History of the Cruise Holiday | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


The Cult of the Cruise – A Look at the History of the Cruise Holiday

In May 1844, the below advertisement appeared in the Cheltenham Chronicle:

A Six Weeks Tour, by Steam, to Athens, Smyrna, and Constantinople, calling at Gibraltar and Malta – with the option of visiting, en route, Vigo, Oporto, Lisbon, and Gibraltar.

 The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company’s well-known splendid Steam Ship ‘Tagus,’ 900 tons and 300 horse power, will start from Blackwall on Thursday, 20th June, for the above ports.

Time occupied in the Passage, out and home, about six weeks – very superior accommodation for Passengers.

Cheltenham Looker-On | 11 May 1884

This advertisement was placed by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, now better known as P&O. And what makes it all the more remarkable is that it has all the hallmarks of the modern cruise – a trip, by ship, to various ports of call, in luxury accommodation. Indeed, this advertisement marks the very start of the cruising phenomenon.

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So in this special blog, we dive into the history of cruising, from its Victorian infancy to its Golden Age in the 1930s, using pages taken from the British Newspaper Archive.

The Tatler | 7 June 1933

Cruising in the 1890s – Electric Lights, Electric Bells, Hot and Cold Baths

In the 1840s a potential cruise passenger was looking at travelling on a 900 tonne ship; but by the 1890s ships had got bigger, destinations had got more and more diverse, and facilities on board had improved beyond all recognition.

In 1891 P&O are advertising a ‘Pleasure Cruise‘ to Sicily, Greece and Constantinople aboard the Chimborazo, a 3847 ton steamship. The Chimborazo appears to be the pinnacle of luxury, complete with ‘electric light, electric bells, hot and cold baths, and first-class cuisine.’

Illustrated London News | 28 February 1891

Across the Atlantic, Canadians were also going cruising. In Canada during the 1890s, the idea of a cruise for ‘Health and Pleasure’ was developing. The Toronto Daily Mail advertises a ‘Winter Cruise to the Tropics,’ for Canadians eager to escape the harsh winter cold.

This winter cruise was set to take in Havana, Kingston, St Kitts and Bermuda, amongst other Caribbean destinations, on board the Britannia, ‘a beautiful vessel, fitted in the most luxurious manner, and specially adapted for pleasure cruises.’

Toronto Daily Mail | 10 December 1892

Meanwhile, back in Britain and Ireland, cruise ships were taking passengers to more and more destinations. The Irish Independent in 1894 advertises a ‘Whitsuntide Norway Cruise,’ which promised to include the ‘grandest scenery of the Western Fjords.’ Again, there is an emphasis on the luxury of the experience, with ‘electric light’ and ‘excellent cuisine’ on offer.

In 1894 P&O had gone one better, its ‘Yachting Cruises‘ now offering a ‘string band’ in addition to electricity, baths and fine food. This was onboard the steamship Garonne, one of the company’s first purpose-built cruise ships, which was also due to be travelling to the Norwegian fjords.

Huddersfield Daily Chronicle | 26 May 1894

The Dawn of Cruising’s Golden Age

Cruises were being taken right up until the outbreak of the First World War, and although we might associate the prewar era with luxury transatlantic travel, the cruise was also gaining in popularity.

In 1912 woman’s magazine The Queen was advertising P&O ‘Pleasure Cruises,’ with one taking in Gibraltar, Algiers, Athens, Alexandria and Naples. Of course, the outbreak of war interrupted this burgeoning industry, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was to emerge bigger and better than ever.

The Queen | 13 January 1912

This is evidenced in an advertisement in the Illustrated London News from 1927. Again, this cruise ship was bigger (at 18,350 tons) and the destinations were now distinctly more global. This cruise ‘under summer skies’ was to be undertaken from Southampton to destinations in the West Indies, South America, and Africa (but is disappointingly vague when it comes to the actual ports of call).

Illustrated London News | 1 October 1927

The cruise, onboard the Empress of France, offered all the below services and amenities both onboard and for excursions:

…the best available motor-cars, special trains, leading hotels, guides, interpreters, dragomans, gratuities on shore. Experienced cruising staff on board. Special arrangements for Ladies Travelling alone.

All this could be yours for £345 – the equivalent of £15,795 in today’s money.

Cruising Fever

By the early 1930s, the cult of the cruise had hit the big time, and references to cruising in popular culture, such as in the magazines of the time, show how the cruise had taken Great Britian by storm.

Society magazine The Tatler in 1933 printed a series of cartoons with the title ‘Learn to Cruise,’ detailing the cartoonist’s trip aboard the Carinthia, as it cruised to Tangier, Casablanca, Las Palmas and Madeira. This is a wonderful contemporary insight into life onboard a cruise ship in the 1930s, where ‘even the most dignified’ are to be found playing deck quoits. The ‘jolly time’ on board ship also included ‘ball-dancing, fancy-dress carnivals and swimming contests.’

The Tatler | 8 November 1933

The cartoonist makes observations of his fellow passengers – ‘the lady who knits at home at Bootle will be found knitting at sea’ – and how they interact: ‘The first meal is always a very silent one – but on the next day a word may be exchanged.’ And by the end of the cruise, cocktail parties are held in cabins, ‘four passengers per square foot.’

In the same year The Tatler published another cartoon, this time by E.G.O Beuttler, depicting ‘The Joys of Cruising‘ and the mayhem of the ‘New Arrivals.’

The Tatler | 24 November 1933

The Tatler also included images of actual cruises and their passengers in the early 1930s. In 1934, in a spread entitled ‘This Cruising Business – Shipmates in the Mediterranean,’ it depicts the high-class passengers from the Hellenic Travellers’ Club.

Noting how ‘More and more people are catching cruising fever nowadays,’ its shows the Duke of Hamilton’s daughter and granddaughter enjoying an excursion to the Dead Sea, as well as attendees at a fancy dress party. The Reverend A Buxton ‘showed up well as a Sheikh,’ whilst Miss Sladen took the opportunity to dress as a gondolier, and Miss Alexander as a match girl.

Fancy dress high jinks | The Tatler | 4 April 1934

Freedom from Care

By 1938, a writer for the Illustrated London News was reflecting on the benefits of cruising, highlighting how it is a certain ‘freedom from care which goes so far to make a cruising holiday so popular:’

The charm of a cruising holiday in winter-time is one that appeals to many people, and certainly it is exceedingly pleasant to step aboard a luxuriously-appointed liner at Tilbury, Southampton, or Liverpool and know that within forty-eight hours you will have left behind you gloomy skies and cold winds, and sailed into seas of almost tropic calm, where the air is light and balmy, and the sun shines the day through, and you can experience the delights of life in the open air with your ‘hotel’ close at hand to minister to your every want.

Given the opportunity of doing just ‘as you please,’ and seeing ‘sights in the most economical way,’ it is little wonder that cruising became the holiday phenomenon that it was during the 1930s.

Madeira, a perennial cruising destination | The Tatler | 15 March 1939

Again, a piece in The Tatler refers to the health benefits of a cruise, especially in the spring months, for it is ‘one of the finest tonics available, which is the reason why this form of holiday has become so popular in recent years.’ This article also refers to the economy of such a trip, enabling ‘one to see holiday resorts in a number of countries in a very delightful and comparatively inexpensive manner.’

Cruises de Luxe and Cheap Weekends

So what kind of cruises were on offer during the 1930s?

Well, in 1938 the Lamport & Holt Line were offering ‘First Class only’ Easter cruises with a ‘window or porthole in every room.’ A voyage on the Voltaire from Southampton to the Canary Islands via Casablanca, Madeira and Lisbon would set you back 25 guineas (£1,330 today), whilst a Mediterranean cruise on the Vandyck, taking in Gibraltar, Naples, Capri and Lisbon cost about the same, both cruises lasting 18 days.

Illustrated London News | 19 March 1938

Meanwhile, you could book ‘This Winter’s Greatest Cruise,’ which promised ‘16,000 miles of sunshine,’ calling at the Canary Islands, Senegal, South America, Panama, the West Indies, the Bahamas, Florida and Madeira for 100 guineas, over £5,000 today.

There were cheaper options available. The B&N line offered ‘Cheap Week-End Cruises to Bergen‘ on their ship the Vega. Departing from Newcastle, you could get a second class ticket for £4 10s (£227 today), which included a ‘third class return rail ticket from [the] passengers’ home station in Great Britain.’

Staffordshire Sentinel | 11 May 1939

A Cruise Wardrobe

The cult of the cruise meant that a whole new section of wardrobe had to be created, from evening to day-wear, to swimwear to sportswear.

A particular and modern staple of the 1930s cruise were trousers for women. According to The Tatler in 1934, ‘Lillywhite’s, Piccadilly Circus, excel in the creation of trousers for wear on land and when cruising.’ But The Tatler is keen to point out that although in ‘the picture they [the trousers] are posed to show the division,’ the division is not noticeable ‘when the wearer walks.’

Trousers from Lilywhites | The Tatler | 30 May 1934

By 1937 The Tatler is a little less scandalised by the idea of trousers for women, describing a Selfridge’s cruise suit and its ‘well-cut slacks,’ and how important well-cut slacks are for cruising, as ‘even the amateur knows.’

The Tatler | 10 February 1937

From trousers to evening glamour; cocktail parties on cruises in the 1930s were known for their elegance. The Tatler writes in 1935 how ‘Evening dresses occupy a very prominent role in a cruising outfit. There must be something distinctive and different about them.’

It features this beautiful Corot design of ‘pale pink chiffon, with flowers at the neck,’ complete with ‘cascading frills and [a] graceful train.’ This could be yours for just eight guineas (over £400!).

The Tatler | 10 July 1935

Cruises were still be advertised right up until the advent of the Second World War. And in the post-war years, the industry went into some decline. However, the appeal of being ‘free from care,’ with the liberty of doing as one pleases, and visiting an array of exciting and exotic locations, meant that cruising returned in a big way. Mega-ships, floating cities with casinos, cinemas, shops, is cruising for the modern age, and makes us forget cruising’s original golden age, one of interwar glamour and adventure.

Illustrated London News | 9 February 1935



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