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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Royal Mail Service - Some Ship Story and some History of India

Do you know the cost of a post card today.  Do you know  that writing letters was the passion for many.  It was an art.  Most anxious parents would tell their sons and daughters upon entering a train, ‘drop a letter as soon as you reach’.  Now that form has almost vanished.
Mail or Post used to be the method of transmitting written information – hand written documents (most had beautiful handwriting), typed versions – to destinations around the World by affixing a small decorative piece called ‘postal stamps’.  In India,  Postal Department has been State run and the plight of Postman especially during Deepavali, Pongal and other festive seasons when people used to send Greeting cards is worth a book.

With the addiction to computers, people became e-mail savvy.  There are very many popular service providers which include : gmail, zoho mail, AIM mail, GMX mail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Live,Gawab, Ymail, Inbox, Fastmail, sify, rediffmail and many more.  Some like me write long and lengthy and personalised e mails and sometimes send group mails to a fairly large group of friends.  The younger generation feels e-mail is outdated and have orkut, facebook, twitter  and more.  Push button, shortened language and the World has changed a lot. 

Seen in this background is the story of a ship – RMS Viceroy of India.

The title of Viceroy was created in 1858 after the mutiny of 1857. Before 1858, East India Company was ruling large parts of India and the head of administration of the East India Company was called Governor General. The title Governor General had administrative control over the British Provinces of India (Punjab, Bengal, Bombay, Madras, United Provinces etc.). After the mutiny of 1857, the British Government took control of the administration from East India Company. To reflect the Governor General's role as representative from the monarch, the term Viceroy of India was applied to him.  Lord Caning was Governor General of India from 1856 to 1858 and Viceroy of India from 1858 to 1862.  The title of Viceroy was abandoned when India gained independence in 1947 but the office of Governor-General continued to exist in both new dominions of India and Pak until Republican constitutions were adopted.

RMS is Royal Mail ship – a prefix used for sea going vessels that used to carry mail under contract by Royal mail.  Perhaps the huge expatriate population of UK origin serving in various countries mandated mail services.  These ships  had the right to fly the pennant of the Royal mail when sailing. The designation has been in vogue since 1840 used some shipping lines especially the Cunard Line, Royal Mail Lines and Union Castle Line.  Technically, only those ships contracted to carry mail can have prefix RMS, others would have the standard designation such as SS.  Prior to 1850, this service was operated by Admiralty and later opened up to private companies.

The pivotal route with high volue was the one between Kingstown in Ireland, and Holyhead in Wales. Having the title "RMS" was seen as a mark of quality and a competitive advantage, because the mail had to be on time.  Later air mail came into being arising out of the need for speed.  Reportedly,  Segwun, St Helena Queen Mary are the ones still in operation having the prefix RMS – thought they are not exclusive mail carriers any longer. British Airways carries mail on some of its scheduled long distance routes.  They display Royal Mail’s logo and crest on their fuselage. 

The RMS Viceroy of India was an ocean liner that was owned and operated by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company Ltd. of Great Britain.  She was named in honour of the Viceroy of India.   She was laid down in April 1927 at the shipyard of Alexander Stephen & Sons in Glasgow. Originally ordered under the name Taj Mahal, she was designed for the prestigious Bombay service of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P & O). and was only the third vessel in the world at that time to have revolutionary turbo-electric machinery.

The technical specs of  the ship was :
Tonnage: 19,648 gross tons; 10,069 net tons; 9,180 tons deadweight
Length   :  586.1 feet; 612.3 feet overall
Beam: 76.2 feet
Draught: 28.3 feet
Depth: 41.5 feet
Decks: 5

The accommodation aboard was regarded as luxurious by the  standards of the time. Much of the interior decoration was designed by  Elsie Mackay, the daughter of James Mackay, 1st Earl of Inchcape, who was the chairman of P & O from 1914 until his death in 1932.  The vessel was launched in Sept 1928  by  the Dorothy,  Countess of Halifax, the wife of Viceroy EFL Wood 1st Earl of Halifax.  (whose period saw political turmoil in India)

Viceroy EFL Wood was better known as  ??????? 

The vessel was to be named Tajmahal but eventually was not named after the mausoleum.  The vessel made its maiden voyage on Indian Mail service but was more of a liner for the cruise market as it had the unusual amenity of indoor swimming pool. In February 1939 as part of a cruise of the South Atlantic she was the first P & O liner to call at the island of Tristan da Cunha.

One recorded achievement was in Sept 1932 when she recorded a new record time between London and Bombay of 17 days, 1 hour and 42 minutes. Viceroy of India was in service for little more than fourteen years from launching.  The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, [P&O] was a British shipping and logistics company.  Over the century lots have happened, it was sold to Dubai Ports World in 2006 but the P&O brand was retained.

In November 1940 the Viceroy of India returned to the River Clyde for conversion to a troopship. Exactly two years later, while returning from Algiers during the North Africa campaign she encountered the German U-boat U-407 approximately 30 miles north of Oran. She  was torpedoed and sunk.

If this story made an interesting reading, here is something on  Viceroy EFL Wood.

Edward Frederick Lindley Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax, [1881–1959),  was famously known as  Lord Irwin from 1925 until 1934 and as The Viscount Halifax from 1934 until 1944, was one of the most senior British Conservative politicians, who  held several senior ministerial posts, most notably as Foreign Secretary from 1938 to 1940.

He is regarded by some as one of the architects of the policy of appeasement prior to World War II. During the war, he served as British Ambassador in Washington.

Irwin's rule in India was marked by a period of great political turmoil – the Simon Commission examining the country’s readiness for self-government had no Indian representative.  This provoked serious violence and Irwin was forced into concessions which were not well received.  One of its members, Clement Attlee subsequently became the British PM and oversaw the granting of independence to India.

Regards – S Sampathkumar.


  1. Thanks for this interesting article. -Kannan

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