Articles

PART 1 The Royal Family of the Seas

The mighty Queenships shuttle across the Atlantic with 200,000 travelers each year, bringing a rich reality to Canadian Sam Cunard’s dream of an ocean railway running on schedule

JAMES DUGAN August 1 1950
Articles

PART 1 The Royal Family of the Seas

The mighty Queenships shuttle across the Atlantic with 200,000 travelers each year, bringing a rich reality to Canadian Sam Cunard’s dream of an ocean railway running on schedule

JAMES DUGAN August 1 1950

PART 1 The Royal Family of the Seas

Articles

The mighty Queenships shuttle across the Atlantic with 200,000 travelers each year, bringing a rich reality to Canadian Sam Cunard’s dream of an ocean railway running on schedule

JAMES DUGAN

THE Cunard Steam-Ship Company, the largest ocean line in the world, has dominated the Atlantic for 110 years, ever since Samuel Cunard, a packet-ship man from Halifax, N.S., went to England and founded the line in an outburst of supersalesmanship.

The famous red-funneled line is the second oldest in the world (oldest is the P and O) ; with its several subsidiaries serving the Mediterranean, India and Australia it is entirely British owned; it has both the fastest and biggest liners in the world (the Queens).

The irresistible grip Cunard has on the public imagination is typified by its legendary capital ships, Royal Mail Steamer Queen Mary (33 knots), fastest liner in the world, and R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth (83,673 tons), the world’s biggest passenger ship. The Queens, after over a decade of weekly service between New York and Europe, are still front-page news when they arrive in New York.

Recently I went to meet the Elizabeth in Lower New York Bay in the U. S. Coast Guard cutter Tuckahoe to see the customary excitement that greets Queenships and makes them the travel choice of many celebrities.

Tuckahoe, loaded with customs and immigration inspectors and a large party of reporters, left her moorings in the East River at 10 a.m. At that moment, 25 miles out in the entrance to the harbor, the quartermaster of Queen Elizabeth was calling Pilot 2 on the radiotelephone. Pilot 2 is the floating ready-room of the Sandy Hook Pilots’ Association. The pilot next on the rotation got up from his rummy game, took a last look at “Your Television Shopper” on the TV set and went to the Queen in the launch Gedney.

All over Greater New York other wheels were moving into the reception. People entrained from the suburbs to meet passengers. The tug dispatcher of the Moran Towing Co., high in a building in the Battery, penciled in four tugs to be available at 12.30. The Tuckahoe ran through the chop in the Lower Bay and idled and circled. At Continued on page 39

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11 o’clock off in the marine haze there appeared the silhouette of a big two-stacker apparently standing still on the sea. Actually the pilot was bringing the Queen up Ambrose Channel at 10 knots, one third of her transAtlantic speed. Her progress was deceptive. There was hardly any bow ave, but in a few minutes the cutter ;;s in shadow under an iron cliff, i igh on the stern billboards read: KEEP CLEAR

QUADRUPLE SCREW PROPELLERS

The cutter closed in, matching the Queen’s speed, and came alongside an open port where a ginger-bearded Cunard sailor threw out a narrow gangplank. The boarding party raced into C-deck and crowded the elevators up to the garden lounge. While the Press had sandwiches and coffee two Cunard publicity men rounded up celebrities.

The Queen was moving through The Narrows in bright sunlight at 11.40 a.m. when Peggy Cummins, the film actress, appeared in a grey suit, mink stole and blue cloche hat. The photographers raced her out to the promenade and bade her climb a rail.

Inside the reporters were told that half of the 2,941 people aboard had been vaccinated at sea because of a smallpox scare in Glasgow.

While the reporters interviewed a UNESCO official the photographers appeared, stared at the UNESCO man and said loudly, “You want him?” “No, I’m not gonna make him,” and “Where’s Virginia Mayo?”

A Skyscraper in the Water

The Queen passed the Statue of Liberty and moved into the North River. The photographers jumped and ran like Keystone Cops: Virginia

Mayo had materialized in a black jockey cap with her husband, Michael O’Shea. Virginia was carried away in a rush to face two dozen lenses on deck. Now the other celebrities had finished lunch and were arriving in groups: seven British motor manufacturers over for the British auto show, John Cobb, holder of the world’s automobile speed record (403 mph), four Indian diplomats and Walter Pidgeon.

