Queens of the Sea: The Golden Age of Ocean Liners

09 Dec

Ocean Liner. The very word conjours up images of grand, majestic, enormous, powerful, luxurious metallic beasts, powering their way through the oceans of the world, delivering their fragile and all-important human cargo safely and comfortably to their destinations. Most of us seem to forget that, prior to the early 1950s, ocean-liners were the only way to cross the Seven Seas to distant parts of the globe. Commercial, long-haul airplane flights of the kind we know and love today, did not take off (literally) until the postwar boom of the 1950s, when aircraft technology (spurred on by the Second World War), had advanced enough for large numbers of people to fly through the air from country to country. While flying as a form of transport had existed before the 1950s, it was still rather experimental at the time, and flights were short, city-to-city or state-to-state stopovers, rather than planes which flew halfway around the world. It was because of the fact that nobody was sure of the long-haul abilities of aircraft, that ocean liners retained their dominance for so very long. But where did ocean liners come from?

The First Ocean Liners

An ocean liner is defined as a large, sea-going ship, capable of crossing great stretches of water in long voyages, in relative ease, speed and safety. They’re defined as carrying large numbers of passengers and having passenger comfort and satisfaction-of-service as being a key priority in their operation. Given these criteria…what were the first ocean liners?

The ocean liner as we know it today, was born around the middle of the 19th century. It was at this time, in the 1840s-1860s, that steam-power was gradually overtaking the soon-to-be-outdated wind-power of sailing-ships. Initially, steamships were only marginally faster than sailing ships travelling the same distance, and people took little notice of which kind of vessel was better, if indeed, one was. However, improvement in steam-powered engineering allowed steamships to travel faster and further than their sail-powered competitors and soon, stiff competition had arisen.

Early ocean liners were slow, coal-fired paddlesteamers which made slow, choppy, unsteady progress through the seas. These early ships were prone to mechanical failure, shortage of fuel and having only a barely-noticable advantage of speed over similar, wind-powered clipper ships of the period, which were the fastest sailing-ships then in existence. Furthermore, paddlesteamers were loud and noisy and they were dangerous to use in rough seas. Indeed, some early paddlesteamer ocean liners even had a full arrangement of masts, rigging and sails, such was early steamship captains’ mistrust of this new technology.

As time passed, however, steam technology improved and steamships were now significantly faster than sailing-ships, to the point that they were a practical way of crossing the Seven Seas. Added to this, without the necessity of having to store spare wood, spare rope, spare sails and spare other things, that a sailing-ship needed, shipbuilders were able to concentrate more on passenger comfort and ammenities, rather than the storage of provisions. Early ocean-liners, such as the RMS Britannia, the S.S. Great Britain and the S.S. Great Eastern and the Great Western, soon began to steal passengers from other, sail-powered shipping-lines, and people began to realise that steam was the thing of the future.

The Cunard line’s RMS Britannia (1840); one of the world’s first true ocean liners.

The Power of Steam

Once steam-power had proven itself to the shipbuilding masses, sailing ships became increasingly, a thing of the past. By the 1880s and the 1890s, leading up to the turn of the century, great steamship companies or shipping-lines, such as Cunard, White Star Line, Red Star Line and the French Line, were all in stiff-competition with each other for the greatest slice of the passenger pie. Cunard and White Star were the two most famous shipping lines of the turn of the last century, and they were constantly trying to outdo each other with grander, faster, more luxurious, more powerful ships. By the early 1900s, paddlesteamers were a thing of the past; as early as the late 1850s, ships started being powered through the world’s oceans by propellers, having first one, then two and in some cases, even three or four propellers!

Ships which were built for the various steamship companies all had their own, very distinct characteristics, typically regarding a ship’s name. For example, all ships owned by the White Star Line, ended in ‘-ic’. Titanic, Britannic, Olympic, Baltic, Oceanic, etc. Cunard’s ships all ended in ‘-ia’. Carpathia, Lustiania, Mauretania, etc. The Red Star Line’s ships all ended in ‘-land’: Finland, Kroonland, Lapland, and so on. Just like car-manufacturers today, steamship companies printed advertisments in magazines, on posters and in newspapers, all trying to boast…the most luxurious crossings, the fastest crossings, the most passenger ammenities, fast express-trains from the docks to major cities, automobile hire and almost anything else you can think of!

By the early 20th century, the ocean-liner had truly taken on the image which we think of today: Large, metal ships with tall smokestacks, with staterooms, berths, boilers, coal fires and communicating to each other across the seas using the Edwardian equivalent of MSN Messenger: Morse Code wireless telegraphy.

Morse Code wireless telegraphy…more commonly known as ‘wireless’, allowed ships to communicate with each other in realtime, and everything from important weather warnings, ice-reports, distress calls and seasons’ greetings were exchanged between ships and land-stations. It became such a part of shipboard life, that people would even be able to buy newspapers which had all their content, courtesy of the telegraph-machine.

The Blue Riband

No article on ocean liners could possibly be complete without a mention of this, most famous of industry prizes.

The Blue Riband.

For most of its life, the Blue Riband was a sort of unwritten competition held between various ships and shipping-lines, and it was awarded to the ship which could make the fastest overall crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and maintain the fastest average speed during its crossing. Winners of the Blue Riband were given the privelige of hoisting a long, bright blue banner…the blue riband…on the masts of their winning ship, to indicate proudly to prospective passengers that by boarding THIS SHIP with the blue flag…YOU would get the FASTEST crossing across the Atlantic Ocean! It was amazing publicity and one hell of a marketing-boost. Cunard was particularly famous for winning the Blue Riband and its ships held the Riband for several years.

The actual Blue Riband ‘Hales Trophy’, as it’s called, commissioned by British MP Harold K. Hales, in 1935.

In time, the Blue Riband became more than just a bit of cloth flapping in the wind, it became an actual, real-life, solid gold trophy! The trophy was awarded to the ship which made the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean while maintaining the highest average speed…or at least, that’s it in a nutshell; there were a mountain of rules abut how to win the trophy and what was considered a proper or an improper win, rules too complicated to try and explain here!

Throughout its existence, the Blue Riband was won by a total of 35 ocean-liners, of these, twenty-five were British, three were American, five were German, one was Italian and one was French. Of all the shipping-companies whose ships won the Blue Riband, the highest total was 14 ships, belonging to the Cunard line. I wasn’t kidding when I said they played to win!

Getting an Ocean Liner Underway

Away from the world of glamour, of luxury, of grand prizes, marketing hype and technological advancements, there was another, earthier, more grimey side to ocean liners which few people think about on a daily basis…and this was just what it TOOK to get an ocean liner ready for a voyage. These days, it’s easy, you pack it all in, you press a button and off you go! 80 years ago, it was a LOT harder.

These days, the food is all pre-packed and it’s driven onto the ship with massive forklifts and cranes. Back in the 1920s, this was all done by hand. Some cargo might be hoisted onto the ship by cranes, but most of the crates and barrels with food and drink and linen and crockery and cutlery and glassware and towels and napkins and tablecloths and pots and pans and all the other, billions of things that ocean liners needed, were all loaded by dozens of dock-workers. These days, everything is loaded onto pallets and driven onto ships with trucks and forklifts, and it still looks hard. Imagine doing it without all that stuff.

Apart from the provisions, ships needed fuel. In the 1910s and 20s, fuel meant…coal. Lots of coal. Tons and tons and tons of coal. It was all shovelled and craned and tipped and carted into the ship’s massive coal-bunkers, from which stokers and firemen would have to get it, to fire up the ship’s boilers.

This leads us to our next big thing in getting a ship going…firing it up…literally.

These days, ships are all powered by fuel-oil and it’s relatively easy to get them going. 80 years ago, all the ships were powered by steam. Firing up an ocean liner such as the Mauretania, for example, or the Olympic or the Titanic, took hours…even days…to do. If a ship was to sail on the 10th of the month, stokers, firemen and engineers, would have to be firing up the boilers at least two days in advance, before they could get going. But what exactly had to be done?

Well…first, the boilers had to be filled with water. Then, the furnaces had to be lit. Then you shovelled the coal in. The coal was brought from the coal-bunkers by wheelbarrows. Once the fires were burning, you had to feed them even more coal. The fires had to glow absolutely white hot. As the heat built up, the water in the boilers would start to boil. This could take hours to do, and lighting the fires already took hours! Once the water was boiled, it made steam. Constant heat was needed to keep the steam from cooling off and condensing again, so fires had to be kept lit and stoked up at all times. Once the steam was produced, you had to wait for steam-pressure to build up. This could take the better part of a day. Steam-power ran everything on an ocean-liner back in the 1910s, so if you didn’t get the boilers fired up…the ship didn’t move. The steam-pressure not only powered the pistons, which drove the driveshafts, which spun the propellers, which pushed the ship through the water, the steam-pressure also powered the ship’s generators, which ran the dynamos, which gave the ship its electrical power! You couldn’t even switch the lights on if the boilers weren’t lit!

Apart from that, you had to make sure that the steam-pressure didn’t get too high. If it did, the boiler could explode from the pressure, killing everyone! A buildup of steam-pressure caused great damage to a smokestack of the S.S. Great Eastern when it exploded; several of the crew were killed in the blast. Stokers had to keep the fires burning, but they also had to make sure that the fires were laid and built correctly; out on a rocking, rolling ocean, you couldn’t risk having piles of burning coal spilling out of the furnace onto the floor because you forgot to rake the fire correctly and prevent buildups of unsteady coal!

Speed was paramount onboard steamships. Ocean liners, much like jumbo jets today, had strict schedules to keep. They were all expected to be able to sail from A to B within a certain time, dop off their passengers, recoal, reprovision and then turn around and sail back, within a couple of days. As a result, the ‘black gangs’, the stokers and firemen who lived in the bowels of the ship, all worked in shifts, in very hot, very sweaty, very trying and noisy environments, twenty four hours a day, for weeks at a time.

But just how fast were ocean liners?

This varied. Most people think of ocean liners as big, grand vessels with lots of funnels, belching out smoke and slicing through the water. Yes, there were ships like this, but they all belonged to the wealthier lines, the less-prominent steamship lines, of which there were many, did not have such grand vessels, and they could not go as fast. But to give you an idea of just what kinds of speeds ships were expected to make…

The RMS Mauretania, of the Cunard line. Top speed: 24kt.

At 24kt, the RMS Mauretania was expected to be able to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a week. Today, the RMS Queen Mary 2 is expected to cross the Atlantic (going at a speed of 30kt) in six days or less. Voyages on smaller, slower ships could take ten days or two weeks, but on the really fast ships, a week was generally the expected crossing-time of the Atlantic.

Changing Times

Up until the mid 1920s, all ocean liners were coal-fired, water-boiling monsters which took on tons of coal for each crossing. In the 1920s and 1930s, new technology allowed ships to have boilers which were fuelled by oil instead of coal. This was more efficient and it needed fewer people to work the ship’s engines. Newer ocean liners coming out in the 1920s and 30s started looking more modern and more sleek than their aging, Edwardian and Victorian running-mates. One example of this was the S.S. Normandie.

The SS Normandie, launched in 1932 and entering service with the French Line in 1935.

The Normandie was different in many ways; she was sleeker and more aerodynamic than the earlier, more boxy and angular Edwardian ocean liners of the 1900s and 1910s. She was faster, boasted better engines and more modern, up-to-date appointments. Earlier ships boasted interiors which were modelled after great palaces, hotels and grand manor houses of European royalty and aristocracy. By comparison, the Normandie had more modern decorations, in keeping with the then, very popular Art Deco and Streamline Moderne art-movements, which emphasized sleek lines, flashy colours, glass, metal and graceful curves.

The main dining-saloon of the SS Normandie. In comparison with earlier ships which had carpets and wrought iron and lots of wood carving, this dining-saloon is brighter and more modern, with more modern carpet-patterns, tiles, mirrors, and flashy, glass light-fixtures.

The Depression and the War

Like almost everything, the shipping-industry was hit in the crotch by the Great Depression. Several famous shipping-companies collapsed completely, or had their ships reduced from grand, ocean-going superliners, to coast-hugging cruise-ships. Cunard and White Star had to perform a merger, just to keep each other afloat, literally and figuratively. They became ‘Cunard-White Star’ in December of 1933. The Depression meant that people couldn’t afford to take casual, week-long pleasure-crossings on grand ocean liners anymore. Passenger numbers plummeted and company big-wigs had to do some fast thinking if they didn’t want their ships to go under along with the money they brought in.

The RMS Queen Mary in her heyday.

The Second World War, starting in 1939, changed a lot of things, including the shipping-industry. Ships such as the SS Mauretania (a later Cunard ship, launched in 1938), the RMS Olympic, the RMS Queen Mary and the RMS Queen Elizabeth, all famous ocean liners, soon found themselves as troop-transport vessels, which were badly needed to ship soldiers to battlefields in Europe and Asia. Their enormous passsenger capacities, together with superior speed, meant that these ships were excellent for transporting combatants across the globe quickly and efficiently…and most importantly – fast enough to outrun any German U-boat submarines.

The SS Normandie, like the ocean liners listed above, was also to be converted to troop-transport, however during conversion in New York Harbour, a fire broke out in the ship. Attempts to put the fire out meant that there was a severe weight-imbalance, caused by the water pumped into the ship to put out the blaze. This imbalance caused the Normandie to capsize. Too busy with other wartime efforts to salvage the ship, the American authorities left the Normandie in the harbour for nearly a whole year. It was finally righted and refloated in 1943 (it was capsized in ’42), but the ship was, by that time, so damaged that it was considered a write-off, and was sent to the scrapyard.

Ocean Liner…or…Cruise Ship?

