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George Burns, His Times and Friends
Chapter IX. The Founding of the Cunard Company


In December, 1835, Dr. Lardner, in a lecture delivered at Liverpool, said: “As to the project which is announced in the newspapers of making the voyage directly from New York to Liverpool, it is, I have no hesitation in saying, perfectly chimerical, and they may as well talk of making a voyage from New York or Liverpool to the moon! ”It seemed to him as wild a notion as one, propounded five years before, had appeared to others, namely, that the ribs of a ship should be made of iron instead of timber. What nonsense it is!” people were heard to exclaim; as if anybody ever knew iron to float! —or, as the chief naval architect of one of our dockyards said to Mr. Scott Russell, Don’t talk to me about iron ships; it’s contrary to nature!”

The practicability of steam navigation to the United States was not fully tested until 1838, when the Sinks was advertised to leave London for New York. She sailed on the 4th of April with ninety-four passengers. Three days later, the Great Western, a wooden paddle-wheel steamer, and the first steam ship specially constructed for the purpose, followed her.

To the wonder of the whole world, the two vessels reached their destination in safety, after a passage of seventeen days and fifteen days respectively.

Notwithstanding this test, Dr. Lardner only modified his opinions. The question with him now was not whether the Atlantic voyage could be accomplished by a steamer — that had already been determined, by experience, in the affirmative; but whether a succession of voyages could be maintained with safety, regularity, and profit, without which last element the enterprise could not he permanent, or, in other words, could not be successful. It is amusing to read, at this day, the elaborate objections brought by him against the navigation of the Atlantic in one unbroken line. He argued from the physical phenomena of the Atlantic, such as the atmospheric currents called the trade winds, which, as they approach the Equator, produce calms, interrupted by hurricanes, whirlwinds, and other violent atmospheric convulsions; the difficulties of the Gulf Stream, the zone of the ocean marked out by it being characterised by weather extremely unfavourable to navigation; the prevalent westerly winds which produce the long; swell of the Atlantic, more disadvantageous to a steamer than the short and chopping waves of inland seas; the force of masses of water, hurled with accelerating momentum over a tumultuous confluence of waters 3,000 miles in compass, which an immense vessel, forcibly impelled by opposing steam power, could neither successfully elude nor safely encounter; the calamity of fire; the danger of icebergs in the latitudes which the steamers must necessarily frequent ; the flues of the boilers becoming coated with soot, and thus impairing the conducting power of the metal of which they are composed; the liability to leakage through the uninterrupted action of the moving parts of the machinery throughout the duration of the voyage; the anxiety and fatigue of engineers and firemen rendering them liable to neglect their duty—these, and a hundred more, were the arguments used against the steam navigation of the Atlantic.

Meanwhile other vessels followed in the wake of the Sirius and the Great Western; the possibility of accomplishing the voyage by steam with speed and safety was proved beyond a doubt, and how to develop what had been so successfully commenced was the prevailing thought in the minds of many.

A matter so important did not escape the attention of George Burns, to whom Sir Edward Parry, who held an appointment under the Admiralty as “Comptroller of Steam Machinery and Packet Service,” sent an early intimation that the Government wished to establish a mail service between England and America, and were about to issue circulars soliciting tenders for the same. There was no originality in the idea of an Atlantic Steam Mail Service; it was not the thought of any individual, but of all men, and it was co-existent with the introduction of steam for the purposes of ocean navigation.

Up to the year 1838, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty (who, at that time, were invested with the arrangement of postal contracts) had been content to commit Her Majesty’s mails for America to the uncertain mercies of sailing vessels, bearing the somewhat unpromising designation of “coffin brigs."

Now, they were anxious to avail themselves of the “new force,” and to this end they sent out circulars far and wide. George Burns duly considered the matter, but did not see his way to enter upon so vast an undertaking. He had brought the coasting trade up to a high state of perfection, and his firm, although trading under various titles, was known and respected in all quarters. He was the working man in the whole concern; he had made himself acquainted with the details of the several branches of the vast trade, and he was the ‘‘representative” among all the principal men connected with the business. His hands were full, he was already on the high road to fortune, and he determined to let the Atlantic steam business alone.

But this was not to be. Away in Halifax, Nova Scotia, dwelt Samuel Cunard, a member of a well-to-do Quaker family, which emigrated from Wales to America early in the seventeenth century, and settled at Philadelphia. The family being Royalists, left the United States for Halifax, where, in 1788, Samuel Cunard was born. After serving some time in a merchant’s office, he so much distinguished himself that he was offered a partnership with one of the leading firms of shipowners in Boston. Here he found scope for his great energy and ability, and entered into various enterprises, engaging, with newly-built vessels, in the West India trade and in the South Sea whale-fishery. In 1815, while still a young man under thirty, he proposed to the Admiralty to undertake, at his own risk, the conveyance of mails between Boston, Newfoundland, and Bermuda, and carried out his scheme so satisfactorily as to earn the thanks of the British Government.

He watched eagerly the progress of steam navigation, and as early as the year 1830, the idea of establishing “Ocean Lines,” similar to lines of railway, had occurred to him. It was his firm belief that steamers, over a route of thousands of miles in length, might start and arrive at their destination with a punctuality not differing greatly from that of railway trains, the conditions for obtaining this result being that the ships should be thoroughly well built and thoroughly well manned, and their course laid down with the greatest accuracy. The steam-ship, in fact, was to he the railway train minus the longitudinal pair of metal rails. The latter, Samuel Cunard used to observe half jokingly, half in earnest, were needed only on the “ugly, uneven land,” with its excrescences of high hills and deep valleys, and the “beautiful level sea" needed them not. His friends laughed; but none could help seeing that there was truth in the seeming paradox.

'When, therefore, in 1839, one of the Admiralty circulars, inviting tenders for the conveyance of mails between England and America, fell into his hands, he saw at once that the opportunity for which he had waited so long had come. But Samuel Cunard, although he had all the necessary personal qualifications for carrying out such a scheme, lacked one important element, namely, capital. He tried to induce the merchants of Halifax to join him in the enterprise, hut in vain. Then, as he was not a man to quail before discouragement, he determined to proceed without delay to London to see if he could enlist the sympathy and financial support of the merchants there.

In Halifax he was agent to the East India Company for the sale of their teas and other produce, and his first step on arriving in England was to put himself into communication with Mr. Melvill, their Secretary, in Leadenhall Street (and the brother, by the by, of the Rev. Henry Melvill, the Golden Lecturer, who was afterwards intimate with George Burns).

Mr. Melvill could do nothing personally in the matter, hut he knew Mr. Robert Napier, the famous Clyde ship-builder and engineer, who had built several steamers for the East India Company, and to him he gave Mr. Cunard an introduction.

Robert Napier was a man worth knowing. He started life as an apprentice to his father, who was a blacksmith. At the age of twenty-four he received from his father the sum of £50, £15 of which he spent in the purchase of tools and the good-will of a small blacksmith’s shop in the Gallowgate, Glasgow, leaving £5 for working capital. By rapid steps his business developed; iron-founding and engineering were first added to it, then the building of marine engines, then the building of first-class steamers of all sizes for the mercantile marine and for war purposes for various foreign countries as well as our own. His premises grew from the tiny shop in the Gallowgate to larger ones in Washington Street, engineering works in Lancefield, and the famous ship-building yard in Govan; and his “staff,” which at first consisted of only two apprentices, increased until upwards of three thousand persons were in his employ.

Robert Napier knew George Burns well. He had engined most of the City of Glasgow Steam Packet Company’s vessels running between Glasgow and Liverpool—the company with which the firm of G. and J. Burns had become united. Mr. Donaldson, who represented that company, was now a staunch friend of George Burns, and it was to Donaldson that Robert Napier first took Samuel Cunard. Meantime George Burns had been informed of the arrival of Mr. Cunard and of his mission. The sequel cannot be better told than in the words of Mr. Burns when recalling to memory this important epoch in his life.

It was arranged that, when Cunard went to Mr. Napier, he was to take him to Donaldson, who, on his part, was to bring him to me. Donaldson came trotting down from his office, and told me Cunard and Napier were waiting for me, and had proposed that we should do something to get up a concern for carrying the North American Mails. Donaldson said to me, ‘I told Mr. Cunard that I never did anything without consulting a little friend of mine (meaning myself), and if he pleased I would bring him down to your office.’ So down Donaldson came with Cunard, introduced him, and left him alone with me to talk it over.

