Monday: meet your fellow passengers

Mix with the right set

Millions of ordinary people crossed on the liners, on holiday, on business or to start a new life.

Edwardian mothers looked through their passengers list to find suitable bachelors for their unmarried daughters. Once identified, they tipped the steward to ensure that the young people had steamer chairs next to each other on deck.

In the 1900s sea breezes were seen as a cure for a young women crossed in love. Jilted brides and those who had fallen in love with men considered unsuitable by the girl’s parents were packed off to Liverpool for a trip on an ocean liner.

Thos Cook & Son window

Thos. Cook & Son window © Thomas Cook

In the 1920s Cunard advertised the Aquitania as the ‘Ladies Ship’. They hoped to attract the growing number of ‘bachelor girls’ and ‘new women’ who were seeking freedom and adventure. On many crossing women outnumbered men two to one in all three classes.

Stewardess Edith Sowerbutt described the liners in the 1930s as ‘a gigolo’s paradise’ because there were so many wealthy widows on board. She recalls how they were ‘all dressed up to the nines, out on a big safari to ensnare unsuspecting men’.

During the Depression in the 1930s, White Star sent the Olympic, Majestic and Britannic on weekend ‘cruises to nowhere’ to win business. Waiter Dave Marlow called them ‘whoopee cruises’ where passengers ‘were out for a good time’ and there were plenty of ‘sugar daddies and their inevitable blondes.’

In third class on the Olympic (1911) single men got to know their cabin mates very quickly. Three or four men had to share a cabin without a wash basin or porthole. The smell could be overpowering.

Children and babies often crossed on their own, being looked after by a stewardess in her grey dress with white collar and cuffs and white cap. In 1930 ten year old Lillian Davis made her seventh Atlantic crossing on her own on the Britannic. The Captain invited her to afternoon tea.

By 1970 holidaymakers outnumbered business people. They expected to make new friends. The social directresses on the QE2 arranged ‘Grannies Get-togethers’ and ‘Travelling Alone’ parties to help passengers get to know each other.

Spot the stars

Until the advent of safe and comfortable air travel in the late 1950s, liners were the only way for famous people, including world leaders, entertainers and films stars, to cross.

Star spotting was not always easy. Passengers needed to travel first class to have a chance to meet celebrities. Film star Greta Garbo rarely left her cabin and Marlene Dietrich only appeared at dinner. Some famous people travelled under a false name.

Lord Renfrew was the world’s most eligible bachelor. When he sailed on the Berengaria in 1924, bouquets were put in the ballroom to disguise the smell of fresh paint. He swam, boxed, danced and joined the tug-of-war team. Lord Renfrew was the disguise of Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII. He later gave up the throne for American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The couple regularly crossed on the Queens.

Look out for characters

Whether stowaway, baby or cat, every liner carried some unusual passengers.

An officer on the emigrant ship Pannonia in the 1910s remembers,

‘We carried the most extraordinary bunch of human beings. They bought everything they owned on board on their backs including a mattress, cooking utensils and a spare pair of shoes. There was a dreadful smell of cheese. They insisted on keeping it under their bed. ‘

One young woman claimed to be the world champion stowaway. She sold postcards of herself which listed the ships on which she sailed. When caught she was held in the Aquitania’s jail cell, crossing to New York and back to Southampton.

In 1910 Dr Crippen and his lover, disguised as his son, crossed on a Canadian Pacific liner. The Doctor was wanted for poisoning his wife. On a tip-off from the captain, Scotland Yard’s Inspector Dew dashed to Liverpool to board the Laurentic. The Laurentic being the faster ship, Dew was able to arrest the couple before reaching Canada. The trio returned on the Megantic.

In 1914 the Carpathia was in the eastern Mediterranean when five passengers demanded to leave the liner immediately. The Captain reluctantly arranged for then to be rowed ashore. Two of the men soon made world headlines as assassins of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand. His shooting triggered the First World War.

Liners and the war effort

In 1939 liners from Liverpool were packed with Jews fleeing Europe. At the start of the Second World War children were sent on their own to stay with relatives in North America for safety.

The liners were used as troop ships in both World Wars. 1.2 million American soldiers came into Liverpool on their way to Europe and other war zones. With their movie star accents and bulging wallets, the GIs went down a storm. They handed out cigarettes, nylons and sweets, all scarce luxuries in wartime Britain.

In 1946 in ‘Operation Daddy’ 25,000 war brides crossed the Atlantic with 15,000 babies. They were on their way to join their husbands, the American and Canadian soldiers whom they had fallen in love with during the Second World War.


Listen to the author Laurie Lee as he writes about travelling on the Queen Mary in 1960.

Read a transcript of the audio clip