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  • Writer's pictureJacob Lyngsøe

School Afloat

Updated: Jan 20

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 pre- and post-WWII era did not have to imagine that – they had it and they had it on a very special cruise ship.

Wednesday, 12 April 1961

Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had just touched down from man's first flight into space when elsewhere in the world - Greenock, just outside Glasgow, Scotland to be precise - the MS Dunera* of the British India Steam Navigation Company Ltd. (BI) prepares to set sail on the river Clyde for a cruise. But most of the guests lining up at the railing, preparing to waive their loved ones goodbye are not seniors, or even adults – they are school-age children, off on a uniquely British educational cruising holiday on a very special type of cruise ship.

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

The Origins

The idea for ‘school cruises’ originated as far back as 1932 when Canadian Pacific Line and White Star Line instituted 'school' and 'scout' cruises around Europe on some of their regular passenger liners (including the Montrose and the Doric) but it seems to have been BI who cracked the code for long-term commercial sustainability by adding troop ships to the mix. Cruising for children in some sort of scholastic or organizational context was popular enough as it turned out, but using premium ocean liners made the fare prohibitively expensive on a per person basis. But take a common troop ship with 3-4 times the capacity and significantly slimmer running costs and the math suddenly checks out. BI sent the troop ship Neuralia on a Scando-Baltic educational cruise ex Leith in the summer of 1932, followed by many others (incl. the Dunera when she was first introduced in 1937).

The Troop Ships

As 'the Empire upon which the sun never sets' Great Britain had a large and historic need for troop transporters to meet their military commitments around the world. The Royal Navy would field some designated troop ships but the Ministry of Transport would commission and subsidize the construction of a 'contingency fleet' from private shipping companies on the condition that they would be chartered / requisitioned by the British government in times of need. In the 1930's that meant that P&O Line, Bibby Line and British India Line in particular fielded the majority of troop ships outside of the Royal Navy and while they could be used for purposes other than trooping, their unique set-up did make it challenging to get full commercial value out of them ... until educational cruising came along.

As it turned out, troopships were actually perfect candidates for this new type of cruising. Since the children were not meant 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 hammocks or bunk beds, communal shower and restroom facilities and a mess hall – that could all stay. No need for the gilded splendor or luxurious comfort of modern-day ocean liners either. Whatever creature comforts the troops enjoyed overseas, surely that was good enough for the kids too. That made the conversion from troop ship to educational cruise ship fairly straightforward and easy to undertake when opportunity arose. Thus the middle class gained a reasonably priced entry into the educational cruise market for their kids and shipping lines gained an extra opportunity to monetize a vessel with a somewhat limited range of uses.

Post-war reboot

The 1930's school cruises stopped abruptly in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II and I have not found the Holy Grail of documentation on the 1930's era (yet) so I can basically only tell you that they happened. For the purposes of this article, we'll pick up the story after the war, in the more recent (and much better documented) periods of the 1960's and 1970's, when the school cruise phenomenon was re-booted. 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 reclaim her and the MS Devonia (built in 1939 as the Devonshire) for a reboot of 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 remodelled 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.

Split Ships

And yes, you read that right – there were ‘regular cruise guests’ on these educational cruises as well. With itineraries heavy on classic history landmarks, I imagine history aficionados would have found this type of cruise particularly attractive and maybe there were also bookings by the post-war equivalent of 'helicopter parents', eager to keep an eye on 'Little Timmy' as he ventured outside the nest for the first time. I do not know how the marketing department spun this fact in the marketing, but in practice the ships were divided in two. One half was for regular cruise guests with plush staterooms, restaurant and public spaces much like any other cruise ship of the day – the other was in ‘school ship’ configuration with austere 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. This fifty-fifty split was actually not BI's invention but was due to the way that 1930's troop ships were laid out.

Even with government subsidies and charter revenue, the privately-owned troop ships still had to be able to function as commercially viable cargo liners on overseas routes for their owners whenever they were not needed for trooping - hence they were constructed with part passenger cabins, part troop accommodation and spacious cargo holds to be as versatile as possible. BI simply maintained the hybrid format, partially to have somewhere to accommodate escorting teachers and partially to be able to market excess capacity as regular cruises and perhaps in some small way help offset the operational costs of school cruising. Prices were kept very reasonable to enable middle-class parents to send off their kids - a 2-week cruise was quoted at £60 - 70 per student in the 1960's - 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.

Onboard Staffing

The school cruises were intended for children in secondary education, ages 12 - 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 accompanying teachers a.k.a. party leaders (approx. 1 per every 15 students) and a permanent staff of matrons and masters at arms to supervise and help the children (and keep order onboard). Pre-WWII only boys classes / schools were allowed on the cruises but post-WWII, the set-up changed to co-ed, necessitating the sudden need for supervisors to institute 'Passion Patrols' in all nooks and crannies after hours to ensure the hormonal teens stuck to exploring their curriculums, rather than each others bodies. 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 (organizing the kids into rowing competitions with the ships lifeboats seems to have been a favorite activity). True to the company’s legacy most of the rest of the crew were Indian nationals.

Further Expansion

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.

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 and carrying upwards of 37.000 British school children per year, thousands and thousands of 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

The Daily Grind

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) housed between 12-40 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).

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 held in assemblies. 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 with games or swimming, 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 at a reasonable hour. 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.

Unique Circumstances

The educational cruise era post-WWII 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.

Last of the School Ships

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

Tuesday 13 April, 1982

It is early morning in Naples, Italy 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.

The End

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.

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