RMS Umbria

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RMS Umbria.jpg
RMS Umbria on Queen Victoria's Birthday in 1896
United Kingdom
NameRMS Umbria
OwnerCunard Lines
OperatorBritish & North American Royal Mail Packet Company (Cunard Line)
Port of registryBritish Red Ensign British
RouteLiverpool-Queenstown-New York
BuilderJohn Elder & Co., Glasgow
Yard number285
Launched25 June 1884
Christened25 June 1884
Maiden voyage1 November 1884
In service1 November 1884
Out of service1908
FateScrapped in 1910
General characteristics
TypeOcean liner
Tonnage7,718 GRT
Length158.2 m (519 ft 0 in)
Beam17.43 m (57 ft 2 in)
Installed power
  • 9 double-ended boilers consuming 320 tons of coal per day
  • 6 three-crank compound engines
Propulsionsingle propeller
Speed19 knots (35 km/h; 22 mph)
  • 1885–1892:
    • 550 First Class
    • 800 Second Class
  • 1892–1909:
    • 500 First Class
    • 160 Second Class
    • 800 Third Class

RMS Umbria and RMS Etruria were the last two Cunard Line ocean liners that were fitted with auxiliary sails. Umbria as the last express steamer to be built for a North Atlantic route with a compound engine. By 1885, the triple expansion engine was the almost universal specification for newly built steamships.[1]: 89 [2]: 126  RMS Umbria was built by John Elder & Co. at Glasgow, Scotland in 1884. Umbria and her running mate Etruria were record breakers. They were the largest liners then in service, and they plied the Liverpool-to-New York City service. RMS Umbria was launched by the Honourable Mrs. Hope on 25 June 1884 with wide coverage by the press, the reason being that she was the largest ship afloat, apart from Great Eastern, but by this time that ship was redundant.[3]


Umbria under construction

Umbria had many distinguishing features that included two enormous funnels which gave the outward impression of huge power. She also had three large steel masts which when fully rigged had an extensive spread of canvas. Another innovation on Umbria was that she was equipped with refrigeration machinery, but it was the single-screw propulsion that would bring the most publicity later in her career. The ship epitomized the luxuries of Victorian style. The public rooms in the first class were full of ornately carved furniture, heavy velvet curtains hung in all the rooms, and they were decorated with the bric-a-brac that period fashion dictated. These rooms and the first-class cabins were situated on the promenade, upper, saloon, and main decks. There was also a music room, a smoking room for gentlemen, and separate dining rooms for first- and second-class passengers. By the standard of the day, the second-class accommodation was modest but spacious and comfortable. By early October 1884, Umbria had completed her sea trials and on 1 November 1884 she set off to New York City on her maiden voyage. She was commanded by Captain Theodore Cook, who was Cunard's senior captain.[3]

Liverpool-to-New York service[edit]

RMS Umbria started her regular service to New York City from Liverpool. However, a series of crises would bring Umbria's North Atlantic service to a halt temporarily.

Armed merchant cruiser[edit]

Since 1813, there had been tensions between the British Empire and the Russian Empire due to Russia's southward expansion into Afghanistan. In March, 1885, the Panjdeh incident caused a war scare, and on 26 March Umbria and RMS Etruria found themselves chartered to the Admiralty, and Umbria was armed as a merchant cruiser. Shortly after this date the dispute with Russia was settled, and Etruria was returned to the North Atlantic service, but Umbria was retained for a further six months as a precaution. She had been fitted with 5-inch (130 mm) guns and it was thought that should the need arise she would have been a powerful auxiliary to the new ironclad navy of the era.

Return to service[edit]

In September 1885 Umbria was released from government service and resumed the Atlantic service. She worked for the next few years without any major incident.[3]

Prices of passage aboard RMS Umbria, May 1895
From Pier 40, North River, foot of Clarkson Street, City of New York
Every Saturday, New York–Queenstown–Liverpool
1st class 1st class 1st class 1st class return 1st class return 1st class return 2nd class cabin 2nd class cabin 2nd class cabin return 2nd class cabin return Under 1 year old
$75 $90 $175 $125 $150 $315 $40 $45 $75 $85 Free outward

The Blue Riband[edit]

In 1887 Umbria gained the prestigious Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic between Europe and North America. when on 29 May she beat her sister ship's record of the year before. She set off from Queenstown (Cobh) to cross the North Atlantic, westbound. She got across to Sandy Hook on 4 April, in 6 days 4 hours and 12 minutes, averaging a speed of 19.22 knots (35.60 km/h; 22.12 mph) and covering a distance of 2,848 nautical miles (5,274 km; 3,277 mi). Her sister Etruria regained the Blue Riband the following year. On 10 November 1888 Umbria was outward bound from New York when she collided with and sank the trading steamer SS Iberia of the Fabre Line, near Sandy Hook. The stern part of Iberia was completely cut off. The blame for this accident was placed upon Umbria, which it was said was travelling at a dangerous speed, said to be 17 knots (31 km/h; 20 mph).[3]

Records of RMS Umbria & RMS Etruria
The Blue Riband of the North Atlantic
Steamer Date Line From To Nautical miles Days/hours/minutes Knots
RMS Etruria 1885 (16/8- 22/8) Cunard Queenstown Sandy Hook 2801 6/5/31 18.73
RMS Umbria 1887 (29/5-4/6) Cunard Queenstown Sandy Hook 2848 6/4/12 19.22
RMS Etruria 1888 (27/5-2/6) Cunard Queenstown Sandy Hook 2854 6/1/55 19.56

Trouble at sea[edit]

On 12 April 1890 Umbria set off on her usual voyage from New York City with 655 passengers aboard. Five days out, in mid-Atlantic she came across the stricken Norwegian barque Magdalena. The barque had struck an iceberg and was waterlogged. Captain Gunderson and his crew of eight were very lucky to have been spotted by Umbria, who rescued them after Gunderson had finished Magdalena off by setting fire to her. Four days later all were landed safely at Liverpool. On 17 December 1892, Umbria left Liverpool with, after stopping at Queenstown, 400 passengers aboard along with a large amount of mail. She was due to arrive in New York on Christmas Day. By 28 December she still had not arrived and speculation as to what had delayed her was growing. News came on 29 December from the steamship Galileo, which had passed her on Christmas Day. She appeared disabled. The master of Galileo also reported that she displayed three red lights, indicating that she was unmanageable, but did not require assistance. The weather was said to be foul with a severe north-westerly gale. Another steamer called Monrovian had also passed her but reported Umbria to be in good shape. On 30 December the steamship Manhanset reported that again Umbria did not require assistance and that she was carrying out repairs to a broken shaft. In fact Umbria's troubles had started on 23 December at around 5:25 p.m. Her propeller shaft had fractured at the thrust block. Her main engines were stopped immediately, and Umbria drifted helplessly in gale-force winds and a heavy sea. The chief engineer worked relentlessly with his staff to make repairs to the shaft. Later that day at 8:15 pm the steamship Bohemia had agreed to tow the ship to New York, but the line broke around 10 p.m. in the severe storm and visibility was nil. Next morning there was no sign of Bohemia, and once again Umbria was drifting helplessly. Then came the encounters with the other two steamers, but by 26 December the Cunarder Gallia and Umbria had established contact with each other and after some communications between masters, Gallia had refused to stand by, and carried on her voyage; Umbria was left to make repairs. The chief engineer achieved this on 27 December and very slowly she set off for New York City. She arrived there at 11 p.m. on 31 December 1892, and her arrival was witnessed by thousands of New Yorkers who had gathered to cheer her safe arrival. When the excitement had died down the recriminations started, which ended when Cunard prepared a statement explaining why Gallia had continued on without assisting Umbria. Further repairs were carried out on Umbria and she returned to Liverpool on 4 February 1893. By 1 April she was back on the service.[3]


In May 1896 the British steamship Vedra collided with and sank the coal-laden barge Andrew Jackson. This incident had no connection with Umbria, but she would become involved in an incident as a consequence of this collision. At 9 a.m. on 28 June 1896 Umbria left her pier at the foot of Clarkson Street on the North River. After one hour she was in the ship channel near the turn into Gedney Channel, two miles (3.2 km) from Sandy Hook. It was here that Umbria struck the sunken hulk and became stuck fast. All day she remained stuck until the combination of a flood tide and the service of seven tugs managed to pull her free of the wreck, to the cheers of the Yale rowing crew who were aboard Umbria on their way to take part in the Henley Regatta. She dropped anchor and divers reported no damage to the ship and she continued on her voyage.[3]

The Boer War[edit]

RMS Umbria departing Liverpool for New York in 1902.

