STEPPING BACK IN TIME: Old photographs capture the launch of SS Canberra

I am extremely fortunate that my father-in-law came across this selection of old photographs that he took of the launch of the SS Canberra on March 1960.

Monday, 15th March 2021, 10:00 am
The launch of the SS Canberra on March 16, 1960. Pictures: Tom Gourley

They are a marvellous record of bygone days when Belfast was world famous for her shipbuilding. Alas, those times are long gone, 
but still we can celebrate the ships which our shipbuilders built.

The new ship was launched on March 16, 1960, a cold, wet day in Belfast. Indeed, it was so bad that a flypast by a Canberra bomber had to be cancelled.

Some 300 guests gathered to watch the launch, with another estimated 11,000 onlookers cramming in and around the shipyard to watch, included among them was my father-in-law Tom Gourley.

The launch of the SS Canberra on March 16, 1960. Pictures: Tom Gourley

The ship’s sponsor was Dame Pattie Menzies - wife of the Australian Prime Minister.

Just before the launch, Dame Pattie attached a sprig of white heather to the lunching ribbon.

With a pull of the handle, the bottle of Australian wine she had brought with her against the ships enormous bulbous bow and the huge white hull began to slide down the slip into the Musgrave Channel.

She was then towed to Thompson Wharf for fitting out - a task that would continue until April of 1961.

The launch of the SS Canberra on March 16, 1960. Pictures: Tom Gourley

She then underwent her builders trials on April 29 in Belfast Lough, during which time, when at full power, the huge bulbous bow lifted almost clear of the water – due to the immense weight of the machinery which had been placed aft.

She made her way to Southampton where some of her forward compartments were filled with hundreds of tons of ballast to act as a counterweight.
After two weeks in Southampton during which time fitting out continued, she left for her acceptance trials on the Clyde.

She entered service in May 1961, and made her maiden voyage starting in June.

The SS Canberra had an interesting career; she appeared in the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever.

The launch of the SS Canberra on March 16, 1960. Pictures: Tom Gourley

In the 1982 Falklands War she served as a troopship where she was nicknamed the Great White Whale.

The Canberra proved vital in transporting 3 Commando Brigade to the islands more than 9,000 nautical miles (17,000 km) from the United Kingdom. Canberra was sent to the heart of the conflict.

After a lengthy refit, Canberra returned to civilian service as a cruise ship after the Falklands War made her very popular with the British public, and ticket sales after her return were elevated for many years as a result.

Canberra was withdrawn from P&O service in September 1997 and sold to ship breakers for scrapping on 10 October 1997, leaving for Gadani ship-breaking yard, Pakistan on October 31 1997.

Her deep draft meant that she could not be beached as far as most ships, and due to her solid construction the scrapping process took nearly a year instead of the estimated three months, being totally scrapped by the end of 1998.

If anyone has any old photos connected to shipbuilding in Belfast I would love see them, email me at [email protected].

Source: SS (