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Cunard Line History

Adam Coulter
U.K. Executive Editor
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Cunard's Queen Mary 2 in Red Hook
Cunard logo

Who is Cunard Line's CEO? Josh Leibowitz, Senior VP

What year was Cunard Line founded? 1840

Which vessels are in the Cunard fleet?

  • Queen Mary 2
  • Queen Victoria
  • Queen Elizabeth

See the complete list.

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Cunard Line, a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, has a long and illustrious history and is arguably one of the most venerable cruise line brands in the world, with a lineage stretching back to 1840 -- making it the second oldest cruise line (after P&O Cruises) and operating some of the most famous ships ever to set sail, including the Lusitania, Mauretania, Carpathia, Queen Mary and QE2.

The line was founded in 1840 by Samuel Cunard, a businessman from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He applied for and received a contract from the British government to carry the Royal Mail from Britain to North America on a fleet of steamships that would maintain a weekly service. The first route was from Liverpool to Boston via Halifax, and the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company was born. Soon after, the company changed its name to Cunard Steamships Ltd.

Cunard was in competition with two other lines on the route, one of which, Inman Line, carried the first fare-paying steerage passengers under steam in 1852; Cunard soon followed suit. During the Crimean War (1853–1856), 11 of the line's ships were put into service, but still operated a transatlantic mail service. In the postwar years, Cunard emerged as the leading carrier of saloon passengers and in 1863 started a second Liverpool to New York service, which catered for steerage passengers.

There is no other line more closely associated with Cunard than White Star Line, which was founded in 1871 and set the standard for luxury vessels, moving the dining room midship and expanding cabins. Cunard was slow to respond and began rapidly losing ground to its archrival.

In 1879 the privately held British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company was reorganized as a public stock corporation, the Cunard Steamship Company, Ltd., and immediately set about commissioning a fleet to take on its rivals. Among the ships added over the next few years were Servia, which launched in 1881 and was the first passenger liner with electric lighting; and Blue Riband winners, Campania and Luciana, (both launched in 1893), which sailed at 21.8 knots each.

Throughout the 19th century, Cunard Line set the standard for larger, faster and more luxurious ships but at the end of the 19th century, the Germans entered the Blue Riband race setting a record in 1897 of 22.3 knots.

Stung by losing the title, Cunard built a pair of ships that would not only be the largest in the world, but the fastest.

The two new liners, Mauretania and Lusitania, were one-third larger than any existing ship and powered by turbine steam engines, a new technology. Mauretania was the slightly faster sister and quickly took the North Atlantic speed record (and held it for a record 22 years). It had a long, profitable career. Lusitania, on the other hand, was less fortunate. Continuing to carry passengers and cargo during World War I, it was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland.

Meanwhile, 1902 saw the launch of a small ship destined to become one of the most famous ships of all time -- Carpathia -- not for setting transatlantic speed records, but because the tiny vessel (13,600 tons), sailed through ice fields on the night of April 12, 1912 at a speed greater than it was supposedly capably of, to rescue survivors of the Titanic.

Cunard's express liners carried three classes of passenger: first, second and steerage. First class was opulent, with public rooms imitative of the decor of country houses and hotels. Second class was comfortable and cheaper. Steerage was for immigrants.

The interwar years were tough for Cunard, nevertheless in 1922, the line's Laconia undertook the first-ever world cruise.

During this period, Cunard also fielded a fleet of three grand liners on the premier Southampton to New York run: Mauretania, Aquitania (a larger four-funnel ship that would sail for 35 years) and Berengaria.

In the late 1920s Cunard lay down plans for a pair of liners that would be capable of maintaining the weekly service between Southampton and New York. Construction was delayed by the Great Depression, but the British government issued loan guarantees on the condition that Cunard merge with its rival, White Star Line, which took place in 1934. Cunard-White Star Line launched Queen Mary in 1935 and Queen Elizabeth in 1939.

After the war, Cunard resumed transatlantic service with the Queens and a large fleet of smaller ships, including the notable Caronia, Cunard's first purpose-built cruise ship. In 1947, the line bought the rest of the remaining White Star stock and dropped the name, but retains to this day its "White Star Service" onboard. This was the Golden Age of transatlantic travel, however, it was to be short lived: Commercial transatlantic flights started in 1958 and within 10 years almost all the transatlantic liners were gone. Mauretania was retired in 1965, Queen Mary and Caronia in 1967, and Queen Elizabeth in 1968. Queen Mary was sold to the City of Long Beach, California, to become a hotel and conference center. It remains there to this day, allegedly haunted, having been a shoreside attraction longer than it sailed the seas.

In 1967, one of the line's most famous and loved ships, Queen Elizabeth 2, named for the earlier ship, Queen Elizabeth, was launched by HM The Queen. QE2, as it became known, made its maiden voyage in 1969, as a two-class ship for crossings and a one-class ship for cruises. QE2 had a top speed of 28.5 knots. To replace inefficient steamships, Cunard acquired two ships already being built, launched in 1971 and 1972 as Cunard Adventurer and Cunard Ambassador.

From the 1970s until the 1990s, Cunard Line passed through a series of owners that tried successively to build or buy running mates for QE2. The first was Trafalgar House, a properties investment company that acquired Cunard in 1971. It commissioned two new ships for the line, Cunard Countess and Cunard Princess (Cunard Ambassador was gutted by fire in 1974, and Cunard Adventurer was sold in 1976).

In 1982, the British government requisitioned QE2 to serve as a troopship in the Falklands campaign. Upon the ship's return, it was refurbished and returned to cruising. In 1984, Cunard acquired Norwegian American Cruises and its highly regarded ships, Sagafjord and Vistafjord. In 1986, the line acquired Sea Goddess I and Sea Goddess II from Norske Cruises. In 1987, QE2 was re-engined. Its trouble-prone, bulk oil guzzling steam turbines were removed and replaced with diesels. The improvements in fuel efficiency and reliability ensured the ship's survival.

In 1998, Cunard was acquired by Carnival Cruises, which merged the management of Cunard with Seabourn, its other luxury brand. By that time, Cunard was down to two ships, QE2 and Vistafjord (later renamed Caronia). Carnival's chairman, Mickey Arison, had big plans for Cunard and to the surprise of many he commissioned a new liner, one which would be superlative in every way.

In January, Queen Mary 2 -- the largest, longest, highest and most expensive ship ever built -- was christened by HM The Queen and made its maiden voyage. In May, Queen Mary 2 took over the North Atlantic liner service between Southampton and New York and became the flagship of Cunard Line. In that month QE2 was repositioned to make cruises out of Southampton for the British market. In November, QE2 became the longest-serving ship in Cunard's history, and Caronia was sold.

Also in 2004, Cunard was moved under the Princess/P&O Cruises umbrella.

In 2007 Cunard announced the sale of QE2 for $100 million to developers from Dubai, where the ship was due to be converted for use as a hotel. It sailed its last voyage in November 2008, and has lain dormant and rusting in Dubai ever since due to the economic crash.

To retain a three-ship fleet, the company ordered its third Queen Elizabeth, a 90,000-ton ship that is a sister vessel of Queen Victoria, which entered service in 2010.

In 2017, Cunard announced an order for a fourth an as-yet-unnamed ship, a next-generation vessel that is set to be the largest in the line's fleet (based on passenger capacity) when it debuts in 2022. The 113,000-gross-tonne ship will carry 3,000 passengers and become the first new-build vessel for the line since Queen Elizabeth debuted in 2010.

Updated January 08, 2020

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