One hundred and seventy-five years ago a small steam powered paddle ship set sail from the River Mersey, Liverpool, on a journey. This is a story that is woven into the fabric of the narrative of the transatlantic special relationship. That small ship ‘Britannia’ is still remembered today, indeed her current ocean liner niece will recreate that first voyage this summer, on the very day that Britannia set out in 1840. Many a toast will no doubt be drunk to her in her namesake on restaurants aboard the current fleet. Never has one company had so much influence on the transatlantic bond, as the Cunard Line did.
The company began in response to an advert placed by the BritishAdmiralty to carry the Royal Mail across the Atlantic. Samuel Cunard a native of Nova Scotia tendered for the contract and won. His hometown of Halifax would feature heavily in the most famous maritime disaster of all time, alongside one of his ships. His small liner Carpathia was the saviour of 705 passengers saved from the Titanic, and Halifax was where the recovery ships set out from and where unclaimed bodies were laid to rest. The Titanic belonged to the Cunard’s main rival the White Star Line. Both Cunard and White Star were the dominant forces not just in the British merchant marine, but in the European battle for transatlantic dominance; a North Atlantic liner held not just its company’s reputation at stake, but its nation’s as well. The prize for the fastest, and therefore the greatest, ship was the Hales trophy aka the ‘Blue Riband of the Atlantic’. Cunard held this record time and again. Ironically, Cunard would end up not just saving passengers of the White Star Line, but (due to a forced merger in the 1930’s) also end up saving the name which lives on today as the strapline of the service Cunard provides its modern day passengers.
Cunard’s history has also been embroiled in the most famous conflicts of this nation. In the Charge of the Light Brigade, it was the Cunard ship ‘Arabia’ which carried those horses. The sinking of‘Lusitania’ in May 1915 is credited with expediting the American entry to World War One; that tragedy was also exploited in the UK to drive recruitment to the armed forces such was thestrength of the brand presence. World War Two saw the line play a vital role in the conflict, the twin queens Mary and Elizabeth were credited by Churchill as having helped reduce the duration of the war by a year. Able to move 15,000 troops each at a time these great liners moved manpower from all corners of the globe to the European theatres of war. After the war they moved GI brides back across the Atlantic, repeating the journeys of so many huddled masses before them.
Reparations after World War One accidentally began the tradition of Cunard ‘queens’ with the previously named ‘Imperator’ becoming ‘Berengaria’. She was followed by the Queen’s‘Mary’ and ‘Elizabeth’, the most famous ships of their age. PostWorld War Two saw the golden age of the Liner, regularly pictured on the decks of the Queens were the stars of screen, stage and royalty, to travel in their footsteps was seen as the height of sophistication. Ocean travel was intensely glamorous and Cunard’s slogan “getting there is half the fun” encapsulated the experience. This era though, was destined not to last and the dawn of the jet agesignalled the end of the liner. Why cross in four days when you could cross in 6 hours? Responding to this threat the line changed tack and built what was to become arguably the most famous ship in the world.
The Queen Elizabeth 2 (1969) carried shadows of her famous predecessors, but she was a space age ship for new generation, built not just for crossing but for cruising. She also carried the rich and famous, and was taken up to carry out trooping duties during the Falklands conflict. Her construction was at the same yard that her namesake had been built, however she would be the last great liner built there. Queen Elizabeth 2 was thought to be the last of her breed. That was until the line, bought by the massive American shipping conglomerate Carnival, ordered a brand new ocean liner. Queen Mary 2, a liner for the 21st century, entered service in January 2004. She continues the legacy and traditions of 175 years. Celebrations begin in Liverpool over the Whitsun bank holiday.