The Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company -

P & O


In 1815 Brodie McGhie Willcox, a Shetlander with no social advantages, opened a shipbroking office in Lime Street, London. His clerk was Arthur Anderson. By 1822 the two were partners in a concern unsurprisingly named Willcox and Anderson. During a prolonged uprising against the Portuguese monarchy, this small company supported the royalists by running guns between 1824 and 1826 in a schooner. The rebellion having been put down in 1833 normal trading was resumed, with Willcox and Anderson receiving the blessing of royalty. Short voyage steamships were chartered from the Dublin and London Steam Packet Company. After further political problems in Spain, which subsided in 1835, the Dublin and London S.P. Co. were encouraged into starting a regular steamship mail service: which Willcox and Anderson ran for them. These two men had already been trying to put such a service together and with building of better suited vessels in 1836, they officially became the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company about a year later. At this time they also operated in the Mediterranean as far as Malta and Alexandria.

By this time, the once commercially mighty ‘Honourable’ East India Company was in a financially straightened position. Having lost its monopolies and heavily involved in the administration of vast areas of territory as a something of a proxy government for the Crown, it had become far from capable at fighting off efficient ‘interlopers’. So, gaining both from others’ commercially unsuccessful experiments in steamer services and also a mail contract to Calcutta in 1839, there was large-scale capital investment in appropriate steamers and a name change to the Peninsular and Oriental S.N. Co. Ltd. to reflect their enlarged activities in 1840.

Further potentially lucrative mail contracts followed, including the Ceylon to Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong route in 1844. Five years later Shanghai became a feeder for Hong Kong. In 1852-53 a route to Australia followed. Not that it was all plain sailing. There was still competition from the East India Company and also shortages of coal in the early 1850s created major problems. As well as mail contracts, there was other government work in the form of trooping for the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny. In 1864 a run from Shanghai to Yokohama was begun. By 1871 the Suez Canal brought further problems, rendering most of their vessels out of date. In response new vessels began to be built from 1873 onwards.

There had been further wartime trooping for the Egyptian adventure of 1882. All this experience may well have put them in good stead in government circles. Due to naval trooping vessels being scrapped, P & O vessels were chartered for the annual moves during the 1890s and this became a regular task Of course, P & O also attracted their share of trooping work during the Second Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. Increasing their market share, the assets and goodwill of the Blue Anchor Line were acquired in 1910, with further entry into Australia from South Africa. The summer of 1914 brought take-over of the British India S.N. Co. Ltd., which they previously enjoyed good business relations with. (Corporate histories tend to call this an amalgamation, but while this looks to genuinely have been the case, nevertheless, the new board had twelve old P & O directors, to B.I.s eight.) Anyway, British India’s trading patterns acted as feeders for P&O.

War or not, in 1916 there was the acquisition of the New Zealand Shipping Co and the Federal S.N. Co. The next year, at a time when many companies ceased to exist, the Union Steamship Company of N.Z., the Nourse Line and the Hain S.S. Co. followed into P & O. In 1919 the Khedivial Mail Line was bought (but ditched five years later). Also, in the same year a large, but minority, share holding of the Orient Line was acquired. A North Sea short trading arm was added in 1920 with the acquisition of the General Steam Navigation Co. Fifteen years later brought the Moss-Hutchison Line into the group.

Nevertheless, the group had had its share of both war and peacetime tribulations. Even if wartime losses had been made up by government compensation there was still the not insignificant problems in rebuilding lost business. After the Second World War there was the added complexity of air travel as increasingly serious competition.

In 1958 there was a short-lived name change for the passenger liner operations, followed two years by another: to the P & O and Orient Lines (Passenger Services) Ltd. In 1965 the group finally got full control of the Orient Line and a year later the company became P & O, dropping the ‘Orient’ name. The group continues to trade, but the ‘great’ liners have now gone.

This is a commercial entity that has attracted a number of corporate histories. Among these are Duncan Haws: Merchant Fleets in Profile: The Ships of the P&O, Orient and Blue Anchor Lines (Cambridge: Patrick Stephens, 1978); David and Stephen Howarth: The Story of P&O (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1994); and Boyd Cable: A Hundred year History of the P.&O.: Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1937).

The company records loaned to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich are voluminous and contains surviving personnel records. Those for officers of deck and engineering departments appear to be almost complete. There are significant gaps in the registers relating to stewards and a small number for the deck branch that strangely, included bits and pieces from other non-technical branches.


Go to the British India S.N. Co Ltd. page

Go to the Orient S.N. Co. Ltd. page

Go to the main ‘Honourable’ East India Company page

Go to the main mercantile page