Cunard 175: foundation years

One of the oldest records in the Cunard archive is an Agreement of Co-partnership signed by Samuel Cunard (1787-1865) and partners in May 1840. Some of the original partners included George Burns, First Baronet (1795-1890) and David MacIver, a merchant from Liverpool.

Until 1934 this contract and a number of other documents, had been kept by the Glasgow firm that had prepared them for the founders of the Cunard Company. Until their chance rediscovery in an old deed box, details of Cunard’s early years and the formation of the shipping company had been vague. This was in part due to there being very few other surviving records.

These important historical documents record the series of events that led to the formation of the Cunard Line. On 19th December 1934 the minutes of the Board of Directors records on that “these two Deeds of June 1839 and May 1840, therefore seem to be the foundation of the Cunard Line”.

Using the content of these deeds, the Board of Directors recorded that the series of events leading to the signing of the Co-partnership of May 1840 was as follows:

  • In May 1839 Samuel Cunard (1787-1865) a shipowner from Halifax, Nova Scotia successfully secured a contract with the British Government. Its purpose was to provide a scheduled transatlantic steamship service to carry mails across the Atlantic, the first of its kind.
  • In the same month and year Samuel Cunard entered into an Agreement with      George Burns and David MacIver of Liverpool. Under this agreement, Samuel      Cunard assumed George Burns and David MacIver and partners “to be assumed by them as Co-partners to the extent of one-half in said Government contract and the steam vessels to be employed in carrying the Mails”.
  • In June 1839 a Contract of Co-partnership was entered into among George      Burns, his brother James Burns, David MacIver, Charles MacIver and a number of eminent Glasgow Merchants. They associated themselves into a Company under the names of the Glasgow Proprietary in the British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packets. The contract contains in full the regulations of the Co-partnery.
  • It was resolved that a further Co-partnery should be entered into bringing in Samuel Cunard and that was done by Contract of Co-partnery dated May 1840 between Samuel Cunard and the parties in the Contract of 1839. The Contract of 1840 adopted the provisions of the 1839 Deed, except as modified by the later Deed and it cancelled the Agreement between Samuel Cunard, George Burns and David MacIver of May 1839. The 1840 Deed also provided that the name of the firm was to be the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and the capital £270,000.

175 years on, Liverpool prepares to welcome Cunard’s Three Queens (Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria) to the city next weekend.

Details of the expected arrival times of the ships during the May Bank Holiday can be found here:

In the meantime, the city-wide event Light Night takes place today. Now in its sixth year, there will be many cultural activities to choose from, including those with a Cunard or maritime theme. Look out for The Crossing, a 3D soundscape installation by Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware in Liverpool ONE which used a variety of sources from the Cunard archive.

Further information about Light Night 2015 can be viewed online: