Category Archives: Nile steamers

Posts related to Nile steamers and Nile cruising.

Silver-service souvenirs

I know we are well past Christmas, but if there is anyone out there who feels they would like to buy me a late gift then I have just thing. Currently being offered on eBay by a seller in Australia is a set of seven solid silver forks bearing the stamp of the Anglo-American Nile Company (the actual wording is ‘ANGLO-AMERICAN LINE OF NILE STEAMERS’). They were likely deployed for dinners aboard the company’s steamers some time in the late 19th or early 20th century. The only trouble is my Ikea knives and spoons are going to look a little pathetic by comparison.

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Ocean Liners coming to London’s V&A

Vintage maritime history photo of the RMS Titanics propellers as the mighty ship sits in dry dock.
The Titanic in dry dock c. 1911 © Getty Images

I was at a press launch today. It was for a forthcoming exhibition, ‘Ocean Liners: Speed & Style’, which will be held at London’s V&A museum from 3 February 2018. It is going to be all about the glory days of ocean travel, exploring the design and cultural impact of the ocean liner, including the ground-breaking engineering, architecture and interiors, and the fashion and lifestyle aboard. Highlights, we were told, will include a precious Cartier tiara recovered from the sinking Lusitania in 1915, as well as a panel fragment from the Titanic’s first-class lounge where the ship broke in half, returning to the UK for the first time since its doomed maiden voyage in 1912. There will be custom-made furniture and decorative panels from the rival inter-war queens of the sea, the Normandie and Queen Mary. The exhibition will also throw the spotlight on some the famous passengers that travelled aboard, and will have personal luggage carried by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and dresses worn aboard by Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor.

Duke and Duchess of Windsor's Luggage, Goyard, about 1950 © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California. Photograph courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Luggage previously belonging to the Duke of Windsor by Maison Goyard, 1940s © Miottel Museum, Berkeley, California


Marlene Dietrich Returning from Europe
Marlene Dietrich onboard the Queen Elizabeth arriving in New York, 1959
 © Getty Images

Wooden panel fragment from the first-class lounge on Titanic, c. 1911 © Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Wooden panel fragment from the Titanic © Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia

I don’t know that there will be anything in the show specifically relating to Egypt, but many great ocean liners frequently called at Alexandria and/or Port Said on their way between Europe and the ports of Asia. And, of course, visitors to Egypt from the United States first had to cross the Atlantic to Europe, and many would have done so on ships belonging to major lines such as Cunard and White Star.

Below are a handful of fantastic posters put out by various shipping lines, mostly dating from the 1920s and ’30s, advertising routes to Egypt, North Africa and beyond. Some of these you’ll find in my book, On the Nile, but I’m pretty sure none of them will feature in the V&A exhibition, though posters and other liner-related graphics will be definitely be included. Some of these images come courtesy of Galleria Alassio L’Image.

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Oh, what a lovely war

More delving through online photographic archives, this time over at the Australian War Memorial site. The riches to be found there are amazing and I’ll be posting a bunch of finds from the archives in the coming weeks. First though, a handful of random images that I’m posting for no better reason than they are lovely photographs. They are all from 1942 and show Australian nurses and soldiers off duty and relaxing in Cairo.

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Rollerskating was hugely popular at this time and Cairo had several purpose-built rinks.

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Luxury leave in 1943

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One of the strands that runs through my book On the Nile is the story of the various steamers that were built, or bought and refitted, especially for use on the Nile. Their heyday stretched from the late 1880s to the outbreak of World War I and then again for a short spell between the wars. Short because the Great Depression that came in the wake of 1929’s Wall Street Crash was very much felt in Egypt. Thomas Cook & Son, which operated the majority of the steamers, saw its Egyptian business drop by almost half as a result of the Crash. The company responded by selling off a large part of its fleet. A few years later the business came to a complete stop with the outbreak of war in North Africa. What remained of Cook’s Nile fleet was requisitioned by the British Army, as were the boats belonging to the Anglo-American Nile Company. Some of the boats were used for transport, several were used as floating officers’ clubs, moored at Cairo. At the time I was writing the book I looked for images of the boats in their new roles but failed to find anything other than the photograph above, which shows South African troops aboard Cook & Son’s Thebes down at Shellal. Then just last week, while searching the Imperial War Museum archive for something else altogether, I came across the images below.

