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Special Collections & Archives: Cunard 175 revisitedaccredited archive service logo

SC&A includes manuscripts and archives, medieval to modern; early and finely printed books, and science fiction collections.

Revisiting 'Cunard 175 - a voyage through history'

Cunard White Star poster 1930s, showing passengers on deck and the RMS Queen MaryIn 2015 Cunard celebrated its 175th anniversary which presented a fantastic opportunity for Special Collections & Archives (SCA) to showcase the Cunard Archive. Occupying over 400 linear metres, the archive contains most of the surviving business records produced by Cunard since it became a limited company in 1878. As a dynamic corporate memory, the archive gives rich insight into the Company’s history and is a unique resource for researching Cunard’s growth and development as a business. 

The exhibition Cunard 175 – a voyage through history was the first to occupy the full extent of SCA’s newly-expanded exhibition area. It attracted many visitors, particularly those from outside of the University. Its aim was to represent Cunard’s rich heritage through the presentation and interpretation of original documents and photographs.

Five years on, in 2020, we revisited Cunard 175 - a voyage through history and bring some of the highlights of the exhibition online.

Samuel CunardIn 1839 Samuel Cunard (1787-1865) a shipowner from Nova Scotia, founded the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Its purpose was to provide a scheduled steamship service to carry mail across the Atlantic. On 4th July 1840 the Britannia left Liverpool for Halifax and Boston, marking the company’s beginnings in transatlantic travel. Cunard went on to change the face of ocean travel forever.

Now in its 180th year, Cunard is one of the longest-serving names in shipping history. Its story is one of success, although it is also an eventful and complex one. Recognised throughout the world, the name Cunard is associated with safety and luxury. Cunard has a particularly strong affinity with the people of Great Britain - perhaps nowhere more so than in Cunard's spiritual home of Liverpool, “where everyone knew somebody who worked for Cunard”.

Cunard 175 – a voyage through history showcases a selection of records from the unique resource that is the Cunard archive. Cunard’s rich heritage is represented through original documents and photographs, bringing to life the story of its early years through to the golden age of transatlantic travel.

In 1839 Samuel Cunard (1787-1865) a shipowner from Nova Scotia, founded the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Its purpose was to provide a scheduled steamship service to carry mail across the Atlantic.

On 4th July 1840 Cunard’s ship, the 1,156-ton Britannia, left Liverpool and arrived on schedule in Halifax, Nova Scotia just ten days later, marking the company’s beginnings in transatlantic travel. Within a year Britannia and her three sister ships were providing the first timetabled weekly steamship service across the Atlantic.

Samuel Cunard made safety a priority and took a measured and steady approach when it came to the introduction of new technology.  This conservative stance enabled his company to survive fierce competition from rival shipping companies. Within a few decades the importance of the mail contract was dwindling as emigration became Cunard’s next guarantee of success and prosperity.


  • Contract of Co-partnership (May 1840)

Contract of Co-partnership May 1840

Contract of Co-Partnership dated 5th, 23rd, 25th, 26th and 28th May 1840, between the Hon. Samuel Cunard of Halifax in Nova Scotia, Merchant, on the one part, and the persons to the contract of Co-Partnership.  The name of the firm to be The British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company.


  • Passenger list for Halifax and Boston (Jul 1840-Dec 1844)

Passenger List for Halifax and Boston with Charles Dickens listed as a passenger in January 1842

Charles Dickens is listed here as a passenger on the voyage from Liverpool to Boston on 3rd January 1842. He travelled with his wife and her servant. Unimpressed by his first voyage on board Cunard’s Britannia, Charles Dickens wrote about his experience in his travelogue, American Notes. The cabin was described as being “a profoundly preposterous box”.                     


  • Menu card (4 Jul 1890)

undefined In celebration of the Cunard Company’s Jubilee, a dinner was held on board the Scythia at Liverpool. Choices included 'turtle soup', 'ducklings' and 'ice cream'. 


Cunard’s first ships were plain, practical, sturdy and un-ostentatious; far removed from the luxury they are traditionally associated with.  By the end of the 19th century however, increased competition from other shipping companies brought about a considerable change in standards.

The completion of the Mauretania, Lusitania and Aquitania in the early 20th century ushered in a new era of transatlantic travel. Known as ‘floating palaces’ their interiors were designed with an opulence that had not yet been seen on Cunard ships.  This was “the era of afternoon tea, palm courts, string quartets and changing outfits several times a day while your palace dashed across the North Atlantic at 25 miles an hour!”

By the 1940s the art deco splendour of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth brought in the golden age of transatlantic travel with every voyage beginning or ending with film stars, media moguls, businessmen and royalty. 


