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  • Writer's pictureJacob Lyngsøe

Wreck of a Co-Op

Updated: Mar 8

As a self-professed cruise history geek, I often lament the lack of tangible artefacts from cruise history. Cruise ships never get turned into museums – they just get scrapped and disappear discreetly. True, a few ocean liners that pulled cruise duty in their golden years have made that transition, but their cruise role is rarely the focus of the exhibition. All the accumulated bric-a-brac, memorabilia and ephemera of cruising experiences past ends up in private collections / scrapbooks at best or in the trash at worst. But there are a few places where you can still feel tangible cruise history beneath your fingers and discover some interesting facets of cruise history so bear with me now, as I take you to one of those places.

Dive into History

All right then! You’ll need a boat! Then you’ll need to sail to a point located 50°48'33"N 0°50'32"E – for your reference that’s some 15 km / 10 miles south-west of Dungeness on the coast of Kent, England. You’ll need to don diving gear and descend some 34 m / 111 ft into the English Channel. Here you will come across the wreck of an Edwardian steam yacht, some 101 meters / 334 feet long, sitting upright on the sandy sea floor, bow pointing north-west. The clipper bow still features the remainder of a classic bowsprit, now draped in fishnet, and on the forecastle, you can still make out the capstans, anchor chains and the foot of the forward mast, though the mast itself has long since sheared away from corrosion.

SY Argonaut Wreck Location
Final resting place of the Argonaut in the English Channel, Google Earth segment with annotations

The central part of the ship where the superstructure, funnel and main mast was has collapsed from corrosion and decay a long time ago. To you this will likely just look like a skeletal rib cage of metal frames rising from a pile of silt-covered, coral-studded debris but these were once passenger cabins and public areas where Edwardian guests relaxed, mingled and pursued enjoyment on leisure cruises. A bit further down the length of the ship, only an experienced wreck diver can probably make out the spot where metal frames and plating show signs of brute impact rather than gradual decay but that’s where the Kingswell rammed her and dealt her the fatal blow that fateful September morning in 1908.

Swimming on, you'll see the stern section with the poop deck emerge out of the murky water, still relatively intact and upright, remains of bollards, deck machinery and fittings still identifiable on deck. These silted deck planks would have seen many a leisurely promenade or jovial game of cricket, potatoes race or bucket quoits take place in its time but now only crabs, congers and shoaling fish roam here. Descending over the back of the stern where the flagpole once proudly flew the Union Jack, you’ll see the large 4ft-square window frames of the stern castle cabins which you can actually swim into, if you dare. And if you know where to look above those windows, you may still be able to wipe some of the silt away and make out the nameplate: ARGONAUT

Ship of Many Names

The Argonaut was a 3.274-ton registered barquentine-rigged, iron steam yacht, built in 1879 as the SY (Steam Yacht) Norfolk at R&H Green, shipbuilders of Blackwall. She was commissioned by Money Wigram & Sons (yes, his name was Money and he was actually also a director of the Bank of England from 1823-1824 – I am not making this up) for use on their New Zealand route until 1882. She then changed hands (and names) quite a few times, going by La Plata (1882-1893) for Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., Orienta (1893-1895) for the Clubs Yachting Assc., the Norse King (1895-1896) for the Norse King Steamship Co. and subsequently for the Albion Steam Ship Co. (1896-1898) before finally landing with the Co-Operative Cruising Company in 1898 and being renamed the Argonaut. She was no stranger to cruising, having cruised extensively in Norway as both the Orienta and the Norse King but the documentation on that is so anorexically thin that not even I can spin a tale of it.

The Co-Operative Travel Movement

The Co-Operative Cruising Company was the brain child of Sir Henry Simpson Lunn (1859–1939) - English humanitarian, church minister, medical doctor and leisure travel entrepreneur. Lunn was a devout Wesleyan Methodist and an early forerunner of the Ecumenical Movement that believes that all Christian denominations should work together to promote Christian unity. As such he found a noble cause in organizing meetings of English church leaders which eventually also required him to make group travel arrangements to the annual Grindelwald Reunion Conferences in Switzerland. This led to Lunn formalizing his travel business into the Co-operative Educational Tours company in 1893 and eventually taking on commercial package holidays for the everyman, initially in Switzerland where he had made his first hotel contacts but eventually throughout Europe as well. These initial travel products featured a winter sports emphasis (as this was all the rage at the time) and an educational angle as Wesleyan doctrine considered life-long learning a vital tool for evangelism and the betterment of society, all wrapped in the spirit of pan-Christian fellowship. As Lunn saw it, travel should not just be frolicking around in exotic surroundings but instead provide nourishment for mind, body and soul and leave the traveler wiser, stronger and more fulfilled. This pursuit of empirical knowledge (particularly from the fields of history and culture), a health-based emphasis on exercise and sports and interdenominational Christian fellowship became the staples of all Lunn Travel services.

Polytechnic Holiday Guide 1891
Early Polytechnic Holiday Guide, May 1891, University of Westminster

If you are recognizing aspects of the ‘serious leisure’ philosophy discussed in Poly at Sea, you are not wrong. Lunn Travel was based on somewhat the same fusion of budget holiday packages with an educational angle for the common man where good Christian values blended peacefully with hard sciences - all stemming from the prevailing 'rational recreation' ideal meant to provide the working class with wholesome and sober ways to spend their increased leisure time and income. It’s not unlikely that Lunn actually got his inspiration from the Polytechnic Travel Association (PTA) as they did in fact start operating a few years before him and the two did compete for the same religious, middle-class crowd, though Lunn was perhaps operating with a slightly higher academic ambition and targeting religious practitioners, in addition to 'just believers'. But both companies were driven by philosophies of religion and general education and used the new movement of mass tourism to evangelize and educate those of lesser means than the elite, in the process creating the first mainstream tourism markets.

Being Co-Operative

As for what the term ‘Co-operative’ in Co-operative Educational Tours meant in business terms, I am not entirely sure and have found no documentation outlining how this company worked in practice, but if we go by the principles of the popular co-operative movement in Britain in the late 19th century, it could imply that it’s a travel agency owned and managed by the people who buy their services (consumer cooperative) or alternately a co-op where members pool their purchasing power under democratically-elected board management to obtain better terms/rates (purchasing cooperative). The latter seems to me to be the most logical and efficient business format for a commercial leisure travel operation but what do I know? Either way, the format does suggest that there was some form of membership and some form of regular dues involved to generate a ‘co-operative effect’. This would also make sense in that a middle-class clientele would likely have found a long-term installment payment plan more manageable than a large lump sum payment.

The purchase of the Argonaut in 1898 and the founding of the Co-Operative Cruising Company subdivision was likely an attempt at gaining more independence from third-party charter operators and more control of the full package product. Once again, it’s possible inspiration for the cruise operation came from the PTA who at that point had been successfully operating the SS Ceylon for six years. Some direct competition was unavoidable but there was enough to keep the two companies clearly demarcated; the Polytechnic travel services were for students of the Polytechnic and their families only, whereas Lunn travel was available to all interested parties. While both ships would spend the summers in the Norwegian fjords, the Ceylon would go into lay-up for the rest of the year, whereas the Argonaut would just relocate south and continue cruising. But between them, the two companies pioneered a democratization / mainstreaming of cruising in the 1890’s - coincidentally the same decade as the Germans elevated the other end of the product spectrum with some of the most exclusive luxury cruises ever conducted (read Ballinn's Gamble).

The Argonaut was an early example of the yacht aesthetic that characterized the early 20th century (Read Age of Yachts); clipper hull, ornate bow, counter stern, one funnel and three masts (but no sails were carried – she had her own quadruple-expansion steam engine capable of around 9-10 knots/hr). She featured quite decent single-class accommodation for up to 120 guests at normal occupancy and was crewed by 120 men. Cabins had bunk bedding for up to four people per room, restroom and bathing facilities were communal and the ship had electric lighting throughout. She had a very nice dining room, or ‘saloon’, and though I have never found a deck plan or detailed description, I would assume also had one or more additional lounges for library or religious functions as well as an expansive promenade deck, frequently used for sports. From 1898 onwards the Argonaut functioned as the cruising arm of the Co-operative Educational Tours company, sailing primarily ex England to Norway in the summer seasons and the Mediterranean and even Caribbean in the winter seasons. As for elaborating on the guest experience of these cruises… well, that’s where I run into the usual challenges.

SY Argonaut dining saloon
Dining saloon of the SY Argonaut, Postcard ca. 1899, own collection

In the beginning I mentioned how historic cruise paraphernalia disappears into obscurity or private collectorship. Needless to say, this makes retracing the history of cruising quite challenging and not to mention expensive when such items have to be recovered and the Argonaut story is nothing if not illustrative of that complication. If I had £100 + postage to burn on Thomas Heywood’s personal travel account of a Caribbean cruise on the Argonaut in November of 1902, ‘The Westward Quest of the Argonauts’, I could get it from an online rare book shop and share with you a personal account of an Argonaut cruise experience. If I had at least £4-500 lying around I could try to bid online for Miss Ellen Perowne’s scrapbook of a Mediterranean Argonaut cruise in the spring of 1899 and gain a lot of interesting mementos, photos, ephemera, travel accounts etc. to spice up this article with. If I had £50 + postage to fork out on an original Argonaut cruise ticket, issued to a mr Wingfield King, for a Mediterranean cruise from Marseilles in January of 1906, I would totally get it on eBay and show it off here. But alas, I don’t have that kind of research budget for every single article I write (though I have a good feeling about the lottery ticket I bought yesterday). The point is; there is still documentation of cruising past out there, but you have to be prepared to dig very deep to find it and / or part with a lot of money to obtain it. For now, I am making do with publicly available, free sources (at least until that lottery ticket goes through).

Take it in, people! This is as close to £700 worth of cruise research as I am getting.

The 'Faraway Laddie'

So, I am all the more thankful for lay preacher Harry Gill, aka the ‘Faraway Laddie’, or rather for the online community archive My Wesleyan Methodists for transcribing and publicly posting the many letters Harry sent to his fiancée, Maggie, from an 1899 Mediterranean cruise on the Argonaut (consistently signing off with ‘from your Faraway Laddie’). While Harry is not a professional travel writer and is much more focused on sharing destination and people impressions than onboard ones, there are glimpses of onboard life and happenings to be gleaned from his writings; he shares a cabin with 3 others, meets many religious practitioners like himself among the passengers, speaks highly of the onboard food, less highly of the entertainment (two singers with more enthusiasm than talent), enjoys four squares a day at sea (including Tea at 4PM), attends a reading of Tennyson poems onboard, takes the occasional brisk bath with cold sea water, plays quoits and cricket with his fellow passengers on deck (balls lost to the sea incur a fine), joins morning prayers in the secretary’s office, enjoys scenic cruising and interdenominational Christian fellowship on deck, gets violently seasick in the Aegean Sea, observes a Man Overboard drill by the crew (7 minutes to retrieve the dummy rescuee - not bad for a time before high-speed MOB boats) and - who knows - perhaps even helps the young Miss Perowne with her scrapbook (because she was on that same cruise).