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The photo set is captioned “Luxury leave for the Navy in Cairo, 19 May 1943”. The pics show petty officers aboard two houseboats moored beside the Gezira Club, where all the amenities are at the officers’ disposal, including golf and the swimming pool. The boats are the Indiana and the Puritan, which were part of the Anglo-American fleet.

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Pagnon and the Grand Hotel, Aswan

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A few days back a visitor to this site, Amina Niazi, posted a request for information on the Grand Hotel, which used to be on the Corniche at Aswan, so here’s what I know.

The story starts with Ferdinand Pagnon, who I haven’t written about before on this blog, which is a bit of an oversight given that he was the major hotelier in Upper Egypt at the tail end of the 19th century – so thank you Amina for the prompt.

Albert Ferdinand Pagnon was born on 1 January 1847 in Bourgoin, not far from Lyon in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in France. His family had a hotel there but it burned down the year of Ferdinand’s birth and so they moved to Marseille and then Egypt. The baby was left behind in France in care of an aunt, until at the age of 12 Ferdinand was sent to study in Malta. He returned to France to work in a bank in Romans until in 1868 his father died and the young man was called to Egypt to take his place running several hotels in Ismailia and Port Said. These almost certainly catered to engineers and company officials associated with the Suez Canal, which was then under construction and opened the following year.

Somehow Ferdinand also came to run the Hotel Victoria in Venice, which is where he met John Cook, son and heir of the international travel agent Thomas Cook. John made Pagnon the agent for the company’s growing Nile business in 1876. Pagnon was based down in Luxor, where Cook & Son built its first hotel, the Luxor Hotel, which opened in 1877 and was managed by Pagnon. Not long after, the company bought a second Luxor property, the Karnak Hotel, which I imagine was again managed by Pagnon. He later bought these two hotels from Cook.

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From Luxor, Cooks’ steamers continued south to Aswan, where they stayed for two days before heading back downriver to Cairo. There were no hotels at Aswan, so for passengers wanting to extend their stay the company maintained a permanently moored steamer, the Sethi (above), as a floating hotel. That was until 1894 when, with money borrowed from Cook & Son, Pagnon opened bought the Hotel Assouan, which had opened on the Corniche close to the wharf where the steamers moored a couple of seasons previously. At some later date this hotel would become the Grand Hotel d’Assouan and then just the Grand Hotel. It was not a particularly large property and when the rival Anglo-American Nile Company launched the far fancier Savoy on Elephantine Island, Cook & Son responded by building the Cataract, which opened in 1900.

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Initially, the Cataract was leased to Pagnon, but in 1904 it was sold to the Upper Egypt Hotels Co, a consortium headed up by Charles Baehler, owner of Shepheard’s in Cairo, but in which both John Cook and Pagnon also had stakes. The Upper Egypt Hotels Co also built the Winter Palace in 1907. Pagnon did not live long to enjoy his hotel empire – he caught a chill while boating on the Nile and died of pneumonia in 1909.

He left behind a wife, Kitty, and two daughters who returned to France to live in a farmhouse purchased by Ferdinand in Romans. There’s a small archive of correspondence between Pagnon and his wife held by the Municipal Archives of Romans, while the family property is now a health and therapy centre. A shrewd operator, while in Egypt Pagnon also amassed a collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, which were left to his family and fetched decent prices when auctioned off at Christie’s in 1993.

As for the Grand Hotel at Aswan, it survived Pagnon by at least two decades because it was listed in the last Baedeker guide to Egypt, published in 1929. Beyond that, I don’t know. If anyone else has any information, please do drop me a line.