  • Glamorous evenings

Passengers and bell boy on the main staircase of the Aquitania  Passenger enjoying a meal in the Queen Mary dining roomundefined

Passengers being greeted by a bellboy on the main staircase of the Aquitania; a delightful meal in one of the Queen Mary’s dining rooms; and showing that 'Getting there is half the fun!'

(D42/PR2/1/17/D72; D42/PR2/1/97/F20 & D42/PR2/1/97/F67)

  • Deck scenes



These playful deck scenes invoke a sense of some of the fun to be had on a Cunard cruise (for humans and their pets alike) - in particular the iconic afternoon tea and deck games.

(D42/PR2/12/13/9; D42/PR2/10/9/4 & D42/PR2/12/6/17)

Since its inception in 1839 Cunard has required large numbers of employees to sustain its shipping operation and the vast infrastructure required to support the functioning of its ships.

Technological advances and strategic changes have required some roles to adapt, and some, such as that of stoker, to cease altogether.  Others have remained constant throughout Cunard’s history.

As is often the case with business archives, few staff records have survived.  Those records remaining are often limited to sporadic years for positions such as Captains and Engineers.  Insight into the activities of other employees is often reliant upon printed records such as staff magazines and the publicity photographs that were taken by the company, although few identify the individuals within them.

  • Commodore Sir Arthur Rostron, KB CBE RD RNR (1869-1940)

Commodore Sir Arthur RostronAs master of the Carpathia - the Cunard liner which famously rescued the survivors of the Titanic – Rostron became one of Cunard’s most celebrated Captains.


  • Sir Percy Bates, Cunard Chairman

undefinedSir Percy Bates became deputy Chairman of the Cunard Steamship Co. in 1922 and was Chairman from 1930 until his death in 1946. Sir Percy Bates was instrumental in the development of two of Cunard’s most prestigious vessels, the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and oversaw historic periods in the company’s history, including the formation of Cunard White Star Line and the Second World War.


  • Female employees

Lady Tweedsmuir, Cunard's first female DirectorAlthough considerably out-numbered by their male colleagues, women were employed by Cunard in various roles.  On board the ships women held positions that were generally domestic in nature, however Lady Tweedsmuir (1915–1978) became Cunard’s first female Director in 1966, aged just 51. Her appointment was to a Board of Directors which had heretofore been completely masculine.


  • Able seaman Frank Molloy

undefinedShown in Cunard uniform working on the Carinthia as the vessel casts off from Montreal Pier for Liverpool. One of the few examples of an individual being identified in a photograph.


  • The New Cunard Building [1917]

undefinedCunard’s headquarters were based in Liverpool from the company’s inauguration in 1840 until 1967. The continued growth of the company saw its headquarters on Water Street become the “hub of an enormous business'. Soon a purpose-built headquarters would be required and by 1914 construction of Cunard’s “shoreside palace to match the palaces of the sea” would begin.

The design of the Cunard Building was the combined work of Messrs. Willink and Thicknesse of Liverpool and Messrs. Mewes and Davis of London and was based on the Farnese Palace in Rome. Completed in 1917 the Cunard Building on Liverpool’s historic waterfront became known as one of the Three Graces. This commemorative publication provides an overview of the design and construction of the building and is supplemented with illustrations.


The design of Cunard ships have changed considerably since the company first began carrying mail across the Atlantic in 1840.  Its earlier ships such as the Britannia and Hibernia were wooden paddle steamers and although completed journeys safely with “commendable regularity” the company was “reluctant to innovate on matters of technology or passenger comfort”.

However, increased competition from other shipping companies and the commercial opportunity of emigration led to the design and construction of much larger and faster ships.  Technological advances saw the company progress from paddle wheels to screw-driven ships and the use of iron and steel for its hulls.  Increasingly Cunard's focus moved towards the tourist market resulting in its ships being designed with hospitality in mind.

Almost 250 vessels have been owned or operated by Cunard, with many of its most famous ships being built in UK shipyards.

  • The Ship Beautiful (1914-1950)

Palladian Lounge in the AquitaniaRegarded by many to be the most beautiful ship ever built, the Aquitania was the last of the trio of four-funnelled liners that led Cunard majestically into the world of floating palaces.

(Palladian Lounge, D42/PR2/1/17/D137)


  • The ‘Queen Mary’: a book of comparisons (1936)

undefinedIn 1934 Her Majesty Queen Mary became the first monarch to launch a merchant ship when she named liner 534 as Queen Mary. In order to convey the size of “the stateliest ship now in being” Cunard used familiar landmarks and objects as comparisons, a practice which is still in use today.



  • ​Mauretania II (1938)

Image from a Mauretania II commemorative booklet showing its launchCommemorative booklet for the launch of the Mauretania II at Cammell Laird & Co Limited, Birkenhead on Thursday 28th July 1938.  The naming ceremony was performed by Lady Bates and was watched by spectacular crowds.


