The introduction of the Hibernia, and her sister the Cambria, finally completed an earlier proposal to replace the 1920-built ships of the same name with two turbine steamers from the Clyde yard of Fairfield Shipbuilding & Engineering Co., Ltd., an order subsequently cancelled due to the onset of war. After the War, BR turned to Harland & Wolff Ltd at Belfast for the two new ships and the first of these, the Hibernia, arrived in Holyhead for the first time to a considerable welcome from locals and dignitaries, including Lady Megan Lloyd George on 5th April 1949.
As the ship was required to leave Holyhead stern first, a period of 20 minutes running astern she was fitted with both bow and stern rudders. On her delivery passage south to Holyhead an emergency stop trial demonstrated that full power astern from full ahead had the vessel proceeding astern in just one minute and 55 seconds.
The Hibernia commenced service on 14th April 1949. Her designers really had their work cut out for them, having to cater for both day and night passages during the summer season. Therefore the Hibernia, and of course the Cambria, had to be arranged for both purposes. Accommodation was provided for 2,361 passengers in 1st and 3rd class.
In 1st class, 166 passengers were accommodated in single and two-berth cabins in addition to two open-berth rooms for 56 people. Four special cabins were included, with private bathrooms. For 3rd class passengers there were two and four-berth cabins for 154, with the two open-berth rooms accommodating 60.
Harland & Wolff, Belfast, 1949
On the Boat Deck (A) were the cabins for the Master, deck officers and engineers and also eight 1st class cabins, an entrance to the 1st class accommodation being on this deck.
Below, on the Promenade Deck (B), was a large main 1st class lounge in the forward part of the deckhouse, leading aft to the 1st class smoke room with the 3rd class smoke room adjoining.
Spacious entrances for both classes were also located on the Upper Deck (C) as were a considerable number of single and two-berth cabins.
Below, on the Main Deck (D), were two dining saloons for both classes besides further lounges. The stewards had their cabins at the forward end of the Main Deck while the seamen were located aft. Below the Main Deck, the Lower Deck was mainly a cabin deck with 1st class cabins forward and 3rd class aft. The open berth rooms were also on this deck.
Each ship was divided into 11 watertight compartments by 10 watertight bulkheads. The double bottom was divided for fresh water, water ballast, oil fuel and lubricating oil. The forward and aft peaks were arranged for water ballast. Forward of the machinery space deep tanks were provided for oil fuel and for fresh water, while aft of the machinery space were deep tanks for oil fuel or water ballast and for fresh water.
There were two cargo holds and tween decks forward for the shipment of general cargo and cars, a tween deck space aft, and one of the tween decks forward being arranged alternatively for the carriage of cargo or passengers. Large mail and baggage rooms were located on the Main Deck aft and for each class of passenger baggage rooms were provided.
During their first two years both ships gained a reputation for their tendency to roll but this was rectified during the 1951 refit when Denny-Brown stabilisers were fitted.
When the Hibernia and the Cambria were fifteen years old they returned to their builders for a major refit. New aircraft type seats replaced distinctive post-war style furnishings in remodelled public rooms. Although more cabin berths were provided, the reduction in the number of open berths saw the overall number of berths reduced from 436 to 357. On the Upper Deck (C) cabins and staterooms were replaced by 2nd class lounges amidships and aft. On the Main Deck (D) the cabins there were replaced by a 2nd class smoke room and a tea bar. Above on the Promenade Deck (B) the 1st and 2nd class smoke rooms were converted into a tea lounge with seating for 146 persons. The after end of the main lounge became a 2nd class lounge with seating for 106 passengers. In addition to this, the previously open passageways aft were plated-in to provide enclosed accommodation with seats alongside the casings and the ship’s sides. Passenger capacity was reduced from 2,361 to 1,900.
Along with the new look came a new livery; hulls were now monastral blue and black-topped red funnels carried the new double arrow device of British Rail.
Throughout their careers the Hibernia and the Cambria rarely left the route for which they were designed. However in October 1968 the Hibernia provided relief cover on the Harwich to Hoek van Holland service.
Henk van der Lugt explains "The new car ferries St George and Koningin Juliana had entered service, but the combined service, with each new car ferry making one round trip a day, had not yet started. So the two new ships were on the night service, while the classic Amsterdam and Koningin Wilhelmina were on the day service. The Avalon was away, chartered out for the opening of the oil terminal in Bantry Bay . Then on Friday 25th October the St George had to be taken out of service due to problems with her variable pitch propellers, I think. The Amsterdam took over her schedule on the night service, while the Normannia, which happened to be on the buoys off Parkeston Quay, made one round trip on the day service. In the meantime the Hibernia was sent around from Holyhead and she made two round trips on the day service before the Amsterdam could take over, herself being released on the night service by the Avalon, which had returned from her charter. The Hibernia arrived at the Hook on Sunday 27th October at 18:45, departing Monday 28th October at 12:15hrs. She arrived again at the Hook on Tuesday 29th October at 19:20hrs, leaving for the final time on Wednesday 30th October at 12:15hrs."
The Holyhead mail service suffered a significant setback in 1970 when Robert Stephenson’s Britannia bridge across the Menai Strait was all but destroyed in a fire, accidentally started on 23rd May by boys searching for bird’s nests, severing Anglesey’s rail link with mainland Wales. The lining of the bridge was highly flammable being of old railway sleepers coated with creosote. The fire was so intense that the wrought iron tubes buckled, necessitating the rebuilding of the bridge. With no way of connecting the mailboats it was decided to transfer the route to Heysham. With an extended crossing time of 7 hours and 30 minutes the Hibernia and the Cambria continued to sail from Dún Laoghaire until 31st January 1972 when they were welcomed back to Holyhead with a fireworks display and a huge welcome from the people of the town.
A £16mn order for a large new ship was placed with Aalborg Vaerft A/S of Aalborg, Denmark in March 1975. Designed for service to Dun Laoghaire the new ship would replace the Cambria and the Hibernia, and the Holyhead Ferry I. The end of the time honoured mail service arrived and it fell to the Cambria to take the last mail service out of Dun Laoghaire on Sunday 7th September 1975.
The Hibernia remained in service at Holyhead until 3rd October 1976 when she arrived with her final sailing from Dun Laoghaire. After sale to Agapitos Bros of Greece she was renamed Express Apollon. On 18th December 1980 the old ship was observed at Bombay and four weeks later she was at Darukhana in India where Solid Steel Traders began demolition.