ANDRIA & ALSATIA Cunard’s Forgotten Beauties

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The ANDRIA dockside in this colorized photo from the collection of Steven J. Pickens.

Cunard Line is widely recognized for having some of the most famous ocean liners in history. Largely overlooked is their vast fleet of cargo liners which reached a pinnacle of sorts in the 1950’s and early ’60’s. The company continued operating freighters with traditional names well into the 1980’s. One pair in particular of these fast cargo ships would have fit nicely beside the crack liners of the passenger fleet, but never saw a paying passenger come on board, although they were certainly equipped for it. The twin sisters ANDRIA and ALSATIA were not even built for Cunard Line, but with their pleasing two-stack profile and large bridge front and superstructure, could easily be mistaken as miniature versions of the QUEEN ELIZABETH or the second MAURETANIA.

ANDRIA Newall-Dunn Collection

ALSATIA Newall-Dunn Collection

Following World War II, Cunard Line, along with nearly every other shipping company, was in desperate need of replacement tonnage. Space to build new ships was at a premium in Great Britain as shipyard order books were quickly filled. Cunard solved this problem by placing orders with multiple shipyards and buying existing ships to add to their fleet. Among the first orders placed in 1946 were for a trio of handsome 8,700 ton, 488-foot long freighters to be named ASIA, ARABIA and ASSYRIA. This was quickly followed up with the larger 518-foot cargo/passenger liners MEDIA and PARTHIA along with the magnificent passenger-only cruise liner CARONIA.

Of the three new freighters, the ASSYRIA was the last to be completed in 1950. Cunard Line would increase the number to five vessels in 1951 and 1952 with the addition of the ALSATIA and ANDRIA, purchased from the Silver Line of London which had just withdrawn from round-the-world cargo liner service to concentrate on tramping. They had been designed to run primarily from U.S. Gulf coast ports to South Africa and on to the East Indies; a staple of the Silver Line’s service. Since the ships were to be used primarily on the North-Atlantic service to Canada for Cunard, they were given traditional “A” names within the fleet, a nomenclature dating back to at least 1911. Following the purchase by Cunard and a brief refit into their livery, the ALSATIA sailed for the first time from Liverpool to Boston and New York on October 6, 1951. It was the second ship to bear the name, the previous vessel being a tender at Cherbourg. The first Cunard voyage of the ANDRIA took place on April 17, 1952 sailing from London to Le Havre and on to New York. After their inaugural trips both ships remained on the London to Canada service for most of their careers under the red ensign, with occasional deviations to other routes. Some voyages even took them back through the warm waters of the Caribbean to the Gulf Coast as far as Brownsville, Texas.

ANDRIA at Southampton. Photo courtesy of Rodney Hall.

Going back to these ships origins with Silver Line, the future ANDRIA was the first to be launched on May 30, 1947 as the SILVERBRIAR. The ALSATIA followed her sister into the water on November 30, 1947 bearing the name SILVERPLANE. They were built by Joseph L. Thompson & Sons, Ltd., at Sunderland as the last two-funneled cargo ships. The aesthetically pleasing forward funnel was a dummy. At the top it concealed a platform for the radar mast along with the binnacle and ship’s compass. A ladder connected this platform with the chart room which was integrated into the funnel itself and positioned directly behind the navigating bridge house. A deck below within the funnel was housed the captain’s cabin and in the forward structure adjacent was his Day Room. The next deck down was given over to passengers with the forward lounge and writing room situated in the slightly curved structure. At the Main Deck level was a very luxurious lounge for the officer’s complete with a fireplace. A long forecastle swept back to the three-deck superstructure mid-ship with two masts, fore and aft. With the look of a combination cargo-passenger liner, they in fact were designed to carry only twelve passengers in very comfortable accommodations featuring a bar, lounge and dining room. Cargo capacity was 762,880 cubic feet. On the long voyages for which they were intended, they could develop a speed of 16-knots powered by three sets of Parsons Steam Turbines rated at 8,800shp; double reduction gear driving a single-screw. The ALSATIA measured approximately 7,242 gross tons with deadweight tonnage of 10,750. The ANDRIA was listed as 7,301 gross tons. The dimensions for both ships were 503.25 feet in length overall with a breadth of 64.9 feet and draft of 28 feet.

ANDRIA & ALSATIA painting by noted artist C.E. Turner. The painting was distributed as a framed print by Cunard Line.

