Journal Nostalgia: Recalling a famous 20th Century passenger ship

Alan Hayward of Tyne & Wear Archives uncovers local connections with a great 20th century passenger ship

TWAM Berangaria heading out to sea c. 1921
Berangaria heading out to sea c. 1921

Over the past few months, Tyne & Wear Archives has been sorting through historic records of Vickers Armstrong, the British shipbuilding, engineering and armaments conglomerate, which employed tens of thousands of men and women on Tyneside.

I’ve been working through the large quantity of unlisted material in the Vickers Armstrong collection and there have been lots of interesting finds. Perhaps the most unexpected was a series of four photographs of the Berengaria, one of the greatest passenger liners of her day.

She was launched in Hamburg, in May 1912, under the name ‘Imperator’ and at that time was the largest ship in the world.

The vessel spent the First World War moored at Hamburg, but soon afterwards was handed over to the United States Shipping Board to transport American troops back home. She then passed to the British authorities as part of the reparations for losses suffered during the war.

TWAM Berengaria passing the Neptune yard of Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson c1921
Berengaria passing the Neptune yard of Swan Hunter and Wigham Richardson c1921

Imperator was bought by the Cunard Line in 1919, and became the firm’s flagship, joining other great vessels of the age – the Tyne-built Mauretania and Aquitania – on the transAtlantic crossing from Southampton to New York.

Cunard soon renamed her Berengaria and in 1921, she was sent with Aquitania to the Walker naval yard of Armstrong Whitworth, where both were converted from coal to oil burning engines and various minor repairs were carried out.

The photographs in the Vickers Armstrong collection must date from this conversion and include a view of the vessel passing the shipyard of Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson at Walker.

There’s also an interesting local connection to the Berengaria’s new oil-burning system, which was invented by the marine engineer William Albert White.

TWAM William Albert White in front of the Turbinia, early 20th century
William Albert White in front of the Turbinia, early 20th century

White was born in 1897, in Sunderland, and studied at South Shields Marine School before serving his apprenticeship with the Middle Docks & Engineering Co. Ltd.

He obtained his chief engineer’s ticket and then found employment with the Parsons Marine Steam Turbine Co. Ltd at Wallsend, where he was actively involved in the development of the steam turbine.

Indeed, he served as chief engineer on the SS Turbinia when she crossed the Atlantic in 1904.

That vessel was built by Hawthorn Leslie and shouldn’t be confused with its illustrious namesake, now on display in Discovery Museum.

White stayed in America for a number of years before returning to the United Kingdom in 1916 with his family.

He made several highly successful inventions, most notably the White Low-Pressure Oil-Burning Engine, which was fitted in Berengaria.

His firm, the White Patent Oil Burning Co. Ltd, established an engine works at Gateshead in 1920.

TWAM Berengaria under tow in the River Tyne c. 1921
Berengaria under tow in the River Tyne c. 1921

The firm relocated soon after to South Shields, before finally settling at Hebburn in 1923.

After the conversion, Berengaria went on to have a fine career until a fire on board in March 1938 led to the discovery of defective wiring.

Her owners took the decision to dispose of her and she returned once more to the Tyne to be broken up at Jarrow.

The Second World War intervened and her dismantling was not completed until after the War, and was done so in Rosyth, on the Firth of Forth.

This was a sad end, but the discovery of these photographs in the Vickers Armstrong collection is a happy reminder of a great ship in her pomp.


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