Cruise Liners Come Home to Liverpool
Liverpool invented and perfected the luxury liner – and then saw them depart, apparently for ever.
Now, like migrating birds, they are back. In the 10th anniversary year of the new Cruise Liverpool terminal, we reflect on their return, and its meaning for the city.
Cruise Liners Come Home to Liverpool
Jonathan Brown, SharetheCity.org
Liverpool’s mythic ‘Lyver Birds’, perched 330 feet above the waterfront cruise terminal, overlook all arrivals by land and sea, the city’s shamanic protectors. As with the ravens at the Tower of London, tour guides claim the city will fall if these exotic birds should ever take flight.
That seems unlikely given that Liverpool’s giant cormorants are made of gilded copper, and chained fast to concrete domes. Nowadays, as they watch over crowds swirling happily across the Pier Head for selfies with the Beatles statues, and punters queuing far below for Mersey ferries and funfair rides, a civic fall seems happily distant.
But not so very long ago, from the early 1970s into the new millennium, it felt perhaps that Liverpool would fall – indeed, had fallen – shaken to its soul by the sudden, and seemingly final, departure of another exotic breed of metal sea bird, the ocean liner.
Ocean liners were elegant creatures that first evolved on the wide Atlantic between Liverpool and New York in the early 1800s, under sail and then steam, taking our city’s name to the farthest corners, and highest societies, of the globe, for over 150 years.
A ‘liner’ can carry cargo or passengers – sometimes both – and, to be strictly accurate, only refers to ships that normally ply direct ‘line routes’ between distant ports, to a regular timetable, like a railway line. Ships with more peripatetic lives are sometimes called ‘tramps’, operating without a schedule.
Modern cruise ships are scheduled, but take passengers on circuitous leisure routes, often beginning and ending in the same port, sometimes in calmer, shallower seas like the Med. They are constructed differently to true liners, prioritising passenger numbers and vacation facilities in tall super-structures, rather than speed and long range seaworthiness of the older ships.
Think high and wide versus long and low.
Classic cruise liners like Black Watch, Boudicca, Albatross and Marco Polo are an interesting and precious link between the two types, strong, elegant ships built to ply former ‘line routes’ and luxurious distant circuits on the high seas, now converted for the 21st century mainstream cruise market, but still reassuringly capable of cutting through the roughest of waves.
With air travel now so fast and affordable, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 is the world’s only remaining true passenger ocean liner, and even she is really a hybrid cruiser, but there are of course still innumerable cargo and ferry lines criss-crossing the seven seas, with ACL, P&O, Stena and Bibby’s staying loyal to Liverpool, and Danish line Maersk locating its UK HQ here.
QM2 and classic cruise liners like those mentioned above are a rarefied bridge between the ‘golden age’ of true liners that ended in the 1970s, and the leisure cruisers of the 21st century.
‘Disa-Pier Head’ – the dark years
Prior to the jet airliner’s rapid ascendance in the 1960s, Liverpool was the world’s premier ocean liner port, the Heathrow, JFK or Schiphol of the seas, with more scheduled services, and a larger, faster and more modern fleet than any harbour on earth.
Liverpool held its top position for some 200 years, and although Southampton took much of its trans-Atlantic traffic as the 20th century progressed, Britain’s most prestigious liners continued to be ‘home-ported’ and crewed on the River Mersey, even when they – like Titanic and Queen Mary – never actually visited.
Hollywood stars, impoverished emigrants, old and new money, statesmen, sports stars, artists and royalty, prisoners and GIs, all travelled the globe aboard Liverpool vessels.
Liverpool ships and crews were utterly integral to allied victory in WWII. The merchant marine convoys, with naval and air support, broke the six year axis U-boat and air bombing blockade to supply the besieged British Isles (and Soviets) with over 1,000,000 tonnes of supplies a week from Canada and the USA. The ‘Battle of the Atlantic’, documented in Nicholas Monserrat’s ‘Cruel Sea’, was the longest continuous military campaign of the second world war.
The cost in blood and tonnage was profound. 3,500 civilian ships and 175 warships were lost, many based in Liverpool, where the battle was directed. A third of the world’s merchant ships were British, and a quarter of the crews came from the wider Commonwealth including India, Africa, Hong Kong and Canada – the battle was a global endeavour.
Churchill, who ‘crossed the pond’ several times during the war on RMS Queen Mary thanks to her ability to outrun submarine ‘wolf-packs’, said:
“The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome.”
The post-war years saw a return to the golden era of captain’s dinners, balloon parties and promenades on deck, and a new generation of Liverpool crews stewarding wealthy passengers and ‘ten pound Poms’ on voyages across the seas, assimilating the cultures and pleasures of distant port cities.
But as the swinging 1960s segued into the oil-shocked 70s, Liverpool was hit by a perfect storm of air travel, containerisation, the decline of northern manufacturing, and Britain’s turn towards Europe and away from its Atlantic, African and Asiatic Commonwealth.
Cunard had headed for Southampton in 1966, and in 1971, the last Canadian Pacific trans-Atlantic liners departed, seemingly never to return. Elder Dempster Lines MV Aureol closed the last service to West Africa in 1972. Only Spain’s Aznar Line kept faith with Liverpool, offering a Liverpool-Canaries service through the decade, but its modern Monte Granada and Monte Toledo cruise-ferries were sold to Libya in 1977.
Most cargo lines switched to container ports along England’s continental seaboard, or the European mainland, and for miles along the Mersey, the most extensive dock system ever built was increasingly left to the seagulls and silt.
Liverpool’s sublime granite seawalls fell silent.
Massive external economic forces were compounded by some terrible local decisions, most culpably a traumatic mass population clearance from the waterside working class communities that still scars the inner city to this day.
Depopulated and without big ships, the empty seaport was bereft, an industrial Venice in winter, the mausoleum of Britain’s lost maritime empire.
Between WW2 and the millennium, Liverpool’s core population halved, and the UK government planned secretly for ‘managed decline’, a staged abandonment of the city.
Such a fall from grace for the place that owned Titanic, Lusitania, Mauretania, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Great Eastern. Fleets of the most famous craft ever to set sail carried Liverpool’s name across the globe on their stern, and the world’s wealth to the city.
Started with the Black Ball line in 1817, improved by Samuel Cunard’s first year round steamship Britannia on July 4th 1840, and perfected in the golden era of jazz and art-deco, trans-Atlantic passenger liners were Liverpool’s love affair with the world.
Their designs were shaped and signed off in palatial office fortresses on the waterfront. In turn, maritime architecture was carried through to city buildings, still visible in interiors like those of the Adelphi Hotel and former George Henry Lee department store.
A vast economic infrastructure was built round the sea. Liverpool had pioneered the first railways in order to distribute cargos and people, and developed mighty networks both sides of the river. Until oil replaced coal after WW1, a ship like Mauretania would devour 500 railway wagons of coal while crossing the Atlantic (a century on, fueling a ship is still called ‘bunkering’).
It is said that just keeping the linen sheets, towels, table-cloths and napkins bright white gave work to 300 laundries across Liverpool.
Culturally, the daily trans-shipment of ideas across oceans gave Liverpool an edge that was to cut through most explosively in the Beat era, as the fashion and music tastes of young ‘Cunard Yanks’ reverberated back across the Atlantic. It’s probably no coincidence that John Lennon, son of a sailor, was so creative in the great seaports of Liverpool, Hamburg, New York and London.
Losing the liners with the Empress of Canada’s last service in December 1971 was an existential catastrophe, like Seattle losing Boeing and Microsoft, or London losing the City banks.
Since the 1980s Liverpool has fought a spirited battle to reinvent itself as a centre of culture, tourism, shopping and higher education, salvaging the Albert Dock, building a superb shopping centre and cleaning up the river, but the scarcity of great passenger ships on the Mersey continued to corrode its essential identity.
Sporadic false starts were made to entice them back. Like rare sightings of migrating birds blown off course, a handful of cruise ships occasionally chanced a stop, as if visiting the wreck of their former flagship.
With the Princes Landing stage reduced to a stub in 1974, such guests were forced miles downriver, amid grubby coal and scrap yards round Langton Dock, scuppering memories of the marbled lounges of the belle époque.