5 JUNE 2017
Some additional information comes courtesy of Dr Cornelius von Pilgrim of the Swiss Institute, Cairo:

Dear Andrew,
The later fate of the hotel goes as following: the Assouan Hotel was renamed some time around 1900 as the Grand Hotel Assouan before it was destroyed by fire on April 23rd 1903. In the summer of the same year it was newly built and reopened as the Grand Hotel that winter. It was a completely new building, with three floors, a fourth floor was added the following year. It burnt down again in summer 1985.

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All aboard

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The item above is not a Christmas card or greetings card, although it was handed out to all who boarded a Cook & Son Nile steamer. It is a passenger list – flip it over and the small card lists out all your fellow passengers.

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It was important to know who they were, after all, with the standard cruise taking three weeks, everybody would be spending a lot of time in each other’s company. Chances are some of the names would be familiar – a trip up the Nile was not cheap and the steamers were largely the preserve of the aristocratic and moneyed classes.

Cook & Son employed a variety of slightly different designs for their passenger lists. These lists relate to the boats I wrote about in the last post, so they would have been issued some time in the 1890s or first decade of the 20th century.

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From the same period comes the excellent ticket below, issued by the Cairo office of Cook & Son on 22 November 1893 and good for a journey from Girgeh south to Aswan and back down to Cairo. It is personally signed and authorised by John Mason Cook, son of Thomas and head of the company since his father passed away the previous year.

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All these items come from the Thomas Cook archive in Peterborough.

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When steam replaced sail on the Nile

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In 1888 Cook & Son’s seasonal Egypt and the Nile brochure opened with an apology: “It will be known to all who have watched the course of events in Egypt, that from the season 1883-84 until the past season of 1886-87, we have not been in the position to justify us announcing a regular tourist steamboat service on the Nile.”

The reason for this was that Cook’s fleet of Nile steamers had been requisitioned by the British Army to transport its troops up to Khartoum in a doomed attempt to rescue Major General Charles Gordon and his besieged forces. The boats were ruined in the attempt. Cook & Son sued for recompense and in 1887 was able to commence the launch of a wholly new, purpose-built fleet of paddle steamers, built to order and custom-fitted for Nile service.

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The first two boats were ordered from Fairfield Govan of Glasgow. The design of the boats was based on the American river steamers, with upper, main and lower decks, and side-mounted paddlewheels. The completed hulls and engines were delivered in sections to Egypt in the second half of 1886, and assembled in Cairo, where Cook & Son had its own boatyards at Bulaq. These first vessels were an almost identical pair, the Tewfik and Prince Abbas, which made their trials on the Nile in October 1886.

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At around the same time, two additional steamers were ordered from France. These were the Rameses and Prince Mohammed Ali, which were towed across the Mediterranean to Damietta and up the Nile to Cairo.

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In November 1889, a further Fairfield boat, the Rameses the Great, was delivered. It made its maiden Nile voyage in January 1890 with African explorer Henry Morton Stanley on board. Business was so good, two seasons later Cook & Son commissioned yet another steamer. This was the Rameses III, launched into regular service on 17th January 1893.

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There were also four smaller, less lavish steamers that were built for use on a “Cheap Express Service”: the Amenartas, Cleopatra, Hatasoo and Nefertari. To prove their “express” credentials, in November 1888 the Cleopatra completed the run from Cairo to Aswan and back, a distance of 1,200 miles in 122 hours, faster than anyone had ever done it before. The Express service ran Asyut–Aswan–Asyut, where it connected with the Cairo train. It was for travellers who wanted to spend less time and money on seeing the Nile. It only made short stops en route, including just a few hours at Qena, Luxor and Edfu.

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Another purchase was a small steam launch, a boat suitable for a party of not more than eight. This was named Nitocris and was used for private hires (one client was Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, who sailed the Nile in January 1896). The company also retained a small fleet of dahabiyas, which were also used for private hire.

