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'175 years' flag goes up over Liverpool's historic Cunard Building

Cunard director Angus Struthers and Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson
Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson and Cunard director Angus Struthers hoisted a specially-commissioned '175 years' flag above the Cunard Building at the Pier Head in Liverpool.

Cunard celebrates the 175th anniversary of the departure from Liverpool of its first ship in 2015 and the Cunard Building, its former headquarters from 1916 to 1967, will play a key role in the festivities. The building, one of the famous 'Three Graces' on the Pier Head waterfront, a UNESCO World Heritage site, will mark its own 100th anniversary in June 2016.

Struthers noted the building was designed to 'convey gravitas as a land-based representation of the Cunard ships themselves: solid, reliable, elegant and impressive.' Although Cunard moved to another home in 1967, the building has remained a symbol of the shared history of the company and Liverpool.

The three Cunard Queens will salute the Cunard Building when they gather on the Mersey May 25.

The Cunard Building went up on the site of George’s Dock. Divided into three sites by the extension of Water Street and Brunswick Street, it was destined to become one of the most famous waterfronts in the world.

The Cunard Building was the third of the 'Three Graces' to be built after the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board and the Liver Building. It was a construction on a massive scale, with 180,000 cubic feet of Portland Stone and 50,000 cubic feet of Italian marble inside. The design was based on the Farnese Palace in Rome, the family home of Pope Paul III, but much bigger.

The old dock walls were reinforced with 700,000 cubic feet of concrete to prevent the Mersey from seeping in, and the floor of the original dock became the floor of the lower level of two basements. The 11 floors could accommodate 250,000 people standing, and the huge public rooms, corridors and stairways were lavishly decorated with marble columns and arches.

The Cunard Empire was ruled from the fifth floor, with its boardroom and the pivotal naval architects’ department. More than 1,000 Cunard staff worked in the building, from hydrographers mapping the world’s tides to the experimental chef who tried out new recipes on employees.

On the ground floor was the enormous and magnificent pillared ticket hall and lounge for first class passengers. Second and third class passengers were processed in the first basement including, for emigrants, compulsory medical examinations.

Shields on the riverside elevation acknowledge the period when the building was constructed. They are the arms of countries allied in the Great War—Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Japan, Belgium, Serbia and Montenegro. At each corner is the shield of the Cunard company, supported by an eagle, each weighing 43 tons. And above each third floor window are the arms of the principal passenger ports in the UK—Liverpool, Bristol, Southampton, Plymouth, Falmouth, Hull, Portsmouth, Newcastle, Glasgow, Leith, Aberdeen, Dundee and Queenstown.

Cunard moved into its prestigious new building, its third and last in Liverpool, in June 1916 and remained there for over 50 years.

Cunard considered its headquarters perfect in every way, for the reassurance it gave passengers with its air of permanence, stability and grandeur, the efficiency of having the staff on one site and because the directors could look out from the boardroom window and see the ships coming and going.

But a significant change took place in 1936. Queen Mary, despite having Liverpool imprinted on the stern like the rest of the Cunard fleet, was too big to enter the Mersey, and she never visited the port. She was based in Southampton, where some Cunard operations had begun a few years earlier, and was followed later by the even bigger Queen Elizabeth. No longer could the directors view the pride of the fleet from the board room.

By 1967, the focus of Cunard activity had shifted away from Liverpool; it remained Cunard’s administrative centre, but everything administered was elsewhere. However, the histories of Liverpool and Cunard are interwoven and the emotional connection between the city and the company remains as strong as ever today. 

A new short video tells the story of the Cunard Building.