I have been lucky over the past two months to have a series of visits to view a wide array of items from the Cunard Archive, which is held in Special Collections at the University of Liverpool. Facilitated initially by their archivist Sian Wilks, who has now gone on maternity cover, I have been helped generously by their current archivist Beth Williams, who initially put together a comprehensive collection of all items relating to transatlantic Cunard liners between the UK and North America during the 1930’s. This has taken me three full days to look through each item, and I will also return to view more of their specialist books on the history of Cunard and the transatlantic liners and cruising.
Special Collections at the University of Liverpool holds a wide range of archival collections which can be viewed by the general public if arranged in advance. The archivist and reception staff are incredibly helpful and take great care in looking after all items and advising you on how best to handle them.
On my first visit, I predominantly selected items from the PR department, so therefore items that had strong visual content and showed the interiors and way in which the ocean liners were promoted to the public. The Cunard Archive also holds business records and passenger lists, which although are interesting, are of less importance to my research interests. I was mainly interested in the liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, however there were a wide range of liners travelling transatlantic routes in the 1930’s that I was previously unaware of.
I accessed a large amount of original photographs used for promotion and documentation of the liners. The first collections were of the Mauretania and Aquitania, which showed salons, dining rooms, decks and bars for the third and tourist classes, as well as portraits and group shots of the traveler’s. The fashions, even in the lower classes were so synonymous with what we know of the era – cloche hats, drop waist skirts with pleats at the bottom. Despite being the cheapest areas to travel, the interiors were still very stately, with palms and marbled floors.
Original photographs of the maiden voyage launches were also made available for the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. The scale of the event and the thousands of people (all wearing hats!) watching the launch were quite incredible, which was also heightened by the presence of royalty at each event. Her Majesty the Queen and the Royal Princess watched the launch of the Queen Elizabeth in 1938.
One of the highlights from my first visit was a letter written from the Saxonia on a transatlantic crossing from to New York in February 1921. The writer, Jack, a male passenger wrote to his dear mother and brother. He writes about life on board, complaining at first about the passengers and how boring it is, to lastly after several days comparing them to a family and how wonderful the experience has been. He discusses the entertainment and includes a song about the Saxonia which was sung on board, as well as the extensive food at each meal. Jack writes, “I’m sure to make your mouth water but this is what I just had for dinner:- Soup, Salmon, Mutton Fillet, Roast Turkey, Sausages etc, Christmas Pudding, Chocolate Wafers, Coffee and Liquers”. On the back on the letter, it is noted that Jack sadly passed away several years later in a house fire in New York City.
I viewed many promotional pamphlets for ships such as the Mauretania and Ivernia, describing life online as ‘LUXURY AFLOAT’. I also saw pamphlets that advertised the Cunard line in general, and how it traveled across the globe with passengers. The language of advertising often used the words ‘strength and power’. In a brochure for second class cabins the ships were described as below,
“The lines of the symmetrical hull, the enormous raking funnels, the tapering masts, and the white upper works and ventilators, and the graceful way in which she sits upon the water, gives this ship the appearance of a colossal yacht”.
“This great power and high speed is mainly responsible for the extreme regularity with which in summer and winter alike, she makes her voyages, passengers being able to reckon with tolerable certainty on the time of arrival”.
There is a really interesting booklet in their collection from the 1930’s that demonstrates the mammoth scale of the ships through illustrations placing the ships against buildings such as the Coliseum in Rome and the British House of Parliament. The ships mainly eclipse these mammoth architectural structures. In other booklets I read, the Queen Mary was described as being taller than Niagara Falls and able to travel the Atlantic in 4 days. Other statistics explain the scale of the ships operation – 1300 travelers in 3rd class, 500 in 2nd Class and 500 in 1st Class. Staff numbers also demonstrate the gigantic scale of this operation – 50 cooks, 350 stewards, 390 engineers and 70 members of the sailing department on one ship alone.