War broke out in South Africa on 12 October 1899, and two months later on 22 December Umbria was chartered by the government and was prepared to carry troops and armaments to South Africa. She set sail on 11 January 1900 on her first voyage in her new role. On board were troops of the Warwickshire, Derbyshire and Durham Militia. They arrived in Cape Town on 29 January and after calls at Port Elizabeth and other ports she returned to Southampton with wounded soldiers. In April she again was back in South Africa and during the relief of Mafeking she was in Port Natal (now Durban) for the celebrations. She left Cape Town for the last time on 7 June, carrying 600 wounded soldiers. She arrived back at Southampton 19 days later on 26 June, and she was then returned to Cunard to resume her normal role. She was given a complete refit and returned on the New York run on 21 July.[3]

Mafia bomb plot of 1903[edit]

Both Umbria and Etruria returned to the Liverpool-to-New York service. In 1903 Umbria hit the headlines again. On 9 May, the New York City police department received a letter that explained that a bomb had been loaded aboard Umbria The letter went on to say that the bomb had been intended for the White Star Line's RMS Oceanic, but that the bombers had changed their minds because there were a large number of women and children aboard that ship. At noon that day Umbria was still at her berth and she was due to sail. Immediately the police sealed off the pier head and told the captain to delay the sailing. The police searched the ship and found the bomb. It was in a box three feet (0.91 m) long by two feet (0.61 m) wide and had been placed close to the 1st class gangway. One of the police officers tied a rope around the box and lowered it into the sea. When the box was lifted back up and opened, it was found to have 100 lb (45 kg) of dynamite attached to a crude timed fuse. If the bomb had exploded on the ship it would have caused considerable damage. The letter that the police had received also explained that the bomb plot was the work of the Mafia, whose aim was to destroy the British shipping interest in the port of New York. To corroborate this information the police had descriptions of two "Italian" men placing the bomb on the pier and the police eventually traced the manufacturer of the bomb back to a Chicago lodging house. The ship eventually got under way to Liverpool on 16 May.[3]

Last voyage[edit]

By 1908 the careers of Umbria and Etruria were coming to an end; however, because of mishaps to, first Etruria and then to RMS Lucania, which was temporarily laid up and later caught fire, Umbria had a reprieve until 1910. Her last voyage started on 12 February 1910 and her return crossing on 23 February. She arrived in the Mersey for the last time on 4 March 1910, and as soon as her passengers had disembarked, work began on dismantling all her fixtures and fittings. Within days she was sold for scrap for £20,000 to the Forth Shipbreaking Company, and she was taken to Bo'ness, Scotland. There is no doubt that both vessels were considered, in their day, to be giants of the North Atlantic. In all she made 145 round trips to New York.[3]

In popular culture[edit]

The ship is featured briefly in the last several episodes of the third and final season of the horror-drama television series Penny Dreadful. When Sir Malcolm Murray, Ethan Chandler, and Kaetenay are returning to London from the United States, Umbria is the ship they are travelling aboard: as evidenced by the ships appearance, and the name on a life-preserver on the ship.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Gardiner, Robert J; Greenhill, Basil (1993). Sail's Last Century : the Merchant Sailing Ship 1830-1930. London: Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0-85177-565-9.
  2. ^ Griffiths, Denis (1993). "Chapter 5: Triple Expansion and the First Shipping Revolution". In Gardiner, Robert; Greenhill, Dr. Basil (eds.). The Advent of Steam - The Merchant Steamship before 1900. Conway Maritime Press Ltd. pp. 106–126. ISBN 0-85177-563-2.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Chris's Cunard Page - Umbria Information". Chris's Cunard Page. Retrieved 22 May 2015.

External links[edit]

Preceded by Holder of the Blue Riband (Westbound)
Succeeded by