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Design Construction Fitting Out Trials Service War Service Final

At the close of the 19th Century the Cunard Steamship Company found itself in a difficult position. An earlier decision to generate more profit by utilising smaller, slower, more efficient vessels on the North Atlantic had led to the very successful ‘Intermediate’ class of vessel. Ships like the ‘Saxonia’ crossed the Atlantic at an average speed of 15 knots with very low fuel consumption but the company found that it was losing passengers to  competitors who had concentrated on speed and luxury. Cunard’s latest ships, ‘Campania’ and ‘Lucania’, despite being built for speed, were outclassed by German ships  whose owners (with government help) had continued development of fast transatlantic liners.

The Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing, eastbound or westbound, had  been held by a succession of German ships since 1897. In May 1901 the Cunard board began discussing the building of two new fast steamers and their technical department developed an outline proposal for a vessel of approximately 700 feet long with a service speed of 23 knots carrying 2000 passengers. In February the following year outline specifications were sent out to four shipbuilding yards for costing, development and discussion.

At this stage the British Government entered the arena, concerned at the possible foreign domination of the North Atlantic route, highlighted by the takeover of the White Star Line by the aggressive American company International Mercantile Marine. With the proviso that in the event of war the vessels would be requisitioned by the Admiralty as Armed Merchant Cruisers, the government began negotiations with Cunard in March 1902 and announced the granting of a loan in September of that year. When it was finalised in July 1903 the loan was for £2.6M at 2.3/4% over 20 years coupled with an annual subsidy of £150K towards the cost of running the vessels. One of the conditions of the loan was that Cunard had to remain a British company. The Admiralty in the meantime carried out model tests in the tank at Haslar and in February 1903 recommended an increase in the length and breadth of the ships to achieve the design speed of 25 knots with lower horsepower.

Swan & Hunter Ltd. was the smallest, both physically and financially, of the quoting shipbuilders but under the direction of the very ambitious George Bernard Hunter they were determined to break into the top flight of world shipbuilding. Hunter opened negotiations with Wigham Richardson & Co Ltd., whose Neptune Yard was upstream of Swan’s Wallsend Yard, about a possible merger. This was finally agreed to on 26th May 1903 and a new company, Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson  Ltd., was formed. At the same time an approach was made to the Wallsend Slipway & Engineering Co., downstream of the Wallsend Yard, for a similar merger and an agreement was signed in February 1903, although the terms gave Wallsend Slipway a large amount of autonomy. With the mergers agreed the company attended a meeting on 8th May 1903 with Cunard in Liverpool following which an expression of intent was issued. Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson were to build one ship and John Brown & Co of Glasgow were to build the other. Work began immediately although the official order was not signed until 18th May 1905 long after the keel had been laid and long lead items ordered. The shipyard cleared the area formerly used for building dry docks and, using their own labour, laid down two new covered slipways (the shed of which was over 700 ft long and 130 ft high with a glazed roof.) Overhead cranes and hydraulic riveting machines were suspended from gantries under the roof. A 140 ton floating crane (christened ‘Titan’) was purchased from Germany to help with the fitting out.

In the meantime Cunard was approached by Sir Charles Parsons who proposed the adoption of turbine machinery for the two new liners despite being rebuffed by the company in 1902 when a similar proposition was made. The Admiralty however had since ordered their first turbine powered cruiser and it is possible that they applied  pressure on Cunard who set up a technical committee to consider turbine propulsion. This committee reported in favour of turbines in February 1904 and the Cunard board resolved to use turbine machinery on 25th March 1904. This late switch to turbines was to cause a few problems for the builders.
Photograph taken from the stern showing completed bunkers and the decks taking shape.
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