Preparing to sail


As the last passengers disembarked, the liner prepared to move into dock. An army of cleaners, painters, plumbers, joiners, upholsterers, polishers and even a piano tuner swarmed on board to make the liners ready for the next crossing.

Passengers disembarking

Passengers disembarking © University of Liverpool

Cunarders used Huskisson Dock for their weekly turnaround until the 1960s. Before the Olympic became the first large North Atlantic liner to switch to oil burning in 1919, liners used coal to fuel their engines. It took 24 hours to load 500 railway wagons of coal on the Mauretania. Before coaling, all the ship’s furniture had to be covered with sheets. When coaling was completed, the stewards and cleaners had only one day to scrub the paintwork clean of coal dust.

In Liverpool’s Gladstone Dock there used to be a huge cauldron of hot water. Divided into two teams – one port, one starboard – women washed down all the cabin paintwork on the liner. Every so often the supervisor would shout “Change your water, girls” and each team would refill their buckets.

In the 1900s Liverpool had over 300 laundries. They ranged from the well-staffed North Atlantic Steam Laundry to single women and Chinese families who starched the officers’ dress shirts or ironed thousands of napkins.

6400 sheets, 8500 table napkins and 16,000 towels had to be washed every time the Saxonia II docked in Liverpool between crossings during the 1950s.

The world’s largest spring cleaning

In the winter, Atlantic liners came into dock in Liverpool for their annual spring-cleaning. Each overhaul took about four weeks and provided work for over 2,000 people from Merseyside. No part of the ship escaped: the flagpole was painted and the keel scraped of barnacles and weed. Spring cleaning an average liner used up 15,000 gallons of paint and 1000 tons of sand to ‘scrub the decks to pristine whiteness’.

When Caronia II called in during the 1950s over 10,000 curtains, bedspreads and carpets, 4000 pillows and 1300 mattresses had to be cleaned, repaired or replaced.

Stocking the liners

Supplying a liner was like equipping a small town. The shopping list was many pages long, from asparagus to engine grease, light bulbs to oven cloths. If anything was forgotten, there was no going back.

The liner's storekeeper was responsible for checking how much had been used on the previous crossing and for ticking off new supplies. He had to order urgent replacements for broken crockery or worn out deck brushes. On a rough crossing thousands of pieces of china and glass could be smashed and storms played havoc with the stores.

Extra supplies were loaded for Christmas crossings. In 1954 seven Cunarders were at sea with 13,000 passengers including hundreds of children. On board were 65,000lbs (30,000kgs) of poultry, 55,000lbs (25,000kgs) of beef, 50,000lbs (23,000kgs) of pork and veal, 300,000 eggs and 1500 large Christmas puddings, not to mention balloons, streamers, presents and several Christmas trees.

Shore leave

Crew liked working for ‘The Cunard’. On the Liverpool to New York run they had regular shore leave – four or five trips on and one trip off. Being paid at the end of a crossing meant that they had money to spend.

Younger crew celebrated the last night on shore in the city’s pubs and dance halls – the Tiger, the Vines or 'Big House', the Crown, The American Bar, the Merchant Navy Club, The Rialto and The Grafton. Officers warned them to do no more than wave at the ‘good time’ girls on Lime Street.

While on leave crew had to go shopping as the shipping lines did not pay for their uniforms. Chefs had to provide their own kitchen knives and women officers who ate in passenger dining rooms had to buy their own evening dresses.