It seems to be the subject of widespread belief: the ‘fact’ that Lusitania was more popular with passengers, even though Mauretania held the Blue Riband from 1909 and her older sister was never able to snatch it back. However, an examination of the pertinent facts tells a rather different story. Inevitably, we need to dwell on reams of dry statistics, but the interpretation of them can be very interesting.
How can ‘more popular’ be defined? The question is not as simple as it might appear to be. Clearly, if one ship carries more passengers than another during any given year, then she has a claim to being the most popular. The problem arises in how popularity is measured. It might be that one ship carried a total of 35,000 passengers in one year compared to the 26,000 passengers of another vessel. On that measure – the total number of passengers carried – then the ship carrying a higher number would be more popular.
However, that would not account for the number of crossings. The ship carrying 26,000 passengers might have crossed the ocean a smaller number of times, and therefore carried an average passenger list that was higher than her rival – carrying fewer passengers in total, due solely to the fact that she had made fewer crossings.2 On the other hand, the ship making fewer crossings might have been in service only at the height of the season – around September westbound, and June and July eastbound – which would skew comparisons.
The best way to examine the issue of popularity seems to be to take both measures into account, drawing upon the total number of passengers carried each year and the average passenger lists. In the case of Lusitania and Mauretania, the number of crossings they made each year was similar enough to produce a fair comparison of the trend. The result of such an analysis is rather surprising.
Lusitania made her maiden voyage in September 1907, which was a very good time of the year as far as westbound passenger lists were concerned. Many passengers were on the way to America. Mauretania did not arrive until two months later, by which time passenger traffic was lower. There was no doubt that Lusitania was doing well as 1907 came to an end: on three occasions out of eight, she carried over 2,000 passengers. She had carried 15,006 passengers in total. Mauretania lagged far behind, carrying 5,654 passengers on four crossings.
The picture began to change in 1908, the first full year of service for both sisters. In terms of their average passenger lists, there was precious little difference, although Lusitania did very slightly better than her younger sister. The key distinction was that Lusitania was worked harder: she made thirty crossings, compared to twenty-four for Mauretania.
It was a pattern that continued in 1909. Lusitania made thirty-two crossings compared to her sister’s thirty. This time, however, just as Mauretania gained the Blue Riband – taking it away from Lusitania for good – she also became more popular and closed the gap. Remarkably, Mauretania had been running on only three propellers from May 1908, since her port wing propeller was out of action. The situation was remedied at the start of 1909 when she returned to service with two propellers of an improved design. As the Shipbuilder reported in the summer of 1909: ‘Both the Lusitania and Mauretania have accomplished remarkable steaming feats, but at present the latter vessel holds all eastward and westward records, viz., the quickest voyage, the greatest average speed across the Atlantic, the longest run for a single day, and the highest average speed for one day.’3 The new propellers reduced vibration and increased efficiency, and Mauretania’s speed continued to rise. By September 1909, she had raised her best average speed across the Atlantic to over 26 knots.
Mauretania carried an average passenger list exactly the same as Lusitania’s over 1909: 1,046 – although if we were to use enough decimal points then Mauretania would have been ahead. The difference is statistically insignificant. In 1910 she did even better and moved more decisively ahead of her sister. On her westbound crossings, Mauretania carried an average of 1,671 passengers – some two hundred ahead of Lusitania; on the eastbound crossings, she averaged 1,041 passengers – 139 ahead of Lusitania. From that time onwards, Mauretania’s passenger lists were higher: 1909, 1910, 1911,* 1912, 1913 and 1914 all saw her beat Lusitania.
It is interesting to make some further observations. Although Lusitania carried over 2,000 passengers on her maiden voyage, it was not until 1910 that Mauretania carried over 2,000 passengers on a single crossing. Similarly, Lusitania appears to have carried more than 2,000 passengers on six occasions during her career (including three crossings in 1907 alone): Mauretania only did so on four occasions. There seems to have been a burst of enthusiasm for Lusitania when she entered service – an entirely natural occurrence, as she was the first to enter service and all the attention was focused on her – yet it was also reflected in her early passenger figures. She was also lucky that she made her maiden voyage at a time of the year that was very good for westbound passenger figures, whereas Mauretania did not. Perhaps these early comparisons might explain, in part, how the myth took hold that Lusitania was more popular than her sister.
