The Lusitania Resource > RMS Lusitania > The Cunard Company

The Cunard Company

The Cunard Line started as a British shipping company, the brainchild of Canadian-born Samuel Cunard (21 November 1787 – 28 April 1865). Beginning as the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company, Cunard’s company was awarded the first British transatlantic steamship mail contract in May 1839 and began mail service between Halifax, Nova Scotia and Montreal, Quebec in May 1840 with the Unicorn. Two months later, the first company’s first transatlantic paddle steamer, the Britannia entered Cunard’s fleet. Britannia and her three sisters would operate the Liverpool-Halifax-Boston route.

By 1845, Cunard’s steamships were carrying more passengers than sailing packets. Robert Napier also gave the Cunard’s ships their distinctive funnel, vermilion red with black bands and a black top. Cunard also developed a reputation for safety early on. Until the torpedoing of the Lusitania in 1915, no lives had ever been lost on a Cunard ship. Cunard also gained a reputation for speed, and for most of the next 30 years, Cunard held the Blue Riband, the unofficial award for the ship with the fastest transatlantic crossing.

Cunard had its first serious competitor with the American-owned Collins Line, which had won the Blue Riband from Cunard with its steamers Pacific and Baltic in 1850 and 1851 respectively.  A series of shipwrecks, however, caused the Collins Line to collapse.

The British Inman Line also came to rival Cunard, the first company to carry steerage passengers and run iron-hulled ships at a profit without government subsidy.  The White Star Line entered the competition with Oceanic of 1871, which redefined transatlantic comfort by placing passenger accommodations amidships instead of at the stern.  In the face of mounting competition, Cunard, then officially the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company, reorganized itself as the Cunard Steamship Company to raise capital.

The Germans entered the race in 1867 and soon debuted their own ships that beat the British ships in size and speed.  The Norddeutscher Lloyd’s Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse of 1897 was the first of a series of speedy German superliners that seriously rivaled the British for dominance of the seas.  Cunard’s domestic competitor, White Star, had chosen to specialize in size and comfort as a response with the Celtic-class of 1901.  The following year, the American tycoon J. P. Morgan acquired the White Star Line for his own conglomerate, the International Mercantile Marine.  Even though in times of war Morgan promised that White Star’s ships would be available for the use of the British Admiralty, the British themselves were concerned that their ability to dominate the waves was at stake, and that they were either going to be outcompeted by the Germans or bought out by the Americans.

In this period of crisis for British shipping, the chairman of Cunard, Lord Inverclyde turned this crisis into an opportunity for Cunard. By an agreement signed in June 1903, the British Government gave Cunard a loan of £2.6 million to finance two ships, repayable over 20 years at an interest rate of 2.75%. The ships would receive an annual operating subsidy of £75,000 each in addition to a mail contract worth £68,000. As a quid-pro-quo, the ships would be built to Admiralty specifications so that they could be used as auxiliary cruisers in times of war. These two ships, which debuted in 1907, would be the Lusitania and Mauretania.

With Lusitania, the British regained the Blue Riband in 1907.  Mauretania held the Blue Riband from 1909 to 1929, the longest of any ship until the debut of the United States in 1952.  The speedy sisters were joined by a third, larger, slower, but more luxurious Aquitania in 1914.  Aquitania had been influenced by White Star’s Olympic-class ships of 1911, which emphasized luxury over speed.

At the outbreak of World War I, Mauretania and Aquitania were put on war duty, while Lusitania remained in service carrying passengers and mail.  Germany’s torpedoing of Lusitania in 1915 is credited as one of the causes of the United States entering the war.

With the end of the war, the British received three ships from Germany as the spoils of war.  One of these, once known to the Germans as the Imperator, was given to Cunard and renamed Berengaria, as a replacement for Lusitania.

American immigration laws of the 1920s stemmed the tide of emigrants booking passenger liners to the United States.  Even so, Cunard faced stiff competition from the Germans, Italians and French who were building large prestige liners, their ships of state.  The White Star Line was seeking to outdo Cunard by building the first ship to exceed 1,000 feet, the Oceanic of 1928.  In 1929, Norddeutscher Lloyd’s Bremen took the Blue Riband from the aging Mauretania, although the British liner made a valiant effort to regain the prize.  In December of 1930, Cunard began work on a new ship, a 1,000-footer, known as Hull 534.

The Great Depression collapsed the world economy and put the ship of state projects on hold.  Oceanic would never be completed.  The British Government guaranteed the completion of Hull 534 and sister ship, Hull 552, on the condition that Cunard and White Star merge.  They did in April 1934, forming Cunard-White Star.  Cunard owned two-thirds of the new company.  Hull 534 was launched in September of that year and, despite rumors that the new ship would be named Victoria, she was christened Queen Mary, after the then-current queen-consort, Mary of Teck.

Queen Mary proved to be a speed queen, vying for the Blue Riband with her closest competitor, the French Line’s Normandie.  Queen Mary was also supposed to be a record-breaker in size, but the French, sensing that the British were about to eclipse them, brought Normandie into drydock to make her larger than her British rival.

World War II broke out in 1939, and Queen Mary was called up for war service, as was her predecessor, Aquitania.  Queen Mary‘s sister, Hull 552, later named Queen Elizabeth, would join them in 1940, making her maiden voyage across the battlefield of the Atlantic in secret.  The Queens would serve as troop transports for the British Empire for the duration of the war.  Winston Churchill estimated that the two Queens helped to shorten the war by at least a year.

At the end of the war, Cunard regained its position as the largest Atlantic passenger line.  In 1947 Cunard purchased White Star’s shares of Cunard-White Star, and in 1950 the name reverted to the Cunard Line.  Also in 1950, Cunard decommissioned Aquitania, which had been in service since 1914, and was then the longest-serving Atlantic passenger liner.

Through the mid 1950s, Cunard operated twelve ships to the United States and Canada, including the last White Star ships Britannic and Georgic.  The advent of jet airliners made transatlantic passenger ships increasingly unprofitable, despite Cunard’s new advertising campaign, “Getting there is half the fun.”

Cunard withdrew from year round service in 1968 to focus on cruising and summer transatlantic voyages for vacationers.  The Queens, which were built for the cold North Atlantic, were not suited for cruising and were replaced by the Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) in 1967, a ship which was specifically designed for this dual role.  QE2 would be a popular ship and remain in service until 2008, succeeding Aquitania as the longest-serving passenger ship.

In 1998 Cunard was acquired by the Carnival Corporation, infusing the company with capital to build a successor ship to the QE2.  Her successor, the Queen Mary 2 (QM2) made her maiden voyage in 2004 and was, at the time, the largest passenger ship ever built.  While the QM2 no longer holds onto this title, she remains the only passenger ship to regularly cross the Atlantic.  Cunard also operates the Queen Victoria (QV) and the Queen Elizabeth (QE) as cruising-specific ships.

Cunard today (outside link): http://www.cunard.com

About the Author