The long history of P&O Ferries is a very complex one of several different companies, sales and aquisitions from the late 1960's onwards. They did not start with just one route in one particular region, as the 1960's saw in investment in several regions. From Southampton, P&O opened a route to Le Havre together with the French company Societe Anonyme de Gerame et d'Armencent under the banner of Normandy Ferries. Also in the 1960's, they started sailing from Dover to Boulogne under the same brandname. Through their subsidiary General Steam Navigation Company, P&O also became involved in the North Sea Ferries service between Rotterdam Europoort and Hull in northern England from the middel of the 1960's onwards.
In 1971, P&O bought the remains of Coast Lines, a company that has sailed route's at the Irish Sea from 1913 onwards. From 1974 onwards, the company founded Pandorro, that was to be the name for the Irish trades. Due to the political problems in Northern Ireland, it was hard for the company to maintain a clear network of route's at the Irish Sea, and several route's were opened or closed down during the 1970's and 1980's.
The year 1985 almost saw a total pull-out of P&O from ferry-operations, as the company sold it's Normandy Ferries brand to European Ferries on the 4th of january. With the Normany Ferries brand, all the companies services from Portsmouth, Southampton and Dover were taken over by European Ferries. The Dover to Boulogne route was re-branded as Townsend-Thoresen, a company that was owned by European Ferries, the rest of the lines became known under the banner of Normandy Ferries Limited. P&O retained the stake in Northsea Ferries, that now operated two lines, from Rotterdam Europoort to Hull and from Zeebrugge to Hull, as well as the services at the Irsish Sea. In 1987, P&O bought the European Ferries brand, including their Townsend-Thoresen lines so they got back the lines they had sold just a few years earlier. But just a week after the sale, one of the flagships of the Townsend-Thoresen brand, the Herald Of Free Enterprise, capzised out of Zeebrugge harbour. Both the ships loading doors had been left open when she set sail and water could rush into the cardecks and the loss of the ship was 'caused by avoidable human error'. She had been a part of the three-ship Blue Ribband Class, so named because these ships were offering fast crossings. At the time she was lost, she was sailing with 454 passengers, 80 crewmembers and 131 cars aboard. From these people, 155 passengers and 38 crewmembers lost their lives. It was the biggest maritime disaster in peacetime in Great Britain since the sinking of Titanic in 1912 and P&O quickly took the responsibility for the loss of the ship, but also got rid of the Townsend-Thoresen name rather quickly. In a total re-branding strategy, the services from Dover, Portsmouth and Southampton became P&O European Ferries.
In 1996, P&O bought the 50% stake of the Nedlloyd Group that they had in the Northsea Ferries services, and the company was re-branded as P&O Northsea Ferries, as P&O became the sole owner. Two years later, the Irish Sea services were re-branded as P&O Irish Sea. Then in 2002 the company had bought out the stake of Stena Line in the P&O Stena Line brand, that had been sailing the Dover services from 1998 onwards. Together, P&O Stena Line, P&O Irish Sea, P&O Northsea Ferries and P&O European Ferries became branded as P&O Ferries. All other names dissappeared and this made the structure somewhat more clear. But the years that followed were not very easy for the once very large combination. The services from Soputhampton were already closed down during the end of the 1980's by Townsend-Thoresen. The channel tunnel and cheap airlines were the reason to close down most services from Portsmouth in 2004, and the service between Portsmouth and Le Havre was to be sold to Brittany Ferries. But Brittany Ferries later backed out of the deal and the service remained with P&O untill it was finally closed in 2005. The only service from Portsmouth that was still left was the long sailing between Portsmouth and Bilbao in the Basque Country. This service was finally shut down in 2010, the year where P&O left Portsmouth in total. The great route-network is now reduced to the Irish Sea services, the Northsea services and the route between Dover and Calais.