Cruise Ship History – Cunard Line’s RMS Berengaria (formerly the SS Imperator) was sailing from England to New York when the 1929 Wall Street crash Hit – passengers went from millionaires to paupers while at sea.

Great youTUBE Video – press arrow – aboard the RMS Berengaria as it was “crossing the pond” when the 1929 Wall Street crash happened. Passengers left England as millionaires and arrived in New York without a penny. The ship was featured in The Beautiful and Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Postcard – the Imperator

The first plates of her keel were laid in 1910 at the Vulcan Shipyards in Hamburg, and she made her maiden voyage in 1913 Hamburg-America Line.


First Class Ballroom - First Class

At 51,680 gross tons, the Imperator was the largest ship in the world until the Vaterland sailed in 1914.


First Class Dining Salon - First Class

Before her launch on 23 May 1912, in order to make her longer than the RMS Aquitania, which was under construction at the time, she was fitted with a large bronze eagle gracing her forepeak with a banner emblazoned with HAPAG’s motto Mein Feld ist die Welt (English: My field is the world). The eagle’s wings were later torn off in an Atlantic storm, and it was removed.


Ballroom Dancing across “the pond” - First Class

The Imperator was discovered to be too top heavy due to the heavy fittings in her upper (first class) decks and the high funnels that graced her upper half.


Dining at sea in First Class

In order to correct the problem, concrete was poured along the ship’s bottom, her funnels were trimmed by 9 feet (2.7 m), and much of the heavy material used in the fitting out of her upper decks was replaced with lighter material. These measures only partially helped; due to her tendency to roll because of the top heaviness, Imperator was even nicknamed “Limperator”.


Entrance Hall – First Class

Among her luxurious features, the Imperator introduced a two-deck-high, Pompeiian-style swimming pool for her first-class passengers.


Many immigrants came to the USA aboard ships like the Imperator – Here is the “dining room” for Steerage where the majority traveled. 

Between 1920 and the entry into service of the Queen Mary in 1936, the Berengaria was the pride of the Cunard fleet. The ship, however, was originally built for the Hamburg-America line. It was built at the Vulcan Werft shipyard at Hamburg on the river Elbe. It was originally called the Imperator and was launched on 23 May 1912. As it was launched only 5 weeks after the Titanic disaster changes had been made both in hull design and the equipment on board in order to increase safety. At the time the Imperator was the world’s largest ship.




First Class Public Rooms

In August of 1914, as World War I began, she was laid up at Hamburg and remained inactive for more than four years. Following the 11 November 1918 Armistice, Imperator was taken over by the Allied Food Shipping and Finance Agreement, and allocated to the United States for temporary use as a transport, bringing American service personnel home from France.

She was commissioned as USS Imperator (ID-4080) in early May 1919. After embarking 2,100 American troops and 1,100 passengers, Imperator departed Brest on 15 May 1919, arriving at New York City one week later. Operating with the Cruiser and Transport Force from 3 June to 10 August, she made three cruises from New York to Brest, returning over 25,000 troops, nurses, and civilians to the United States.

While en route to New York City 17 June, Imperator assisted the French cruiser Jeanne d’Arc, which had broken down in the Atlantic Ocean. The President of Brazil was on board Jeanne d’Arc and Imperator received him and his party for transport to the United States, arriving there several days later.

b1.jpgDecommissioned at New York City in late November 1919, Imperator was transferred to the British, who assigned her to the Cunard Line.  Retaining the name Imperator, it made its first voyage for Cunard on 11 December 1919 from New York to Southampton. On 21 February 1920 it made its first voyage from Liverpool to New York. The ship continued to serve this route but it was decided to change the name to the Berengaria. It was converted from coal burning to oil burning engines and a complete overhaul was carried out by Armstrong Whitworth & Co. on the Tyne.

Assigned to the Cunard Line to replace the RMS Lusitania in 1920, the liner was renamed Berengaria after Queen Berengaria, the wife of Richard the Lionheart. The resonance being that Berengaria, Richard’s wife, never set foot on the land she ruled as did the renamed ship never returned to the country where it was built. This was the first Cunard ship not to carry the name of a Roman province; the name still stayed with the tradition, however, of ships that ended with ia. She entered service with Cunard in May 1922.


The Berengaria arriving in Europe. 

The ship, however, was not without its fair share of problems. In August 1922 the liner struck a submerged object which damaged one of her propellers. Later the same year she lost 36 feet of guard rail in the Atlantic during heavy weather. For the next 6 years, however, the ship operated successfully on Cunard’s express service in conjunction with the Mauretania and Aquitania.

In later years, she was used for cheap prohibition-dodging cruises, which earned her the unfortunate nickname “Bargain-area”.

During the early 1930’s the ship went aground twice on the approaches to Southampton, although she suffered no real damage. 1933 saw another major overhaul for the ship at Southampton, during which the interior was upgraded. The withdrawal of the Mauretania in 1934 placed further pressure on the ship to operate more efficiently and in 1935 she set a record passage on the New York to Southampton route.

During an overhaul at Southampton in 1936 a fire broke out in the first class cabins on the starboard side of the ship. The fire was soon controlled and extinguished but there was considerable smoke and water damage. It was ascertained that the cause was defective wiring, which was eventually to lead to the Berengaria’s demise. It made its final passage on the Southampton-Cherbourg-New York route on 23 February 1938.


New York dock scene

After it arrived in New York, on 3 March, a fire was discovered in the first class lounge. It took the ship’s crew and firemen over 3 hours to bring the blaze under control. After officials had examined the ship it was decided that they could not give her clearance to embark passengers. The following day she sailed back to Southampton where it was discovered that faulty wiring had been the cause of the fire again.


F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel with the Berengaria setting

The RMS Berengaria is also the vessel that takes the protagonists of the novel The Beautiful and Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, to Europe in search of a new start after the events of the novel. The use of the ship may be a link to the fact that she was renowned as a prohibition-dodging ship, and would link to the alcoholism of the main character Anthony Patch, who also flouted the laws of prohibition in the novel.

As the cost of renovation would be so high it was decided to withdraw the Berengaria from service altogether, on 23 March 1938. For the next few months she lay idle in Southampton dock until 19 October when it was decided to dispose of her. Sir John Jarvis MP bought the ship for demolition on the Tyne at Jarrow for £108,000. The ship sailed from Southampton on December. The furniture and fittings were auctioned in January 1939 and over 200 Jarrow men were employed in breaking up the old ship.

The outbreak of war, however, meant that the men were required elsewhere so it was not until 1946 that the remains of the hull were towed to Rosyth for the final process of dismantling. By this time few people were interested in the remains of an old liner that had been built in the Imperial Germany of 1913.

Launched 05-23-1912, Vulcan Shipyards, Hamburg
Gross Tonnage – 52,226
Dimensions – 269.09 x 29.96m
Number of funnels – 3
Number of masts – 2
Builder – A.G.Vulcan, Hamburg
Commisioned 05-24-1913
Size: 52.117 gross tons (European); 15,000 tons.
Length over all: 277.06 m (269.07 registered)
Width: 29.87 m
Depth: 19.20 m
Machines: 4 turbines AEG-Vulcan
Speed: 23 knots normal, 24 knots maximum
Capacity: 714+194 first class, 401+205 second class, 962+1772 third class passengers, 1180 crew.


About Michael L. Grace

MICHAEL L. GRACE is part of the award winning team that created the internationally performed award winning musical SNOOPY, based on PEANUTS by Charles M. Schultz. SNOOPY continues to be one of the most produced shows (amateur & stock) in America/Worldwide and has had long running productions in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and in London's West End. There are over 100 individual productions every year. He has written movies for TV, including the award-winning thriller LADY KILLER, various pilots and developed screenplays for Kevin Costner and John Travolta. Besides co-writing and co-producing SNOOPY, he wrote and produced the one-man play KENNEDY. He produced P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD by pulitzer prize winning author James Kirkwood. He wrote the stage thriller FINAL CUT which had productions in the UK, South Africa and Australia. His one-man play, KENNEDY - THE MAN BEHIND THE MYTH, was developed for HBO and has starred Andrew Stevens, Gregory Harrison and Joseph Bottoms. He has recently been involved in European productions with CLT-UFA, Europe's leading commercial television and radio broadcaster. He wrote MOWs THE DOLL COLLECTION, THE BOTTOM LINE and LAST WITNESS for German television. While in college and graduate school he worked as a foreign correspondent for COMBAT, the famous leftwing Paris daily, and as a travel writer. He visited more than 50 countries. He struggled as an actor, then joined the enemy and entered the training program at William Morris. He became a publicist and worked for Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, at Paramount and MGM. He followed with a brief stint as a story executive, working in the frantic horror genre period of the early 80s and wrote THE UNSEEN. He went onto write for episodic television and develop series pilots. He was a continuing writer on such series such as LOVE BOAT, PAPER DOLLS, and KNOTS LANDING. He developed screenplays for such major award winning directors as Nicolas Meyers, Tony Richardson and J. Lee Thompson. He has written for all the major networks and studios. He has been hired numerous times as a script doctor, doing many uncredited rewrites on TV movies and features. He is currently writing A PERSON OF INTEREST, a thriller novel, and, IT'S THE LOVE BOAT... AND HOW IT CHANGED CRUISING BY SHIP a non-fiction book dealing with how the hit TV series as a major cultural phenomenon and altered the style of cruising by ship. He was raised in Los Angeles. He attended St. Paul's, USC and the Pasadena Playhouse. He received a B.A from San Francisco State University where he majored in theatre arts and minored in creative writing. He is listed as a SFSU leading alumni. He also apprenticed at ACT - The American Conservatory Theatre. For a brief period he had intentions of becoming an Episcopal(Anglican) priest and attended seminary at Kelham Theological College in the UK. When "the calling" wasn't there, he left seminary and did graduate work at the American University of Beirut. He has guest lectured at USC, UC San Diego, McGill, Univ. of London and the Univ. of Texas on the business aspects of making a living and surviving as a writer, focusing on development hell, in the Hollywood entertainment industry. Grace is a lifetime member of the Writers Guild of America, the Dramatist Guild and former regional chairman of the Steamship Historical Society of America. He resides in Palm Springs.

Leave a Reply