I was amused to see on Yahoo! News the following headline: “Concert Organizers Pull Plug on Springsteen and McCartney in Middle of Encore” (Dylan Stableford, 7/15/2012 http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/springsteen-mccartney-hyde-park-concert-plug-pulled-153759387.html?_esi=1) Apparently, the two rock stars had exceeded the three-hour limit for their Hyde Park concert, a limit that had been set by London’s Westminster Council. Nonetheless, when the plugs were pulled, 76,000 people were still reveling in the music, oblivious to the time, the never-ending rain, and the sogginess. Meanwhile, Springsteen and McCartney were grooving, happy to oblige their audience. Then wham! Sound systems failed, amps died, and for a bit, it appeared that the band did not even know what had happened. Finally, everyone dutifully packed up and left. So, there it was, what seemed to be the concert of the year, and just like that, the authorities showed up, and I can just hear T.S. Eliot's barkeep in "The Waste Land" shouting, "HURRY UP PLEASE IT'S TIME."
What does this firm adherence to regulation have to do with ships and dining? Surprisingly, quite a bit, if we are speaking of the very British Cunard Line. It was that adherence to rules no matter the circumstance or context that made the line vulnerable to competition from the very American Collins Line, a steamship company founded by Edward Knight Collins that not only vowed to offer passengers an even quicker voyage than Cunard's, but one replete with luxuries, gourmet food, and excellent service—no matter what time of day or night. Should one wish to linger in the dining saloon over dinner? The stewards would oblige. Wish for a longer breakfast period? The saloon was available at breakfast time for at least two hours. How could a wealthy passenger resist such attention, Edward Knight Collins conjectured, particularly when the only other viable steamship line, Cunard, was all about rules, rules, and more rules?
In 1840, Cunard published its Official Guide and Album and distributed it to its cabin-class passengers. Intended “to assist in lightening the inevitable tedium of a voyage” (Preface), the Official Guide included several essays in its back pages by well-known authors, but the Guide also published a list of 18 Rules and Regulations. If passengers could follow the rules with a “cheerful acquiescence”, the Guide seemed to chirp like Nanny, then all would be safer, and hence, happier.
Because Cunard was so rule driven, the meals seemed to present a particular annoyance. They got in the way of running the ship, and they seemed to create an undue burden on the stewards, even if the stewards had been hired presumably to see to the needs of the passengers. Imagine a gentleman and his lady having just boarded Cunard's Britannia. They stow their luggage in their narrow and uncomfortable stateroom, and rest up a bit by glancing together through their Official Guide. Being the orderly citizens that they are, the “Rules and Regulations” part of the Guide demands their attention, and hence they read those carefully. What did they make of them?
While the Wine and Spirits bar opened at 6:00 A.M., breakfast did not begin until precisely “Half-past 8, and Cloths removed by Half-past 9.” One must be prompt or miss the toast and eggs and ham. For two-and-a-half hours, one could then amuse one's self by playing cards, drinking at the bar (if he were a man), chatting, whiling away the time dozing, staving off nausea in one’s state-room, writing letters, etc., until “from 12 to 1’o’clock” luncheon was “to be on the Table.” No more, but also no less. Again, a block of time for the same activities as before, although if the weather were at all decent, passengers likely strolled the decks to escape the stuffy confines of the saloon and their state-rooms.
At half-past three o’clock, the passengers heard the before-dinner bell so that they might dress for the most important meal of the day. Dinner was “to be on the Table at 4—the Cloths to be removed the instant it is over.” Why such speed? Where was one to go afterwards? There was no train to catch, no show to watch. Why did it matter so much that the Cloths be removed the instant it was over? Furthermore, who determined “the instant"?, the husband and his lady must have wondered. And what if people wished to linger over a cognac and another slice of tart? Clearly they would be in the way and the rude stare of the stewards would prompt them to leave even if they were not ready.
Tea was to follow dinner. This simple repast of cakes, bread, butter and jam, cheese, and cold meat, along with the beverage itself, was “to be on the Table at Half-past 7.” And, Cunard’s Official Guide huffed, “Supper, if required and ordered,” must be done so “before 10 o’clock.” Anyone who could still be hungry after four meals a day was clearly a glutton, the tone of this Rule implied; that tone probably was successful in inhibiting some passengers from making such a demand on the stewards, or at the very least, it must have resulted in their asking for more food in a meek and mild manner.
When the husband and his lady continued reading to the end of the Rules and Regulations, they might have grown rightly indignant when reminded that “as the labour of the Servants must be very great, and the space required for a larger number absolutely preventing an increase, the Passengers are requested to spare them as much as possible between the Meal Hours, and particularly preceding dinner.” Welcome aboard, indeed ( “Rules and Regulations.” Official Guide and Album of the Cunard Steamship Company, pp. 41-43).
Certainly such regimen made the Cunard fleet the safest line of all in those early decades of steam, but as Edward Knight Collins studied Cunard's plan and ethos, he detected significant vulnerabilities to exploit. Stay tuned.