Start of a legend

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photograph of painting of a ship with masts and a small boat in attendance. Liverpool can be seen in the background

The Britannia (detail, reproduction) on display in the Lifelines Gallery. Image courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

To me, Stephen Guy, Samuel Cunard is one of the most inspirational figures in the history of the business side of seafaring. Cunard (1787 – 1865) was the founder of perhaps the best-known shipping line in the world which had small beginnings in Liverpool (more on the main site). Merseyside Maritime Museum has many exhibits linked to the Cunard line but today we focus on the Canadian entrepreneur’s first ship, the paddle steamer Britannia.

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Cunard was a civil engineer who came to Britain to operate a fast mail service using steamships between the UK and America. A fine portrait bust of him can be seen on the top floor.

A huge shipping line grew from the early days of Britannia which is represented in the museum by a superb, finely-detailed model made by legendary ship modellers Bassett Lowke Ltd. Britannia was built by R Duncan & Co in Greenock in 1840 and was Cunard’s first purpose-built Atlantic liner. She was way ahead of sailing ship competition in terms of passenger accommodation and speed but there were some disadvantages to this ultra-modern mode of transport. A display panel in the museum’s Lifelines gallery shows Britannia leaving Liverpool on her maiden voyage to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Boston, Massachusetts, on 4 July 1840.

Because she was designed for speed, passengers had to put up with some inconveniences. About half the space on board was taken up by her engines and coal bunkers. The noise and vibrations of the engines and paddle-wheels and the smoke on deck from the belching funnel were very unpleasant. However, compared with contemporary sailing ships her passenger accommodation was considered luxurious – small cabins housing 115 people on the main deck below. There was also a dining saloon.

Cows were carried on deck to ensure supplies of fresh milk. The holds could carry up to 225 tons of cargo.

A model of a First Class stateroom shows the best that early Victorian sea-travellers could experience - little more than a pokey cubby-hole but luxurious by the standards of the time. It was used by popular author Charles Dickens and his wife during a 14-day voyage on Britannia from Liverpool to Boston USA in 1842.
The tiny detailed model shows two narrow bunks, a bench, primitive washing facilities and a few coat hangers and no wardrobes. There is even Dickens’ minute silk top hat, overcoat, boots and duck-headed cane. Dickens wrote in his American Notes: “Nothing smaller for sleeping in was ever made than a coffin”. (You can read Dickens' American Notes on the Free Library website).

A PS Britannia wallpaper is available on our main site.

A new Maritime Tale appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo.