The Early Years of Sailing Packet Ships (1815 to 1829)
During the 1800s, communication was facilitated by the mail system. To get the mail across the Atlantic or another body of water, packet boats were used. The packet boats of this era were sailing ships that delivered not only mail but emigrants looking for freedom or a new land. As a result, numerous ship broking companies were formed to meet the demand.
1815 – Brodie McGhie Wilcox opens a ship broking company in London.
1817 – New York-based Black Ball Line is founded and offers its first scheduled transatlantic service between Liverpool and New York City with four packet ships. Their fully rigged sail ships carry mail as well as passengers. A ship would depart New York for Liverpool on the first and sixteenth of each month. Some sources say that early Black Ball captains had commanded ships during the War of 1812.
1818 – One of Black Ball Line’s sailing packet ships, James Monroe, becomes the first packet to sail “on time” (at a specific, scheduled time, not just a date) when it departs New York for Liverpool on January 5th at 10:00 am. This is the start of fixed schedules for voyages.
1822 – Arthur Anderson joins Wilcox at his ship broking company in London, now called Wilcox and Anderson. Their small fleet of sailing ships trade between England and the Iberian Peninsula countries of Spain and Portugal. This company would eventually be called Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, P&O for short.
1823 – Although the United States Post Office Department had been using boats to carry mail, it wasn’t until 1823 that the United States’ waterways were declared as postal roads.
1824 – Clipper sailing ship, Emerald makes unprecedented time sailing between Liverpool and Boston in 17 days. (Typical number of sailing days was closer to 30 days).
1824 – One of the most prominent Canadian shipping and trading companies was owned and managed by the Cunard family (pre-Cunard Line). During the 1820’s, the Cunard family bought and sold sailing ships, sailed to and from the West Indies for trade, and was also involved in timber trade with Britain. After Samuel Cunard’s father died, the family-owned business changed its name to S. Cunard and Company.
1827 – New York-based Collins Line starts a line of packet sailing ships that sail between New York and Vera Cruz, Mexico.
1827 – St. George Steam Packet Company of Liverpool is established to run routes between London and Cork, Ireland carrying emigrants and cargo. Their early sailing packet ships included Earl of Roden, Solway and Magdalena.
Paddle Steamer Packet Ships for Passengers (1830 to 1849)
The first commercial steamship companies grew out of the growing demand from emigrants to reach British North America via transatlantic passenger services. As wind made shipping schedules difficult to keep, sailing packets were replaced by paddle steamers.
Unfortunately ships were unable to carry sufficient amounts of coal for the lengthy trips, thus there was still a need to use wind and sails. Eventually bigger ships with more efficient engines and improved technology increased reliability and speed. This demonstrated steam was faster than sail.
Lucrative government mail contracts were awarded to companies that were reliable and fast. Through the years, vessels continued to be built bigger and faster with the hopes of being awarded a coveted Blue Riband for fastest average speed across the Atlantic.
1830 – Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company is formed with over 200 shareholders.
1831 – Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company launch the paddle steamship, Royal William. After Samuel Cunard sees the ship in the port of Halifax, he becomes a shareholder in Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company.
1832 – A Cholera outbreak results in a downturn of the economy in Canada. The paddle steamer, Royal William, sits idle over the winter and experiences financial troubles. Plans are made to send it to England to be sold.
1833 – Steamship Royal William is the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, from Quebec to England, almost entirely by steam. It would be purchased by the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company to be operated on transatlantic crossings.
1835 – Wilcox and Anderson are employed as London agents for the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company. They join forces with Captain Richard Bourne of City of Dublin Steam Packet Company to establish their new company, Peninsular Steam Navigation Company. They operate their 206-ton paddle steamer, William Fawcett between London, Spain and Portugal.
1835 – The registration of seamen is introduced with the Merchant Shipping Act 1835 in the UK. It allows the government to identify individual seamen to serve in the Royal Navy. It initially compiled registers of seamen from previous crew lists to form the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen. Each seaman was given a “ticket”, with their own unique number. The index became known as the Register of Merchant Seamen.
1835 – The Merchant Shipping Act also requires that the Master of each ship, undertaking a foreign voyage, to complete Schedule C, Crew List (Foreign). The masters of British ships were required to enter into agreements with their crews. Copies of these agreements and crew lists were transmitted to the Registrar General of Seamen within 48 hours of the ship’s return to a UK port.
