Pride in a uniform contributed greatly towards the Company's 'esprit de corps' and for many years P & O Officers were justly proud of their uniform with its long traditions.

SS Benares' Officers, Engineers, Petty Officers & Crew,1862


P&O Commander's Cap c1900 - The Station Master's Hat!

Early in the Great War a circular was issued by the P&O Tilbury Dock Superintendent to all Commanders:—

'At the request of H.M. Government an alteration is being made in the Company's Regulations as to uniforms whereby all gold lace straps worn on the shoulder are to be one quarter inch width instead of a half inch as heretofore and all gold lace stripes worn round the cuff are to be half inch instead of three quarters of an inch as at present'.

In the same month a full reprint of the Uniform Regulations was included in the Book of Regulations incorporating this amendment and for the first time the rank of Inspecting Purser appears. This important person was to wear two quarter inch straps on the left shoulder, half an inch apart, on a white ground whilst the Purser continued to wear one strap only.

On the subject of headgear, only the cap and a helmet with white puggaree were mentioned.

In July, 1917 a further interesting amendment was made when the Engineers' cap substituted a black mohair band for the inch and a quarter gold lace band previously worn.

L.A.Williams, Assistant Purser

By 1920 the Frock Coat was fast losing popularity and in the September of that year the Directors issued a circular stating that 'the Frock Coat need not in future be insisted on'. Thereafter it was permissible for Officers to wear Reefer Coat for Full Dress but doubtless the whole subject of Full Dress had, in any event, been in abeyance throughout the War.

J.B.Fox, Commander

The First World War had brought about a fuller recognition by the public of the vital part played by the Merchant Service and in September 1918 His Majesty King George V approved a Standard Merchant Navy Uniform.

Chief Engineer Robert Faulds MN

The stripes were originally of half inch gold lace on blue uniforms and black mohair on white uniforms, but in 1921 the width was reduced and with the passage of time and the wearing of short sleeve shirts, the black mohair stripes had disappeared and were replaced by Naval pattern shoulder straps with appropriate merchant Navy Rank insignia.

It was hoped by those responsible for the introduction of this Standard Uniform that its adoption would become general throughout the Merchant Service and those Companies having their own uniforms were expected to encourage their Officers to wear the new uniform. Accordingly the Direc­tors of the P & O issued the following Circular to their Commanders on 22nd September 1920.

 'We are informed that on board some ships pressure has been brought to bear with regard to wearing Standard or the Company's Uniform. Please note that we wish this matter to be left entirely at the option of Members of the Crew.'

In 1922 Regulations for the P & O Branch Line, a copy of the Uniform Regulations states that 'The Standard Uniform of the Mercantile Marine may be worn, or alternatively the Company's Uniform.'


Despite the official Management approval of the Standard Uniform by the Directors, one cannot help but wonder how many P & O Commanders approved its wearing in their ships - and whilst one assumed that this Circular has never been actually cancelled, there is no mention of it in any Uniform Regulations up to 1972, and the Standard Uniform was certainly not worn in the Company's ships up until 1972.

Rhodes, Commander, ss Mongolia 1920

The amended page of Uniform Regulations issued in October 1920 had the addition of the Reefer Coat which was to be of 'Blue Cloth or Serge, Double breasted, to button four' and the three cuff buttons previously worn by Senior Officers were dropped. Other minor alterations included a reduction in the number of waistcoat buttons from eight to six. By January 1923 when full details of Uniform Regulations were again to appear, there was no reference to the Frock Coat and the only coat referred to was to be of 'Blue Cloth, Navy pattern, D.B. Four Company's buttons.'

Further Regulations issued in January 1924 enlarged the quarter inch gold lace to three quarter inch (prior to 1916 it had only been half inch) for Commanders, Chief Officers, Surgeons and Pursers, (the Inspecting Purser had two stripes of five-eighths inch lace) but more importantly it introduced at last a rank marking for Junior Navigating Officers and Pursers.

The Second Officer was henceforth to wear 'A strap of dark blue cloth with two rows of  three-eighths inch gold wire navy lace across the centre of the strap three-eighths inch apart, light blue cloth between the rows on the right shoulder.'

The Third Officer wore one such row of gold lace ......

and the Fourth Officer wore one row of quarter inch lace.

There was no longer any reference to Fifth Officers and the Assistant Purser was given the same as the Fourth Officer, but on a white background, and it was to be worn on the left shoulder.

