Celebrating ocean royalty

Jul 29, 2015


Thanks to Phil Hoffmann Travel.

With the 175 year anniversary of Cunard being celebrated this year, self-confessed Cunard enthusiast, cruiseaholic and loyal PHT client, Gavin Harper reflects on the history of this much loved cruise line.

The date was Saturday July 4th 1840. The place - Liverpool, England. A brand new vessel, RMS Britannia, prepared to depart Coburg Dock, bound for Halifax and Boston on the very first Atlantic mail service by steamer. Coal powered, 207ft long and weighing 1,135 tons, she was the pride of the ‘British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’.

At high tide, three hearty cheers rang out as Captain Woodruff gave the order via speaking trumpet and the ship’s paddle wheels began to turn. It was Woodruff’s responsibility to transport Her Majesty’s royal mail, 63 passengers and 93 crew safely across the Atlantic. Also on board; a few chickens, three cats (to keep down the rats which loved to nibble the mail bags and destroy the letters) and one cow! With the voyage scheduled to take two weeks, the cow had the responsibility of providing fresh milk for all on-board. Passage cost 34 guineas to Halifax, an extra 4 guinea to Boston, plus a steward’s tip of 1 guinea. Amongst the passengers were the Company’s owner and Nova Scotian, Samuel Cunard and his daughter Ann.

Before long, the ‘British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company’ became simply known as ‘Cunard Line’, a name now revered around the shipping world.

Britannia was tiny by today’s standards, at about one fifth the length of QM2. She would actually fit comfortably into QM2’s main dining room, appropriately named the Britannia Restaurant. She boasted two passenger decks. On the upper deck were the Officers’ quarters, galley, bakery and padded cowhouse. The lower deck comprised passenger cabins and dining room. If you were one of the 63 passengers, your cabin had two bunks, a hard settee, two wash basins, a commode and two chamber pots. Your cabin was very small, approximately 2.4 x 1.8 metres. There was a hurricane candle in your cabin and candles in the passageways which were extinguished at 10pm to prevent fire.

Cunard service in those days saw your bed linen changed on the eighth day. Passengers were requested not to open their scuttles (portholes) when there was a chance of their bedding being wetted. The saloon and ladies cabins were swept every morning before breakfast, beginning at 5am, and slops emptied when passengers vacated their cabins. Carpets were washed once a week if the weather was dry.

That first successful crossing took just 12 days but, most importantly, the advent of steam signified the beginning of regular, scheduled and safe North Atlantic crossings. No longer were crossing times subject entirely to the vagaries of wind and weather.

As the years went by, Atlantic traffic prospered, ships grew in size and luxury and became status symbols of the countries they represented. Cunard thrived with liners such as Mauretania, Lusitania and Aquitania. Then came the Queens - Mary and Elizabeth; ships possibly more famous than the Hollywood stars who clamoured to sail on them. Post World War II, the future seemed rosy for Cunard but in 1958 along came jet aircraft which crossed the Atlantic in hours instead of days. Virtually overnight, passengers deserted liners for jets.

By 1968 both Mary and Elizabeth had been retired. Cunard however, took what many considered to be a risky step and built a new trans-Atlantic liner, albeit one which could also cruise in the northern winter and was short enough to transit the Panama Canal. In 1969 QE2 made her maiden voyage. For years, when passenger ships looked like being a thing of the past, she soldiered on, becoming possibly the best loved and most famous of all the Queens before her retirement in 2008.

Fast forward to July 4th 2015, when once again Cunard will sail from Liverpool, replicating that 1840 voyage, though in much more style and comfort. QM2 will sail to Halifax and Boston, before entering New York Harbour at the end of what will undoubtedly be a memorable 175th Anniversary crossing.

This time there will be no slops to be emptied and can you imagine the outrage if cabins have to be swept beginning at 5am! I doubt also that anyone will be concerned about a bellowing cow occupying the space immediately above their cabin! Could Samuel Cunard ever have envisaged such a huge and magnificent ocean liner as QM2; 12 passenger decks, air-conditioned balcony cabins, superb dining options, on-board lecturers, lavish shows, a planetarium, 3D cinema, 8,000 book library and luxury spa. Perhaps - he was certainly a man of vision.

For years QE2 was known as the “Last of the Atlantic Liners”. Now we have QM2 already 11 years into her reign. Who would dare predict that when her time comes, there won’t be yet another magnificent Atlantic liner once again sporting the Cunard logo?