Science and technology advanced in great leaps in the United Kingdom over Queen Victoria’s nearly 64-year reign, from May 24, 1819 to January 22, 1901. Her death ushered in the Edwardian Period.
The Edwardian Period or the “Gilded Age” as it was known as an age that attracted millions of immigrants from Europe. It is also known as a time where there were great leaps and strides in technology, a period of widespread economic growth in the United States. As well as a great gap between the social classes of society. The rich were extremely rich; living like royalty in unrivalled opulence.
While the rich were flaunting their wealth in glamorous social circles, the poor were extremely poor, living in unimaginable poverty and wretched conditions, working in industries and factories for very little pay and poor working conditions. The middle class in this mix were generally made up of Doctors, School Teachers and professionals neither living in poverty nor wealth. Though, the middle class did make a good living and stood a good chance of attaining power and wealth.
This great leap forward in the American economy attracted millions of European migrants, sparking an explosion in ocean travel between Europe and the United States. Both rich and poor were travelling on the increasing number of vessels crossing the Atlantic. For the rich, it meant a business trip or a vacation. For the poor it meant a new way of life in the New World, a brighter future in the “land of opportunity.”
In the early years of this great mass migration, conditions onboard these trans-Atlantic vessels were dreadful for both the rich and poor. Before the advent of iron hulled ships, the cabins for the rich were small. The First class passengers were often tossed around, making the task of getting dressed difficult and could often result in injury. For the steerage passengers in the bowels of the ships, the conditions were unimaginable.
Being cramped together in the bowels of the ship with minimal ventilation. Sanitation and comfort were unheard of. The U.S. Immigration laws prohibited them access to the fresh air on deck.
However, the industrial revolution helped improve ship-building techniques and the invention of steam-power, together with iron-hulled vessels allowed for much larger ships, which, in turn, led to greater stability and comfort.
As onboard accommodation became larger, ships provided larger areas for all passengers, so that, by the time Titanic was built, steerage-class passengers had their own cabins and communal mess-halls for meals and entertainment.
Meanwhile, the British Cunard Line had been virtually unchallenged in ferrying migrants on the trans-Atlantic run well into the 1800’s. In 1867, Thomas Henry Ismay bought the White Star Line, which was founded in 1850 and was mainly centred on trade to the Australian gold mines. In 1889 Ismay founded the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company in an attempt to establish White Star Line into the lucrative Atlantic passenger trade. White Star finally found itself the leader in the trans-Atlantic trade after building its sixth ship, Baltic and setting the East Bound Atlantic Speed record four years later. Despite the wreck of RMS Atlantic in 1873, the new company continued to rival and eventually surpass Cunard.
The competition for Atlantic supremacy was fierce. Often one company would surpass and dominate, then another would take advantage of newer technology and overtake the other. In 1889, White Star Line launched RMS Teutonic and RMS Majestic, ushering in a new era of ocean liner. While their competitors were still using a mix of steam engines and sails. White Star Line’s newest vessels had no sails, leaving the decks spacious and uncluttered. Soon size and comfort became paramount in ocean travel. Speed alone was becoming less important. The quality of travel was becoming most important.
This fierce competition and increase in passenger travel caught the eye of American financier John Pierpont Morgan. Morgan immediately started buying up the smaller shipping companies, which were competing with White Star Line and Cunard Line, under a trust called The Mercantile Marine Company. Morgan had gained enormous wealth through both Steel and Railroad industries. The International Mercantile Marine Company could operate easily without returning a profit, for as long as it took to put White Star Line and Cunard Line out of business. So, he immediately cut the cost of third class travel to America, with the goal of gaining control over his two major competitors.
With a competitor such as J.P. Morgan, who was stealing virtually all immigrant passengers, White Star Line and Cunard were facing difficulties. Cunard Line had gained financial support from the British Government, that allowed them to compete with the International Mercantile Marine prices. White Star Line, however, were in trouble
In 1899, Thomas Henry Ismay died, leaving control of White Star to his son, Joseph Bruce Ismay. Because J. Bruce Ismay was far less experienced than his father, White Star faced financial ruin. This was deeply concerning to Lord William Pirrie who ran Harland and Wolff shipyards.
Harland and Wolff was built on reclaimed land that was piled up in Belfast harbour during dredging in the 1840s to allow bigger ships to pass through. Harland and Wolff was originally built by Robert Hickson and Company, who began building iron ships in 1853, Edward J. Harland became manager a year later and took control of the company in 1859. Harland and Wolff was born in 1861 when he joined up with G.W Wolff. William Pirrie began working as an apprentice at the age of 15, in 1862. After rising through the ranks with the shipbuilders, Pirrie became a partner in 1874 at the age of 27. After taking control of the company in 1906, he became Lord William Pirrie.
Harland and Wolff had built all White Star ships since 1869. If White Star failed, this would lose the shipbuilder a major source of business, which was why Pirrie was so concerned. He recommended to Bruce Ismay that he consider selling White Star to the International Mercantile Marine Company, as this would not only save White Star, it would also ensure the future of the growing German shipping companies and Cunard could be destroyed once and for all. Pirrie was also expecting to generate more business for Harland and Wolff in the process. In 1902, Ismay sold White Star to IMM and J.P. Morgan kept Ismay on as Managing Director. Morgan also gave Ismay and Pirrie complete autonomy, telling them to spare no expense in building the best ship.