Every month we’ll take a cruise line and look at the history, the fleet and its people to find out what really makes its cruises worthwhile. This month, we’re exploring P&O Cruises, which are synonymous with British tradition and officially the oldest cruise line in the world.

As the most established and arguably best-known of the UK cruise lines, P&O Cruises have been going for nearly two centuries (they celebrated their 175th anniversary last year). What’s more, P&O Cruises is not just the oldest cruise company in Britain, but the oldest in the world, founded as early as 1837. So what’s kept this stalwart of the British cruising industry delivering impeccable service for all these decades?

P&O Cruises: early beginnings

Formed by a partnership between sea-captain Richard Bourner and the stockbrokers Arthur Anderson and Brodie McGhie, P&O Cruises was originally known as Peninsular Steam Navigation Company and was principally run as a mail carrying service to Spain and Portugal.

In 1840, the contract was extended to the East and it gained the moniker P&O Cruises (Peninsular and Oriental). The first passenger services set sail four years later, taking guests as far as Athens and Malta and later, Egypt. These itineraries are still recognised as the beginning of the leisure cruise industry.

Ships fit for royalty

P&O Cruises have stayed true to their original home port of Southampton all these years – in fact, all seven ships came together last summer in the UK port to celebrate the 175th anniversary.

However, their fleet has certainly changed since the initial sailings. Starting out with 60 steamships in the 1840s, the early 20th century saw the company in possession of more than 1,000 ships! Of course, these were not all dedicated cruise liners; the first came in 1904, known as Vectis, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that P&O Cruises’ passenger division separated from its other cargo and mail voyages.

P&O Cruises launched its first indoor swimming pool in 1929 aboard the Viceroy of India – this was also the first turbo-electric cruise ship in the fleet. Another defining moment occurred when the Oriana joined the fleet in the 1950s, a mid-sized ship that still carries a sense of vintage luxury today in its wood-panelled library and Tiffany glass ceiling.

Over and above this there have been several famous patrons over the years, with Gandhi himself sailing on the Clyde in 1881 and the Ophir taking King George V and Queen Mary to Australia in 1901 – though they were still known as the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall back then!

Today’s P&O Cruise fleet

P&O Cruises have launched several luxury vessels more recently, including the family-oriented Aurora, Azura and Oceana, which all feature dedicated children’s clubs, family excursions and blissful spa facilities where parents can escape in peace!

Adults-only ships like Arcadia offer something a little more exclusive, with tailored itineraries such as the beautiful Scandinavian fjords, stylish artworks around the decks and even restaurants serving up dishes by Marco Pierre White.

The latest ship to be announced from the P&O Cruises family – Britannia – has been much anticipated since it represents everything that’s great about the cruise line, past and present. Setting sail in 2015, the ship will be dedicated to the British market offering dining, cabin suites and entertainment worthy of a five-star hotel.

So if you want to check out what makes P&O Cruises so endurably appealing to cruise passengers, why not take a look at some of the 2014 itineraries from the UK cruise giant?

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