1840 - 1880
very first ship to use steam as support on an Atlantic crossing was the
American sailing ship Savannah who had been equipped with auxiliary
steam engines geared to two paddle wheels on the ship’s sides. In 1819,
she made the voyage between New Jersey and Liverpool in 27 days, but the
ship had relied on her sails most of the time – the engine had only been
running for 85 hours
during the entire voyage. Not
until 1831 did the Canadian paddle steamer Royal William cross the
Atlantic with steam as the prime source of drift. However, her engines
had to be stopped every few days because they had to be scraped from the
accumulated salt deposits from the seawater used in her boilers. While
the cleaning was being done, the Royal William depended on her sails.
Finally, seven years later the new coastal steamer Sirius, temporarily
hired for the trans-Atlantic voyage, made the whole voyage under continuous
|A colourful painting
of Cunard's pioneer Britannia.
to sailing vessels, the new steam ships were not much faster. However,
development accelerated faster and faster during this industrial revolution.
Enthusiastic visionaries such as the British engineer Isambard Kingdom
Brunel realised that there was a future in the steam ships. In 1838, he
commissioned the first of three magnificent sea-marvels – the Great
Western. She was larger and faster than any ship before her and her
interiors astonished the world.
the same time, the Briton Samuel Cunard too wanted to have a share of the
trans-Atlantic passenger trade. He formed his Cunard Line in 1840 and that
very same year he sailed on the Great Western back to England after
a visit in America to see the first of four new liners commissioned by
the him be launched on February 5th. The first of the new class
was called Britannia. She started the tradition of how Cunard would
name almost all of its ships in the future. All names would end with ‘-ia’
and they should be Latin words for different parts of the world. The three
near-identical sisters of the Britannia (which of course means Britain)
were Acadia (Nova Scotia), Caledonia (Scotland) and Columbia
completed, the Britannia looked every inch a sailing vessel with
three masts carrying fully rigged square sails. Her bow was
of the traditional clipper
style and the squared stern boasted its gilded ornaments. But the two giant
paddle wheels on the sides and the orange-red straight funnel between the
first and the second mast proved Britannia to be something more
than just another sailing vessel. With her – for the time – luxurious interiors,
Britannia was a ship for the créme de la créme.
Ordinary people who dared to go through an Atlantic crossing still used
the ‘reliable’ sailing ships – or as they were commonly called ‘Coffin
Ships’, because it was not seldom these vessels never arrived at their
destination. The Britannia was what you could call the first of
a new breed, offering a reliable service on a strictly regular schedule.
Cunard had given the world the first true, purpose-built ocean liner.
|This, for the time, very
luxurious stateroom is an example of the Britannia's interiors.
June 1840, the Britannia arrived at Liverpool after the trip from
her builders on the Clyde in Glasgow. The newspapers were not exactly hysterical
about her as only two lines were spared for her in the local press at the
day of her arrival. On Saturday, July 4th 1840 (Samuel Cunard’s
birthday as well as the American day of independence), 63 passengers including
Cunard himself along with his daughter embarked the Britannia who
was to leave England on her maiden voyage towards Boston in the New World.
The honour of being master on this very first voyage for any Cunard ship
was given to Captain Henry Woodruff, RN. On July 17th, Britannia
entered the harbour of Boston. The waiting crowds went wild with excitement
as the new Cunarder berthed at the specifically designed ‘Cunard Wharf’.
This voyage was considered by many distinguished Boston citizens as ‘the
most significant crossing of the Atlantic since the Mayflower’.
The time of crossing the Atlantic had been almost halved as the Cunard
Line had entered the Atlantic with a bang, starting an era that would last
for more than a hundred further years. The Britannia herself now
settled in a distinguished career.
the most glorious moments in the Britannia’s history was in January
1842 when she carried the famous novelist Charles Dickens along with his
wife Kate and their maid from England to America where he would attend
a series of lectures he had been invited to. He was not the most experienced
seaman so he chose the Britannia – one of the absolutely best ships
on the oceans. But Dickens did not like the voyage at all. He found his
cabin ‘claustrophobic’, and spent several days there before he recovered
from his seasickness. He later wrote that he feared for his life when he
saw the sparks from the funnel fly towards the hoisted sails. When Britannia
reached America, Dickens did not leave the railing of the ship until she
was securely moored to the berth. He returned to Europe by sailing ship,
as the true – and now more dedicated – conservatist he was.
escape from the frozen waters of Boston harbour.
an Arctic chill in January 1844, Boston harbour froze and trapped the Britannia
who was just about to leave for Liverpool. Cunard Line’s reputation of
reliability was threatened, but the citizens of Boston were obviously very
emotionally attached to the ship as some of the city’s leading inhabitants
put the money up to cut the ice up and free the liner. A seven-mile-long
channel was made for Britannia through she made a daring escape
and thereby saving the Cunard Line’s splendid reputation, reaching Liverpool
1847, Britannia was stranded outside Cape Race. She was pulled away
and repaired in New York. The next year she made her final crossing on
her Liverpool-Boston route. The years after Cunard did not offer Britannia
much more excitement. She was sold in 1849 to the German Confederation
Navy and was renamed Barbarossa. In 1852 she was transferred to
the Prussian Navy, bearing the same name. She continued to serve for the
Prussians as an accommodation and guard ship, but they subsequently laid
her up until 1880. Then the old ship was considered expendable and her
last task was to serve for the navy as a target ship. In this guise she
was sunk this same year. The beautiful Britannia – the pioneer of
the famous Cunard Line – was no more.
|The Britannia - Specifications:
||207 feet (63.2 m)
||34 feet (10.4 m)
||1,139 gross tons
||Side lever engines powering
two paddle wheels.