This was also the first time that anything was mentioned in the Uniform Regulations about Apprentices, who wore a vertical stripe of Russian gold braid on the right collar but they had, of course, been carried in P & O ships for many years.

These Regulations brought a change in caps too. The Commander hereafter wore gold leaf embroidered round the outside edge of his peak in place of the 'plain gold embroidery' which had made him look rather like a station master.

The introduction of two stripes for the Second Officer and one for the Third Officer was undoubtedly the influence of the Standard Merchant Navy uniform.

Junior Engineer c1900

In October, 1924, its influence was further felt when P & O Chief and Second Engineers were each given an extra stripe. For the first time too, other Engineers were given distinction lace, two stripes for the Third Engineer and one for the Fourth.

These stripes were to be of  three-eighths inch lace and Junior Engineers, Boilermakers and Refrigerating Engineers were to wear one thin stripe of quarter inch lace and the Electricians a quarter inch stripe with a half diamond above. 

More important was the introduction at last of a colour for the Engineers who were to follow the Naval custom of wearing purple between the stripes on their cuffs.

Another interesting point concerning this amendment is that there is no reference to Inspecting Pursers who do not appear again!

The building of larger ships, in particular the Viceroy of India in 1930, Strathaird in 1931, and Strathnaver in 1932, brought about the additional ranks of Staff Commander, First Officer and Deputy Purser for whom provision had to be made in respect of their uniforms.

In 1933 the following amendment to the Regulations appeared: Commander, three-quarter inch gold lace stripe surmounted by a gold embroidered P&O Sun, the whole mounted on a light blue cloth with a quarter  inch overlap all round. To be worn on each shoulder.

The Staff Commander was to wear the stripe on each shoulder without the sun, as previously worn by the Commander.

First Officer

When the P & O Regulations were reprinted in 1937, there was provision for the First Officer to wear the same as the Chief Officer ......

but with a three-eighths inch break in the centre of the gold lace, and for the Deputy Purser to wear the same but with white cloth beneath.

Whether this was the first time these new rank markings were actually instituted is not known, because they may have been promulgated earlier by a Circular or by word of mouth. The 1937 Uniform Regulations were reprinted in 1938 without change and remained in force through­out the Second World War, but as in the Royal Navy a good deal of relaxation was accepted and other rigs appeared, including 'Battle Dress' which was a most practical war-time uniform.

A number of shipping companies have continued to wear 'Battle Dress' and in many cases it has superseded the blue 'patrol jacket and trousers' which was so common in the Merchant Service between the wars. Neither of these uniforms however has found favour in the P & O and the only 'relaxed' uniforms which have been adopted are for use in warm climates.

The white shirt and shorts with long white stockings, introduced into the Royal Navy in 1937, was permitted to be worn in cargo ships and tankers and for evening wear in these ships a modification of the Naval 'Red Sea Rig' with white shirt, white trousers and cummerbund and black shoes was worn.

The Naval duffel coat of the war years replaced the expensive and rather impracticable Naval Bridge Coat too, as in the Royal Navy.

It was 1947 before further serious thought was again given to uniforms and the amendments then issued introduced many important changes. Hence­forth all Officers, regardless of Department were to wear the full cap badge, consisting of the Rising Sun and the Anchor which latter had previously been the prerogative of the Navigating Officers, and the shoulder straps were to be worn on both shoulders.

The senior officers' shoulder straps underwent considerable modification for the single large gold stripe was discarded and Chief Officers, Surgeons and Pursers received three rows of nine-sixteenth inch gold navy lace across the centre of the strap, three-eighths of an inch apart, each with their own departmental colour beneath and as stated above they were to be worn on both shoulders. The First Officer, Assistant Surgeon and Deputy Purser received similar treatment except that their middle row was to be of only quarter inch lace, giving the effect of 'two and a half' stripes.

1947 also saw a major change in the uniforms of the Purser's Department ratings. In the immediate pre-war period braid was not worn on the cuff by ratings and only the most senior had anything but a plain uniform. The Chief Steward then wore three gold stars on each cuff and his immediate juniors, the 2nd and 3rd Stewards had two and one star respectively, whilst all other Leading Hands wore only blue enamel badges on their breast pockets stating their function. In January, 1947 however, silver braid was introduced for all Leading Hands with the exception of passenger ship Chief Stewards who were to wear three zig-zag gold stripes. Cargo ship Chief Stewards and 2nd Stewards in passenger ships each received three half inch silver stripes and 3rd Stewards two such stripes, whilst other Senior Leading Hands acquired 'one and a half' silver stripes. Junior Leading Hands wore only a quarter inch stripe on their cuffs. This remained unchanged until 1972, except that cargo ship Chief Stewards now wore two zig-zag gold stripes in place of three silver ones, and with the granting of Officers' status to Chief Stewards, together with introduction of the full cap badge for all Officers they wore the gold Rising Sun and Anchor.

