A sailor’s life – 6. Great steamers white and gold
“Travellers whose social position and resources accustom them to the luxury of privacy and comfort in their vie intime, are no longer obliged to leave this behind when they go to sea,” the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. announced in 1905, launching the first of five luxury passenger ships offering “Transatlantic opulence” on its South American run. At the company’s AGM that year, the chairman jocularly looked forward to a future of air travel (gasps) and women commanders (“guffaws,” reported the Southampton Times).
For nearly twenty years a battle had raged in the Atlantic between shipping companies over the emerging passenger trade between America and Europe. To and fro the honours went, as now this country and now that boasted the biggest, fastest, most powerful ship. The Kaiser had upped the ante in 1889, after clapping eyes on the White Star liner Teutonic during the fleet review for Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. “We must have some of these,” he reportedly said, and within a decade German yards had launched Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse – briefly the biggest and fastest vessel in the world.
Eventually, in 1907, Cunard’s Mauretania, steaming at 26 knots under Parson’s new steam turbine engines, set a record for the crossing that would not be broken for 22 years. But the shipping companies continued to vie for headlines with marble floors and gilded ceilings, until in the autumn of 1908 the White Star line laid the keel for the first of two sister ships that were to be both bigger and more luxurious than any built before, with £800 suites, heated pools and electric gym. They could not break rival Cunard’s speed record, but they would be so grand that even the £3 third class accommodation would blow the minds of the hundreds of thousands of emigrants who by then made up half the transatlantic trade. The ships were to be known as Olympic, and Titanic.
Even the Royal Mail and had had to look to luxury to keep up. The new A-liners on the South America run boasted “boudoirs in the Adam style” and SS Aragon had a paneled ceiling in the first class dining saloon inlaid with paintings of Columbus discovering the Americas that would not have looked out of place in a small castle. The company had run postal deliveries to the sugar plantations around the Caribbean for the Admiralty by paddle steamer since soon after the abolition of slavery and then expanded southwards with a weekly service to Rio de Janeiro. Gradually, as taste for travel grew, the naval martinets who treated passengers as inconvenient cargo or incompetent crew were replaced. Deck chairs were laid on, and soon the company was advertising “special facilities to passengers taking voyages for health or pleasure”, to supplement the mail contract.
In Rudyard Kipling’s day, in the infancy of mass tourism as we now know it, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. was South America to most British travellers, although the “steamers white and gold” immortalised in his Just So Stories in 1902 were artistic licence; the fancy gold and white livery with which the coal-burning Don and Magdalena and their sisters were launched had been repainted a more practical black again within three years.
In September 1910, when Bertie Sivell – weaned on the Cat who walked by Himself and the ‘Satiable Elephant’s Child – steamed out of Southampton past the island where he was born bound for Barbados aboard the RMS Oruba, aged fifteen and five months, the Isle of Wight County Press reported suffragettes invading Ryde town hall, demanding votes for women. A French airman, Louis Bleriot, had flown across the Channel, unleashing a swarm of imitators, and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen was pounding towards to the south pole on diesel engines. The world was changing fast, and the RMSP’s flippant chairman, later Lord Kylsant, was eventually banged up in Wormwood Scrubs for fraud. But that’s another story.