Demise of the S.S. l’Atlantique. Two tragedies. Guest post by John G. Sayers

We are, as ever, very grateful to John Sayers for supplying us with blog posts contextualising treasures from his collection, now being transferred to the John Johnson Collection

This sad black-and-white image of a great liner, the S.S. L’Atlantique, has two aspects to its story. The first element is the ship itself, which went into service in 1930 for a subsidiary of the French Line for service to South America. At some 40,000 gross tons she was the largest – and the most luxurious – of all the ships providing that service.

Photograph of S.S. Atlantique, 1933
Photograph of S.S. Atlantique, 1933

If she had the good fortune of being like other newly-built ships of her era, she would have at least lasted until the beginning of the Second World War in 1939. Unfortunately, a fire broke out in August 1933 while she was being moved through the English Channel for some reconstruction work. The fire could not be extinguished, and she was totally destroyed.

A typed tissue label glued to the back of this crisp 8×10 inch photograph reports:

French luxury liner towed home. The remains of the ruined French liner “L’Atlantique” is towed into Cherbourg Harbour. The bow of the Atlantique and her broken mast photographed on arrival in Cherbourg Harbour. 8/1/33.

And herein lies the second part of the story. The fascinating image is a Press Photo, a remnant of the pre-digitizing age when a number of businesses specialized in providing timely photographic news images, along with a brief narrative on the back, to major newspapers. This crisp image, and a typed caption glued to the back, was labeled as by the Sport & General Press Agency Ltd, London.

Further notations on the back included ‘F194199’, and ‘688’. There is a rubber stamp that says ‘Pageant of the Century. For caption see page 688’. Another penciled notation indicates that an unknown user wants the width reduced to 6 ¾ inches. There is a further penciled notation in red that directs ‘1/14R’.

Each publication would have a library of these photographs, so that after their first usage they would remain available for any future news articles. Can you visualize drawers and drawers of historical 8×10 glossy photographs with brief but convenient captions on the backs? Guess where all these went when publications adopted digital imaging. What was once widespread is now rare because those drawers and drawers of photos are now digital images on the hard drive of a computer or even stored in a cloud.

The images themselves would have been dumped as unneeded. And the clerks who maintained the files, filing new photos and finding any old ones that were needed for a current story, succumbed to the employment ravages of the computer age. Two stories, each of them marking a sad end to an era.

This 8×10 inch glossy Press Photo, and a vast trove of other ocean liner ephemera capturing social, shipping, historical, and commercial information is contained in The Sayers Collection in the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library. Additional gems from The Sayers Collection continue to migrate across the Atlantic to the John Johnson Collection.