Although cargo boats carried some passengers from England and Europe to India, without doubt from 1840 the majority of civilians as well as some military personnel, made the voyage to Bombay with the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P & O).

From 1840, following consultations with the Admiralty, P & O operated a regular mail service, initially contracted to run to Alexandria, but to be extended to India within two years. By 1850 this service had grown to include not only Mediterranean ports but also Bombay, Ceylon, Calcutta, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. In 1852 the mail service was further extended to Australia.

In 1861 the post office took over responsibility for the mail contract which then included a clause stating that mail had to be carried overland. This continued until 1886, so even after the opening of the Suez Canal, P & O were obliged to unload the mail at Alexandria, carry it across land and then re-load at Suez, often to the same ship for onward carriage to India and points further east.

Homeward mail (i.e. from India to England) was made up at Bombay and in the early days occupied 30 to 40 boxes each measuring 2ft x 1ft 6inches. However, by 1873, 7000 pieces of mail were being despatched weekly to the East, and one can guess that a similar amount was sent back from India.

Early problems concerned the method of negotiating the land bridge linking Africa to Asia - this became the famed Overland Route which continued long after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. It shortened to the distance to India from 16,000 miles via the Cape of Good Hope, to only 6,000 miles. The route was researched and developed by Lieut Thomas Waghorn; it commenced in 1843.

Travellers took ship to Alexandria where they disembarked and journeyed by riverboat in two stages to Cairo, a distance of 48 miles. After 1856 this stage became easier with the opening of a railway from Alexandria to Cairo, and this was eventually extended to Suez in 1859. However, before construction of the rail link to Suez, passengers were obliged to travel by stage coach, stopping at rest stations along the way. The distance is 84 miles broken into 15 near equidistant stations, and the journey took between 16 and 24 hours to complete including stoppages. Rest stations 4, 8 (which was half way) and 12, were for refreshments. There was no fresh water available on the route and at the outset there were no hotels, although Lieut Waghorn did cause one to be built at the half way point with accommodation for 120 people, and described as two box like houses. Everything, including water, had to be carried across the desert to meet the needs of passengers and shipping. Even coal for the ship's boilers had to be carried as there was none available in India.

The passenger vehicles were described as "something in shape like an omnibus, though shorter and narrower, running on two wheels only and drawn by four Arab horses, driven 4 in hand. Each vehicle held six persons." They were in fact small spring carts and the journey cost 6 which included free carriage of baggage by camel. Alternatives were going by donkey back, which was only 16/- or camel for the very hardy, but this took longer, between 20 and 30 hours. The 'road' was little more than a cutting in the sand, barely distinguishable from the surrounding desert, but despite the absence of any oasis to relieve the skyline, and the presence of mosquitos and fleas at night, the stillness, particularly on moonlit nights had a certain charm and attraction.

Imagine the sight of maybe 20 vehicles needed to carry the 120 passengers for the Emeu which left Suez on 30 November 1859, crossing the desert accompanied by a caravan of 3000 camels with luggage and provisions for rest stops and the onward journey to Bombay; included were 716 chests of treasure; and not forgetting the mail of course!

Until 1851 all P & O ships which plied the route from Southampton and through the Mediterranean were paddle steamers, which were unsuitable for longer journeys through the Suez Canal and monsoon conditions beyond that point. In fact, P & O Directors had not looked forward to the opening of the canal, not anticipated its success. Gradually they made technological and speed improvements to their fleet and established a more extensive infrastructure of shore stations, coal depots, docks and workshops to service the ships travelling longer distances. At the same time, some of the services to passengers dwindled, such as the removal of free wines and spirits which had contributed largely to the reputation for 'good living' aboard the P & O steamers.

1851 Shanghai was the first screw vessel built
1855 Sultan converted from paddle to screw
1860 Mooltan was built with the first compound engine
1870 Nubia was first P & O ship through the Suez canal

Passages to India with P & O were not considered cheap, certainly there were occasional letters of complaint published in the Times of India about the cost of this near monopoly service.

In 1864 some rates of passage from Southampton to Bombay were:

Baggage allowance for 1st Class passengers was 336lbs personal baggage, with 186lbs each for children and servants.
In reserved accommodation Passengers taking a whole cabin were allowed 4.5 cwt; Married couple allowance was 9cwt

Extra baggage could be taken (if there is room) at the rate of 10/- per cwt from Southampton and ports to Alexandria; 1 per cwt from Suez plus 6/- per cwt transit expenses through Egypt, this latter amount to be collected on board.

