Steamship Saturday – Cunard Line and the First Modern Steamship

Steamship Saturday


RMS Mauretania

Cunard Line and the First Modern Steamship

The doyen of passenger ship lines is Cunard, which we think of as being quintessentially British. In fact, Cunard has North American – specifically Canadian – roots! The company was founded in Halifax, Nova Scotia by Samuel Cunard. He was the son of Abraham Cunard, a Quaker who was originally from Germany, and the Irish-Catholic Margaret Murphy. Cunard pere et mere were British Loyalists who had been living in the American colonies. They fled to Nova Scotia to escape the American Revolution. Samuel was their second son and was born in Halifax in 1787.


Samuel Cunard

Abraham Cunard was very successful in Nova Scotia and son Samuel had similar business acumen. As an entrepreneur in Halifax shipping, Samuel Cunard became one of a group of twelve individuals who dominated the affairs of Nova Scotia.

He secured mail packet contracts and provided a fisheries patrol vessel for the province. Cunard diversified the timber and shipping businesses founded by his father with investments in whaling, tea imports and coal mining as well as the Halifax Banking Company and the Shubenacadie Canal.

Cunard experimented with steam power for ships and became a founding director of the Halifax Steamboat Company which built the first steamship in Nova Scotia in 1830, the long-serving and successful SS Sir Charles Ogle for the Halifax-Dartmouth Ferry Service. Cunard became president of the company in 1836 and arranged for steam power for their second ferry, Boxer in 1838.

Cunard led Halifax and Quebec investors in 1831 to build the pioneering ocean steamship Royal William to run between Quebec and Halifax. Although Royal William ran into problems after losing a whole season due to Cholera quarantines, Cunard learned valuable lessons about steamship operation. He commissioned a coastal steamship named Pochohontas in 1832 for mail service to Prince Edward Island and later purchased a larger steamship Cape Breton to expand the service.

Cunard’s experience in steamship operation with observations of the growing railway network in England encouraged him to explore the creation of a Transatlantic fleet of steamships which would cross the ocean as regularly as trains crossed land. He went to England in 1837 seeking investors, where he set up a company with several other businessmen to bid for the rights to run a transatlantic mail service between Great Britain and North America. The bid was successful and thus Cunard Steamships, Limited was founded.


The company’s first steamship, Britannia, sailed from Liverpool to Halifax in 1840 and on to Boston, Massachusetts, with Cunard and 63 other passengers on board, marking the beginning of regular passenger and cargo service. Establishing a long unblemished reputation for speed and safety, Cunard’s company made ocean liners a success in the face of many potential rivals who lost ships and fortunes. Cunard’s ships proved successful, but their high costs saddled Cunard with heavy debts. In 1842 Cunard fled to England from creditors in Halifax. However, by 1843, Cunard ships were earning enough to pay off his debts and begin issuing modest but growing dividends. Cunard divided his time between Nova Scotia and England but increasingly left his Nova Scotian operations in the hands of his sons Edward and William as business drew him to spend more time in London.


North German Lloyd’s Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse

In 1897 the German liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse became the largest and fastest ship in the world. With a speed of 22 knots, she captured the Blue Riband from Cunard Line’s Campania and Lucania. (Cunard had chosen names ending in ia for his ships.) Germany came to dominate the Transatlantic passenger ship business, and by 1906 the Germans had five four-funnel superliners in service, four of them owned by North German Lloyd and part of North German Lloyd’s “Kaiser class”.

At the same time American financier J. P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine Co. was attempting to break into the Transatlantic trade and had acquired Britain’s other major Transatlantic line, White Star, who in 1912 launched the ill-starred Titanic.

In the face of these threats Cunard Line was determined to regain the prestige of ocean travel back not only to his company, but also to the United Kingdom and away from Germany, which had no history of being a maritime power.

In 1902, Cunard Line and the British government reached an agreement to build two superliners, Mauritania and Lusitania with a guaranteed service speed of no less than 24 knots. The government loaned £2,600,000 (£249 million as of 2016) for the construction of Mauritania and her ill-fated sister, Lusitania, at an interest rate of 2.75% to be paid back over twenty years with a stipulation that the ships could be converted to armed merchant cruisers or hospital ships if needed. To fund these ships further, the Admiralty arranged for Cunard to be paid an additional £150,000 per year to their mail subsidy. This was the time that the Admiralty was involved in developing the first modern fast battleship, Dreadnought, under the direction of Admiral Jacky Fisher and assisted by Winston Churchill.


