• Jacob Lyngsøe

School Afloat

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

Imagine a school where you learn French one day and the next you are in downtown Marseille putting your new skills to the test. Learn about Greek Antiquity one day and the next you are strolling around the Acropolis studying ancient history. Learn about religion one day, and the next you are touring the Vatican, seeing religion manifest in front of you. Many British school children of the 1960’s and 1970’s did not have to imagine that – they had it and they had it on a cruise ship.

From a 1982 school cruise on the SS Uganda with students from the Dudley district, Birmingham, © Express & Star

Greenock, Scotland – 12 April, 1961

With a toot of the horn the MS Dunera* of the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd. (BI) slowly pulls away into the river Clyde but most of the guests lining the railing, waving their loved ones goodbye are not seniors, or even adults – they are school-age children. This was to be the beginning of an ‘educational cruise empire’ lasting a good two decades before a far-flung military conflict put an end to it.

Above: British Movietone news clip from April 1961 of the first Dunera school cruise

The British India Company (est. 1856, a P&O subsidiary since 1914) supposedly got the idea for ‘school cruises’ from a pre-WWII Royal Navy tradition of taking school classes out on troop ships in peacetime to keep the ships in peak operational condition. Given that the Dunera was built in 1937 as a troop ship, it is possible she was even a part of this tradition. Whether she was or not, troopships were actually perfect candidates for this new type of cruising. Since the children were not intended to have the standard comforts and amenities of a cruise ship, never mind luxury and privacy, there was no need to change the ship configuration from large below-deck dormitories with bunk beds, communal shower and restroom facilities and a mess hall – that could all stay. Whatever creature comforts the troops enjoyed overseas, surely that was good enough for the kids. It was not like conditions and facilities were any better at the boarding schools or prep schools of the 1960’s that many of the kids were coming from. That made the conversion from troop ship to educational cruise ship fairly straightforward.

Left: MS Dunera (1937), school ship 1961-67. Right: MS Devonia (1939), school ship 1962-67, © Simplon Postcards

The Dunera and the Devonia

The Dunera was released from her trooping charter by the Ministry of Defense in 1960 along with a number of other WWII troop ships, and BI was quick to claim her and the MS Devonia (built in 1939 as the Devonshire) for their educational cruise concept. Both ships underwent a renovation and refitting, amongst other things to have classrooms, game rooms, library, swimming pool, lecture theatres and common rooms installed but also to have standard cabins installed for teachers and regular cruise guests. The Dunera emerged first in 1961 with room for 187 passengers in cabins and 834 children in dormitories, the Devonia followed in 1962 with room for 194 passengers and 834 children.

British school children boarding the Devonia in June 1967, © Sunderland Echo

And yes, you read that right – there were ‘regular cruise guests’ on these educational cruises as well. I do not know how the marketing department spun this in the advertising, but in practice the ships were divided in two. The front half was for regular cruise guests with staterooms, restaurant and public areas much like any other cruise ship of the day – the back half was in ‘school ship’ configuration with dormitories, mess hall, classrooms, common rooms etc. and apart from a few formal occasions the twain never met. Two entirely different cruise experiences on the same ship, with minimal crossover. Why exactly BI chose this particular hybrid cruise format I do not know, except to speculate that a contingent of regular passengers paying full fare probably helped offset the operational costs of school cruising. Prices were kept very reasonable to enable middle-class parents to send off their kids and even though the sheer number of kids per sailing made for a decent volume and the no-frills nature of the experience helped curtail cost, it was likely never a high-profit business.

Little Stephen on the Devonia sending a postcard home from Kristianssand, 1967, © Benfleet Community Archive

The school cruises were intended for children in secondary education, ages 11 - 16. They would be marketed at public and private schools with the aim of securing group bookings of entire classes. There was no way onboard for any single students as the concept relied on the schools sending their own teachers along to teach and supervise the classes onboard. Administratively the ships all had a ‘headmaster’ who was in charge of the teachers (a.k.a. party leaders) and a permanent staff of matrons and masters at arms to supervise and help the children (and keep order onboard). The ships English / Commonwealth officers were mostly in charge of running the ship but would also assume supervisory / educational roles with the children for certain activities, especially the physical ones. True to the company’s legacy most of the rest of the crew were Indian nationals.

A crowd of parents sees the Devonia off on another cruise in June 1967, © Sunderland Echo

The Nevasa joins in

Despite initial slow bookings in 1961 BI kept their faith in the project and waited for the public to catch on and by the time the Devonia was introduced in 1962, booking figures were clearly on the rise. The two ships settled into a steady routine of summer cruises in Scandinavia, the Atlantic Islands and the Western Mediterranean and winter cruises in the Eastern Mediterranean (usually coupled with charter flights to Venice, Naples, Athens or Malta). By 1965 demand for educational cruises had risen to a point where the Dunera and the Devonia could no longer keep up. BI purchased their third troop ship, the 20.527 GRT SS Nevasa to expand operations. Built in 1955 she was more modern than the pre-war ships and considerably larger too – following her refit she emerged with room for up to 1.090 school children and 308 passengers.

The 20.527 GRT SS Nevasa (1955), school ship 1965-1975 - the third ship to join the educational fleet

Enter the Uganda

This was the heyday of the educational cruises program in terms of volume. With 3 ships operational, running up to 60 educational cruises per year, thousands and thousands of British school children got their (likely first) travel experience abroad with British India school cruises. But both the Dunera and the Devonia had gotten too old and too costly to operate at this point and were both phased out in 1967. In their place BI pulled in the cargo liner SS Uganda from their East Africa route. She was a 14,430 GRT steamship from 1952 with room for 167 passengers in first class and 113 tourist class passengers but when she emerged from her refit to educational cruising in 1968, she had room for 920 children in dormitories and 306 passengers in cabins and had gained a little weight (16.907 GRT).

