News from 1920: OLYMPIC OF THE OIL AGE

Mark Baber

Dec 29, 2000
The Times, 21 June 1920


(From Our Special Correspondent)

The life of the White Star liner Olympic, of 46,300 tons gross, falls to
date into three main chapters. The first opened nine years ago, when she
left Messrs. Harland and Wolff's Yard at Belfast, the largest ship that
had ever been built, to help make communication between Europe and the
United States pleasant, easy, and quick. The second began when war broke
out, and she carried troops, first under the Red Ensign, to Gallipoli,
and then, under the White Ensign, from North America to Europe. With
everything that was not absolutely essential hacked out of her and the
hull strangely camouflaged, she ran in zig-zag fashion, again and again,
the gauntlet of the submarines, never being quite caught, but ramming at
least one before her war service was gloriously concluded. In those days
the troops she carried were numbered by hundreds of thousands. No
British ship did better work, and she has nobly earned the respect and
affection of all the peoples of the nations who fought together.

The third chapter began on Thursday when, once more, in most auspicious
circumstances, she slipped away again from the famous Belfast Yard. For
nine months' work has been proceeding in her, substituting an oil
burning equipment for coal and re-adapting her to peaceful service
across the North Atlantic. New and beautiful fittings have been built
into her, and the liner has been freshly furnished and upholstered. When
she leaves Southampton next Saturday for New York she will be the first
of the greatest liners to burn oil in place of coal. This is, as one of
the engineering experts on board the ship expressed it, an Oil Age. The
Olympic has always been in the forefront. She represented in her size a
new type of ship when she was built. To-day she has the largest marine
oil burning installation in the world.


To mark the opening of the new chapter the trip from Belfast to
Southampton was made with 200 guests of the White Star Line on board.
Very quietly the liner cast off from the quay at the Belfast Yard in the
middle of Thursday morning. Thousands of workmen were on the shore
intently watching the vessel as she started on her new career. Every
point of vantage was taken, including the funnels of the newest Union
Castle liner now being fitted out. No sound was heard. That, it seems,
is the Irish way. The event was too interesting and too important for
mere cheering. Lady Pirrie, the wife of the Chief of the Harland and
Wolff Company, told the company at a dinner on board that all the men in
the yard were intensely proud of the Olympic, and indeed of all the
products of the company.

At the same function some exception was taken, good humouredly, by Mr.
Harold Sanderson, the chairman of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company
(White Star Line), to the application of the term "monster" to the great
vessels of which the Olympic is the prototype. This was a tern employed
largely during the war and was used by many in high authority.
If, by "monstrous " is meant something unwieldy then the Olympic is
certainly in no way monstrous. As the ship is approached by water she
appears a beautiful ship. Her lines could certainly compare with those
of any vessel designed for similar service. She is immense but well
proportioned. There has been some suggestion, too, that the fittings
of some of these great ships are ultra-luxurious. Whatever might be
said about the construction and fitting of certain German leviathans,
there is nothing that offends in the Olympic. Large decks and roomy
dining and drawing rooms, and reading rooms must be very welcome to the
many travellers between Europe and North America, who are used to
active life and like to move about. Many would prefer, if offered, to
them, a bed in place of a bunk. There is nothing unnatural in a
gymnasium, where people can keep themselves fit, or in a salt water
swimming bath, where they can refresh themselves after gymnastic

After certain Board of Trade trials and adjustment of compasses had been
carried out in Belfast Lough, and some distinguished visitors in the
care of Lord Pirrie had boarded the ship, the liner headed for
Southampton. Everything went very smoothly. That evening a concert was
given on board by a number of Liverpool amateurs who had collected large
sums for charity. With various inspections of different parts of the
ship and with games, the next day passed rapidly. In the evening there
was a dinner at which a number of important speeches were made.


One that aroused great interest was made by Mr. Harold Sanderson, the
chairman of the Company, in proposing the health of the guests. In
appearance Mr. Sanderson makes an excellent chairman, and his delivery
could not well be improved. The most striking part of his speech was his
declaration that the cost of building another Olympic would be
prohibitive. He made no secret of the fact that the loss of the
Britannic, through mine or torpedo during the war, was a bitter
disappointment to the company. The Line had hoped to have at least two
great ships to carry on the service between this country and the United
States. As it was the Olympic was their one ewe lamb. The ship had made
fame for her commander and brought honour to all those who have served
in her. Incidentally, Mr. Sanderson made a plea that something should be
said by the public for those owners and builders to whose enterprise the
existence of such ships as the Olympic is undoubtedly due. Replying to
the toast, Sir Joseph Maclay, the Shipping Controller, expressed the
belief that there was a great future before the Olympic in helping to
bring the British and American peoples close together.

The White Star services are not confined to North America and, in a
forceful speech, SIR JAMES CONNOLLY, the Agent-General for Western
Australia, declared that Australia fully realized what British ships had
done in the war, and he put forward a special plea for the needs of
Australia. The toast of the Ports of London, Liverpool, Southampton, and
Belfast was proposed by LORD INCHCAPE, and responded to by LORD
DEVONPORT and by Mr. THOMAS ROME, of Liverpool. "Success to the Olympic"
was proposed by FIELD-MARSHAL SIR WILLIAM ROBERTSON, who remarked that
Mr. Sanderson's description of the Olympic as their ewe lamb rather
surprised him for, remembering her feat in destroying a German
submarine, he had been thinking of her as a ram. This toast was replied
to by COLONEL CONCANON, one of the managers of the White Star Line, who
sprang a surprise upon the company by announcing that Lady Pirrie would
make a speech. LADY PIRRIE'S speech, proposing the health of the
chairman, was very happily expressed, and proved her a thorough optimist
about workers of all grades, and contained a subtle suggestion that,
after all, the White Star directors might change their minds about the
impracticability of ordering further mighty ships.


The oil-burning equipment is that of the White patent low pressure
oil-burning system, supplied by the inventor and installed by Messrs.
Harland and Wolff. As the system is the same as that fitted in the
Aquitania, which was described in The Times on Wednesday, with certain
differences, there is no need to enter into another detailed
explanation. One distinction is that whereas in the Aquitania forced
draught is employed, in the Olympic reliance is placed on natural
draught. The Olympic can take 5,500 tons of oil on board within a few


There were a number of technical experts on various engineering subjects
on board the vessel, and it is understood that they declared themselves
perfectly satisfied with the trials. One of the interesting incidents of
the voyage was communication by wireless telephone at mid-day on
Thursday with the Marconi Station at Chelmsford, when off the Bristol
Channel. Owing to the strike, there were no ordinary Marconi operators
on board, but Mr. R. J. Gilmour, of the Marconi Company, had charge of
the wireless telephone installation and Mr. A. E. Moore, also of the
company, could have received or taken messages essential to the safety
of the ship or of any other vessel. The wireless installation on the
Eiffel Tower was very busy at the time sending out weather and other
reports, but much of what the wireless telephone operator was saying
could be distinctly heard. After telling us whence he spoke, he read out
different items of the day's news. We spoke to him, but he asked that
the message should be repeated in the afternoon.

Among those who made the passage from Belfast to Southampton, besides
those already mentioned, were:-

