Early in this century the P&O line was very interested in obtaining a share of the England-Australia traffic via the Cape of Good Hope. Several vessels had been diverted from the traditional Suez routes but the efforts were erratic, piecemeal and were doomed to failure. In 1910 an opportunity was presented to enter this trade with more prospects of success. One of the established traders, the Lund Blue Anchor Line suffered a tragedy. The Waratah, their newest and largest steamer disappeared without trace on the outbound voyage from Australia. The Lund family lost interest in ship owning and began looking for a buyer. The operation ideally suited P&O's needs. The remaining Blue Anchor fleet was purchased and re-named the P&O Branch Service.
The fleet inherited by P&O was old and run-down and could not effectively compete with White Star and the Aberdeen Line services. P&O decided to construct five new ships, the first, Ballarat (2) was delivered in 1911, all by 1914. The ships offered a one class service and quickly became highly competitive.
In 1914 the British government did not consider the service via the Cape of Good Hope to be essential, thus the Branch Service ships could be requisitioned for war service. The class saw extensive service in WWI. Ballarat was torpedoed and sunk in 1917. Berrima was also torpedoed but was beached and subsequently repaired. In the early post-war years P&O decided to upgrade the Branch Service fleet again and ordered five new ships, two delivered in 1921 and the other three in 1923. Ballarat (3), the subject of this plan, was the first of this new class.
All five ships were externally identical in appearance although there were small differences and the tonnages varied slightly. Ballarat was built by Harland & Wolff, Greenock, Scotland. Power was by Triple expansion steam with twin screws. Her maximum speed was 13.5 knots and she carried 490 third class passengers (alternately 700 in steerage but not done in practice). Third class, also called "cabin" class, was a reasonable level of comfort, not the palatial levels seen on the crack mail liners, but acceptable. This type of vessel was termed "Intermediate" or "mixed" with equal space devoted to passengers and to cargo. Dimensions were L.537' (OA) x W.64.3'(molded).
Unfortunately P&O's optimism was misplaced. The downturn in passenger traffic in the 1920's forced Aberdeen, White Star and the Blue Funnel Line to combine in offering joint services. P&O found it difficult to compete. They carried on at a loss until late 1929 when all five vessels were diverted to the Suez routes. The result was a surplus of tonnage and the Ballarat went to the ship breakers in 1935 after only 13 years of service. By the end of 1936 all five had been scrapped. Three years later all were probably sorely missed as they would have made good troop carriers. Economic hard times had blighted their potential futures.
COLORS: Hull, black with a thin white band the sheer line half way between the two rows of port holes. Red waterline.
Upper works, Brown, (mid-stone color), including ventilators, kingposts, booms and life boats. Life boats had dark brown canvas covers. Ventilator mouths were red. Funnel and masts were black.
Steel decks were dark gray. Wood decks were unpainted.
built by Caird & Company Greenock,
Yard No 318
Engines by Shipbuilder
Port of Registry: Greenock
Propulsion: Two four cylinder quadruple expansion steam engines, 9000ihp, twin screw, 16.5 knots
Launched: Saturday, 23 September 1911
Ship Type: Passenger Liner
Ship's Role: UK/Australia emigrant service via the Cape of Good Hope (Branch Line)
Tonnage: 11120 gross; 7055 net; 13881 dwt
Length: 500ft 2in
Breadth: 62ft 9in
Draught: 31ft 8in
Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company
Status: Torpedoed & Sunk - 25/04/1917
23/09/1911: Launched by Mrs F C Allen, wife of the manager of the P&O Branch Line. When P&O bought Lund’s Blue Anchor Line’s emigrant service via the Cape in 1910, they immediately ordered five new ships, of which BALLARAT was the first, with improved accommodation aimed at a higher quality of emigrant. P&O took over the service complete, renaming it the Branch Line (hence the Australian “B” names used for their new tonnage), and running it separately from their other ships because Australian regulations required allwhite crews.
01/11/1911: Registered. She began life with a Blue Anchor Line funnel, changing to P&O black in 1914. Her maiden voyage via the Cape set a London/Adelaide record of 37½ days.
1914: When war came served initially as an Indian transport.
08/1915: Carrying Australian troops.
25/04/1917: Torpedoed by the German submarine UB.32, 24 miles SxW from Wolf Rock. She was sailing as HM AMBULANCE TRANSPORT A70 on a voyage from Melbourne to London with Australian troops and a cargo of copper, antimony ore, bullion and general cargo. Despite 50 lookouts on each side and HMTBD PHOENIX as escort the torpedo was not spotted, the starboard screw was smashed and the engine room flooded. Taken in tow by a destroyer and HM Drifter MIDGE, she sank in 44 fathoms of water 8½ miles off the Lizard the following day. All 1,752 on board were saved.
12/1917: P&O Chairman Lord Inchcape negotiated £420,000 compensation for a ship that cost £176,109!
The following from 'Dictionary of Disasters at Sea During the Age of Steam' (C. Hocking):
The troopship BALLARAT, taken over from the P. & O. company, was approaching the entrance to the Channel on April 25th, 1917, when she was torpedoed by a German submarine.
Including troops, who were all reinforcements from Victoria for the 2nd and 4th Australian Brigades, there were some 1,750 persons on board at the time.
The day being Anzac Day the men were parading for a memorial service on board when, at 2.5 p.m., the torpedo struck the ship.
One propeller was smashed, a 6 in. gun destroyed, the main steam pipe fractured and the after watertight bulkhead blown in. The BALLARAT at once began to settle in the water but admirable discipline was maintained and the men, who had been exercised at boat drill repeatedly by the colonel of the Victorian Scottish who was in command of the draft, went to their places in splendid order.
There was no loss of life, all the troops and crew being taken off by their own boats or by escorting destroyers. The captain of the BALLARAT, Cdr. G. W. Cockman, R.N.R., D.S.O., received the congratulations of the Admiralty on this splendid feat, and the Australian troops were congratulated by King George V.