Before planes, if somebody wanted to travel to another continent for pleasure, business or to start a new life, they would need to book a ticket on an ocean liner.
Ocean liners were passenger ships, designed to transport people and cargo from one destination to another on a line. Built for speed and durability, these ocean liners were also furnished and fitted out with every amenity a passenger could want for a 2-week voyage.
Here’s a collection of photographs of these magnificent vessels and the people who sailed on them.
The ocean liner trade was a lucrative business with companies like Cunard and White Star Line owning a fleet of vessels. In constant competition with each other, companies would order the construction of the biggest and fastest ships. RMS Mauretania, owned by Cunard, was the largest ship in the world at the time of her launch in 1906.
Before a maiden voyage, a ship would need to have been built to standard rules and regulations, surveyed, received a classification and subsequently approved for service.
Ocean liners could carry over 2,000 passengers in first, second and third class, with around 800 members of staff and crew. Some, like Empress of Britain would carry just under 500 passengers.
At any given time, an ocean liner could be carrying passengers from a mix of backgrounds and with different reasons for travel. For the first and second classes, made up of society’s wealthiest and the rising middle classes, it was an opportunity to travel to another continent for leisure or to accompany family for business. For these passengers, travelling on an ocean liner was a glamorous affair and many would be seen wearing their finest and most fashionable clothes.
Ocean liners would also often transport royalty, politicians and celebrities from sport, stage, screen and music. Madame Curie toured America in the early 1920s to raise money for radium research.
In 1934, baseball legend Babe Ruth, along with other American league players, sailed to Japan aboard Empress of Japan. This was part of a goodwill tour, showcasing American baseball to over 500,000 Japanese fans.
An ocean liner in dock, prior to leaving or after arrival, was always a spectacle. As well as the hustle and bustle of excited passengers and crew preparing for the voyage, spectators would gather around the dock to catch a glimpse of these remarkable structures and wave the passengers off.
Each officer and member of staff would know their duties to prepare for the voyage. Provisions would be loaded onto the ship. For one voyage, Cunard’s RMS Carmania had 30,000 lbs of beef; 8,000 lbs of sausage, tripe, calves’ feet and kidneys; 2,000 lbs fresh fish; 10,000 oysters; 200 tins of jam; 250 lbs of tea; 3,000 lbs of butter; 15,000 eggs; 1,000 chickens and 140 barrels of flour.
Ships could have hundreds of staff including officers, chefs, waiters and waitresses, bartenders, cleaners, stokers, engineers and stewards. They were there to look after the passengers and the ship.
One of the most famous crew members was Violet Jessop. She served as a stewardess on RMS Titanic, HMHS Britannic and RMS Olympic and remarkably survived all of their sinkings. Violet regularly worked with Arthur John Priest, the unsinkable stoker, who survived Titanic, Alcantara, Britannic and Donegal.
Once aboard, passengers would get the first glimpses of the richly decorated interiors and beautiful exteriors that they would become familiar with over the next 10 days. To reflect that grandeur and wealth of ocean travel, liner companies would often commission leading artists and architects to design the interiors.
The interior of Mauretania was designed by Harold Peto, most well known for his landscape gardens, and reflected the taste of the time with Louis XVI revival panelling, ornamentation and furniture.
Once aboard, and you’ve made your way through the corridors to the correct class, you would be taken to your cabin or, if you were lucky enough to have one, your suite. First and second class rooms were usually equipped with single beds, basic amenities, storage space and sometimes a dining or living area.
If you had enough money, you could book into the regal suites or state rooms. Lusitania and Mauretania were fitted with two, located on either side of the promenade deck. They were the most richly decorated cabins with multiple bedrooms, a dining room, parlour and bathroom. These expensive suites would also have rooms allocated for staff and servants of the first-class passengers.
On Titanic, a third-class ticket cost around £7 (£800 today). Second class was upwards of £13 (£1,500 today) and first class was a minimum of £30 (£3300 today). The most expensive ticket on Titanic was believed to be around $2,560 ($61,000 today) and was purchased by Charlotte Drake Cardeza. Cardeza reportedly travelled with 14 trunks, 4 suitcases and 3 crates.
Dining rooms were opportunities to socialise and eat. Each class had its own dining room and menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There would often be a special welcome and goodbye dinner at the start and end of the voyage. The luncheon menu from RMS Titanic on 14 April 1912 included a hot meal of cockie leekie, corned beef, chicken a la Maryland and grilled mutton chops as well as a cold buffet of soused herring, veal pie, ham, chicken galantine and spiced beef.
As well as large dining rooms, many ocean liners were fitted with smaller cafes for lighter meals. The first-class verandah café on RMS Mauretania was remodelled in 1927 and based on the orangery at Hampton Court Palace. The verandah was considered to be quite an innovative design as it allowed passengers to sit and eat outside whilst also protecting them from the elements.
Health and fitness was becoming a fashionable trend in the Edwardian era. Olympic and Titanic were big enough to be fitted with a swimming pool and a gymnasium as well as a Turkish baths.
The golden age of ocean liners was full of glamour, excitement and prestige. Ships like Mauretania, Aquitania, Lusitania and Olympic carried thousands of passengers all over the world every year on what must have been an incredible voyage. Though tragedy often struck, people continued to use ocean liners until air travel became popular in the 1950s.