All the best sea stories involve a mysterious ship which appears from the gloom of night on a dead calm sea, ghostly and quiet. Hails to the ship go unanswered, and as it draws nearer, it becomes clear that it’s a sailing vessel, looking new, even though ships like this last sailed the oceans hundreds of years ago. Having boarded the craft, we find it abandoned, with fresh food still in the galley, and crisp new charts laid out on the map table, for an area of sea on the other side of the world. The truth dawns. The ghost ship has slipped through time, losing its crew in the process, and gaining…who knows? But the ladder up which we climbed into the ship has gone, the sails are flapping even though there is no wind, and something is making muffled knocking sounds somewhere in the lower decks. Oh, and there’s no sign of our own ship anywhere…
So far as I know, there aren’t any real ghost maritime transport facilities, but this week’s transport beauty comes the closest. Like a time-travelling ship it appeared decades after its time, a throwback to an age of Art Deco glamour in a time of continuing post-war austerity. And like a phantom it has already gone forever.
It’s the Ocean Terminal, Southampton.
This is the terminal under construction in 1950. It was designed to serve the liners which plied the North Atlantic between Southampton and America. It had been on the drawing board for years, but the second world war delayed construction. It materialised some 20 years after its internal decoration suggested it should, a building lost in time and unprepared for the jet age into which it had belatedly been thrust.
This extraordinary building was part ocean liner terminal and part railway station. Southampton Docks, you’ll remember, was owned by various railway companies until it passed into state ownership in 1948, as part of the nationalisation of Britain’s railways. Its new owners were the British Transport Commission (parent body of British Railways), and they were determined to complete the building to an opulent style to match the liners themselves. In this, they showed all the foresight of British Railways itself, whose 1950s Modernisation Plan saw the construction of many massively expensive new freight marshalling yards for the purpose of putting together, and taking apart, mixed wagon freight trains; just in time for such traffic to all but disappear in favour of ‘whole train’ freight services composed of identical wagons making the same trip.
From the outside, the Ocean Terminal looked basically like what it was, a three storey shed. The bottom level had two tracks served by British Railways’ passenger trains; boat trains from London. One track served a platform on the outside of the terminal, while another disappeared inside. That track had a platform on both sides, allowing for the easiest possible loading and unloading of the luggage that came and went with passengers on ocean liners. The southern end however (illustrated above), was granted a Streamline Moderne turret and a liner-like funnel, adorned with fins, which wouldn’t have been out of place on a 1930s Odeon cinema. The building was constructed in concrete, originally white but which discoloured over the years as the building was neglected. The concrete finish was cast into squares, while rows of glazing gave a strong horizontal emphasis to this long building. This is the northern end of the terminal, the lettering proclaiming its status as both British Railways station and liner terminal:
Though the outside was fairly unremarkable, inside was a palace of wonders the like of which was unique on the British railway network.
Newly opened, this is (I think) the First Class waiting hall:
Pictures of this waiting hall can be found captioned as both First and Cabin Class on various places around the web, but this is almost certainly the First Class hall based on the more detailed floor patterning, not to mention that the W.H.Smith newsagent stand in the background is topped by the most audacious Art Deco bauble-on-a-pedestal of which it is possible to conceive. The curvaceous seats are also things of wonder, and the tiered construction of the ceiling, with concealed uplighting, is just lovely.
Meanwhile in Cabin Class (which would be second, or standard, class today) conditions were still way better than anything you might find in a First Class waiting room today at a British railway station:
Looking the other way, the Art Deco clock just added to the stylish feel of the terminal:
The Cabin Class hall had its own W.H.Smith, although this one was smaller, and redolent of a tiny Airstream caravan. What a pity today’s mobile stalls at stations and airports don’t capture the glamour of long-distance travel like this one:
Passengers made their way between the floors of the Ocean Terminal via the some of the smartest escalators ever found at a British transport terminal. Not only is the metal cut-out lettering for “ESCALATOR” inestimably stylish, but so is detail of the uplighting over the escalator. The wood panelling on the walls adds the final luxurious touch:
Leaving the terminal, this was the last view of England that passengers on the liners would have seen. The top storey of the Ocean Terminal had a viewing balcony where family and friends could wave you off:
As well as departures, the Ocean Terminal was the scene of arrivals too, some of which were very significant.
These people are West Indian immigrants to Britain in 1956, some of the first in a movement of people which would transform the workforce of (amongst others) London Transport. This influx would shake Britain out of its cosy imperialist world view in which Britain was in charge of lots of other countries, but in which it was much preferred by many British people that they didn’t actually see the citizens of such countries on Britain’s shores. Britain was beginning its long and fraught journey towards multiculturalism (we’re not even there yet, 60 years on) and the Ocean Terminal was an altogether appropriate arrival point for immigrants. It looked super, but it looked to the past, not the future. Life for the West Indian immigrants was going to be an uphill struggle in a country which was fundamentally unprepared for the challenges of the latter half of the twentieth century.
As with the country, so for the Ocean Terminal. Within about 10 years of its opening, the terminal was already being rendered obsolete by a fast-changing world. Liner traffic on the north Atlantic was declining rapidly as intercontinental jet travel became practical and increasingly affordable, and that switch simply accelerated in the following years. The Ocean Terminal closed in 1980, and was demolished shortly afterwards, having survived for just over 30 years. It missed out by a decade or so on the resurgence of Southampton as one of the key locations for the burgeoning cruise ship market, which is still growing. Had it survived, it would by now be the choicest of terminals for the most luxurious of cruise ships. As it is, a new Ocean Terminal has been built for Southampton’s cruise ships, but it has little of the glamour of the original. You can’t replicate something like that. So the old Ocean Terminal has slipped away, out of our grasp, back into the gloom like the ghost it is…
how to find the site of the Ocean Terminal, Southampton
bibliography and further reading
Disused Stations website on station in Southampton Docks, here
Minnis, John. (2011) Britain’s Lost Railways: The Twentieth-Century Destruction of our Finest Railway Architecture, London: Aurum Press Ltd
a note on photos
Getty Images has recently made it possible to embed many images from their collection onto webpages like this, provided that they are used non-commercially. The National Railway Museum allows its photos to be reproduced under similar conditions. I’m happy to confirm that I make no money from this blog, so the photos above are being used non-commercially. If you’re intending to re-blog this entry, best make sure you operate non-commercially too…