Ashore, he always goes out exploring, either on a Lunn shore excursion arrangement or on his own / with travel companions, using trains or horse carriages to visit sights further afield. He seeks out Naples and Pompeii, Athens and the Akropolis, Jerusalem and the Holy Land on Lunn excursions and enjoys delightful lunches in highly-rated local hotels in the course of touring. Even when he is not on some organized historical highlight tour, his roaming around always has an educational or religious motivation – seeking out local churches, museums, studying local architecture etc. or communing with locals by way of charades and hand gestures when they don't speak English. He even opts out of a day-trip to Tyreus as it ‘..looked too much like pleasure’. He takes a lot of pictures with his newfangled Kodak day-light loading folding pocket camera and collects some unique souvenirs, like water from the river Jordan or pressed flowers from the Garden of Gethsemane. Through Harry’s eyes and pen we get an interesting glimpse into a cruise experience that is all about historical and cultural exploration in the spirit of Christian fellowship.

But Lunn Travel was about to take the educational emphasis to the next level.

The schoolmaster is abroad

In 1901 Lunn Travel dispatched the Argonaut on a special ‘Schoolmasters Cruise’ of destinations from Greek ancient history. Onboard were 90 male schoolmasters, 70 ladies (many also educators) and 40 others with no academic credentials but lots of enthusiasm for ancient history. The cruise was an experiment in specifically targeting academics, scholars and history buffs and elevating the onboard discourse from educational to scholarly. Guest lecturers on specific topics would be invited along or sourced from the passenger manifest to host onboard symposiums on ancient history / archeology. Shore excursions with local expert leadership were offered to the most famous sights and landmarks along the way. This was not just going to be an educational cruise but a downright specialist one, honing in on highlights and discoveries from ancient Greek history exclusively. A correspondent of The Times even went along to cover the journey which he did in an article named ‘The Schoolmaster is abroad’ published April 26, 1901.

The ‘Schoolmaster Cruise’ format was quite successful and was repeated on an annual basis until it eventually coalesced into the Hellenic Travelers’ Club in 1905, strongly supported (if not exactly birthed) by Henry Lunn and his friend, historian / politician Lord James Bryce. From that point on, the Co-operative Cruising Co. would function primarily as the travel service for the Hellenic Travelers Club. The Club consisted primarily of teachers, scholars and academics and quickly became a clannish lot, defined by their deep passion for and expert knowledge of the ancient world, yet large enough to have no difficulty constantly fielding enough participants to keep the Argonaut going. Many of them went with such regularity that they developed a solid familiarity and even friendships with the crew of the Argonaut. The reasonable pricing secured by the co-operative formula helped – in 1906 the price of a 3-week Mediterranean cruise was about eighteen guineas – the equivalent of £2.800 / $3.530 / EU 3.200 in 2023 currency. That might not sound particularly reasonable to you but it’s that darn inflation – bear in mind that a Guinea was roughly the equivalent of a Pound and that the approximate annual income of a teacher in Britain was around £80-90 in 1906 and that might give you a better sense of proportion.

SY Argonaut deck games
Argonaut deck games; from left to right descending Bull Board, Bucket Quoits, Cricket and Ladies Potato Race

In my Poly on Sea episode I awarded the SS Ceylon the title of 'first expedition cruise ship' in history by virtue of the educational dimension to her cruises and her focus on the rather off-the-beaten-track destinations of Norway, which at the time were a first for leisure cruising, but the Argonaut is undeniably a close second and even more focused version of the same concept. The Poly travelers, while undeniably curious about the world around them, were after all just middle class laymen and the pursuit of knowledge could not really rise much beyond general education. But the Hellenic Travelers were - pardon the phrase - a bunch of full-fledged history geeks, ready and willing to submerge themselves in the deepest, most academic recesses of their passion for the duration of a cruise that frequented not just any random sequence of popular or mainstream ports, but destinations specifically chosen for their significance in ancient Mediterranean history. If anything the Argonaut should perhaps be credited with pioneering themed itineraries where a single subject or theme forms the common denominator for all ports chosen for the itinerary - a practice still very much in use with connoisseur cruises for subjects like art, food, sports and even still historic subjects like famous explorers, historic periods or specific events.

Unfortunately, the vessel for such splendid, committed exploration would not be long for this world.

