P&O History

The past

Founded in 1837, this year we celebrate 179 years of heritage. The Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) first offered voyages known as 'excursions,' when passengers from England travelled with the Royal Mails to ports on the Iberian Peninsular and the Mediterranean, returning home on other P&O mail voyages.

The company really began in 1815 when Brodie McGhie Wilcox opened a ship-broking firm in Lime Street, London. After partnering with a former seaman, Arthur Anderson, the company called Wilcox and Anderson began trading with a small fleet of sailing ships between England and the Iberian Peninsular countries of Spain and Portugal. Wilcox and Anderson prospered and worked hard to secure return cargoes. The two countries allowed the firm to combine their colours - the blue and white of Portugal and the red and yellow of Spain, to form the company flag. This flag would become  synonymous with passenger shipping services and cruises from England to the East and Australia.

In 1840 Wilcox and Anderson were awarded a new contract to extend their service to the Egyptian port of Alexandria via Malta. The new contract required that the voyage from England to Alexandria be accomplished in 15 days. The first vessel to open this service was the newly built 1,787-ton paddle-wheel steamship ORIENTAL, reflecting the Company's arrival in the East. Hence the title Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company

Though P&O's main focus was mail delivery, it soon became clear to both men that there was more to a life at sea than just getting from A to B. And so leisure cruising was born, with the very first leisure cruise departing London bound for the Mediterranean in 1844.

When P&O pioneered cruising from Australia in 1932 the new 23,000-ton mail steamer STRATHAIRD carried 1,100 passengers on the first cruise to Brisbane and Norfolk Island - a sailing which sold out in just one day.

From 1945 to 1972, it was from the decks of P&O ships that over 1 million United Kingdom migrants caught their very first glimpse of their new Australian homeland. Known as Ten Pound Poms, this mass arrival was a scheme devised by the Australian and British Governments to help populate Australia.


Today P&O Cruises cruises to the stunning South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand, and select ports in South East Asia.

Cruises depart from Adelaide, Auckland, Brisbane, Cairns, Fremantle, Melbourne, Sydney and Singapore.

Our fleet:

  • PACIFIC EXPLORER, 77,441 tonnes carrying 2000 guests
  • PACIFIC ADVENTURE, 198,865 tonnes carrying 2600 guests
  • PACIFIC ENCOUNTER, 198,865 tonnes carrying 2600 guests

P&O Cruises continues to expand its local offerings with even more regional ports on the horizon. Today, P&O Cruises continues to visit local destinations including Moreton Island - Tangalooma, Airlie Beach, Cairns, Port Douglas, Eden, Kangaroo Island, Port Lincoln, Robe, Hobart, Port Arthur, Esperance, Albany and more.

P&O invents Cruising

The formative years of P&O Cruises and its early struggle to survive owe much to the remarkable energy and negotiating skills of Arthur Anderson. A man of foresight he can also be credited with the invention of cruising.

In 1835 he started a newspaper in his native Shetland. To fill an empty space in the first issue he inserted an advertisement for an imaginary cruise to the islands off Scotland. The idea was radical but indicated the breadth of his thinking and foreshadowed what is now one of the fastest growing leisure industries in the world.

On 14 March 1843 P&O placed an historic, pioneering advertisement in the 'Times' of London for a round voyage in the 782-ton paddle steamer TAGUS. The advertisement read:
Steam to Constantinople, calling at
Gibraltar, Malta, Athens, Syria, Smyrna, Mytilene and the Dardenelles.

From that singular advertisement, P&O continued to develop our popular 'classic' voyages. In 1844 the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray sailed around the Mediterranean using these voyages as a guest of P&O's. From this experience he wrote the popular book, 'From Cornhill to Cairo.'

Cruising becomes popular

Regular cruising came later in the mid 1880s. The Orient Line was one of the pioneers when it entered the trade in 1889 with two of their Australian Mail steamers, the CHIMBORAZO and GARRONE, in which they offered cruises from London to Baltic and Northern ports. In 1904 P&O refitted their 5,545-ton Australian mail steamer ROME as a cruise ship, renaming her VECTIS.

She made P&O's first cruise from London to the Norwegian Fjords in the 1904 summer season and remained in the cruising trade until she was replaced in 1912.

