The school at sea: the story of the SS Uganda

In the years 1968 to 1982, thousands of lucky British children boarded the SS Uganda for the school trip of a lifetime.

The Uganda served in the British-India Steam Navigation Company’s educational cruises fleet, along with its sister ship, the SS Nevasa. She embarked on her maiden voyage on 27th February 1968, leaving Southampton with nearly 800 students from Norfolk and Northumberland on board. After calling briefly at Plymouth, the first voyage sailed to Malaga, Piraeus, Istanbul, Heraklion and, finally, Genoa. A further 20 cruises were completed that first year alone.

The idea of school cruises was not entirely new; the scheme was inspired by the pre-WWII practice of using troopships for school trips instead of letting them go unused during the summer. When the Government decided to end trooping by sea in 1960, the British India Company seized the opportunity to continue the tradition by converting cruise ships for permanent use as an educational fleet.

Although this particular spate of school cruises became massively successful, it was not entirely novel. The scheme was inspired by a pre-WW2 practice of using troopships for school trips instead of letting them go unused during the summer. After the war, the British India Company seized the opportunity and followed up on the tradition by converting cruise ships for permanent use as its educational fleet.

At their peak, there were around 60 educational cruise trips a year. Most visited ports of the Mediterranean, but they also sailed the North and the Baltic Sea, and even as far as Leningrad, with an optional overnight train trip to Moscow.

The cruises allowed children to experience foreign travel, often for the first time, and included visits to sites of historic, geographic and natural interest, including the pyramids in Egypt, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Acropolis and Parthenon in Athens, glaciers in Norway, and the apes of Gibraltar. The trips also allowed students to learn about different languages, currencies, cultures and religions.

On-board activities included swimming and games on the deck, lectures, diary writing, and discos and cinema.

There was never a dull moment, as you can see below in this 1971 film from LSA partner Kingston Museum’s collection:

SS Uganda’s school sailing days ended with the outbreak of the Falklands War, when the ship was requisitioned by the government and went on to serve as a hospital ship in South Atlantic waters. She was sold off in 1986 and finally scrapped in 1992, 10 years after her last school cruise.

Over the years, SS Uganda built up a loyal following of passengers and crew. Nowadays, some of them are even reconnecting at reunion events and through a dedicated Facebook group for those looking to reminisce about their time on board.

Were you on any of the SS Uganda cruises, or perhaps on a different school trip that left a lasting impression? Let us know in the comments!

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