The Cunard Line


The Britannia of 1840. (J. Kent Layton Collection)

The Cunard Line


Samuel Cunard, founder of the Cunard Company. (J. Kent Layton Collection)

Originally called the British and North American Steam Packet Company, this legendary steamship line was founded by a Halifax, N.S. gentleman named Samuel Cunard. The company’s name was soon shortened to simply Cunard Company, in honor of its founder. Cunard’s first ship, the Britannia, made her maiden voyage in 1840. It was one of the first regular steamship lines to be inaugurated on the Atlantic trade. Despite competition from other companies – Collins, White Star, Hamburg-Amerika, French, and others – Cunard thrived on its reputation for reliability and safety. Their motto was, “We never lost a life.”

Information on some of Cunard’s most important ships, 1840-1906:
Ship Name Year Length (Moulded) Breadth (Moulded) Gross Tonnage
Britannia 1840 207′ 34′ 2″ 1,139
Persia 1855 376′ 45′ 3″ 3,300
Russia 1867 358′ 42′ 6″ 2,960
Umbria 1884 500′ 57′ 0″ 7,718
Campania 1893 600′ 65′ 0″ 12,500
Saxonia 1900 580′ 64′ 14,027
Carpathia 1903 540′ 64′ 0″ 13,603
Carmania 1905 650′ 72′ 0″ 19,524
Caronia 1905 650′ 72′ 0″ 19,687

The Russia, of 1867, still relied heavily on sail power as a supplement to her steam engines. Her profile did, however, eschew more traditional paddlewheels in favor of a single screw propeller, something of a novelty at the time. At a service speed of just over 12 knots, the Russia was well known as one of the swiftest liners of her day. (J. Kent Layton Collection)


Cunard’s Saxonia of 1900, seen plowing her way through a very rough sea in this spectacular artist’s depiction. (J. Kent Layton Collection)

By 1902, however, Cunard found itself in a very bad financial state. A protracted rate war among North Atlantic shipping companies, combined with intense competition from White Star and German ships, had left them hurting badly and with a fleet that was very outdated when compared with their competitors. When American financier J. P. Morgan bought out the White Star Line in 1902, and began forming his International Mercantile Marine, the situation only grew worse. It would take a masterstroke to put them back in first place.

That is precisely what took place. Cunard managed to obtain a loan from Parliament to fund the construction of two new speed-queens, which were to be named Lusitania and Mauretania. These two sister ships became legends in their own time, and remain so to this day. They were the largest ships in the world when they entered service, and between them held the Blue Riband from late 1907 until 1929.


The Lusitania (left) and Mauretania (right) pass each other in the Mersey, Liverpool, England, in a pre-1912 photograph. Meetings of this nature were relatively rare, since the two ships normally were at opposite ends of the same sailing schedule. (J. Kent Layton Collection)

Their larger sister, the Aquitania, made her debut on the North Atlantic in 1914 and remained in service until 1950, becoming one of the longest lived of the Atlantic liners. Further information on these three sisters can be found on their respective pages on this site. Detailed information can be found in the pages of my books. For example, Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography focuses on the liner’s career and technology, but also has an entire chapter on the sinking and a breathtaking amount of information (textual and photographic) that has never been published before. You may also be interested in further information on Cunard’s New York terminus, Pier 54. For reference, compare the statistics from Table 1, above, with those contained below:

Comparative Information, Lusitania, Mauretania, Aquitania:
Ship Name: Year: Length: Length (Moulded): Breadth: Gross Tonnage:
Lusitania 1907 787′ 760′ 87′ 6″ 31,550.47
Mauretania 1907 790′ 760′ 88′ 31,938
Aquitania 1914 901′ 6″ 865′ 97′ 46,500

The Cunard Line continued to operate through the 1920’s, but during the early 1930’s, during the Great Depression, all of the major shipping lines found themselves in difficult financial situations.

Cunard Trio

A 1920’s artist’s conception of three crack Cunard ships, the Mauretania, Aquitania, and Berengaria. (J. Kent Layton Collection)

Eventually, Cunard was forced to merge with the White Star Line, forming the Cunard-White Star Line. The most immediate result of this merger was a disposal of much older tonnage, including ships like the Mauretania, Olympic, Berengaria and Majestic. The next result was more positive – the completion of Cunard’s newest superliner, named Queen Mary. She and her sister, Queen Elizabeth, worked together in peace and war, building an unparalleled reputation for excellence before they were eventually decommissioned.

Later on, Cunard commissioned the Queen Elizabeth 2, or QE2, which was of a far more modern design. By the late-1990’s, she was widely touted to be the last great trans-Atlantic liner in service as she enjoyed a mix of crossing and cruising.

When the Carnival Cruise Line bought out Cunard, and the cruise industry began to see a tremendous upsurge in tonnage competition, the result was that Cunard drew up plans for a new behemoth, to be built specifically for the rigors of trans-Atlantic service, while also able to make regular cruises on other routes. The new liner, which entered service in 2004, was named the Queen Mary 2, and was, until 2006, the largest ocean liner in the world.

Since then, Cunard has also placed in service two other large cruise ships, named Queen Victoria (maiden voyage 2007) and Queen Elizabeth (maiden voyage 2010).

Comparing the information from Tables 1 and 2 with that of Table 3, below, is both interesting and informative:

Information on some of Cunard’s most important ships, 1920-present:
Ship Name: Year: Length: Breadth: Gross Tonnage:
Berengaria* 1913 919′ 98′ 52,226
Queen Mary 1936 1,018′ 118′ 81,235
Queen Elizabeth 1940 1,031′ 118′ 83,673
Queen Elizabeth 2 1968 963′ 105′ 69,053**
Queen Mary 2 2004 1,131′ 3″ 131′ 148,528/151,400



*The Berengaria was originally built as the HAPAG liner Imperator. After the war, she was made available, as part of war reparations, for purchase by interested parties. Cunard and White Star jointly purchased the Imperator and her intended fleet-mate, the still unfinished Bismarck. While the Bismarck would become White Star’s Majestic, the Imperator entered service with Cunard as the Berengaria. She served in that capacity until she was scrapped. The statistics given, however, concern the vessel as she was originally built.

**Specifications as entered service. This figure was later raised to 70,327 tons.