A company, whose name in simple utterance, evokes nostalgia and a longing for the luxurious ocean-going liners of the past, the Cunard Line was once merely an upstart competitor in the Atlantic mail trade. Before the time of luxury and extravagance on the blustery Atlantic, ocean travel was once a rough and primitive shadow of its current self, without the amenities and conveniences which have become the modern standard aboard all passenger vessels.
Beginning as the British and North America Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, the line was founded by a shipowner of Nova Scotia, Mr. Samuel Cunard. Owing to the early successes of other early steamships crossing the Atlantic, Cunard was convinced that the route could be a success. Risking his entire fortune, Cunard, with 31 other persons and shareholders, subscribed the necessary capital to build the first of the company's fleet.
In March, 1839, the contract to build three wooden paddle steamships was awarded to Mr. R. Napier, a Clyde Engineer and also Cunard's first partner and shareholder. Napier contracted out the building of the three hulls, and later a fourth due to the volume of mails needing transport, to four of the leading shipbuilders in England.
Shortly after the construction agreement was awarded, the mail contract with the British Government was signed, promising an annual payment of £60,000. This amount was later raised to £81,000 with the addition of an increased volume of mail. To accommodate this, the original building contract was altered to include a fourth wooden paddle steamship.
The Britannia, the first to be built, was named by a relative of the Contractor, Miss Isabella Napier. Launched on the 7th of February, 1840, the Britannia measured 200 feet by 32ft. by 21 1/2 ft. The latter three ships were named Acadia, Caledonia, and Columbia.
The Britannia sailed on it's maiden Atlantic crossing on the 4th July, 1840. Mr. S. Cunard aboard, and reached Halifax in 12 days, 15 ours, and Boston in 14 days, 8 hour. A successful crossing in both directions, thus the Atlantic mail service was inaugurated. For the next thirteen years, the company would prosper and eight more ships saw addition to their wooden fleet including the Hibernia, Cambria, Europa, America, Niagara, Canada, Asia, and the Africa.
In 1853 the iron ship Australian, and later the Sydney, was acquired by the Line. From this period on, all Cunarders would be built of iron and, later, steel. The new construction promised greater strength and flexibility in shipbuilding and led up to the development of the more efficient screw propulsion.
The Scotia was the last paddle steamship ordered by the line. She was ordered at the same time as the companies first screw mail steamship, the China. The China would prove to be the fastest screw steamship, with a record eastbound Atlantic crossing of 8 days, 14 hours, 8 minutes. The success of this first screw steamship determined the future propulsion of all Cunard ships. The company would experiment with various powerplants for their fleet, and eventually the combination incorporated into the Russia of 1867 would prove most efficient.
In 1869 the White Star Line, began to invest in a line of ships running between New York and Liverpool, providing competition with the Cunard Line. The White Star ships were large and powerful, taking advantage of the vast improvements in shipbuilding design within recent years. Over the next 3 decades, the two companies battled in fierce competition. A total of 21 ships would pass under the Cunard name as the company fought for British supremacy on the sea. During this period such notable ships as the Campania, Lucania, Carinthia, Sylvania, Ivernia, and Saxonia would be constructed.
By 1907, the passenger trade had evolved from what Charles Dickens once called the Britannia on it's maiden voyage as a "hearse with windows", to large, spacious, vessels allowing for unheard of comfort and conveniences at sea. It was in this year that Cunard reached a new height in excellence with the construction of the Lusitania, by John Brown & Co. Ltd, and the Mauretania, by Messrs. Swan, Hunter & Wigham Richardson, Ltd. Such large ships employed the architectural and decorative styles found on land, mimicking the look of great london hotels. With larger ships came more freedom in design, now it was possible to indulge in more elaborate decors.
The Aquitania would soon follow, and was acquired in May 1914. For a brief time all three ships ran in tandem until the Lusitania was lost to a German U-boat attack off the coast of Southern Ireland on 7 May 1915.
After the loss of the Lusitania to the Germans, the Mauretania, Aquitania, and Berengaria would comprise a trio, establishing a regular pattern of passenger service on the Atlantic route. These ships, though, were approaching middle age and thus spawned the dream of a two ship service between the old world and the new.
By 1930, the dream of Cunard Chairman Sir Percy Bates began to take shape. In December 1930 the keel of the first of two new ships was under construction at the John Brown Shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland. The road ahead for the new ship would prove turbulent as the first signs of an economic depression became apparent in Europe. Money reserves in peril, Cunard was forced to stop work on the new ship on 12 December 1931. The empty, lifeless hull loomed over the Clydebank skyline, a constant reminder of the hard times facing the nation. Two years the ship lie dormant, her unfinished hulk rusting on the John Brown ways. Finally, in an attempt to stimulate not only the floundering Clydebank, but the British economy as well, the British Government agreed to a £3 million loan to complete the hull of #534. The agreement also included assurances that a £5 million loan would be made available if a sister ship were to be built. As part of this agreement, it was incorporated that the White Star Line should be merged with the existing Cunard Line. The White Star Line's own ships slipping into a state of obsolescence. Work began again on hull #534 on 3 April 1934, smashing the stranglehold of the great depression.
