Iconic Ships 9: The Mauretania

September 2021

This video explores the fascinating history of RMS Mauretania, which was launched in 1906 and transformed shipbuilding and the expectations of passengers travelling on trans-Atlantic liners. After the launch of Mauretania, sea-travel and the maritime world was never the same again. To find out more, Dr Sam Willis met with Max Wilson of the Lloyds Register Foundation to explore their archives. The Lloyds Register archives is the best place to go to explore the history of many ships, but particularly something as ground breaking as Mauretania because Lloyds were responsible for certifying the safety of the vessel – this means that there is a whole host of magnificent material to see there, letters, record books, ship plans, technical drawings – all of which reveal the ship and the achievements of her designers and builders in the most magnificent detail. This video accompanies the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s leading podcast for maritime and naval history. This episode is part of the ‘Iconic Ships’ series which features history’s most iconic ships – including the Mary Rose, the Mayflower, HMS Hood, HMS Ark Royal, Titanic, USS Constitution, HMS Bellerophon (The Billy Ruffian), HMS Belfast, the Cutty Sark and the ss Great Britain, with many more to come!

The interview was filmed at the Lloyds Register Archives and can be watched below.

Some of the documents discussed int he podcast can be viewed here

  • View The Transcription

    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all maritime history.

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. This episode continues our series on iconic ships, in which we ask a historian to explain why their chosen ship might be iconic or the curator of a historic ship, we asked them to explain why their surviving ship deserves the title ‘Iconic’. And this week we’re on episode nine of this mini-series. Last week we heard about the SS Great Britain, the magnificent passenger steamship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1840s; the ship which changed global shipping, and which set a foundation stone for extraordinary leaps in technological and design innovation – leading up to the ship we are covering today, the RMS Mauretania. Launched in 1906, just sixty-one years after the SS Great Britain, the Mauritania turn everything on its head all over again. Just like the SS Great Britain, she was the largest ship in the world at the time of her launch. But she was two and a half times longer than the SS Great Britain – that’s a staggering jump in terms of ship design. And at just under 45,000 tonnes, she was fifteen times larger in terms of displacement. And so, to find out more about how the fascinating history of giant passenger liners took a giant leap forward in 1906, I spoke with Max Wilson, archivist at the Lloyd’s Register Foundation and we met up in the Lloyds archives, temporarily located in Cannon House in the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich.

    The Lloyds Archives are the best place to explore the history of so many ships, but particularly something as ground-breaking as the Mauretania because Lloyds were responsible for certifying the safety of the vessel. This means that there is a whole host of magnificent material to see there: letters, record books, ship plans, technical drawings. And they reveal the ship and the achievements of her designers and builders in the most wonderful detail. If your interest is piqued by the sound of the documents we discussed, don’t fret because with you in mind, we filmed the interview. And also, those documents. You can find that film on the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast YouTube channel and on the Society for Nautical Research Facebook page, so do enjoy. It really is a wonderful little glimpse into a splendid little archive.

    Max, let’s start by talking about this amazing building we’re in. Where are we? What’s going on?

    Max Wilson

    So, you’re in basically our temporary archive store while we’re in the mid of our office refurbishment, and this is the Cannon House. It originally would have been an artillery factory providing armaments to the Army and the Navy from about the 1850s onwards.

    Sam Willis

    But now it’s just full of your wonderful old registers and material.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, now it’s just the archives and library materials. And yes, interesting.

    Sam Willis

    Good stuff. Well, I got in touch because we’re doing this series of iconic ships. And then I said, I bet you’ve got some good iconic ships records of iconic ships in the Lloyd’s Register Archives and you certainly do. But one of them you pulled out and you said I know what let’s talk about the Mauretania. So, what was it about the Mauretania that made you think, oh, I know what let’s do this one?

    Max Wilson

    Well, she’s just a British icon, really. She’s just an amazing example of luxury, the height of luxury travel, you know, at a really pivotal time in history. She kind of dominated, for a very, very admittedly a very brief period, she was the world’s largest ship, the world’s largest moving structure. She held the very fastest record – the fastest average speeds crossing the Atlantic for about twenty years longer than

    Sam Willis

    Twenty years!

