Wondering how the cruise industry and cruise ships themselves have developed into their modern form? Words: Alarna Haigh.

Cruising holidays represent a break from the normality of every day and a step into another realm – a floating city where almost everything is at your beck and call, whether you’re on one of today’s superliners or a luxury “yacht” as some luxury lines calls their vessels.

But things haven’t always been this way.  Here’s a look into the history of cruising as we know it.


A time when shipping was primarily concerned with mail and cargo, although times were a-changing…

In 1818, Black Ball Line was founded with the purpose of providing a regular service from North America to Europe aboard its packet ships, says Cruise Line History, a website whose editor, Michael Grace, is dedicated to charting historical moments in cruising. Black Ball Line also became the first shipping line to have concern for the comfort of its passengers, which perhaps has something to do with its subsequent reputation for ferrying hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Europe to America.

A new age in comfort was heralded in on July 4, 1980, when Britannia, the first ship to operate under the Cunard Line name, embarked on a 14-day trans-Atlantic voyage from Liverpool with a cow on board to supply passengers with fresh milk.

However, the first true leisure cruise occurred in 1844 when P&O Cruises, then formally known as Peninsular Steam Navigation Company, sailed passengers on small liners to the Mediterranean for the sole purpose of pleasure. P&O Cruises later expanded its services to include the British Empire, India, the Orient, Australia and New Zealand.

This milestone soon became a benchmark and throughout the 1850s and 1860s ships began to focus more on passengers than mail, with little luxuries like electric lights, more spacious deck areas and onboard entertainment gradually introduced to shipboard life. Steerage class was introduced and these passengers were responsible for bringing their own food and finding a suitable space to sleep.

But it was endorsements from Mark Twain and the British Medical Journal that really introduced the cruise industry to popular culture. In 1867, Mark Twain was a passenger on the first cruise to begin in America and he recorded his six-month experience in his novel Innocents Abroad, says Cruise Line History.

And if anyone needed further persuasion on the benefits of a sea voyage, it was delivered in the British Medical Journal, which wrote in 1897 that a short West Indies cruise provides “opportunities for recovering health,” saying “the most delightful days of peace and leisure may be passed doing nothing…”

It was around this time that the term “posh” was apparently coined. Although it has never been substantiated, the word was the acronym of port out, starboard home, and referred to the area of the ship with the most desired cabins. Going to India the port side was shaded from the sun, while returning home it was the starboard side.


Enter the golden age of cruising: an era concerned with the joys of the journey at sea rather than the previous hassles associated with travel.

Before jets became the preferred mode of travel, cruising was basically the only way to go and the transatlantic route was a popular connection between Europe and America.

It was a time when ships were taking on the form of “ornate hotels”, says Cruise Line History, and cruise lines began playing on the romance of the voyage itself rather than the former hassle of the travel.

“The design of these liners attempted to minimize the discomfort of ocean travel, masking the fact of being at sea and the extremes in weather as much as possible through elegant accommodations and planned activities,” the website says.

Renowned British cruise line Cunard began the tradition of dressing formally for dinner aboard Mauretania and Lusitania, ships which were both renowned for their speed rather than expansive public areas. Still, its “Getting there is half the fun” campaign depicted passengers taking part in extra activities integral to most of today’s voyages – fine dining, dancing, playing sports and dressing up.

White Star Line, one of Cunard’s main competitors, was the initiator of putting passenger comfort first when it ordered three Olympic-class vessels – Olympic, Titanic and Britannic – which were to be the biggest and most luxurious of the day.

For White Star Line this spelled disaster: in April 1912, Titanic sank on her maiden voyage and Britannic was slated for service during World War II before she had launched. She hit a mine and sank in 1916.

During World War I leisure cruising ceased. Many ships were drafted to the war effort and were converted into troopships, including Cunard’s Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, which were painted gray for subtlety and were credited by Winston Churchill for shortening the duration of the war due to their speed.

After World War II, ocean travel returned to its glorious, most luxurious best but the onset of the Great Depression saw passenger numbers fall and White Star Line merged with Cunard Line to form Cunard White Star in 1934 with a total of 25 vessels.

In 1958, with the advent of the first commercial non-stop trans-Atlantic flight to Europe, cruising continued to decline. Lines went bankrupt and passenger ships were sold.

Modern cruising as we know it, emerged in the 1960s, says Cruise Line History, when lines began marketing cruise holidays to the general public and promoting the holiday as the destination rather than focussing on the transportation element.

Cruise ships came laden with amenities and entertainment options, immortalised in the hit television series The Love Boat, which ran from 1977 to 1986 and starred Princess Cruises vessel Pacific Princess.

Skip to today and the biggest cruise ship on the high seas are Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis-class Allure of the Seas, which was launched in late 2010. Measuring 360 metres long and carrying 6,360 passengers, Allure is divided in to seven “neighbourhoods” and has an astounding range of entertainment offerings.

What are your memories of cruising history?