Monday, 20 August 2012

The White Star sisters

By 1907, Britain's White Star Line had an impressive fleet of liners that enabled the company to connect Britain with both its imperial colonies and with the rest of the world. Advertising maps alerted the public to the vast geographical remit of the White Star company and its corresponding ability to move passengers across the globe in comfort, speed and security. The most prestigious of all routes was the transatlantic passenger lane between England and America. Like their rivals at the Cunard Line, some White Star ships left from Liverpool and some connected to American ports like Boston, but the flagships of the line left from the southern port of Southampton, with stop-overs at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown in Ireland, before heading across the ocean to New York. White Star vessels were known for the comfort of their accommodation and the company's impressive safety record - its only major sinking had been the loss of the Republic in 1909, which had taken over a day to sink, enabling a full evacuation. There were five prestigious ships that operated the transatlantic route in 1907 for White Star - the Oceanic and the four sisters known as "the Big Four," the Cedric, Celtic, Baltic and Adriatic. The Oceanic had been nicknamed the "Queen of the Ocean" when she was launched in Belfast in 1899, at a ceremony watched by the cream of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy - including the Duke of Abercorn, the Marquess of Londonderry and the Marquess of Dufferin. 

But by 1907, the arrival of Cunard's awe-inspiring Lusitania and Mauretania had removed the sparkle from White Star's commercial crown. Not only were the new Cunarders the largest ships afloat, but they were also the fastest and the most luxurious, as well as using the famous four funnel design previously reserved for German ships. With the funding of their new de facto owner, the wealthy American financier J.P. Morgan, White Star Line's chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, met with the former Lord Mayor of Belfast, Lord Pirrie, one of the controlling partners of the world-famous Belfast shipyards, Harland and Wolff. They agreed to combat the Cunard threat by building two new ships in quick succession that would dwarf the Cunard sisters in terms of size and in the comfort offered to its passengers. In order to do that, both Ismay and Lord Pirrie realised that speed would have to be sacrificed. Deciding to make a virtue out of a necessity, they later marketed that the White Star's journey across the Atlantic - which usually took a full day longer than the Mauretania's - could be done so in much greater comfort and stability. A third sister was planned for a later date, which would have re-established White Star's monopoly of the British transatlantic trade - had the plan worked. As with the building of the Oceanic, Ismay's directive was summed up in the phrase, "Nothing but the best."

Thousands of workers toiled for three years to build the first of the Olympic-class liners. Most of the men came from the Protestant-dominated working-class districts of east Belfast, where the Harland and Wolff yards were (and are.) The Olympic was launched in 1910 and sailed on her maiden voyage, to great media ballyhoo, in May 1911 (above). Nearly half again as large as the Mauretania, she was also much more attractive in terms of her outward appearance and she was deliberately designed to have the sleek, elegant exterior favoured by European royalty when it came to designing their enormous private yachts. White Star's hopes that their new queen would corner the lucrative upper-class transatlantic market was shown by the fact that there was room for over one thousand first class passengers. They had access to the ship's grand staircase (now legendary because of the number of times it's featured in movies about the Titanic), lounges and restaurants based on the royal apartments at the Palace of Versailles, a smoking room that rivaled the best gentlemen's clubs in London with its fireplace, leather armchairs, mahogany walls and stained glass windows. There were verandas that were based on the winter gardens made popular on German ships, wide promenade decks, an enormous dining saloon that could sit five hundred people at one sitting, reception rooms based on Jacobean country houses, Turkish baths inspired by the decadence of the Ottoman sultans, a gymnasium, a squash court and the world's first ever swimming pool onboard a luxury liner. The first class staterooms were decorated in a variety of historical styles and there was a huge range of prices, moving from the fairly basic cabins on A-Deck to the lavish parlour suites on B-Deck. Second class accommodation was sombre, comfortable and very obviously Edwardian (below) and third class was spacious, clean and comfortable. The prices, of course, for all three classes were correspondingly quite a bit higher than they were for other ships. It added to the Olympic's intentional sense of distinctive superiority over her rivals.

All of this positive publicity - and, some would say, the White Star Line itself - was dealt a death blow eleven months later, when the slightly larger Titanic sailed on her maiden voyage. She was practically identical to the Olympic and only ocean liner buffs can recognise the difference between the two from photographs (the Titanic enclosed part of its promenade deck, expanded the Louis XVI restaurant, added in an extra cafe for first class passengers and added an extra layer of exclusive luxury suites on B-Deck, hence why she was just over a thousand tons heavier than her sister.) Four days into her first voyage, the Titanic sustained a side-on collision with an iceberg and sank just under three hours later, with the loss of over fifteen hundred lives. It was, at that point, the worst maritime disaster in history and it caused a media sensation, that has never quite gone away. The White Star sustained a huge financial loss, but what was arguably even more damaging was the image the Titanic created of a company that was either callous or incompetent. Perhaps both.

With the benefit of hindsight, it does seem as if White Star was doomed from the moment its flagship became the most famous disaster in history. The shadow of the Titanic was a long one that would cast a darkness over the company for the rest of its existence, but it seems slightly simplistic to assume that from the moment Titanic hit the iceberg, White Star's own demise was also inevitable. 

The third of the White Star sisters, the patriotically-named Britannic, was launched in 1914. Larger than the Titanic and kitted-up with enough lifeboats and the latest safety provisions, Britannic might have helped restore the White Star's reputation, had she had the chance. But when the First World came, the Olympic was pulled out of service and turned into a troop transport for the Royal Navy and the incomplete Britannic became a hospital ship. The Olympic had a stellar war-time service record and she was nicknamed "Old Reliable." But the Britannic sank in 1916 after hitting a German mine in the Mediterranean. Until 1936, she was the largest ship built on British soil; she is still the largest British passenger liner to actually have sunk at sea in a shipwreck.

When the war ended in 1918, White Star had lost a great number of its ships to the Allied war effort, and with only the Olympic left out of its three super-ships, the company was facing a bleak feature until the British government decided to honour its promise to reward the firms that had served it so faithfully during the war. Ocean liners were being taken from Germany under the terms of the peace treaties as a form of reparations and public feeling in Germany, like everything to do with the Versailles peace settlement, was outraged by it. A medium-sized liner called Columbus, which had been built in 1913 for the Nordeutscher Lloyd company, was seized and given to the White Star Line, who re-named her Homeric. With two funnels and a gross tonnage of just over 35,000, Homeric (above) was a pleasing ship, with a conservative aesthetic and comfortable accommodation (below - one of the first class corridors). A renovation was ordered in Belfast shortly after, when it was decided that her 18 knots sailing speed was too slow for White Star to maintain its weekly schedule of Atlantic sailings, but apart from that the Homeric proved a very popular running mate to the Olympic when she entered service for White Star in 1922.

But the Homeric, although pretty and popular, was not enough to replace the mighty Britannic, which would have been White Star's pride and joy if she hadn't been lost in Britain's campaign against the Germans and Ottoman Empire. The chosen replacement was the largest ship built in German history, so far, which would ameliorate the sting of having lost the largest ship built in British history, so far - at least, for the British. She was the 56,000-ton Bismarck, named after the statesman who had helped unite Germany in the 1870s. Her smaller sisters, the Imperator and Vaterland, had already been seized. Imperator had become Cunard's Berengaria and Vaterland had gone to become the United States's first major transatlantic luxury liner, Leviathan. Bismarck had never been finished and now she was finished for the White Star Line, under her new name, Majestic (below). She entered service in 1922 as the largest ship in the world and immediately helped re-solidify White Star's former reputation for size, luxury and security. 

With the Majestic, Olympic and Homeric now in service as running mates, White Star was able to start operating one of the most financially successful routes on the north Atlantic. Having three ships  meant that one ship would always be at sea or being re-provisioned, whilst the others were leaving New York and Southampton on a weekly basis to complete in-tandem crossings of the Atlantic. The Olympic remained one of the most consistently popular ships of the decade, which rather dispels the myth that the Titanic continued to haunt the ocean-going public's mind. The Majestic, with her cavernous first class rooms (below), also helped attract a loyal clientele in the economically-prosperous 1920s. However, when the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, the transatlantic market temporarily imploded and ships that had been designed for point-to-point travel across the often-rough Atlantic, like the Majestic or Olympic, struggled to adjust to the indignity of short hot-weather cruises, desperately designed to turn some kind of profit.

By 1934, it was clear that White Star's days were financially numbered. Its fleet was made up of ships that were either too old, too big or both. There were a number of collisions, power-cuts, a huge drop in booking numbers and a new spate of edgy-chic superships were emerging from Germany, France and Italy which made British ships seem antiquated and fusty. The Olympic, alone, managed to keep up respectable (if not exactly healthy) booking numbers - a testament to the affection she was still held in - but her days were numbered and White Star began to look on her enormous running costs, frequent technological difficulties and occasional collisions as a headache. In 1934, the company merged with their old enemies, Cunard, to form the Cunard-White Star Line - all their resources would now be pooled into creating a glamorous new liner to modernise Britain's transatlantic image and counter the humiliation posed by Germany's Bremen, Italy's Rex or France's forthcoming Normandie.

There were clear signs from the beginning that Cunard was the dominant force in the new "partnership." Of the six prestigious ships the new company now had at its disposal for the premier run across the Atlantic - the Majestic, Olympic, Homeric, Berengaria, Mauretania and Aquitania - three would have to go, immediately. Two more would be kept around to run alongside the Queen Mary, until her new sister-ship, Queen Elizabeth, was completed in 1939/1940. Both the Mauretania and Olympic, as the oldest of the set and the ones most in trouble, were quickly agreed upon as the first two that had to go. There was a public campaign to keep one, or both, as floating hotels or museums and it's difficult not to groan at the financial and historical mistake that was made in not preserving the Olympic. In the age of Titanic mania that began in the 1950s and has continued ever since, it would surely have been a goldmine to whoever owned it. As well as a fascinating one for subsequent generations.

Signs of the pro-Cunard bias of the new merger came when a decision had to be reached about which of the two companies' flagships - the 52,000-ton Berengaria or 56,000-ton Majestic - should be kept on to serve until the Queen Elizabeth was ready. Despite the fact that the Majestic was larger, younger and safer than the Berengaria, it was Majestic who was sold for scrap and the Berengaria which was kept on. The Homeric survived long enough to participate in the festivities to mark King George V's Silver Jubilee in 1935, but as the slowest and smallest of the six ships, it did make sense that she should be scrapped too.

With its three former ships having completely vanished into scrap metal and scattered pieces of furnishing, the White Star's last two surviving ships were the motor ships Georgic and a new Britannic. They continued to sail under the White Star colours until their careers ended in 1956 and 1960, respectively. Cunard, however, dropped the White Star name in 1949 and today the company's name survives in a commercial sense solely as a kind of white-gloved service exclusively reserved for those occupying the most expensive suites on the current Cunard ships, Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. Once a year, on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, those three ships hoist the White Star flag for the day.


  1. It is an amazing story, starting with the emergence of the new luxury liners in Britain, Germany and France etc. I am interested in the changing passengers, furniture and fittings, routes, prices etc, particularly with the emergence of Deco taste.. from 1925 on. It seems as if Deco and luxury cruise ships were born to go together.

    I am assuming that the companies merging to form the Cunard-White Star Line in 1934 was not the end. But once war broke out in 1939, the world now didn't have the time or money for luxury living. Even if some ships limped on for another 20 years, it was all over red rover.

  2. This is awfully irrelevant and I apologize for that, but I'm dying to know -- how is your Anne Boleyn biography doing? I am simply dying to read it.
    Til then what Anne Boleyn biography would you recommend at this time?

  3. No need to apologise. It's going well, but it will be years until it's finished. Not that I'm complaining; she's enjoyable company.

    I'd recommend Eric Ives's "The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn," David Starkey's "Six Wives" or Lady Antonia Fraser's "The Six Wives of Henry VIII." Claire Ridgway has a new book out on "The Fall of Anne Boleyn," which obviously isn't a biography but I'd recommend it, too.


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