The Zamzam had not always been named Zamzam. In fact, that was her third name. When she had been built in 1909, she was given the name Leicestershire. As was her later sister ship, the El Nil, the Leicestershire had been built by Harland and Wolff of Belfast as a passenger ship for the Bibby Line. She had accommodations for 230 single class passengers.

Measurements of the ship have been reported as follows: 8,059 gross tons, length 467.2 ft x beam 54.3 ft x depth 31.7 ft. She was characterized by one funnel, four masts, a twin screw, and a speed of 15 knots. The four masts were her most distinctive feature.

The history of the Zamzam's service was varied and complex. As the Leicestershire, her maiden voyage took place in September 1909, when she sailed from Birkenhead to India as a passenger ship. In 1914 she was taken over as an Indian Expeditionary Force transport ship but was soon returned to her owners. By 1917, however, she was again serving as a troop transport ship. In 1918 she even carried troops to North Russia to fight the Bolsheviks. Among other trips, she made a voyage to Melbourne, repatriating Australian troops.

Following those wartime years of transport service, the Leicestershire was returned to the Bibby Line and rebuilt; she was converted from being coal-burning to oil-burning. Now modernized, she resumed passenger service on the Rangoon route (Britain to Burma) until 1930, when she was sold to the British National Exhibition Ship Company Ltd.

The S. S. Leicestershire at about the time the ship was renamed British Exhibitor (1931).
Copyright: John H. Marsh Maritime Collection, Iziko Maritime Centre, Cape Town, South Africa.
Photo courtesy of the private collection of Wallace Nolin.

The Leicestershire's purpose with the Exhibition Company was to travel throughout the British Empire, providing a floating exhibition of British goods. Renamed British Exhibitor, the exhibit was opened in the Thames in 1931. That chapter of her life was short-lived, however, as in 1932 the company went into voluntary liquidation and the whole exhibition project was abandoned.

New life and new purpose came the following year,1933, when the British Exhibitor was purchased by the Egyptians to be used in the pilgrim trade between Egypt and the port of Jedda (Mecca). Renamed Zamzam in honor of the sacred Mohammedan well near Mecca, for the next 8 years the Zamzam quietly and faithfully plied her trade. A mosque was built in one of her cargo holds, and she could accommodate up to 600 religious pilgrims on their way from Suez to Mecca.

The Zamzam shortly before its final voyage (1941).

Photo courtesy of the Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia.
Download of this digital image is permitted for
personal use only.

A new assignment came to the Zamzam in 1941 -- to carry passengers from Egypt to New York via South Africa and South America. Then, with a different set of passengers, the Zamzam was to make a return trip to Egypt, also via South America and South Africa. It was on this return trip, in the spring of 1941, that the Zamzam was sunk in the South Atlantic and this remarkable story took place.

Ten minutes after shelling by a Nazi raider ship, Life photographer David Scherman in Lifeboat 1 took this picture of the stricken passenger ship Zamzam, with another lifeboat pulling for open sea.