Monday, June 24, 2013

Visitor Ships 1: Early 20th century Cunard liners at Greenland Dock

Greenland Dock in the 1920s, at the
time of the Cunard occupation of the dock.
It is impossible to do more than speculate
from this angle, but looking
at her size and funnel position it is possible
that the ship at the bottom right of this
photo  shows one of the A-Class ships.
One of the more surprising visitors to Greenland Dock was the A-Class range of Cunard cross-Atlantic cruise ships, which journeyed from London to Canada. The Cunard line evolved out of the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company, which was established by Canadian-born business man Samuel Cunard in 1840, after he was granted the the first British transatlantic steamship mail contract.

An article in the Strait Times explains that Cunard's acquisition of ships of the Thomson Line in 1911 established Cunard's first direct service between London and Canada, and was the reason that Cunard acquired premises in Greenland Dock.  Following losses during the First World War (which included all of Cunard's A-class ships), eleven new "intermediate" ships were built by the Cunard company.  Intermediate ships were designed to fill the gap between the smaller ships (like the 7650 GRT Albania - the first to carry the name) and the much larger ships (like the 31,550 GRT Lusitania).  Of these eleven, five made up the replacement A-class ships that moored at their home base in Greenland Dock.  All very similar, the Albania, Ausonia and Andania were sister ships whilst the Ascania and Alaunia differed in several ways. They were all steam turbine-driven with twin screws and could reach 13-16 knots.  They had accommodation for between 500 and 600 passengers in cabin class and over 1000 in third class.  They had particularly beautiful lines.

After the expansion of its lock in the late 1800s, Greenland Dock was one of the few Thames docks capable of handling ships of this size, its lock measuring 550 feet long, 80 feet wide and 35 feet deep. Traveling this far up-river these vast ships were almost as much of a spectacle as cruise liners are today when they venture so far up the Thames, and had to be assisted to make the turn across the Thames into the lock entrance. I would love to have seen it.

The Ascania in Liverpool
There's a nice, albeit brief account of how a man who, as a fourteen-year-old, managed to secure a position with his friend on two Cunard trips from Greenland Dock to Canada and back.  Students at the Rotherhithe Nautical School, they were taken on as bridge boys: "Seeing as we both had about 6 certificates for signaling, it was thought fitting that we carried the Marconigrams (Telegrams) to and from the Marconi office to the office on watch. We earned 10/- a week."  Sadly there's nothing about what life as a bridge boy on these ships was like.

The Alaunia in Greenland Dock
The best records remaining of the  new A-class ships are probably those of the Ascania.  The second Cunard liner of this name, the first having been torpedoed during the First World War in 1918, she was built in 1921 by Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. in Newcastle. She measured 520ft long and 65ft wide, was fitted with twin screws,  4 steam turbines, double-reduction gearing and a single funnel.  She entered service as a passenger ship in 1925.  Her maiden voyage was on 22nd May 1925, from London to Southampton, Quebec and Montreal. Her life story can be found on the Liverpool Ships website

During the Second World War the A-class ships were were converted into armed merchant cruisers or used as troop carriers. Photographs on the Great Ships website show the Alaunia before and after her conversion for naval use.  All but Andania, which was torpedoed in 1940, survived the war but four were purchased by the Admiralty and put into service as repair ships, never returning to Cunard.  Ascania went back into service for Cunard after the war. Alaunia was broken up in 1957 and Ausonia was the last to be broken up, in 1965.  None of the Cunard ships returned to Greenland Dock following the war.

The Alaunia, probably in the Westferry Dry Dock,
Royal Albert Dock, London





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