The Transatlantic Liners

The image “file:///c:/Documents%20and%20Settings/ALEX%20NAUGHTON.OWNER-2TYZC0SV7/My%20Documents/My%20Finest%20Photos/QE2%2040th%20Anniversary%20Visit%20Liverpool%2021st%20Sep%202007%20photo12.JPG” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
RETURN TO THE LOBBY                                                                                                                                                                                                           THE OCEAN LINER VIRTUAL MUSEUM

The age of sail reached its zenith in the 19th and early 20th century with the arrival of the fast clipper ships such as the Cutty Sark which sums up all the speed, style and beauty of ocean sailing.

But around the same time the steam engine was invented. Soon this new technology began to have a major impact on ship design, but mainly in coastal and inland waters. But by the early 19th century this began to change as steam power spread to the oceans. With emigration from Europe to North America soaring in the 1800s, the transatlantic passenger trade was a profitable one for the shipowner, but a sailing ship had to go out on a very long route, heading south to the Azores to pick up the trade winds, then north along the American coast to the main destinations such as New York and Boston. Unlike other oceans the North Atlantic has no islands in the middle, so the voyage would have to be made in a single step, making great demands on the engines of the time. The Savannah, built in New York in 1819, had the honour of being the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, but no attempt was made to set up a regular service, for her owners wanted to sell her in Europe. However, during the crossing she used her engines for only about eight hours – the rest of the voyage was made under sail.

The next major advance came with the Sirius, built in Leith, Scotland, and the Great Western, designed and built in Bristol by British engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Both crossed the Atlantic under steam power alone in 1838. Shipping magnate Samuel Cunard began his regular service from Liverpool to Halifax and Boston in 1840 with the Britannia, and the paddle steamer became an established alternative to the sailing ship on the route.

Soon inventors turned towards the idea of the Archimedes screw as another means of steam propulsion instead of the paddle steamer. Brunel took up the screw idea enthusiastically for his second ship, the Great Britain. Several designs were considered for her propeller, but the one used had six angular blades. The Great Britain was hailed as “the first modern ship”. In addition to being both the first ocean going vessel to be built of iron and to have a screw propeller, she was the largest ship of her day and she also reintroduced the idea of a balanced steering gear in the form of her iron rudder. A central pivot helped balance out the pressure on the surfaces, and made the rudder far easier to turn than a conventional one. The Great Britain was launched in 1843, but like many of Brunel’s projects she was a technological rather than an economic success. For some years, she inspired few imitators, although in 1850 the Inman Line was founded with the transatlantic voyage of the City of Glasgow, another iron screw steamer.

The 19th century saw migrations to the New World on an unprecedented scale, facilitated by the steam liner.

Until the 19th century, each merchant ship was usually owned outright by a number of small investors, or larger ones who spread their capital over several ships. The coming of steam soon caused this to change. The building and operation of steamships required more capital, which was raised by joint stock companies (where capital provided by investors, large or small, is pooled in a common fund). During the mid 1800s, the law became more favourable to joint stock companies in several countries. Another factor driving the trend towards the new style of shipping company was that steamships, being less dependent on the weather, could run to a schedule. It therefore made good commercial sense for several ships to operate together, to maintain a regular service on the route.

The original idea for the shipping line came from the USA. Perhaps influenced by the “lines” that ran regular stagecoach routes, the Black Ball Line offered a fortnightly service between New York and London in 1816, to be followed by several other American companies, exploiting the good sailing qualities of American ships.

By the early 19th century Britain had achieved the commercial supremacy it had pursued over the previous century; and it no longer needed to protect its trade in the same way. The doctrine of laissez-faire, based on “The Wealth of Nations” of 1776 by Scottish economist Adam Smith and widely adopted by politicians suggested that government interference should be kept to a minimum and free trade would encourage competition, to the benefit of all. The Navigation Acts, which had regulated British trade since the 1650s, were largely abolished in 1849, and the requirement to have British crews on British merchant ships ended in 1854. At almost the same time, the government felt it necessary to legislate to ensure that there were qualified officers on each ship, and to pass various regulations for safety at sea. The monopoly of the chartered companies was no longer acceptable, and the East India Company’s monopoly was abolished in 1833. Shipping routes were fully opened to competition.

The British government opened the Post Office packet service, the world’s largest mail service, to private enterprise (the term “packet” is derived from packets of mail”). A mail contract demanded a regular service in good time. It guaranteed a certain amount of revenue on a shipping route, which could be supplemented by carrying passengers and freight, but penalties for late delivery were severe. In 1839, Samuel Cunard , who had won the transatlantic contract, agreed to pay £500 for every 12 hours his ships were late. In 1837 Arthur Anderson set up a steamship service between Falmouth and the ports of Spain and Portugal. His Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) was founded in 1840 and soon extended its services to India, with passengers travelling overland across the Isthmus of Suez, which separated the Mediterranean Sea from the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean beyond.

In a separate development, shipowners began to use special flags, their house flags, to identify their ships. This began at the Lloyds station near Liverpool in 1771, which would hoist a signal to alert an owner that his ship was about to arrive in port, and house flags became common during the Napoleonic Wars. They were virtually universal by the mid 19th century, and in 1882 Lloyds issued the first edition of its “Book of House Flags”. The design and colours of the house flag had even more relevance to steamship lines when they began to apply it to their funnels, and the funnel attained great symbolism by the end of the 19th century. Alfred Holt & Company, based in Liverpool, was commonly known as the Blue Funnel Line and had one of the strongest identities of any cargo shipping company. The distinctive red funnels with black bands of Cunard Line became a favourite marketing tool in the company’s advertisements.

By the second half of the 19th century, the British steam shipping lines had lost some of their dominance. The largest German line, Hamburg Amerika, started in the transatlantic trade in 1847, and by the 1880s it was building some of the largest ships in the world. The other great German company, Norddeutscher Lloyd, began in 1856 with operations from Germany to Hull and London. In the 1860s and 1870s, it expanded with services to the USA. The Dutch line Holland America was founded in 1873 under a different name. By its 25th anniversary, it had carried 90,000 cabin and 400,000 steerage passengers to the USA, as well as five million tons of cargo, mostly the traditional Dutch exports of flower bulbs, gin and herring. The French Messageries Maritime grew out of the state postal service in 1835 and took the form of a major shipping line, sponsored by Emperor Napoleon III, in 1853. Its horizons expanded in 1857, when it took on the main services from Bordeaux to Brazil and the River Plate. By 1900 it had 60 ships and was the sixth largest in the world.

The first American shipping lines were less successful than their European competitors. In 1848, Edward Knight Collins founded the Collins Line, and two years later it began transatlantic services supported by US government subsidies. His five ships included the Atlantic and Pacific, larger than any Cunard liners, and faster, more comfortable, and better furnished. But Collins proved to be a better showman than businessman, and his ships were too expensive to run. After the Arctic sank in 1854, then the Pacific in 1856, the company was wound up leaving the North Atlantic steam trade under British domination for several decades to come.

In the last decades of the 19th century, the transatlantic liner became a measure of the technological progress and national prestige. There was a continuous growth in size from 1888, with the launch of the Inman & International Steamship Company’s City of New York and City of Paris, which were the first liners with twin screws and reduced the voyage time to less than six days. The rising German Empire could not ignore the possibilities of the transatlantic route, especially as up to a million of its citizens were emigrating every decade.

The Germans entered the transatlantic trade on a big scale after 1889, when Kaiser Wilhelm II was shown around the aptly named British White Star liner Teutonic. “We must have some of these” he is reported to have said, for German liners up to that time, although numerous, were comparatively small and ill equipped. Norddeutscher Lloyd of Bremen ordered the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse from the Vulcan Yard at Stettin. She was designed to be the largest and most powerful ship in the world, and two months after her maiden voyage in September 1897 she became the first German ship to win the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, with an average speed of 22.27 knots. The previous record holder was the British liner Lucania, of Cunard Line. However, the steam turbine engine invented by the British industrialist Charles Parsons appeared in the same year, ensuring that a new phase in the transatlantic race would begin early in the 20th century.

In 1900, the Blue Riband was captured by the Deutschland, owned by Hamburg Amerika, which  with 73 ships was the largest shipping line in the world. Norddeutscher Lloyd was second largest, and the British India Steam Navigation Company and P&O were third and fourth. However, Britain retained its lead as the world’s largest shipping nation, with nearly 14 million tons belonging to Britain and its colonies, compared with 2 million each for the USA and Germany. Britain still controlled over half the world’s shipping tonnage. By the end of the 19th century, the liners had become the largest ships in the world and the object of intense international competition in speed and comfort.

After intense competition between steamship companies in the late 19th century, the next leap forward for the Atlantic liner came with Cunard Line’s Lusitania and her sister Mauretania, which were the product of rivalries between companies from different countries to build larger, faster and more luxurious ships. German liners boomed after the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse won the Blue Riband in 1897, and meanwhile the previously British White Star Line was coming increasingly under American ownership. In 1903, Cunard got a loan of £2.6 million from the British government towards the building costs of two new ships, together with an annual mail subsidy of £75,000. In return, the Mauretania and Lusitania would be manned largely by British naval reservists and be capable of being armed and made available to the Royal Navy in time of war. At nearly 32,000 tons, they were more than 30% bigger than their nearest competitor, the Norddeutscher Lloyd Line’s Kronprincessen Cecilie of 1907, named after the Kaiser’s daughter in law. They were the first liners to be fitted with the new turbine engines, giving a speed of 25 knots compared with 23 knots for the fastest ships with triple or quadruple expansion engines. Their first class accommodation was promoted as the last word in seagoing luxury. In addition to 563 first class passengers, the Mauretania carried 464 second class and 1,138 third class passengers with a crew of 69 seamen and officers, 393 engineers and stokers, and 476 cabin staff. The Lusitania won the Blue Riband back from Germany on her second outbound voyage in October 1907, taking 4 days, 19 hours, and 52 minutes to make the crossing. It took the Mauretania until 1909 to beat that record, but she went on to hold the Blue Riband for 20 years.

In the early 1900s, ships began to be fitted with wireless telegraphs, the invention of Guglielmo Marconi. On 24th January 1909, the wireless proved its worth to shipping when the Italian steamer Florida collided with the White Star liner Republic in a thick fog about 275 km (170 miles) east of New York. The Republic’s Marconi wireless operator Jack Binns sent the distress signal CQD (“come quick, danger”) which was received by the White Star liner Baltic. The Republic sank, but 1,700 lives were saved. Marconi enjoyed further success in July 1910, when the captain of the westward bound Montrose asked his Marconi operator to telegraph Scotland Yard with the message that he suspected that the London cellar murderer Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen was among the saloon passengers onboard. Crippen and his accomplice were arrested by a detective when the Montrose docked in Montreal.

Of course the building of the Lusitania and Mauretania did not go unnoticed by Cunard’s rivals. The White Star Line launched the Olympic in 1910 and the ill fated Titanic in 1912, increasing tonnage by 40%, although the new ships were slower and more economical than the Cunard liners. The Germans responded with the Hamburg Amerika Line’s Imperator, launched in 1912. At almost 52,000 tons, she was nearly 6000 tons heavier than the Titanic (although her colossal eagle figurehead must have contributed to the load). Her sister ship, the Vaterland of 1914, had greater watertight subdivision of the hull in response to the Titanic disaster and needed increased beam, giving her a tonnage of 54,300, the largest yet.

Compagnie Generale Transatlantique (CGT French Line) entered the race in 1912 with its first liner, the France. At 23,666 tons, she was small by the latest standards, but as stylish as one would expect from her origins. Her first class rooms were decorated in the manner of Louis XIV and Moorish palaces.

The last of the great prewar liners made her maiden voyage on the 30th May 1914. Cunard’s Aquitania was neither larger nor faster than her predecessors, but built on their experience. She was beautifully proportioned and fitted, with first class lounges in the style of the Painted Hall at Greenwich, a French chateau, and the interiors of Scottish architect Robert Adam. She also had enough lifeboats for all her 3,230 passengers and 972 crew.

In 1921, the USA restricted immigration by the Quota Acts. The great liners no longer carried large numbers of desperately poor immigrants in steerage and were free to take on a new a glamorous image. Britain’s Cunard Line had specialised in cheap emigrant passages and now had to reinvent itself. Existing liners, such as the Mauretania of 1907, were reconfigured for the new market, with the old steerage accommodation converted to third class for new style tourists. Even the first class market suffered as the numbers of very rich declined in the Great Depression. But in a world traumatized by the First World War, pleasure for its own sake found a ready market, and transatlantic liners offered the enjoyable experience of a voyage filled with dances and games. Germany was temporarily eliminated from the transatlantic market in 1918, and its best ships, including the great Vaterland and Kaiser Wilhelm II, were confiscated as war reparations. The most famous new German liner of the 1920s, Norddeutscher Lloyd’s Bremen of 1929, was built for speed (it could reach 27 knots) and had a new style of décor, which followed the lines of the ship. She took the Blue Riband from the Mauretania on her maiden voyage, crossing the Atlantic in 4 days, 17 hours, and 42 minutes, only to lose it to her sister, Europa, in April 1930.

The Italia Line’s Rex was the only Italian ship ever to hold the Blue Riband, steaming from Gibraltar across the Atlantic at 28.92 knots in August 1933, a full knot faster than the new record set by the Europa the month before. The Rex and her elegant stablemate, the Conte di Savoia, did much to popularize first class travel to the Mediterranean among Americans.

After the Quota Acts, the USA took little interest in the transatlantic trade, which left Britain and France as the main rivals on the North Atlantic route. With the market reduced, few new liners were needed in the 1920s, but by the end of the decade the older ships were deteriorating. The French Line’s Ile de France of 1927 was noted for the catapult used to launch a seaplane during the latter part of the voyage, saving a day with mail deliveries. New ships had oil fired engines to save labour.  Funnels became shorter and less numerous, although they still featured in advertising as company symbols.

In Britain, a new Cunard liner of 1930 became a symbol of hope and glamour in the squalor of the depression. It was ordered to be built at John Brown’s yard in Clydebank, Glasgow, Scotland in a town that had massive unemployment. The new ship, No 534 in the yard’s books, was already towering over the slums created in the 19th century boom when, in December 1931, work was suspended. The government, alarmed at the unemployment situation on Clydeside, forced a merger between the historic rivals Cunard and White Star, offering a subsidy of £9.5 million as an inducement. When work resumed at Clydebank in April 1934, the town was hung with flags, and pipers played as the workers returned to the yard. She was launched by Queen Mary in 1935 and was named after her. Traditional in her design but with more powerful engines, the Queen Mary took the Blue Riband from the Normandie in August 1936. For the next three years the Blue Riband passed back and forth between the two great liners as each strove to outdo the other, only for the rivalry to cease with the advent of the Second World War.

After the Second World War the great liners returned to their peacetime trades soon after 1945, and for a time they boomed. The US Government subsidized the building of the United States, whose top speed was a state secret, as she was intended to double as a troop carrier in the event of war.

The 1950s stylistically belonged to the Italians and to a lesser degree the Americans. The Italian “Lido Life” with its emphasis on daytime informality and evening elegance was enjoyed amid settings both soothing and sybaritic (Gustavo Pulitzer’s Cristoforo Colombo and Augustus) and bold and daring (Gio Ponti’s Andrea Doria and Guilio Cesare) employing modern materials such as structural glass bulkheading, sculptured ceilings and anodised aluminium. The Americans created “American living at Sea” a seagoing interpretation of the American high life of modern conveniences, gadgets and high tech solutions exemplified in Henry Dreyfuss’ Constitution and Independence, George Sharp’s Del Norte, Del Sud and Del Rio and Raymond Loewy’s Brasil and Argentina.

The last great era of the ocean liner, the 1960s, saw modern design at sea reach a plateau with such notable vessels as Leonardo da Vinci (1960) of Italia Line, Shalom (1964 of Zim Line, Israel), Sagafjord (1965) of Norwegian America Line and Eugenio C. (1966) of Costa Line. The restraints of fireproofing barely showed in their crisply modern yet elegant interiors which complemented their pleasing profiles. Even France (1962), much maligned for her interiors at the time (more out of nostalgia for the famous Normandie than anything else), is seen in a new, more appreciative light today and her exterior was even sleeker than her famous predecessor.

The 1960s ended with the last true ocean liner of the 20th century, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth 2. The first ocean liner to be known by an abbreviation, the QE2 was as well designed and successful as any ocean liners built to date. She owed her snappy exterior blend of traditional and modern to James Gardner whilst her swinging 60s interior was the inspiration of a talented team led by Dennis Lennon. The result was an icon of the era every bit as stylish as Normandie was of the 1930s. It is a shame that today, whilst the ship thrives after successive rebuildings, refits and re-engining, few of her original interiors remain. A notable loss is her original Queen’s Room interior.

Back on the Atlantic route, by the 1950s transatlantic air services were now available on piston engined planes, but the journey took about 12 hours. The British Comet jet airliner was too small and its range too limited to make a significant impact on the liner business. But in 1958 the picture change completely with the introduction of the American Boeing 707 that could cross the Atlantic in six or seven hours – a short enough flight for the passengers to accept the cramped conditions. Within a year more passengers were crossing the Atlantic by air than by sea. Regular transatlantic ocean liner services died out in 1973, although some longer distance trades lasted slightly longer. Fortunately the end of the old passenger liners coincided with the great postwar leisure boom and the liners took to cruising. Cruising was invented in the 1830s by Arthur Anderson, founder of P&O, but took time to become widespread. In the late 1880s, two ships offered cruises in Norwegian waters and Mediterranean cruises began soon afterwards. This set the pattern for the future – most cruise passengers prefer warm climates, but there is a substantial market for much colder areas, such as Alaska. Cruising flourished in the 1920s and 30s, although it still had an image of great luxury.

Despite this the QE2 continued the traditional of the transatlantic service single handed through the 1970s, 80s and 90s into the 21st century. However the true ocean liner is not dead yet, although it is has greatly declined and diminished in numbers, as a new updated breed of ocean liner has been born continuing this long and distinguished pedigree in the shape of Cunard’s new Queen Mary 2 a true transatlantic ocean liner for the 21st century (although designed with the modern principles like today’s cruise liners but reflecting the style and elegance of the golden age of the ocean liner) so the story of the ocean liner continues. 

The RMS Queen Mary 2 is the first true transatlantic ocean liner to be built in over 30 years since the QE2 in 1967. She was built at the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard at St Navaire, France for Cunard Line for service on their traditional transatlantic liner route from Southampton to New York. She entered service on this route and cruising in 2004 taking over the transatlantic role from her predecessor the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2. Thus the ocean liner continues to evolve into the future.

        (c) The AJN Transport Britain Collection 2008                                                                                                                                                                                 A Edward Elliott