This article is part of an ongoing series of key moments in Cunard Line’s history.

Happy Birthday Samuel Cunard / Photo © Cunard Line

Happy Birthday Samuel Cunard / Photo © Cunard Line

Two hundred twenty-six years ago, on 21 November 1787, Samuel Cunard was born – a momentous day indeed! His triumph in life was the foundation of what became universally known as Cunard Line and the establishment of the first scheduled service across the Atlantic. That was a first; and what Cunard started, Cunard will one day finish!

Samuel Cunard established the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company – known from the outset as the Cunard Line – in 1839. It is difficult now to appreciate what a huge risk, what an enormous leap of faith, was involved in doing this. The oddest thing is that the company was ever formed by a man like Cunard at all. The gamble, the challenge, the uncertainty, the sheer modernity of it all would have sat well with a man like Brunel, but not with Samuel Cunard.

To begin with, a Canadian of American parentage does not seem the classic candidate to establish a British icon. And a man so unremittingly prudent, conservative, cautious and austere equally does not seem the man to take such huge economic risks or to push the edges of known technology that the founding of the company entailed.

But by 1840, at what was then the advanced age of 53, Cunard had established a scheduled weekly steamship service across the Atlantic against formidable financial and technical difficulties, just two years after the first successful steamship crossing of the Atlantic. And in every one of the 173 years since, Cunard ships have crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic, in peace and in war, without fail, like shuttles in a gigantic loom.

Samuel Cunard was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. With his father and brothers, he built up a thriving sailing ship company and pursued numerous other commercial interests. A prosperous, contented family man, happily settled in the town of his birth, a major figure in the local community and a prudent but conservative businessman, he suddenly risked everything he had and moved his family to Britain for a venture which, at the time, was so near to the cutting-edge of technology that it was regarded by many as foolhardy.

What prompted the departure from his placid and prudent norm was an advertisement by the British Admiralty for bidders to operate a timetabled steamship service across the Atlantic to carry the Royal Mail. The Admiralty, at that time responsible for carrying mail to the colonies, had seen how the introduction of railways on land had revolutionised the internal mail delivery. They wanted a maritime extension of the railways to do the same for the overseas mail. At that time sailing ships carried the overseas mail, and delivery time to Canada was at least six weeks, with a fair risk that it would not arrive at all – and certainly there was never a firm arrival date.

Samuel Cunard, despite having no experience with steamship sailing and no suitable ships, tendered for the contract and secured it. The financial risks – exacerbated by huge penalties for late or non-delivery of the mail – were ruinous and, as with all new and untested technology, the potential for catastrophe was ever-present. Cunard’s first steamship, Britannia, left Liverpool on 4 July 1840 – arriving in Halifax 12 days later to an overwhelming welcome.

Britannia was rapidly joined by three sister ships offering a weekly service – a genuine maritime extension of the railways.

Underwritten by the mail contract and bolstered by an unblemished safety record, Cunard’s new line prospered despite an onslaught of heavily subsidised foreign competition. Samuel was given a baronetcy by Queen Victoria in 1859 in recognition of his company’s service in the Crimean War – a service repeated in times of war on many occasions since.

By now a permanent resident in London, Sir Samuel died on 28 April 1865 and is buried in Brompton Road Cemetery. But his name lives on as the most famous shipping name of them all. Over 900 ships, across 139 associated companies, have proudly flown the Cunard flag. Some of these ships have been the most famous in history: Mauretania, Aquitania, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and QE2; while today’s Cunard Line fleet – Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria – are not only the largest ever built for the company but also the most famous sailing today. Flagship Queen Mary 2, which celebrates her 10th Anniversary in 2014, is the largest, longest, tallest, widest and grandest ocean liner ever built and is the only ocean liner in the world today, as well as being the fastest passenger ship afloat.

Happy Birthday, Sir Samuel!

Information source: Cunard Line

Comments closed.