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“Fast embedded in seven miles of ice”: the saga of the RMS Britannia, February 1844

The Cunard Royal Mail Steamship `Britannia` (John Hewitt, Commander) : As she appeared leaving her Dock at East Boston February 3d 1844 bound from Boston To Liverpool ... Lithograph

The Cunard Royal Mail Steamship "Britannia" (John Hewitt, Commander) : As she appeared leaving her Dock at East Boston February 3d 1844 bound from Boston To Liverpool ...

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This print, issued in 1876 by the Cunard Steamship Company office in Boston, depicts the steamer Britannia departing Boston Harbor in February of 1844. The merchants of Boston paid to have a canal cut through the ice to the open ocean so the Britannia could return to Liverpool. The print is based on an 1844 lithograph based on an on-the-spot sketch by John Crookshanks King.

The introduction of Royal Mail Steam service to Boston

On 4 July 1840, the steamer Britannia departed Liverpool on her maiden voyage, bound for Halifax and Boston carrying mail, passengers, and freight. In Boston, as reported in the Courier, citizens were “aghast with impatience” for her arrival. Fifteen days later, after a short stop in Halifax, the Britannia and her owner Samuel Cunard arrived and were greeted by a massive fireworks display. A banquet for 1800 people was held at East Boston’s Maverick House in Cunard’s honor, described as “one of the most splendid entertainments of the kind ever undertaken in this quarter of the union.” As William Fowler notes in Steam Titans, with the arrival of the Britannia, “Cunard mania swept Boston. So too did the sweet scent of victory over her nemesis, New York.”

Prior to the introduction of steam power, sailing vessels plied the Atlantic, carrying passengers, freight, and mail and completing three or so round trips per year dependent on the vagaries of wind and weather. A single steamship, according to Fowler, could easily complete a dozen or so round trips in a year, a distinct advantage. After winning the contract in 1840 to carry the Royal Mail , Samuel Cunard devoted four ships to the Liverpool-Boston route, ensuring a regular and timely flow of people and goods. The ships ran biweekly, except in the winter months when they ran monthly.

The Winter of 1844

The Britannia arrived on schedule in Boston Harbor on 22 January 1844 after a 17-day passage from Liverpool. The weather then turned unseasonably cold with harbors up and down the eastern seaboard as far as Washington freezing solid. Boston Harbor, with the Britannia in port, was no exception. As the time neared for Britannia’s return voyage, it became clear that the weather would not cooperate and the ship would not be able to depart on schedule. On 30 January, a group of Boston merchants—keen to prove the city’s worth as a port—met “to take into consideration the expediency of adopting immediate measures to break out a ship passage, through the vast body of ice which now obstructs our harbor.”

The lost art of ice harvesting

Although there are a few places today where one can see ice harvested from lakes and ponds—South Bristol, Maine, for one—mechanical freezers (and climate change) have made such activity redundant. But in 1844, cutting ice from ponds and lakes would have been a common method of stocking the city’s iceboxes. The merchants immediately called upon the skills of the team that harvested ice from Fresh Pond in Cambridge. The Boston Atlas of 2 February 1844 described the process of cutting the passage in great detail

A channel of about sixty feet in width is first marked out, which is then divided into blocks of about thirty feet square. The sections marked are then ploughed, by which the ice is cut nearly down to the water. The plough used for this purpose is formed of seven different ploughshares, perfectly flat, and very sharp, which are arranged in a row … After ploughing, the ice is sawed, so as to detach the cakes entirely from each other, after which two grapnels are attached to the cakes, and they are hauled under the stationary ice by a gang of about one hundred and fifty men, some fifteen or twenty men standing on the cake in order to sink it sufficiently to make it pass under. The blocks of ice on one side only are thus disposed of … forming a channel of thirty feet in width … the ice is from six to eight inches in thickness in the upper harbor.

After great exertions by the ice cutters, the canal was completed and Britannia was able to depart roughly on schedule, much to the satisfaction and relief of the Boston merchants.

Just another chapter in the Boston-New York rivalry

In the background of Britannia’s predicament was the evergreen rivalry between New York and Boston. Ships from Europe brought passengers, freight, mail, and world news which in the ensuing days would be disseminated around the country. As the European steamers’ western terminus, Boston received and distributed the news first, as well as having early access to cargoes—a fact which no doubt rankled New Yorkers, who were keen to have the steamers bypass Halifax and Boston and come directly to New York. The day after the Britannia docked in Boston on 21 January 1844, the Boston Atlas published the following

Of the pretended intention of changing the running the lines of steamers from Boston to New York, the European Times pronounces the following emphatic contradiction: “We notice several of the New York papers continually asserting that the steamers of the British and North American Mail Company are about to change their port from Boston to New York. The report is without any or the least foundation … No change whatever is contemplated … and we have no doubt that the same triumphant success will attend their future doings, as we have already seen in their past accomplishments.

On 28 January, the New York Herald weighed in on the controversy under the headline “The Cunard Steamships” in a masterpiece of disingenuousness

Who can mistake Cape Cod for Cape Ann? Everyone asks this question. Why? Because the pilot who had charge of the steamship Britannia on her last trip to Boston, “plumped” her ashore in the neatest manner and the most frightful to think about. She remained on the bar about half an hour, and then, fortunately she got off and went into Boston … Mishaps like this are to be expected as long as the Cunard steamers run to Boston. Cape Cod and Cape Ann will be their Scylla and Charybdis, although both are very quiet, inoffensive capes. We do not want the steamers to come to this city because we do not wish to be bothered with them, but we should regret to see such fine vessels thrown away, as the Columbia has been. To save them to the world, we would be willing to suffer a little inconvenience and make room for one at a time at some wharf up town. Unless we do this what will become of them?

Even as the heroic effort to clear a passage for the Britannia got underway, New York journalists could not resist the urge to disparage Boston. On 1 February, the New York Herald opined “All this ice and all these troubles prove … that no steam mail ship connecting this country with Europe, ought to start from such an out-of-the-way place as Boston.” The writer conveniently neglected to mention that ports up and down the eastern seaboard were either iced in or had dangerous floes of ice in their harbors—including New York Harbor.

Frozen harbor aside, Boston would soon lose the transatlantic steamer business to New York City. In 1848, Cunard doubled its fleet and instituted service to New York—just two years later, the value of cargo going into New York tripled that of Boston and by 1868, Cunard had suspended its Boston service entirely.

For further reading

The contemporary newspaper accounts of the Britannia’s predicament can be accessed through the Boston Public Library.

The Boston Athenaeum holds a copy of the original lithograph upon which this print was based.

Bunting, W. H. Portrait of a Port: Boston, 1852-1914. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Dickens, Charles. American Notes and Pictures from Italy. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900.

The Britannia carried Charles Dickens to America for his 1842 tour and he devotes Chapter 2 of American Notes to his onboard experiences.

Fowler, William M., Jr. Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins, and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Sutton, Philip. “Maury and the Menu: A Brief History of the Cunard Steamship Company." New York Public Library, 2011.