The figures speak for themselves. Although Lusitania sometimes carried more passengers in total than Mauretania did – in the years 1909, 1911 and 1914 – the only reason she could make the claim was because she had made more crossings. It is very hard to claim that Lusitania was the more popular ship before the war. While she did have the edge over Mauretania in 1907 and 1908, both in her total passenger numbers and average passenger lists, that advantage vanished over the course of 1909 and 1910.
None of this information should detract from Lusitania’s success. She was, for all practical purposes, nearly as fast as her sister; and she remained very popular throughout her remaining years of service. Together, the two sisters carried almost half a million passengers between 1907 and the end of 1914. They maintained a great partnership. Hopefully any future discussion of their relative merits will be centred on historical fact as well as subjective opinion.
It has been rather unusual for me to venture away from White Star liners – the ‘Olympic’ class, Majestic and Homeric being my favourites – and Aquitania, but it is hoped that this article about Lusitania and Mauretania will have been informative. I could not have done it without considerable help.
I wish to thank Eric Longo for his insights and correspondence, encouraging me and suggesting the article’s title. Eric also designed the lovely title illustration, using two unique and previously unpublished images. (The photographs show Lusitania [left] on the afternoon of September 13th 1907; while Mauretania [right] is pictured on the afternoon of December 22nd 1907.) Additionally, Eric deserves considerable credit for helping me to contact John Maxtone-Graham, who was always willing to take time out of a busy schedule to assist me, and – in turn – John’s assistance was invaluable for putting me in touch with Norman Morse. Norman’s generosity was amazing, and it is entirely thanks to him that I have been able to present the passenger figures for Lusitania and Mauretania. He copied for me the relevant annual tables for the Cunarders, which were published by the contemporary North Atlantic Passenger Conference (sometimes called the ‘Atlantic Conference’ or ‘Transatlantic Passenger Conference’). I was then able to add up the figures voyage-by-voyage. I am very grateful to him for taking the time to assist me in my research and offer advice. He has set a fine example for other researchers to follow. As always, the interpretations and opinions expressed in this article are my own unless stated otherwise. Any errors are entirely my own responsibility.
* There always seems to be some discrepancy when dealing with passenger statistics. For example, the figures given here for 1911 (total passenger carryings for Lusitania and Mauretania of 41,500 and 38,455 respectively) differ slightly from other documentation giving 41,377 and 38,367 – even though the differences are tiny and do not influence the sisters’ comparative standing (see Chirnside, Mark. RMS Aquitania: The ‘Ship Beautiful’. History Press; 2008). The former were calculated by adding up every single crossing individually, whereas the latter came from a summary giving the total number. Another problem can occur due to rounding: if a ship completed thirty-two crossings in a given year, the final crossing might be completed on January 3rd of the following year, and so the figure could be justifiably rounded to either thirty-one or thirty-two. (Although, on these figures, Lusitania made thirty-two crossings in both 1909 and 1911, it was the work she did in 1911 that was claimed as a record number for a single year.) Every effort has been made to be consistent.
 Ballard, Robert, and Archbold, Rick. Lost Liners. Madison Press; 1997. Page 52. The citation of this publication should not be taken as a criticism, but it is a convenient example that has been used for the purpose of illustrating a popular myth.
 This hypothetical example might be illustrated as follows: the first ship makes 32 crossings, carrying 35,000 passengers with an average passenger list of 1,094; the second ship makes 20 crossings, carrying 26,000 passengers with an average passenger list of 1,300. Although the first ship was more popular in the sense that she carried more passengers, the claim would appear extremely dubious given that her competitor was carrying an average of 206 more passengers every time she made a crossing.