How Did Cruising Come About? A History of Commercial Sailing


The cruise is now a staple of the UK holiday market, with record numbers of Brits choosing to holiday on the high seas every year. But this hasn’t always been the case. 

From the golden age of cruising at the turn of the 20th century to the spiralling decline of the turbulent world war years; the history of cruising spins a long and colourful yarn. Once reserved for the wildly rich, cruise holidays are now accessible to the masses, and everyone from families to newlyweds are keen to experience this historic, enchanting and timeless form of global travel.

Whether you’re a passionate and seasoned cruiser or simply want to brush-up on your knowledge of the industry ahead of your maiden voyage; here we chart the history of commercial sailing, and reflect on the pivotal highs and lows of the cruise holiday we know and love today.

Cruising — How Did It All Begin?

Back in the early 1800s, intercontinental ships were primarily used for the transportation of cargo and mail, and provided little in the way of style, comfort and finesse for those cooped onboard.

This all changed in the 1830s, however, when the New York-based Black Ball Line began offering a regular, and surprisingly comfortable, passenger service between North America and England.

Witnessing Black Ball’s success, the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet (aka. Cunard) launched its own transatlantic passenger service, benefiting from the emergence of steam-powered ships that would come to dominate the commercial sailing industry for the next century.

Unlike other passenger services of the age, Cunard sought to redefine the cruise experience, elevating it to a position of luxury whereby its elite clientele could traverse the breadth of the Atlantic for sheer indulgence sake.

Passengers enjoyed tasteful suites, fine food and dazzling entertainment during the 14-day crossing between Southampton and New York, with some cruise historians also asserting that cows were taken aboard to supply passengers with fresh milk during the fortnight-long voyage.

Pixabay History Cruise 2

But, despite these luxuries, Cunard’s offering remained nothing more than an A to B passenger service — a far cry from the long and leisurely cruise itineraries passengers can expect today.

In 1884, the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company (P&O) would become the first dedicated leisure cruise line, transporting passengers on actual holidays at sea for the very first time.

They began with itineraries in the Mediterranean, showcasing wonderful destinations like the Balearic Islands, Greece and the French Riviera to passengers who had previously been restricted to holidaying in a single destination, often in the UK.

With the success of its Mediterranean jaunts now booming, P&O quickly expanded its reach to India and Asia, before becoming the first leisure line to offer cruises in Australia and New Zealand.

At the turn of the century, cruise lines like P&O, Cunard and White Star Line had successfully turned the tide of commercial sailing, transforming once uncomfortable and dangerous ocean travel into the epitome of cosmopolitan style, glamour and elegance.

Ships became incredibly luxurious, boasting lavish features not dissimilar to those found in the finest 5* hotels of London, Paris and New York. But the golden age of cruising wouldn’t last, and with war looming across Europe, the two-decade decline of the cruise industry began.

Decline and Rediscovery

At the outbreak of the WWI, leisure cruising came to a standstill, and the once regal liners that criss-crossed the oceans were seized for the war effort, with many becoming troop carriers.

Leisure and commercial cruising didn’t resume until the close of WWII, and even then, continued to struggle. Now competing against commercial air travel, which began in 1958; it wouldn’t be until the 1960s that green shoots of recovery began to emerge within the cruise industry.

With a host of new ships taking to the world’s oceans throughout the 1960s and 70s, the sector found its feet and welcomed a new breed of passenger, paving the way for more affordable sailings and holidays.

With the cruise now an accessible choice for more Brits, its popularity has continued to grow throughout the subsequent decades — perhaps helped along by the popularity of the 1970s hit TV show, The Love Boat.

Cruises may be unrecognisable from the early commercial voyages of the 19th century, but the timeless charm and elegance of ocean travel lives on in even the most contemporary and feature-laden of today’s pioneering ocean liners.

We hope this guide to the history of commercial sailing has shone a little light on the fascinating heritage of the modern cruise break. If you’ve been inspired to book a cruise, visit our homepage to browse our collection of fantastic itineraries and deals, or call our team now on 0808 2746 777.

How Did Cruising Come About? A History of Commercial Sailing
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How Did Cruising Come About? A History of Commercial Sailing
Here, we step back in time and explore how cruising became the modern phenomenon it is now, from its relatively humble beginnings.

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Claire has worked in the travel industry since leaving college in 1994. One of this blog's most regular contributors, Claire covers cruise news and industry trends.

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