Dockside Classic: 175 Years of Cunard In Liverpool

Britain has a strong and long maritime heritage – the worldwide recognition of the name Royal Navy, without a country in the title, tells you that. Our merchant maritime service (or merchant navy as it is also known) is another, and given how Britain enjoys icons of history, this meeting was bound to be remembered.

3queens.5In 1840, Samuel Cunard from Nova Scotia was awarded a trans-Atlantic mail steam contract and formed the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, in partnership with Robert Napier, an established Scottish ship and engine builder. Initially, the company was providing a three ship service between the UK and North America for the British Government, serving Halifax, Boston and Montreal, with the first ship, the paddle steamer Unicorn, leaving Liverpool in May 1840. From the start, the company’s ships had red funnels with narrow black bands and a black top, colours that are still evident today.

In 1879, to obtain more capital, the company was floated (sorry, I had to) as a public company named the Cunard Steamship Company Ltd, listed in London. The company continued to operate a fleet of modern steamships, regularly holding the Blue Riband for the North Atlantic crossing.

During the late 19th and early 29th centuries, the services were centred on mail, transatlantic passenger travel for the wealthy and immigration to North America from Europe. New liners were built to increase capacity, add speed and open new routes, in completion with other British, European and American operations. Such competition became an issue of national pride for many nations.

In the Great War, Cunard’s fleet was partly requisitioned by the British government for war duties, and there were inevitably losses. Most notably, the Lusitania was sunk by a German British U-boat off Ireland in 1915, which was another occasion appropriately remembered by Cunard this year.

Cunard building

Cunard continued to rise in the 1920s, completing the impressive Cunard building (in the middle above) on Liverpool’s waterfront and merging with the White Star Line to create an undisputed British leader in the transatlantic market.

rms-queen-elizabeth-poster-0Cunard truly secured its position as Britain’s national favourite shipping line with the introduction of the RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth in 1936 and 1938 respectively. The Queen Mary was named for the consort of King George V, who reigned from 1910 to 1936, and was the grandfather of the current Queen. Popular history tells us that Cunard planned to name this ship the Queen Victoria, and when a director was despatched to ask for the King’s permission to name a ship after the “the greatest Queen this country has had” the King said his wife would be delighted. The Queen Elizabeth was named for Queen Elizabeth, consort to King George VI (1936 – 1952) and father of the Queen.

Both ships saw service as troops ships in the Second World War, with the Queen Mary gaining the nickname the Grey Ghost, for her ability to outrun German U-boats, even when carrying up to 15,000 American troops. Transatlantic services were resumed in 1946, after pretty comprehensive refits from troopships to luxury liners. The ships were retired in the late 1960s, as the market for transatlantic travel was dominated by the jet airliners.

RMS Queen MaryThe Queen Elizabeth caught fire during refurbishment work in Hong Kong in 1972 and sank in the harbour; the Queen Mary of course is now on permanent display in Long Beach, California.

The two ships were replaced by the new Queen Elizabeth 2. There’s another naming story here – Cunard had planned to call her Queen Elizabeth but kept the name secret; the full name was actually given by the Queen when she was launched the ship, and she became the QE2 to everyone from then on.3-queens.2

Now, of course, the company is in the cruise liner business, and part of the larger Carnival Corporation. A fleet of three ships, named Queen Mary 2 (2004), Queen Victoria (2007, 90,000 tons) and the Queen Elizabeth (2010, 92,000) .The Queen Mary 2 has a gross tonnage of 149000 tons, almost twice that of the RMS Queen Mary.

Cunard’s spiritual home, if no longer its official home, is Liverpool, the start of so many voyages of international travel, emigration and business for over a century. Liverpool is no longer a major port, having lost out to containerisation, but boasts an attractive and historic docks area, with a major maritime museum and some impressive architecture. It was here that Cunard brought all three Queens together on 25 May, for a public acknowledgment to Liverpool for its contribution and its history. Around 1,300,000 people turned out to see the ships meet up, convoy up the River Mersey and perform a choreographed 180 degree turn.

Quite a sight!