HM Troopship Plassy was built by Caird of Greenock for the P & O Steam Navigation Co., she was launched on 23rd November 1900 and delivered 9th January 1901. Her maiden voyage departed on 29th January 1901 from London to Shanghai. She was a 450 foot, 6,500 ton, steamship capable of carrying around 200 passengers and operated mostly as a troop transport during the Boer War and then on the Indian Garrison rotation run. Today we are looking at a couple of pages from a photograph album depicting one of these voyages out to India before World War One:
The first page has four photographs of the ship’s officers and some of the passengers including army officers and nurses. From the captions we can see that the Captain’s name was Andrews and in charge of the nursing party was a Surgeon Colonel Barefoot:
The second page has four commercial postcards of the Suez Canal and some informal shots of deck sports on the Plassy:
These photographs clearly come from one of the officers or their wives on the voyage, rather than the ordinary men who would have had a far more uncomfortable voyage.
The Indian Trooping season generally began with troop ships leaving England in September, and ended with the last ships leaving India in March. This pattern was probably established once troop ships no longer sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and started using the “Overland Route”, and then the Suez Canal after its opening in 1869.
The reasons for a restricted period were to travel in the cooler months so that
- troops were not travelling during the hot summer months in unventilated ships, particularly in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, when conditions could become dangerous.
- unacclimatised troops from Britain were not travelling from the ports of Bombay or Karachi to their cantonments during the heat of an Indian summer.
A generation later soldiers were still sailing out to India and this wonderful account comes from Neil Walker:
Personally, I looked forward to it. A new adventure, something more to see; as a civilian I would never have had the opportunity to travel, and what an experience it was! No cabins, only for officers – fair enough. Officers, to us, were God- like beings that occasionally appeared on a parade or when someone was marched in front of them for minor misdemeanours and they were allotted roughly half of the best part of the ship. Warrant Officers, Sergeants and married families had about one-third of the remainder, which meant that hundreds of troops had the remaining third of the ship, less the crew’s quarters.
We lived in the cargo space, deck upon deck of it, right down to the bowels of the ship, at the sharp end naturally. A typical mess-deck was like this: imagine a slave galley which, instead of oars poking out the sides, had long tables, row upon row of them, coming from the side of the ship towards the centre; each table had long benches called forms either side and was called ‘a mess’ and accommodated 28 men, fourteen either side, with the necessary buckets, tea-kettles and crockery to make each mess complete in itself. Each mess was numbered and at mealtimes, taking it in turns, four men would take the various pots and pans up to the ship’s galley and be issued with a cooked, or otherwise, meal for 28 men. Now consider – no matter where your mess was you had to climb up two or more flights of stairs to reach the galley; inversely I: the stairs had to be descended with the food in order to get to your mess.
It is a racing certainty that more men went without food on a trooper, due to bad weather causing the stuff to be spilt on the stairs, be vomited into, to be just refused by the sea-sick than from any other cause in their service. Conditions weren’t very good and remember we slept in hammocks, which were slung over the table at night. It was pandemonium getting the hammocks down in the morning and put away tidily.
When we cleared the Bay of Biscay and arrived at Gibraltar, conditions improved. It was warmer, you could sleep up on deck sea-sickness was all over and we settled down to a life of Guard Duty and Tombola and your turn as Mess Orderly. Through the Mediterranean to Port Said, through the Suez Canal down the Red Sea to Aden and then on to Karachi in India which was our destination; (historical note: this was before India was divided into Pakistan and India; Karachi is now in Pakistan.)
Twenty-four days that voyage took but in the main I quite enjoyed it; it was all so new, so different, so smelly. There used to be a joke about an animal Regimental Mascot being taken to India – a goat – and when it was being put aboard, a ship’s officer asked where it was being housed,
“Bottom troop-deck” was the reply.
“But what about the smell?”
“That’s all right, the goat won’t mind” and that just about sums it up!