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July 5, 2010

We Are Cunard

Posted in: Guest Stories

Countdown to Queen Elizabeth – 98 days

Quite significantly on the day that marked just one hundred days before our new Queen enters service, Cunard celebrates an important anniversary. Many of you will know Chris Frame from his lectures on board or may be from reading one of his fascinating books as well as his previous Blog on 1 June.

A few weeks ago Chris wrote to me asking if he could prepare a special Blog to pay tribute to this key day in our history. I was delighted to take up his offer, so here he is with a fascinating post:

     Guest Blog

     Chris Frame

     Author and Lecturer


The 4th of July 2010 marks a significant milestone in the history of the Cunard Line; 170 years of transatlantic passenger service. Today, transatlantic services are offered by Queen Mary 2, Cunard’s current flagship. The latest in a long line of iconic liners; Queen Mary 2 maintains the Cunard tradition by being the only true ocean liner operating the transatlantic service.

But what of the other flagships that have graced the Cunard Line in the past 17 decades? I intend to take a quick look at some of the more famous ships that have carried the Cunard flag since Sir Samuel Cunard’s first crossing aboard Britannia, to give a glimpse into what life was like for Cunard over the past 170 years.

R.M.S Britannia was Cunard’s first purpose built transatlantic passenger steamer, and the line’s first flagship. Built in Scotland and designed by naval architect Robert Napier, Britannia was a large ship for her day measuring an impressive 207ft long!

Two giant paddle wheels were powered by a steam engine, while auxiliary sails were used to offer her a maximum speed of 9-knots. This allowed her to complete the crossing in a fortnight. Britannia was built off the back of a British Government subsidy given to Samuel Cunard to transport mail from Britain to the United States and Canada. This is a statue of him in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

As such, the vast majority of space aboard was set aside to carry mail. Machinery to operate the steam engine occupied much of the remaining space, with any leftover areas used to accommodate passengers.

Life aboard Britannia would be considered spartan by today’s standards. Despite being a step up from the sailing packets, it was by no means luxurious. The ship had none of the comforts we are familiar with today, such as en-suite bathrooms, stabilisers and on board entertainment. Passengers entertained themselves as best they could while the crew busied themselves with the operation of the ship, tending to everything from the livestock carried aboard, (there was no refrigeration!), to feeding the boilers.

In an age when man felt he could conquer nature, Sir Samuel Cunard had the foresight to put safety first, and instructed his captains to run their ships in the safest manner possible. While maintaining the schedule was important to Cunard, the safety of his passengers and crew was paramount; an example that is maintained to this day.

Fast forwarding to 1907 and passenger shipping had changed significantly. Ships had grown in size to over 700 ft long. Cunard introduced two behemoths that year, the Lusitania and Mauretania. Lusitania became flagship upon her entrance into service but relinquished the title to her sister ship Mauretania later that same year.

These two Cunarders were fast, and captured the Blue Riband (the award for the fastest crossing) for Cunard Line. Lusitania captured the award first, but was soon outrun by her slightly younger sister. Mauretania held the prize until 1929!

Life aboard Mauretania was extremely different from that experienced aboard Britannia. While the mail service was still maintained, passenger accommodation had grown in size and opulence due to the boom of transatlantic travellers relocating from the old world to the new.

There were three classes of accommodation. Steerage was the lowest grade, consisting mainly of immigrants. While still considered spartan compared to what we experience aboard the current Cunard fleet, at the time, steerage aboard Mauretania was the best in the world. Electric lighting, bunk beds and a dining saloon meant that many steerage passengers were offered better accommodation than they had been used to at home!

A significant step above steerage was Second Class. These passengers could promenade on the outdoor decks and were offered spaces to read and write as well as a pleasantly decorated dining room.

First Class offered the finest of luxury at sea. A two story dining saloon with a domed ceiling created a sense of awe for these wealthy passengers as they enjoyed meals that included caviar and champagne! There was a reading room, a smoking room, a lounge and an expansive promenade deck. Mauretania was the fastest moving palace in the world!

A generation later and Cunard’s aging flagship was the Berengaria. She had started life as the German Flagship Imperator. The pride of Hamburg-Amerika Line, Imperator was a magnificent blend of opulence and grandeur. She had been acquired by Cunard after World War I as reparations for the loss of the Lusitania and despite her foreign heritage she was made the Cunard Line flagship.

However by the 1930’s the current Cunard express liners of Mauretania, Aquitania and Berengaria were beginning to show their age. In 1929 the German Norddeutscher Lloyd line introduced two magnificent new liners, the Bremen and Europa. These ships sported streamlined superstructures giving them a very modern appearance, and with speeds of over 27 knots were able to capture the Blue Riband from Cunard’s Mauretania.

If this wasn’t enough for Cunard to worry about, the German liners were not the only rivals making significant advances, the Italia Line as well as the French Line were also completing new ships all of which would eclipse the current Cunarders.

The answer for Cunard was Hull number 534, which sat unfinished at the famed John Brown Shipyard in Clydebank, a victim of the Great Depression. The giant hulk, over 1,000 ft long, would eventually become the iconic Queen Mary, after Cunard received an injection of desperately needed capital from the British Government. This loan came at a price however, with Cunard being forced to merge with their once rival the White Star Line forming Cunard-White Star.

Queen Mary entered service in 1936. She was a fast ship and successfully won the Blue Riband back from France’s splendid Normandie (possibly the most opulent ship ever built). Queen Mary was an instant success. Less extravagant than her French rival, she succeeded in capturing a loyal following who enjoyed sailing in elegant yet comfortable surroundings.

