The educational cruises of the BI Line

The words ‘educational cruise’ give an insight into life in Britain fifty years ago, and a world very different from that of today. There was, of course, no internet, no Facebook, no Instagram. Devices like smartphones were still science fiction, as was the idea of computers as mundane household appliances. Air travel had only just become affordable, and holidays abroad were still a novelty. The 1960s saw considerable social changes, but they were still the era of the post-war consensus. By today’s standards, both Labour and the Conservatives would be viewed as hard left. The idea of ‘the common good’ still had some currency among big companies and running affordable cruises for school children was an obvious idea for shipping company directors not obsessed by the bottom line.

Educational cruising began in the 1930s using troopships, that were otherwise idle during the summer months. They allowed the pupils to see for themselves places they had otherwise for the most part come across only in history and geography lessons. The war put an end to these first educational cruises, and they were not resumed after the war as National Service kept the troopships busy. However, the British Government ended National Service and the use of ships for troop movements in 1960, and the British India Steam Navigation Company (BI) decided to convert the 1937-built 11,600-ton troopship MS Dunera to a full-time ‘schoolroom at sea’, with dormitories, classrooms, swimming pool, games rooms, a library, and assembly rooms. The Dunera began her new life as an educational cruise ship in 1961, and she was joined by her half-sister MS Devonia a year later. The educational cruise program was a success, and in 1965 a third ship was added.

The 20,500-ton 480 ft (146 m) SS Nevasa had been built for BI to government order and was launched on the Clyde in November 1955; she and with her sister ship the Bibby Line’s SS Oxfordshire were the largest troopships ever built in the United Kingdom. She could accommodate 500 officers and their families and 1,000 NCOs and men on the troop deck. She was thus almost new when the end of trooping at sea made her redundant. She was laid up in the River Fal, Cornwall, in 1962 but in 1965 BI decided to return her to service as their third educational cruise ship. The conversion, carried out at Falmouth, cost £500,000. (The Oxfordshire was renamed Fairstar and repurposed first as an immigrant ship on the Australia run, and later as a cruise ship.)

By now, BI were running 60 educational cruises a year. But the Dunera and Devonia were thirty years old, so in 1967 they were retired and replaced by the SS Uganda, a 14,400-ton 517 ft (158 m) cargo-liner built 1952. The Uganda operated between London and East Africa, but increasingly she was losing passengers to air travel. Unlike the Nevasa, whose dormitories were equally suited to school children as to soldiers, the Uganda required major work to convert her to an educational cruise ship. Decks were inserted in her cargo holds, which now became the dormitory accommodation with a total of 920 berths. The conversion raised her passenger capacity from 300 to 1,226, her tonnage to 16,900 tons, and cost the substantial sum of £2.8 million.

The differing origins of the two ships is apparent in these photographs: the purposeful, no-nonsense appearance of the Nevasa (left) contrasts with that of the Uganda (right). The latter’s graceful lines had suffered to an extent during the conversion to an educational cruise ship, but she still retained the look of an ocean liner. Both were great looking ships – real ships, not like the motorised barges used for cruising now.

It is now fifty years since I sailed in the Nevasa on Cruise No. 132 with my school during the 1969 Easter Holiday. We were accompanied by schoolmasters Mr Terry (English) and Mr Stone (French). We flew out from Gatwick (Laker Air BAC 1-11) to join the ship at Venice. From the plane, I took this shot over the Alps.

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From the airport, we transferred to a watercraft, which took us through the canals of Venice to the ship.

Aboard, we were taken to our dormitory, Baffin, located near the bow on D Deck (the dorms were all named for either explorers or admirals). After an interminable wait for our turn to visit the ship’s canteen, we went ashore, and Mr Terry took us to a church he claimed had been the inspiration for the school’s late nineteenth century chapel. The chapel was indeed inspired by a Venetian church, the Santa Maria dei Miracoli, but having since visited it I am not convinced it’s the same church we were shown that day. We were then divided into groups of four and left to explore on our own. We visited a glass factory where I bought four glass animals. Sadly, all have long since broken, but I have never seen anything of comparable quality for the price on my many visits to Venice in adult life.

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An obligatory shot of the Bridge of Sighs.

We sailed overnight, and after a day at sea reached Dubrovnik in what was then Yugoslavia. During the day at sea, Messrs Stone and Terry gave us a talk about Dubrovnik. I’ve heard that pupils on term time cruises had several hours of regular lessons when at sea, but this was not the case for us. We simply had lectures about the ship’s next port of call. There were also activity groups – I joined the Chess club (I was a moderately good player who once finished runner-up in the junior school championship).

At sea.

Every evening at sea a movie was shown – “Clambake” (a musical starring Elvis Presley), “Who’s minding the mint?” (a comedy), “Yours, Mine, and Ours” (comedy starring Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda), and “Custer of the West” (starring Robert Shaw). There seemed to be a distinct lack of movies in the ship – I think these were the only four, and they were shown repeatedly. Most nights there was a disco (or ‘dance’ as it was known) on the after deck. It was very popular, but this was about six months before I first began to take an interest in girls and I often preferred the ship’s library. This featured a large illustrated book about the history of the Earth from its formation to then end of the last Ice Age (I wish I could remember its title). The fo’c’sle was open to dormitory passengers, and it was possible to stand there DiCaprio/Winslet style and get a fine view whenever the ship was close to land (which was often the case). It was a constant source of amusement to those standing in the fo’c’sle that somebody had carved the word ‘VAGINA’ into the paintwork there. The fo’c’sle was off-limits after sunset; this was always announced by playing “Sunset” over the tannoy.