Perhaps owing to their unique design or simply because they were among the most beautiful freighters ever built, the twins garnered their fair share of publicity. The March 1948 issue of The Shipbuilder & Marine Engine-Builder published plans of the SILVERBRIAR. In January, 1949 Popular Mechanics offered up an aerial rendering of the ship with special interests being focused on her funnels. Also included were a cutaway and cross section of the forward superstructure that showed it off in good detail. The accompanying text included “… No smoke rolls out of the forward funnel of two cargo liners built in England, the SILVERBRIAR and the SILVERPLANE. The stack is unnecessary but has been preserved for appearance.” After describing the contents of the funnel the story continued “Other features of the ‘new look’ ships are well-fitted cabins and recreation rooms for the crews, and passenger rooms paneled in leather…” Although by the 1950’s when they no longer carried passengers, Cunard Line thought highly enough of the pair to commission a painting by their leading maritime artist Charles E. Turner, very similar in style to the images he did for all of the passenger liners in postcards and framed travel agency displays. Turner was a well known British artist throughout the first half of the 20th century. The painting depicts “The Fast Cargo Liners ‘Andria’ & ‘Alsatia’” on a shimmering sea as a pilot boat approaches their port side. It is a beautiful tribute to two cargo vessels that looked like passenger liners.

An unusual view of the Boat Deck from the aft mast of the ANDRIA. Photo by Rodney Hall.

As general cargo ships the ANDRIA and ALSATIA carried practically everything. British cars heading to America along with wines and spirits are frequently sited as being among their common cargoes. Vegetable oils could be carried in four deep tanks accessed through a hatch amidships. Booms attached to the masts and kingposts were used to load palettes and boxed shipping into two large hatches forward, the number three hatch situated between the two funnels, and two more hatches aft of the deckhouse on long aft decks extending toward the poop. There were three decks of holds descending deep into the ship. For much of the time Cunard Line had them sailing from the King George V dock in London. At Southampton they would take on fuel for their bunkers before loading additional cargo at Le Havre and Glasgow then setting out across the Atlantic for New York. In the summer, the Canadian service could extend as far as Quebec City and Montreal. On occasion, the ships would deviate from the North Atlantic trade to call at other destinations. A former Cunard officer recalled, “For a couple of trips, ANDRIA was sent down from New York to Gulf Of Mexico ports – Panama City and Brownsville – which made for a welcome change!”

In warmer waters, the ANDRIA is seen at Brownsville, Texas in 1959. Photo courtesy of Rodney Hall.

While nearly all of the other rival North Atlantic shipping companies including the French Line carried 12-passengers aboard their freight vessels, Cunard Line chose not too. So much is the pity for these vessels offered beautiful passenger accommodations which were given over to the ship’s officers. Needless to say, the crews of the ANDRIA and ALASTIA were delighted with their circumstances. Rodney Hall who spent five years of his life aboard both of them relates, “These two ships I can honestly say are the finest ships I have sailed on in 35 years at sea.” Here he gives a wonderful description of the interiors: “There were three public rooms and the Purser’s Bureau facing aft. The latter was on the Main Deck facing the grand staircase. Forward of the Purser’s Bureau was the lounge… The grand staircase amidships split port and starboard halfway up to the Promenade Deck where the Saloon and passenger cabins were situated. At the after end of the Prom deck and overlooking the No. 4 hatch was the Dining Room.” On the ANDRIA and the ALSATIA sailing without passengers, he remembers, “Their ward-rooms were the original passenger lounges and were built as half-timbered pubs, with inglenook fireplaces and oak beams and appropriate furniture. The ALSATIA’s was decorated with antique swords, daggers and pewter plates and mugs, while the ANDRIA’s had antique guns, muskets and pewter mugs and plates… Potted palms and leather settees abounded in the public areas.”

SILVERBRIAR bar. Photo courtesy of Rodney Hall

SILVERBRIAR courtesy Newall-Dunn Collection

Mr. Hall worked his way up through the ranks with Cunard Line spending most of his sea-going career with the company. “I served as apprentice on the ANDRIA for two years, followed by 3rd Officer for one year in 1959, after passing my 2nd mates certificate. I then spent a year as 3rd Officer on the Mediterranean trade in the PHRYGIA… Following that I was transferred as 3rd Officer on the ALSATIA for another two years.” Interestingly enough he took “a brief break from March to May 1966 to get married and have a honeymoon to New York on the QUEEN ELIZABETH. Talk about a busman’s holiday!” After achieving his mates certificate he went on to serve as 2nd Officer on a variety of Cunard’s North Atlantic cargo vessels.

ANDRIA. Photo courtesy of Rodney Hall.

Cunard Line spent much of the 1950’s replenishing and modernizing their fleet. Between 1954 and 1957 they added a handsome quartet of intermediate passenger liners built primarily for their Canadian service. With those ships completed they were able to turn their attention to the cargo side of the business. Late in 1959 and early 1960 they launched a pair of traditional freighters ANDANIA and ALAUNIA, both of 7,004 gross tons. Although slightly smaller and with a single funnel, these new ships gave a stylistic nod to the ANDRIA and ALSATIA in their forward superstructure and by incorporating the large funnel directly aft of the bridge.

More newly-built cargo-only ships were soon to follow. In 1963 a much more modern quartet of 400 foot long, 5,586 gross ton freighters assumed the recently cast-off passenger ship names of MEDIA, PARTHIA, SAXONIA and IVERNIA. Over the following years three more similar but slightly larger 420 foot vessels of 5,837 gross tons joined the line carrying the traditional names of SCYTHIA, SAMARIA and SCOTIA. All were used primarily on the company’s North Atlantic service out of Liverpool.

ANDRIA. Photo courtesy of Rodney Hall.

For over a decade in those halcyon days of the 1950’s, and into the early 1960’s the ANDRIA and ALSATIA served the company well. They were not however among the least expensive vessels to operate. As anyone that has spent time around ships or boats knows, increased speed equals additional fuel consumption, resulting in higher costs. With a top speed of 17.5 knots they were among the fastest freighters of their time, or any other time for that matter. Their fuel consumption was over 50 tons of bunker oil per day plus another two tons of diesel for their generators. With two new ships already in service and seven more freighters on order, the remaining days with Cunard Line were numbered for the ANDRIA and ALSATIA. Following on the heels of the 1961 sale of both of the combination passenger-cargo liners MEDIA and PARTHIA to other operators, Cunard Line put all five of their older “A”-prefixed cargo ships up for sale over the next two years.

The ALSATIA and ANDRIA both went to China Union Lines, a subsidiary company within the ascendant C.Y. Tung Group (whose Orient Overseas Line would eventually acquire the great QUEEN ELIZABETH). On January 28, 1963, the ALSATIA was renamed UNION FREEDOM, while the ANDRIA became UNION FAITH. They were registered at Keelung, Taiwan. Under the new ownership there were still useful years ahead for the two-funneled twins. China Union Lines engaged them primarily on their service from Taiwan to New York via Panama with stops at intermediate ports.

The UNION FAITH ablaze off Poydras Wharf in New Orleans. Photo courtesy of the Hall Genealogy Website, http://rmhh.co.uk/ships/pages/Andria-1.html

The career of the UNION FAITH, the former ANDRIA, came to an abrupt and tragic end on the night of April 6, 1969 while in the Mississippi River just off New Orleans. At 7:15pm while heading upriver to her berth, the freighter collided with the lead barge, I.O.C. NO. 7 of a three barge tow being pushed by the towboat WARREN J. DOUCET. Unfortunately each of the tank barges was loaded with approximately 9,000 barrels of crude oil. On contact the lead barge caught fire and broke loose from the tow. A series of explosions followed and the UNION FAITH was immediately engulfed in flames from stem to stern. The river itself was ablaze with spilled oil. The UNION FAITH was being navigated by a licensed pilot at the time of the collision and managed to drop both anchors slowing its drift downstream. In total, 25 people were killed including all of the personnel on the ship’s bridge. At about 2:00am on April 7th, still a blazing inferno, the UNION FAITH sank into the muddy waters of the Mississippi, coming to rest on her port side, her bow still heading up the river.

The UNION FREEDOM managed to sail successfully for almost eight more years after the loss of her sister. On January 7, 1977 the old ship left Singapore on her last voyage, a one-way trip to Kaohsiung, Taiwan where it was broken up for scrap. By the time the end came, traditional freighters had rapidly been replaced by much larger container ships. The last two-funneled freighter in existence enjoyed a career of 28 years serving under three major lines in a highly competitive and changing world.

The ALSATIA coming into port with her cargo booms up at the peak of her career. Photo courtesy of Rodney Hall.

The ANDRIA and ALSATIA during their careers with Cunard Line, and in all of their guises both before and after, may be little remembered today; barely a footnote in nautical history. But it is good to pay tribute to these working ships that did their jobs well and were so well-liked by the crews who served aboard them. Beautiful ships they were.

Thanks to Steven Pickens for the inspiration, Rodney Hall who sailed them, Michael Gallagher at Cunard Line, London and the Newall-Dunn Collection.

Article © Shawn J. Dake 2017

Shawn Dake

Shawn Dake

Shawn J. Dake, freelance travel writer and regular contributor to MaritimeMatters, worked in tourism and cruise industry for over 35 years.  A native of Southern California, his first job was as a tour guide aboard the Queen Mary.  A frequent lecturer on ship-related topics he has appeared on TV programs.  Owner of Oceans Away Cruises & Travel agency, he served as President of the local Chapter of Steamship Historical Society of America.  With a love of the sea, he is a veteran of 115 cruises.
Shawn Dake
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