P&O: From imperial icon to auction block

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It played a key role in the British empire, taking passengers and mail to Britain's far flung overseas possessions. Its ships also played important roles in both World Wars, carrying troops, munitions, raw materials and food (it lost 182 ships in the Second World War).

The Peninsular in the company's name signifies its origins, as a provider of steamers between Britain and the Iberian peninsula. This included running guns and transporting troops for the royalist sides - whose colours are featured in the company's famous flag - during the internal wars in Spain and Portugal in the 1830s.

It landed its first mail contract in 1837 to Spain and Portugal, adding a route to Alexandria, Egypt in 1840, at which time it took Oriental into its name. Services expanded to Calcutta in 1843 and to Sydney in 1852.

Between 1914 and 1946, P&O acquired more than a dozen other shipping companies and by the 1920s, it operated nearly 500 ships.

It is said that P&O invented the leisure "cruise", offering its first cruise programme in 1904. In 1974, it acquired the Los Angeles-based Princess Cruises, adding Sitmar cruises line in 1988.

From the 1960s, jet airliners took over P&O's traditional passenger business and its container shipping grew. In the mid-1960s, the group began to invest in roll-on roll-off ferries between England and the Continent.

Later, under the chairmanship of Lord Sterling, the company diversified further, buying the Earl's Court and Olympia exhibition centres. But in 1999, P&O began selling non-core businesses and the company is now primarily a ports operator and logistics operator.