Dockside Classic – 1906 Cunard Liner RMS Mauretania – Ambition And Innovation Combine In The First Modern Ocean Liner

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Before the Great War, Newcastle upon Tyne in north east England was at its peak as one of the great industrial cities of the world, central to British coal mining, home to major locomotive builders and, biggest of all, heart of a thriving shipbuilding industry which, along the lower reaches of the River Tyne and the nearby River Wear, produced a third of the world’s ocean going ships.

And none of these is as famous, as beautiful or as significant as RMS Mauretania.

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Mauretania was the result of competition between the British shipping line Cunard, the Anglo-American White Star Line and the Norddeutscher Lloyd (North German Lloyd, or NDL) line for the prestigious and profitable trans-Atlantic traffic. Cunard is the doyen of trans-Atlantic shipping lines, founded in Halifax, Nova Scotia, by Samuel Cunard in 1839 as the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company before relocating to Liverpool in 1840. White Star was the younger, less stuffy company, and by 1902 was part of JP Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine conglomerate, and NDL was the vehicle for Germany’s desire to compete with and beat the British under the ambitious Kaisers.

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In 1900, Cunard’s key vessels were the Campania and Lucania of 1893 (until the Queen Mary of 1935, all Cunard ships had names ending –ia). Campania and Lucania were 13,000 tons and over 600 feet long, and could accommodate 2,000 passengers and over 400 crew.

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Both had held the ‘Blue Riband’ for the fastest  crossing of the Atlantic, but by 1897 NDL’s Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse had taken their crown, with an average speed of 22.3 knots, beating the Campania’s record of 21.21 knots.

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All these ships were powered by massive reciprocating steam engines, and it was apparent to all that this technology had reached its limit – the triple expansion engines on Campania were 47 feet high, and needed 12 boilers (with furnances stoked by hand!) each 18 feet in diameter to provide the steam for cylinders up to 98 inch in diameter.

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So a dilemma for Cunard – how to build something to beat the Germans? Charles Parsons, an engineer from an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, had the answer – the steam turbine.

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Parsons (1854-1931) was a mathematician by training who became an engineer by the unusual route, for a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and St John’s College Cambridge, of an apprenticeship with the famous Newcastle shipbuilding and armament company founded by William Armstrong. He then developed the idea of a steam turbine while working at ship engine builders Clarke Chapman, based in Gateshead on the south bank of the Tyne. The principle of a steam turbine is simple. Instead of the steam generated by a pressured boiler driving the cylinders of an engine, it is used to drive the blades of a turbine. The concept is simple, but the execution, compared to a reciprocating steam engine, is demanding, with high precision essential and requiring components able to withstand very high rotational speeds and temperatures. The advantages are several – much more compact, lighter, smoother, and more powerful, and with the ship’s propellers directly driven from the turbine shafts. They are ideal for ships and power generation, which need a smooth and economical engine able to generate a steady power output continuously for hours and days on end.

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Parsons first patented the turbine in 1884, and by 1888 about 200 were in use, mostly to generate electricity for use on-board ships. By 1890, the Forth Banks power station in Newcastle was the world’s first to generate power using a steam turbine.

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Turbinia at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle

In 1893 Parsons formed the  Marine Steam Turbine Company, later C A Parsons & Co, with a large and expanding factory in the Newcastle suburb of Heaton which is now (after a typically British tortuous corporate history) the C A Parsons Works of Siemens Power Generation.

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In 1894, at Wallsend, on the Tyne just outside Newcastle, Parsons completed Turbinia, the first turbine powered ship in the world. She was also the fastest ship in  the world, capable of 35 knots, albeit a small one – 45 tons and 100ft long. In 1897, in an outrageous piece of attention grabbing that wouldn’t work today, Parsons and Turbinia gate-crashed Queen Victoria’s review of the Royal Navy’s fleet assembled at Spithead, outside Portsmouth, to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee. Turbinia easily outran the Navy’s patrol boats, and brazenly cruised at high speed between the great ranks of warships.

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Parsons had made his point to the British Admiralty, and within 2 years the Royal Navy had two turbine powered destroyers, and by 1906, HMS Dreadnought, the most significant warship since the move from sails to steam, was in service, with Parsons’ turbines central to her success.

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Cunard had always been close to the British Government, through Royal Mail contracts (hence RMS – Royal Mail Ship), and by 1902 another deal was done – the government would extend the mail contracts and lend Cunard the funds to build two liners capable of beating Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, and Cunard would ensure that they could be easily converted to military use, through fitting gun mounts. Such was the size of the new ships that they had to be commissioned from different shipyards – Mauretania from Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson of Wallsend, and sister Lusitania from John Brown of Clydebank, near Glasgow.

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Swan Hunter was based at the Neptune Works on the banks of the Tyne; merger with local rivals Wigham Richardson and the recruitment of several leading and ambitious engineers and naval architects was driven by the desire to bid for the Mauretania contract, as was the 1903 takeover of the Wallsend Slipway & Engineering Company, who had experience with and a license to use Parsons’ turbines – as using turbines for the first time in a liner would ensure the new ship would eclipse the Germans, and justify the government funding.

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Mauretania’s credited designer is Cunard’s own Leonard Peskett. The liner’s profile was perfect – purposeful, with the swept bow promising speed, the raked funnels suggesting power without dominating the design, the beautifully shaped stern hinting at the style on board, and the traditional Cunard black, white and red colors setting off the shape to perfection.

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Peskett originally intended the new liners to have reciprocating engines, and it was only in 1904 that direct-drive steam turbines were finally chosen, influenced by engineers at Swan Hunter, notably Andrew Laing, and Parsons himself. This necessitated a rearrangement from 3 funnels to 4, giving Mauretania her distinctive profile, and helping with the well-judged overall proportions.. But much of the detail work was done at Swan Hunter, including building a 1:16 model, rather than the usual 1:48, to finalise the detailed design.