It was somewhere about this time too, that a small but significant alteration was ordered to the cap badge. For more years than are recorded the Rising Sun of the Officers' cap badge had displayed a 'face' consisting of eyes, nose and mouth, but from this time it began to disappear and badges were made without the face. As mentioned earlier, the cap badge had come in for its share of minor alterations over the years, both with regard to the angle of the anchor and with the size of the sun  Tailors and outfitters were informed of alteration largely by word of mouth and this information was then passed on to the embroiderers and gold lace- makers. It is not surprising therefore, that these differences are to be found in the Company's uniform over the years and, in any event, at one time it was possible to purchase two sizes of P&O’s sun.

After 1947, when so many alterations had been made to the uniform, the P & O Company began a period of steady and rewarding trading, during which time the overall pattern of the Company's activities varied very little. During this time the opportunity was taken to re-write 'P & O Regulations' incorporating all the amendments to Uniform Regulations which had been made shortly after the war, but no sooner had they appeared in print than a further spate of amendments appeared in quick succession.

In 1953 the Official rank of Commodore was instituted and the Senior Commander was given a larger version of the Commander's shoulder strap consisting of a one and a half inch gold lace stripe surmounted by a gold embroidered P & O Sun, mounted on a light blue cloth.

Commodore D C O Baillie in 1954.

By another amendment of the same date the Surgeon of a cargo ship had his three stripes reduced to two, similar treatment to that meted out to Assistant Surgeons of passenger ships in the previous year. 1953 also produced an amendment to 'P & O Regulations' giving details of uniforms for Nursing Sisters, Children's Hostesses and Stenographers, and although these ranks were not new their uni­forms had previously only been mentioned in Departmental Circulars. Nursing Sisters, the first of the ladies in P & O ships, made their appearance between the wars and since World War II they have been joined by an increasing number of female officers. Nursing Sisters and Children's Hostesses both wore a blue dress with an Officer's cap badge on the left breast, but only the former wear a white veil. The Stenographers were dressed in a uniform of the same pattern as that worn by Officers of the W.R.N.S. but with the Company's buttons and aP & O Officers' cap badge on their tricorn hats. In place of the blue braid worn by their naval counter­parts they wore a single gold stripe one eighth of an inch in width on the cuff over a white background to denote their Department.  In September 1960, their title was changed to Woman Assistant Pursers and the cuff braid replaced by the shoulder straps worn by assistant Pursers of the same seniority. The Social Hostess who had been carried in the larger passenger ships since P & O's venture into the Pacific in 1958, did not wear a strict uniform but by day generally wore a blue dress and a miniature Officer's cap badge on the left breast.

Marconi Radio Officer c1914

On 1st January, 1954 one of the most important alterations for several years came about with the introduction of P & O braid for Radio Officers. Until this date the Radio Officer in P & O ships had been almost entirely employed by the Marconi International Marine Company, and wore the standard Merchant Navy uniform, with a distinctive Marconi cap badge and braid on the cuffs. On becoming employees of the P & O Company, they were given shoulder straps in uniformity with the Navigating Officers, but with green as the back­ground colour for their Department.

1955 saw another addition to the Purser's Depart­ment uniforms with the introduction of the rank of Senior Assistant Purser, identified by two stripes over white on the shoulder. This rank which was granted to Assistant Pursers of five years' seniority, brought the Purser's Department more into line with the other Departments.

In 1957 the Commander's title was changed to Captain, with uniforms remaining unchanged, until the amalgamation with the Orient Line and the introduction of Purser Cadets, with their white twist and button on a white collar patch.

From 1st January 1963, the Orient Line uniform was replaced by the P & O uniform in the combined fleets of the P&O-Orient Line.

Petty Officers' uniforms saw the House Flag cap badge giving way to a replica of the badges worn by Chief Petty Officers and Petty Officers of the Royal Navy, with the single difference that the Rising Sun replaced the Crown