The Wreck

The Argonaut departed Tilbury docks in the afternoon of Monday, 28 September, 1908 for an 18-day cruise of the Western Mediterranean, carrying 113 passengers from the Hellenic Travelers Club, including Henry Lunn himself, and 118 crew. The following morning, she found herself about 15 km / 10 miles south-west of Dungeness and shrouded in thick sea fog. Captain Reedham ordered dead slow ahead, activated the steam-powered foghorn and posted lookouts. In a time before radio and radar coordination, a visual fix was really the only way of avoiding other vessels – even a foghorn would only tell you if other ships were around, but not necessarily where they were or where they were going.

Illustration of Argonaut in morning dusk and heavy fog

Whether the crew of the Newcastle iron ore carrier, Kingswell, ever used their foghorn or whether the Argonaut crew just could not determine their bearing and proximity is unknown, but when the iron ore carrier suddenly emerged from a fog bank at around 08:35AM bearing down on the Argonaut, it came as a complete surprise. There was no time for evasive action and the Kingswell ploughed hard into the side of the Argonaut, opening a fatal gash just forward of the engine compartment and damaging its own bow critically in the process. Most of the passengers were at breakfast at the time and the collision caused no casualties or injuries. The Kingswell quickly dislodged itself and drifted away into the fog while its crew assessed the damage. Meanwhile, Captain Reedham received the first damage report from the ship’s carpenter of six feet of water in the engine room and rising rapidly and needed no further assessment to tell him that his ship was doomed. Within minutes of the collision, he ordered Abandon Ship.

The evacuation was carried out in good order and with no panic, owing in large part to the inherent trust and familiarity the many repeat passengers had with the crew they knew so well. Some passengers even felt confident enough in the situation that they retrieved their possessions from their cabins or found time to take pictures of the abandon ship proceedings, giving the whole affair an unintentional holiday vibe. As owner of the ship and organizer of the cruise Henry Lunn felt a certain responsibility to manage the situation and approached the captain to ask if he could stay with him; ‘No mr Lunn! Your duty is with the passengers. Mine is with the ship as long as there is a single soul onboard!’ the Captain replied. Four years later Henry Lunn would actually be called upon by the Titanic wreck inquiry to testify on that exact moment when the commission was debating whether or not Titanic’s owner, J. Bruce Ismay, had done the right thing by taking a seat in a lifeboat before the evacuation was completed.

No photos of the Argonaut sinking exist but a few months earlier the similar-sized cargo ship King Cadwallon foundered off St. Martin's island at the other end of the English Channel also following a collision in fog and that was actually photographed. So for an approximation of the scene, behold the sinking of the King Cadwallon in 1908.

King Cadwallon sinking 1908
The King Cadwallon sinking off St. martin's Island © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Gibson's of Scilly Shipwreck Collection

Captain Reedham and his crew were the last to board lifeboats and slip away from the ship, only about 19 minutes after the initial collision. A mere 10 minutes later the Argonaut slipped quietly under the waves, bow first, and disappeared. The lifeboats set course for the nearby stationary Kingswell, only to be denied boarding for fear that she herself could sink any minute. Instead, the lifeboats were taken in tow by the Kingswell as she carefully started motoring towards Dover. The passing steamer Southmoor eventually took the Argonaut passengers aboard and the Kingswell continued motoring toward shore where she eventually beached herself just west of Hythe. The survivors reached Dover without incident and were transported back to London that same evening by special train.

The Hellenic Travelers Legacy

As far as I can tell Henry Lunn did not replace the Argonaut to carry on educational cruising, at least not under the banner of Co-op Cruising but seeing as he was basically ‘the father’ of the Hellenic Travelers Club, it’s more than likely he continued orchestrating further tours, possibly by running them under his Lunn Travel brand but using chartered ships. The Hellenic Travelers Club continued their annual excursions / cruises until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, resumed their activities in 1924 before finally ceasing activities for good with the outbreak of World War II. Henry Lunn also passed away in 1939, suggesting that he may have been the driving force in keeping the Club going right up until his death. Post-WWII Lunn Travel eventually merged with Poly(technic) Travel, creating Lunn Poly in 1965 but by then the educational and religious emphasis had largely dissipated from their activities. But one thread of the Hellenic Travelers legacy did survive until the present-day cruise landscape.