The 16.907 GRT SS Uganda (1952), school service 1968-1982 - the longest-serving, most iconic school cruise ship

Life on board followed a very rigid program; Reveille sounded throughout the school section of the ship at 07:00 and the children would roll out of their their bunk beds and flock to the communal bathrooms for their morning routines. The gender-divided dormitories (all named for British explorers / naval heroes) held between 10-40 students each and were a cramped set-up with bunk beds and metal cabinets, so there was a lot of jostling when everyone had to get ready at the same time. Most days would start with a brief mass / holy communion in the common rooms. Afterwards, the kids would hasten into the mess hall, grab a canteen plate and line up for the breakfast buffet. The food onboard could most generously be described as ‘basic’ (according to countless personal accounts in online forums).

A 1970 BI brochure. To adjust for inflation from 1970 to 2020, multiply prices by 15.5, ©

If it was a seaday, breakfast was followed by lessons with the kids breaking out into individual classrooms with their party leaders for a morning study program of regular subjects or destination-specific lectures. Around midday there was a two-hour break for lunch and some free time, typically spent on deck playing games, cooling down in the small swimming pool or relaxing / studying, before going back in class until late afternoon. After that kids had their choice of enjoying the outdoors on deck, hanging out in the mess hall, visiting the Tuck Shop for some sweets, refreshments or souvenirs, joining various club activities or swotting in the library. Following dinner there would usually be a movie screened in the lecture theatre or ‘a dance’, a quiz show or a fancy-dress contest in the common room before lights out. If it was a port day, breakfast would be followed by organizing the children into groups and heading out on organized coach excursions with local guides. The dress code for port days was usually school uniform as this made it a lot easier for party leaders to keep track of their flock. The older children were also allowed out to roam around on their own, though only in groups of four or five.

A midday break on the forecastle of the SS Nevasa, year unknown

The origin of educational cruises

The educational cruise era was the result of a unique set of circumstances; a new focus on education as an instrument of social policy under PM Harold Macmillan opened an otherwise rigid and conservative school system to new formats. The post-war decline of the British empire and a growing British commitment to the common European ideals gave Britons a heightened ‘international sensibility’ and a renewed interest in the world around them. A generation of parents who had lived through World War II, the austere post-war 40’s and the prosperous 50’s not only had the ambition but the means to give their children a better education. And as the final component; a shipping company willing to prioritize the ‘common good’ over company profits, because at no point was this (or did this seem like) a lucrative market niche or a strong return on investment. The fact that the driving forces at BI / P&O kept this experiment running for two decades is a testament to their commitment to the ideal of ‘educational cruising’, rather than the market mechanics of it.

A rare look inside the passenger accommodations of the SS Nevasa, year unknown, ©

In 1972 the British India Steamship Navigation brand was fully absorbed into P&O, terminating its independent commercial identity, but uniquely the Nevasa and the Uganda were allowed to continue school cruise operations in the BI livery (with a P&O house flag). The Nevasa only operated for another 2 years, as she was getting on in years and too uneconomical and she was scrapped in 1974. The Uganda continued operating as an educational cruise ship and flying the BI colors until she was called up to serve another purpose. On 2 April 1982 Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands and the Royal Navy found itself in urgent need of support ships. The call went out to the Uganda in the middle of a Mediterranean cruise.

School boys on a Devonia cruise, June 1967. Note the ship pins - popular collectibles to this day, © Sunderland Echo

Naples, Italy – 13 April, 1982

It is early morning when the SS Uganda rounds the Molo San Vincenzo and starts a slow approach to the Molo Beverello cruise pier. The pier is a lot more crowded than usual. Apart from the usual welcoming party of line handlers, port agents, customs officials and transportation agents, there are large advance teams of boiler suited engineers and dock workers from Gibdock (Royal Navy Dockyards, Gibraltar) and crisply uniformed Royal Navy Medical Personnel, waiting to claim the ship and start her transformation. Knowing that this is the premature end of their cruise and a momentous occasion, the 940 school children and 315 regular passengers are up early and crowd the railings of the Uganda. As the steamer nudges closer to the pier, the tannoy crackles to life with the orchestral flourishes of Rule Britannia and when the intro subsides, a 900-strong choir of children’s voices ring out over Naples harbor:

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!

Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.

A patriotic choir of children’s voices singing Rule Britannia was effectively the swan song of the SS Uganda as an educational cruise ship, indeed for the entire concept of school cruises. Following disembarkation in Naples, she proceeded to Gibraltar for a 5-day whirlwind refit as a hospital ship at the Royal Navy Dockyards, before setting sail for the South Atlantic with 136 medical staff.

SS Uganda in Red Cross livery 1969, © C. Gerding / Nottingham-Malvinas Grp

After her war duties, the Uganda was refitted to her previous state and tried resuming educational cruises in the fall of 1982, but did not stick with it long enough for demand to re-materialize. Less than 2 months later she was chartered long-term as a supply ship for the Ascension Island - Falkland Islands route and left educational cruising behind for good. She was eventually scrapped in India in 1992, leaving behind only sweet memories, like the ones these past student cruisers are reliving:

A 2014 BBC retrospective with some of 'the kids' from the SS Uganda school cruises

* If you are a big history geek and you are wondering … yes, it is the MS Dunera of the 1940 Dunera Boys debacle.

Thank You to Kent Frazer from the FB-community 'Old Cruise Ships' for sharing his experiences on the SS Uganda with me.

This is the twelfth 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.

#cruiseships #historyofcruising #cruiseindustry

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