History from 1934: UNDER TWO FLAGS

Mark Baber

Dec 29, 2000
MAB Note: Cunard White Star's Queen Mary was launched seventy-five years ago
today. The following is one of a number of feature articles which appeared
in The Times one day earlier.

The Times, 25 September 1934


By Boyd Cable
If the new ship at her launch flies the Cunard House Flag, it will show a
direct and intentional (although long forgotten) link with by far the
greatest of the old English merchant venturer companies, the mighty
Honourable East India Company, first chartered by Queen Elizabeth in 1600.

I have found no documentary proof of this, but can offer evidence which I
think may be admitted sound by students of flags, heraldry, and nautical

The device of the Cunard flag is a yellow lion rampant guardant, wearing an
Imperial crown and bearing in its paws a globe showing the western
hemisphere, all on a red field. The flag of the Burns and Laird Lines of
Glasgow, and formerly of J. and G. Burns, is practically the same device on
blue. The crest of the "new" East India Company, granted in 1698, was the
same lion but with the Imperial crown held in its paws; and in the days of
sail the crest went afloat in sea flags when, about the 1860's, the Indian
Navy divided into an Indian coastal and a Persian Gulf force, and the
commodores had broad pendants, one red, one blue, both bearing a yellow
cross with yellow crest in the upper hoist cantons. The Society of Nautical
Research has paintings of the flags.

The crest of the East India Company's cadet college at Haileybury was the
East India Company lion, but with crown on head and holding in its paws "a
scroll with the seal pendant therefrom," the distinction being slight enough
to show derivation from the Honourable East India Company's crest, and yet
show a sufficient and appropriate difference---exactly as in the Cunard's

Another suggestion must be considered, and if accepted makes a further
direct link with the "old" Honourable East India Company of 1600. It is
possible that Cunard took his globe from the older crest of a sphere with a
frame bound with the Zodiac between two split white pennons red-crossed in
the hoist; and by doing so made the Cunard device a combination of the
crests of old and new companies.

That the use of the crest was no mere chance or accident is clear from the
history of Sir Samuel Cunard, originator of the line. He was born in
Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1787, one of three brothers. They were merchants
and, there is some reason to believe, shipowners. Samuel was also agent
there for the East India Company. When the British Government was offering a
contract for the cross-Atlantic carriage of mails by steamer, Cunard,
failing to raise finance in Canada to make a tender, came to London to try.
He went straight to the secretary of the East India Company, explained his
project, and was given letters of introduction to George Burns, a Glasgow
shipowner of importance and influence. Burns in turn introduced David
McIver, of Liverpool, and the three, largely through Burns's help and
effort, found the £270,000 required to provide a fleet, secured the
contract, and began the service with four steamers. The first, the
Britannia, sailed in June, 1840.

Those and other steamers for the next 40 years wore as house flag that of
the George Burns ships---a long blue pennant or triangular flag bearing a
white saltire over a narrower red pennant. Cunard then was acknowledging in
his flag his indebtedness to his partner's help, exactly as later he was to
acknowledge by use of the Honourable East India Company's crest that the
basis of his and the line's success had been in the secretary's happy
introduction to Burns. J. and G. Burns in turn took the lion device when
Cunard adopted it, and have continued to use it in the successor lines. The
exact date of its adoption by the Cunard is not known by the offices of
either firm, in neither of which could any clue be found to the origin of or
reason for the lion, fully as both helped to hunt. Some supposed the lion
came from coat or crest of one of the founders, but the Cunard, Burns, and
Mclver families bear nothing remotely connected; nor have my heraldic
friends found any family with a crest of such a crowned globe-holding lion.

In 1878 a limited company was formed with increased capital, and in 1880
this became a public company. It was certainly between these dates that the
change was made, because in the Cunard office there are still old
sailing-lists to December, 1878, with wood-cuts of the ships with the double
pennants, and a painting of the new Servia in 1881 shows the new flag.

No mention is made in the Articles of Association (1878) about the flag, but
in the minutes is a note that "The Directors shall cause to be made a common
seal...." The seal had the lion with globe, and it may well be that the flag
was changed to conform with it.

The similarity in method of making a difference from the Honourable East
India Company's crest in both the Cunard's and the College's lions suggested
a possibility of the Cunard family having been connected with or educated at
Haileybury. But the present Headmaster tells me that there is no Samuel
Cunard in the rolls of scholars, which goes back from 1857 to 1506, although
he adds that this is not conclusive, because the roll was probably compiled
from records of service in India.

Whether or not Cunard was aware of the College form of crest, it is certain
that as the Honourable East India Company's agent he would have been
familiar with that of the Honourable East India Company on papers and
documents and possibly as a seal. It may be that these notes will lead to
further evidence being found of other connexions between the Cunard family
and the Honourable East India Company; but I believe it may be admitted now
that the Cunard flag is clearly identified with the crest of the "new"
Honourable East India Company, and perhaps directly with the old Honourable
East India Company in the "sphere" of its crest, and that the House Flag
proclaims the existence of the Cunard Line to have been due first to the
influence and efforts of "John Company" and its servants, thus linking the
line and the giant Cunarder with the history and tradition of our greatest
chartered company and the finest fleet of its day.