The cockney comedian, Tommy trinder, appeared. The photographers had never heard of the most famous present-day British comic and had to be inveigled on deck to shoot Trinder. Their enthusiasm was restored when Trinder reached through a porthole and fetched out a chef’s hat and an apple. The comedian mugged at eating the apple. The television crews finished off Peggy Cummins and set up for Trinder. Tommy told a spiv joke which nobody understood. Virginia Mayo was perched high on the sports deck rail, her pretty face flickering with flashbulb explosions.

The Elizabeth paraded past 42nd Street, higher than the big piers and on speaking acquaintance across Hell’s Kitchen with the midtown skyscrapers —the Queen is a skyscraper laid in the water. She is 1,031 feet long and 118 feet wide.

The docking pilot came aboard and took command from the harbor pilot. Four little red Moran tugs closed in below to follow the new pilot’s orders, r'he Queen shut down her engines as she came abreast of Pier 89 where a big green one-stacker lay, the Cunarder Caronia, which had returned that morning from her 85-day Great African Cruise. The tugs put their ropy snouts

against the great ship and pushed and pulled delicately, turning the Queen broadside in the river at slack tide to berth her in Pier 90.

The Keystone Cops roared downstairs, their camera bags flying. “Virginia’s gonna show us her vaccination in her cabin. Don’t need any reporters.” The reporters looked chapfallen. The photographic triumph was empty. Virginia’s vaccination was also up too high. She posed examining her husband’s arm vaccination.

Hundreds of greeters stood on the pierhead, squinting up at the dots lining the rails. The dots squinted back. The Queen inched into her berth. It was 1.30; she was docked on the minute that had been announced two days before. Baggage conveyors swung into her ports and the baggage rode out. Passengers were still strolling the decks, stopping to watch Virginia Mayo obediently climbing up and down from one perch to another like a circus animal.

The veteran passengers knew that it would take up to six weary hours on the pier before all the baggage was cleared. In fact the customs men were at lunch until 2. As soon as the gangplank was open it was choked with reporters and photographers, debarking to make afternoon paper deadlines, or arriving to chase Virginia. At 1.45 she was still posing. It started to rain. Queen Elizabeth was in.

By 7.30 the last passengers were cleared through customs; they and the 2,000 people on the pier and the 5,000 lined up along Eleventh Avenue to see the ship scattered into the city. The city can absorb this townful of people without noticing them. But the story of the latest arrival of Queen Elizabeth was spreading.

By the time Virginia Mayo and Tommy Trinder settled down in their hotel rooms they could watch themselves arriving on television. The photos were being radioed and mailed and were turning into stereotype mats in the pressrooms of the morning papers. An auto man in Oshawa, Ont., can read tomorrow morning that W. G. Rootes, managing director of Humber Motors, has arrived in New York—in Queen Elizabeth, of course. A child psychologist in Kansas City looks vainly for the news of the arrival of Anna Freud, the distinguished daughter of Dr. Sigmund Freud. Miss Freud also arrived in the Queen, but she traveled tourist class.

A Toast By Longfellow

The Queenships are the culmination of a psychological triumph begun by Sam Cunard himself—Americans think of them as American ships and no Hollywood or industrial notability will travel any other way if he can help it. The Queens are news and people in them are automatically news.

When Sam Cunard, the Halifax businessman who started the line, arrived in Boston in 1840 in his first flagship Britannia on her maiden voyage from Liverpool the publicity uproar got off to a fine start.

Boston gave him 1,800 dinner invitations, the largest silver loving cup ever cast (51 inches high), and a banquet at Faneuil Hall, the Cradle of liberty, complete with orations by Daniel Webster and a toast by Professor Henry W. Longfellow: “Steamships! The

pillar of fire by night and the pillar of cloud by day, that guide the wanderer over the sea.”

There are no Cunards now active with the line nor have there been for some years. In effect the family direction ended with the death of Samuel Cunard in 1865. The stock in the company is entirely owned by British

subjects, including some of Cunard’s descendants, under the provisions of an act of parliament passed 45 years ago. But, unlike the Hudson’s Bay Co., for instance, no treasury representative sits on the Cunard board; it’s a completely private enterprise.

For more than a century Cunard has maintained its sovereignty of the Atlantic, in spite of wave after wave of rivalry from big companies and governments of every maritime nation. During last year Cunard maintained a floating population of 300,000 including passengers and crews. The Queens transported 200,000 people as they ceaselessly weaved their schedules from Cunard’s eastern border at Cherbourg to its western boundary at New York. This year, minus the 36-year-old Aquitania which was scrapped after the last tourist season, but strengthened by two additional chartered ships, Cunard will fill up 15 liners in the biggest tourist year in history. Some passengers will cross between Liverpool and Montreal in Ascania for as little as $140. Prices range up to the $20,000 Harold S. Vanderbilt paid for a suite on Caronia’s Great Africa Cruise.