I took a lot of pictures in Dubrovnik, more than I would take elsewhere. Note the Nevasa at anchor out to sea. The harbour was too small for the ship to dock, and we went ashore in the lifeboats. I’d borrowed my mum’s Kodak Instamatic camera for the trip; I got through two film cartridges over the whole seventeen days of the cruise. These were expensive, so I was a little more sparing on subsequent ports of call. Our stay in Dubrovnik was fairly brief: after a few hours exploration, we returned to the harbour where the lifeboats were waiting to take us back to the ship. As we got underway, “A life on the Ocean Wave”, “Hearts of Oak”, and “Rule Britannia” were played over the tannoy. This happened at every subsequent departure, and apparently was standard practice whenever Nevasa left port – a great tradition worthy of this fine ship.

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The next port of call was Heraklion, Crete, where we were taken to see the ancient Minoan site of Knossos on the outskirts of the city. At the time, I recall being astonished that dark red paintwork on the columns of the Palace and the vivid paintwork elsewhere could have survived for 3,500 years – I didn’t realise that I what I was seeing was the result of Sir Arthur Evans’ rather fanciful reconstruction less than half a century earlier. The above picture, originally missing, has now come to light, but I think I originally took at least one other.

From Crete we sailed to Rhodes, where again the ship had to anchor out to sea. But the conditions were too rough to use the lifeboats (!) and we were landed in some dubious-looking local vessels. I don’t remember too much else about Rhodes, but I took three photos of a place that I have since identified as Lindos. Now a major resort, it was apparently much quieter in 1969.

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We then sailed back to Italy, and our next port of call Naples. En route, we sailed through the Messina Strait and then made a close approach to Stromboli. No pictures of the latter, frustratingly.

We spent a few days in Naples, including a visit to Pompeii.

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Then it was on to Lisbon, our last port of call, passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on the way. Lisbon was for me the highlight of the trip, possibly because we stayed for three days and there was a lot to do. On arrival, we went on a coach trip to see a number of local sights. These included the Ponte 25 de Abri suspension bridge over the Tagus (then named for the dictator Antonio Salazar; he had recently been replaced by Marcelo Caetano, but the bloodless revolution that ended the dictatorship was still five years off). We saw the modernist Padrão dos Descobrimentos on the banks of the Tagus (frustratingly covered with scaffolding when I returned to Lisbon for the first time in 2016); the Jerónimos Monastery (which for many years afterwards I confused with Lisbon Cathedral); and a football stadium. I remember that practically everybody thought that this was Benfica’s Estadio da Luz, but somebody in the group said that it wasn’t. I wasn’t particularly into football at the time (in fact nobody in the group was), but everybody knew that Benfica was the Portuguese side Man Utd had beaten the previous year to become the first English (though not the first British) team to win the European Cup (now known as the Champions League). Based on the location of the other sights on the tour, I now believe that what we saw was the Estádio Nacional, where Celtic’s Lions of Lisbon did become the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967, a year before Man Utd.

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I took just one photograph in Lisbon, the final exposure on the film, of the Parque Eduardo VII.

From Lisbon, we sailed for Southampton. Ahead of schedule, we dropped anchor in Vigo Bay and held a regatta in the lifeboats (nobody was permitted to go ashore). Our boat was disqualified because some idiot took their lifejacket off. For the last night at sea, the school kids put on a cabaret, though I don’t recall anybody from our school taking part. Next morning found the ship entering the Solent. The then brand-new QE 2 was in port when we reached Southampton, and we passed her shortly before we docked. A coach was waiting to take us back to school, and from there I returned home for the remainder of my Easter Holiday.

I still regard the trip as one of the highlights of my schooldays, as do many others, and there is now a Facebook group “S.S. Uganda & S.S. Nevasa” for the now-ageing people who went on the educational cruises. For the record, 1) the food was nowhere near as bad as some people posting in that forum make out and 2) our cruise must have been the only one ever to avoid near-shipwreck in the Bay of Biscay.

Sadly, the Nevasa’s days were numbered. The oil crisis of 1973/74 meant that BI could not afford to keep both ships in service. The Nevasa was newer and faster than the Uganda, but her more powerful military-grade machinery meant that she was more expensive to run. Her final cruise was in December 1974, and she was scrapped in Taiwan in June 1975 just short of her twentieth birthday. With the benefit of hindsight, BI scrapped the wrong ship. In April 1982, Argentine forces invaded the Falklands and the UK government wasted no time in dispatching a naval task force to the South Atlantic to recapture the islands. The Uganda, midway through a cruise, was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence to serve as a hospital ship, a role for which a purpose-built troopship like the Nevasa would have been far better suited.

Uganda’s 315 cabin passengers and 940 school children were landed in Naples and flown back to Blighty. When the ship docked in Naples, the undoubtedly disappointed school children reportedly sang “Rule Britannia“. After undergoing a hasty refit at Gibraltar, Uganda served with distinction in the Falklands War. During the conflict, 750 casualties including 150 Argentinians were treated aboard, and 504 surgical operations were conducted. Her wartime service over, she returned to Britain in August and after undergoing a refit at North Shields, she returned to educational cruising late in September.

It was to be a very brief comeback. In November, the Uganda was chartered for two years as a store ship between Ascension Island and the Falklands. Critics claimed that BI had realised that the Uganda was more profitable in military service than she was as an educational cruise ship, but the reality was that school bookings had fallen off due to uncertainty over when the ship would return to civilian service. After a further refit, she sailed back to the Falklands in January 1983. Her charter ended in April 1985, but after three years of military service, the Uganda – no spring chicken from the outset – was worn out, and BI never restored her as a cruise ship. She was laid up in the River Fal, and eventually scrapped in Taiwan, bringing to an end the era of educational cruising.

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