RHMS Australis (See all photos at the bottom of the page)
Luxury travel for 43 Little Brothers
Of the 61 ships that brought Little Brothers to Australia between 1925 and three stand out as, arguably, the most luxurious. ‘Australis’, operated by Chandris Lines and P & O’s ‘Canberra’ and ‘Oriana’ were a class above other ships, many of which had been refitted to maximise their profitability on the lucrative Australia/New Zealand migrant charters.
‘Canberra’ and ‘Oriana’, 45733 and 41915 tons respectively, were the largest ships plying the UK to Australia/New Zealand route. They were the most modern, ‘Oriana’ was launched in 1960 and ‘Canberra’ closely followed in 1961. Just over 200 Little Brothers enjoyed the P & O hospitality on these 2 ships. (If you are one of those Little Brothers and you would like to share stories and/or pictures for a future article please contact us…..)
By contrast the ‘Australis’ was older and, at 34500 tons, smaller than the two P & O ships but to many who sailed on her she was the most majestic to ply the UK to Australia/New Zealand route.
‘Australis’ was built in the United States as a competitor for the great European liners that dominated transatlantic luxury travel. Notable among these were the legendary Cunard liner ‘Queen Mary’ and France’s elite ‘Normandie’. At the time of her launching she was the largest passenger vessel to be built in the USA. She served as a ‘blueprint’ for the larger SS United States which still holds the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing.
She was launched in 1939 as the ‘SS America’ by then First Lady, Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt for the United States Lines shipping company. She operated for a short time as a cruise ship before commissioning as a troop transport for the US Navy. She operated throughout the second world war as the ‘USS West Point’ and, in fact, carried Australian troops, withdrawn from the North Africa campaign, to Australia to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific, disembarking them in Adelaide and Melbourne. After the war she was returned to the United States Lines, refurbished and returned to the transatlantic route before being sold to Chandris Lines in 1964.
Chandris Lines undertook a major refit and the renamed ‘RHMS Australis’ (RHMS stands for Royal Hellenic Mail Ship. When reregistered in Panama in 1967 the prefix SS [Steam Ship] was adopted) emerged as the largest one-class liner in the world with accommodation for 2300 passengers. Between 1965 and 1976 ‘Australis’ plied the Australia/New Zealand route bringing thousands of British and European migrants to our shores and carrying Europe bound holiday makers on her return. In 1975 she was involved in a minor collision, on Sydney Harbour, with the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne.
So what of the Little Brothers that travelled to their new home in such luxury. Only 43 Little Brothers travelled on the ‘Australis’ . In 1965 one group of 14 Little Brothers arrived and in 1966 14 were on one voyage and another 15 arrived later that year. Reproduced below are the original group cards for each of those voyages showing the names of the Little Brothers on each and the sailing date of the voyage. We managed to contact Martin Harrison and Allan Pearson who both arrived with the same group on 13th January 1966 and they recounted some anecdotes about the voyage and provided the photographs, bar list and menu.
Martin hails from Nottingham and he and Julian Ward travelled together and met the other Little Brothers and their escort, Doc Patten an ex Pat from Fremantle, at Paddington. At Southampton he recalls seeing the ‘Australis’ for the first time and was in awe at the size of the ship. Martin, Allan Pearson, Julian Ward and Frank Highton scored a cabin with a porthole on one of the upper decks whereas most of the group were buried in decks below the waterline.
First stop was the port of Piraeus (Athens) where sightseeing was followed by lunch. Doc Patten had vouchers for the meal and made sure they covered the cost of each choice before they ordered. However, the wily Greek proprietor added a substantial service charge that was not disclosed on the menu so Doc refused to pay. He instructed the 14 Little Brothers to sit tight until the proprietor came to his senses. The local police were called, by the proprietor, and despite some spirited exchange of views the proprietor had home ground advantage and Doc had no alternative but to pay, perhaps avoiding he and his 14 charges ending up in a Greek jail.
Port Said had to be viewed from the ship, as document of identity holders were not allowed ashore but the local bum boat traders provided local colour. Similarly our intrepid group were denied the opportunity to explore Aden on the advice of the ‘Australis’ captain. The ‘Aden Emergency’ that had started late 1963, when a grenade was thrown at a group of British officials, had escalated and those few passengers that decided to go ashore were closely guarded by British troops. Within 2 years British rule was to end and the People’s Republic of South Yemen proclaimed.
Tours were organised to make the most of brief stopovers in Fremantle and Melbourne before arrival in Sydney on January 13th, 1966. Martin recalls those under 18 were given 10 quid each and the majority of the group were taken to the Burwood hostel. This was a single story bungalow near the corner of Burwood Road and the Hume Highway run by a Mr Gerald Hickey who was rumoured to be a retired Army RSM. The lads were accommodated 4 to a room and told the house rules, in no uncertain terms including not to wear shoes inside but instead to purchase ‘sockets’, a mysterious variation on the humble sock, make their beds every day and generally follow Mr Hickeys’ prescriptive instructions on how to behave. The strict rules included vacating the house after breakfast and not returning until late afternoon to be ‘marched’ to a neighbourhood cafe for an evening meal, paid for with a BBM voucher. We know that the requirement for Little Brothers to vacate their accommodation during the day came from Mr Frank Mansell who was concerned that without this incentive many lads would simply laze around.
Ships That Passed – Scott Baty