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Wednesday, 9 July 2014


A Baltic cruise on the RMS Viceroy of India
 Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board.
Zora Neale Hurston

When she (ships are always shes) was launched in 1929, the RMS Viceroy of India was the pride of P&O’s fleet. The sinking of the Titanic and then the Lusitania had hardly made a dent in the cruise ship industry, the construction of them and the sailing on them. Like the Titanic, the Viceroy of India was intended to have the last word in luxury travel, with an indoor swimming pool, banquet halls and even a museum. The vital statistics of this ship probably interest specialists but the detail that she was driven by two turbo alternators and the steam powered by six boilers rated at 350 psi means little to me. It is clear from this photo, probably taken as she was sailing through the Clyde after leaving Glasgow, that she was an impressive symbol of the new century. The photo is the first from a presentation album created for a cruise of the Baltic by a group of Rotarians sometime in the mid-1930s. With a cover of faux-leather and a gold embossed stamp of the ship, and most of the photographs 5x7 and hand printed, it was a fairly expensive item to produce, even without the standard paraphernalia such as menus or maps showing the route. It isn’t clear whether this one was produced for a particular Rotarian club’s records or if the passengers could buy it. In any case, the cruise ship album has a place in the history of photography. Granted it isn’t always a prominent one but this is a good example of a vanished world. It shows us the places visited and gives us glimpses of shipboard life.  

Although the Viceroy was built specifically for the route between Britain and India (RMS meaning Royal Mail ship), she was as well known as a cruise ship. On this cruise she carried a group of British Rotarians. Here they are; the heart and soul of middle England. Despite rumours, to be a Rotarian in the 1930s did not make you a rabid anti-socialist or a freemason. On the contrary, Rotarians, as this photo succinctly demonstrates, were rather ordinary. Of course, you had to be a solid and respectable member of society, so anyone who believed in a socialist utopia would be unlikely to join, and women could not officially become members until the 1980s. The Vatican banned priests from joining Rotary in the 1950s on the grounds it was a secret society but passed no edicts regarding laity. In the 1920s, before this photo was taken, Rotary banned recruiting from freemasons’ clubs, probably because it aspired to be secular and non-discriminatory and associations with masons would have tarnished its reputation. This group look like the types who’d provide schoolbooks to economically disadvantaged areas and make donations to villages struck by natural disasters. Both are commendable activities.

To be a cruise ship photographer can’t have been a bad job. You got to see the world and no one asked for originality in the photos you took. Maybe that’s why, despite the privileges, it was never considered a very prestigious occupation. If you had real ambitions, the magazines were what you’d set your sights on. This is the Kungsgatan in Stockholm. The towers, the Kungstorn, were designed by Sven Wallander and when they were completed in 1925 were officially the first skyscrapers in Europe. Presumably our Rotarians disembarked at Stockholm and went on a short tour, in which case a stop to look down Kungsgatan would have been on the itinerary.

Here’s a group of them. It’s hard to say whether the people at the back are part of the same cruise. No doubt that a stop in Stockholm involved a meeting with members of the Swedish branch of Rotary. There would have been a table laid out with teapots and cups, and possibly Danish pastries, which oddly enough were called Viennese pastries in Denmark, because that’s where they came from.

This is Helsinki’s Central Railway station, designed by Eliel Saarinen and opened in 1919. It is described in some books as belonging to the National Romantic Style, expressing ideas from Finnish folklore and national heritage. From here it looks like a fine example of Art Deco; what we tend to think of as typical National Romantic resembles more Victorian Gothic, with an emphasis on turrets and spires - think of an ice castle from a Hans Christian Andersen story. In any case, our visitors would have been impressed by its modern style. Interesting that the caption reads ‘Helsingfors’, which is, or was, the Swedish for Helsinki. This suggests our photographer may have been Swedish, a small but important detail. The cruise management would have wanted a local photographer, if only because someone who turned up fresh out of Glasgow might not know the sights and would miss some important landmarks. Also, the photographer could have boarded with a portfolio of previously taken images. The captions are only on the building and street views, indicating they may also have been published as postcards.

 I'm guessing the man on the left was known to everyone as ‘the Major’. 

The tower in the background looks more National Romantic than does Helsinki’s train station. It also looks old. It is the spire of Saint Nicholas’ Church, originally built in the 13th century. The spire was built in 1909, replacing a ruin that had been around since a fire in 1795. This in effect is the essence of all national romantic movements; build something modern intended to evoke a glorious past.

We usually associate scenes like this with more southern areas of Europe. Not because we assume Finland doesn’t have markets but because since World War 2 the Nordic countries have successfully promoted themselves as contemporary: contemporary design, contemporary architecture, contemporary ideas. Nordic is a euphemism for new and progressive. Old doesn’t get a lot of attention. Notice again this has a caption, and is taken from a high point from the harbour, meaning it was taken from a ship. Possibly it was the Viceroy but again, our photographer could have taken it months earlier.

 She looks a touch too young to be part of the tour group. She also looks Scandinavian.Did the cruise elect a Rotarian queen?

This and the next two images belie the case that Rotarians don’t know how to have fun. Of course they do. Never mind that ‘fun’ might involve countless cups or tea and singalongs, and we feel obliged to put the word in inverted commas, it is still defined as ‘fun’. These images are the centrepiece of the album. We can’t be sure what they were celebrating; obviously not the crossing of the Equator and the cruise went too far south to cross the Arctic Circle. What I suspect is, the cruise had a very tight schedule of activities arranged and one of them was some kind of on board party, a celebration of all the good work the Rotarians had done. 

Is he supposed to be an Arab, or a shepherd from a nativity scene?

From what we read, life on board during a cruise in the 1930s actually sounds a bit dull. Between meals, one lay back in a deck chair reading cheap thrillers or wandered to the lido bar on the off chance there was a game of bridge or baccarat to join in on. In the evening one dressed, had a cocktail, ate, played more bridge then went to bed. The kind of activities that gave some more innocuous sites sordid reputations seems missing. Of course, this was a tour by Rotarians and we’d hardly expect much in the way of shenanigans. Still, the presence of a spy could have spiced things up a bit.

 Ahh yes … 

 We know we are in Scandinavia … 

Interesting, but only a few years after this photo was taken a statue to the fishwives of Copenhagen was erected near this spot, and soon after the market closed down. Somehow the long history and tradition of the Copenhagen fish market gets neglected but it obviously mattered enough to build a monument to its women; a response perhaps to the more famous statue of the little mermaid. This, I also think, doubled as a postcard.

Grundtvig’s Church in Copenhagen. Grundtvig was not a saint but a nationalist poet, philosopher etc who also was a pastor, hence the legitimacy of building a church in his honour. Designed by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint in 1913, it was still being finished when our visitors arrived in Copenhagen. Though there are no apparent clues to its use, no crucifixes or statues, you know at one that it must be a church. Notice there is no caption. Possibly the building was still covered with scaffolding when our photographer last visited. This would therefore have been taken on the cruise. The photos here are from an album of 36 and are placed in the order they appear.
The Viceroy had a short, tragic life. In 1940 she was converted to a troop carrier and two years later was sunk in the Mediterranean after a U-boat torpedoed her. Four crewmembers were killed. Everyone was rescued but the ship lies rusting in the deep off the coast of Algeria.