Sam Cunard’s ocean empire is worth $400 millions by conservative reckoning. Last year’s record profit of $55 millions is certain to be exceeded this season. The takings are mostly in dollars, a major hunk of Britain’s dollar income. Since the war’s end Cunard has spent $125 millions reconditioning ships that had been stripped for troops and in launching the giant $16-million Caronia and the two little one-class sisters, Media and Parthia.

Depression and War Paid Off

Although Cunard’s North Atlantic fleet is the largest passenger fleet in existence the company also operates several prosperous ancillary lines to the Mediterranean and Black Sea, the ancient Brocklebank Line to India and the Australian Port Line.

The wartime record of the line proudly centres on the Queenships, which transported 1,500,000 troops, rushing whole divisions at a time to Australia and the Middle East in 1942, to the troop buildup in Britain for the Normandy invasion and then the return home of Canadian and U. S. veterans. Sir Percy Bates, the Cunard board chairman who built them, said, “I like to think the Queens shortened the war by a year.”

The war paid for the Queens. Built at low depression costs of $22 millions each they were completely paid for by 1946. Some marine engineers predict they have 20 years more service in them. The Elizabeth, when fully loaded (2,288 passengers) during the tourist rush season, May through September, takes in nearly $750,000 in fares each voyage. A Queenship just about grosses her original cost in a busy year. The big luck was to build them during the depressiontoday it would cost at least $60 millions to duplicate one of the great vessels.

Sir Percy Bates was a steamship man in the great tradition of Sam Cunard. He became chairman of the board in 1930 in the depression crisis. The line was losing millions; wages had been cut and one third of the employees were laid off. So optimist Bates went before the amazed Cunard stockholders with the plans of No. 534, calling for the largest and fastest ship ever built. The company did not have anything near the $22 millions she was to cost at John Brown’s yard on the Clydebank. The combined resources of the British marine insurance business could cover only half her risk. There was no drydock large enough to take her up for overhaul. There was

no pier in New York, Cherbourg or Southampton large enough to berth her. Passenger business was so bad that luxury expresses made four-day Caribbean cruises during the turnaround periods in New York at $50 fares. Finally, Bates was violating Sam Cunard’s precious operating maxim of launching never less than two sister ships at once to maintain express schedules.

But it happened. Cunard negotiated a British government loan for construction and an act of parliament provided the insurance. John Brown startéd building an 81,235-ton ship of 160,000 horsepower. (In 1838 Sam Cunard had written shipbuilder David Napier, “Dear Sir; I shall require one or two steamships of 300 horsepower and about 800 tons.”) The Southern Kailway spent $12 millions to build the required drydock at Southampton. New York City built the huge Municipal Pier 90.

The depression forced Brown’s yard to abandon construction for 30 months, during which time Normandie was launched as the empress of the Atlantic. Construction was resumed on No. 534 when an act of parliament brought about the merger of the Cunard and White Star Lines and provided a loan to complete the ship. She was launched as Queen Mary in 1934 and followed by her sister ship, Queen Elizabeth, in 1940. The “Liz,” as she was known to Canadian servicemen, made her maiden voyage to New York secretly in war paint and did not make her official passenger debut until 1946.

The morning Queen Elizabeth sailed from Southampton Sir Percy Bates died in his office in Liverpool. He had won his magnificent gamble. Submarines and fire had practically swept the board of his rivals of 1930. The war paid for the Queens and they were about to fatten on the biggest travel boom in history.

The Queens do not have the characteristic Cunard “ia” suffix on their names, such as other Cunarders carry; Caronia, Mauretania, Media, Parthia, Samaria, Franconia, Ascania and Scythia. The Britannic, a fine motor ship, also violates the rule, and chartered vessels, such as the Géorgie and Stratheden, keep their original names. A Cunarder, however, can always be spotted by its red stacks topped with black. The funnel of the original Cunard flagship Britannia was painted with red ochre and buttermilk and the line has kept the paint since, without the buttermilk.

Safety Is Taken For Granted

The Cunard Line can claim to have never lost a passenger life through company negligence, but the record has been dropped from publicity releases recently. Passenger safety is taken for granted today. It was not always so. When Sam Cunard was building up his safety record 100 years ago one in 900 steamship passengers lost his life at sea. The origin of the hectic sailing party in the stateroom was the anticipatory wake that family and friends threw for ocean travelers a century ago.

Cunard sailing parties today are a blasted nuisance for the crew. In one sailing from Pier 90 in June, 1947,

10.000 people milled through Elizabeth to see friends off. Cunard now limits the carouse to 4,000 visitors. Sailing parties help to inspire the visitors to take a trip themselves, but the porters and stewards often wish’ there were

4.000 fewer people in the way of 10,000 pieces of baggage they are trying to deliver to staterooms.

On the other side of the picture is a sailing by Parthia or Media, the 200passenger one-class Cunarders main-

taining the New York-Liverpool schedule. I dropped in recently to see Captain James Quayle of Media as his ship was about to embark from an almost empty pier at 13th Street, Manhattan. Quayle, who looks like Knute Rockne and has been sailing ships for 48 years, enjoys his command in the little democratic Media, the more so on this occasion because it was his last voyage. He was about to retire to his garden at Southport, Lancashire.

While only a handful of picked passengers would ever meet Commodore Charles Ford in Queen Elizabeth Captain Quayle gets to know everybody aboard Media, an old-fashioned cordiality which has disappeared in the floating hotels. On Cunard’s three biggest ships the captain has been divided into two, the captain and the staff captain. The latter bosses the crew, conducts the traditional 10 a.m. daily inspection, and socializes with the passengers. The captain confines himself to the navigation and the towering responsibility of safely bringing several thousand people and many millions of dollars worth of property across the Atlantic on schedule.

An Ocean Railway on Time

Competition among steamship lines —and the newer invasion of the transocean airways—has produced passenger luxuries in the big liners few hotels or resorts can offer ashore. Cunarders carry cinemas, hospitals, nurseries, chapels, jails, tennis courts, Turkish baths, libraries, kennels, shopping streets, art galleries, elevators, gymnasiums, swimming pools and night clubs. Caronia has a photographic darkroom for passenger use. Franconia, of the Liverpool-Quebec run, even carries a museum—the carefully preserved private quarters used by Winston Churchill when Franconia was his headquarters ship at Yalta.

The founder, Sam Cunard, of Halifax, whose story will be told in the next part of this report, grasped from the very first the sound and lasting rules of how to run a steamship line. First he insisted on safety, which has today evolved into passenger comfort. Ho insisted on guaranteed scheduled service, which today means that 11 months of the year there will be a Queenship leaving New York or Europe each week. He ensured that regular schedules would be maintained by launching sister ships. He wanted to found “an ocean railway,” as he put it. In modern times Sam’s ocean railway is a veritable commuters’ shuttle. Let us look at the busy pattern of the Cunard fleet today—August 1, 1950.

Five ships are turning round in port. Mauretania leaves New York tomorrow for Cobh, Havre and Southampton. Media at Pier 54, New York, is bound for Liverpool in three days. Her sister, Parthia, is in berth at Liverpool, due to steam west in four days. Samaria is in the Pool of London loading for Quebec to which she will depart the day after tomorrow. The next day Lismoria will leave Glasgow for Montreal. A westbound parade of six Cunarders is carrying the high tide of homing tourists. Queen Elizabeth left Southampton this morning to call at Cherbourg and steam to New York. Géorgie, under charter from British Government Transport, is two days out of Cobh but will beat the fleet Queenship to New York by less than a day. Caronia is ahead of Géorgie on the westbound steamer lane and will reach New York in three days. Laurentia docks at Montreal today from Glasgow. Two days behind her Franconia is steaming to Quebec City. Stratheden, chartered from the Peninsular & Oriental Line to cope with the

westbound rush, is coming up Ambrose Channel to New York. Eastbound, Britannic and Queen Mary are almost abreast on Track B of the North Atlantic lane, Britannic two days from Cobh and the speedier Queenship the same time from Cherbourg. On their port side Ascania out of Montreal has turned off Track B on a N.N.E. course toward the Irish Sea approaches and is due at Liverpool under the Cunard Building in two days.

Sam Cunard’s ocean railway is rolling on timetables almost as complex as those of an iron railway. Nobody owns the roadbed, the great western ocean, but Cunard has almost turned the Atlantic into a private swimming pool.

It took sound planning, great seamanship, and industrial know-how to bring Cunard out on top in commercial battles waged down through the century of the steamship.

Today Cunard holds the Atlantic Blue Ribbon for speed and size and also a large collection of distinguished scalps taken in commercial sea rivalry. Among the hairpieces are those of two parties who don’t usually lose such contests, the United States Government and the great J. P. Morgan, Sr. Both of them had more money and unquenchable determination to run the red funnel off the deep. How Cunard sank them will be told in the next issue of Maclean’s.