The new ship was launched in the presence of Their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary. The ship, known only until then as job #534 was given the name 'Queen Mary' in honor of Britain's ruling Monarch. The launching booklet issued at the ceremony symbolically quoted Mr. John Burns, Chairman of the Cunard Line, at the launch of the Etruria on 20 September 1884:
Six years later would mark the inauspicious entry of the Queen Elizabeth into New York harbor. Veiled in secrecy in an attempt to escape the Luftwaffe, the newly launched ship made a desperate run for the safety of the former colonies, her engines as yet untested.
Both ships remained in war service until the conclusion of World War II. Their contribution to the war efforts was heralded by Winston Churchill as shortening the duration of the war by a year. President Franklin D. Roosevelt described the Mary as "the Queen with a fighting heart".
The years following the war marked a return to normality. Only then, since Sir Percy Bates' first dream of a weekly Atlantic express service nearly twenty years prior, was the dream moving towards fact. Refitted and painted in peacetime colors, the Queen Elizabeth made her first passenger voyage on 16 October 1946. The two ships now running in tandem for the first time set a new precedent in service on the blustery North Atlantic. Cunard had finally become the undisputed ruler of the Atlantic.
Cunard revived an earlier name with the launch of the new Caronia in 1948. Touting big ship comforts with small ship cruising, the Caronia played on the markets which were impractical for the immensity of ships such as the Elizabeth and Mary. Nicknamed 'Cruise ship superb' the Caronia retained the famous Cunard service and comforts now synonymous with the name.
The now famous 'Getting There is Half the Fun!' slogan came into use during this period. The slogan captured the spirit and feeling of the traveller of the day. People were now beginning to travel less for transportation sake and more for entertainment and tourism. The average free time which Americans enjoyed was at it's peak and the country was basking in it's post-war economic boom.
The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth continued on until the late 1960's when the advent of commercial air travel began to lure business away from the steamships with their airborne promise of speed. By 1966, the Atlantic trade became unprofitable for Cunard as their wonderships grew outdated and too costly to operate. With annual losses exceeding $15 Million an solution was desperately sought.
Their answer would be the Queen Elizabeth 2. With the assistance of Government loans, the $80 million vessel was to replace both of the aging Queens and most of the existing Cunard fleet. Inaugurated in 1969 with the slogan 'Ships have been boring long enough', the Queen Elizabeth 2 captured the best, and the worst, of the sixties. In an attempt to upgrade it's image to the youthful look of the day, the new slogan and the new ship clashed with the traditional role that Cunard had made famous. The ship was a great disappointment to those who were loyal to the old ship, but managed to attract a new, youthful clientele as well.
In 1967, the Queen Mary was find a permanent home in Long Beach, her future, a financial roller coaster of multiple operators and the victim of haphazard conversion. With seemingly misguided intentions of creating a modern attraction, the ship saw a large portion of it's decor irretrievably lost. Operators such as PSA, Wrather Corp., and Disney all have taken the reigns to turn a profit from the aged ship.
The Queen Elizabeth would be less fortunate that her former running-mate. Withdrawn from service only 12 months after the Queen Mary, she would initially sold as a Florida-based amusement park. The ship never turned a profit and eventually was sold to Mr. C. Y. Tung for conversion and operation to a maritime university in 1970. Renamed the 'Seawise University', the ship underwent a massive conversion process. On the fateful night of 9 January 1972, the ship was ablaze at the hands of an arsonist. Like the incomparable Normandie, the ship was capsized by the amounts of water poured into her by fireboats. The fire, fueled by the Elizabeth's lavish wooden interiors, twisted and melted the ship. The Elizabeth was scrapped on the spot within two years.
The Queen Elizabeth 2 underwent extensive modification in 1987 with the replacement of her steam-turbine machinery with new high powered diesel engines. The refit included the installation of new ultra-luxury penthouse suites along the upper superstructure. The refit would cost $140 million, nearly twice the amount spent on her construction in 1967.
The Queen Elizabeth 2 has continued on the North Atlantic route, one of the last modern day ships to do so. In recent years, Cunard has invested enormous capital into the refit and modernization of the QE2. The ship now looks reminiscent of the luxury liners of the 'Golden Age', with a nostalgic decor highlighted with rich woods and artwork once adorning ships such as the Caronia and Queen Elizabeth. Reasserting itself as a leader in the luxury market, the Company has revived the concepts and ideals which it founded itself upon in 1840.
The Cunard Fleet
Copyright © 1997 Kevin R. Tam.