After World War II Lunn’s private secretary. W.F. Swan set up a travel agency named Swan’s Travel Bureau, initially to arrange trips to war graves and memorials in Europe for grieving families, but later on he tapped back into cruises on the Hellenic Travelers Club format. He chartered ships with the Greek Nomikos and Typaldos Lines and put on the same destination-centric educational cruises with a focus on history, archaeology and culture of the ancient world, even roping in many of the former club members to work as onboard lecturers/hosts. One such member was renowned British archaeologist and former chairman of the Hellenic Travelers Club, Sir Mortimer Wheeler.

When Sir Mortimer was approached by the BBC in the late 1950’s to help create the documentary series Armchair Voyage - a travelogue of historical highlights of the ancient world, hosted by himself – he strongly opined to the producers that all travel on the show be done by ship as this was the more historically appropriate and more contemplative travel format, thereby using the opportunity to introduce Swan’s cruises into the mix. And I’m sure you can see where this is heading now – Working with Sir Mortimer and the BBC Swan’s Tours evolved into a full range of educational / cultural cruises that would eventually brand itself as Swan Hellenic Cruises and would even receive a complimentary leg-up in marketing from the highly popular BBC-show that frequently showcased the travel format. Despite a turbulent history with many changes of ownership, incl. two business terminations (2007 and 2017), Swan Hellenic continues to this day under much different management, but still with the same focus on culture- and nature-themed educational cruising, though falling more squarely and organically into the (luxury) expedition cruise category nowadays. Yet another example of how deep the roots of contemporary cruise brands actually go when you bother to explore them.

In a few more decades the wreck of the Argonaut will have sunk further into the silt and decayed to the point of becoming unrelateable as a human artifact and what few bits and bobs are left of the wreck will be hawked among collectors and isn't that just an apt metaphor for the history of cruising in itself - half buried in the silt of indifference and obscurity, largely forgotten by a world / industry that only ever looks to the future and with its bones picked clean by collectors. Isn't it about time we gave the history of cruising a place of its own? I mean, there's a Museum of Tap Water in Beijing, a Museum of Dog Collars in England and a Phallological Museum in Iceland, for Pete's sake, so don't tell me cruise tourism doesn't warrant a space of its own! Surely any activity that mankind devotes itself passionately and consistently to over 180 years, world wars and pandemics notwithstanding, is worthy of a museum of its own, or at the very least a special permanent exhibit. How about you, SeaCity Southampton? The phenomenon practically originated in Soton, you already have a lot of stuff on the ocean liners that fostered the phenomenon and it would make an interesting complement to your Titanic exhibit (which is great, by the way). I'll be awaiting your call!

Now, let me just check that lottery ticket, just to see ... if ... maybe ... ... ...


This is the twenty-fourth 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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2 commentaires

03 nov. 2023

No former cruise ships as museums?

Mmmm - what about s/s(well, m/s) BORE, ROTTERDAM and QUEEN MARY - originally liners, but also did some cruises.

J. de Nauclér

Sweden - E.U.

Jacob Lyngsøe
Jacob Lyngsøe
03 nov. 2023
En réponse à

Hi there. Thanks for your comment. You are right in that there are ocean liners turned museums who also did a bit of cruising in their time but they were conceived and operated primarily as ocean liners and have achieved museum status because of their historic legacies as such. The fact they also did some cruising is incidental and never the focus of the museum. My point was that there are no designated or 'full-blooded' cruise ships from history that have been turned into museums where the main point is to showcase cruise history. Hope you enjoyed the read otherwise. Best Regards!

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