1835 – In addition to trade with Mexico, Collins Line starts transatlantic trade between New York and Liverpool with its new ship, Shakespeare. His ships primarily carried cotton for England. Collins Line’s main competition at the time was Black Ball Line.
1836 – On a voyage from Liverpool to New York, Diamond (operated by City of Dublin Steam Packet Company) took 100 days instead of the 30 days. As a result, 10% of steerage passengers died of starvation because the crossing took longer than anticipated. During these years, steerage passengers were required to bring their own food onboard.
1837 – The paddle steamer, Sirius is built for St. George Steam Packet Company. The ship would be chartered by British and American Steam Navigation Company for transatlantic passenger service.
1838 – British and American Steam Navigation Company charters and operates the steamship Sirius for a transatlantic crossing. On April 22nd they are awarded the very first Blue Riband for recording the highest speed across the Atlantic, taking less than 19 days.
1838 – The day after Sirius took the Blue Riband, the newly-formed Great Western Steamship Company’s Great Western arrives in New York. Their wooden-hulled, paddle steamer, Great Western breaks the record by completing her voyage in under16 days. The British and American Steam Navigation Company would collapse three years later. Great Western Steamship Company would continue offering transatlantic service.
1839 – Canadian businessman, Samuel Cunard is awarded the first British transatlantic steamship mail contract. Signed in May 1839, the contract is for Cunard’s ships to deliver the mail between Great Britain and North America across the Atlantic twice monthly, commencing in 1840.
1840 – Samuel Cunard forms the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company (later to be known as Cunard Line) to carry out his mail contract. The designation RMS would be used as a ship prefix to indicate it was a Royal Mail Ship.
1840 – Cunard launches the Britannia. Her maiden voyage from Liverpool to Halifax and on to Boston departed July 4th, Samuel Cunard’s Birthday and coincidentally, American Independence Day. The voyage took 14 days and eight hours.
1840 to 1845 – Cunard’s first paddle wheel steamers were 207 feet long, weighed 2,000 tons and carried 115 passengers in single class. Besides the Britannia, Acadia, Caledonia and Columbia would be used on the Liverpool to Halifax route.
1840 – Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) is formed as a limited liability company after they are awarded a mail contract to extend their service to Egypt with their newly acquired ship, Oriental (hence the name change).
1840 – P&O offers cruises to Egypt and stamps passenger tickets with the acronym P.O.S.H. This was to indicate the higher class passenger cabins which translated to Port Out Starboard Home. Passengers benefited from having their cabins located on the cooler side of the ship at all times which meant portside on the trip outbound and starboard on the return trip. With hot temperatures and no air conditioning, being a P.O.S.H passenger was a higher class.
1841 – Cunard’s ship Columbia is awarded the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic voyage at 9.78 knots on a voyage of less than 11 days. For most of the next ten years, one of Cunard’s vessels would hold the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic voyage.
1842 – Charles Dickens (author of Oliver Twist and Christmas Carol) is a passenger on the Britannia and wrote about it, comparing the bunk beds to coffins.
1842 – P&O launches Lady Mary Wood, a paddle wheel steamer with 60 first class cabins and 50 second class cabins. P&O’s steamer, Hindostan departs from Southampton to India.
1844 – P&O invites aspiring writer, William Makepeace Thackeray to take an all expenses paid “cruise” of the Mediterranean. His book, Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo, would detail his experience when it was published in 1846.
1845 – The White Star Line is founded and operates a fleet of chartered sailing ships from Britain to Australia to take advantage of the gold rush in Australia.
1845 – Crew Lists from 1845 onwards introduce Schedule A: Agreement for Foreign Trade (aka: Ship’s Articles). This is an official agreement between Master and crew, and was to be filed within 24 hours of the ship’s return to a UK port.
1846 – William Makepeace Thackeray publishes “Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo” about his cruise travels in the Mediterranean on P&O ships. In the preface of the book, Thackeray writes, “The Peninsular and Oriental Company had arranged an excursion in the Mediterranean…I recommend all persons who have time and means to make a similar journey”.
1849 – New York & Liverpool United States Mail Steamship Company (aka: Collins Line) signs a 10-year contract with the US Post Office to transport mail between New York and Liverpool. They launch the paddle steamer, Pacific.
Passenger Steamships Continue to Evolve (1850 to 1879)
Steamships continued to replace sailing ships as the need to meet schedules is increasingly important. During the 1850s and 1860s major Atlantic lines turned to screw propelled steamers rather than the previous paddle steamers while the desire to have the fastest ship and be awarded a Blue Riband was still pursued. The California Gold Rush as well as the Australian Gold Rush entices prospectors to travel by sea to find their fortunes.
1850 – Donald McKay launches his clipper, Stag Hound. Although steamships were replacing sailing ships to carry the mail, the clippers still had purpose because of their speed. At over 200 feet long and 1,500 tons she was the largest merchant ship at that time. She not only carried cargo, she would carry forty-niners from New York to San Francisco, during the California gold rush era.
1850 – The Mercantile Marine Act of 1850 requires masters to keep official log books to record such events as illnesses, births, deaths, misconduct, desertion and punishment and a description of each man’s conduct.
1850 – British passenger shipping company, Inman Line is established. Their first steamer is City of Glasgow, an iron-hulled ship (rather than wooden) equipped with screw propulsion which was an industry first. It would also be the first ship to make the crossing from Glasgow to New York.
1850 – Collins Line introduces a new ship, the Atlantic. In addition, Pacific is awarded the Blue Riband. Although Collins Line vessels are still built of wood, they have steam-heated cabins, bathrooms and a barber shop, reportedly more luxurious than Cunard’s paddle steamers.
1851 – Inman Line acquires and introduces City of Manchester, another iron-hulled, single screw steam ship offering transatlantic passenger service, catering to emigrants. He would specialize in no frills passenger service.
1852 – Collins Line introduces the Arctic, another paddle steamer.
1852 – Inman Line increases emigrant traffic by designating four different classes, 1st class, 2nd class, 3rd class and steerage class. His ships would provide a better style of cheap passage for steerage class as well, proving cooked meals to emigrants.
1854 – On New Year’s Day, City of Glasgow departs Liverpool bound for Philadelphia but goes missing with all passengers and crew. During the same year, Inman Line launches City of Philadelphia, but on her maiden voyage she runs aground without loss of life.
1854 – Collins Line’s Arctic sinks off the coast of Newfoundland after steel steamship, Vesta collides with her. Since the lifeboats were barely filled to capacity, more than 300 passengers and crew lost their lives. Those that perished included Collin’s wife and kids.
1855 – The Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 introduces official numbers for registered ships but also makes it compulsory in 1855 for ships to be registered using a new calculation for tonnage (deducting engine space).
1856 – Collins Line’s Pacific vanishes with speculation she is sunk by icebergs off the coast of Wales. All 200 passengers and crew perish.
1856 – Cunard Line launches Persia and she takes the Blue Riband this year even though on her maiden voyage she struck an iceberg.
1861 – During the American Civil War, a royal mail ship (RMS Trent) was intercepted by Americans and important documents were taken. As a result, British ships such as Cunard’s Persia were sent to support Canada.
1863 – White Star Line acquires their first steamship, Royal Standard. At this time they merged with the Black Ball Line. Unfortunately in 1867 White Star Line would go bankrupt.
1866 – Inman Line’s City of Paris was the first screw steamer that could match the speed of the steam paddler.
1866 – Orient Line of Packets (aka: Orient Line) is awarded a government mail service to Australia with their packet ship, Orient.
1867 – Writer, Mark Twain is a passenger on paddle wheeler, Quaker City, which made the six-month voyage from New York to Holy Land, Egypt, and Greece.
1868 – After White Star Line went bankrupt in 1867, Thomas Ismay purchases the name “White Star Line” along with its house flag.
1869 – Suez Canal is completed which gives steamships an edge over the clippers. During the same year, Mark Twain publishes, The Innocents Abroad about his “cruise” from New York to Europe.
1869 – The Scottish clipper ship, Cutty Sark is built for the purpose of the China tea trade. Although Cutty Sark was one of the fastest, the opening of the Suez Canal meant that steamships were quicker on that route. Her new route would be to Australia transporting wool and emigrants.
1870 – White Star Line builds Oceanic and Atlantic. Both make their maiden voyages the following year. They are powered by a combination of steam and sail. Each carries 166 first class passengers that had access to running water in their cabin. The ships also carried 1,000 steerage passengers that were segregated with single men away from single women and families.
1871 – Philadelphia-based shipping company, International Navigation Company was founded. It would offer routes between Philadelphia and Europe.
1872 – White Star Line introduces Adriatic and Celtic. A fourth officer, named Edward Smith would join the Celtic in 1880. Forty years later that officer would become the Captain of the Titanic in 1912.
1873 – White Star Line’s Atlantic runs aground and sinks near Halifax, Nova Scotia, killing 535 people.
