February 25, 2015
As we continue to look back on our 175 year history, Cunard Historian Michael Gallagher talks about our history from the 1900s to the present day.
1902 saw the virtually unnoticed launch on the Tyne of a minor Cunarder destined for the Mediterranean trade – and also destined to become one of the most famous ships of all time. She was the 13,600-ton Carpathia which, in 1912, achieved immortality under the command of Captain Arthur Rostron when she sped through icefields in the night, without the benefit of modern radar and at a speed greater than she was supposedly capably of, to rescue all the survivors of the Titanic. Captain Rostron, later Commodore of the Cunard fleet, master of the Queen Mary, and knighted by the King, remarked later that a hand greater than his own guided the little ship that night. In all seven Cunard Commodores have been knighted – an honour no other company can match.
But that was glory yet to come; at the same time as Carpathia was entering service Cunard was looking none too glorious, battered as the company’s ageing transatlantic fleet was by ferocious competition from the Germans and Americans. However, Cunard’s fight back led to the introduction of three of the company’s most famous ships – Lusitania, Mauretania and Aquitania. These were the first ‘floating palaces’ in the Cunard fleet – palaces which moved at unprecendented speed. The Mauretania held the Blue Riband for 22 years.
The interwar years, bolstered by the addition to the fleet as part of war reparations the former German vessel Imperator, renamed Berengaria, were successful and lucrative for Cunard – so much so that the company failed to notice the significance of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927. Nonetheless, the first real move from reliance on transatlantic revenues was made when, in 1922, Laconia undertook the first-ever World Cruise.
Cunard did not set out to create in 1928 what King George V called “the stateliest ship now in being”, and nor did it intend to give birth to a ship which her last Master, Captain John Treasure Jones, said was “the nearest ship ever to be a living being”.
What would become Queen Mary would symbolise the emergence of Great Britain out of the Great Depression and when Queen Mary, wife of King George V, became the first monarch to launch a merchant ship, a job which she accomplished with a bottle of Australian wine rather than the traditional French champagne, millions of the King’s subjects heard his wife’s voice for the very first time.
Queen Mary would be joined eventually by Queen Elizabeth and the real Golden Age of transatlantic travel would begin in the late 1940s as the biggest and fastest ships on the Atlantic did what they were built to do. This was the era of film stars and royalty being photographed by hundreds of press photographers as they stepped ashore in Southampton or New York. But in 1958 the ghost of that Lindbergh flight caught up with Cunard, as for the first time, more people crossed the Atlantic by air than by sea. The end was in sight.
A decade after 1957 the company’s fleet was reduced from 12 to two and yet, in the face of all evidence to the contrary and in what seemed to many an act of lunacy equal only to Samuel Cunard’s original madness in establishing the company, the Cunard board – as it pensioned off two transatlantic liners which had been defeated by the jet aircraft – was planning to construct another transatlantic liner.
And so Queen Elizabeth 2, a true transatlantic liner with a service speed of 28.5 knots and a 1.5 inch thick hull, but which, with its ability to navigate both Panama and Suez, could be a cruise ship too, was launched by the Queen in 1967. QE2 would defy the skeptics and become the most famous ship in the world having a career spanning over 39 years and a record unmatched by any other – including sailing over five miles which is further than any other.
After an independent existence lasting 131 years Cunard was acquired by Trafalgar House in 1971 and would spend the next 30 years making the occasional acquisition here and there and investing in a new engine plant for QE2 which today remains the biggest job of its kind ever undertaken.
It was generally thought at that point that QE2 would be the last ever transatlantic liner. When she’s gone, everybody said, there will never be another. How wrong everybody was.
In April 1998 the mighty Carnival Corporation purchased a broken Cunard and to the surprise of many one of the first things they announced was the construction of a new transatlantic liner. When Queen Mary 2 entered service in 2004 she was the largest, longest, tallest, widest and most expensive liner ever built and was joined by Queen Victoria in 2007 and Queen Elizabeth in 2010.
As Cunard’s 175th anniversary approaches, the three largest ships ever built for the company proudly carry the Cunard name and will take that name far into the future.
What Cunard started Cunard will one day finish!