If ever a name is synonymous with passage by ocean liner it is Cunard. To the public at large it conjures images of a quintessentially British institution, of luxurious leviathans steaming at speed across the turbulent Atlantic, whilst their pampered passengers are indulged, enjoying fine dining in opulent interiors. All exudes sophistication. In truth the origins of both the founder and his fleet are rather more nuanced.
Samuel Cunard was born on 21st November 1787, a Canadian of German American and Irish American extraction. On his paternal side, the Kunders had emigrated from Germany and settled in Germantown, Philadelphia in 1683, their name being progressively anglicised over the subsequent century. Historically the family’s Quaker faith was both the cornerstone and cause of their itinerant life, escaping religious persecution a persistent subtext.
Perhaps inevitably Samuel Cunard’s parents met onboard a ship. The circumstances were familiar, although on this occasion the migration was enforced by political rather than religious persecution. Twenty seven year old Abraham Cunard had been a successful shipowner and timber merchant in the colonies, but as a staunch loyalist his assets were confiscated by rebels in the aftermath of American Independence. Financially ruined, in 1783 he and his family embarked on one of a fleet of twenty vessels taking loyalist families from New York to the sanctuary of Canada. On board the same ship was Margaret Murphy, two years Abraham’s junior, travelling with her parents and family.
The Cunards settled where they made landfall in Halifax, Nova Scotia, whilst the Murphys moved inland. Nevertheless, the romantic attachment forged on that voyage evidently remained strong and the two were duly wed and settled in the provincial capital. Abraham secured work plying his original trade as a foreman carpenter and joiner at the local naval dockyard, and by the turn of the century he was appointed master carpenter of the Royal Engineers at the Halifax garrison. Simultaneously he developed a successful timber business and acquired local real estate for rental.
Samuel was the second of Abraham and Margaret’s nine children. He attended Halifax Grammar School, but entrepreneurship was clearly in his genes, selling produce from the family garden to local stores from a young age. He was first employed as a civilian clerk at the local garrison office, doubtless helped by his father’s connections. The job provided a sound grounding but as he later reflected to his daughter Jane, working for the government, “Frequently lead to old age with a small pittance but little removed from poverty”. The ambitious Cunard moved to Boston aged eighteen and secured an apprenticeship with a shipbroker, honing the exceptional organisation and numeracy skills for which he became renowned. Buoyed by the experience the twenty one year old Samuel returned home in 1808 and persuaded his father to establish a new shipping and timber venture. Abraham Cunard & Son was formed.
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