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Britannia - Pioneer Transatlantic Vessel - The Story of the Cunard Line

The first voyage of the Britannia (Shown Below), the pioneer vessel of the Cunard fleet, in 1840, deserves in many respects to rank not only as one of the great events of the Nineteenth Century, but also as one of the epoch-marking incidents in the history of civilization. It signalized the dawn of that organized ocean travel of which there have been since such mighty developments.

Rather more than a score of years previously, the Savannah, an unpretentious steamship of some 350 tons burthen, made an adventurous passage from Savannah to Liverpool, but she did not rely solely upon her paddle wheels ; indeed, she trusted entirely to her sails when the weather was " dirty."

The First Cunarder: The Britannia

The First Cunarder: The Britannia

It was not, however, until the 4th of April, 1838, that any further steam venture of the kind was made. On that date the Sirius left London for New York, with ninety-four passengers aboard, and she was followed from Bristol four days later by the more historic Great Western -- the first steam vessel specifically built for the Atlantic passage.

The Great Western did her journey in fifteen days--in two days less than the Sirius--and with still 200 tons of coal left in her bunkers. This result was regarded as passing wonderful, for had not one of the greatest scientific men of the time " proved " to the satisfaction of most of the world that no steamer could carry coal enough to feed her fires for a single trip across the Atlantic ?

Amongst the few skeptics as to the truth of this pronouncement was Mr. Samuel Cunard, who for several years previously had quietly been nursing a scheme for organizing a regular. service of Trans-Atlantic mail steamers.

Mr. Cunard, who was once described during the fifties as being "a small, grey-haired man of quiet manners, and not overflowing speech," was born in 1787, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where his father, a Philadelphia merchant, had settled.

Mr. Samuel Cunard had been engaged in conducting the mail service between Boston, Newfoundland and Bermuda, and when the British Government intimated their disposition to transfer the carrying of the mails between Liverpool, Halifax, Boston and Quebec from the old Government " coffin brigs," as they were irreverently called, whose passage averaged six or eight weeks, to a steam packet service, if a suitable tender were submitted, he thought the time had arrived for action.

Diagram showing the Growth in Dimensions of the Cunard Liners.

Diagram showing the Growth in Dimensions of the Cunard Liners from 1840-1900.

The merchants and ship owners of Halifax, however, did not look with favor upon his scheme, and so he crossed over to England, where he was fortunate enough to become acquainted with Mr. Robert Napier, famous as a Clyde engineer and shipbuilder, and through him with Mr. George Burns, of Glasgow, and Mr. David Maclver, of Liverpool, both of them well-known ship owners engaged in the coasting trade between England, Scotland and Ireland.

A few days later a scheme was developed and a capital of £270,000 subscribed, while shortly afterwards a seven years' contract between the British Government, on the one hand, and Messrs. Samuel Cunard, George Burns, and David Maclver (whose portraits appear on page 4), on the other, was signed, and the Cunard Line established, the title at first selected being "

The British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company." Meanwhile, Mr. Cunard opened an office in London, Mr. Burns presided at the headquarters of the Company, which were located in Glasgow, and Mr. Maclver remained in Liverpool, there to prepare for the inauguration of the service.

The policy of the Company from the beginning was the sound one, with which the fortunes of the Cunard Line have ever since been identified, that in the building and equipment of their ships and in their manning and service, no expense should be spared in securing the best value obtainable, and in maintaining the highest possible standard.

The service was to commence with four steamers, and the Admiralty was to subsidize the Company to the extent of £81,000 a year. The keels of four wooden paddle steamers--the Britannia, Acadia, Caledonia and Columbia--were promptly laid down, and their building marked a noteworthy achievement in the naval architecture of that period.

It is interesting, by way of contrast with the vastly greater things of to-day, to glance at the dimensions of the Britannia, of which an illustration appears above. The good ship measured 207 feet long by 34 feet 4 inches broad by 24 feet 4 inches deep. She was 1,154 tons burthen, and her engines were of 740 indicated horse power. Her speed average was 8 1/2 knots per hour on a consumption of 38 tons of coal per day. The three other vessels were practically identical in their dimensions and equipment with the Britannia.

It was on " Independence Day," July 4th, 1840, that the Britannia left her moorings in the Mersey on her pioneer voyage and with 63 passengers on board, amidst the jubilations of an immense concourse of people. The crossing of the Atlantic was safely accomplished in 14 days 8 hours, and the arrival of the vessel in Boston Harbor was the signal for an almost frantic outburst of enthusiasm on the part of the inhabitants of " the Hub of the Universe."

Salutes were fired and a public banquet held, and Mr. Cunard, who accompanied the Britannia on her maiden trip, was made the hero of the moment. It is recorded, indeed, that within twenty-four hours of his landing on American soil, he was made the recipient of as many as 1,800 separate invitations to dinner--probably a record in that form of gastronomic honor which proved an embarras des richesses ('embarrassment of riches') to the modest but enterprising ship owner.

The Story of the Cunard Line : Steamship Line History (1902)

 

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