P&O 175 years of history

P&O celebrates 175 years
P&O celebrates 175 years Photo: P&O Heritage Collection

Special feature by Mike Pearse, transport correspondent

As you arrive at the London HQ of DP World it looks like any other modern block of offices. But once you get inside you are transported to a unique maritime history dating back to 1837.

Staff are surrounded by large models of ships in cases, silverware, paintings, photos and artifacts that tell the story and history of P&O, one of the oldest shipping companies in the UK.

Susie Cox
Susie Cox with a 1950's P&O poster Credit: ITV Meridian

The Curator of the P&O Heritage Collection is Susie Cox who says since DP World bought P&O in 2006 they have been very keen to "preserve the heritage" of the company. She works as part of a small dedicated team caring for over 25,000 items.

P&O founders
Portraits of P&O founders hang in DP World offices Credit: P&O Heritage Collection

The first thing you see when you pass reception are four very large paintings of the founders of the company including Arthur Anderson and Brodie McGhie Willcox who later became an MP for Southampton.

Together with Captain Richard Bourne, Willcox and Anderson won the first commercialcontract from the Government deliver mail to Spain and Portugal in 1837, with their small fleet of paddle steamers.

Ship used to carry mail in 1837
Paddle steamer Credit: P&O Heritage Collection

Many more routes were to follow and P&O were to become a massive force in shipping owning ports as well. For a time they were the biggest in the world and over the years had more than 1,000 ships and at the front forefront of advancements as the industry progressed from steam to turbo electric an now diesel engines.

Completing a network that covered half the globe P&O first sailed from Southampton toAustralia in 1852 and the company played a key role in the main wars transporting troops in times of conflict from the Crimea to the Falklands 30 years ago.

P&O model ships
Some of 200 ship models in P&O Heritage Collection Credit: P&O Heritage Collection

In the south they started sailing from Southampton in the 1840's and in later years from Tilbury and Dover.

The company were to carry freight and passengers all over the world and this year celebrates its 175th anniversary.

The office walls are full of paintings and pictures and floor to ceiling glass cases divide offices with some of the models in the collection. Other displays have everything imaginable from a ships bell dating back to 1853 to clothing and plates which once graced the tables of P&O steamers.

P&O Captains cap
P&O Captains cap dating back to the 1860's Credit: ITV Meridian
A dining saloon chair dating back to the turn of the century Credit: ITV Meridian
Menu dating back to 1859 Credit: ITV Meridian
Selection of china and tableware from P&O ships Credit: ITV Meridian

P&O Heritage Collection are keen that as many items as possible can be seen by the public. While the offices are private they loan items out for display at museums.

DP World bought P&O in 2006 and today P&O Ferries continue to run from Dover and Portsmouth under Dubai World ownership. DP World is part owner of DP World Southampton, which is the UK’s second largest deep-sea container terminal and DP World is also building the new £1.5billion container terminal and logistics park, called London Gateway in the Thames Estuary.

Susie Cox says "The P&O story is a remarkable story of enterprise and vision and a salient reminder of the importance of the sea in trade, commerce and travel. DP World, who bought P&O in 2006, are exceptionally proud of this collection and the history and reputation of the P&O name.

"Our varied and vast collections are a tangible link between our past and present. From its very outset in 1837 P&O’s founders collected and commissioned paintings and ship models marking the company’s progress. The tradition has continued and our collections which now number over 25,000 items also include donations from people who travelled or worked for P&O. We are particularly grateful for these personal items of memorabilia which give us a fantastic insight into the human story of P&O and what it was really like to live, work and travel by sea and ashore in the far flung ports that once made up the British Empire and closer to home in P&O’s home ports of Southampton and later Tilbury and London."

The P&O Heritage collection is essentially a private collection but our archive is publicly accessible at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and it is possible to see objects from our collections in national museums in the UK, Hong Kong and Australia and even on board P&O’s newest ferries Spirit of Britain and Spirit of France.

Thanks to digitisation we can also make our hidden treasures available via our P&O Heritage website and most recently in a new book ‘P&O: Across the Oceans, Across the Years’ published by the Antique Collector’s Club to commemorate P&O’s 175th Anniversary.

Susie meets Fred Credit: ITV Meridian

As part of our P&O 175 coverage Fred Dinenage was given an exclusive tour of the collection and can be seen on Meridian Tonight at 6pm.