Sailing on Saturday

Millions of travellers passed through Liverpool on their way to or from North America. Until the 1950s, for most people, liners were the only way to cross the 3,140 miles to New York. Some spent the night before sailing in the city's hotels and boarding houses while many arrived on the boat trains with only hours to spare.

Riverside Station & Royal Liver Building seen from liner at Liverpool landing stage

Liverpool landing stage, 1937 from the Stewart Bale collection at Maritime Archives and Library 

Passengers often called in to the Cunard Building at the Pier Head or White Star's headquarters in James Street to make last minute arrangements, change money and collect mail and telegrams. They could relax over coffee and a newspaper in the first class lounge.

In the early 20th century emigrants had to pass a medical examination in the doctor's office before being allowed to board the ship. If found to be 'unclean', they were given an antiseptic bath and a hair cut.

The basement of the Cunard Building housed the luggage stores. Passengers had to forward heavy trunks, marked 'not wanted on voyage', a week in advance. Once the liner was ready for loading, these items were stowed in the hold.

Before joining their ship, passengers had to pass through the Customs Sheds to have their travel documents checked. When a liner arrived from New York, the sheds were at their busiest as people queued to have their luggage examined.

Many people had to save for years to buy their ticket. The price of a first class ticket on the Queen Mary in 1936 could keep a family with three children in food for over a year. Where passengers ate, slept and amused themselves depended on which class of ticket they bought. Who you were and what you could afford was displayed on your luggage.

On sailing day, the Landing Stage was a throng of passengers, well wishers, cab drivers and porters. There were stacks of mail bags and mountains of luggage 'wanted on voyage'. Third class passengers boarded first and First Class last. Inexperienced travellers queued for hours beside their gangway. Last minute arrivals dashed towards their ship, as 'All ashore who are going ashore' was announced.


Most passenger liners carried some cargo especially lighter goods that were valuable or wanted in a hurry. The latest fashions, films and books crossed the Atlantic in both directions. Families on the move arranged for their furniture and personal effects to travel in the hold.

Liverpool dockers loaded some surprising cargoes. They have included everything from zoo animals to theatre sets, to gold and silver bars destined for banks and governments. From the 1920s cars became a regular part of a liner’s cargo and were hoisted on board by crane.

When the Titanic sank in 1912, White Star rushed over a copy of her cargo list from Liverpool to New York on the Mauretania. It included:

  • A case of toothpaste,
  • 34 cases of athletics goods
  • 8 cases of orchids
  • 4 cases of straw hats
  • 1 case Edison gramophones
  • 856 rolls of linoleum
  • 76 cases dragon's blood
  • 63 cases of champagne
  • 2 cases of tennis balls
  • 3 cases of hair nets
  • 318 bags of potatoes
  • 1 case of raw feathers
  • 3 cases of rabbit skins
  • 1 case of auto parts
  • 1 barrel of earth
  • 75 cases of anchovies
  • 100 cases of shelled walnuts
  • 107 cases of mushrooms


Listen to Bastien Fylling, a young male Norwegian emigrant, as he remembers boarding the Mauretania 1911.

Read a transcript of the audio clip