    Max Wilson

    Yes, so it’s – and she was just, as I say, just really, she came to define luxury, really. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when she was eventually broken up, sent a letter of protest. And he famously hated sea travel. And he absolutely fell in love with Mauritania.

    Sam Willis

    What was it about the ship then? Why was it – so it was just so unusually lovely?

    Max Wilson

    Yes, he, I mean, as I say, he hated sea travel and he described her as having a soul you could talk to, which is interesting, but she was a very opulent ship – opulent on I think, a completely different scale to all of our predecessors. You know, we know things like the staterooms in the very first class, in the first-class areas, they were made with things like I think it was twenty-eight different types of exotic wood

    Sam Willis

    Wow!

    Max Wilson

    for example, were used. And she had things like, you know, a sort of an open veranda cafe that was modelled on the Orangery in Hampton Court Palace, and you know, other lots and lots of interesting things like that, and Turkish baths and swimming pools and other kinds of interesting

    Sam Willis

    What’s happened to the times we live in? Can you name twenty-eight different types of exotic woods?

    Max Wilson

    I can’t, no, not personally

    Sam Willis

    Mahogany…

    Max Wilson

    Mahogany, oak, elm

    Sam Willis

    Teak…I’m not sure. Someone should do some research and find out what those twenty-eight different types of exotic wood were on the Mauretania. It’s really interesting, isn’t it, where you get to a period in the development of ships and shipping where extreme attention to detail and luxury almost seems taken for granted – certainly by the time they’re building Titanic and Olympic. But I think what really was with the Mauretania though – it all from Brunel onwards, it suddenly kind of it settled in the Mauretania. And what’s fantastic about the Lloyd’s Register Archives is you’ve got loads of written material relating to the Mauretania. So, what did you manage to find?

    Max Wilson

    Well, I suppose yes, the very first document that really leapt out at me, does cause a bit of a problem for the interview.

    Sam Willis

    Does it?

    Max Wilson

    It does slightly, yes. So really, in actuality, I shouldn’t really be showing you any records from Mauretania. We have a memo from 1904, during the very early design phases of Mauretania and Lusitania, from our chief Harry John Cornish, basically instructing all Lloyd’s Register surveyors and clerical staff, not to divulge any details on any, in any circumstances, of Mauretania’s construction.

    Sam Willis

    Wow.

    Max Wilson

    So yes,

    Sam Willis

    It was top secret.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, they keep the Cunard Line, you know, that had commissioned Mauretania and the Lusitania, they had a real bee in their bonnet about trying to protect these designs from industrial espionage, I suppose really to try and maximise the impact that they would have when they finally took to the seas, and they didn’t want anything to get out to the media or the press.

    Sam Willis

    It sounds like a balance between concern of other people stealing their ideas, but also wanting it to be like what we’d see as a press release now where everything can be shut down – no one wants to tell anyone about the details of what’s coming.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, yes, absolutely. I mean, it was a huge amount of money. I mean, Mauretania and Lusitania were built pretty much with government funding.

    Sam Willis

    How did that work?

    Max Wilson

    So, it was really, I suppose, the British government loaned the Cunard Line, well 2.6 million pounds in the very early start of the 20th century. So that would be about 200 to 250 million pounds in today’s money.

    Sam Willis

    Wow!

    Max Wilson

    And they gave it at a very, very low-interest rate of about 2.57%. And the idea was that she would have to pay this over twenty years. So really, she got a very good deal – the British government were very invested in making sure that Mauretania was built, in part really, to try and really sort of secure the Cunard Line and also secure this idea of British engineering as being the best in the world. There was only one caveat to the loan, and that was that she had to be able to offer her services in the event of a war as an armed merchant cruiser.

    Sam Willis

    So, what year are we talking about here?

    Max Wilson

    This was in about 1903.

    Sam Willis

    Right.

    Max Wilson

    So, interesting that they were already putting themselves on – well Britain, was already starting to put itself on a war footing at this stage. And some of that’s already visible within her design as well.

