Memories of Cunard from Liverpool’s golden age of cruise travel

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The crowds will gather on May 7 on Liverpool’s waterfront.

They will congregate around a rusty old ship’s propeller on the quayside outside the Merseyside Maritime Museum and bow their heads in silent contemplation in what has become an annual commemoration for families connected to one of Britain’s most tragic maritime disasters.

HMS Lusitania made her maiden trans-Atlantic voyage out of Liverpool in 1907 and became a casualty of WWI in May 1915, when she was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland by a German submarine.

Some 1,192 people, many innocent women and children, perished in the Lusitania disaster and the sinking became a turning point in the First World War.

To mark the centenary, the Merseyside Maritime Museum opened its new permanent Lusitania exhibition, a new space devoted to the ill-fated Cunard liner, in March this year.

The exhibition tells the story of the disaster through the eyes of the people of Liverpool. It’s the latest chapter of a story that started in 1982 when the ship’s propeller was returned to its Liverpool home.

“I want the items in the gallery to speak for themselves,” says Eleanor Moffat, the Museum’s Curator of Maritime Collections.

“These personal items are not necessarily worth much money but, when you learn the stories behind them, they connect us first hand to our maritime heritage.”

Prodigal return

The cruise liner company Cunard was founded in Liverpool in 1839 and its head office remained in the city until 1967.

Today the Cunard Building, where the company relocated its headquarters in 1916, is one of the World-Heritage-listed Three Graces on the Pier Head (along with The Royal Liver Building and the Port of Liverpool Building).

There are plans to open up the building this summer to visitors, running tours of the interior with its Italian marble columns and arches, fifth floor Boardroom and ground floor pillared ticket hall, plus the lounge for First Class passengers.

Cunard rapidly expanded its business to not just shipping across the Atlantic to the Unites States and Canada, but also routes to ports in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

By 1877 the company had 46 vessels: 19 on the Atlantic run, 12 in the Mediterranean and Black Sea services, and a further 13 serving Glasgow, Northern Ireland and Bermuda.

Cunard ships will return to Liverpool this summer to mark a historic anniversary.

The three largest Cunard ships ever built, the Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria will sail back into the city from May 24 to 26 to celebrate 175 years of the inauguration of Cunard’s transatlantic service from Liverpool in July 1840.

The Queen Mary 2 then sails on July 4 from Liverpool to New York, emulating the journey of Britannia some 175 years earlier to the day.

This will be the first time a Cunard ship has departed from Liverpool for America since January 1968. The departure will be preceded that day by a special commemorative concert at Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral while projections onto waterfront buildings over three nights will recount the story of Liverpool at sea.

“Liverpool still feels a very strong link as Cunard’s spiritual home,” adds Eleanor Moffat.

“Liverpool’s wealth stems from the golden era of the shipping lines in the 18th and 19th centuries. This period established the city as a centre for world trade and commerce.”

Visitor attractions

The return of the Cunard vessels is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of spectators to the city and showcase the ongoing urban regeneration of Liverpool’s historic waterfront.

Unesco granted six areas of Liverpool, including a couple along the waterfront, World Heritage status as a maritime mercantile city in 2004 and projects continue to this day, the latest of which is to expend the new Liverpool Cruise Terminal to accommodate ships with up to 3,500 passengers.

Visitors to the city for the Cunard anniversary will find, handily, that all the main maritime sights are contained within a one-mile sweep alongside the River Mersey.

This runs from the Cruise Terminal (Princes Dock) to the Echo Arena (Kings Dock) via the Albert Dock museum quarter and the Pier Head, home to the Three Graces.

Heading left from the Cruise Terminal, past the Titanic Memorial, the first major attraction is the Museum of Liverpool.

Opened in 2011, the angular, glass-fronted building tells the story of the city and its people. The Great Port gallery explores the development of the docks and the tidal River Mersey while the Global City gallery examines Liverpool’s pivotal role in the expansion of the British Empire.

The waterside walkway leads towards to the Albert Dock, where Tate Liverpool has been bringing world-class exhibitions, including the Turner Prize, to the Liverpool waterfront since the regeneration of the docklands in the late 1980s.

The gallery hosts the major exhibition of works by the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington during May. While you’re browsing the minimalist gallery space, stop by the floor-to-ceiling windows to catch glimpses of the cityscape at different angles along the waterfront.

Located just across from Tate Liverpool is the Merseyside Maritime Museum, incorporating the International Slavery Museum on its upper floors.

The latter explores Liverpool’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, opening the visit with powerful quotes, such as Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 speech, “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.”

Archive material

For a deeper understanding of Liverpool’s deep-rooted relationship with Liverpool, and an opportunity to browse rare items of maritime heritage, however, take a short stroll across the city centre to the University of Liverpool Library.

It’s here, amid the hushed reverence of a reading room in the department of Special Collections and Archives that members of the public can access the Cunard archive – by prior appointment.

Liverpool University acquired the Cunard Steamship Company Archive in the 1960’s and it has remained there on long-term deposit ever since.

It comprises over 400 linear metres of material and covers primarily the period from 1840 to 1990. The collection is arranged into 13 sections, such as Chairmen’s Papers, Accounts Department and Public Relations records.

The archive is a treasure trove of material, including daily bulletin on-board newsletters and menu cards.

A January 1842 passenger list from the Britannia shows a certain Charles Dickens, his wife and her servant sailing from Liverpool to Boston – Dickens paid 40 pounds and 19 shillings for a cabin room. A collection of black-and-white photos from May 1928 of life on board HMS Aquitania, meanwhile, looks like scenes straight out of the popular TV series Downton Abbey.

Cunard archivist Sian Wilks is busily collating a digital database of items from the archive for the company’s 175th anniversary.

Taking the Cunard archive online aims to widen access to both the local community and the increasing number of international enquiries, including those from Canada and United States for ancestry research.

She is also sourcing items to feature in an exhibition of Cunard cruise posters at the University of Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum in October this year. She says:

“There’s a lot of excitement about Cunard using Liverpool as a port again. It reflects the pride the city feels about the regeneration of its historic waterfront.”

Sian handled some 600 item retrievals for visitors last year and regularly assists members of the public searching for family ancestry links through the archive material.

“It’s rare for someone to find a family member through the archive but, when it does happen, it’s a great feeling,” she smiles.

The bunting will be out for the anniversary events this summer and fireworks will accompany the historic sailings. While the mood may be more sombre for the Lusitania commemoration, a sense of celebration and revelling in maritime heritage will be blowing in off the River Mersey this month. 

Cunard is coming home.

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This article was due to be first published in Discover Britain magazine earlier this year.

Liked this? Try also Exploring the Maritime Heritage of Unesco-listed Liverpool.

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