The Booth Steamship Co Ltd dates as far back as 1881.
Following the invention of the pneumatic tyre in 1888, Brazilian rubber enjoyed a boom and the Booth Line flourished. Amalgamations and acquisitions assisted their fortunes, however, World War 1 rather spoiled their progress. During that conflict eleven Booth Line vessels were requisitioned by the Government for the war effort and nine of these ships were lost. The reduced post-war fleet caused a reduction in services, and a general fall off in the Amazon trade saw attempts by the company to diversify its interests. One such move was the introduction of the tourist cruise “1,000 Miles Up The Amazon”. While World War II intervened, which also resulted in heavy losses, in April 1946, the Vestey Group acquired the Booth Steamship Co which they continued to operate as a separate line.
This article is going to highlight the Amazon cruises element of the Booth Line. Whilst today the cruise industry is booming, it can be accurate to say that the cruise sector has ‘colonised’ just about every recognised cruising region worldwide. That includes cruises ‘up the Amazon’ and most of the major lines today offer an itinerary that includes such a voyage. However, do they compare with the pre War and post War sailings of the Booth Line vessels, particularly the Hilary and the Hubert, and briefly the Hildebrand? They offered a voyage sailing from Liverpool to the Amazon, and then at times over 2,000 miles up it to Iquitos, which is as far as any deep sea ship could go. Whilst, as indicated, you can sail as far as Manaus today aboard one of those air-conditioned modern liners, however to do so on a Booth Line ship all those years ago was a memorable and unforgettable experience.
The company decided to build two new ships in the 1950’s to supplement the Hilary which survived the War. First was the 8,000 ton SS Hildebrand built by Cammell Laird in 1951. She was launched on June 20, 1951, and sailed on her maiden voyage 28/12/1951 from Liverpool.
The second new build, also from the same yard, was the SS Hubert and her maiden voyage was in early February 1955 when she departed from King’s Dock at Liverpool for her maiden voyage sailing to Portugal, Barbados, Trinidad, and Belem, then up the Amazon to Manaus and return. Like many passenger cargo ships of her kind carrying a great deal of freight, she would spend a number of days in various ports, which suited many of her First Class who would view a round voyage as a cruise and enjoy the tropic delights of these destinations!
The pre War sister of the Hildebrand and the Hubert, the Hilary featured in copy from the 1932 Company brochure advertising her Amazon cruise. It sums up the prewar atmosphere and service enjoyed by her passengers, which was further enhanced by the exotic surrounds to which they were exposed.
“1,000 MILES UP THE AMAZON ON THE “HILARY”
Extracts from a Booth Line brochure from 1932
If a tramcar started from London or Liverpool and made a circle of 11,800 miles at a charge of two pence per mile, the travelling public would be amazed at both the achievement and the price. Yet this is exactly what has been accomplished; only a magnificent liner takes the place of the tramcar, and the charge of two pence per mile includes not only transport, but the services and cuisine of a first-class hotel.
A cruise on an ocean liner is not only a new innovation, but when 2,000 of these miles are accomplished in a luxuriously fitted 7,000-ton vessel on the great Amazon River - the river of mystery - and the heart of the South American continent is penetrated through the equatorial forests of Brazil without a change of cabin from the time of leaving Liverpool to the day of the return to the Mersey, then it becomes not only unique as a cruise, but also a historic achievement in maritime transport and luxurious travel.
Days are spent in quaint cities. Curious natives in the palm thatch dwellings of their jungle homes are passed at many points. Hours speed by swiftly in gliding on tropical rivers through forests of vivid colours alive with bright plumed birds and gorgeous butterflies.
However, before this wonderland of Amazonia is entered, there are scenes of beauty and enjoyment under the blue skies of Portugal, amid the romantic mountains of Madeira and on tropical seas where gales are almost unknown and the broad sunlit ocean is ruffled only by the fresh trade wind and the shoals of flying fish.
These distant lands, seas and rivers of beauty, warmth and mystery can be reached and enjoyed on the comfortably seated broad decks, or in the palatial staterooms of our liner, the specially equipped Royal Mail Steamer Hilary. When the island of Madeira disappears in the deep blue of the sea and the sky, muslin dresses and white drill suits make their first appearance on the decks. Delightful days of rest and pleasure, deck sports and reading, are spent; interspersed with moonlight nights of concerts, dances and lectures. New friendships, new scenes, new thoughts - away from the bustle, hum and smoke of great cities.
From out of the tropical haze has appeared a low shore. It is the first glimpse of the mysterious Amazon which has already changed, with its outflow, the colour of the sea around from deep blue to pale yellow-green.
Soon the Hilary is in the Para River, one of the mouths of the mighty Amazon, here nearly 200 miles broad, but filled with forest-clad islands. Then the great ship, which has brought us across the Equator into the Southern Hemisphere, comes to a momentary rest for official visits from the authorities of the Port of Para - the gateway to the Amazon.
The Hilary penetrates further into the heartland of Brazil. The immense tropical forest is all around and natives in their dugout canoes cease paddling to gaze in awe at the huge vessel towering above their frail craft.