Member and friend Paul Hollister recently donated to the Ocean Liner Museum's collection what your Editor can only describe as a treasure-trove of ocean liner memorabilia, a cornucopia of menus, postcards, letter paper, clippings and publications. The Museum is indebted to Mr Hollister for his gift. Indeed, one element of it served to pique your editor's interest in Cunard's Mediterranean cruise offerings for the winter of 1910-1911.
Among the treasure trove is a small 6" x 7" illustrated booklet, its cover inadequately reproduced in black and white with this account. The original is embossed silver with a half-inch purple border, the central design a pleasing combination of Cunard's familiar crowned logo festooned by a garland of chain strung with sea shells and weeds.
The inside cover says it all, announcing a program of winter cruises out of New York to the Mediterranean and the Holy Land. Participating in the program was a famous trio of what had become, since Lusitania and Mauretania of 1907, intermediate Cunarders. Two of them were several years old and they sailed in tandem with a brand-new third that had entered the Liverpool to Boston service in 1910.
The Pretty Sisters
The older pair were the famous "pretty sisters," Carmania and Caronia. Although doubtless pretty and, from across the water, apparently interchangeable, they were, in terms of their engineering specifications, not sisters at all. In fact, they had been specifically designed and entered into service by Cunard in 1905 to test the efficacy of Sir Charles Parsons's revolutionary marine steam turbines, at that time under consideration for the engine rooms of the company's awesome new "superliners," Lusitania and Mauretania.
Ever cautious, the Cunard Line entered Carmania and Caronia into service as an exhaustive evaluation of the relative merits of standard reciprocating engine and Parsons's newfangled turbines. In fact, the first observed comparison test had been between two alternately engined cross-Channel steamers sailing between Newhaven and Dieppe. But then Cunard decided to extend their evaluation to a pair of full-sized transatlantic steamers.
Both vessels had been laid down at John Brown's Yard on the Clyde. Carmania was equipped with turbines driving triple screws while Caronia relied on reciprocating steam engines driving twin screws.
After a full year's testing on the North Atlantic, sailing under identical service conditions between Liverpool, Queenstown and New York, it was found that turbine-driven Carmania proved slightly faster and more economical in terms of coal consumption.
So the momentous decision was taken to supply this new propulsion system to Cunard's quadruple-screwed Lusitania and Mauretania. The results proved, as North Atlantic history has recorded, exemplary; both upstarts from across the North Sea, Deutschland and Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, were easily outclassed.
The pretty sisters were put into cruising service in the Mediterranean for the 1910/1911 off-season, together with the second of Cunard's four Franconia's. She had been built on the other side of Britain, at the yard of Swan Hunter & Whigham Richardson on the Tyne and had, in fact, been designed with Mediterranean cruising in mind.
Balmy Winter Sailings
Now, in 1911, these three vessels participated in the company's winter cruising service out of New York:
"Away from the biting winds, the snow and slush of winter...to travel there in luxury and comfort in steamships among the largest, fastest and most luxurious in the world..."
Seven days after leaving New York, the vessels' first landfall was Madeira, followed by calls at Algiers, Villefranche and Naples before a three-day, seagoing hiatus brought them into Alexandria for excursions to Cairo and the Egyptian antiquities. From Alexandria, cruise passengers also made connections to visit the Holy Land. Meanwhile, the ship continued up the Adriatic to Fiume, one of Cunard's busiest transshipment ports for a very different class of passenger--thousands of emigrants bound for the United States.
Then the steamers returned to Naples where cruise passengers returning home to the U.S. could either sail to Liverpool on the same vessel or embark on fast trains for an overland continental train trip that would deliver them to waiting Lusitania or Mauretania.
(This was an early application of leisurely cruising tonnage interfacing conveniently with an express ocean service that would be duplicated in the 1950's. American cruise passengers aboard a second Caronia, the famous "Green Goddess," returning from the Mediterranean to Southampton would embark on one of the waiting Queens for fast passage back to New York.)
What was it like on board this trio of Cunarders? The later Franconia boasted a gymnasium, which her consorts lacked, as well as a verandah cafe and a sun deck. But on all three vessels, there was a newly created public room on the boat deck which the company christened The Lounge, in which, "at all hours," coffee, tea and light refreshments were available.
"In this room, ladies may join the gentlemen for their after-dinner
coffee and cigars," a bold innovation for 1911, cracks in the stern, Victorian sociosexual divide separating the sexes after dinner.
Dining rooms on all three vessels had been arranged with swivel chairs grouped about individual small tables, rather than the traditional long tables previously encountered. Passengers were also permitted, during these relaxed cruises, to take advantage of an A La Carte dining room service,
wherein they might book a special table with companions of their own choosing.
Three spacious promenades were part of each vessel's generous outdoor general arrangement, providing adequate sitting, walking and sports room for all. The familiar litany of shipboard games were on tap, from shuffleboard to three-legged as well as egg-and-spoon races.
Port calls were similar to those of today, in at dawn and out by dusk. But many passengers stayed over, electing to remain ashore until the next Cunarder in the service appeared in the anchorage. In Egypt and the Holy Land especially, passengers lingered ashore for weeks at a time.
For the crew, their Mediterranean winter hiatus cut both ways. They enjoyed smoother weather and the slightly more relaxed atmosphere aboard a cruising rather than a crossing vessel but were away from their wives and families for longer stretches of time than during their regular transatlantic schedule.
The profiles of the three vessels were almost identical, a kind of disdainful, twin-funneled elegance. For the most part, pre-World War I Cunarders almost all boasted twin stacks. Those that were lost at sea (and both Franconia and her sister Laconia were torpedoed) would be replaced post-war by single-funneled simulacra. As it was, the pretty sisters' profiles, apart from their unseen technological specifications below decks, inaugurated the era of the high-sided steamer, a substantial advance over the comparable look of the company's doughty greyhounds of the 1890's, Campania and Lucania. Whatever technological achievements must be accredited to the pretty sisters, what they also brought to the North Atlantic--and the Mediterranean--was a languid, Edwardian stance that created a new benchmark for the classic steamship profile.
Curiously enough, both pretty sisters survived until they were scrapped in the early thirties, one in Blyth and the other in Japan. They were converted briefly to armed merchant cruisers during the early months of the war, three years after that halycon Mediterranean season. Although Caronia was later restored to trooping duties, her sister Carmania achieved a kind of ocean liner immortality by (only just) defeating the German armed merchant cruiser
Cap Trafalgar in an unique ocean liner slugfest off Trinidad in the second month of the war.
In November of 1916, astonishingly, blooded Carmania resumed passenger service between Liverpool and New York, a year after Lusitania had paid the ultimate price for just that kind of maritime complacency during hostilities.
Caronia, incidentally, has the distinction of being the only Cunarder ever named for an American. She was
christened after Caro Brown, whose
grandfather, Vernon Brown, had been Cunard's New York agent at the turn of the century.
But for the purposes of this retrospective, we should remember both pretty sisters and the second Franconia merely as stalwart Cunarders. Over a distant winter, they fulfilled a luxurious and imaginative role in early Mediterrenean cruising, fore-runners of increasing numbers of white-painted contemporary cruise ships that adhere to hastier itineraries in those same waters.