From Marseilles to Alexandria the fare was 20 1st class, or 2nd class (mainly for servants) 10.

All ships claimed to have an experienced surgeon on board.





Southampton to Alexandria


200 x 1st class

50 x 2nd class

G C Sparkes 2152 500

130 x 1st class

30 x 2nd class

R W Evans 2020 450

Not stated

T Jamieson 2014 450
Ripon (Paddle)

131 x 1st class

22 x 2nd class

1000 troops on deck

E Christian 1908 450
Delta (Paddle)

126 x 1st class

50 x 2nd class

J Weeks 1618 400

Not stated

W C Angove 1573 300
Syria (Paddle)

161 x 1st class

34 x 2nd class

E Cooper 1932 450

Not stated

J Baker (Acting) 1909 400

Marseilles to Alexandria

Massilia (Paddle)

105 x 1st class

36 x 2nd class

W H Roberts 1640 400
Euxine (Paddle)

80 x 1st class

18 x 2nd class

J C Almond 1165 400
Valetta (Paddle)

Not stated

A M Lockie (Acting) 832 260
Vectis (Paddle)

Not stated

N Roskell 751 260

Suez to Calcutta


112 x 1st class

37 x 2nd class

G Dunn 2257 400

135 x 1st class

- 2185 465

Not stated

J D Gaby 2095 450

Not stated

J S Castle 2018 600

Not stated

N Stewart 1982 450

Not stated

A B Farquhar 1776 400

Not stated

G F Henry 1776 400

Bombay to Suez and Bombay to China


Not stated

- 2440 630


A C Grainger 2112 500

Not stated

R Curling 2010 400

Not stated

G Hyde 1942 500

Not stated

A Parish 1646 300

Not stated

J G Gribble 1632 450

Not stated

R T Dundas 1603 300

80 x 1st class

D Rennoldson 1538 300

90 x 1st class

30 x 2nd class

H W King 1491 400

90 x 1st class

30 x 2nd class

T Beasley 1491 400


W Blake (Acting) 1274 200
Singapore (paddle)

Not stated

J A Collett (Acting) 1190 470
Pottinger (paddle)

Not stated

- 1350 450

Ceylon to Sydney


97 x 1st class

30 x 2nd class

N T Skottowe 1330 400

Not stated

G C Burne 1186 275

80 x 1st class

J R Stead 1185 275

Suez to Mauritius and Reunion


Not stated

J D Steward 1124 210

Not stated

G Bain 969 230

For the following ports: Gibralter, Malta, Alexandria, Aden, Galle, Madras, Calcutta, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai

From Southampton: 4th & 20th of each month at 1.00pm, or 9.00am on Sundays.
From Marseilles: 12th and 28th of each month at 7.00am
Or, when the 10th or 26th fall on a Sunday, the mails leave London on the 11th and 27th, and steamers leave Marseille on the 13th and 29th at 7.00am

For the following ports: Gibralter, Malta, Alexandria, Aden, Bombay
From Southampton: 12th and 27th of each month at 1pm or on Sundays at 9.00am
From Marseilles: 20th and 5th of each month at 7.00am
Or, when the 18th and 3rd fall on a Sunday, the mails are despatched from London on the 19th and 4th and steamers depart Marseilles on the 21st and 6th at 7.00am

For Bombay
Depart Suez: 27th and 12th of each month
Arrive Aden: 2nd and 18th of each month
Arrive Bombay: 11th and 26th of the month (unless they came across bad weather)

From Bombay:The overland mail steamers were scheduled to depart at 10.00am on the following dates:
Fair Weather Months: on the 14th and 29th of the month (mid September - mid May)
Monsoon Months: from last Mail in May to first Mail in September on the 9th and 24th

1. MITTON, G E, 'The Peninsular & Oriental', London, Black 1913
2. P & O Steam Navigation Company: Handbook of Information 1864, London
3. INGALL, Carola: 'The P & O Line & Princess Cruises'. London Ship Pictorial Pubs, 1997
4. TDL: 'Narrative of a Journey Through India' Westminster, Thom. Brettell, 1857
5. DOUGLAS, J: 'Glimpses of Old Bombay and Western India', London, Simpson Low, Marston & Co, 1900
6. The Bombay Times & Journal of Commerce, 16 December 1859
P and O site
8. Christopher Dunlop kindly supplied information & illustrations from his research.
9. Resources of The Mitchell Library and University of Sydney Library.
10. RABSON S & O'DONOGHUE K: 'P & O: A Fleet History', World Ship Society 1988 ISBN: 0 905617 45 2

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