When the first purpose-built roll-on, roll-off car ferry sailed into service on the Newhaven-Dieppe route in 1973, it heralded the start of a new era for the service which was first established in 1847.
The name chosen for the ship, The Senlac, was a matter of controversy for some time.
Senlac Hill was the location of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the French were not entirely happy with the choice – despite the victory of William of Normandy. On board ship, images of the battle were featured and the cafeteria displayed scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry.
The Senlac proved to a successful addition to the route during the 1970s, but this changed in January 1982 when it was announced that the British partner, Sealink UK, was to pull out of the route and its agreement with the French railway company SNCF. The Senlac was to be sold.
The crew of 240, including six women, staged a sit-in on board the ship, which effectively blocked the French owned ships on the route from using the port.
In Newhaven, public support was forthcoming and a campaign, “Save our Senlac”, was launched and food parcels were delivered to the striking crew.
The campaign gathered momentum and became national news with Jim Slater, general secretary of the National Union of Seamen attending a meeting on the ship and pledging his full support for the men. He left the ship wearing an SOS badge.
After five weeks of the sit-in, Sealink UK announced that a new deal had been agreed with the French and the service would continue to operate and most of the 240 crew would keep their jobs.
This situation was to be short-lived, with Sealink forecasting a loss of £800,000 during the year. Attempts were made to give the route a boost with a special day-return ticket of offer for £5 – with trippers being able to sail on the 7am crossing and return at 5pm.
Following the privatisation of Sealink in June 1884, the new owners Sea Containers announced they would be withdrawing from the route. This time there was no going back and the Senlac was sold to SNCF who assumed total control of the Newhaven-Dieppe route.
The last sailing of the Senlac under the British flag took place on January 31, 1985. The familiar Joint Service Flag on the ship’s funnel was soon painted over with the SNCF logo on a red background. Senlac’s port of registry was no longer London, but Dieppe. On February 17 the same year, the British crew sailed the ship to Le Havre and handed her over to the French.
The Senlac came back on to the route for another two years until it was replaced the larger vessels – the Versailles and Champs Elysees.
On 25 November 1987, the Senlac as bought by the Greek shipping company Ventouris and she spent the rest of her working life ferrying passengers between the Greek islands. Her name also changed and she became the Express Apollo.
Further changes of ownership occurred until September when the Senlac sailed on its last journey to the breaker’s yard at Turkish port of Aliaga, ending 37 years of service on the English Channel and the Mediterranean Sea. An exhibition which marks the 40th anniversary of the first sailing of the Senlac from Newhaven to Dieppe in May 1973 will open on Easter Saturday, March 30, at the Newhaven Local and Maritime Museum at Paradise Park, Newhaven.
Former crew members John Paddy and Mick Cutler, who built the exhibit, will be on-hand between 2pm and 5pm to talk about their memories.