The Empress of Britain and how she ruined me

25 October 1963

A pristine white tuxedo jacket. A strange purchase by my dad at the start of winter, given that the previous winter had been one of the coldest on record. It was expensively packaged in a satisfyingly substantial rigid cardboard suitcase style box with a handle. I commandeered it so that I could play at doing what my mother was doing; packing suitcases for a holiday. Going on a holiday that involved summer clothes in late October was unheard of in Class Two (or any Class) of Biggin Hill Primary School but that is exactly what we were doing.

On the 25th October all five us – my parents, me (aged six), Tim (aged four) and Catherine (aged two) travelled by train from Kent to Liverpool. A clear memory is sitting on very best behaviour on a generously upholstered seat too high for my legs to reach the floor. It probably was a steam train but it definitely had lots of polished wood and gleaming metal, corridors with sliding doors into compartments and some very glamorous passengers.

My father, Frank, was an up and coming staff correspondent starting to specialise in shipping and defence on The Daily Herald (the newspaper of choice for educated Labour voters). In 1963 the Herald was sold to IPC owned by Cecil Harmsworth King. Initially the title was kept but in 1964 the paper was relaunched as The Sun (a broadsheet with an orange banner) signalling a move towards the political centre. Obviously I knew none of this when I was six however I was aware that Frank went to London every day and was a journalist. Occasionally he would bring home souvenirs from events and press briefings. The headmaster of Biggin Hill Primary was always very impressed whenever I took one of them into school. On one occasion I had the menu from The Lord Mayor’s Dinner; all gilt lettering, tassels and thick, creamy card. Mr Huckle scooped me out of class with it to go and show to the school cook. Perhaps this is such a clear memory not because of the cook’s reaction (underwhelmed probably) but because he picked me up. A tiny little crossing of the line leaving a lingering residue of unease. One of my most precious possessions was a napkin signed by The Beatles at a press conference. Except it wasn’t – it was a Frank forgery.

SS Empress of Britain This holiday was a press trip on the Empress of Britain, newly acquired by Max Wilson. Wilson, a South African entrepreneur in the disruptor mould, had chartered the ship from Canadian Pacific. At thirty-four years old Wilson was taking the cruise business by storm by founding the Travel Savers Association charging around fifty percent less than Cunard for a tourist class berth on a luxury liner. The cheapest Cunard cabin on a round trip to New York was £104 (roughly £2,340 in today’s money) whilst TSA ranged from £45 to £75. The Empress of Britain two-week cruise of the Mediterranean started at £35. Wilson was on board for our trip as was Cecil King.

It wasn’t the first time we had been abroad or seen the Mediterranean. In May 1963 we set off from Lydd Aerodrome in Kent to cross the Channel to Le Touquet on a roll on roll off aircraft. Travelling in a red Renault Dauphine (not a big car for a family of five) we drove through France and into Spain as far as the Costa Brava. Mostly though, and more conventionally, we had enjoyed bucket and spade holidays in English seaside resorts such as Broadstairs and Ilfracombe. More than either of my parents had experienced during their war interrupted childhoods. This cruise, however was seriously next level.

On the pages of a tattered leather-bound album a few washed out colour photos form a record of the voyage. They help to flesh out flickering memories. Unprompted by the pictures I can conjure other images. Our suitcases piled up in a dockside loading shed plastered with labels indicating class of travel, cabin number etc. Slowly sliding in salty drizzle away from the docks, passengers lining the deck and festooning the gap between ship and quay with streamers to the accompaniment of a full military band. I remember thinking that we must be very important to get such an exhilarating send off.

Itinerary and entertainment programme I know that the ship called at La Coruna, Tangier, Monte Carlo and Valencia but have no recollection whatsoever of these places. There is a photo of us all done up in Sunday best in Spain having been to Mass (clearly no holiday from Kitty’s dedicated Catholicism) but no others of the children ashore. If the ports of call didn’t register, the super luxury holiday camp life on board did make an instant impression. Food and entertainment was of a kind more normally reserved for special treats and celebrations. Cake and ice cream every day. Films, cartoons, sports competitions, parties and a playroom stocked like a branch of Hamleys. In the photo album there is also a Programme Of Entertainments. It shows that The Children’s Special Tea Party was preceded by a Fancy Dress Parade. The photo shows me and brother being awarded our Fancy Dress prize by a manically grinning master of ceremonies doing his very best to coax a smile from either of us. Tim’s face is a picture of four-year-old indignation whilst I look as if I can’t wait for it all to be over.

