They epitomized the glamour of international travel in the days before airlines stole their trade.
At one time, Liverpool’s landing stage was so busy that ships would be literally queuing in the Mersey to discharge and embark passengers. However, the period from the late 1940s saw both the golden age of Liverpool shipping as well as the decline of its passenger trade.
From the early 1960s, though, Liverpool’s passenger trade entered a decline that was unstoppable.
The Jet Age had seen the loss of much of its trade and shipping line after shipping line moved away from the port or stopped its ships sailing and sold them for scrap or service with foreign lines.
John Shephard tells the story, using the memories of those who sailed in them, of the last liners to use Liverpool.
From the Daily Post by Peter Elson…
When the journalist Godfrey Wynn went as a youngster to see relatives depart from Liverpool on one of its great ocean liners, the event made an enormous impression on him.
- He promised himself that one day, when he was old enough and rich enough, that he, too, would sail in style, traveling first class from Princes Landing Stage to New York.
- Wynn eventually achieved his goal, but for more than 40 years, any such aspirational young (or old) traveller has been denied this opportunity, after Cunard Line’s RMS Sylvania closed the Liverpool-New York service.
- This depressing state of affairs was followed by two other great Liverpool-based shipping lines, Canadian Pacific (for Canada) and Elder Dempster (for West Africa), also finishing their passenger services in 1971 and 1972, respectively.
- This was the end. No longer were Liverpool and Birkenhead docks the springboard for travel to the rest of the world. Yet, for over 130 years previously, everybody seemed to funnel through the port: millions of emigrants, businessmen, politicians, socialites and tourists.
- These included the celebrities of the time, from Charles Dickens embarking for his US reading tour in 1842, to George Leigh Mallory and Sandy Irvine departing for their tragic attempt on Everest in 1924.
Hollywood stars like Katharine Hepburn preferred to travel via Liverpool on the smaller, deluxe, all-first-class liners like Cunard’s Parthia and Media.
- These comings and goings embellished Liverpool with a huge part of the character that set it above other, sadder, land-locked places.
- So among the long roll-call of Liverpool and Merseyside firsts, I would like to add another contender. I think the ocean liner can justifiably be a means of transport that Liverpool practically invented.
- Prior to this, the Mersey, of course, had forest-like fleets of sailing ships reaching out across the world. But when Samuel Cunard won the transatlantic mail contract and his first ship, RMS Britannia paddled out of Coburg Dock and the Mersey for Boston in 1840, a new and remarkable era began.
The Mersey’s role was further cemented by IK Brunel’s SS Great Britain, which made her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York in 1845, in just two weeks.
- Great Britain was important as she was a propeller-driven ship, as opposed to a paddle steamer, and set the pattern for every passenger ship that followed.
Liverpool companies, especially White Star Line, developed the basic design, refining it from being a mere mode of travel into the floating palaces that fill everyone’s imaginations.
The Liverpool Daily Post & Echo’s Great Mersey Liners book harks back to the last decades of this golden era when the Mersey was on the crest of the waves that Britannia ruled.
- Although I experienced the last years of the passenger traffic from waterfront visits, it still astonishes me how much this business was woven into the city’s life.
With this defining role in British life lost, it is no wonder that the city still flails around to find a new and meaningful direction.
- While we cling to The Beatles today as totems of the city’s unique character, they were driven forward by the collision between the city’s Celtic music tradition and the new US rock and roll records brought back by ships’ crews.
Sifting through hundreds of fabulous archive images for this book, I was instantly reminded of a time when the Mersey and its men and women were at the hub of an astonishing web of global trade routes.
- This was when Liverpool, by definition, was a world-class city, when secondary school pupils were routinely taught Spanish to get jobs on the South American- bound liners.
- Imagine the opportunity for travel when, a mere taxi-ride away laden with steamer trunks, anybody with the fare could board ocean liners at Liverpool’s Princes Landing Stage, adjacent to the Pier Head.
These passenger ships were bound not only for Latin America, but also the Caribbean, Canada, India, the Far East, Madeira, Portugal, Spain and the US.
- The names of the ships still romantically resonate down the years: Accra, Apapa and the lovely yacht-like Aureol. Then there wereReina del Mar and Reina del Pacifico, Britannic, Mauretania, Sylvania, Carinthia, Voltaire and Van Dyck.
This was a maritime epoch when reigning monarchs were the Empresses of Britain, England, Canada, France and Scotland.
- Likewise, their owners conjure up a lost world: Bibby, Booth, Blue Funnel, Blue Star, British India, Cunard, Canadian Pacific, Ellerman City, Furness Withy, Pacific Steam Navigation, Shaw Savill and White Star.
These circumstances led to Liverpool’s population gaining a worldliness, a classic seaport’s outward-looking character that made all of its inhabitants appear more savvy than other, less blessed, landlocked cities.
It also had a hugely positive effect across Merseyside with so many companies and services related to the liner trade from laundry services to the Adelphi Hotel servicing the exacting demands of first class passengers in transit.
- But, as some photographs indicate, the sea winds of change were already gathering and the liner trade was about to suffer the double-blow of the arrival of the jet-airliner and severe industrial strife.
Although the 1970s is regarded as the strike-torn decade, way back in 1960 terrible strikes at Cammell Laird disrupted the building of the prestigious RMS Windsor Castle, and crew disputes paralysed passenger services.
- It was a hammering from which the Mersey’s liner traffic never recovered and this loss changed the city for ever.
However, the circle turns and Liverpool now has a magnificent new cruise liner landing stage, situated where Princes Landing Stage floated until 1974, so the future looks rosier than ever.
- In the meantime, do sit back and enjoy, through this book, the memory of this exciting, glamorous era.
Most of all, we should thank the marvellous efforts of the Liverpool Post & Echo’s terrific photographers, including Walter McEvoy, Stephen Shakeshaft and Neville Willasey, without whom this volume would not be possible.
Thanks to Peter Elson at the Liverpool Daily Post…