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Queen Mary 2 (Photo: Cunard)

Cunard Line History: How Cunard Began and Where It's Going

Queen Mary 2 (Photo: Cunard)
U.K. Executive Editor
Adam Coulter
Lori A. May

Last updated
Aug 29, 2023

Read time
8 min read

Cunard Line, a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, was founded in 1840. Cunard is arguably one of the most venerable cruise line brands in the world, and the second oldest cruise line after P&O Cruises. Cunard Line has operated some of the most famous ships ever to set sail, including the Britannia, Lusitania, Mauretania and Cunard Queen Mary.

Read on to explore the history of Cunard ships and what to expect when you cruise Cunard.

The Early Days of Cunard Cruise Line: Cunard's Steam Ships

Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) (Photo:Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock)

The Cunard line was founded in 1840 by Samuel Cunard, a businessman from Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Cunard legacy began with steam powered ferries followed by ocean steamers.

Mr. Cunard first offered a mail service route to Prince Edward Island, then along the coast and later across the Atlantic Ocean. From there, Cunard became reputable for the transatlantic crossing speed of his British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company.

Cunard Line: Making History with the First Transatlantic Crossing

Cunard's first transatlantic service route was from Liverpool to Boston. Author Charles Dickens joined Samuel Cunard on this historical first, sailing in July 1840 aboard the Britannia.

While Mr. Cunard had established himself with international shipping vessels, the Cunard line soon also had a role in war history. In the 1850s, Cunard carried horses to the Crimean war. During the Crimean War (1853–1856), 11 of the line's ships were put into service, but Cunard still operated a transatlantic mail service.

Cunard Cruise Line History: Competition Begins for Steamship Services

Cunard was in competition with two other passenger shipping companies. Inman Line in particular carried the first fare-paying steerage passengers under steam in 1852; Cunard soon followed suit.

In the postwar years, Cunard ships emerged as the leading carrier of saloon passengers and, in 1863, started a second Liverpool to New York service, which catered to steerage passengers. Paving the way for modern convenience at sea, Cunard introduced the first flushing toilets at sea in 1870.

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.

Cunard Cruise Line's Introduction as a Luxury Passenger Vessel

Rising to the competition 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. Through this new venture, the Cunard line immediately set about commissioning a fleet to take on its rivals.

Among the Cunard ships added over the next few years were Servia, which launched in 1881 and was the first steel passenger liner with electric lighting; and Campania and Luciana, both Blue Riband winners launched in 1893, which sailed at 21.8 knots each.

Throughout the 19th century, the Cunard cruise 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.

A History of Cunard Line Ships: Breaking Records and Making History

The view of New York City and the Statue of Liberty from Queen Mary 2. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

The two new liners, Mauretania and Lusitania, were one-third larger than any existing ship and powered by turbine steam engines, then 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 capable of to rescue survivors of the Titanic.

Cunard Cruise Line History: Designed for the Classes and the Masses

Cunard's express liners carried three classes of passengers: 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 developed 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.

Cunard Cruise Line History: The Golden Age of Transatlantic Travel

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 their name but retains to this day its "White Star Service" onboard. This was the Golden Age of transatlantic travel, though it was to be short lived: Commercial transatlantic flights started in 1958 and within 10 years, almost all the transatlantic liners were gone.

The 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.

Cunard Cruise Line History: Replacing Steamships and Improving Efficiency

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 Her Majesty 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.

Cunard Cruise Line History: Company Mergers and Ship Acquisitions

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.

Cunard Cruise Line History: The Start of Cunard as We Know It Today

Observation Decks on Queen Mary 2 (QM2)

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 at the time, 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.

Queen Mary 2 -- the largest, longest, highest and most expensive ship ever built -- was christened by HM The Queen and made its maiden voyage. Queen Mary 2 took over the North Atlantic liner service between Southampton and New York and became the flagship of Cunard Line.

Cunard Cruise Line History: Developments in The Early 2000s

Much occurred for the Cunard cruise line in the early 2000s. In 2004, Caronia was sold. Cunard was moved under the Princess/P&O Cruises umbrella. In 2007, Cunard added Queen Victoria.

Also in 2007, Cunard announced the sale of Queen Elizabeth 2 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 to enter service in 2010: a 90,000-ton ship that is a sister vessel of Queen Victoria.

Celebrating the Cruise Line History of Cunard: New Ship Introduction

Workers aboard Queen Elizabeth prepare for the ship's UK debut in August 2021. (Photo: Cunard Line)

In May 2015, the 175th anniversary of Cunard cruising was celebrated with a sail-out of three ships: the present-day Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria.

In 2017, Cunard announced an order for a fourth ship, a next-generation vessel set to be the largest in the line's fleet based on a capacity of 3,000 guests. The new Cunard ship, Cunard Queen Anne, is scheduled for its inaugural sailing in May 2024. This will be the first new-build vessel for the line since Queen Elizabeth debuted in 2010.

Publish date January 08, 2020
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