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Atlantic Crossings - Liverpool to America

It was a tiny cargo, but the 30 tonnes of tobacco brought into Liverpool from America on a ship called the Friendship back in 1648 had great historic significance. It is widely believed that the Friendship’s freight was the first instance of transatlantic trade between Liverpool and the United States.

Old Dock and Customs House

James Jenkinson, the merchant involved, could have had little idea what a landmark journey he had made in maritime history terms. But the discovery of America and the formation of the British West Indian colonies heralded a whole new era of trade - and the growth of a new cluster of British ports. Because most trading links with Britain had been with the European landmass, ports in southern England were the biggest and most prosperous. However Liverpool’s blossoming was definitely aided considerably by the economic development of America - and west coast ports like Bristol and Lancaster were able to expand, too. Major cargoes were originally tobacco, sugar and rum and after 1700 Liverpool ships were also involved in what was known as Triangular Trade’. This entailed exporting goods to Africa, bringing African people back to be sold into slavery in the West Indies and America - and on the return leg, bringing home produce from America.

Goree Warehouses in Liverpool

In the 18th century the export of salt created a less ignominious trading triangle, the Northern Triangular Run, where salt was exported principally to Newfoundland in return for cod - which was then exchanged for sugar and coffee for the Liverpool markets. Another well-known element of Transatlantic shipping was the sailings to the New World states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland which offered a the hope of a new life to religious immigrants following in the footsteps of the Pilgrim Fathers.

By the 1860s the introduction of iron hulls, compound steam engines and screw propulsion led to significant reductions in crossing times to about 8-9 days. No longer limited by the technical limits of wood armatures the size of liners increased substantially with a tonnage exceeding 5,000 tons and a capacity of 1,500 passengers. The number and frequency of liner services across the Atlantic (an across the world) increased substantially.

The Mauretania leaving Prince's Landing Stage, Liverpool
The 'Golden Age' of the liner was when ships dominated long distance passenger movements. By the early 20th century (1907), the liner Mauretania with a capacity of 2,300 passengers was able to cross the Atlantic in 4.5 days, a record which was held for 30 years when the liner Queen Mary reduced the crossing time by half a day (4 days). Liners reached their operational capacity of around 1,500 to 2,000 passengers and Atlantic crossing times stabilized around 5 days. They relied on quadruple screws using turbine steam engines. This also corresponded to the peak American immigration years from European countries, a process to which liners contributed substantially.

SS Aquitania

Cross-section of the Cunard Line
 steamship SS Aquitania built in 1913
(Click image to enlarge)
The Cunard Line giant steamship S S Aquitania built in 1913 carried emigrants, third class were placed in the lowest decks of the ship, just above the cargo hold, where there was room for 2 052 passengers. The second class passengers were placed on the decks above them, with room for 614 passengers. First class passengers were placed in the upper decks, where there was room for 597 passengers. Both first and second class passengers could enjoy luxurious saloons. The ship weighed 45 647 gross tons and had a length of 901.5 feet and a width of 97 feet.  The Blue Riband is awarded for the record fastest crossing by transatlantic liner. The eastbound record was set by the American ocean liner United States in July 1952: the ship made the crossing in 3 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes.

Beginning in the 1950s, the predominance of ocean liners began to wane when larger and larger passenger airplanes began carrying passengers across the ocean in less and less time. The speed of crossing the ocean became more important than the style of crossing it. By the 1970s, supersonic Concorde airplanes could cross the Atlantic in under four hours and only one ocean liner remained on the transatlantic route for those who favoured the slower style of travel.



Liverpool Central Library
Liverpool Records Office
Merseyside Maritime Museum

National Museum of America

By Robert F Edwards

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