Cunard’s beloved ship of state, RMS Queen Elizabeth 2, was launched on the Clyde in 1969 and had been partially designed and conceived in Liverpool. But with Cunard’s move south in 1966, she was Southampton-registered, unlike her Liverpudlian predecessors, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. QE2 took 21 years to pay a visit to the company’s founding port, obligated by the line’s 150th anniversary in 1990.
A million people lined both sides of the river Mersey to witness the fleeting sight, including generations of former ‘Cunard Yanks’ and other merchant mariners, a bitter-sweet celebration of all that had been launched and so recently lost from these shores.
The trickle of annual visits by occasional cruise ships continued through the 1990s into the new millennium, the returning pioneers building a precarious crow’s nest from which to seek sustenance among the cliffs of rusting iron.
Intriguingly, Russian-owned ‘Charter Travel Club’ (CTC) showed especially enterprising spirit as the USSR broke up, chartering tough Soviet-built ships like the Alexander Pushkin (still going strong today as Cruise and Maritime’s Marco Polo) for 3 visits to Liverpool and Greenock (for Glasgow) in 1992.
On the hunt for hard currency, the Russians therefore helped pioneer the return of cruising from Britain’s great northern ports, appropriate given Liverpool’s long links to the Baltic.
An even stranger vision for ship-spotting ‘twitchers’ came on 30th May 1998, when the beautiful Empress of Canada, which ran Liverpool’s last ever trans-Atlantic line route for Canadian Pacific, re-appeared like a maritime phantom as T.S.S. Apollon, 27 years since she’d brought the curtain down on the golden-era.
Direct Cruises had spotted the potential of services from north Britain and looked set to clean up, with Apollon making several turnrounds – but were then swallowed by Airtours, and their noble cruise project sank in 2000.
Intriguingly, after her 1971 leaving of Liverpool, the ‘Canada’ enjoyed a long afterlife prior to ‘Apollon’, sailing as as MS Mardi Gras, Ted Arison’s pioneer ship for Florida’s nascent Carnival Cruises.
From this tiny operation grew the almighty Carnival Corporation, with a fleet of over 100 vessels, a portfolio of 10 major brands (including P&O, Cunard and Princess), and around half the global market, a growing slice of it based here.
The Empress of Canada, built on the Tyne in 1961, was therefore another golden thread bridging the two eras of Liverpool liner travel; the last of the scheduled Atlantic services, and the first of the new leisure cruise empire.
Fred. Olsen was the first blue-chip shipping line to seriously commit to re-establishing a permanent cruise base in Liverpool, and should also be credited with stirring – perhaps shaming – the city into investing in proper landing stage and then turnaround facilities at the Pier Head.
The cruise operation of the established Norwegian firm is a UK company based in Ipswich, and in 2004 launched regular Liverpool sailings of its much-loved ‘ugly duckling’ the Black Prince, and quickly built a loyal following of repeat passengers, proving the business case.
Olsen’s success, and a growing sense of civic self-confidence as Liverpool approached its year as ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2008, spurred the opening in September 2007 of a new £19m floating landing stage, designed to reinstate the ‘in river’ infrastructure removed 35 years earlier, and thereby allow the biggest passenger ships in the world to once more tie up alongside the now UNESCO protected Pier Head World Heritage Site.
This investment marked the return of regular cruise ship visits, but an arcane bureaucratic imbroglio over European Union funding restrictions meant the landing stage did not see the start and finish of a true Liverpool ‘turnaround’ cruise for another five years.
Again, Fred. Olsen proved catalytic – their investment in larger sister ships Boudicca and Black Watch to replace the tiny Black Prince was undertaken on the understanding they could soon leave Langton Dock’s scrap mountains and escape its tight, time-consuming and tide-ripped locks to berth right in the city’s UNESCO World Heritage heart.
One stormy night in 2008, Black Watch was refused permission to use the shiny, empty, expensive new landing stage because of red tape. It was the last straw – Olsen’s marketing director Nigel Lingaard told Liverpool to get it sorted, and pulled his ships out for the 2010 to 2012 seasons, citing ‘scrapyard scenery and abysmal passenger facilities’.
