This article was taken from our archives. It originally appeared in the January 1960 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally. 

Last month, as the island wound up its 350th Anniversary celebrations, Furness, Withy & Company marked its 40th year in the New York-Bermuda steamship service. It seems appropriate to look back at some of the highlights of the long “partnership” between Bermuda and Furness.

With the outbreak of World War I, the Colony was confronted by a hopelessly inadequate steamship service, with only the old Bermudian operating between New York and Bermuda. Then the Bermudian was commandeered by the British Admiralty for war service, being replaced by the Cascapedia which soon was withdrawn also. The Bermuda Government acquired an old British cruiser, the Charybdis, which was reconditioned for freight and passenger service and operated at Government expense. When the war was over, the Bermuda Government despatched a three-man delegation abroad charged with the mission of securing an adequate steamship service between New York and Bermuda. They were three of the Colony’s ablest men – Mr S. S. (now Sir Stanley) Spurling, and the late Messrs John P. Hand and A. W. Bluck. The delegation carried on negotiations in Washington and Montreal without success. Steamship lines at that time apparently considered Bermuda a poor investment. So the delegation went to London and finally met their man in Sir Frederick Lewis (later Lord Essendon), head of Furness, Withy & Company in London. At the outset, even he was reluctant, but he promised to study the delegation’s propositions. At last a contract was signed. The Bermudian was purchased by Furness from the Canada Steamship Lines and reconditioned at great cost. She was re-christened Fort Hamilton and entered the New York-Bermuda service in December, 1919.

The Bermudian had been built by the Quebec Steamship Company especially for the Bermuda service. She was a two-stacked packet, with a fine rake to masts and funnels, and the graceful lines of a great private yacht, but she also had eccentricities of behaviour which made a rough passage in her something not easily forgotten. The reason for this lay in her structure. She was designed to negotiate the then much narrower and much shallower channels in these waters. While she was 425 feet long, her beam was only 50 feet. She tapered sharply at bow and stern. Even when lying at anchor or alongside a wharf, she was likely to develop, suddenly and for no apparent reason, an alarming list. During her war service she had played this prank once too often when coaling in Alexandria and went to the bottom. She was raised and refitted, but although she retained the speed record between New York and Bermuda until 1928, her engines were never the same again. We sailed in her when she was the Fort Hamilton and well we remember her unnerving antics in a heavy sea. She was at her worst when wind and sea were on her quarter. On one occasion, when she gave a particularly startling lurch, the engineroom crew fled on deck in a body and had to be chased back to their duties by Chief Engineer Robert D. Aitken.

We went through a West Indian hurricane in the Fort Hamilton in the fall of 1925. On board were more than 300 members of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston, who had chartered the ship for a cruise to Havana. Capt. Albert R. Francis was in command, with “Robbie” Aitken ruling the engineroom. In that year the reputation of the Cuban capital for unrestrained gaiety and general iniquity was at its peak and, safely away from their Prohibition-plagued homeland, the Ancient and Honorables shed their New England decorum and had themselves a real ball for five riotous days. (One died of a heart attack shortly before the ship sailed on her return passage). Predictably, few were in condition to stand rough weather, and certainly not the hair-raising cavortings of the Fort Hamilton when the hurricane struck.

The ship’s rolling technique was, to put it mildly, highly individualistic. She would heel slowly over to port, perhaps ten degrees, stay there a moment or two, shuddering convulsively, before going over another ten or 15 degrees, again pausing for that nervous shaking. This would go on until she reached her maximum list, 35 degrees or more, and there she would stay until everybody held their breath, wondering if the temperamental critter would ever again attain an even keel. But back she would roll in one dizzying plunge that would take her ten or 15 degrees over on the starboard side. Then that terrifying, shuddering roll to port would begin all over again.

The storm was a dilly, and the Ancient and Honorables huddled miserably below decks, most of them off their feed, and perhaps hoping that the end would come swiftly. Their commanding officer took to his bunk in the Governor’s suite on the boat deck and there lay in a semi-stupor holding an umbrella over his head to protect himself from water seeping through the deckhead. Experienced sailormen, including Capt. Francis, had doubts. that the ship could make it to port. The night before she reached Boston, in the dining room, which was somewhat awash from leaking portholes, a dozen or so of the Ancient and Honorables sank to their knees in supplication for deliverance.