Miss Carlisle, Sir Alan Anderson, Captain C. A. Bartlett, C.B., O.B.E.,
Councillor W. P. Coates (the Lord Mayor of Belfast), Mr. C. H. Birchall,
Mr. W. J. Willett Bruce, O.B.E., Mr. J. L. Carozzi, Mr. A. B. Cauty, Mr.
W. J. Chambers, Mr. H. M. Cleminson, Mr. P. E. Curry, Sir Francis
Danson, Brigadier-General H. J. W. Drummond, Sir Lionel Fletcher, Mr. M.
Fothergill, Sir Peter Freyer, K.C.B., Sir Ernest Glover, Mr. E. C.
Grenfell, Mr. V. D. Heyne, Mr. J. F. Horncastle, Lord Inverforth, Mr. J.
A. Kay, Major H Maitland Kersey, D.S.O., Captain F. W. Mace, O.B.E.,
R.N.R. Mr. A. P. Marshall, Mr. George Meily, Mr. James Parton, Mr. J. A.
Potter, Sir Alfred Read, Mr. W. Pett Ridge, Sir Herbert Russell,Mr.
Russell Roberts, Mr. Oswald Sanderson, Mr. J. M. Savage (United States
Consul at Southampton), Mr. R. J. A. Shelley, Alderman S. G. Kimber (the
Mayor of Southampton), Sir Joseph White Todd, Mr. Charles F. Torrey, Mr.
James Tuohy, and Captain Young, of the Board of Trade.

A great deal of the heavy work of arranging for the trial trip is
understood to have been undertaken by Mr. Roland J. A. Shelley, of the
White Star Line, and if the chorus of praise of the arrangements reached
the ears of Mr. Shelley, he must have been a happy man.

Nov 14, 2005
I was reading about Olympics oil conversion after WW1. The Good: it took hours to refuel her where with coal it took 3 to 4 days. The oil fired boilers resulted in more constant steam pressure which in turn resulted in more stable RPM's for smoother running engines. The Bad: about 300 men lost their jobs in the engineering dept. Also after the refit her gross tonnage increased making her the largest of the 3 of her class I believe. Credit goes to Mark Chirnside for this info.

For Scott: According to this article, yes her coal bunkers were converted to oil tanks. The RMS Olympic Ocean Liner - InfoBarrel
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Dave Gittins

Apr 11, 2001
For the puzzled, the "ewe lamb" is a Biblical reverence.

ewe lamb a person's most cherished possession; originally with biblical allusion to 2 Samuel 12, ‘But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb’, the words with which the prophet Nathan rebuked David for taking the wife of Uriah the Hittite from him.

A. Gabriel

Jun 13, 2018
How long did Olympic fly the Red Ensign, or at least when did she start? I ask because from the look of her career it seems she flew all three ensigns at some point or another, and I want to determine if this profile view of 1913-era Olympic flying the red is accurate.
Mar 18, 2008
How long did Olympic fly the Red Ensign, or at least when did she start? I ask because from the look of her career it seems she flew all three ensigns at some point or another, and I want to determine if this profile view of 1913-era Olympic flying the red is accurate.
What do you mean with "three ensigns"?
The blue ensign was used when the Captain - and at last about 10 officers - were members of the Royal Naval Reserve. If they were not the red ensign was used.
Dec 27, 2017
Isle of Man
What do you mean with "three ensigns"?
The blue ensign was used when the Captain - and at last about 10 officers - were members of the Royal Naval Reserve. If they were not the red ensign was used.
I think it's the reference to 'White Ensign' in the first paragraph of the article that is causing the confusion.

A. Gabriel

Jun 13, 2018
So Olympic flew the St George's Ensign (St George's Cross, Union Jack in canton) during the second half of the war, and the Red Ensign (civil/merchant ensign) during the first half.

My question is, were there any periods of time where Olympic flew the Blue Ensign like Titanic had done? I can only find one report and it is of her final voyage to the scrapyard. I'm aware of the requirement of the Captain having to be RNR but the number of deck officers that also had to be RNR has changed over time and that complicates matters.

Scott Mills

Jul 10, 2008
Indianapolis, Indiana, United States
Quick question, did Olympic's conversion to oil firing in 1919 involve any substantial changes to the ship other than the addition of oil fired boilers? What little information I've gleaned is that the space between the inner and outer skin (the double hull being added in 1913) was used to store oil fuel. Did they also replace/fit the coal bunkers to store fuel oil?
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