At a speech to mark the launch of Rameses III, head of the company John Cook recalled that when he had made his first trip to the Nile in 1870, there had been only one passenger-carrying steamer and 136 dahabiyas; now there were fifteen steamers, all running under his ownership, and not more than thirty dahabiyas. (In the 21st century, the dahabiya has made a bit of a comeback, while there are no more than two or three working steamers.)

The beautiful drawings included here come from a Cook’s Egypt and the Nile brochure from the 1890s. They were cleaned up and reproduced in large format in my On the Nile book, which is, as far as I know, the first time they have ever been published. You need to double-click on them to appreciate the detail.

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A rare Richter poster

A chap named David Hopper added a comment on this site last week mentioning he had a poster that recycled one of the designs used on the cover of an Anglo-American Nile Company brochure. He kindly sent me an image with permission to post here:

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It’s a fabulous thing and, as far as I know, very rare – I’ve never seen a poster for the Anglo-American company. He tells me it’s 39 1/2 x 25 inches and going by the date on the brochure with which it shares a design, it probably dates from around 1929/1930.

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Also interesting is that it was designed and printed by the well known Richter & Co of Naples, a company responsible for designing and printing many of the fine luggage labels and advertising material put out by Egypt’s top hotels, including Shepheard’s, the Winter Palace and Cataract. The Anglo-American company spent years overshadowed by the more commercially successful Thomas Cook Nile services and subsequently largely vanished from history while the Thomas Cook name lives on. Thanks to Richter it can at least boast the better graphics.

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An American Express on the Nile

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Americans had been vacationing on the Nile since the mid 19th century but in the first years of the 20th they were coming in ever greater numbers. The Hamburg-American Line increased its sailings to Alexandria to accommodate the growth. Meanwhile, on the Nile new cruise companies were setting up to challenge the monopoly of the English-owned Thomas Cook & Son. I’ve written before about the Anglo-American, established in the mid 1890s, and this was joined ten years later by another new venture, the Express Nile Steamer Company.

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Boasting all-American management and operating on “the American plan”, it inaugurated services aboard its two purpose-built steamers, the America and the Virginia, in 1906. (The steamers, incidentally, were British built.) What the “American plan” was, I’m not sure, but the company’s particular selling point was speed. It claimed its boats were the fastest on the Nile, with an average speed upstream of 12 knots an hour. This enabled them to complete the journey to Aswan and back in eight days as opposed to Cook & Son’s standard twenty. In fact, by synchronising with the train that left Cairo at 6.30pm and arrived in Luxor at 9am the next morning, where a boat would leave at 10am arriving in Aswan at 11pm, the company could boast it could get the traveller from Cairo to Aswan in not much over 24 hours “and have a good view of some of the principal ruins on the way”.

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Except tearing up and back down the Nile at breakneck speed was not the experience most tourists in Egypt were looking for and it seems the Express Nile Steamer Company did not remain in business long because very little evidence of it exists. I found just one or two mentions in archive issues of the daily Egyptian Gazette. Until, that is, this brochure came up recently on ebay (scans above and below). I’ve never seen any other material relating to the company, which might explain why this item went for a price far beyond my each.

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If anybody has any more information about this company, I’d love to hear from you.

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On the Nile press coverage

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There has been some welcome coverage of On the Nile in the UK press: travel mag Wanderlust featured it as one of its ‘8 summer reads’ in the August issue and there was a great half-page review (‘A sense of romance positively oozes from every page of this delightful book’) by explorer Robin Hanbury Tenison in the 29 July issue of Country Life. The online Telegraph ran a picture gallery linked to the book, as did the online travel section of the Daily Mail.

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UPDATE Also reviewed (a half page) in the September issue of Geographical:

Humphreys’ beautifully produced account of tourism’s golden age is largely the story of what became of Cook & Son, from its internal politics to its ties to government and the British Army – in 1884 all tourist activity was halted, as Cook’s steamers were commandeered by the Gordon Relief Expedition, a hiatus which was followed by the launching in 1888 of a fleet of ‘floating palaces’ so grand that bathrooms were included in the fare, instead of being optional extras.

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