Mark Baber

Jul 4, 2000
MAB Note: On 27 September 1938 Cunard White Star's Queen Elizabeth was launched. The following is one of a number of feature articles that appeared that day in a special "Cunard White Star Number" of The Times.

The Times, 27 September 1938

BEFORE Cunard White Star, Limited, was formed as a result of Government
pressure, in order to present a united front to foreign competition on the
North Atlantic, the Cunard and White Star Lines had maintained for many
years a keen competition, which not only added greatly to the interest of
the service but also had a great influence on the development of liner
design. Each side respected the other, and the fight, keen as it was, was
fought cleanly for well over half a century.

The Cunard Company had to meet several rivals before the White Star was
established. When Samuel Cunard came to Britain to establish a regular
transatlantic steamship service, his partners in Nova Scotia having flatly
refused to support him in the scheme, be owed much to his new partners Burns
and McIver, but it was his own idea entirely that made the success of the
new venture---to build in classes of sister ships and to graft later
improvements on to the principles of the original design. Some of the ships
owned by Cunard's rivals were admittedly better than his, but the principles
of standard design and first-class service secured the passengers. In
competition with the sailing packets the Cunarders soon got the cream of the
saloon trade, and the running costs of the old paddlers prevented their
going into the emigrant business for years.

American Competition

When American competition first made itself seriously felt in 1849 the
heavily subsidized Collins Line put on to the service some magnificent
paddlers that were admittedly superior to the contemporary Cunarders in
every respect; shrewd old Samuel Cunard was content to sit back and wait. He
said that they were breaking his windows with sovereigns and he was right; a
sudden change of policy in the United States led to the withdrawal of the
subsidy and the collapse of the Collins Line.

Between the inauguration of the service in 1840 and the establishment of the
State-aided Collins Line the Cunard standard had grown from 1,150-tons and 8
1/2 knots speed to 1,825 tons and 10 1/2 knots. To meet Collins's
competition, however, they had to go to 2,225 tons and over 12 knots, though
still remaining faithful to the wooden paddler. The Admiralty officials
would not hear of anything else for a service drawing a mail subsidy, whose
ships would be commissioned in war.

Iron Screw Steamers

But they were soon having to face competition that was much more dangerous
because it was not shackled by the Government. William Inman and his wife
crossed the Atlantic as steerage passengers in one of the sailing packets in
order to see just what the emigrant wanted. Then they started a service with
iron screw steamers that were so economical that they were able to carry
emigrants in comfort never before imagined.

The Cunard built iron screw steamers for such services as they were allowed,
but for the New York run they were controlled. The beautiful Arabia of 1851
had a remarkable speed, but her powerful engines shook her wooden hull to
pieces and the Admiralty was compelled to permit iron. The officials still
insisted on paddles and the company had to pour out money on the running of
big paddlers like the Persia, of 3,300 tons gross, and the 14-knot Scotia,
of 3,871. Contemporary with the latter, coming out in 1862, was the screw
China, of only 2,529 tons, yet able to maintain her 14 knots with 2,250
horse-power against the paddler's 4,900, burning 82 tons of coal a day,
against 165. Although the China carried fewer first class passengers and
less cargo, she could accommodate 771 third class passengers, and they were
the most profitable in numbers.

Ismay and Schwabe

While the Cunard went in for the steerage trade the Inman Line worked for
its share of the saloon business and built record-breakers. So the standard
of the iron screw ship rapidly improved, the French and German and other
British lines increasing the competition and getting their share of the
business through the sixties.

The Atlantic companies had paid no attention when, in 1867, Mr. T. H. Ismay,
of Liverpool, had.bought the name and house-flag of Pilkington-and-Wilson's
famous White Star Line of sailing clippers, which had enjoyed a great
reputation for speed during the Australian gold rush. But Mr. Ismay met a
Mr. Schwabe, a capitalist whose nephew was a partner in the struggling
shipbuilding firm of Harland and Wolff. Schwabe offered to finance Ismay
generously if he would give up the idea of an Australian steamship service
in favour of one to New York, and would go to his nephew's yard for the
ships which had been designed on revolutionary lines by Edward Harland.

In 1871 the White Star flag was first flown on the Western Ocean by the
Oceanic, Atlantic, Baltic, and Republic, of about 3,700 tons each. These
were followed by the very similar Adriatic and Celtic. All were fast, and
the Baltic and Adriatic held the record, although not without a good deal of
wrangling. The matter was put beyond dispute by the 4,000-ton Britannic and
Germanic of 1874, the latter still afloat under the Turkish flag. At that
period the Cunard was not worrying about the record. In the matter of speed
the White Star's great rival was the Inman, and a little later the Guion,

"Blue Riband " Competition

Through the seventies and the first part of the eighties the Cunard was
building comfortable ships, which, to begin with, were excellent dividend
earners. This was changed when public excitement over the keen competition
for the Blue Riband gave its possession a new publicity value which it has
possessed ever since. So in the mid-eighties the Cunard took over the holder
of the record, the Guion liner Oregon, whose original owners had been unable
to pay for her, and built two ships even faster in the Umbria and Etruria.
These were the last express Atlantic liners, under the British flag, with
single screws.