Cruising in Northern waters from the United Kingdom developed steadily and became a permanent seasonal fixture in the schedules of most shipping companies. Small scale cruising from Sydney had long been the preserve of Australian coastal steamship companies. In 1932 both P&O and its sister company Orient Line started cruising with two of their large mail steamers. P&O was the first with the 22,544-ton STRATHAIRD sailing from Sydney on 23 December 1932 on a cruise to Norfolk Island. On the following daythe 20,000-ton ORONSAY sailed to Noumea on the Orient Line's first cruise from Sydney, establishing Noumea as one of the most popular Pacific Island ports of call.

Cruising from Sydney in the big Royal Mail Steamers became an increasingly popular form of holiday with cruises sailing throughout the year to ports in New Zealand, Fiji, Papua-New Guinea, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. In addition to this, both companies extended the cruising market from Australia with very popular voyages to and from Ceylon and India using the Mail steamers on the regular service to and from England.

Cruising new horizons

Cruising was brought to a sudden stop in 1939 with the start of World War II. The necessity of transporting enormous numbers of troops and personnel around the world required that all British registered passenger and cargo ships be put into the transport service and the great mail steamers providing cruises from Australia were requisitioned by the British Government for war service.

Cruising resumed in Australia in 1953. The rigid pre-war mail contracts that required weekly sailings from and to Australia were gradually replaced in the 1950s with aircraft contracts, a development that accelerated with the introduction of the Boeing 707 jet aircraft. As mail voyages became fewer, ships were transferred to the cruising schedule. For Australia the next major development in cruising came between March and October 1968 when the legendary HIMALAYA was based in Sydney and undertook eight consecutive cruises to the South Seas.

The growth of cruising from Australia has been spectacular and is now one of the most popular holidays for Australians and New Zealanders. P&O Cruises first permanent ship was HIMALAYA followed by the ORCADES, ARCADIA, SEA PRINCESS, ORIANA, FAIRSTAR, FAIR PRINCESS and PACIFIC SKY.

Cruises historian Rob Henderson

From his childhood as the son of a ship engineer and his very first cruise as a child admitting he was 'hooked', to a long life spent preserving the history of P&O Cruises long relationship with Australia.

After starting with a P&O Cruises sister brand in 1963 overseeing archives and getting familiar with the shipping industry, he has since become the brand's go-to man for everything history related. From giving talks onboard and being interviewed for P&O Cruises SailAway loyalty magazine, to compiling records of P&O Cruises' voyages since the dawn of leisure cruising, he has dedicated his life to preserving the P&O Cruises legacy...and what a legacy it is.

As for what spurred Rob's lifelong dedications to the brand, in 1970 he went on to become a major custodian of a large portion of P&O Cruises' historical material. Since then his collection has grown over a lifetime of travelling and searching. The rest, as they say, is history.

For some, the love of the sea is ingrained. Such is the story of P&O.

"I should think that the P&O name really should be at the top of the list as far as the development of Australia is concerned, and not just from an immigration point of view. Before us, as far as the people in the rest of the world were concerned, Australia may as well have been on the moon. It was such a long way away. Until 1852, when P&O won the contract to deliver the mails in a regular monthly service, people relied on sailing ships to deliver the mail and letters they wrote to home would sometimes take one, two, and maybe even three years to get there. Our entry into the mail trade is what ended Australia' isolation." Rob Henderson


By Boyd Cable
1st edition September 1937
Published by Ivor Nicholson & Watson Ltd., London

By David Howarth and Stephen Howarth Revised Edition 1994
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London
ISBN 0-297-83358-8

By Charles F. Morris
Published 1980 by Teredo Books Ltd, Brighton, U.K
ISBN 0 903662 07 8

General Editor John S. White, FRPSL
Published by the Philatelic Association of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
ISBN 0 73162725 3

'LORDS of the EAST' (The East India Company and its Ships 1600-1874)
By Jean Sutton, 2000 Edition Published by Conway Maritime Press, U.K.
ISBN 0 85177 786 4

By Philip Dawson, 2000 Published by Conway Maritime Press, U.K.
ISBN 0 85177 660 4

By Howard Robinson, 1964 Published by George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London

‘P&O and the AUSTRALIAN TRADES (1870-1914)'
By Dr. Freda Harcourt
A paper delivered at the 1993 conference 'New Directions in Maritime History,'
Organised by Australian Association for Maritime History and the International
Commission of Maritime History