The last great days of luxury ocean liner travel
Jan 30 2008 by Peter Elson, Liverpool Daily Post
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RMS Windsor Castle leaves Cammell Laird shipyard _320
They epitomised the glamour of international travel in the days before airlines stole their trade. Peter Elson reflects on compiling the Daily Post’s new book, Great Mersey Liners
WHEN the journalist Godfrey Wynn went as a youngster to see relatives depart from Liverpool on one of its great ocean liners, the event made an enormous impression upon him.
He promised himself that one day, when he was old enough and rich enough, that he, too, would sail in style, travelling first class from Princes Landing Stage to New York.
Wynn eventually achieved his goal, but for more than 40 years, any such aspirational young (or old) traveller has been denied this opportunity, after Cunard Line’s RMS Sylvania closed the Liverpool-New York service.
This depressing state of affairs was followed by two other great Liverpool-based shipping lines, Canadian Pacific (for Canada) and Elder Dempster (for West Africa), also finishing their passenger services in 1971 and 1972, respectively.
This was the end. No longer were Liverpool and Birkenhead docks the springboard for travel to the rest of the world. Yet, for over 130 years previously, everybody seemed to funnel through the port: millions of emigrants, businessmen, politicians, socialites and tourists.
These included the celebrities of the time, from Charles Dickens embarking for his US reading tour in 1842, to George Leigh Mallory and Sandy Irvine departing for their tragic attempt on Everest in 1924.
Hollywood stars like Katharine Hepburn preferred to travel via Liverpool on the smaller, deluxe, all-first-class liners like Cunard’s Parthia and Media.
These comings and goings embellished Liverpool with a huge part of the character that set it above other, sadder, land-locked places.
So among the long roll-call of Liverpool and Merseyside firsts, I would like to add another contender. I think the ocean liner can justifiably be a means of transport that Liverpool practically invented.
Prior to this, the Mersey, of course, had forest-like fleets of sailing ships reaching out across the world. But when Samuel Cunard won the transatlantic mail contract and his first ship, RMS Britannia paddled out of Coburg Dock and the Mersey for Boston in 1840, a new and remarkable era began.
The Mersey’s role was further cemented by IK Brunel’s SS Great Britain, which made her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York in 1845, in just two weeks.
Great Britain was important as she was a propeller-driven ship, as opposed to a paddle steamer, and set the pattern for every passenger ship that followed.
Liverpool companies, especially White Star Line, developed the basic design, refining it from being a mere mode of travel into the floating palaces that fill everyone’s imaginations. The Liverpool Daily Post & Echo’s Great Mersey Liners book harks back to the last decades of this golden era when the Mersey was on the crest of the waves that Britannia ruled.
Although I experienced the last years of the passenger traffic from waterfront visits, it still astonishes me how much this business was woven into the city’s life.
With this defining role in British life lost, it is no wonder that the city still flails around to find a new and meaningful direction.
While we cling to The Beatles today as totems of the city’s unique character, they were driven forward by the collision between the city’s Celtic music tradition and the new US rock and roll records brought back by ships’ crews.
Sifting through hundreds of fabulous archive images for this book, I was instantly reminded of a time when the Mersey and its men and women were at the hub of an astonishing web of global trade routes.
This was when Liverpool, by definition, was a world-class city, when secondary school pupils were routinely taught Spanish to get jobs on the South American- bound liners.