    Sam Willis

    Really! Like what?

    Max Wilson

    So, the boilers for example. She had a slight break with other liners, and she – her boilers were in the very middle of the ship, with two very long, three-hundred-and-fifty-foot coal bunkers on either side. And apparently, supposing this was a deliberate decision in order to protect the boilers and the furnaces from the worst effects of artillery fire in the event that she got caught up in a sort of a skirmish, or a flurry of activity on the sea.

    Sam Willis

    It’s fascinating, this idea that the government are anticipating a war, isn’t it and so conscious of the pressure that’s going to come on merchant shipping?

    Max Wilson

    Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Yes. And as I say, these designs start to reflect that and it’s very interesting that that particular caveat was put in with regard to her loan. And I think, luckily, she never, she was never used as an armed merchant cruiser, ironically, because of the outbreak of the war, she very quickly made a dash for Halifax, Nova Scotia. And, you know, where she was awaiting instructions from the British government to be converted. And they actually turned around and said, No, she’s far too big and fuel consumptions for too large. So, they actually then said, you can go back to civilian service, and she very briefly did, but of course, very few people were willing to travel across the Atlantic during the First World War. And so, she spent the next nine months sort of essentially in dock in Liverpool, and then she really then started to be used as things like troopship to the Dardanelles, for the Gallipoli Campaign and then as a hospital ship later on, and then later as a troopship again,

    Sam Willis

    I wonder who got the first-class cabins [lost] for the last ever trip? You know in terms of records – have you got certificates and entries in the register book for her?

    Max Wilson

    Yes, yes. So, we have three hundred and forty-one records for specific archive documents for Mauretania. That’s just Mauretania. We also obviously classed the Lusitania as well – nearly identical to Mauretania; I think Mauretania is five feet longer. And – but yes, in terms of what we have for Mauretania, it’s reports of survey, including her first entry report, which is kind of, I suppose, sort of birth certificate – the very first time she formally enters our records. We have all of the kind of correspondence that goes back and forth between Lloyd’s Register and the, you know, the committee that’s deliberating on all of the designs.

    Sam Willis

    It sounds wonderful, that moment where someone would have written ‘Maureitania’ for the very first time on an official document. It’s you know, it is alive.

    Max Wilson

    It’s amazing. It’s really interesting. And of course, there’s lots of back and forth about certain designs and things like that, and the machinery. The machinery itself was very, you know, cutting edge. And I think there was a lot of back and forth about whether or not it was possible in such a large ship. And yes, so yes, in addition to that, it’s lots of certificates, as you say, and obviously, we have our Register of Ships, which includes lots of references to Mauretania each year throughout her life, until she’s finally broken up in 1935.

    Sam Willis

    And what does it say about the ship, is it simple information?

    Max Wilson

    If you’ve ever seen any of the survey reports that we have, they have all of the information related to a ship’s kind of ownership and build right at the very top, almost as you know, and it’s this information, which goes into the register book entry. So, it’s everything to do with the name, the ship’s master, or the captain, the tonnage, the length. You know, obviously, the classification within the middle, that she receives, as well as where she’s built, who built her, who built the engines, what kind of engine she’s got. So, actually, really, what is about probably maybe half an inch worth of printing space, that information is all there just on a line in the Register Book. So, you can find everything you need.

    Sam Willis

    And what about technical drawings? I mean, these are all the things that we need to be able to work out whether Mauretania is really deserving of the name ‘Iconic’.

    Max Wilson

    Well, technical drawings. Yes, so we have a lot of different types of technical drawings and plans, things like boiler plans, engine plans, shafting plans, pumping arrangements, things like that. But I think in terms of her machinery itself, I think, you know, her boilers I mentioned before, they’re incredibly, you know, really interesting. And interesting we have a record within the archive, which is a celebration, really of the Jubilee of the Wallsend Slipway, an engineering company, which was the company which secured all of the contracts to create Mauretania’s machinery and engines and boilers. And one of the things that they boast about is the fact that actually their boiler making department, which was a huge warehouse building in Newcastle, it basically had to completely, well, it needs to be extended just for Mauretania’s boilers. And they had to fit new types of hydraulic winching gear and cranes with lifting capacities up to about 100 tons. So, they’re really huge, huge boilers, you know, nothing like it before.

    Sam Willis

    It’s a theme that happens again and again in the history of shipbuilding, where someone says, oh, let’s build a bigger ship, and then all the people who have to do it go, well, we can’t, we don’t – our cranes are not big enough, our warehouse is not big enough, our slipways are not big enough. We can’t do it. So, they have to kind of go back three or four stages. So, you know, she’s changing the whole nature of shipbuilding, in her own presence.

    Max Wilson

    Absolutely, it’s, you know, and I think one of the, you know, it’s I think it’s fair to say that the Cunard Line had a huge vendetta really, just to try and really put Mauretania on the very top in terms of being the largest ship in the world, but also being the fastest. You know, they, it really sort of stuck in their craw that, you know, that Norddeutscher Lloyd, another rival German shipping line, their ship Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was launched in 1897, and then in 1898, she took the blue ribbon for the fastest Atlantic crossing record from Cunard’s Lucania. So, this is something they – I think they were – they were particularly eager to try and get back and they as a result of this, this is what pushed them to exploring the idea of sort of direct-action steam turbine machinery and Mauretania was the very first transatlantic express liner to use this type of technology.

    Sam Willis

    I like the idea of this British v German Imperial competition before the war as experienced in a battle between liners. And then how quickly was it before people realised just how quick Mauretania was going to be?

    Max Wilson

    Well, I think it’s – it’s very interesting. They kept their speed trials very, very secret as well. So, Lloyd’s Register was there – present at the speed trials. And interestingly, they refused to send back any information by wire. And so, they – the times that they documented on board was sent back and forth by carrier pigeon.

    Sam Willis

    Really?

    Max Wilson

    Yes. Because they could not afford for it to be intercepted by anybody else. And so, really, I think it was actually very, very quickly that this steam turbine technology was seen to be something that was actually going to change shipping forever. This was a process that have been designed by Charles Algernon Parsons and demonstrated at the Spithead Naval Review in 1897, where he’s a little private yacht, Turbinia, was basically zigzagging around all of the largest and fastest ships of the Royal Navy and completely outran them. So, Mauretania, and interestingly Turbinia was actually present on her – at her launch to sail, well to steam alongside her.

    Sam Willis

    That’s lovely.

    Max Wilson

    Yes. So, it’s a really interesting one – she was the very largest application of this technology at that point,

    Sam Willis

    And her engines were only part of this such an important story and if you look at the plans of Mauretania you realise how much is involved in one of these ships, how multi-layered they are.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, absolutely. I mean, it’s really, really fascinating. Rudyard Kipling wrote about Mauretania – he actually penned a poem called ‘Secret of the Machines’ and referred to her as the ‘nine decked monster city’ which was – yes, huge, huge ships. We have a particularly interesting set of plans you know, lots of very, very long plans which give full details of all the decks. Everything from the arrangement of where the piano is in the first-class saloon to where all of the stools are in the bar and all this other stuff. But we’ve also got this amazing sort of general arrangement plan which has an overview of all of these decks, one over the top and then the profile right at the very top, showing her in steam and it’s – yes, she’s an absolutely monstrous, monstrous ship. It would have been quite amazing to have seen and about 50,000 people came out to see Mauretania because it was – as much as they were trying to keep her secret it’s very difficult to keep a ship like Mauretania secret forever.

    Sam Willis

    Yes, especially when you say this is the largest ship any of you will have ever seen before

    Max Wilson

    Yes, exactly. Yes so, she was definitely a technical and engineering first.

    Sam Willis

    And also, if you assume it’s a period before Instagram, right? So, you know now you’d be able to kind of go and have a look around without actually going on board, but it must have been such a treasure for those few who were allowed on in those early years?

    Max Wilson

    Yes, absolutely, absolutely. I mean by even by the very end of her life, you know, she was captained for most of her life by Captain Rostron, and she gained the nickname the Rostron Express. Rostron obviously more famous for – sort of gained international fame as a result of being the captain of the Carpathia; the ship that had come to the rescue of all of the Titanic survivors. And then so he was the captain from about 1915 to 1916, and then again, I think from about 1919 till 1928.

    Sam Willis

    Interesting bloke – we should get him on the podcast.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, and we have those records in the archive as well for the Carpathia. So yes, we’re very lucky.

    Sam Willis

    Come back and do the Carpathia at some point. He sounds fascinating. And I love that little booklet showing the – all of the kind of technical aspects of the Mauretania Tell me about that.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, that’s, yes, that’s I think it’s probably one of my favourite items for Mauretania. So, it’s a fourteen-page booklet and it’s a celebration, I suppose, of her electrical equipment and the machinery onboard specifically. And it goes into a great deal of detail about things like the switchboards, you know, the distribution boards, the telephone exchanges,

    Sam Willis

    They all look like they’ve been invented by a mad scientist,

    Max Wilson

    They do – they’re fantastic!

    Sam Willis

    I wonder if that was what they looked like at the time. Everyone was like, well that’s crazy, that’s clearly not going to work or whether it was kind of normal.

    Max Wilson

    I mean, they make a very big deal out of the fact that they use something called a magneta system, which operates with a master clock, and there were about forty-eight clocks all throughout the ship, all being – all at the same time, and all to the same precision. And that seems to have been something that they were very proud of.

    Sam Willis

    Wow! That’s impressive, isn’t it?

    Max Wilson

    Also, things like an electrically powered dishwasher. They’ve got a very, very great picture of the electrically powered dishwasher which was really state of the art stuff.

    Sam Willis

    Is that the people in charge of building the ship? They knew they were innovating with the overall construction, but they weren’t going to let it stop there. Everyone was told to innovate, innovate, innovate, everything’s got to be new and crazy.

    Max Wilson

    Absolutely. Absolutely. I think you know, I mean, you know, all of the first-class spaces they were so incredibly opulent, and they were really – by today’s standards it’s unthinkable but they were using – they had strict instructions, the designer, Harold Peto, he came up with a design that all of Mauretania’s interiors needed to be to Francis the first style, which is from about the 15th to the 17th centuries. So, you know, this technical innovation, you know, this huge, huge technical innovation that people would have boarded on but then they would have found themselves sitting in something that looks like Hampton Court Palace or looks like, you know,

    Sam Willis

    Versailles.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, Versailles. Yes, it’s fantastic.

    Sam Willis

    Interesting awareness of history. I wonder why they chose that? Who knows?

    Max Wilson

    Very strange.

    Sam Willis

    It might be a personal choice, or maybe that was their perception of what the ultimate luxury would be?

    Max Wilson

    Yes, quite possibly, quite possibly.

    Sam Willis

    And then you also showed me a wonderful drawing – so simple – of the design of the hull of Mauretania showing how she sits on the crest of a wave, I love that. It looked; I don’t know maybe kind of forty years ahead of her time.

    Max Wilson

    I know what you mean, yes. It’s a sort of like a kind of a line drawing, I suppose of Mauretania’s kind of shape with this sort of inky watercolour blue wave sort of crashing

    Sam Willis

    It’s like it’s been done by a Swedish architect in the 70s.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, exactly, yes. And it’s, yes, it’s a really interesting one, they were really worried that with this technology, and with a ship of her size, that there would be an issue with how she would sit and ride the waves as she was crossing the Atlantic. And so, interestingly, people – this machinery never having been used in this scale, before – people throughout her life always complained about things like the vibrations of her engines and things like that, which was something that plagued her throughout her life. But despite that, you know, even with things like the Olympic class liners, you know, which used a very different reciprocating engine, which they – Mauretania still retained all of these records, despite having been surpassed in size and other forms of technology

    Sam Willis

    She keeps that speed record for like twenty years

    Max Wilson

    Yes, absolutely so, for twenty years until and they were so desperate to hold on to it that by about 1929 when a ship and another Norddeutscher Lloyd line ship, called the Bremen breaks the records, actually really only by a fraction only by a real fraction, Mauretania’s captain asks permission for the Mauretania line to do – for her to go into dock, have her machines and engineering – her machinery and her engines and boilers recalibrated, and then to have another crack at regaining this record, which, unfortunately, she fails, she breaks her previous – all of her previous records on this time. But sadly, she, yes, she falls short by really a fraction.

    Sam Willis

    Do you think that’s about having a place in history – wanting to break that record? Or is it more simply about people will want to come on board us if we’re the fastest?

    Max Wilson

    I don’t know. I think it’s

    Sam Willis

    Is it hard-nosed commercialism or, you know,

    Max Wilson

    I think that there’s definitely a prestige element, I think. The Cunard Line, you know, they’re able to put it on all of their posters that they have – the Blue-Ribbon Holder, the fastest, one of the fastest, liners in the world. And that, that’s an interesting selling point, I suppose for Cunard. But also, you’ve got the masters themselves and the crew, they take a great deal of pride in being a part of creating that record, I suppose, as well. So, you do find that the ship’s masters are also quite instrumental in really pushing to try and regain these records, or to go for these records because it is just a matter of a great source of pride.

    Sam Willis

    And finally, let’s just talk about safety at sea. I mean, do we, looking back on Mauretania now, is she seen as being a good design, a safe design? I’m just thinking about obviously, what happened to Titanic not long afterwards.

    Max Wilson

    Yes. She, I mean, I think obviously Titanic changed shipping safety afterwards. You know, when she sank, Mauretania was actually in Queenstown. modern-day Cove in the Republic of Ireland. And she was going to be carrying some of her mail as well for Titanic when they heard the news that she had been lost. But I think with the board of trade inquiry that occurred after the loss I think it’s fair to say that I think that the issue – a lot of people always made a very big issue of the number of lifeboats. This was, I think, sadly, something that was industry-wide as a problem. And immediately after that happened both the Lusitania and the Mauretania were fitted with even more like clinker-built lifeboats.

    Sam Willis

    Yes, proper lifeboats.

    Max Wilson

    And in 1912, as well, they, it’s decided that actually, they need wireless technology on all of their ships in the event that anything like this ever happens again.

    Sam Willis

    So, in some respects, she’s a ship that’s way ahead of her time with all of these new inventions, and in other respects, Mauretania is very much of her time with too few lifeboats and quite rattle-ly.

    Max Wilson

    Yes, I think so. It’s an interesting kind of juxtaposition. And that particular booklet that we referred to earlier which goes into all of the electrical installations onboard Mauretania – they’re very proud of some of the safety mechanisms even with regards to all of the electrical equipment: the fail-safes and the fuse boxes and things like that. But they’ve also got things like electrically powered boat winches and things like that, for lowering the lifeboats down and all of these things were, you know, obviously state of the art but were intended to try and with the best will in the world to make things safer, ultimately. But yes, I think there were still fundamental things that needed to be done anyway, regardless, across the industry.

    Sam Willis

    Fascinating stuff. Thank you so much for talking to me, Max.

    Max Wilson

    My pleasure.

    Sam Willis

    Very many thanks for listening. Please make sure you go back and listen to all of our previous ‘Iconic Ships’ episodes. There’s lots of wonderful stuff to explore there. You can find all of the episodes and so much more on the Society for Nautical Research’s website @snr.org.uk Please also check out the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast’s YouTube page, where there’s some wonderful innovative material, bringing the maritime past to your eyes in ways you will have never seen before – most recently, in our use of artificial intelligence and digital artistry, to bring ships and figureheads to life there’s a crazy sentence for you. Best of all, please join the Society, it doesn’t cost very much and the money you donate will help support this podcast; it will help publish the Mariner’s Mirror Quarterly Journal; it will help preserve our maritime heritage; and best of all, if you’re a member, you get to apply to come to our annual dinner on the Gun deck of Nelson’s HMS Victory. Now there’s an iconic ship for you and it’s something you will never, ever forget.

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