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Cunard 175: The ship that started it all

3 July 2015 by Jen

Model of PS Britannia

Model of PS Britannia. Accession number 33.97

If you’ve been in Liverpool over the last couple of months it will have been hard to miss the city’s excitement. Cunard, one of the world’s most famous shipping lines, is celebrating their 175th anniversary right here in their home city and, like everything Cunard does, they’re doing it in style. The Three Queens (Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary 2) made their magnificent entry to the city on 25 May, but Cunard’s beginnings 175 years ago were on a slightly smaller scale.

The paddle steamer PS Britannia was the first ship of the Cunard line, with accommodation for 115 cabin passengers and about 225 tons of cargo.  Her maiden voyage began 175 years ago this weekend on 4 July 1840. On her first crossing she carried only 64 passengers, including among them the shipping line’s founder, Samuel Cunard, and his daughter.

Britannia would have been completely dwarfed by the Three Queens, however at the time she was so large that passengers had to be taken aboard by a steam ferry while she anchored out in the Mersey. None of Liverpool’s embarkation berths could then accommodate so large a ship.

Cunard is now known of course for its luxury and comfortable crossings but one famous passenger was less than impressed by his time aboard Britannia. In 1842, Charles Dickens crossed from Liverpool to Boston and gave a somewhat unfavourable account of the voyage, describing his state room as:

“this utterly impracticable, thoroughly hopeless, and profoundly preposterous box”

It is fair to say that the Britannia was certainly smaller and less lavish than the liners who followed her but she was in fact luxurious by the standards of ships of her day. Improvements in comfort and efficiency were constantly being made though and in 1867 Dickens again travelled with Cunard, this time on the Russia, and seems to have had a better experience.

“The ship was fragrant with flowers and bubbles pervaded the nose”

All these later ships though, from the ‘fragrant’ Russia to today’s magnificent Queens, have followed in Britannia’s wake.  She made 40 Atlantic crossings in total and held the honour of being the first ship to be entrusted with the transatlantic mail. Most significantly though, Britannia marked the beginning of one of the world’s most famous and successful shipping lines.

From today you can see a beautiful model of the Britannia at the Maritime Museum as part of our new display celebrating 175 years of Cunard crossing the Atlantic in style.

In addition to this new display we’ve got lots of other free events over the next two days as part of the Transatlantic 175 weekend celebrating the return of the Queen Mary 2 to Liverpool. You can also explore Cunard’s many connections to the city with our trail – pick up a copy when you visit or download the Cunard 175 trail (pdf).

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