Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sailing to America - passenger travel by sea, from the Sirius to the Titanic

By Karen V. Wasylowski

On 15 April, 1912, on her maiden voyage, the magnificent Olympic Class Ocean Liner, RMS Titanic, struck an iceberg and sank, causing the deaths of 1,502 people.  One of three majestic ships owned by the White Star Line, built by the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Ireland, she was the epitome of elegance, the grandest of her kind, and ultimately doomed to pass into history as the largest peacetime maritime disaster in modern history.

However, Titanic wasn't the first steam engine to cross the 'pond' - by far.  Nearly one hundred years before, in May 1819, the Savannah, a sailing packet with an auxiliary engine and collapsible paddle wheels, sailed from Georgia, USA, to make the first crossing of the Atlantic. She reached Liverpool in 633 hours, having steamed for only 80 of those hours, but her achievement greatly encouraged support for the steamship. By 1833 the Atlantic crossing time had been reduced to 22 days, a considerable improvement from the two month crossing on a strictly sail powered ship.  Steamships began to operate on the major imperial routes to India, South Africa and Australia as well.

In the 1830's three major shipping companies were formed.  The British and American Steam Navigation Company, the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company and the Great Western Steamship Company. The Sirius, a small chartered steamship owned by the British and American Steam Navigation Company, was the first vessel to cross the Atlantic with passengers - forty brave souls leaving from Queenstown in Ireland on April 4.  Four days later a ship from the Great Western also sailed across from Bristol, entering New York harbor only four hours after the Sirius arrived, completing a fourteen day crossing that had usually taken at least six weeks.

It was the beginning of the steamship era and also the beginning of the Blue Riband contest for the fastest crossing by passenger ships.  The race was on.

Enter Nova Scotia's Samuel Cunard.  Cunard had won the shipping rights to carry the mails between America and England and on 10 July, 1839, the 1000 ton Royal Victoria, renamed the British Queen, made her maiden voyage, London to New York, spurring his rival, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the dynamic engineer of the Great Western Steamship Company, to create a 3700 ton vessel called The Mammoth.

Brunel equipped his ship, the renamed Great Britain, with 350 staterooms as well as a luxurious dining room, setting the standard of ocean liners for years to come.  On 17 July, 1840 she docked in Halifax, having crossed the Atlantic in 11 days and 4 hours.

During the 1850's Cunard's ships were fast and punctual, but not very conducive to passenger travel. They were still more commercial at the time - no rival to the Great Britain, encouraging the mighty Brunel to design an even bigger ship. In 1854 he began work on the Great Eastern, a ship large enough to carry 4,000 passengers and enough coal to sail to Australia.  At 693 feet long, 120 feet wide and weighing over 18,900 tons, it's like would not be seen again until the creation of the Lusitania in 1907 and the Titanic in 1912.

The Great Eastern never could fill her berths, unfortunately, and as strong and safe as she was (Brunel pioneered the double hull system) her maiden voyage had only thirty-eight passengers.  In 1863, she was refitted as a commercial vessel and later was used as an amusement park in ports around Britain.

The Scotia
The last paddle steamer

It was around 1856 that Cunard began to rise.  His liners included the Persia, sailing across the Atlantic in nine days, and the Scotia, the last paddle steamer - both these ships often won the Blue Riband award for speed of crossing.

More and more shipping lines were founded over the following years.  Harland and Wolffe built and launched 16 ships, backing the White Star Line and their magnificent ship The Oceanic in 1871.  Cunard took back it's lead ten years later with the Servia, a ship of 17 knots and electric lights.

The British reigned supreme in the steamship industry but competition began rising from Italy, German, France, Holland.  The competition to be the fastest was fierce, with the Blue Riband award switching shipping lines year to year.  Then, disaster struck.

Capital Edward Smith, Titanic

Was it the long ingrained competitive nature within the industry then that caused the Captain of White Star Line's Titanic to ignore danger 15 April, 1912 ?  More than likely.  Titanic had received a series of warnings from other ships about the drifting ice in the area of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland; however, her Captain, Edward Smith, felt confident his ship was indestructible, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Titanic survivors aboard the Carpathia

The RMS Carpathia, carrying the survivors, arrived three days later in New York at 9:30 p.m., 18 April, with 40,000 people waiting at the dock.  Immediate assistance in the form of food, clothing and shelter was provided by the Travelers' Aid Society of New York, the Women's Relief Committee, and The Council of Jewish Women, among others.

The disaster was greeted with worldwide shock and outrage at the huge loss of life and the regulatory and operational failures that had led to it. Public inquiries in Britain and the United States led to major improvements in maritime safety. One of their most important legacies was the establishment in 1914 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which still governs maritime safety today.

The Blue Riband award to the fastest crossing of a passenger liner in the Atlantic is still alive today as well.

Karen V. Wasylowski's first book, 'Darcy and Fitzwilliam', was a continuation of Jane Austen's wonderful 'Pride and Prejudice', and is the only 'bromance' in Jane Austen Fan Fiction telling the story of the two cousins, the iconic Fitzwilliam Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam, their friendship and their battles.  A review in Jane Austen World and Jane Austen Today said of 'Darcy and Fitzwilliam' - "It is absorbing.  It is intoxicating.  It is excellent."

On 1 October, 2012, the family saga begun in 'Pride and Prejudice', continues with 'Sons and Daughters', Karen Wasylowski's Book Two of the Darcy and Fitzwilliam Tales.  The cousins are older now, married with children, and a bit wiser - but not by much.  The book follows their lives and the growth of their families through good times and bad.  A recent review in Amazon said "I read almost all of the continuing stories and 'what ifs' of Pride and Prejudice. This was my favorite.  I laughed all through this book"

To order either "Darcy and Fitzwilliam" or "Sons and Daughters" click here

And visit her blog too, for all the latest on British actors, plays and television


  1. Very interesting, indeed. A great post. Thank you.

    -Gloria Karmanites

  2. Steamships began to operate on the major imperial routes to India, South Africa and Australia as well.


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