February 23, 2015
Cunard Historian, Michael Gallagher talks about the story of Samuel Cunard as we look back on our 175 year history.
The oddest thing about the founding of Cunard in 1839 is that the company was ever formed by a man like Samuel Cunard at all. The gamble, the challenge, the uncertainty, the sheer modernity of it all would have sat well with a man like Brunel, but not with Samuel Cunard. To begin with, a Canadian of American parentage does not seem the classic candidate to establish a British icon. And a man so unremittingly prudent, conservative, cautious, austere – and, let’s face it, old – equally doesn’t seem the man to take such huge economic risks or to push the edges of known technology that the founding of the company entailed.
By the time he came to set up the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, as Cunard’s company was originally known, Samuel Cunard was already a prosperous businessman and significant figure in Nova Scotia. He was comfortably settled, with his children around him, a comfortable retirement in the cosy glow of local esteem seemed to lie ahead rather than the creation of a commercial revolution.
Cunard gambled everything he had to set up, 3,000 miles from home, a highly speculative and enormously risky venture uncomfortably close to the forefront of known technology. To do it, he even uprooted himself from his native Nova Scotia and took up residence in London. It all seems markedly out of character with everything he’d done before, and with everything he did afterwards when the company settled down to be a singularly cautious and conservative company in the mould of the founder.
What stimulated Cunard’s interest in establishing an entirely revolutionary transatlantic steamship service a mere two years after the first successful crossing by steam was an advertisement which appeared in The Times. The advert, placed by the British Admiralty – at that time responsible for carrying the Royal Mail overseas – invited tenders for the provision of a timetabled steamship service between Britain and North America to carry the Royal Mail. A contract of £55,000 a year was offered. The spur for the Admiralty’s apparent generosity was the grotesquely vulnerable service provided for the mail by sailing ships; the journey times were ‘flexible’, with a transatlantic crossing lasting for six weeks, and with no fixed times of departure or arrival. So it was never known when the mail would arrive – or, since so many sailing ships foundered, whether it would arrive at all. What the Admiralty wanted, in line with the thrusting new technology of the Victorian age, was a maritime extension of the brand new timetabled railways on land.
Unable to find Canadian partners for what must have seemed a foolhardy venture, Cunard submitted his successful bid beyond the Admiralty’s deadline, without sufficient finance, with no steamships and with very little knowledge of what, technically, was required. His bid was successful despite all this because, unlike his competitors whose tenders told the Admiralty what they should have rather than bid on the basis of what was asked for. Cunard’s bid – like the man – was austere and straightforward. He offered simply to provide the required service for the sum offered. He then went on to sign a contract with potentially ruinous clauses – £15,000 payable for any cancelled sailing, and £500 for each day a ship was late. What madness was this?
Nonetheless, Cunard found his financial backing in Scotland and Liverpool, and after having ordered four ships – each twice as big as he’d originally intended – renegotiated the contract, from a position of strength, to be marginally more favourable.
Cunard’s first ship, the 1,156-ton Britannia left Liverpool on 4 July 1840 with Cunard himself on board, and arrived on schedule in Halifax just ten days later. Within a year Britannia and her three sister ships were providing a timetabled weekly steamship service across the Atlantic – the first ever.
Cunard himself made safety his priority – and to this day Cunard has never been responsible for the loss of a single passenger or a single mailbag on the Atlantic run.
Cunard’s conservative nature enabled his company to see off rivals and to take a measured and steady approach when it came to the introduction of new technology.
Within a few decades the importance of the mail contract was dwindling as emigration became Cunard’s next guarantee of prosperity. Between 1860 and 1900 14 million people emigrated from Europe to the United States; of those, 4.5 million passed through Liverpool; and of those, half made the voyage to America with Cunard.
In our next post, Michael talks about the next 115 years, from the Carpathia to the present day. Find out more about our history and watch our timeline video by clicking here.