Duke of Lancaster
The Duke of Lancaster was the first of a trio of ships built in 1956 for the Heysham to Belfast overnight passenger and mail service. Built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and a sister of the Duke of Argyll and the Denny-built Duke of Rothesay, she differed slightly internally from the others as she was completed with off season cruising in mind.
Her first cruise came in June 1958, sailing from Southampton for Amsterdam, Ostend and Rouen. Subsequent cruises brought her to Scotland, Denmark, Norway and Spain and until 1966 up to six cruises a year were the norm. It was the departure of the Duke of Rothesay for Fishguard and, to a small extent, the arrival of the Avalon at Harwich in 1963, that spelt the end of the Duke of Lancaster's cruising career and in 1969 came the announcement that she would be converted to a stern loading car ferry.
Duke of Lancaster
Harland & Wolff, Belfast, 1956.
Relieved in service by Holyhead's Cambria, the Duke of Lancaster was dispatched to her builders her Main Deck was stripped for vehicle space. The conversion was more extensive to that carried out on the Duke of Rothesay in that stern loading doors were fitted as opposed to side loading. To achieve this all the steering gear was relocated; no easy task. Arriving back in Heysham in her new form on 25th April 1970 the Duke of Lancaster now offered space for 1200 one-class passengers and 105 cars. Total cabin accommodation was for 400 with seating for 550 in addition to her public rooms and restaurant every passenger had an indoor seat.
The Heysham service closed on 5th April 1975, the Duke of Lancaster taking the final sailing from Belfast and then quickly sailing to Fishguard to relieve the Caledonian Princess on the Rosslare service. Remaining there until 18th July when the newly converted Avalon arrived to take up the run, the Duke of Lancaster then sailed to Holyhead, replacing the Duke of Rothesay and slotting into the schedule opposite the Dover.
"I was in command of the Duke of Lancaster for only a few weeks when she was loaned to us in Holyhead. Backing out of Holyhead was fine as she steered beautifully with her bow rudder. However when proceeding ahead she was terrible to steer. The rudder didn't look much bigger than a dinner plate!! Sailing into Holyhead, one had to put the rudder hard over somewhere by the North Stack in order to get her round the breakwater!! Then getting her into the Inner Harbour caused many a grey hair!!"
Capt John Bakewell.
For the next four years the Duke of Lancaster was a 'Holyhead ship' finding a niche as relief vessel alongside the new St Columba from 1977. Her final season was extended when engine trouble forced the withdrawal of the St Columba for repairs in October 1978. The 'Lancaster' kept things going until the 'Columba' returned on 9th November, the veteran standing down for the final time. Under a trademark cloud of black smoke she left Holyhead for the final time on 17th January 1979 bound for lay up at Barrow. Five months later came the announcement that she had been sold to a Liverpool-based company, Empirewise Ltd, for use as a leisure centre on the banks of the River Dee.