The Cunard Line has a long and fascinating history. It was created in 1839 when Samuel Cunard won the Admiralty’s tender to provide a transatlantic mail service to be carried by steamships between Great Britain and North America. The service was inaugurated in 1840 when the steamship Britannia made the first crossing to Halifax and then Boston.
Cunard’s ‘ocean greyhounds’ soon faced stiff competition from other American, British and especially German companies, who all wanted a share in the profitable business of ferrying mail, European emigrants and wealthy passengers across the Atlantic.
It was the particular desire to attract these wealthy passengers that drove ship-owners to build ever larger and more luxurious ocean liners, and the record-breaking Cunarders certainly excelled in scale and luxury. Cunard ships were the first to boast electricity on board, gymnasia and health centres, children’s playrooms, libraries, wireless communication, bridal suites, ice boxes, en-suite accommodation and lounges for women.
The company’s fortunes were deeply affected by the Crimean War and by the two World Wars, when many of its ships were requisitioned and a number lost. Two of the most famous tragedies in the company’s history were the loss of the Lusitania in 1915 and the Lancastria in 1940.
After the Second World War the age of transatlantic travel by sea came to an end with the rise of commercial passenger transport by air. Cunard adapted to the new era by building smaller ships, designed for the holiday cruise market and able to sail through the Suez and Panama canals.
Today this company, over 160 years old, no longer is a British company and has operated of a suburb in Los Angeles. The British flag for Cunard no longer exits and their ships now fly flags of convenience. The ships have a few British personel but the majority of staff is international. The legendary vessels as the Mauretania, Aquitania, Berengaria, and the original Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary of the 1930s are gone along with that famed service. Cunard is now just another part of the Carnival corporation and their ships reflect “Vegas” style mass travel.
Petulance of elderly passenger on discovering only one magnum of champagne in his stocking’, Cunard Christmas Annual 1928 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
During its long history, the Cunard Line has produced many publications. These are mainly promotional brochures and tourist guides for passengers but some are magazines that seem to have been aimed at Cunard staff and crews. This Christmas publication of 1928 appears to be an example. The front cover has a strangely nostalgic period illustration. It is a port scene with characters dressed in clothes from the mid-19th century, while the ships are mainly sailing vessels except for one on the horizon, which has steam coming out of its single funnel.
On page 11 there is a message from the chairman, Sir Thomas Royden: ‘To all associated with the Cunard Line I send my heartiest greetings for Christmas and the New Year. My best thanks to all Cunarders, both ashore and afloat, for their work during the past twelve months.’ It is interesting to see the term ‘Cunarder’, now normally a term for the vessels, being used also to refer to the company’s staff.
“When are you going to start singing?” Cunard Christmas Annual 1928, p 39. Repro ID: F6200 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
The magazine’s contents are a strange mixture of short stories, poems, humorous cartoons and illustrations, and reproductions of paintings and drawings of varying quality, as well as photographs. As one might expect to find in a publication meant for the company’s staff, most of the humorous cartoons, gently poke fun at the passengers. However, the editors are not averse to making fun of the company and its history too, and one has to applaud an organization confident to laugh at itself in this way.
Other offerings merely comment good-humoredly on the normal festive excesses we all indulge in at Christmas. We know from the Cunard Cook Book by Carol Wright (1969) that the Christmas recipe suggested for the Berengaria in 1923 was an elaborate roast turkey with truffles in a Madeira wine sauce.
Only two years after this magazine was published the Cunard Line, like many others, was hit very hard by the economic depression that followed the 1929 Wall Street crash. Building work on two new ships stopped and the company merged with its old and equally struggling rival, the White Star Line. Together, they both received financial help from the British government to revitalize their fleets.