The Orient Steam Navigation Company was one of the larger shipping lines operating regular sailings between the United Kingdom and Australia, sharing an Australian government mail contract with fellow shipping company P&O. Both companies have a shared history with a number of their liners being designed and built by Vickers-Armstrongs at Barrow-in-Furness.
Post World War II, Orient was modernising its fleet and had already ordered three liners from Vickers-Armstrongs at Barrow, these being SS Orcades (1947), SS Oronsay (1951) and SS Orsova (1953), all designed to compete with new ships for P&O.
In May 1954, the company made the decision to replace two older liners (SS Orantes and SS Orion), both Barrow-built liners. The new ship was ordered as Yard Number 1061, and would be the largest and fastest liner built for the UK-Australia run. Early suggestions indicate that the new liner would be named Orbustus although this was abandoned in favour of her eventual name, SS Oriana.
In addition to being the largest liner built at Barrow, it was also the largest for Orient, being substantially larger that the three other new post war ships. At 804 feet in length and with a gross tonnage of 41,915, she was designed to carry over 2,000 passengers (638 in first class and 1,496 in tourist class). Propulsion was provided by two sets of Parsons steam turbines, capable of generating up to 65,000 horsepower and driving twin screws.
SS Oriana’s design was derived from the same, innovative layout of her three, smaller predecessors, with her navigation bridge being located in a high, mid-ships location – further back that most passenger liners. This gave SS Oriana something of a pyramidal look to her profile, almost seeming top-heavy from some angles.
However, her entire superstructure was made of aluminium, a lightweight means of construction that actually reduced her overall weight and ensured that she was not at all top-heavy.
There were two other key firsts for SS Oriana: she was the first British liner to be fitted with a bulbous bow (this design being more commonplace today) which modifies the flow of water at the bow, reducing drag and increasing speed, range, fuel efficiency and even stability - she was also the first ocean liner to be equipped with bow thrusters, aiding manoeuvrability when docking.
On 3rd November 1959, SS Oriana was launched at Barrow Shipyard by Princess Alexandra, appropriate as she is Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin, in keeping with the etymology of her name.
She was manoeuvred to the Fitting Out Berth, where she would spend over a year being completed with the latest modern interiors and becoming the Orient Line flagship. During this period, she received a VIP visit from Queen Elizabeth II, who enjoyed a tour of the ship following her naming of the nuclear submarine HMS Dreadnought.
Her interiors were smart and modern with both first and tourist class passengers enjoying a range of bright and comfortable public rooms that epitomised the latest fashions of interior design. For those travelling first class there were intimate private dining rooms and lounges.
SS Oriana also created an innovative new interior cabin layout among a number of the first class cabins on C Deck.
The 'Court Cabin' layout allowed the designers to arrange six cabins around a central corridor, which ended with portholes to the outside of the ship. The two outside cabins possessed portholes as normal, whereas the four inside cabins were staggered inward and had a narrow window, thus allowing many more cabins to have natural light and an 'outside' view!
The fitting out was completed in November 1960, and on the 4th of that month she departed Barrow for her sea trials, under the command of Captain Clifford Edgecombe. Initially the seas were choppy meaning whilst she could not demonstrate her full speed capability, she could prove her stability in rough weather. By the 13th of the month, the weather had improved to such an extent that she was able to run a series of measured miles off the coast of the Isle of Arran. During these runs, she recorded a top speed of 30.64 knots – a superb speed for any large passenger liner and making her one of the fastest at that time.
Following successful completion of sea trials, SS Oriana was officially handed over to her owners and just two days after her remarkable speed achievement, she departed for Southampton.
Officially, her maiden voyage was a five-day shakedown cruise to Lisbon and back, with her passenger complement comprising of members of the Association of British Travel Agents. Such cruises were commonplace as it allows new crew to properly test out all aspects of the ship’s operation, whilst giving the very people who would sell voyages on the liner a change to really experience the product.
During the course of 1960, the close relationship between P&O and Orient Lines changed. P&O had held a 51% stake of Orient Lines since 1919, and the decision was taken to merge the two companies formally to become P&O-Orient.