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Her keel was laid down in the Neptune Yard in August 1904,

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and in September 1906, she was launched. Overall, Mauretania was 790 feet long, 88 feet and had a gross tonnage of 32,000 tons.

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The turbines themselves came from the Wallsend Slipway and Engineering Co; this is the low pressure rotor, and its proud creators.

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Fitting out was complete in August 1907.

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In September 1907, Mauretania left the Tyne for her first sea trials. Look how she dwarfed her surroundings – she was the largest moving structure then constructed, the first liner with steam turbines and the first ship in the world with four propellers

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Mauretania’s interior was the work of Harold Peto, better known for work on grand English country houses. She was full of English woodwork, with details drawn from the styles  of the Italian Renaissance, Louis XVI and the Scottish architect John Adam. The whole design was predicated about helping passengers (especially those paying the highest fares) forget they were at sea, and not in an upmarket London hotel or a country home in the shires.

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This is the bridge; on the deck below, an enclosed promenade deck gave passengers a sheltered but unobstructed forward view.

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Third class accommodation was grouped around the foremast and first funnel. There was room for 1,100 third class passengers, now transformed from the old steerage, on four decks. Cunard was not really in the immigrant market – speed and quality rather than volume was the driver – and it shows here.

100 Mauretania Third class general activity room (Mauretania)

A dining room of polished ash with teak mouldings could seat 330, with revolving seats and arched windows.

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Second class was at the stern, across five decks, with the dining room featuring a 19ft high octagonal skylight, and accommodation for 460 passengers.

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The 560 first class passengers were accommodated in the centre of the ship, also over five decks. The first class dining room was right at the centre of the ship, to get the smoothest ride. This is the smoking room.

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There was no doubt, when she was completed, that Mauretania was the finest ship to grace the Atlantic crossing. Soon, she proved to be the fastest as well. Her maiden Atlantic crossing was in November 1907, from Liverpool to New York; on the return, she claimed the eastbound Blue Riband with an average speed of 23.69 knots. She took the westbound record in 1909 (from the Lusitania), averaging 26.06 knots and crossing from Cobh in Ireland to the Ambrose Light off New York in 4 days 10 hours and 15 minutes, and held it for 20 years –  a record no other ship could match until the competition became obsolete in the 1960s.

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Mauretania and Turbinia

Mauretania was consistently faster than Lusitania, because her turbines had an extra set of blades and, from 1909, she was fitted with larger propellers with four blades.

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During the Great War, Mauretania was requisitioned by the Admiralty, and used as a hospital ship, exploiting her speed to evade German submarines. Lusitania was, of course, not so lucky, and was sunk by a U-boat off Ireland in May 1915 – the first time in 75 years that Cunard had lost passengers at sea.

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At Wallsend for re-engining, 1921

After the war, Mauretania was converted to burn oil, at Swan Hunters of course, and resumed her New York service, now from Southampton, not Liverpool, for easier tides and a shorter crossing, and with better connections to the Continent.

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She was no longer Cunard’s largest ship; Aquitania of 1912 held that honour, and the ill-fated Titanic and her sisters Olympic and Britannic of the White Star line were also larger, if slower. But right to the end of her Atlantic career, Mauretania was the fastest.

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Her last trans-Atlantic voyage was in 1929, still averaging over 24 knots. She ended her days as a cruise ship in the Caribbean and Mediterranean, before finally succumbing in 1935. But she still had her fans – Franklin Roosevelt wrote a personal letter to Cunard asking that Mauretania not be scrapped, to no avail.

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So what made her special? The size – the largest ship in the world; the speed – the fastest liner in the world for 20 years; the glamour of going to New York; the gorgeous shape; the stylish interior; the ambition of putting cutting edge technology into a flagship – all in all, she was the Edwardian Concorde, perhaps.

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Off South Shields, at the mouth of the Tyne, 1935

She was broken up at Rosyth, under the Forth Bridge near  Edinburgh, after this last visit to the Tyne to say farewell to the river – and to the people who loved her as not just ‘one of ours’. but as ‘the best we ever built’. Britain is a small place, but with strong regional identities and loyalties. Liverpool is less than 200 miles from Newcastle, but Newcastle does not remember ‘Liverpool’s big fast ship’ – we remind you that Mauretania was engineered and built on Tyneside, because the technology, skills and capability could be found here, and nowhere else. Cunard may be associated with Liverpool, and the Queen Mary with the Clyde, but Mauretania – the liner that pushed the boundaries and set the standard – belongs to the Tyne.

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Uniquely for a Cunarder, there was a second Mauretania, such was the power of the name – a 36,000 ton liner styled to look like the larger Queen Elizabeth. She was equipped with Parsons steam turbines, of course, but she came from Cammell Laird at Birkenhead, on the Mersey, not the Tyne. She served until 1965.

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Today, there is no Tyneside shipbuilding left; Swan Hunter staggers on as just a consultancy business, but the rest is gone. But when we talk about ships, we remember Mauretania – the most significant and successful ocean liner of the 20th century, and the largest, fastest and best ship in the world – which is why this picture hung in the Quaterdeck of the QE2 throughout her years with Cunard, showing Mauretania leaving the Tyne in 1907 – truly, the Pride of the Tyne, then and now.

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A note on sources, outside the internet: The Ocean Railway, by Stephen Fox, is a well researched, well written and illustrated and very readable history of the 19th century trans-Atlantic passenger steamships, culminating with Mauretania, which he admires almost as much as I do. And on your next visit to Britain, try the Discovery Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne, for Turbinia herself and a great collection of Mauretania material, and Beamish, the Great Museum of the North.