather than a goldmine. Never the less her popularity and brand value kept her going for another 7 years into the new millenium before she was eventually sold for scrap in 1907 at the remarkable age of 49 years. She was replaced as the PTA cruise flagship by the SS Viking in 1908 - formerly the SS La Plata of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. At 27 years of age she was no spring chick either, but she was at least a somewhat more modern and cost-effective passenger liner with accommodation for 364 pax in second-class standard - presumably this is what enabled her to turn a profit where the Ceylon had not and she continued running the same Norway-centric, seasonal cruise program the Ceylon had pioneered.
The paper trail on the PTA cruise operation peters out around 1911 - the same year the company went private and moved out of the Poly organization framework, if not out of the Regent Street building itself (they didn't do that until 1950). One of the last peeps out of the cruising operation was a replacement of the Viking with the SS Atrato in 1912 - she was purchased from Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., refitted for 280 pax in single-class accommodation and likewise given the name SS Viking. Two years after this, World War I broke out, putting a temporary stop to all leasure travel and causing the loss of the Viking during war duty. The privatized PTA re-emerged after WWI with a similar business model of Christian values, affordable rates, educational focus and a Eurocentric product range and enjoyed great continued success, along the way changing its name to Poly Travel (PT). I actually do not know if they got into cruising again or owned any more ships - if they did, that will have to remain a story for another time.
In 1965 PT was merged with Henry Lunn Travel (another early mover on mainstream commercial cruising), creating Lunn Poly Travel which continued to operate until 2005 when it was rebranded to Thomson Holidays. Thomson itself was in turn subsumed by the German travel conglomerate TUI AG and the Thomson brand was discontinued in 2017. But both brands spawned cruise line subsidiaries that are still around today; Marella Cruises (formerly Thomson Cruises) and TUI Cruises (which is 50% owned by Royal Caribbean by the way). The point being that if you pluck a random thread from the rich tapestry of cruise history, chances are you can follow it all the way up till present day and into several corners of the cruise market landscape.
The PTA cruises on the SS Ceylon were not only early examples of mainstream ‘everyman cruises’, i.e. budget cruising, following in the footsteps of other early pioneers like the North Company (read Northbound) and ending close to five decades of upper-class monopoly on the cruising experience, they were also born out of a unique social movement based on reigning in and directing the newfound leisure time and resources of the working class in the late 19th century. Sinister as that may sound when you phrase it like that, it actually did present workers with much appreciated opportunities for enjoyment, self-improvement and discovery and should be considered an overall positive and inclusive development in tourism history. But considering the nature of cruising today, it is an amusing thought that they were once operated as 'antidotes' to drinking, gambling and loafing about. They are also representative of a moment when cruising truly started to diversify: 1892 was not just the year when the common worker could go cruising, it was also the year when Albert Ballin of the Hamburg-Amerika Line launched the very first true luxury cruise (read Ballins Gamble) and with that cruising had established a product range - from 'Budget' to 'Billionaire' - within the same year.
They also seem to have been the first time in cruising history that cruises were guided by a specific educational purpose, rather than just idle, privileged wanderlust and curiosity. You could argue that since cruising originated as the maritime version of the Grand Tour tradition (Read Lost Origin), most cruises contained a base element of general education, but that was usually more of a self-serving kind of betterment for the purpose of social emulation. This was clearly the first time such travel arrangements were put on primarily for the educational advancement of other (less privileged) travelers. It is that educational aspect that I believe earns the Ceylon the distinction ‘first expedition cruise ship' in history. This niche market of cruising for clear educational purposes did not start to gain widespread and sustained popularity until the 1960’s with pioneers like Lindblad Travel, and is today anything but mainstream and its patrons anything but underprivileged, but the core idea of it - the fostering of an academic understanding and a deep personal appreciation of the nature, culture and history of foreign lands - was first praticed on the decks of the Ceylon, in the fjords of Norway, for the benefit of working class explorers.
Author’s note: Not too long ago I knew next to nothing about the Ceylon – now I believe her to be one of the most influential ships in the early development of the cruising phenomenon. Seriously, it is hard to point to any other ship that has been more influential in developing and pioneering core aspects of the cruise concept in her astounding 49-year career. I have grappled with her story, partly due to a lack of documentation, partly because she has done and pioneered so much, it is hard to single out any one aspect or achievement to center her story on. The lack of documentation is also the reason why this story breaks my chronological publishing line (which has us up to the 1960’s already) and slingshots you back to the 1890’s. In my recently published ‘Sweet Sixteen’ article I wrote about the difficulties in chronicling early cruise history and the Ceylon is an apt example of that. I know for a fact that she was patronized by eager and prolific scholars who produced reams of diaries, travel logs, scholastic journals etc. and multitudes of early amateur photographers who snapped, clicked and developed their holiday memories onboard, but darned if I can find much of that material online. Had I not stumbled upon the digitized archives of Westminster University which contained a trove of Polytechnic Magazines with travel accounts, I would have never been able to paint a coherent and detailed picture of the Ceylon PTA legacy. Even so, there is still a fair bit of assumptions, deductions and speculations in here which won’t be weeded out until I eventually come across more relevant documentation or someone more knowledgeable sets me straight. If you, dear Reader, are that person, make yourself known!
This is the seventeenth 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.