It was not long before we began to see some daylight through the scheme, and I entertained the proposal cordially. That day I asked Cunard to dine with me, and also David Maclver, who was at that time residing in Glasgow as agent for the City of Glasgow Steam Packet Company. I propounded the matter to Maclver, but he did not seem to see his way clear; on the contrary, he went dead against the proposal, and advised that after dinner I had better tell Cunard that the thing would not suit us. As talking after dinner generally ends in nothing, so it did on this-occasion. However, Mr. Cunard asked us to come down and take breakfast with him and Mr. Robert Napier the following morning in Mr. Napier’s house. We went accordingly, and, after going into details, I told Mr. Cunard we could hardly take up such a large concern as the proposal before us would amount to, without inviting a few friends to join us; and that as it would not be fair to keep him in suspense, we would set him free to make any arrangements he thought best with his own friends. He replied, ‘How long will it take to ascertain what you can do?’ I answered, ‘Perhaps a month;’ and he said, ‘Very well then, I’ll wait.’

That same day I set out and spoke first of all to Mr. William Connal, then at the head of a large firm engaged in the commission trade of produce and other things. Mr. Connal said to me, ‘I know nothing whatever about steam navigation, but if you think well of it, I’ll join you.’ (The shares were then £5,000 for each individual; but when the company was formed it was found convenient to make them £100 shares, which did not, however, in any way extend the number of the proprietors.)

Having secured the valuable co-operation of two such men as George Burns and Robert Napier, the chief difficulties of Mr. Cunard were overcome, for within a few days—entirely through the instrumentality of George Burns—the requisite capital of £270,000 was subscribed, and he was enabled to join in the tender to the Admiralty of a most eligible offer for the conveyance of Her Majesty’s mails once a fortnight between Liverpool, Halifax and Boston. A rival offer was made by the owners of the steam-ship Great Western, but the tender of Mr. Cunard was considered to be the more favourable, and accordingly a contract for a period of seven years was concluded between the Government and the newly-fonned company. The contract was taken in the names of, and was signed by, Samuel Cunard, George Burns, and David Maclver, three names thenceforth indissolubly connected with the success of the famous concern now known as the Cunard Line. Concerning that co-partnery contract, Mr. Burns says:—

John Park Fleming sat up all night, and wrote out in his own hand the contract of co-partnery from notes which I supplied. He had done the same favour for me when we commenced steamers on the Liverpool Line. Old Hugh Matthie, who was a wonderfully shrewd man, when I sent him the Liverpool contract, returned it with the laconic remark, ‘Very tight, but very well drawn.’ The essence of this and other contracts was, as some of our partners used jokingly to say, that ‘The managers took power to do everything and all things.’

The contract entered upon between the British Government on the one hand, and Messrs. Cunard, Burns, and Maclver on the other, contained a special and important clause providing that the steamers of the contractors should be of such construction as to be available, on demand, for transporting soldiers or military stores, not only to the colonies in North America, but to airy part of the world. The payment fixed for the services under the mail contract was on a sliding scale according to the amount of postal matter carried by the steamers. It appeared afterwards, from the evidence given by Mr. Samuel Cunard before a Select Committee of the House of Commons, sitting in 1816, to investigate the subject of payments for American mails, that the actual receipts of the Cunard firm during the seven years of the first contract with the British Government, amounted to £3,295 per voyage. This was admitted to he a large sum, but, as explained subsequently, in 1874, by Mr. John Burns (the eldest son of Mr. Burns, and Chairman of the Cunard Company before another Parliamentary Select Committee, the conditions laid down were very onerous. "The original contract of the Cunard Company,” Mr. John Burns explained, "was made with the Admiralty, and there were certain restrictions in the contract as to allowing the vessels to be used in time of war. These ships were all wooden ships, and they had to carry naval officers on board, and do other things which caused a good deal of trouble and expense to us. In the last contract which we negotiated, we said that we would take less money if certain of these restrictions were taken away from us. Therefore we are now under a contract of £70,000 a year, and carry no naval officer on board.”

Messrs. Cunard, Burns, and Maclver at once resolved to build the finest ships which the best naval architects could design, and to equip them in an absolutely faultless style, sparing neither money nor patient industry to fit them for the Atlantic service in such a manner as to carry out Mr. Cunard’s idea of “railway trains on the ocean.”

Immediately after the original mail contract had been concluded, the three managing partners set about the fulfilment of the conditions imposed upon them. Mr. Cunard made London his headquarters; Mr. Burns remained at the seat of government in Glasgow, frequently, however, paying prolonged visits to London in connection with Admiralty and Treasury negotiations; and Mr. Maclver returned to Liverpool to superintend the practical working of the steamers.

In his “History of Merchant Shipping,” Mr. Lindsay says:—“If ever the world’s benefactors are estimated at their real worth, the names of Samuel Cunard, George Burns, and David Maclver will rank among those who, by their gallant enterprise, have made the world richer by giving an unprecedented stimulus to commerce, and who have rendered inestimable service to the people of every country. For it was not merely in establishing the first line of Atlantic mail steamers that they deserved credit—hut in the framing of the rules for the management of their fleet which has led to such magnificent results. Appreciating the great responsibility there was upon them, they made their plans yield at every point to secure one grand object—safety. They might, without laying themselves open to any complaint, have reduced the cost of their service by minimising the labour employed, and they might also have engaged a cheaper kind of labour than that which they have always used. But from the first, to their honour be it said, they sacrificed everything to safety. Precious human lives were entrusted to their keeping, and, whatever else had to give way, they were inflexible on this point. Safety first, profit second, was their practical motto; and as good wine needs no bush, the public soon found out the high character of the firm, and from its establishment to the present time this great character has been maintained.

The first four steam-ships provided by the Cunard Company, or, as it was then formally entitled, “The British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company,” were the Britannia, Acadia, Caledonia, and Columbia, the nomenclature of all the Cunard ships ending in ia.” These four ships were wooden paddle-wheel vessels, built respectively on the Clyde, in 1840, by R. Duncan, J. Wood, C. Wood and R. Steel, and supplied with common side-lever engines by Robert Napier. The Britannia, which was the pioneer vessel of the fleet, measured 207 ft. long x 34 ft. 4 in. broad x 22 ft. 6 in. deep, with a tonnage burden of 1,154, and an indicated horse-power of 740. Her cargo capacity was 225 tons, and she was fitted for the accommodation of 115 cabin passengers, but no steerage. The horsepower and passenger and cargo accommodation of the other three ships were identical with those of the Britannia, while their dimensions and tonnage only varied very slightly from hers. Their average speed was 80 knots per hour, on a coal consumption of 38 tons per day.

On Friday, the 4th of July, 1840—the “Celebration Day" of American Independence—the Britannia, punctual to the very minute of the advertised time, left her moorings on the Mersey, amidst the cheering of immense crowds, acknowledged by Mr. Samuel Cunard, who himself went out with the first mail American steamer. It was calculated that the Britannia would reach Boston in fourteen days and a half, but she entered the harbour four hours before the time, having made the voyage in fourteen days and eight hours, at that time considered a rapid passage. The arrival of the first mail steamer in America created even greater enthusiasm than her departure from the English side. It was testified not only by an unprecedented ovation in bunting and cheering, but the citizens of Boston celebrated the occasion by giving a magnificent public banquet, at which their enthusiasm found vent in speeches of the most complimentary nature. During the first twenty-four hours of his stay at Boston, it was recorded in the local papers with justifiable pride that Mr. Samuel Cunard received no less than 1,873 invitations to dinner!

One incident in connection with the return voyage of the Britannia gave proof that these expressions of good-will were not of an evanescent character.

The winter of 1840-41 having set in very early with great severity, the Britannia was frozen up in Boston Harbour, and there was no little fear that she would be imprisoned in the ice for many months. Thereupon the good Bostonians, at their own expense, and with the willing work of thousands of volunteers, cat a channel of more than seven miles in length to get the steamer into clear water.

Such was the origin of the Cunard Company. Its subsequent success is probably without a parallel in the annals of shipping; and how that success was ensured and maintained we shall see in future chapters.


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