This meant that SS Oriana would be the last liner ordered by Orient Line and the last to carry the company’s unique livery of a corn coloured hull & funnels, with a white superstructure.
The merger also meant that SS Oriana would become a running mate to P&O’s own newest liner SS Canberra on the UK-Australia line service. SS Oriana had already proved herself to be the fastest of the two ships and as she was now also a P&O vessel, she took on the 'Golden Cockerel', a trophy awarded to the fastest ship in the P&O fleet.
For the next ten years, SS Oriana would continue in service between the UK and Australia. Many of her passengers would often be nicknamed 'Ten Pound Poms', taking advantage of the opportunity to move to Australia and subsidised by the Australian Government. During this time, she lost her corn coloured hull, now sporting P&O’s all-white livery.
Her line service was not without incident however, an early mishap occurring in 1962, with a collision with the US aircraft carrier USS Kearsarge, resulting in damage to her bow. In addition in 1968, she ran aground in the Panama Canal, resulting in her starboard propeller and shaft being pulling out of position by 4 metres! This would result in a slow crossing back to Southampton for dry-docking and replacement of the damaged parts. More drama occurred in August 1970, just as the ship was leaving Southampton for Australia when fire broke out in the boiler room. Fortunately, no-one was hurt but repairs would take two weeks.
By the early 1970s, the volume of migrant traffic to Australia began to decline and P&O decided that SS Oriana would attract more demand by transferring to holiday cruising. She was refurbished to a 'single class' cruise ship, reducing her passenger capacity to 1,640. Initially, cruising was based from Southampton for three quarters of the year and then from Sydney for the other quarter, coinciding with the UK winter months. November was the month that the transfer to Australian cruises took place and in 1981, the move became permanent and she would be based out of the Australian port for the rest of her sailing career.
However, by the middle of the 1980s, SS Oriana was deemed surplus to requirements and P&O decided to withdraw her from service. Her last cruise ended in Sydney on 27th March 1986, and she was subsequently laid up.
Remarkably, this would not be the end of her story as SS Oriana was put up for sale and bought by a Japanese company for $9.4m.
Within days of the sale, SS Oriana left Sydney for the last time, under tow from the tug Lady Lorraine. She was initially delivered to a shipyard in Osaka, where she underwent refit for her new role as a floating hotel, museum and tourist centre. This included removal of her propellers and rudder, which ended up mounted to her foredeck near the former crew swimming pool. She was then towed to Beppu, a resort on the Japanese island of Kyushu, where she was welded to the pier and the ignominy of having her funnels painted pink. She would remain here for nine years, ultimately proving to be only a short term success as in 1995, she would find herself up for sale again.
Over the next seven years, SS Oriana would change hands and locations again, twice in the case of location, several times for ownership! Each time came with a new refit and a new interior look, spending her time as an accommodation ship and hotel in Qinhuangdao, before becoming a hotel and exhibition centre in Shanghai.
In July 2002, the last chapter in SS Oriana’s life began as she was moved once more, this time to Dalian, north east China. She was now a floating 'theme park' including a banqueting hall, restaurants, bars and a maritime museum. Some original features remained, such as her bridge, but swathes of her interior had become unrecognisable from the sleek Sixties modernity when she was first launched.
It is entirely possible that SS Oriana could still have been with us to this day, sadly Mother Nature had other plans.
On 16 July 2004, a powerful typhoon struck the port, causing widespread damage. SS Oriana was torn from her moorings and a hole was torn in her hull, causing the lower decks to flood. She listed to port and settled onto the bottom of the harbour. Her owners assessed the damage and initially wanted to restore her back to her former glory. Sadly, the financial cost was too highly and in May 2005, she was refloated and towed to Zhangiagang, China where she was unceremoniously broken up.
A remarkable career, lasting far longer than any of her contemporaries, had come to an end.
|Launch date||3rd November 1959|
|Gross Registered Tonnes (GRT)||41,910 gross tons|
82.2 ft (25.1m)
32.0 ft (9.75m)
33.6 ft (10.23m)
80,000 hp - 2 sets of Parsons steam turbines
Maximum Rated Speed
|Capacity at Launch||638 1st class, 1,496 tourist class|