|The Duke of Lancaster and her two sisters, the Duke of Argyll and Duke of Rothesay, were amongst the final 'classic' passenger-only railway steamers. As such, whilst they represented the ultimate evolution of the type, they were also hampered by being fairly speedily outmoded. Built for the traditional overnight Heysham-Belfast service, the Dukes were considerably larger than the ships of the same names that they replaced. They could accommodate 600 first class and 1,200 second class passengers as well as fairly significant amounts of cargo in holds forward and aft. With a tight delivery time demanded, the preferred builders, Denny's of Dumbarton, were unable to guarantee delivery of all three ships, so the order was split between Denny's (who built only the Duke of Rothesay) and Harland & Wolff in Belfast. The Duke of Lancaster was the first to be delivered, in 1956, and was fitted out slightly differently to her sisters to enable her to operate cruises, which she did until about 1966, travelling as far as Norway, Denmark, Holland and Spain although the Scottish islands were a more regular haunt. The Heysham-Belfast service was a two-vessel operation in practice (apart from the very peak season when some daylight and double nightly crossings were made), so the 'Lancaster' could be spared when her cruising itineraries dictated.
This comfortable existence would last until the mid-1960s. By this stage, the car ferry revolution had taken hold and the final passenger-only steamships were somewhat outdated. British Railways as a whole appeared to have failed to anticipate the growth in demand for vehicle ferries, and without the time or funding to build an entire new fleet from scratch, set about converting several of the passenger ships to car ferries. The first of the Dukes to be affected was the Duke of Rothesay in 1967, when she had her main deck stripped out to make way for a car garage, accessed by doors on either side. She was transferred to the Fishguard-Rosslare crossing; with only two ships remaining at Heysham, the Duke of Lancaster's cruises ceased and she was devoted full-time to her ferry duties.
The Heysham route eventually succumbed to the car ferry era in 1970. After a period in which it seemed very possible the crossing might be shut altogether, the 'Lancaster' and the 'Argyll' were returned to their builders to have car decks installed onto their main decks. This conversion was rather more substantial than that carried out on the ships' sister as here the garage was to be accessed via a stern door and space for two coaches was made along the centreline at the stern in a small area with the required headroom. At the same time the sisters became one-class. The Duke of Lancaster was the first to be converted, entering the shipyard in early January 1970, returning on 25 April.
Unfortunately, the car ferry operation did not produce the hoped-for revival for the Heysham-Belfast route and in July 1974 it was announced that the passenger and vehicle service would cease that October; this was later put back to April 1975 after which the Dukes were despatched to Barrow for lay-up. The 'Lancaster' made her way south in early July 1975 to maintain the Fishguard-Rosslare crossing prior to the arrival of the converted Avalon. This lasted for about a fortnight after which the ship went to Holyhead to provide summer support on the Dun Laoghaire run. She remained employed as back-up on this route, latterly to the new St Columba, until being finally retired in late 1978 and again sent to Barrow for lay-up. She was subsequently sold to a company called Empirewise of Liverpool who intended her to be used as a static ship at Llanerch-y-Mor, not far from the port of Mostyn in North Wales. The 'Lancaster' arrived at her new home on 10 August 1979 and has remained there ever since, beached (actually 'concreted in') off the River Dee and in an increasingly derelict state. Her intended use as a static leisure centre and market was relatively short-lived - she was known as 'The Fun Ship' and it was possible to visit the engine room and bridge as well as the market. Plans for a 300-room hotel never appear to have got further than the preliminary planning stage however, and it was not long before the ship closed for business.
Her sisters sufferred differing fates: the Duke of Rothesay was withdrawn in 1975 and sold directly for breaking at Faslane. The Duke of Argyll however went on to have a varied career in Southern Europe, as the Corinthia and Neptunia, latterly for HML, before sailing to the far east where she burnt out in 1995 as the Zenith in Hong Kong.