For over 100 years, ocean liners, sometimes referred to as passenger ships, were the primary mode of intercontinental travel, transporting people as well as cargo and mail.
The development of ocean liners meant that the world suddenly opened up for people who had the means and ability to travel overseas. People embarked on these journeys for a holiday in a new country, for business, to experience sea travel or to relocate to a new city.
Here’s how ocean liners revolutionised international travel.
The origins of ocean liners
Ocean liners were passenger ships that operated on a ‘line’ between continents. They were built as a method of transportation – people, cargo, mail – rather than for the holiday itself.
Liners needed to be fast as they were operating to a strict schedule, tough and durable to survive multiple journeys through rough seas and inclement weather and had to be comfortable for passengers who could be spending weeks on the ship.
Though built as a method of transporting from point a to point b, ocean liners were seen as the height of luxury and were fitted out with dining rooms, gyms, swimming pools, lounges, music rooms and dance halls.
When were ocean liners invented?
Before the 19th century, international travel on ships was slow and uncomfortable. It was only undertaken if necessary, rarely for a holiday or for pleasure. The Industrial Revolution had brought about significant developments in shipbuilding and engineering including the use of steam power. Steam power was a vital part of the early development of ocean liners as it meant ships could travel faster than before across oceans.
The Black Ball Line introduced the first regular passenger service in 1818 with speed and comfort in mind. In 1838, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Western was launched, the largest passenger ship in the world from 1837-1839. Great Western could carry 128 first-class passengers and a crew of 60 from Bristol to New York City in just over 2 weeks.
The success of the Great Western, along with the increased migration to America in the 1850s, meant that shipping companies saw a lucrative gap in the market for regular intercontinental travel.
The subsequent decades saw shipping companies like P&O, Cunard, White Star Line, Hamburg America and Norddeutscher Lloyd compete to build the biggest, fastest and most luxurious ships in the world. This competitive building would see various ships claim the Blue Riband, an unofficial award given to the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
Examples of early ocean liners include RMS Oceanic (one of the first to have electricity fitted), RMS Britannia and SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. These new ocean liners could carry on average 1,500 passengers and crew of over 400.
Where could ocean liners travel to?
The busiest line was from Europe to North America. This was largely due to the historic links between Europe and the US, the increased popularity in immigration to America in the 19th century and the familial links between those that emigrated and those that remained at home.
For those in America, Europe was advertised as an exciting holiday destination, the perfect opportunity for the rising middle classes to show their wealth by holidaying in the Italian Riviera or shopping in Paris. Additional lines were set up between Europe and North America and South America, Africa, Asia, Australia and Canada.
What was it like to travel on an ocean liner in the early 20th century?
This all depended on what you could afford. Ocean liners were predominantly split into 3 classes – first, second and third – and passengers had to remain in their parts of the ship. First class was the most luxurious and exclusive part of the ship, reserved for celebrities, royalty and the wealthiest in society, usually using the liner for pleasure.
Third class was far simpler in its design, though relatively comfortable, and usually held the majority of passengers, with many using the liner to emigrate. Often second and third-class areas were built closer to the ship’s engines, meaning that when a ship was at full speed, vibrations could be felt throughout these areas. For all passengers and crew, this was home for 2 weeks.
RMS Olympic, sister ship of Titanic, was one of the most famous and popular ocean liners of the early 20th century. Her interior was the height of luxury. First class included cabins with private bathrooms (unusual for liners), a dining room, an à la carte restaurant, a grand staircase (often used by the ladies to show off the latest fashions and to catch the eye of eligible bachelors), a swimming pool, Turkish baths and a gym.
The second class had a library, smoking room and an elevator and the third class had their own smoking room and common area. If you were lucky enough to be able to afford the Olympic‘s 2 most luxurious cabins, you could expect a private promenade deck, sitting room, walk-in wardrobes, private bath and toilet.
Ocean liners provided middle and upper-class passengers the opportunity to socialise and network with others in society.
Was it dangerous to travel on an ocean liner?
From treacherous waters and dangerous weather to ship malfunctions and accidents, travel by sea carries with it many risks. Before travelling, a passenger could take comfort in the knowledge that everything possible had been done to ensure the safety of the vessel.
This included the compulsory addition of the Load Line to all ships in 1894 (the Load Line prevented ships from being overloaded), the requirement to have a classification and survey of the vessel done to ensure that it had been built to specific rules and standards, a qualified crew and captain and technological developments in electricity and radio to be able to call for help.
However, disasters did tragically strike ocean liners. In 1909, RMS Republic was struck by SS Florida whilst sailing through a thick fog off the coast of Nantucket. Republic was able to issue the new CQD (‘all stations: distress’) signal as she had been fitted with a Marconi radio. This meant that over 1,500 lives were saved making all liner companies aware of the importance of all ships being fitted with a radio system. CQD would be replaced with SOS after it was used during the Titanic sinking.
In 1930, RMS Tahiti was travelling from Sydney to San Francisco when her propeller shaft broke causing a large hole to form in her stern. The ship quickly flooded. Distress signals were sent and were responded to by Penybryn, a Norwegian steamship. Penybryn kept Tahiti floodlit throughout the night whilst the crew fought to save her, offering to take passengers and crew if required.
US steamship Ventura arrived on the scene and the passengers were eventually evacuated. The crew returned to the sinking ship to rescue luggage, papers and bullion before the ship sank. All passengers and crew survived.
Were ocean liners used in World War One and World War Two?
During both wars, many ocean liners were requisitioned by the government and converted into troop transportation ships, cargo ships and hospital ships. Ships including Mauretania, Aquitania and Olympic were painted in dazzle camouflage to avoid detection from enemy submarines.
Unfortunately, the wars led to the loss of many ocean liners. Britannic sank in the Aegean Sea after hitting a mine and Lusitania, carrying civilians, was struck by a torpedo in 1915. SS Rex, the pride of Italy, was bombed and sunk by the Royal Air Force in 1944 despite attempts to keep her safe.
After World War One and World War Two, ocean liners were used as part of the reparations and so many did not return to their original owners. Liner companies had to build new fleets or reconvert their original ships before operating again.
What did the jet age mean for ocean liners?
In the 1950s, the ocean liner business came under threat from the development of airliners and jet planes. The De Havilland Comet, launched in 1953, was the first commercial jet airliner. This was followed by the Boeing 707, Douglas DC-8 and the Sud Aviation Caravelle. These planes were able to cover greater distances in a shorter time making the need for ocean liners defunct.
By 1965, 95% of passenger travel across the Atlantic was done by planes. The majority of ocean liner services ceased in 1986.
What is the difference between an ocean liner and a cruise ship?
Out of fear for their loss of business, many ocean liners were converted into mega cruise ships, offering people a new type of holiday. Whereas ocean liners were built for speed and long voyages, cruise ships didn’t need to be. Instead of the ship being the mode of transport to a destination, the cruise ship was the destination.
Cruise ships could be slower, bigger and be fitted out with everything a passenger could want: shops, theatres, cinemas, dining rooms, ball rooms, gyms, sports facilities, swimming pools and spas.
The origins of cruise ships can be found in the Grand Tours of Europe. P&O, the world’s oldest cruise line, introduced the first passenger cruises in 1844, touring the Mediterranean. In the 1890s, alongside ocean liners, many companies offered cruises understanding that it was becoming a popular method of holidaying. From the 1960s, mega cruising became one of the most popular and lucrative holidays.
Are ocean liners used today?
Though these great ships once ruled the waves, today only one ocean liner remains in service RMS Queen Mary 2. Built in 2003 for Cunard, she still operates as a liner, carrying passengers across the Atlantic. Her interior is reminiscent of her ancestors, with grand designs and plenty of activities onboard to keep passengers entertained.
Showing how ocean liners have grown, the SS Great Britain was 1,340 GRT whereas the RMS Queen Mary 2 is a staggering 149,215 GRT making her the largest ocean liner ever built.