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Cunard, Sir Samuel, first baronetfree

  • Freda Harcourt

Sir Samuel Cunard, first baronet (1787–1865)

by A. G. Holt, 1849

Cunard, Sir Samuel, first baronet (1787–1865), shipowner, was born on 21 November 1787 at Halifax, Nova Scotia, the son of Abraham Cunard, merchant, of Philadelphia, and his wife, Margaret Murphy. Both parents came from Loyalist families whose fathers were in shipping before they fled to Canada following the American War of Independence. They had nine children—seven sons and two daughters; Samuel was the second child, but first son. He spent a few years at the only school in Halifax, Halifax grammar. Then, having spent three years in Boston working with shipbrokers, Samuel returned to Halifax, went into partnership with his father as Cunard & Son, and bought their first small vessel. After the death of his father in 1823, he traded as S. Cunard & Co. with the West Indies and South America, making contacts during his frequent visits to London, Liverpool, and Glasgow, and acting as colonial agent for several British concerns. By the early 1830s, Cunard had stakes in coal, timber, China tea (of which he was the sole distributor in North America), whaling, and banking (he set up the first bank in Nova Scotia), and a fleet of forty vessels.

A train ride in 1831 from Liverpool to Manchester opened Cunard's eyes to the possibilities of sea transport by steam, for during the 1830s developments in marine technology enabled steamships for the first time to make long voyages. In 1838 Brunel's Great Western from Bristol and Sirius from Cork confirmed this advance, and Cunard determined to build a steam fleet of his own. He failed to find investors in Boston and Halifax, but on seeing an advertisement in The Times, inviting tenders for a mail contract for North America, he went back to Britain. A friend in the Admiralty liked his proposals and advised him to talk to Robert Napier, the eminent marine engineer in Glasgow, who not only agreed to build ships but introduced him to the partners of a thriving coastal trading concern, George Burns in Glasgow and David MacIver in Liverpool. With capital provided by them and their friends, the British and North American Royal Steam Packet Company (later Cunard) was formed; and Cunard, in private negotiation with the government, was granted the mail contract. Every one of these important transactions bore the stamp of Cunard's acumen and determination. Britannia, with Cunard aboard on its maiden voyage, was greeted in 1840 in Boston with great excitement, one newspaper calling it the most significant event since the arrival of the Pilgrims.

For a decade Cunard had a monopoly of steam on the Atlantic, but in 1850 the Collins line, with a subsidy from the American government, began to compete strongly. Rather than waste money on a rate war, Cunard made a secret agreement with Collins that lasted until 1855. Collins went bankrupt three years later but by that time, with the appearance of several new British and continental companies, competition had come to stay.

In 1851, looking for new opportunities, Cunard joined the successful enterprise in the Mediterranean and the Levant set up by MacIver in 1849, and became a partner with MacIver and Burns in the British and Foreign Steam Navigation Company in 1855. This new concern had Cunard's management and capital but there was a marked difference between the two companies. British and Foreign built modern ships with screw propulsion, while Cunard stubbornly refused to discard wooden hulls and paddle-driven ships on the north Atlantic. A dynamic man in many ways, it is surprising that he should have shown such deep conservatism. Competitors who kept abreast of new technology had bigger and faster ships that were worked more economically. Moreover, these vessels attracted more passenger traffic because they had more space for luxurious accommodation, good food, and other enticements. Cunard, however, would not change the spartan regime in the mailships, of cramped cabins, candle lighting, poor food, and no public rooms. Nevertheless, safety and regularity sustained Cunard's lead, for the line carried most of the overseas mails in North America. Cunard's first iron hull appeared in 1852, and entry into the steerage business in 1860 made screw propulsion imperative: the last paddle-engined steamer joined the Atlantic fleet in 1862.

