Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Down to Australia With Savoir Faire

Long dubbed “the ship that shaped the future” when launched in 1961, the S.S. Canberra of P&O lines was precisely that. Named for Canberra the capital of Australia she was originally used for line voyages to Australia and P&O’s round the world service. As mentioned in previous posts The S.S France and the S.S Oriana were ships of state for their countries and their respective companies, the Canberra took things one step forward and became the ship of the future. She was also the largest ship to be built in Britain since the Great Queens. On the immigrant trade to Australia she set standards that were hard to match.

The design was cutting edge, not only for her radical appearance with engines located aft, and twin uptakes located side by side serving as funnels. The overall appearance was one of graceful elegance and speed.

The interior design of the ship was carried out by a professional team headed by Sir Hugh Casson, and the range of rooms and facilities for Canberra's 1,690 Tourist-class passengers was of a standard higher than anything seen before on any British passenger ship.

Canberra was seen by P&O management as an opportunity to shed the line's dowdy image and usher in a new era, "...there should be abundant evidence of progressive thought and good design." Up until Canberra’s time most British lines had been rather dowdy in their interior decoration, sometimes resembling a middle class seaside hotel in England.

"We shall be disappointed if the Canberra does not transmit to her passengers the feeling, not of any sense of a revolution, but of a sharp break with all that is out dated and an imaginative surge into the future."

To create a sense of flowing space the ceilings were almost universally flat white throughout with concealed lighting. Walls panelled in dark smoky woods - Persian Walnut, Indian Laurel, Doreng Teak - often stopped short of the ceiling, increasing the sense of spaciousness. Rubber floors of staircases and hallways and the carpets of the principal public rooms were the rich blue green of the Pacific. Bright colours "flames, pinks, oranges" were kept concealed by day and brought out only at night as in the illuminations in the Bonito Club, or confined to areas like the cinema untouched by daylight.

Interior decoration was a tour de force in contemporary design. Again as in the Oriana new materials such as plastics and formica had a prominent role to play. Art was very limited with the designers using form and function as the main artistic treatment. No tapestries as in the France or large abstract panels detracted from the colours and surfaces at hand.

High up on the ship was the First Class ballroom and nightclub - the Bonito Club - overlooking the First Class swimming pool. During the day a retractable glass screen descended into the floor opening up the room to the pool terrace. By night with the screen raised it became a sophisticated nightspot.

The Crow’s Nest at the forward part of the ship was another First Class space with 41full height windows giving a superb view over the bows of the ship. The forward section was carpeted in black, gold and brown with a compass motif. Bertoia style wire chairs with yellow and white upholstery, and stylised maps of the Solent and Sydney Harbour - representing the start and finish of Canberra's regular voyage between Southampton and Australia - completed the design.

The Meridian Room was the focus of social life in First Class, a suite of open plan interconnected areas giving an impression of infinite space. The main decorative design feature of the Meridian Room was the glittering 30-foot long sculpted metal ceiling light together with white moulded fibreglass chairs fitted with removable covers in blue and green.

The Island Room was the focal point of Tourist class and was designed for many purposes because as with the Oriana, passengers were on board for an average of six weeks. A 200 foot long vibrantly coloured mural of Ceylon and the Pacific Islands gave the room its name. Wooden floors with white area rugs, white walls and ceiling with simple asymmetrically arranged glass light fittings added to the scheme. Furniture was of laminated plywood, the seats upholstered in gold fabric.

Another Tourist Class space of note was the Peacock Room which was essentially the Tourist Class Smoking Room. . The room was entirely enclosed by curving walls of Bird's Eye Maple dyed a startling peacock blue. Curtains of the same blue, highlighted with stripes of orange and gold. As with most other Tourist Class spaces the furniture was of bent plywood in rather startling geometric shapes.

Creating a revolution in interior design for future liners Canberra was definitely the shape of things to come. Stay tuned for the remainder of our ships tour!


  1. Hello David:
    Another trip for us down memory lane and whilst we never sailed on the Canberra, we remember her well not least for her frequent appearances at Southampton. Perhaps we are mistaken, but did she later become a cruise ship - we think that an old friend of ours, who died last year, was on her more than once for a holiday?

    Certainly, as you show she was very much 'cutting edge' in her day, the layering design of the stern being very innovative at the time of her launch. The interiors which you illustrate look wonderfully sleek and must have been very modernistic when built.

  2. Hi David-
    I love your Ocean liner post so much. I wish there was a retro-cruise line...that's a cruise I would be interested in.

  3. Oh please bring back those days!

  4. I love the chairs...all of them. I wonder what ever happened to the furniture that was on the ship?

  5. Awesome post! I loved the Meridian Room and the Peacock Room..oh what it would be to lived in those days and travel in such a magnificent ship!

    The Black Label

  6. I love the 60s look. Is it just nostalgia? Thanks for bringing back so many memories.

  7. Just discovering your blog and we looooove it !!!!


    Caithlin & Eva


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