The Liverpool Nautical Research Society, Maritime Archives and Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum, Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AA UK


The Liverpool Nautical Research Society Maritime Archives and Library Merseyside Maritime Museum Albert Dock Liverpool L3 4AA UK


Trans-Atlantic Mail into and out of Liverpool 1800 -1870.

A summary of the presentation to the Society on 19 February, 2015 

by L.N.R.S. Member Graham Booth 

In the early Nineteenth century sending letters across the Atlantic was a hazardous business. Besides the normal problems of weather and navigation, war and privateers increased the risks. Important mail was always sent in duplicate and the practice was normally to pay on receipt, rejecting the duplicate if it arrived. The majority of mail was sent on private ships- merchantmen about which there was uncertainty about their sailing dates and arrival, or on the Falmouth Packet – fast, privately owned ships with a contract from the Post Office with strict instructions on what to do when faced with an enemy vessel – flee if you can, fight if you must and before striking your colours dispose of the mail overboard. The first method was cheap, relied heavily on forwarding agents and a ruse to get around the U.K. Post Office’s monopoly of the carriage of mail inland. The second was expensive and not much more reliable. In 1818 the Black Ball Line out of New York to Liverpool introduced a new concept. Using the same merchant ships they sailed according to a predetermined timetable, whether full or not. This proved to be enormously successful. Within a few years it was copied by the Red Star and Blue Swallowtail Lines to Liverpool and the Black Star and Red Swallowtail Lines to Portsmouth and London, amongst many other less well-known lines. By 1837 it is estimated that they were carrying 95% of mail across the Atlantic in both directions. The Falmouth Packet to New York closed in 1827 and that to Halifax, Nova Scotia struggled on carrying little more than government communications.
Beginning in 1838 this changed very quickly. The little Sirius whose normal role was crossing the Irish Sea arrived in New York, followed a few hours later by Brunel’s Great Western. Additional steamships followed in their wake- Royal William, Liverpool, British Queen and President, but all four had serious design and reliability problems, President being lost at sea with all hands. All were private ships: the exception was Samuel Cunard who obtained a Post Office contract to carry the mail in four ships in return for a payment of £80,000 p.a. At the same time Post Office reforms dramatically reduced the cost of sending letters across the Atlantic. Very quickly the American sailing ships were reduced to carrying freight and immigrants. Great Western and her consort Great Britain put up a serious fight until in 1846 the latter ran aground on Dundrum Sands in Ireland. In 1847 Cunard, who now was running five ships for an increased subsidy, had a virtual monopoly of mail carried across the Atlantic in both directions. The subsidy from the mail contract was critical to its survival.
Understandably the American public was very unhappy with this situation, especially as U.K. Post Office rules meant that letters had to be prepaid going from east to west and could not be prepaid going from west to east. As a consequence Congress passed legislation providing financial incentives for an American steamship line and specified that letters carried out of the US by American steamships had to be prepaid. In response the Ocean Line began sailing to Southampton and Bremen in 1847 with two steamships. They were never going to be a serious competitor to Cunard (the Herman and Washington were seldom to be seen during the winter) but the U.K. government over- reacted and charged letters that had been paid in New York a second time on entry to the U.K. The dispute raged on for 18 months until eventually both sides saw sense and signed the first Postal Convention between the two countries. A rate of 24 cents per 1⁄2 oz letter was agreed and divided into 3 parts – 3 cents British inland, 5 cents U.S. inland and 16 cents for the ocean crossing due to the country of registry of the ship that carried the letter.
Thereafter Cunard had to face significantly increased competition from American Lines; the Havre Line that ran to Southampton and as its name implies Le Havre, the Vanderbilt Line that also ran to Southampton and particularly the Collins Line to Liverpool. The latter put great emphasis on speed and the quality of accommodation, and on both grounds Cunard came a poor second. In the mid fifties it is probable that mail was carried more or less equally by the two sides. However Cunard was a conservative company and put great emphasis on safety. Both Collins and the Havre Line lost two out of their four ships. Collins collapsed, having never paid a dividend, and the American Civil War brought an end to the remainder of the American competitors.
Cunard was then the dominant competitor; but did not have it all its own way. A new Convention between the U.K. and the U.S. halved the cost of Trans Atlantic letters in 1868 and halved it again two years later and so its subsidy was reduced. In addition a number of new competitors emerged in the fifties – The Allan Line with a subsidy from the Canadian government, the Inman Line, the two German Lines N.G.L and H.A.P.A.G., and the French Line C.G.T. So the U.S. Postmaster General had a variety of lines to choose from when it came to awarding contracts for the carriage of U.S. Mail; but it was not until twenty years later that the Americans again had a truly significant player on the Atlantic crossing.