1873 – Netherlands America Steamship Company (NASM) is founded. They provided cargo and passenger services between Rotterdam and the Americas on ships such as the Rotterdam. They would later be named Holland Amerika Lijn and then Holland America Line.
1875 – Thomas Cooke organized his first cruise and chartered the steamer, President Christi for cruises to the North Pole.
1875 – White Star Line launches Germanic. Although it was primarily steam powered, it was also a four-mast vessel with square-rigged sails. She won the Blue Riband that year for making a crossing with the average speed of just over 15 knots.
The Golden Age of Cruising (1880 to 1929)
Emigrants continued to leave Europe for the United States, Canada and Australia. In fact, between 1880 and 1920 more than 20 million immigrants entered the United States alone. At the same time, the roaring twenties meant opulent spending and a high seas society.
Luxuriously appointed ocean liners catered to wealthy passengers while an immigration boom meant lower decks were filled by emigrants in steerage. Ships were getting faster, but some shipping companies were committing themselves to comfort and reliability, instead.
This era also included the Gold Rush to Alaska, the sinking of the Titanic, the completion of the Panama Canal, the First World War and many firsts for the cruising industry. The Golden Age of cruising would come to a halt by the end of the decade with the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
1881 – Servia entered service for Cunard. It was the first passenger vessel to be lit throughout with electric lights.
1881 – Navigazione Generale Italiana (NGI) is formed through a merger of two Mediterranean shipping companies. They’ll provide transport of freight and passengers from Italy to United States, Canada, South America and the Far East.
1882 – United States Passenger Act improves steerage conditions by stipulating such guidelines as “reasonable quantity of fresh provisions”, cleanliness of accommodations, and privacy of passengers.
1886 – Thomas Cook’s son, John Mason Cook, launches a fleet of Nile steamers.
1886 – International Navigation Company purchases Inman Line.
1887 – Canadian Pacific Railway charters a few of Cunard’s ships to start up the Canadian Pacific fleet.
1889 – White Star Line launches the steamship, Teutonic. She would be awarded a Blue Riband in 1891.
1889 – Female American journalist, Nellie Bly, embarks on a solo trip around the world to mimic Jules Verne’s book, Around the World in 80 Days. In addition to train travel, her journey includes four different ships, Augusta Victoria (Hamburg), Victoria (P&O), Oriental (P&O), and Oceanic (White Star Line). She completes the trip in 72 days.
1890 – White Star Line launches the steamship, Majestic. She would be awarded a Blue Riband in 1891.
1891 – Hamburg Amerika Line sends steamship, Auguste Victoria on a Grand Orient Excursion, a 58-day round trip cruise to the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
1891 – Canadian Pacific Railway took on a new name, Canadian Pacific Steamship Company (CPSC). The British government contracted CPSC to operate a subsidized mail service from Britain to Hong Kong via Canada. They used the ships, Empress of China, Empress of India and Empress of Japan.
1892 – Hapag introduces first service to Montreal on steamer, Cremon.
1893 – Luciana and Compania join Cunard fleet.
1895 – Orient Line offers cruises to the Mediterranean, Canary Islands and the Azores onboard the Lusitania. Netherlands America Steamship Company offers a short summer cruise on Ryndam II from Rotterdam to Copenhagen and back on the Kieler Canal.
1896 – The Klondike Gold Rush (aka: Yukon Gold Rush) lasted from 1896 to 1899. Prospectors travelled by sea to get to Alaska. Many vessels were overloaded and sank before they even reached their destination.
1897 – Germany launches the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. It is built by Norddeutscher Lloyd (predecessor to Hapag Lloyd). She was 649 feet long, carried 2,300 passengers and cruised at over 20 knots on her maiden voyage.
1898 – On Holland America’s 25th anniversary they own six ships and have already carried 90,000 cabin passengers and 400,000 steerage passengers in addition to their cargo.
1901 – White Star Line launches Celtic which claims the title of largest passenger vessel in the world. It would be the first of four ships that White Star would build in this class with other names being, Cedric (1903), Baltic (1904), and Adriatic (1907).
1903 – White Star Line launches Cedric and uses her for the route between Liverpool and New York.
1904 – P&O offers its first official pleasure cruises. P&O refits their mail steamer, Rome, and renames her Vectis. After her conversion to a first-class only cruising yacht, she makes her first cruise from London to the Norwegian Fjiords. Shore excursions were arranged by Thomas Cook.
1904 – SS Norge sails from Copenhagen to New York with mostly emigrants, hit a rocky islet in the North Atlantic and sinks. Over 600 passengers and crew died.
1907 – Cunard launches both Mauretania and Lusitania on their maiden voyages. They are equipped with steam turbine engines. Their interiors are luxurious and include elevators, wireless telegraph and electric lights.
1907 – At the same time, White Star Line introduces the first swimming pool on a cruise with their ship, Adriatic. The Amerika (Hapag Lloyd) also features electric passenger elevators.
1907 – The Blue Riband is awarded to Lusitania for her transatlantic voyage that averages less than 24 knots in less than five days. The Mauretania would hold the title for 20 years with an average speed of 26 knots.
1908 – Rotterdam IV becomes Holland America’s flagship as it departs on her maiden voyage from Rotterdam to New York. It is over 24,000 tons, is 650 feet in length, and has two propellers.
1911 – White Star Line launches the Olympic which would be the first of three Olympic-class liners. With over 45,000 gross tons, she is the largest ship in the world at the time. Olympic has a swimming pool, Turkish bath, and luxurious accommodations for first class passengers. On one of her voyages she collides with a British warship tearing large holes in her hull. No one was seriously injured as she returned to Southampton. Edward Smith was the Captain (future Captain of the Titanic).
1912 – White Star Line’s Titanic embarks on her maiden voyage on April 10, 1912 from Southampton to New York. She is 883 feet long with bulkheads that make her “unsinkable”. She is lavishly decorated like her sister, Olympic. She strikes an iceberg on April 14 which tears a gash in her hull, flooding her watertight compartments. As a result, she sinks and over 2,000 passengers and crew lose their lives.
1912 – Olympic is taken out of service to be refit with lessons learned from the Titanic, such as more lifeboats and davits for lowering them. A double hull was created in the engine and boiler rooms and adjustments were made to the bulkheads. She returned to service in 1913.
1913 – Panama Canal opens, but official celebration set for 2014 is diminished due to the start of World War I. It would be owned and operated by the United States until December 31, 1999. It would knock 9,000 miles off a New York to San Francisco voyage.
1914 – World War I begins and lasts until 1918. Cunard Line’s Mauretania is used both as a troop ship and later as a hospital ship. White Star Line’s Brittanic is also used as a hospital ship. White Star Line’s Olympic is used to carry troops for Britain, Canada and the United States.
1915 – The Germans sink the passenger ship Lusitania.
1916 – White Star Line’s Brittanic hits a mine and sinks.
1917 – United States Immigration Act of 1917 is a law that banned certain “types” of people from entering the United States including “criminals”, “idiots”, “physically defective”, and “alcoholics”. It also barred anyone from trying to emigrate from Asia. Shipping companies had to pay for those that were turned away.
1918 – Olympic has the credit of striking and sinking an enemy submarine. During this year, P&O also acquires a controlling interest in Orient Line.
1919 – Most ocean liners are refit and returned to their passenger service schedules.
1920 – American Prohibition starts during this year and ends in 1933, making it illegal to consume alcohol within the United States. During this time booze cruises or cruises to nowhere were very popular.
1921 – United States Line is established using ships from a defunct steamship company and a couple of German ships that were seized during WWI. One of the founders is the son of President Theodore’s Roosevelt.
1922 – The Laconia is launched by Cunard and makes her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. This is one of the first circumnavigation cruises. From New York, she transited the Panama Canal, visited the Far East, continued through the Suez Canal, through the Med and back to New York. The cruise took six months – double that of a world cruise today.
1924 – Along with the Immigration Act of 1917, the Immigration Act of 1924 is a United States law that limits the number of immigrants that could gain entry into the United States. These Acts governed immigration policy until 1952.
1924 – Olympic is involved in a collision while backing out of New York harbor.
1927 – The Norwegain Stella Polaris is introduced. The ship resembled a large yacht and carries 200 passengers and 130 crew members. It offers luxurious cruises with exotic itineraries catering to the leisure cruise market.
1929 – MS Bremen is built for German company, Norddeutscher Lloyd (predessor to Hapag Lloyd). Bremen and her sister, Europa, are the most advanced steam liners of the times. The ships introduce another first, multiple cabins with the same layout. Bremen’s maiden voyage from Bremerhaven, Germany to New York took less than five days. She also broke the Blue Riband speed record with almost 28 knots.
1929 – P&O launches Viceroy of India. It was one of the first turbo electric ships in the world. She had luxurious accommodations and interiors which also included an indoor swimming pool. She offered unique itineraries for the leisure cruise market.