From Duchess to Empress

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Photograph of the Empress at the landing stage

I remember the Prince’s Landing Stage at Liverpool as a constantly busy place when I was a boy in the 1950s – and the Empress of France was one of the monarchs of the sea attended by hundreds of passengers and crew.

This magnificent liner started as a Duchess before serving as a troopship in the Second World War and – after sinking a German U-boat and shooting down an enemy plane – was created an Empress.

The 20,448-ton Duchess of Bedford, of the Canadian Pacific Line, was a popular ship on the Liverpool to Canada run and she was renamed Empress of France in 1947.

She was a floating world of contrasts when first built in 1928. In those days the Duchess of Bedford could carry up to 1,570 passengers. It could take an army of some 70 waiters, 80 stewards and stewardesses, six chefs and 50 kitchen staff just to feed them. The crew numbered 510 in all, including the deck and engine room staff.

Conditions for crew members were basic, with no recreational facilities or dining rooms. Kitchen staff ate on the worktops and shared accommodation with up to 19 others in steel bunks. They had to travel light because each only had an 18-inch square locker for all their belongings.

However, for her passengers she set new standards of comfort when she began life as one of four Duchesses sailing out of Liverpool.

The Duchess of Bedford had hot and cold running water for all 580 cabin class, 480 tourist class and 510 third class passengers. This was at a time when many British homes had only a cold tap and did not have constant hot running water.

Requisitioned as a troopship, she carried a mammoth 179,000 personnel and covered more than 400,000 miles during her war service.

The Duchess of Bedford was sailing from Liverpool to Boston in August 1942 when she spotted a U-boat and sank the submarine by gunfire. She was later used in the north Africa landings in November 1943 when she shot down an enemy aircraft.

At Merseyside Maritime Museum there is a large model of the liner when she was the Empress of France, shown in her post-war livery.

Resuming her Liverpool – Quebec – Montreal sailings in September 1948, she did 310 round voyages across the north Atlantic before her final crossing in 1960.

A photograph shows the 582-ft long Empress leaving Liverpool for the last time, heading for Newport, Monmouthshire, where she was scrapped.

Merseyside Maritime Museum is open seven days a week, admission free. A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo.