Cunard's history through the decades

1840: The beginning


In 1840, Samuel Cunard, a war veteran and timber merchant from Halifax, Nova Scotia, established the Cunard line. His ships were steam powered ferries - the first in the area - and over the next few years Cunard branched out to ocean steam, providing a mail service to Prince Edward Island, along the coast and, later, across the Atlantic. Cows were kept on board for fresh milk every day, and were slaughtered to be eaten on the final day of each voyage. During the 1840s, Charles Dickens sailed with Cunard to Boston, and the first Cunard Transatlantic Crossing took place when Britannia set sail in July 1840.


1850 - 1880: A developing company


The next few decades solidified Cunard's place in the world of international shipping, and in history. In the 1850s, Cunard was used to carry horses to the Crimean war, aiding in the charge of the Light Brigade. In the 1860s, Mark Twain sailed with Cunard and praised the ability of the captains.


In 1870, Cunard introduced the first flushing toilets at sea, providing relief for passengers and crew members alike! During the mass immigration to America of the 1880s, Cunard brought over a million of the 2.5 million people choosing to settle in the United States. During this time Cunard launched Servia (second picture below), the first steel ship with electrical lighting.


1890 - 1900: Cutting edge technology


In the early 20th century, Cunard was advancing full steam. The ships were advertised as 'floating palaces', and shared design features with opulent venues such as The Ritz. Two superliners, Lusitania and Mauretania (third picture below) were launched, with revolutionary steam turbines to increase maximum speed, and the first ever wireless transmission was made from a Cunard ship to the shore by Marconi in 1897.

1910s - 1940s: Becoming heroes of safe and well


It was during this time that the four funnels were established to represent power and safety. Many ships took on the popular four-funnel feature, even if it meant adding a fake funnel to a three-funnel ship! But the cruise industry still had a lot to learn about safety. In 1912, as the Titanic sank, Cunard's Carpathia arrived on the scene to rescue the survivors. After the tragedy, safety on cruise ships was changed forever.


20 ships are lost in World War I, including Cunard's Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. In 1922, Laconia departs on her first World Voyage: since then, more people have taken a Cunard World Voyage than any other. She completes the voyage 130 days later.


In 1934 White Star and Cunard merge. Queen Mary is launched, becoming a symbol for the Great Depression, and wins the Blue Riband for the fastest Transatlantic Crossing.


During WWII, thousands of troops are transported by Cunard. According to Winston Churchill, the war was shortened by one year thanks to Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

1950s and 1960s: Welcoming stars of stage and screen


In the 1950s, Hollywood greats and stars of the silver screen were among those to make the iconic Transatlantic Crossing with Cunard. Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland (pictured), Vera Lynn, Sir Noel Coward and even Walt Disney all travelled as guests on board. With air travel increasing, the 1960s saw Cunard reposition Transatlantic cruising from ‘getting there is half the fun’ to ‘Go Sun Hunting’, while the decade ended on a high with Queen Elizabeth 2 making her debut at sea. She went on to sail over 5 million miles during her 39 years of service.


1980s: Building on a legacy


The 1980s were dominated by Queen Elizabeth 2. The iconic ship became immortalised in a new studio album by composer Mike Oldfield, and a new fly-cruise package dubbed ‘the ultimate package’ with Concorde was launched. In 1982, Queen Elizabeth 2 travelled to the Falklands (pictured) with 3,000 troops before having her original steam engines replaced in 1986 with nine petrol-diesel engines - the size of double decker buses - almost two decades on from her inaugural voyage.


1990s: Joining the Carnival family


During the 1990s, Cunard once again welcomed a host of famous faces on board its fleet, including legendary British icons of popular music Rod Stewart and David Bowie. Even the Muppets were among the high profile guests to make an appearance! As the millennium fast approached, and with the dawn of a new century imminent, Cunard officially became part of the Carnival group in 1999, ending the decade stronger than ever.

2000s - present day: Sailing to a bright future


Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria join the Cunard fleet in 2004 and 2007 respectively, while QE2 makes her final ocean voyage before retiring from service in 2008.


The 300th Transatlantic Crossing takes place and Transatlantic Fashion Week is launched in 2016. The first female Captain is appointed and a new ship is announced, with steel cutting commencing in 2019.


In 2020, Cunard celebrates 180 years of ocean travel as the world adapts to a new normal, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Cunard Queens take a temporary pause while work continues on Cunard’s new ship, Queen Anne, who is due to set sail in 2024.

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