The house flag of the White Star offers the best example I know of a flag
used consistently to attract passengers and freight to the line, and the
only example I believe of that value being recognized in terms of hard cash.
The flag's importance and value were enhanced by linking up the flag and
name of the line---a common practice over 100 years ago, but now rarely

In the 1850's, when the White Star came into existence, the sailing-packets
were boldly fighting the early Atlantic steamers. The house flag in those
days was a proud and vaunted symbol of the line's reputation. It was
somewhat akin to an army's regimental colours, and if no battle honours were
inscribed on the flag, the records, achievements, and triumphs of the ships
flying it were credited just as surely to the line.

Ship passengers then, as now, if they made a speedy and pleasant passage in
a ship, preferred to voyage in her again; or, failing that possibility, to
sail in another ship of the same line. Similarly merchants whose goods were
carried swiftly and safely by some ships of a line continued to make
shipments by it.

The house flag flying conspicuously at the main of a ship entering or
leaving port was the visible mark of the ship's ownership; and American
shipowners were the first to see the value of a house flag of simple but
clearly distinguishable design, described in one or two words suitable for
use as the name of the line, so that both could be impressed on the public's
memory by the flag itself and by picturing it with the line's name on
posters, sailing lists, and all other advertisements. The famous Atlantic
packet-ship lines (all American-owned) had such names as the White Diamond,
Red Star, Red Cross, Black Ball, and Swallowtail, each describing its flag.
Most famous of these was the Black Ball, established in 1816; and by 1851
its ships were so noted for the speed and regularity of their passages that
an astute Liverpool firm calmly appropriated both flag and name for their
new clipper-ship line to Australia, where the discovery of gold had created
an urgent demand for fast transport.

Another Liverpool firm, Pilkington and Wilson, went into the same trade
shortly after, and built three new ships intended to be faster, bigger, more
comfortable and commodious vessels than the Black Ball. The owners chose for
their flag the same red swallowtail, bearing a large five-pointed white star
which has been flown continuously by their vessels ever since.

An intense rivalry began between the two lines, and Captain Clark, the
famous contemporary historian of the clipper-ship era, has left it on record
that "the competition of the Black Ball and White Star Lines proved of the
greatest benefit to both cabin and steerage passengers, as their comfort and
convenience became subjects of consideration in a manner unthought of in the
old days before the discovery of gold."

A fast passage was one of the greatest attractions to the eager
gold-rushers, and the rival lines strove to own the faster ships. The three
new White Stars---Ben Nevis, Guiding Star, and White Star---all held their
own in speed, the Guiding Star especially making a great name for herself
and the line. The Black Ball countered by buying and building five famous
American clippers designed by Donald McKay. The White Star chartered and
bought three---the Chariot of Fame, Blue Jacket, and Red Jacket---and, in
1854, there was great excitement and plenty of betting over the times of the
new clippers on their first passages.

The White Stars won handsomely, two of their three ships making better time
than four of the five Black Ballers. The White Star was beaten only by one,
the James Baines. The Red Jacket was the greatest and most famous of the
clippers ever owned by the White Star. She made consistently fast runs out
and home and was one of the only half-dozen ships ever claimed to have run
over 400 sea miles in 24 hours. On her first Australian voyage she went
round the world in five months and four days, including 12 days in
port---another notable triumph for the line.

In 1867, so high was the reputation of the White Star that when its owners,
Pilkington and Wilson, dissolved partnership and sold the fleet, Mr. T. H.
Ismay paid them £1,000 for the flag. Some say now that the price included
goodwill, but any who know publicity values will admit that flag and name
alone were well worth the money. Mr. Ismay bought none of the old ships,
well worn out by long "Hell or Melbourne" hard driving, but kept the flag
flying with some he chartered until he could renew the fleet with the iron
ships then popular. In 1869 he formed the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company
to enter the Atlantic trade, and next year was joined by Mr. Imrie, formerly
of Imrie and Tomlinson, Liverpool. The firm of Ismay Irmrie ard Co. became
one of the best known in the shipping world.

Just as the Liverpool firm had used (with success if with dubious propriety)
the famous American Black Ball flag and name to attract business to a new
Australian line, so Ismay Imrie more justifiably transferred for the same
good purpose their well-known White Star flag from their Australian to their
new Atlantic trade, and in 1871 launched under it the first steamer of the
Oceanic S.N.Co. But, although the company continued under that name until
this year, it was under the flag's name that it was familiar to the public.

Now, on exactly the same principle of making good use of a name and fame
attached to the house flag, the companies of the Cunard and the Oceanic have
merged, not as the Cunard-Oceanic but as the Cunard White Star.


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