Circumstances beyond Cunard’s control resulted in Queen Mary holding the title of Flagship for a decade. She was initially to relinquish this title in 1940 with the introduction of her larger sister, Queen Elizabeth. However with the outbreak of World War II both Mary and Elizabeth were requisitioned for use as troop carriers, putting a halt to Cunard’s planned two-ship weekly transatlantic service.

The two Queens performed admirably during the war, transporting thousands of troops, both ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand) as well as Americans (once the United States entered the conflict on the side of the allies) to Europe.

At the end of the war, the Queens were put to work (along with the veteran Aquitania) returning war brides to the United States and Canada. Queen Elizabeth was the first to be returned to Cunard service and after a full refurbishment; she was given her official builder’s sea trials and formally accepted as the new Cunard flagship.

Queen Elizabeth would retain the title for over twenty years, until her retirement in 1968. The Queens proved to be immensely popular ships during the 1940’s and 50’s, however they were no match for the speed and convenience of the jet aircraft, which came of age, when the Boeing 707 made its first transatlantic flight. By the 1960’s passenger shipping was in a dramatic decline.

Not to be dissuaded, Cunard invested in a new flagship. Initially codenamed Q4 (an earlier project – Q3 – had been disbanded); the new Cunard ship sported a dual purpose design which made her suitable for both transatlantic crossings and cruising.

Named by HM the Queen on 20 September, 1967; Queen Elizabeth 2 (better known as QE2) became an international icon. Formally accepted into the Cunard fleet in 1969, QE2 went on to become the world’s most famous ship; sailing further than any other ship and carrying more than 2.5 million passengers over a marvellous 40 year career. QE2 also outlived all Cunarders before her, becoming the longest serving Cunard ship of all time, as well as the longest serving flagship.

With the introduction of Queen Mary 2 in 2003, Cunard had a new monarch to its name. At 151,000 tons, she is the largest Cunard ship ever constructed. She was bestowed the title of Flagship in 2004 after completing a tandem transatlantic crossing with her elder fleet mate QE2.

Her history is still young, but one thing is certain, Queen Mary 2 has already become an international icon, and a fitting holder of the title of Cunard Line Flagship, continuing a tradition begun by Sir Samuel Cunard’s Britannia 170 years ago.

Thank you Chris for such a great guest Blog. What a fitting reminder for all us Cunarders of exactly where we have come from, as we celebrate a company with one of the oldest histories, but with the youngest fleet. You can read more about Chris and his books on his website: -


I’ll be back on Thursday with a Queen Elizabeth breaking news story of the exciting and innovative Entertainment Programme that will feature on our new Queen. Cheers for now, Alastair.

  1. sheila hedderick says:

    Thank you for the great blog Chris, I am a new kid on the block, I have explored Queen Mary in dry dock in LA, cruised on QE2, QVic, twice on QM2 and so looking forward to Q Elizabeth for my next voyage, YES i am hooked on cruising………only the best will do….Cunard…sheila

  2. ShipMaven says:

    Lovely article. I think only Cunard historians would know that RMS Queen Mary was supposed to have been named Queen Victoria…

    My all-time favorite was hull number 552 (John Brown/Clydebank) – RMS Queen Elizabeth. My first voyage on her commenced July 7, 1951 from New York to Cherbourg.

    I sailed QE2 for Cunard’s 150th Anniversary cruise – 16 days round-trip transatlantic and British Isles.

  3. Don McLean says:

    A very interesting blog. we had always wanted to sail on the QE2, but never got the opportunity. I did get an opportunity to go on board the QE2 in Dubai last year, to see the work that is being carried out, to further progress the history of those magnificent vessels. We cannot wait for our trip on the new ship soon, as we made sure we would not miss out on a trip on a new Queen.
    Kind regards,
    Don McLean (Ex Engineer) Ben Line

  4. Val says:

    Very interesting reading!

  5. Beryl Moss says:

    A very interesting blog as it is always nice the read about the history of Cunard. Unfortunately never was able to go on QE2 and felt sad when we stood in Mayflower Park watching her sail down Southampton Water for the last time but life must go on and am looking forward to our cruise next year on Queen Elizabeth.

  6. Lou Anne Busdiekr says:

    Can’t wait for the new QE news.

  7. Peter Lockhart says:

    Thanks for that….as always, very interesting. With Queen Elizabeth now at an advanced stage, can I suggest and hope that her deck surface will be differnet to the material used on QV. Having sailed on QV twice, both in very hot and cold weather conditions, I believe the surface to be dangerous , particularly if wet. It becomes very slippy and hazardous. While I appreciate that from a cost point of view, wood may not be an option, I do think careful consideration shoould be given to this issue. I am aware and have myself had difficulty walking on the exposed decks of QV, when wet.

  8. Another good read there Chris. Well done and thanks!

    On a related subject, Peter Lochart makes a valid point as I too find QV’s ‘plasteak’ decks can be particularly slippery on occasion.



  9. Jan and Cath says:

    What an interesting and informative blog.

  10. Janet Leahy says:

    I would like to ‘talk’ to you about our War Bride Group’s Transatlantic cruise on the Queen Mary 2 that departs New York on April 26, 2011. I am Janet Leahy from Glacier Travel in British Columbia, Canada and the eldest daughter of my English War Bride Mum Joan Reichardt. Thanks Alastair!

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