Why Cunard fly a different flag on April 15

Cunard ships raise the iconic White Star Line house flag every April 15 to commemorate the sinking of RMS Titanic. However, delving behind the headlines, there’s more to the kindly gesture than only that

Time is cruel. Fashions come and go, and once treasured artefacts eventually become expendable. Sadly, the same inhumane fate has befallen our ancestors. Time’s onward march undoubtedly leaves people behind.

Without a direct connection to our contemporary world, events of human suffering are consigned to mere paragraphs within long-forgotten history books; anguish and fear boiled down to rest upon a library shelf.Flesh and bone are usually destined to become an asterisk in the footnotes of progress and recovery.

However, the shipping world treats heritage differently. Remembrance is firmly respected as a fundamental aspect of today’s cruising world, perfectly showcased by Cunard’s actions every April.

As dawn’s encroaching lustre sketches a fresh horizon on April 15, each Cunard flag is lowered on RMS Queen Mary 2, RMS Queen Victoria and RMS Queen Elizabeth; replaced with the iconic White Star Line emblem.

It’s no secret that Cunard and rival White Star Line fought a gentlemanly trend of transatlantic one-upmanship during the Blue Riband era of travel. Therefore, discovering that Cunard vessels fly their rival’s flag on April 15 may sound somewhat abnormal.

Other markets would rarely celebrate their rivals with such compassion and affection. Ferrari wouldn’t be caught dead flying the flag for their competition, nor would Elton John sing the praises of Madonna.

Yet – the nautical brotherhood is far removed from common and petulant mannerisms that fester within other industries. Cunard flies the White Star Line flag not just to commemorate RMS Titanic, but also to salute the marque’s integration and achievements.

Loss of the Titanic as published in the Graphic Supplement of April 27, 1914. Credit: Picryl

April 15, 1912 – A dark day for transatlantic shipping

To those already familiar with White Star Line, the 15/04 timestamp commemorates RMS Titanic and the unfortunate victims of history’s prominent maritime disaster. Cunard never forgets to mark the occasion with decorative and meaningful anamnesis.

Of course, we don’t need to tell you about the sinking of RMS Titanic. The iceberg-sponsored event is permanently engrained into our society courtesy of modern obsession, but the human cost remains so-often overlooked.

White Star Line lost a ship, sure, but generations of our ancestors lost family, friends, and loved ones. Entire families were wiped out. Lineages lost their heirs; children were orphaned; immigrants never reached the promised land.

For the transatlantic brotherhood, the incredible loss of hundreds of crew members from RMS Titanic also hit hard. Rival cruise lines grieved for their colleagues, with the subsequent Titanic enquiry proving painful to both partake and accept.

Colleagues watched with horror as the media machine targeted down and scapegoated both survivors and the deceased; flesh and bone that now resided in the Atlantic took the wrap.

The broadsheets didn’t vilify everyone, though. Cunard was regarded as the hero of the day, as the company’s ship – RMS Carpathia – had been the first vessel to arrive and rescue survivors from the debris.

Yet, the media attention and celebrity status were ultimately hollow. People were hurting, and Cunard’s rival had been decimated by the disaster. Cunard staff bonded with their White-Star contemporaries and even provided ad-hoc counselling to survivors.

However, there’s more to the relationship between White Star Line and Cunard than purely the observation of RMS Titanic. The two companies joined forces during the Great Depression to form Cunard-White Star Line, until December 31, 1949, when the brand simply became known as ‘Cunard’.

Not that White Star has become a defunct name following the merger. Cunard offers ‘White Star Service’ as their top-tier assistance for high-paying travellers; white-gloved staff members whom are trained to offer the finest of first-class experiences.

While the White-Star marque may have been absorbed, the brand’s celebrated mantra certainly lives on as the epitome of distinguished service – something Cunard remains proud to retain; flying the flag as a mark of respect for everything White Star Line represents, both past and future.

The house flag and logo for White Star Line. Credit: Wikicommons

The White Star flag

For the purposes of identity, authority and communication, every cruise line boasts of a prominent flag. Once a symbol of ocean-going luxury, the swallow-trailed red pennant (with accompanying five-pointed white star) of White Star Line first appeared through the formation of the brand from the remains of a defunct packet company.

Last flown officially in 1968, after which Cunard’s house flag took the sole reign, original White Star Line flags are incredibly rare, given the delicate material of which the flag is crafted (wool, cotton and synthetic fibre bunting) and the harsh transatlantic conditions each one endured.

Replicas are popular, but an original banner occasionally emerges from the most unexpected location. Should a genuine pennant hit the open market, you can expect to pay an eye-watering sum of cash to acquire it. That is, if a museum doesn’t pip you to the post.

Belfast’s celebrated Titanic Museum
houses perhaps the finest known example of a White Star Line flag in existence, although the artefact’s remarkable condition (and lack of attached clips) indicates that it was unlikely to have been used at sea.

The original vessel of origin for the flag is up for debate, but the artefact made its way into a flag locker onboard Cunard’s then-new Queen Elizabeth 2 (QE2) and was subsequently abandoned for over a decade – quietly travelling the world from the dusty corner of its container.

This didn’t come as a surprise to researchers, as vast swaths of Cunard-White Star Line items were carried onto the QE2 just prior to her maiden voyage in 1967.

The historical artefact was kept out of sight and ‘accidentally preserved’ before a junior deck officer was tasked with maintaining the locker and disposing of worn-out signalling material. Luckily, the White Star Line flag was retained and neatly kept in storage until 2018. It’s now on display in Belfast.

Cunard-White Star baggage tag (circa 1949) for the RMS Queen Mary. Credit: Wikicommons

Cunard merger

So, what’s all this about a merger then?

Akin to the coalition of Jaguar Land Rover, or 1962’s cast of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the stern rivalry between Cunard and White Star Line became something of the past, as the two leviathans banded together to survive harsh economic headwinds.

Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression, demand for transatlantic voyages took a severe nose-dive. Whereas the previously booming North American economy had attracted European immigrants and filled each liner’s steerage class, the Great Depression changed the landscape practically overnight.

Plummeting passenger requests and ageing fleets pushed both Cunard and White Star Line towards impending bankruptcy. Stalked by serious financial difficulty and spiralling costs, Cunard was forced to postpone work on their new giant (Hull 534, later to become the RMS Queen Mary), whereas White Star Line’s Oceanic project was quietly scrapped following association with Lord Kylsant and the Royal Mail case.

Things were looking bleak. Neither cruise line seemed destined to survive the ongoing global economic slaughter, but for once the UK government took stock of the situation.

During mid-1933, the British government agreed to provide the two competitors with assistance – on one condition: they had to merge their North Atlantic operations. An agreement was reached on December 30, 1933, with the merger taking place on May 10, 1934. Cunard-White Star Limited was born.

The freshly-amalgamated firm now had 25 ships, a total of 10 from White Star Line, whereas Cunard contributed 15. Courtesy of boardroom agreements, 62 per cent of the new company was owned by Cunard’s shareholders and 38 per cent by White Star’s creditors. This didn’t include White Star Line’s Australia and New Zealand services – later sold to the Shaw, Savill & Albion Line in 1934.

From that time until Cunard acquired the remaining 38 per cent of Cunard-White Star in 1947, absorbing all assets and operations and reverting back to 'Cunard' from January 1, 1950, both house flags were flown on each vessel, with each ship opting to fly the flag of its original owner above the other.

The final White Star liners – Georgic and Britannic – flew the Cunard house flag above the White Star burgee until they were both withdrawn from service by 1961, marking the official end of history’s White Star lineage.

Although the White Star marque had been dissolved, all Cunard vessels flew the White Star Line house flag upon the masts until late 1968, most likely as SS Nomadic (a White Star tender) remained in service until November 4, 1968.

Following the sale of SS Nomadic for scrap (only to be bought as a floating restaurant before restoration took place for permanent display at the Belfast museum), the White Star flag was retired and all mention of the brand was removed from Cunard operations.

Not that the White Star name died. Cunard had another symbolic use for that.

Cunard now use White Star Line's mantra to provide sterling service. Credit: Cunard Careers

Flying the flag for Cunard’s White Star service

Introduced to honour the golden era of White Star Line, Cunard’s White Star Service aims to provide first-class assistance with a sense of style, sophistication and elegance. The service provides extreme attention to detail and goes 'above and beyond' from the moment of embarkation to the final moments before heading home.

Cunard staff are trained at the White Star Academy, utilising a legacy dating back to 1929, taking great pride in ensuring the most memorable and luxurious atmosphere is achieved for those with money to burn.

Offering one crew member for every two registered White Star guests, an established and powerful sense of dignity makes for a sense of unrivalled occasion which competitors cannot touch. Just like the White Star Line service of old.

For all these attributes, Cunard remains proud to fly the White Star house flag – symbolising and commemorating all those individuals who provided the foundations for modern travel; flesh and bone now lost to time.

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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.