RMS Umbria

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RMS Umbria
Name: RMS Umbria
Operator: British & North American Royal Mail Packet Company (Cunard Line)
Port of registry: British Red Ensign British
Ordered: 1883
Builder: Messrs John Elder & Co., Glasgow
Yard number: 285
Launched: 25 June 1884
Christened: Wednesday 25 June 1884 by the Honourable Mrs Hope
Maiden voyage: 1 November 1884
Fate: Scrapped
General characteristics
Class and type: Ocean liner
Tonnage: 7,718 gross tons
Length: 158.2 m (519 ft)
Beam: 17.43 m (57.2 ft)
Decks: 5
Installed power:
  • 9 double-ended boilers consuming 320 tons of coal per day
  • 6 three-crank compound engines
Propulsion: single propeller
Speed: 19 knots (35 km/h)


  • 550 First Class
  • 800 Second Class


  • 500 First Class
  • 160 Second Class
  • 800 Third Class

RMS Umbria and her sister ship RMS Etruria were the last two Cunarders that were fitted with auxiliary sails. RMS Umbria was built by John Elder & Co at Glasgow, Scotland in 1884. The “Umbria” and her sister “Etruria” were record breakers. They were the largest liners then in service and they plied the Liverpool to New York Service. RMS Umbria was launched by the Honourable Mrs Hope on Wednesday 25 June 1884 with wide coverage by the press, the reason being that she was the largest ship afloat, apart from the Great Eastern, but by this time that ship was redundant.


The “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 1st 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 1st class cabins were situated on the promenade, upper, saloon and main decks. There was also a music room, a smoking room for gentleman, separate dining rooms for 1st and 2nd class passengers. By the standard of the day 2nd class accommodation was moderate 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 on her maiden voyage. She was commanded by Captain Theodore Cook. He was Cunard’s senior captain, having served his apprenticeship in the days of square-rigged sailing ships.

Liverpool to New York service

RMS Umbria started her regular service to New York from Liverpool but the clouds of crises were looming and by the New Year of 1885 a crisis involving Russia's threat to invade Afghanistan was coming to a head. This was to bring “Umbria’s” North Atlantic service to a halt temporarily. On 26 March “Umbria” and her sister RMS Etruria found themselves chartered to the Admiralty[1]. Shortly after this date the dispute with Russia was settled and RMS Etruria was returned to the North Atlantic service, but the “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. 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.

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

In 1887 RMS Umbria gained the prestigious “Blue Riband” 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) and covering a distance of 2,848 nautical miles (5,274 km). Her sister RMS Etruria regained the blue riband the following year. On 10 November 1888 RMS 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 the “Iberia” was completely cut off. The blame for this accident was placed upon the RMS Umbria, which it was said was travelling at a dangerous speed, said to be 17 knots (31 km/h).

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

On 12 April 1890 the RMS Umbria set off on her usual voyage from New York with 655 passengers aboard. Five days out, in mid-Atlantic she came across the stricken Norwegian barque “Magdalena” (see Link below). She had struck an iceberg and was waterlogged. Captain Gunderson and his crew of eight were very lucky to have been spotted by the “Umbria”, who rescued them after Gunderson had finished the “Magdalena” off by setting fire to her. Four days later all were landed safely at Liverpool. On 17 December 1892, RMS Umbria left Liverpool with, after stopping at Queenstown (Cobh), Ireland, 400 passengers aboard along with a large amount of mail. She was due to arrive in New York on Christmas Day. By the 28th of 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” who had passed her on Christmas Day. She appeared disabled. The master of the “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 the “Monrovian” had also passed her but reported the Umbria to be in good shape. On 30 December the steamship “Manhanset” reported that again the RMS Umbria did not require assistance and that she was carrying out repairs to a broken shaft. In fact the “Umbria’s” troubles had started on Friday 23 December at around 5.25 pm. Her propeller shaft had fractured at the thrust block. Her main engines were stopped immediately and the 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 pm in the severe storm and visibility was nil. Next morning there was no sign of the “Bohemia” and once again the Umbria was drifting helplessly. Then came the encounters with the other two steamers but by the 26th the Cunarder “Gallia” and the “Umbria” had established contact with each other and after some communications between masters, the Gallia had refused to stand-by, and carried on her voyage; the Umbria was left to make repairs. The chief engineer achieved this on 27 December and very slowly she set of for New York. She arrived there at 11 pm on Saturday 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 the “Gallia” had continued on without assisting the Umbria. Further repairs were carried out on the Umbria and she returned to Liverpool on 4 February 1893. By 1 April she was back on the service.


In May 1896 the British steamship “Vedra” collided with and sank the coal laden barge “Andrew Jackson”. This incident had no connection with the RMS Umbria, but she would become involved in an incident as a consequence of this collision. At 9 am on Saturday 28 June 1896 the “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 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.

The Boer War

War broke out in South Africa on 12 October 1899, and two months later on 22 December RMS 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 troops. 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 the 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.

Mafia bomb plot of 1903

Both the RMS Umbria and her sister ship “RMS Etruria” returned to the Liverpool to New York service. In 1903 RMS Umbria hit the headlines again. On 9 May, the New York police department received a letter that explained that a bomb had been loaded aboard the RMS 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 the 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 3 feet (0.91 m) long by 2 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 in to 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. Happily the ship eventually got under way to Liverpool on 16 May.

Last voyage

By 1908 the careers of the two sisters “Umbria” and “Etruria” were coming to an end, however because of mishaps to, first RMS Etruria and then to Umbria’s replacements RMS Campania and RMS Lucania which were temporarily laid up, RMS Umbria had a reprieve until 1910. Her last voyage started on 12 February 1910 and her return crossing on the 23 February. She arrived in the Mersey for the last time on Friday 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 RMS Umbria and her sister were considered, in their day, to be giants of the North Atlantic. In all she made 145 round trips to New York.


  1. http://www.chriscunard.com/archives1.htm#Umbria Umbria Information - Chris' Cunard Page

External links

Preceded by
Holder of the Blue Riband (Westbound)
1887 – 1888
Succeeded by

de:RMS Umbria it:RMS Umbria pl:RMS Umbria