An hour earlier Tim’s face had been covered with snotty tears, the result of a furious protest about our fancy dress costume. My parents came up with the ingenious and time saving idea of putting us into the competition as a pair in outfits that required minimal adaptation and just a witty cardboard sign. Neither Tim nor I understood the joke but I did know that I was somehow coming out on top.

Children's special fancy dress parade One of us (me) wore a spotless white dress shirt of my dad’s with a black bow tie. Tim wore a white dress shirt and black bow tie. His shirt, however, had been kicked around on the deck to make it good and grubby before he was dressed in it. This had triggered a typically vigorous outburst, hence the tears. It couldn’t have been that he minded being dirty. I think he sensed that this was a good v bad scenario and that he was being cast as “bad”. As I was always infuriatingly well behaved I was the obvious choice for the “good” role. The final addition to the costumes was a cardboard sign hung around Tim’s neck saying “Someone’s Mummy isn’t using Persil”. Unlike today, it was obviously considered perfectly fine to base a children’s fancy dress costume on a joke that only the grown-ups would get.

The playroom on that cruise sticks in my mind for more than the toys and uniformed nannies who staffed it. Valencia was the final stop before heading back to Liverpool. But I am certain that we docked in Gibraltar where my parents went ashore and we stayed on the ship with the nannies. Later, Mum came back alone bringing gifts: enormous dolls with ringleted hair and frilly dresses. They were made out of that thin plastic that breaks really easily and had garish painted faces. To me they were both terrifying and wondrous. I don’t remember what my brother got. 

Fancy dress parade This uncharacteristic largesse had been prompted by my father, other journalists and the newspaper owners on board (enjoying the free ride) leaving the ship immediately and flying back to London. We were to continue the cruise, as planned, back to Liverpool. I haven’t been able to discover whether the early departure was because of a news story or something to do with IPC. Nothing stands out for around 5 November. Two weeks later there was only one story; JFK was killed. In later years my dad often filed copy when we were on holiday. Listening to him calling London reading his copy aloud complete with punctuation was fascinating, not least for copytaker’s lightning quick typing speed.

In any event the men who flew back to London got off lightly. Those last few days at sea were hell on earth. It’s not really possible to “cruise” in the Bay of Biscay in early November. Although the Empress of Britain was a 25,000 tonne ship she became a gut churning roller coaster. I have a very vague recollection of trying to walk along a corridor and being thrown from side to side and possibly crockery sliding around and crashing to the floor. Much clearer in my mind is the doctor who came to the cabin to give us all anti emetic injections. My poor mother (a terrible sailor) was jammed into a single cabin, swaying violently and unpredictably from side to side, feeling like death with three vomiting children under the age of 6 to take care of. From the photos of her during the cruise I can see that she’d had a wonderful time. She was thirty and if anyone had told her five years earlier that this is how she would be living her life it would have sounded ridiculous. She looks born to it though. Slim, vivacious and beautiful glamming it up in the Med with her handsome husband and three children.

Ever since then I only have to look at a grey swelling sea, or step aboard any ship, smell the oily engine fumes and feel that low ceiling claustrophobic sensation for the nausea to begin. Remarkably we went on several more voyages; two more Mediterranean cruises, the Southampton to Bilbao ferry, numerous Channel crossings and I’m pretty sure that my mother and I were seasick on all of them.

Somehow we survived the last few days although I can’t remember anything about how we got home. Tim and I went to school, we had my brother and sister’s birthdays, Kennedy was shot, Christmas came and went as usual. We all settled back to normal. Thank goodness that we didn’t live in an era when my parents would have had to turn down the opportunity of the cruise (or pay a fine) because it fell in term time. I would have been deprived of the most extraordinary learning; the kind you remember for life.

Harold Macmillan made his “never had it so good” speech in 1957 (the year I was born). This was incontrovertibly true for my parents. By 1963 they owned their own home, a car and a TV. That year we had not one but two trips to the Mediterranean. By giving a six-year-old a taste for luxury travel the standard was set and the die cast. The Empress had ruined me for life.

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Amanda Poulson

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