H.M.S. Dreadnought

Mauritania and her slightly smaller sister, Lusitania, were designed by Cunard naval architect Leonard Peskett. Peskett’s original configuration for the ships in 1902 was a three-funnel design, when reciprocating engines were destined to be the powerplant. In 1904, Cunard decided to use the new Parsons steam turbine technology rather than the reciprocating engines and Peskett then added a fourth funnel to the ship’s profile. Construction of Mauritania began with the laying of the keel in 1904.

In 1906, Mauritania was launched by the Duchess of Roxburghe. At the time of her launch, she was the largest moving structure ever built, and slightly larger in gross tonnage than her sister Lusitania. The main visual differences between Mauritania and Lusitania was that Mauritania was five feet longer and had different vents (Mauritania had cowl vents and Lusitania had oil drum-shaped vents which proved fragile for winter runs and were slowly replaced with cowl design vents.


Mauritania had two extra stages of turbine blades in her forward turbines making her slightly faster than Lusitania. Mauritania and Lusitania were the only ships with direct-drive steam turbines to hold the Blue Riband. In later ships, reduction-geared turbines were mainly used. Mauritania‘s use of the steam turbine was the largest yet application of the then-new technology, developed by Charles Parsons. During speed trials, these engines caused significant vibration at high speeds; in response, Mauritania received strengthening members aft and redesigned propellers before entering service, which reduced vibration.


Above: A rotor, with its builders, for one of the two low-pressure turbines powering Mauritania.
Below: one of Mauritania’s turbines.



Mauritania‘s propellers dwarf the men standing under them.

Mauritania‘s four direct-action Parson steam turbines, two high pressure and two low pressure, produced 70,000 horsepower. Quadruple propellers gave her and actual service speed of 25 knots, slightly greater than the government-specified 24 knots. On her trials she attained a speed of 27.04 knots. Assuming that she could maintain her best record speed of 27.04 knots, along the line of the equator, she would encircle the globe in 38 days, 12 hours, 33 minutes and 22 seconds.


Mauretania at full steam during her speed trials

Mauritania had 11 watertight bulkheads and 6 decks. The doors between the bulkheads could be closed from the bridge, where the captain stood 100 feet above the sea level. For her hull they used 4 million steel rivets, at a total weight of 500 tons. Her four funnels were each 155 feet high and the two masts 216 feet high, which was actually 2 feet longer than the length of the Britannia, Cunard’s first steamship. There were 3 anchors weighing 10 tons each, and anchor chains of 1,800 feet. There was accommodation for 563 first class passengers, 464 second class passengers and 1400 third class (Steerage) passengers. The majority of the emigrants travelled as Steerage passengers. The number of officers and crew was 812.


Mauritania’s First Class smoking room (above) and Library (below)


Mauritania was designed to suit Edwardian tastes. The ship’s interior was designed by Harold Peto, an architect better known for work on grand English country houses. Her public rooms were fitted out by two notable London design houses, Ch. Mellier & Sons and Turner and Lord, with twenty eight different types of wood, along with marble, tapestries, and other furnishings such as the stunning octagon table in the smoking room. The multi-level first-class dining saloon of straw oak was decorated in Francis I style and topped by a large dome skylight. A series of elevators, then a rare new feature for liners and with grilles composed of the relatively new lightweight aluminum, were installed next to Mauritania‘s walnut grand staircase. A new feature was the Verandah Café on the boat deck, where passengers were served beverages in a weather-protected environment.


Mauretania in service as a hospital ship during World War I

During World War I, Mauritania 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.


Mauritania being converted from coal-burning to oil-burning engines.

After the war, Mauretania was converted to burn oil, 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. She was no longer Cunard’s largest ship; Aquitania of 1912 now 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, Mauritania was the fastest.

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.

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.



Add yours →

  1. jack darnell 02/04/2016 — 08:53

    Amazing history. I enjoyed the walk thru time. I am still amazed that during that period of time something that large and complicated could be built with such precision.


    • Yes – and Great Britain was still Great in those days – that little island was a global powerhouse, a real-life example of “the little engine that could.” She was ruined by the Socialists (Labour Party) who took power from Churchill and the Conservatives in the 1945 elections – and she still hasn’t fully recovered. It’s too bad Margaret Thatcher couldn’t have had a few more years at the helm!


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