Browse The Gjenvick-Gjønvik Archives Home Page

History of the Cunard Line through 1910

Cunard Line. - This company derives its name from Samuel Cunard of Halifax, Nova Scotia, an owner of sailing vessels trading from Boston and Newfoundland to Bermuda. He first conceived the idea of a regular despatch of royal mail steamships across the Atlantic, to take the place of the government brigs, which often took six or seven weeks in the transport of mails. This idea he realized with the help of Mr George Burns of Glasgow and Mr David Maclver of Liverpool.

On the 4th of July 1840 the first Cunarder, the Britannia, started on her voyage across the Atlantic with sixty-three passengers, landing them at Boston in a fortnight. The experiment of using the screw for the Atlantic service was made with several cargo steamers in the early 'fifties, and the first Cunard screw steamer for the mail line made her debut in 1862. This was the China, the gross tonnage of which was 2 539, her i.h.p. 2250, and her average speed 13.9 knots.

In 1870 the Cunard Company first fitted compound engines to their steamship Batavia, and in 1881 the Servia, the first steel vessel in the service, was the pioneer of the larger type which constitutes the present express fleet.

Since 1840 the Cunard Company has been under contract with the British government for a mail service. At the present time the contract is for a weekly mail to the United States, via Liverpool and New York. The British post office, however, only pays its contractors for the weight of mails actually carried, and reserves the right to send specially addressed letters by foreign ships.

The company's services also include a passenger line to Boston, and frequent despatches to Mediterranean and Levant ports as well as a weekly steamer to Havre, and a passenger service from the Mediterranean to New York. In October 1902, as a result of the formation of the Morgan Shipping Trust, the British government made a new arrangement with the Cunard Line, involving the loan at 21% of the capital for building two new fast steamers, besides a yearly subsidy of £150,000 for twenty years.

The company showed its confidence in the turbine system - then in its infancy - by adopting this principle for these two vessels, the largest and fastest at that time contemplated. The advance in size and power of Atlantic steamships is evidenced by the following comparison Elder, Dempster & Co. - The remarkable progress of this company, and of the undertakings connected with it, was largely due to the activity of the late Sir Alfred Jones.

The oldest business under its management is the African Steamship Company, which was incorporated by royal charter in the year 1852 for the purpose of trading with West African ports. It received a subvention of £30,000 per annum for a monthly mail to the Gold Coast, and began its work with an unambitious little fleet of four 700-ton vessels. These were at first, however, equal to all the traffic which the trade could offer them.

As time went on the number and size of the vessels employed was increased. In 1869 such progress had been made that it appeared worth while to start an opposition line under the name of the British and African Steam Navigation Company. This was at first a Glasgow venture, much in the same way as the old concern had made its headquarters in London. But Liverpool has long been the centre of the West African trade, and both companies practically transferred their business thither.

In the year 1883 the British & African Company, which was the first of the two to fall under the management of Messrs Elder, Dempster & Company, became a limited company, and not long afterwards the two rivals arrived at a working arrangement whereby their sailings - at that time about three times a fortnight - were worked into one another.

The Canary Islands, where the West African steamers called on their voyages, were then becoming known as a resort for tourists and invalids, and the issue of tickets available by either line was commenced for their convenience. The development of the cultivation of the banana for the English market was also begun to be encouraged by the two steamship companies.

But it was in the month of August 1891 that the great movement by the Elder-Dempster Company was made public. It was then announced that the firm had assumed the management of the African Company. The two concerns were, and are, continued as distinct organizations, but they naturally work very closely together.

The African Company soon began to break fresh ground, building not only superior vessels for the improving West African service, but also constructing large cargo vessels for the general Atlantic trade. These were soon engaged in the trade between the Mersey and the St Lawrence on the one hand, and between Liverpool and the southern ports of the United States on the other.

Meanwhile the development of the possibilities of West Africa and of the Canary Islands was not neglected. Various undertakings, not usually considered part of a shipowner's work, were inaugurated. These included a bank, founded in 1894, for the accommodation of West African traders, oil-mills in Liverpool, where the palm kernels so largely consigned from the coast might be dealt with, and a hotel at Grand Canary for the convenience of the tourist; while, to ensure the disposal of the bananas which their companies brought to England, a fruit brokerage business was opened in Covent Garden.

Having already, as has been seen, a footing in the Canadian trade, they began the restoration of the Atlantic trade to Bristol, by giving it a service of steamships to the St Lawrence, employing for the purpose vessels of as great size as their docks could accommodate.

At the beginning of 1899 they further strengthened their connexion with the nearest British colony by the purchase, from the liquidator of the insolent Canada Shipping Company, of the name, house-flag and remains of the old Beaver Line. A new fleet for this service was at once put in hand, a fair representative of the ships being the twin-screw " Lake Erie," a vessel of 7550 tons gross register, built in 1900 by Messrs Barclay, Curie & Co. of Glasgow, which did good work - with many other Elder Dempster steamers - in the transport service during the Boer War.

The Canadian steamers were however in 1903 transferred to the Canadian Pacific railway. At the beginning of the 10th century the firm began trading with the West Indies. By arrangement with the colonial office, for an annual subsidy of £40,000, the " Direct " service of fortnightly steamships was started with the sailing from Avonmouth of the then newly built " Port Morant " in February 1901.

The steamships of the new line have good passenger accommodation and hotels were acquired in Jamaica to provide accommodation for those who wished to visit the West Indies under the pew management. This provision for tourists was a novel feature. The increase, at once absolute and comparative, in the tonnage of the Elder-Dempster fleet has been very remarkable.

On the death of Sir Alfred Jones a limited company was established under the direction of Lord Pirrie, of the great ship-building firm of Harland & Wolff, and of Sir Owen Philipps, chairman of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, to carry on the Elder-Dempster Company and take over the various interests concerned.

The vessels of the West African lines ply as well from Hamburg and other North Sea continental ports as from Liverpool, while closely connected with the firm, though sailing its vessels under the Belgian flag, is the Compagnie Beige Maritime du Congo, which runs a service from Antwerp to West African ports.

Return to Top of Page

Cunard Line | GG Archives

Other Historical Documents

Abstract of Log

Letters by Passengers

Ship Histories

Main Index to Cunard Line Collection