First Cunard sailing advertised
on 2 July 1840

By Fred Silver

The role of two Lewis families in the setting up and operation of the internationally renowned Cunard Line in the 19th Century was very great.

The Macivers and the Morisons, linked by marriage and seafaring traditions that extended from Stornoway to Liverpool and beyond to North America and Jamaica, had, through their shipping and merchanting companies, a major role in how Cunard – officially called the British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company – developed.

Charles Maciver, married to Mary Ann Morison, became the manager of the company, as it became the leading mail and passenger line on the North Atlantic. For more than 30 years, he was consulted regularly by government officials and was a principal witness at several major Parliamentary Inquiries. By the 1860s, he was Cunard’s largest shareholder.

Two generations of ship-owning Macivers moved south from Stornoway during the 18th Century. Two Macivers, believed to have been first cousins, were trading in kelp from Lewis to Liverpool in that era. John Maciver married in 1752, and he had sons William, Peter and Iver, and records survive, for example, of a shipment of kelp sent from Lewis to Messrs Iver and Peter Maciver, of Liverpool in 1798. John’s father, also called Iver, is said to have moved to Dunoon at the start of the 18th Century.

Charles Maciver was a son of David Maciver, son of an earlier Charles Maciver, involved in the kelp trade between Stornoway, the Clyde and Liverpool. He is thought to have been a son of John Maciver, who was tacksman of Gress in the 1750s. John of Gress was married to a daughter of Charles MacKenzie of Letterewe, which may explain how the unusual name – in Lewis terms – Charles came into the Macivers. Before Gress the Macivers were tacksmen of Tolsta Chaolais and Little Bernera – something which caused great confusion for later researchers as these were in the parish of Uig, and a 19th century study of the Clan Iver wrongly assumed that Uig on the Isle of Skye was their home.

The extent of the trade links between Lewis and Liverpool may be shown by a Harris story about Sgeirean Iomhair (Skerries of Iver) found eastward from the northern tip of Boreray, out on the way to the Isle of Pabbay. The story says that in former days a trading smack from Lewis was sailing southwards to Liverpool with a cargo of salt fish and apparently Iver Maciver struck this boat on this skerry. It’s possible the boat belonged to Iver rather than being sailed by him.

While Samuel Cunard is credited with the inspiration, energy and know-how to instigate the formation of what was quickly known as the Cunard Line in 1839, there were several managing owners – the Burns brothers and the Maciver brothers in addition to Samuel Cunard himself.

Cunard was from a family of Empire Loyalists, people who left the former British colonies that became the USA, and moved to Canada to remain in the British Empire. His family had been 17th Century immigrants to North America from Germany.

Having won the trans-Atlantic mails contract from the British Government Cunard returned to Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the end of 1839 to arrange the terminal for the new steamship line and for the transhipment of passengers, freight and mails to the USA. The Burns brothers, George and John, attended to the building of the four new vessels on the Clyde whilst the Maciver brothers, David and Charles, kept the Company books and with their own firm, D & C Maciver & Co provided the terminal facilities on the Mersey. They were also freight and passenger agents.

Once the line was up and running at the end of summer 1840, the day-to-day operation of the Line was left to the Macivers. When David Maciver died in 1845, Charles took control of the company’s operations at the age of 33, running the world’s first transoceanic steamship service.

David had been brought up in Greenock and spent most of the 1820s learning maritime commerce in the counting houses of Glasgow merchants who were relatives and friends. In 1828 he moved to Liverpool taking up his father’s connections as agent for Irish Sea ferry services. He saw the advantages of a fast steam-packet service between Liverpool and the Clyde and, creating a new firm, bought the City of Glasgow, built a few years earlier as the fastest vessel in the world. He soon added another steamer, the John Wood. In 1831, Charles returned from Charleston in the United States to join the firm, but now competition on the Liverpool-Clyde run was severe. The Burns brothers, their strongest competitors, agreed an alliance; the Burns duo managing the Scottish base leaving David and Charles to maintain the Liverpool terminal.

In 1836 the postmaster-general let it be known that the British Government would be asking for tenders for a contract to carry mails across the Atlantic by steam vessels to British North America. Samuel Cunard was then operating regular schooner services on the east coast of Canada carrying mail as far as the Bahamas, Bermuda and the West Indies. A meeting between Cunard and Robert Napier, a Clyde engineer, resulted in a reasonable price for building three vessels. Later Napier told Cunard that further studies showed four steamers would be needed and they needed to be larger and more powerful. When Cunard said he could not pay for this, Napier arranged for him to meet a number of Glasgow-linked merchants, among them the Burns brothers and the Maciver brothers.

At first, the Burns and Maciver brothers refused to invest but Robert Napier – who himself also invested in the company – managed to overcome their doubts. Napier persuaded Cunard to offer the Maciver brothers the Liverpool agency for his ships with the Glasgow agency going to the Burns brothers. The Burns brothers subscribed £10,600 each with the Macivers putting in £8,000. The total involved was £270,000. (That project would cost up to £200m in modern money.)

Work began on the first four ships, Britannia, Columbia, Acadia and Caledonia, and Samuel Cunard was back in Liverpool by July 1840 to take passage on the maiden voyage of the line’s first ship, Britannia. She sailed on 4 July 1840 and reached Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the 17th and was off Boston lighthouse in the USA by the next day.

There were also direct links between Cunard and the Isle of Lewis through Charles Maciver’s wife, Mary Ann Morrison and her family. Her brothers, Kenneth Lockwood and John Hall Morison, known as Alfred, ran a firm of Glasgow merchants. Kenneth Morison became Outside Manager for the Cunard Line abandoning his partnership with his brother to devote his energies exclusively to superintending the handling of Cunard steamers when in dock. Their father was Daniel Morison, comptroller of customs in Glasgow. He was a neighbour of the Charles Maciver in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute where Charles had a second home, and was the son of Kenneth Morison, from Stornoway, who became a ship-owner in Jamaica. Kenneth was the grandson of the Rev Kenneth Morrison, minister of Stornoway, who died in 1720. This family goes back to Bragar and Ness, and also includes a tacksman of Gress and Coll in the 17th and early 18th centuries.

The extensive Lewis connections gave rise to the story that the name Cunard was of Gaelic origin, from Cuan Ard – the High Seas. This is a myth. The name Cunard developed in the former British American colonies – Samuel Cunard’s ancestor was Thones Kunders, also known as Anton Kuners and Thomas Cunard, born in 1648 in Neuwerk, Mönchengladbach, Düsseldorf, who died on December 30, 1729 in Germantown, Philadelphia, and was buried at Haddonfield, Gloucester, New Jersey.

(My thanks to Bill and Chris Lawson, Seallam, Northton, Harris; Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart, of Back and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig; Stornoway Library; Fergus Molloy and Harry Hignett of the Liverpool Nautical Research Society. Any errors in this article are my own.)


Printed sources: Cunard and the North Atlantic 1840–1973: A History of Shipping and Financial Management, Francis E Hyde; Charles Maciver of Cunard, his maritime background, Harry M. Hignett; Appendix C of The Blind Harper, edited by William Matheson.