If you went up to the captain of an ocean liner and told him he had a nice ‘cruise ship’…he’d probably slap you in the face. Despite what some people think, there are actually significant differences between what constitutes an ocean liner, and what constitutes a cruise-ship. Ocean liners are large, powerful, ocean-going ships (hence the name…OCEAN liner), designed to transport vast numbers of passengers in comfort, over long distances. They are designed to be faster, larger, stronger and more luxurious. Their lifeboats are situated higher up on the ship’s side, to protect them from rogue-waves when out at sea.

By comparison, cruise-ships are smaller, less luxurious and slower. Their lifeboats are located further down on the ship’s hull and they are not expected to have to cross vast oceans on a regular basis. Cruise-ships sail from port to port, while ocean liners sail from country to country, covering several hundred miles of ocean. Cruise-ships carry fewer provisions, given the fact that they don’t spend as much time away from land. Ocean liners had to carry enough food and other necessities, to keep people fed for up to two weeks at a time.

The End of the Ocean Liner

With the rising popularity of commercial airplanes in the 1950s, with their faster travel-times, ocean liners began to find themselves running short on passengers. Most lines had crumbled in the Depression of the 1930s, but the few which remained, such as the Cunard Line, struggled to hold onto what passengers they had. By the 1970s, the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 was one of the few ships still making regular, transatlantic crossings. Eventually, however, airliners won out, and the grand days of the ocean liner were but a memory. Today, Cunard, with its grand ocean liners, is one of the very few shipping-companies which still plies the transatlantic route, with new ships such as the RMS Queen Mary 2 and the MS Queen Victoria.

Few of the grand ocean liners of yesteryear exist today. Ships such as the RMS Acquatania, the RMS Olympic, and the Normandie were scrapped. Ships such as the Britannic and the Titanic were either destroyed during service as troop-transport or hospital ships, or were sunk during accidents at sea. Today, the original RMS Queen Mary is the only one of the original ocean liners still intact, which plied the oceans of the world in what was the Golden Age of Ocean Liner.

The RMS Queen Mary as she appears today, docked in Long Beach, California.


Posted by on December 9, 2009 in RMS Titanic and Other Ships


13 responses to “Queens of the Sea: The Golden Age of Ocean Liners

  1. J. Marcouyeux

    September 23, 2010 at 6:05 AM

    You say that the Normandie dining room had modern carpet patterns and mirrors. However, I have never seen any evidence that the dining room had either. The floor was tiled – not carpeted – and mirrors are never mentioned in any descriptions of the room decor that I have read. Incidentally, wouldn’t “glittering” be a better adjective to describe the Normandie than “flashy?”

    • scheong

      September 23, 2010 at 9:56 AM

      I’m pretty sure it was the ‘Normandie’, I may be mistaken. And if it was, it might be another room onboard the ship, but I always thought it was the dining-room. I picked ‘flashy’ because I thought it would reflect the glitzy feel of the 20s and 30s.

      • Jonathan Burdette

        July 30, 2011 at 11:24 PM

        I just check in one of my other books and the dinning room was not lined with mirrors but wood paneling along with 38 columns of lights that lined the room.

  2. Guillaume Briand

    January 27, 2012 at 9:52 AM

    “Today, the original RMS Queen Mary is the only one of the original ocean liners still intact”

    Technically, the “SS United States” is also with the Queen Mary in this. Even tough its in bad condition and all his decoration have been removed, its engine are still in working condition compared to the Queen Mary…

    • scheong

      January 27, 2012 at 9:55 AM

      According to what I’ve read, the S.S. united states has been deteriorating for years.

  3. dating

    September 29, 2012 at 4:27 PM

    Hi there, thank you for an especially useful posting,
    I wouldn’t generally post compliments but enjoyed your post thus felt I’d
    personally say thank you / Alice

    • scheong

      September 29, 2012 at 7:22 PM

      Thanks Alice, glad you enjoyed it :)

  4. C.

    December 27, 2012 at 7:40 PM

    Thanks for this, it’s been very informative. I’ve been trying to get a nice overview of Ocean Liners online and this has been the best I’ve come across so far. :)

    • scheong

      December 27, 2012 at 7:42 PM

      Well thank you!! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  5. Maura

    December 31, 2012 at 6:16 PM

    If some one desires expert view on the topic of blogging and site-building after that
    i propose him/her to pay a quick visit this blog, Keep up the
    nice job.

    • scheong

      December 31, 2012 at 7:32 PM

      Hah, thanks! Glad you enjoy it :)

  6. R. W. Allen

    April 24, 2014 at 6:23 PM

    Very good!! Contained information I was searching for.
    R.W. Allen


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 271 other followers

%d bloggers like this: