For as long as ocean liners (and, indeed, warships) have been built, it has long been accepted that they possess a definite, mostly feminine gender. And that idea naturally expanded to the notion of ‘sister’ ships, where two or more vessels were constructed to a similar design. So we can see that the concept of a particular fleet as an actually constituted ‘family’ is not too hard to grasp. In point of fact, it’s a tradition that continues in mainstream cruising to this day.
And, like any families, liner companies had siblings that fought like cat and dog. For instance, Lusitania and Mauretania fought tooth and nail for the Blue Riband between 1907 and 1909, when the latter proved ultimately victorious. Of course, this was as much about the pride of the respective shipbuilding communities on the Clyde and Tyne, respectively. Sibling rivalry shone through here.
Contrast that with the Belfast built duo of Olympic and Titanic. The two great sister ships grew up, side by side, in the same shipyard for three years. As such, there was an incredibly strong bond between the two ships that was in stark contrast to the friendly rivalry of the Cunarders.
So; relationships, siblings and rivalry have long been accepted as very real facets of the ocean liner and cruise ship scene. And, from Titanic to Queen Mary 2, it is perfectly possible to trace a tangible line of heritage; the current mighty Cunarder is a direct descendant of the ill fated White Star juggernaut. And it pans out like this;
By 1907, both Cunard and White Star were each planning to implement a reliable three ship service, to and from New York, that would sail every week of the year. In the case of Cunard, this would be inaugurated from Liverpool with the Mauretania and Lusitania, and rounded out for a few blissful weeks, pre- world war one, by the much larger Aquitania.
By contrast, White Star intended their three ship service to run from Southampton. Beginning with the twin sisters, Olympic and Titanic, it would later be augmented by the third of class, marginally larger Britannic (originally to have been named Gigantic).
The sinking of the Titanic hit White Star- and the entire travel industry- like a hydrogen bomb. Then, when war erupted like a poisonous mushroom cloud and unleashed mass slaughter on an unprecedented scale, everything was thrown to the wind.
Both the Lusitania and Britannic became casualties of that war. But. post conflict, the three ship service remained the ambition of both Cunard and White Star. With a vast pool of surrendered German liners to pick from, both lines set out to cobble together the best service that they could.
For Cunard, that meant the acquisition of the mighty Imperator. Re-named Berengaria, the ponderous, opulent three stacker came round to join the Aquitania and Mauretania. That line finally followed the pre- war example of White Star, and shifted its first string of liners from Liverpool down to run from Southampton to New York.
For White Star, it was much harder. Dealt a double whammy with the loss of both Titanic and Britannic, the company purchased the German liner, Columbus, to join the surviving Olympic. She was restyled as the Homeric.
The trio was rounded out in 1922 with the arrival of the giant Bismarck, the last of the great Ballin trio designed before the war. She was every bit as overpowering and luxurious as her sister ship and new Cunard rival, Berengaria. She was put into service in 1922 as the Majestic, the largest liner in the world. White Star modestly advertised her as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’.
With these six gigantic ships in service, the old pre-war rivalry flared anew; not in terms of speed, but in terms of style and luxe. Cunard and White Star had always been fierce rivals, ever since the debut of the latter in 1871.
For some inexplicable reason, the Berengaria became the most popular ship on the Atlantic for several years. And, because the Mauretania still held the Blue Riband, she also had a very loyal clientele, including many former, pre- 1914 Lusitania regulars. With weekly westbound sailings from Southampton on a Saturday, Cunard was well and truly back in business.
For White Star, it was once again somewhat harder. They offered westbound sailings from Southampton each Wednesday. In particular, the post war Olympic was very popular. She had a heroic, well known war record and, as twin sister of the lost Titanic, she also attracted a certain level of morbid fascination. The real problem was the Homeric.
Not really fast enough to qualify as a true ‘express’ liner, her speed lagged way behind that of the Majestic and Olympic. Still, the fierce rivalry with Cunard continued right up until October of 1929.
Both lines had replacement ships on the drawing boards for many of these slowly aging divas when the collapse of the stock market, followed by the great depression, torpedoed any chance of viable new builds. As the depression rumbled on and on, the very survival of both lines came into question.
Things were not helped at all by the advent of a whole new generation of jazz age, government subsidized foreign rivals. One after another, the Ile De France, Bremen, Europa, Rex and the Conte Di Savoia emerged from French, German and Italian yards to challenge the old order. The advent of each one was like a slap across Britannia’s imperial face.
It led from thinking the unthinkable, to actually implementing it. Faced with the impending reality of the even greater Normandie on a French slipway, the British government forced the shotgun wedding of Cunard and White Star in 1934. This was the precursor to a massive cash advance to complete the Queen Mary, moribund for twenty-eight months on a Clydebank slipway, and also to complete a second, companion ship that would eventually be built as the Queen Elizabeth.
In the new Cunard White Star Line, the former held sixty-two per cent of the shares. The parlous state of White Star at the time of the ‘merger’ was reflected in its paltry thirty-eight per cent rump holding. The blood letting that followed was both necessary and inevitable.
One by one, Olympic, Mauretania, Homeric and Majestic met the scrappers. But with Queen Mary already in popular, profitable service by 1938 when the Queen Elizabeth was launched, the future seemed a lot brighter for Cunard White Star.
Once again, war intervened to thwart these grand plans. The heroic, ultimately decisive war record of both Queens is sufficiently well known to avoid repetition here.
Reconditioned post war, both ships were soon running the long dreamed, weekly two ship service by 1947. With almost no initial quality opposition, the Queens were often booked solid a full six months in advance. Cunard White Star was thriving as never before, It is no exaggeration to say that those two ships dominated the Atlantic like no others, either before or since.
The resurgent company was so profitable that, in 1950, Cunard bought out the last remaining balance of the old White Star shares. The company that had created Oceanic, Titanic, Majestic and scores of others over seventy three years as an independent entity, was no more. The name of the company reverted, simply and naturally, to Cunard Line.
Cunard as a brand would go on to survive another attempt at extinction at the hands of post war airborne travel. In due course, it would produce the immortal Queen Elizabeth 2 to carry the old Cunard traditions and heritage forward for almost forty more years of unparalleled success. In time, the QE2 would become the most famous, prestigious and sought after passenger ship in the world.
For her turn, QE2 was first augmented, then ultimately supplanted by the current Queen Mary 2, the flagship of Cunard, and the largest ocean liner that the world has ever seen. Entering service in January 2004, this newest Queen has already become a true global icon.
So, from Titanic to Queen Mary 2, there exists a tangible link of rivalry, forced marriage, service and tradition as easily traceable as a family tree. To this day, it is the Cunard Line that pays for the upkeep of the graves of Titanic victims in Fairview Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia. A little known, poignant fact.
Though many tributes exist to the once raffish elegance of White Star, from the wonderfully eloquent to the downright mawkish, it seems somehow right to me that, if only one of the two lines survived in a physical sense, then that line should be Cunard. The Cunard Line started the whole business of what evolved into the regular, safe commercial crossing of the busiest ocean route in the world. That you can still cross that same stretch of restless ocean on a first rate Cunarder seems little short of miraculous to me.
Mauretania. Lusitania. Aquitania. Olympic. Titanic. Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth. QE2. Queen Mary 2. A line of ocean going, royal genealogy every bit as fascinating, multi- layered and breathtaking as that of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, and one every bit as glamorous and compelling. But unlike those false, feted, adored ‘gods’ of old, the last chapter on the history and heritage of the Atlantic liner has yet to be written.
I, for one, am thankful for that.