The chain of events that led to the Bergen Line building the Venus started in the head office of Swedish Lloyd. From 1879 they had operated a service between their home port of Gothenburg that linked Sweden with Britain.
Despite having neutral status during the First World War Sweden - with its population of 6 million in 1930 - had been hard hit by stringent food rationing. It was from Britain came relief shipments of grain in 1917. The importance of a physical link across the North Sea was the reason why Swedish Lloyd ordered two ships from Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson which emerged as the Suecia (4,216g) and Britannia (4,216g) in 1928. The steam powered sister ships went into service each accommodating - as built - 180 First class and 44 Second class passengers. With Gothenburg as the Swedish terminal port the crossing to London (Tilbury) was made in 39 hours. With the ships’ service speed of 17 knots this enabled passengers to travel from Stockholm to London between Saturday evening and Monday morning. The frequency of the sailings was three times a week in the summer and weekly during the winter. To enhance the trade for the service’s new ships Swedish Lloyd aggressively promoted traffi c originating from Oslo using the 150 mile railway southwards along the shoreline to Gothenburg as the fastest way to get from Oslo to London.
What P&O was to Britain in the early 20th century Bergenske, the Bergen Steamship (Bergen Line hereafter) was albeit in a smaller way to Norway. Wherever the young nation traded much of the cargo would be carried by one of its world-roving ships. Norway had been in union with Sweden – created in the fallout of Napoleon’s attempted conquest of Europe – since 1814. Fitful dissatisfaction had rumbled on in Norway for most of the 19th century for the two countries had developed differing forms of democracy. Eventually lead by Christian Michelsen the union was peacefully dissolved in 1905 and one of the prime minister’s most ardent supporters was Kristofer Lehmkul (1855-1949) a Bergen merchant and a member of the government. At this time of transformation Bergen Line needed a chairman and in that position he filled it with experience, modernising forethought and distinction until his retirement in 1936: he was also managing director from 1908 until 1936. Amongst much else Lehmkul successfully promoted Bergen as the “western entry” port for contact with the UK, and the USA. The new nation was also well served by its choice in 1905 of a constitutional monarch. King Haakon Vll was to guide the young nation of 2.8 million people through the privations of the First World War, political troubles of the 1920s (which included a period of the prohibition of alcohol) and the economic tribulations of successive trade recessions.
As long ago as May 1890 Bergen Line had opened a mail carrying service between Bergen and Newcastle: originally this was a partnership with another local line Nordsenfjeldske SS Co (NFDS). The leading personality involved was P G Halvorsen, a Bergen shipowner involved in the vital coal trade from Newcastle. But the joint venture lasted for only two years which used the Mira (966g /1891) being the first ship ordered specifically for the year round service. This primary trade route across the North Sea developed to a climactic point when two sister ships came into service, the Jupiter (2,625g) in 1914 and the Leda (l) (2,519 g) from a British shipbuilder in 1920: delivery had been delayed by the War: she was Bergen Line’s first steam turbine powered ship. On the route to Britain Bergen Line had long faced competition from the Wilson Line of Hull but, after they were taken over by Ellerman, there opened up an era of expansive cooperation which led to the purchase of a warehouse company in London in 1919, a large holding in H.Clarkson & Co, and the establishment of Bergenske (London): the latter was the vehicle of much promise as a trading and shipping joint venture with the new Soviet Russia, only to have it arbitrarily nationalised by Stalin with its eventual closure in 1933.
