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Classic | Vintage photos

The historic heritage of the crafts

Photographs of vintage craft aren’t just interesting from a historical point of view, they’re also portraits of true works of art and engineering skill, whether they depict transatlantic liners or warships.

What encourages many enthusiasts to collect them may be the feeling of taking part in a great enterprise, where luxury, the elegance of the ships or the power of their weapons often proved to be quickly overtaken by obsolescence or historical events. But that takes nothing away from the effort, inventiveness and skills of the men who made these ships. That’s why they’re worth bearing in mind as an original Christmas idea, sure to be appreciated by enthusiastic collectors.

For example, the first steam turbine powered vessel, the Turbinia, launched on 2nd August 1897, brought about a revolution in passenger and freight transport. She made her cheeky, unplanned debut at the Spithead review in front of the Prince of Wales in 1897, sprinting between the two rows of ships and easily outpacing the picket boat sent to stop her, earning her the description of “North Sea greyhound”. She was the brainchild of Charles Parsons, who fitted three turbines to three shafts, each mounting three propellers, giving the Turbinia a top speed of 34 knots. This type of engine and drive became the standard, enabling shipping lines to build ever faster vessels.

Among the competitors in this race for speed was White Star Line (which later became famous as the owner of the Titanic) founded in Liverpool in 1845, or 1850 according to some sources, by H.T. Wilson and J. Pilkington. In 1867, financial difficulties led to it being bought out for around £1,000 by Thomas Henry Ismay.

The names of its ships (all ended in “-ic”, like Atlantic or Baltic) and their appearance (light brown funnels with black tops, black hull with a red band on the upper part and a red swallow-tail flag with a brilliant five-pointed white star) made them all immediately recognisable. When old Ismay died on 23rd November 1899, his son Joseph took his place. That year the White Star ship Teutonic won the coveted Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing. However, the record was soon broken by a competing ship, the Cunard Line’s Mauretania.

Meanwhile, the White Star line merged with I.M.M. (the tycoon J. P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine Company) and decided to take cover for a while - but over dinner, Ismay and William James Pirrie, chairman of Harland & Wolff in Belfast, hatched the idea of building ships that could sail at over 20 knots but offered unprecedented levels of safety and opulence.

The Olympic was the first of White Star’s large liners, displacing over 45,000 tonnes. She was also the Titanic’s sister ship (almost all the photos of the Titanic, in fact, depict the Olympic, as there wasn’t enough time to photograph the Titanic before she sank). Her many daring actions included sinking the submarine U-103 (she was the only merchant ship to carry off such a feat), and she was only broken up in 1937.

Unfortunately the Titanic was not so long-lived, and sank on 14th April 1912, causing the death of 1,500 people. In 1916 the Britannic hit a mine and sank. The next year it was the turn of another White Star line ship, the Laurentic, which had become famous when her speed allowed the British police to arrive in Canada before the murderer Dr Crippen, who was attempting to make his escape on another ship. The Laurentic sank after hitting two mines, with the loss of many lives. Her cargo of gold went down with her, and has never been entirely been recovered.

These tragic events, though, didn’t dampen builders’ desire to enhance the quality of their ships even further. One example is the Paris, built by the Chantiers de l’Atlantique in Saint Nazare for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique. She was laid down in 1913, but the First World War delayed her completion until 1921. She was the largest transatlantic liner to fly the French flag. Her interiors reflect the period of transition of the early 1920s, with a style wavering between Baroque, Art Nouveau and Art Deco. No other vessel could match her luxury - most of her suites had square windows as well as portholes, and some suites even had a private telephone, an extremely rare feature on board a ship. She served excellent food and offered outstanding service - it’s said that more seagulls followed the Paris than any other liner! On 18th April 1939 a fire broke out in the ship’s bakery while the ship was at anchor in Le Havre, where a series of art works from the Louvre, en route for the French pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, was being loaded on board. The works were all rescued, but the weight of the water used to put out the blaze caused the ship to keel over. Her hulk was broken up in 1947.

The reason for the decline of these magnificent ships was not just a lack of farsightedness - the events of the war and the historical context also played a significant part. During the two world wars it wasn’t always clear whether these vessels had a civilian or military role, and in any case the two often overlapped.

If some ships were clearly intended for warlike purposes or military training, others, like the Tuscania, become actively embroiled in the conflict despite their more civilian character.

Launched as a luxury liner in early 1915 by the White Star Line’s rival, the Cunard line, the Tuscania was intended for the Glasgow-New York passenger route, via Liverpool. Her maiden voyage began on 6th February in the same year. Together with the Lusitania and Titanic, she was one of the three most famous liners ever - she was the ship that carried Conrad to America. On the evening of 5th February 1918, while transporting a large contingent of American troops, she was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank. The event outraged public opinion in the States, and it was the first time since the Civil War that the country had suffered a similar tragedy.

The large, luxurious ships that plied the seas often had a part to play in world events - that’s why collecting antique photos now has an irresistible fascination!

Daniela Giorgi



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