After the upheaval of the Crimean War, in which several of Cunard's vessels were taken up by the government, Cunard believed that if he got a footing in Australia by the overland route, he would be able to break into the eastern trades. This was highly speculative. Monopolized by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P. & O.), the India and China lines were closely guarded. His announcement of a ‘junction’ with the European and Australian Royal Mail Company at the end of 1856 turned out to be a damp squib; and when in 1858 he devised a prospectus for a new company for Australia, India, and China, it went no further than P. & O.'s boardroom; there was no place for a second steam company in the East at that time. Yet Cunard did not quite give up his ambition. In 1860, Frederick Hill, secretary to the postmaster-general, was under pressure to find a likely company to compete with or replace P. & O. on the Australian line. In private conversations with Hill, Cunard asserted that a person of established reputation—himself, perhaps?—could easily raise £4 million in the market, and Messrs Napier would quickly build the number of ships needed. P. & O., however, was not for sale.

Cunard was made a baronet in 1859 for his work in linking North America to Britain. He also became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society for his interest in the regular exchange of plants between Kew Gardens in London and the Boston Botanical Gardens. Small, slight, alert, and active, Cunard had no interest in outdoor pursuits on land; his great love was the sea. Always called ‘Sam’, he was courteous, formal, a skilful diplomat, a 'doer, not a talker', and an autocrat in his business life. Privately, he had many friends in high society on both sides of the water and spent several months in Britain each year. He particularly enjoyed parties and concerts, had a box at the opera (when in London), and liked to be in the company of literary people. A rich and generous man, he supported the poor in Halifax, as well as the public library and the Mechanical Institute; and he was appointed commissioner of lighthouses. Cunard could have become a member of the Nova Scotian legislative assembly if he had wanted to, although he was not a good public speaker; but his seat on the crown council—a small select group that could silence the ‘popular voice’ if necessary—suited him perfectly.

Cunard married Susan, daughter of William Duffus, a prosperous Halifax merchant, on 4 February 1815. They had nine children, but his wife died on 23 January 1828, ten days after the last infant's birth. An affectionate father, he took special care of the children after his wife's death. He was fortunate to have close members of his and his wife's extended families ready to help. When his brother, Joseph, fell into debt, he bailed him out; and he supported his father-in-law when he had financial difficulties. Cunard's eldest son, Edward, was groomed to take his place in the shipping business when he retired in 1863, at the age of seventy-six, after a minor heart attack. He died of heart failure on 28 April 1865 at 26 Princes Gardens, Kensington, London.

Cunard's death coincided with the end of the pioneer stage of the transatlantic steamer. The decade following his death, with the appearance of other steamship lines, saw the Cunard Line in the doldrums. The launch of the Cunard Steam-Ship Company as a publicly owned company in 1880, however, saw its re-establishment as the premier transatlantic service. It owned only four ships of 8200 tons in 1840, but by 1880 the fleet had grown to twenty-eight ships of 136,493 tons displacement.


  • H. K. Grant, Samuel Cunard: pioneer of the Atlantic steamship (1967)
  • F. E. Hyde, Cunard and the north Atlantic, 1840–1973: a history of shipping and financial management (1975)
  • J. H. Maber, North Star to Southern Cross (1967), chap. 11
  • E. W. Sloan, ‘Private enterprise and mixed enterprise’, Frontiers of entrepreneurship research: proceedings of the Babson College Research Conference [Wellesley, MA 1981], ed. K. H. Vesper [1981]
  • The Times (6 Dec 1956), 10d
  • NMM, P. & O. archive, P. & O. /1/104, 1856–8
  • China, Conversations, TNA: PRO, POST 29/105, 3, 6 Dec 1960
  • ‘Select committee on contract packet service’, Parl. papers (1849), 12.132–6, no. 571
  • ‘Select committee to inquire into contracts … with steam packet companies’, Parl. papers (1860), 14.321–2, no. 328 [mail and telegraphic communications]
  • McIver correspondence, 1847–59, U. Lpool, Cunard Archive, D.138/4, PR4.3/4, PR3.1/16
  • d. cert.


  • Public Archives of Nova Scotia, Halifax, corresp. and papers
  • Public Archives of Nova Scotia, Halifax
  • U. Lpool, Cunard Archive
  • U. Lpool, letters to C. MacIver


  • A. G. Holt, portrait, 1849, unknown collection; copyprint, NPG [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

under £350,000: probate, 13 May 1865, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
National Maritime Museum, London
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]