In 1835, Willcox and Anderson, as London agents for the City of Dublin S.P. Company, started a service as Peninsular Steam Navigation Company. In 1836 they introduced the newly-built paddle steamer Iberia and in 1837 secured the England-Gibraltar mail contract, which they extended to Alexandria in 1839, and in 1837 merged with the Transatlantic Steam Ship Co. The company won further contracts to supply India’s mail 1844 and started operations to Australia in 1896 and acquired the New Zealand Steam Ship Co. in 1916. In WW1 the company lost 85 ships, and after started to rebuild.
P&O were seriously affected by the depression and no dividend was paided for 4 years, however the company remained focused and as the ’30s dawned, new ships were on the way. In WW2 P&O Lost 19 ships and by 1949 replacements started to arrive, and they moved from line voyages into cruising by the mid 60s, the same time they started to operate their first ferry servicesâ€¦
In 1967, the Dragon entered service as the company’s first ro-ro ferry in a 50-50 venture with Normandy Ferries. The ship entered service between Southampton and Le Havre. The 850 passenger Leopard visited London before inaugurating the service at the end of June 1967, and was followed by the Leopard on the service a year later. In 1968 the Leopard started sailings from Rosslare to Le Havre and a Shamrock was added to the house flag of Normandy Ferries to reflect this.
P&O brought the Coast Lines group, with its ferry, short sea cargo routes and road transport companies in 1971, and started work in the Irish Sea, with the accusisation of the Liverpool-Belfast, Clyde-Dublin, Belfast, and Derry routes included with the Coast Lines deal (even though Coast Lines sold the B&I Line, and City of Cork S.P. to the Irish Government in 1965).
The 1967 built sisters Ulster Prince and Ulster Queen, largely financed by the B&I sale, moved the Liverpool-Belfast route into the car terry era. While overnight services from Glasgow were in terminal decline. Burns & Laird did start an Ardrossan-Belfast vehicle and passenger link in 1967 with the Lion. By the end of 1971, P&O had gathered the Coast Lines constituent companies and GSNC into a European and Air Transport Division, itself split into .Short Sea Shipping (later Ferries), Road Services, Ferryrmasters (later Unit Loads) and Freight Forwarders sections. And in 1975 the Coast Lines companies lost their individual identies when the blue hull and funnel along with the P&O titles were brought in.
Their were major freight developments with drive-on cargo shipsin the seventies, and in 1975 the ro-ro freighters Buffalo and Rison were introduced on an Irish Sea service for Pandoro, a new concern bringing together UK-Ireland door-to-door container services. Pandoro’s parent, Ferrymasters did pioneered similar links with the Continent prior to this.
The Liverpool-Belfast route was closed in November 1981 and in a surprise 1985 development, the Townsend Thoresen Ferries parent, European Ferries bought P&O’s English Channel services.
In the early seventies P&O dipped a toe in fast ferry waters using a Boeing Jetfoil for a London (St Katharine’s Dock) to Zeebrugge service in 1977-78 and later tried a two craft service to Ostend. But while rivals including Sealink experimented with vehicle carrying fast ferries, causing P&O to steered clear until 1996 when putting the Norway-built monohull craft Jet ferry on the Larne-Cairnryan run.
In 1998 P&O joined forces with Stena Line in Dover to launch P&O Stena Line in an attempt to counter the treat of the Channel Tunnel, but P&O bought out Stena during 2002 but in turn Stena took over P&O’s Felixsrtowe-Rotterdam freight service and then unveiled plans to buy P&O Irish Sea freight routes from Liverpool and Fleetwood together with the two vessels from a Mostyn-Dublin service launched only in 2001 but which P&O wanted to close. In the event, Stena had to he content with the Feetwood-I.arne route and its three ships, plus the Mostyn pair, after the authorities refused to authorise the sale of P&O’s two-ship Liverpool-Dublin freight service on competition grounds. P&O has continued the route with Norbank and Norbay, displaced from the Hull-Rotterdam route, after investment in the world’s largest passenger/vehicle ferries in 2001-2.