Fortune here favoured the White Star Line in the rivalry. At the beginning
of the decade they had planned to build. two ships which would put them
ahead of the Inman and Guion Companies, but delayed placing the order on
account of the cost; there was further delay because they wisely wanted to
see just what the new Cunarders would do. Then the Russian war scare of 1885
caused the Admiralty to spend large sums on the hurried arming and
commissioning of some of the fastest British liners as auxiliary cruisers,
only to have it clearly proved that the great majority were absolutely
useless for cruiser duties as they were then understood. Ismay gave great
assistance in working out the organization for a proper auxiliary force and
was able to build the twin-screw Teutonic and Majestic of 1889, practically
10,000 tons each, with the certain income of an auxiliary cruiser subsidy in
addition to the payment for mail services.

In the Nineties

In the mid-nineties the Cunard responded with the Campania and Lucania,
which regained the record. But in 1897 the North German Lloyd, which was
hard hit by the competition of the Hamburg-American, as well as of the
companies under foreign flags, established a new speed standard with the
Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, whose record speed was steadily improved upon by
her three later consorts.

After carefully considering the questions of cost and earning power the
White Star decided to change its policy and, instead of extreme speed, to
offer to passengers the attractions of the biggest ships afloat, fitted out
with the greatest possible luxury, on more moderate speed. The Oceanic of
1899 was the first ship built under this policy, and after experience with
the record-breaker Deutschland the Hamburg-American company followed suit.

The national importance of helping the Cunard Line to keep out of Pierpont
Morgan's International Mercantile Marine Trust had great influence in
persuading the Government to assist the company in the construction and
maintenance of the Lusitania and Mauretania. Though the early days of the
War proved their supposed value as auxiliary cruisers to have been
exaggerated, their design was ideal for transport and hospital purposes in
the more distant operations. They combined the attractions of speed---the
Mauretania held the Blue Riband for the unprecedented period of 21
years---of size and of luxury.

The White Star stuck to its policy, and, without attempting to rival the
Cunarders in speed, the Olympic and Titanic were of roughly 50 per cent.
greater tonnage.

War Services

The fastest and the biggest ships were the figureheads; both companies had a
number of less pretentious ships of all types, purely cargo vessels as well
as passenger, and maintained various services, although their main interests
were on the North Atlantic.

If the early days of the Great War proved that the modern express Atlantic
liner---German as well as British---was useless as an auxiliary cruiser, as
it was quite impossible for any service to keep her supplied with coal, any
assistance that had been given to keep the two companies in the front rank
was amply repaid by their War services. Not only did practically every ship
in the two fleets take her full part in national service, although not
always in the role planned for her before the War, but the organization of
the companies afloat and ashore, the very large proportion of their crews
who were reservists, and the unsurpassed technical knowledge of their chiefs
were all of the greatest value. Unfortunately the bill was heavy, and a
large number of fine ships, from the Lusitania and Britannic downwards, were

The replacement.of these ships was a difficult problem. Shipbuilding prices
were at a record high level, and, with every owner clamoring for tonnage at
the same time, delivery was very slow. The ships which were surrendered by
Germany under the reparations clauses were not designed to the lines'
exacting ideas, and many of them wanted long and expensive reconditioning
work done on them after years of idleness.

German Ships

The two giant Hamburg-American liners Imperator and Bismarck replaced the
Lusitania and the Britannic as the Berengaria and Majestic, and the White
Star embodied several others in its fleet, while the Cunard built a number
of economical and exceedingly comfortable ships of moderate size and speed.

Experience showed that the transatlantic traveller was not. going to be
content with quiet comfort at a moderate cost for long, as he might
reasonably be expected to be while the world was recovering from the War.
Many appreciated the post-War ships, especially the cabin and tourist
passengers, but the number who wanted extreme speed and luxury grew so
rapidly, that, with Germany, Italy, and France building record-breakers with
direct or indirect State aid or encouragement, the Cunard and White Star
were compelled to do the same. The 1,000ft. liner was the next logical step.

1,000 ft. Liners

So far back as 1899, when the Oceanic was being built as the biggest ship in
the world, Mr. Ismay and the late Lord Pirrie of Belfast had roughed out the
designs of a 1,000ft. liner, and the first ship of that length, also to be
named Oceanic, was put in hand, although all work was stopped at a very
early stage owing to the deepening of the depression.

Work on the Queen Mary at Clydebank proceeded much further before it became
obvious that the only prudent course was to suspend it until times improved.
Before then her completion had become a national matter, and the Treasury
rendered assistance only on condition that the old rivalry was ended and the
two companies presented a united front to foreign competition as the Cunard
White Star Line.


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