Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Co

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of Water Street, Liverpool.

1838 Shipping magnate Samuel Cunard, of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, with engineer Robert Napier and businessmen James Donaldson, George Burns and David MacIver formed the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (BNARMSPC). Note that this company was distinct from the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company founded in London in 1839 by Scot James Macqueen.

BNARMSPC successfully bid for the rights to a transatlantic mail shipping contract between England and America established by the British government to take advantage of the new steam ship technology. Winning this entitled the company to use the prefix RMS (Royal Mail Ship) on its vessels.

1840 In May the 648 gross ton coastal paddle steamer SS Unicorn, the company's first steamship, made the company's first transatlantic trip. Under the direction of Captain Douglas, she carried 24 passengers, including Edward Cunard (Samuel's son), on a trip lasting 14 days, at an average speed of 8 knots, thereby meeting the contract requirement of a crossing in a fortnight. Regular passenger and cargo service by steamship was inaugurated by the paddle steamer Britannia, the first ship commissioned by the company. On 4 July 1840 she sailed from Liverpool to Halifax, arriving in 12 days, then to Boston in 2 days 8 hours more.

SS Caledonia was another of their early ships, one of 4 wooden paddle steamers owned by the company.

For a decade Cunard had a monopoly of steam on the Atlantic

1845 David MacIver, who superintended the Liverpool branch of the company, died and the reins were passed to his brother, Charles MacIver.[1]

1847 The service was increased to a weekly sailing in each direction.

1852 The firm introduced screw-propelled ships on its Mediterranean service but, with its emphasis on reliability and safety, retained paddle steamers for its main service until the mid-1860s.

Although other companies introduced modern ships with screw propulsion, Cunard stuck to wooden hulled, paddle-driven ships on the North Atlantic routes. These had cramped cabins, candle lighting, poor food, and no public rooms. Nevertheless, the safety and regularity of his ships helped maintain Cunard's lead: the line carried most of the overseas mails for North America.

1852 Cunard's first iron hull introduced

The line helped provide transport in the Crimean War

1860 Entered the market for steerage accommodation which made screw propulsion imperative

1862 The last paddle-engined steamer joined the Atlantic fleet.

By this time iron hulls had become standard. It was also a period of reduced subsidies and increased competition from lines such as Inman, National and White Star

1865 Samuel Cunard died

1878 The firm became Cunard Steamship Company, Limited.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1901/02/15
  • Biography of Sir Samuel Cunard, ODNB
  • [1] National Archives