  • Cunard Staff Magazine (1918-1927)

Front cover of the Cunard staff magazineThe Cunard Magazine was a house magazine, first produced in January 1918.  It was initially set up as a means to keep in contact with Cunard staff on active war service, in an effort to show the company's support and to keep up morale. Staff members were encouraged to submit their contributions to the magazine, which appear in the form of correspondence, stories, poems, anecdotes, sketches and articles.



  • Lusitania Daily Bulletin (19 Aug-2 Sep 1912)

Front page of the Cunard Daily Bulletin newspaperAdvances in wireless technology enabled ships to receive regular news updates at sea.  This development in communication led to the popularity of newspapers which could now be printed on board.  They contained a combination of local and international news, supplemented with advertisements. Other examples include 'Ocean Times' and 'Cunard News'.


  • Menu cards and other printed ephemera were provided regularly for passengers and often featured attractive covers. A combination of the Cunard branding and artists' designs were used to transform a simple item into a memento to treasure. 

Front cover of a Cunard menu card, illustrated with a winter sceneCunard programme of events leafletundefined

(D1169/3/1a; D42/PR3/11/7 & D42/PR4/30/8/6)

  • Caronia publicity brochure

undefinedBrochures were an important visual tool used by Cunard to advertise their ships and cruises to potential passengers. Earlier examples for first class travel included illustrations that helped portray the opulent and tasteful surroundings that passengers had come to expect from a Cunard cruise. 

This Caronia brochure uses an elegant scene of a couple in their first class bedroom suite to promote some of the facilities that passengers could expect on board. In this example a  "bedside telephone link with anywhere in the world to the roomy built-in wardrobe - every detail for comfort is there".


Since the Crimean War in 1853, Cunard has served a role in every major conflict that Great Britain has been involved with.  During such times the company has offered significant contributions in terms of maritime experience and assistance involving both its land and sea resources.

Many of Cunard’s ships have been requisitioned to be used as armed cruisers, troop transports, and hospital or prison ships, enabling the transportation of crucial supplies and millions of troops.  Assistance from Cunard and its ships during the Second World War was commended by Sir Winston Churchill who wrote that “without their aid the day of final victory must unquestionably have been postponed . . . the world owes a debt that it will not be easy to measure”.

Although it is difficult to establish the exact number, many Cunard personnel have lost their lives through serving their country. When the Lusitania sank, 401 crew members perished.  In honour of those fallen during the First World War a memorial was erected outside the Cunard building in 1921.

  • Captain Dutton's Abstract Journal: Umbria (1897-1903)

undefinedA record of the numbers of troops, doctors and nurses who were carried on transport voyages during the Boer War.



  • Programme and letter (Feb 1917-Nov 1918)

Programme for a concert by the High Explosives undefined In times of war Cunard made its land resources available to the British Government as well as its ships.  This included one of its warehouses in Bootle which was given over to the manufacture of shells during the First World War.  Around 900 women were employed there.

A letter signed by Cunard’s Chairman and General Manager giving thanks to Miss M. Chadwick for her assistance at the shell factory and a programme for an event by The High Explosives held at the Shell Works, which was organised for injured soldiers are shown.

(D327/1/7 & 9)

  • Second World War images (1940s)

undefinedAerial photograph showing large numbers of Allied troops being transported on the Queen Elizabeth.

After the war had ended Cunard ships transported ‘War Brides’ to America and Canada.  Often the names of the women and their children are recorded on the reverse of photographs that can be found in the archive, along with the towns that they have travelled from.


Immigration restrictions imposed by the U.S. during the 1920s had a direct impact on many shipping companies, including Cunard. One of the most immediate effects was the decrease in demand for third class travel. Cunard successfully adapted to these changes by redesigning the passenger accommodation on its ships and by introducing a new ‘tourist class’. It was anticipated that these developments would appeal to a new audience and therefore a new type of passenger. The changes were successful, with cruising becoming increasingly popular during the 1930s and an important revenue for Cunard.

Cunard used a variety of ways to promote its shipping services, including brochures, films and articles. One of the most visual methods was posters. The examples shown are a selection of those that were used in Cunard's sales offices throughout the world. The glamour, excitement and safety portrayed in these posters would have informed potential travellers what they could expect from travelling with Cunard.

Their vibrant colours and attractive designs are typical of the advertisements used by Cunard during the interwar period; often reflecting the changing expectations of travellers and the growing emphasis on cruising.

Cunard 1930s poster, America this year by RMS Queen MaryCunard 1930s travel poster showing red funnelsCunard 1930s travel poster showing female passenger smiling

A selection of Cunard travel posters that were exhibited at the University's Victoria Gallery & Museum (D42/PR11)