The Fort Hamilton, some time later, was sold to the Italian Consulich Line and was last seen in Bermuda when she stopped here briefly on her way from New York to Italy. Stella D’Italia was her new name and she looked more like a big yacht than ever, her hull painted a gleaming white, and a gold star adorning each of her shiny black funnels. In 1950, when Robbie Aitken was in Italy he learned that the ship had survived World War II as she had World War I, and that she met her end in the scrapyards of Pola. In 1920 and 1921 the Fort Hamilton was joined by two more Furness ships on the Bermuda run. They were the Fort Victoria and Fort St. George (formerly the Adelaide Steamship Company’s Willochra and Wandilla) and soon the tourist trade in Bermuda was booming.

On December 18, 1929, the Fort Victoria sailed from her New York pier and headed down-river in thick fog. She stopped engines in the vicinity of the Ambrose Lightship to drop the pilot and, while out of control, was rammed amidships by the American liner Al-gonquin. Thanks to the cool efficiency of Capt. Francis, his officers and crew, there were no casualties. Passengers and crew (except the Captain and a few men who remained on board hoping to save the ship) were taken off in the pilot boat and tugboats. The Fort Victoria took a heavy list to starboard. In one of the holds were four horses, and Second Officer Gerrity (today a prominent marine trial lawyer in the U. S.) reported to the Captain that they were in panic. Capt. Francis handed him a couple of revolvers and Gerrity mercifully despatched the trapped animals. The Victoria lay over on her starboard side and began sinking by the head. Last man to abandon her was Capt. Francis. Just before he stepped into the sea, with the ship literally sinking under him, he heard squealing and his first thought was that some woman or child was still on board. Next moment rats were crawling all over him, up the legs of his trousers, over his head and shoulders. Chief Officer Harry Dawson, on board one of the tugboats, spotted a figure swimming in the water, muttered “That must be the Old Man,” and fished his skipper out of the sea with a boathook. The Victoria went to the bottom in ten fathoms of water.

The Hon. J. P. Hand, then chairman of the Bermuda Trade Development Board, sent a cable of sympathy to Mr H. C. Blackiston, managing director of Furness in New York, and received the following reply: “Loss of Fort Victoria was unfortunate but a mere detail because we are so devoutly thankful that there was no loss of life, not even injury. Moreover, Capt. Francis and his crew have received uniform praise from every source and conducted themselves after the best traditions of British seamanship.”

By this time the M.S. Bermuda, first of the big Furness luxury had joined the service. Her career was bright but brief. Gutted by fire as she lay alongside in Hamilton in June, 1931, she burned again while being reconditioned in Belfast. This time, ruined beyond repair, she was being towed to the scrapyards at Rosyth when the towline parted and the Bermuda ended up a total wreck on the rocks off the Scottish coast.

We were in the Fort St. George (as staunch a ship as we ever sailed in) when, on passage to Bermuda, she punched through the famous hurricane of 1926 in which the sloop H. M. S. Valerian and the Canadian freighter Eastway both turned turtle with heavy loss of life. The George, with a full passenger list, took a severe buffeting but, under the masterly ship-handling of Capt. H. (“Harry”) Jeffries-Davis, came through with only superficial damage, arriving here a day late and from the southward. She, like the Fort Hamilton was ultimately sold to the Italians, culminating her career in the service of Mussolini and carrying Fascist troops to the Duce’s shoddy conquest of Ethiopia. As if aware of, and detesting this ignominy, she committed self-immolation by running aground in the Red Sea. She was a total loss. The Bermuda was followed by the stately Monarch of Bermuda in November, 1931, and a sister ship, Queen of Bermuda, early in 1933.

Meanwhile, Furness, Withy & Company, through the years had poured millions into the development of Bermuda as a tourist resort. Some of the results were the Hotel St. George, the Bermudiana Hotel, the famed Mid-Ocean Club with its superb golf links, and the Castle Harbour Hotel. The “partnership” between Bermuda and Furness was a prosperous one for both until the outbreak of World War II. Within a matter of weeks both the Monarch and Queen of Bermuda were requisitioned by the Admiralty. The ships did yeoman service as armed merchant cruisers and troop transports.

After World War II was over, the Monarch of Bermuda, while being reconditioned for the Bermuda service, was partially destroyed by fire, and was later sold to an Australian shipping line. She turned up here last year, almost unrecognizable with two of her three funnels missing, as the Arkadia of the Greek Line. The Queen of Bermuda returned to the New York-Bermuda run in February, 1949, and was joined by the new luxury cruise ship Ocean Monarch in May, 1951.

The Furness Hotels and The Mid-Ocean Club have long since passed into other hands, but the “partnership” between the Colony and the Company still endures. May it prosper for another 40 years.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!