One of the problems of the terminal at Newcastle was that it involved a long passage up the Tyne: there was intensive traffic formed of ships loading cargoes of coal from the many riverside loading berths. In 1928 an agreement was concluded with the Tyne Improvement Commission to build a new quay, 1,110 ft in length at North Shields only three miles from the port’s entrance at Tynemouth. To the Tyne Commission Quay a rail link was laid to the East Coast mainline at Newcastle along which boat trains could run to connect with Bergen Line arrivals and sailings. The line had hardly opened when the Swedish Lloyd service between Gothenburg and Tilbury with the two new ships came into service. Bergen Line lost no time in recognising the very evident threat by the Swedes could only be met with a new fast ship for their Bergen-Newcastle route. This improved service for passengers and mail could only be done with an increase in the subsidy paid by the Norwegian Postal department. The need was put before the Storting (parliament) and the day after it was agreed by a large majority the new ship was ordered from the Danish Elsinore shipyard . It was no coincidence that the order went to a Danish builder for it was locally at Burmeister & Wain that much of the pioneering work in marine diesel engines had quickly established them as a choice for progressive shipowners. A prominent role in the design was played by Knud E. Hansen making his debut in a career that went on to establish it as a world famous naval architectural practise. The ship that was delivered in the spring of 1931 was claimed to be the fastest motor ship in the world. Each of the Venus’ two ten cylinder main engines, operating at 160RPM, produced a total of 10,250 bhp giving a service speed of 20 knots for a ship of 5,600g on a hull with a length of 412 ft, a beam of 54 ft and a draught of 20ft. The supercharged main engines were 18 ft high to complement the design of the required depth of the hull. Specific measures were taken to dampen the vibration of the main engines when operating at full power: this was a common problem on early motor ships.
The general arrangement of the Venus followed that of previous ships of the Line: two holds forward and one aft of the main body of accommodation. Most of the cabins for the passengers were in the tween deck level (B Deck) above was the main deck ( A Deck) with numbers 1 and 2 and as built no forecastle: aft at this level, was a large dining saloon served from an adjacent galley, and 13 single berth cabins on the starboard side – right aft – even further than No 3 hatch trunk was a small dining saloon for the Second Class passengers whose cabins were directly below at the aft extremity of B Deck. Above on the main deck was a spacious Promenade Deck with the First class Music Saloon forward that doubled as the Main Lounge: aft of the main entrance was the largest public room onboard, the First Class Smoke Room with a recessed ceiling/deck head into the Boat deck above. The focal decorative feature was a large marble (fake) fireplace at the after end against the front of the engine room casing. Probably a late “add on” to this room was a small cocktail bar on the port side: it too had a marble fireplace. For a scheduled year round route transiting the North Sea that could expect only a few weeks of settled summer weather Bergen Line considerately made extensive use of a glassed in deck area adjacent to the main public rooms: aft of them was an open area made up of 3,500 sq ft of veranda area. If passengers wanted to enjoy some of as much as 18 hours of sunlight on a summer crossing in the open air this was the place to do it rather than on the exposed Boat Deck above. At the forward end of the Boat Deck was accommodation for five passengers in single berth cabins and a two berth cabin de luxe suite. The passengers in this accommodation must have been a select group for they shared a common alleyway on the centre midships line of the Venus with navigating officers and the captain.
Mr Zimmer, Bergen Line’s technical director, showed not only innovation in the engine room and specifying that the hull have a cruiser stern but also a major development in ventilating the accommodation. This was described in The Motor Ship monthly magazine as a system which allowed each passenger (cabin) “to have either warm or cold air discharged into his cabin. In a two berth cabin there are two separate ventilators”. Photos of the accommodation show these as an early version of Punkah louvres. The central plant for this novel ventilation system was on the Boat deck and was manufactured by Det Forenede Jernstoberier “driven by motors of between 6 hp and 10 hp at moderate speeds”. If this system worked it must have made habitability onboard greatly improved on what earlier ships had installed – if anything.
The Venus had a pleasing proportioned profile. With the main engines located well aft in the hull a raked funnel housed two silencers for the main engine exhaust. To balance the profile there was a second forward funnel which contained a skylight for the main stairway through four decks below: it also exhausted the three B&W 180kW generators. The two masts were each 75 ft high and looked even taller in the early photos of the ship.