He told Peter Elson of Liverpool’s Daily Post: “We find it virtually impossible to explain to potential customers why Liverpool has a much-heralded new cruise berth, which lies idle while we are berthed in a dismal industrial area. Customers don’t care about local politics, and deserve better.” (Nov 28th, 2008).
Liverpool’s press rose to the challenge. Our good friend Peter Elson, a leading maritime journalist and author, led the ‘Get Back on Board’ campaign that went all the way to Downing Street.
Eventually, heads were knocked together, grants were partly repaid and the mandarins placated. Cruises could begin and end on the river Mersey again. The first turnaround took place in the summer of 2012, and the Olsen line stationed MS Boudicca and her sisters Black Watch and Braemar in the city for year round scheduled sailings.
After 40 years, Liverpool was a true cruise line port once more.
In the short time since, Liverpool has established itself as Britain’s favourite port of call for the influential ‘Cruise Critic’ editors, and is rated one of Europe’s most desirable destinations by passengers.
In 2016 Fred Olsen accounted for around a third of the 61 sailings, while Carnival, Cruise and Maritime, Thomson, Cunard and Disney have joined Olsen’s ships in running both regular visits and scheduled ‘turnaround’ cruises.
Cunard paid full respect to the 175th anniversary of its Liverpool foundation with the joyous ‘Three Queen’s Visit’ in May 2015, documented on our website in this entertaining guest article by Peter Elson.
The range of destinations one can sail to in comfort from Liverpool is now almost as far flung as those advertised in the classic posters of the golden age. They include Venice, Istanbul, Zanzibar, the Canaries and Azores, Madeira, the Black Sea, Norwegian Fjords, Iceland and the rugged coasts of Ireland and Scotland.
Even more importantly for civic psychology, Liverpool is again a trans-Atlantic passenger port. In May and August 2015, Fred. Olsen’s Black Watch ran two successful return cruises from Liverpool to Canada, reviving the route that helped make the city great, but which had been unsailed except by freighters and naval warships since 1971.
Cunard followed suit, crowning its ‘Three Queens’ visit with an equally historic anniversary departure of the Queen Mary 2 on July 4th, bound from Liverpool for Boston and New York via Halifax Nova Scotia, 175 years to the day since the Canadian founder Samuel Cunard had departed Coburg Dock on his seminal steamship Britannia in 1840.
Now it is again becoming familiar, though no less wonderful, to see a fully sold out passenger ‘megaship’ arriving on the Mersey from Cape Canaveral in Florida, or calling on a regular 12 day circumnavigation of the British Isles during summer.
In June 2017, Boudicca sails for Bermuda to view the America’s Cup, and in October passes through Suez to the Indian Ocean from Liverpool, on a 47 night passage. Quite something when in 2006 the only boats leaving the Pier Head were for Birkenhead, Douglas and occasionally Llandudno.
With around 60 cruise ships arriving this year, and a mayoral target of 100, Liverpool is some way off Southampton’s 300 departures, and of course great ships are no longer built and crewed on the Mersey, Thames, Lagan, Clyde and Tyne.
Yet growth and customer satisfaction levels under the Cruise Terminal’s energetic leader Angie Redhead and her dedicated team have been sufficiently high to commit the city to building a proper terminal to replace the cheerful marquee that currently greets passengers, and evoke still more of the glamorous spirit of the heyday. Also, Peel Holdings’ much awaited Liverpool Waters project may yet see a second landing stage and terminal installed by the central docks, where a new stadium for Everton FC is also proposed.
The psychological and spending power of liners bringing thousands of passengers from Cape Canaveral and Canada, with dozens of coaches dispersing day-trip shore excursions to the castles of North Wales, the Roman walls of Chester and the mountains of the Lake District via Beatles Liverpool, is profound for a place that for two generations had feared its best seafaring days were behind it, and faced a future of perpetual decline.
Now the Liver Birds are again seen from the tidal waters by passengers visiting Britain from across the western hemisphere, and watch over Britons leaving to see the world from Liverpool.
Their shamanic spirits must delight that the stately seabirds once thought extinct on these shores have returned, importing good fortune, and exporting happy memories.
Useful Links – current Liverpool cruise ship information:
Useful Links – historic Liverpool cruise ship information: