Operating a fleet of three elegant ships – the Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria and flagship Queen Mary 2 – Cunard is a line which prides itself on offering a classic cruising experience, evoking the days of when a romantic and adventurous transatlantic crossing was the preserve of the privileged few. Though the line’s vessels are designed to be reminiscent of the classic ocean liners of days gone by, they are equipped with all the state-of-the art facilities which today’s modern cruisers have become familiar with.
This dedication to capturing the spirit of cruising’s golden age is perhaps not surprising when you consider Cunard’s long and distinguished history and though the line has been an established feature in the north Atlantic for over a century, it’s history goes back even further.
In 1839, British Canadian shipping magnate Samuel Cunard was awarded the first British transatlantic steamship mail contract, allowing mail to be delivered over the Atlantic via the Liverpool-Halifax-Boston route. The very next year, he founded the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company, which would go on to operate a fleet of four ocean-going paddle steamers dedicated to helping to ensure that the mail was delivered on time. Perhaps this dedication to aiding a speedy delivery was why Cunard held the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic voyage for most of the next 30 years!
Come 1879, it was time for a snappier name for the company and a re-organisation too, as its rivals White Star Line and Inman Line had started to disappear over the horizon. Thus, Cunard Streamship Company Ltd was born. White Star Line, however, upped its game by joining the American-owned International Mercantile Marine Co in 1902, prompting Cunard to look for help. It found this in the form of the British Government, which provided loans to enable the line to build a pair of super-liners. These vessels are remembered largely for different reasons. Mauretania held the Blue Riband for 20 years, while her sister vessel Lusitania is most famous for being torpedoed and sunk by German U-Boat U-20 during the First World War; an act which breached international Cruiser Rules and influenced the US in its decision to enter the conflict.
The 1920’s saw the advent of rival lines from other countries such as Germany, Italy and France and also the Great Depression, which of course affected Cunard much as it did every other company at the time. New cruise lines and necessary belt-tightening signalled a new era of cruising, where lines had to adapt to survive and Cunard found itself merging with its rival White Star Line to form Cunard White Star Ltd in 1934. It was however, able to eventually buy White Star’s share entirely and in 1950, Cunard Line was born.
By the late 1950s the advent of air travel saw Cunard reduce its fleet and by the late 1960s the line was concentrating its business more on transatlantic holiday cruises. 1969 saw the maiden voyage of the line’s most famous vessel, the legendary Queen Elizabeth II, which stayed in service for almost 40 years. Though it continued to operate both shipping and passenger services, the line sold its last cargo ship in 1996 and was acquired by the Carnival Corporation in 1998. Today, as the only shipping company to operate a scheduled passenger service between Europe and North America, Cunard is a company which remains true to the roots it put down 175 years ago.
By Simon Brotherton