A Dutch perspective on class

Transatlantic passenger ships traditionally catered to three classes of passengers, which were separated by primarily vertical partitioning of the accommodations. This was a relic of the time when great numbers of emigrants fled the poverty of the Old World. It was these emigrants who largely populated the third class sections, situated in the least attractive and desirable parts of the ship. These were, generally speaking, on the lowest decks and at the extreme fore- and after ends of the ship.

Post-war passenger traffic was of a different character. The demand for third class accommodation was, to all intent, non-existent. In modern times the social classes had come closer together as far as lifestyle was concerned. With this background it was decided to divide the ship into only two classes, which could be made interchangeable if need be.

The former Ritz Carlton is now Grand Ballroom picture Jan-Willem Koene

The normal division between the two classes, according to then-current principles, would have been to place the first class in the forward part of the ship and the second class (hereafter called tourist class) toward the aft end. A serious alternative would have been to place the first class as a block amidships, with the tourist class divided between the fore and after parts of the vessel. Both variations had the disadvantage of emphasizing the limitation of freedom of movement that would be experienced by the passengers. Additionally, the second variation would have required long connecting corridors between the sections of the split-up class.


It was HAL director W. H. de Monchy who decreed this vertical division to be a thing of the past. His vision led eventually to a revolutionary horizontal division of the ship. It was the main stairway which would become the central feature of this system. The inspiration for this stairway came from one in the Chateau Chambord in the Loire valley of France, where two spiral stairways were threaded through each other. This allowed royalty and their servants to move separately through the building. This ingenious principle was adapted in a simplified, rectilinear variant in order to separated the two classes on the ROTTERDAM. It became a comparatively simple matter to dedicate certain decks to each class. On each deck, the roomy landings for each staircase could be shut off from the remainder of the deck with sliding partitions. Depending on whether the forward and/or aft partitions were open or closed on any given deck determined if passengers on the stair would be able to access all or part of the deck, or be naturally led up or down a further flight or flights to higher or lower decks.

The top of the staircase on Boatdeck   picture Klaas Krijnen

Most of the ship’s public rooms were situated on the Upper Promenade Deck and the Promenade Deck below. The two decks were more or less equivalent and each was given over to one class of passengers. The lounges for first class passengers on the Upper Promenade Deck had an overall subdued and intimate character, while those for the tourist class on the promenade deck were brighter and had a more open feeling. The large auditorium forward was two decks high and therefore the class divisions followed automatically. The first class sat in the balcony, while the tourist class passengers occupied the orchestra level below.

The staircase on A-deck   picture Klaas Krijnen

Each of these two decks had their own glass-enclosed promenades, a popular and consciously retained element from the classic ocean liners of earlier times. Each class had its own sports deck as well. That of the first class could be found on the Bridge Deck forward of the central deckhouse, while that of the tourist class was on the Sun Deck aft. Just as in the auditorium, the first class could look down on the tourist class on their sports deck.

The balcony of the Theater   picture Jan-Willem Koene

The cabins for the first class passengers were concentrated higher in the ship than those for passengers traveling in tourist class. A large number of cabins was interchangeable between the classes. It was often stated that the difference between the two classes had more to do with the level of service and the amount of room allocated to each passenger than with the quality of the accommodations.

In this regard, the two dining rooms played an unusual role. Both had to be accessible from the central stairway and be served by the same kitchen complex. In this case, tradition lent a helping hand, specifically in the form of the ss NIEUW AMSTERDAM (1938, 36,287 GRT) which had two dining rooms, one behind the other. In her case the kitchens were on the deck below, connected by a pair of escalators to each dining room. This system was used on the ms WILLEM RUYS (1947, 21,119 GRT) and was once again chosen for the ROTTERDAM. Because the kitchen which by definition would need to be centrally located would come into conflict with the cental staircase it was decided to place it as low as possible in the ship. Here we have reached the point at which optimization of the passenger accommodation led to the need to have the propulsion machinery of the ship moved aft in order to make room for the kitchens. The circle is complete.