The best books about ocean liners and cruises

John G. Sayers Author Of Secrets of the Great Ocean Liners
By John G. Sayers

Who am I?

I am a passionate, long-time collector of Ocean Liner material. I am recognized as a Member of the Board of The Ephemera Society of America, the Board of The Friends of Fort George, the Council of the British Ephemera Society and other historical and collector organizations. I was thrilled to be Recipient of the 2017 Award of Merit by The Ephemera Society of America, I was engaged by The Bodleian Library at Oxford University to author a book which captured some of the highlights of my extensive 60-year collection of Ocean Liner material which has been donated to the University. This book, sold globally, is the result of that work. 

I wrote...

Secrets of the Great Ocean Liners

By John G. Sayers,

Book cover of Secrets of the Great Ocean Liners

What is my book about?

My book uses letters and diaries as well as a wealth of illustrations to capture the secrets of ocean liner voyages during the 100 golden years of cruise travel. Secrets are exposed which have long been hidden in this author’s massive 60-year collection of ocean liner material, recently donated to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

From the infamous Titanic and the ill-fated Lusitania to many of the other stellar ships of that era, meet the people, their menus, their fashions, their parties, and their romantic trysts with ship’s officers. These insights of personal accounts and rare pictures come from a unique archive that now exists in the Special Collections at Oxford University. You will not discover these secrets anywhere else.

The books I picked & why

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RMS Mauretania (1907): Queen of the Ocean

By David Hutchings,

Book cover of RMS Mauretania (1907): Queen of the Ocean

Why this book?

This is a biography but it’s about a famous ship, the Mauretania, rather than a famous person. Through her illustrious career the Mauretania—affectionately called the ‘Maurycarried passengers in speed and style across the Atlantic while holding the Blue Riband for more than 20 years. In service from 1907 to 1934, she spanned the era of the great luxurious liners.

Lots of textual material, which I like, although there’s enough photos to illustrate the various aspects of her life. If you like detail, this book has it. My only criticism is light coverage of her important role in the First World War. Read this in conjunction with the histories of her sister ship and running mate, the ill-fated Lusitania. They provided a rotating weekly service across the Atlantic for 8 years, and were equally luxurious, but their stories are far from identical.

Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy

By Diana Preston,

Book cover of Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy

Why this book?

This is not a biography of a ship, but rather a focus on the tragedy of the loss of the Lusitania, torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915. This book is heavily textual, as would be expected, so if you like lots of pictures to accompany a story, this is not the book for you.

It was published in 2002, well before the deluge of books produced in 2015, the centenary of the Lusitania tragedy. Those books speculated regarding her loss, attempting to pin the tragedy on a ‘bad guy’. Not so Ms. Preston. Timing-wise, Diana Preston’s book fortunately precedes the rush to speculate. Although she looks at the possible wartime undercurrents, she puts the event in the historical context of the time.

So, if you’re going to read the various 2015 era books about the tragedy, read Diana’s book first.

The Only Way to Cross

By John Maxtone-Graham,

Book cover of The Only Way to Cross

Why this book?

This book focuses on the golden era of Transatlantic travel in the Twentieth Century when engines made sail no longer a variable. Ships were larger and accommodation more spacious and opulent. The author is particularly good at describing the details of little-appreciated shipboard life such as gambling and the professional gamblers who fleeced wealthy participants.

A confession—this book was the cornerstone in my appreciation of the history of Transatlantic passenger shipping. First published in 1972, it has been reprinted in both hardcover and softcover many times since. My hardcover edition has a good section of relevant pictures with captions to tie them into the text, and a chart spreadsheet inside the front cover of the lines and their ships through the decades of the century.

Lots of interesting narrative and useful pictures. What’s more to want in a book to be read for pleasure?

Olympic & Titanic: Ocean Liners of the Past

By Shipbuilder,

Book cover of Olympic & Titanic: Ocean Liners of the Past

Why this book?

This book is a refreshing approach because it covers the period prior to Titanic’s disastrous Maiden Voyage, in material reprinted from an early edition of The Shipbuilder. Do not read another Titanic disaster book until you have read this insight and appreciated the foldout deck plans and longitudinal cutaways to see the actual cabin and deck arrangements. They really help to explain many aspects of the disaster story.

The contents lean heavily on engineering matters, but you don’t have to be an engineer to fully appreciate the design work that went into these more-or-less identical sister ships, and it’s worth noting that much of the Titanic controversy swirled around alleged design flaws.

Published in 1970, this is a reprint of the original 1912 book which is well beyond the average book buyer’s budget. A caveat—even this one isn’t cheap, and you will have to search online.

Transatlantic Liners 1950-1970

By William H. Miller,

Book cover of Transatlantic Liners 1950-1970

Why this book?

I have found Bill Miller’s book to be of massive value in tracking the changes in postwar ships. The primary reason is that many ships changed hands—and names—over that period. Sometimes the names changed more than once! The cause was the sharp drop in Transatlantic and other passenger shipping as air travel exploded in popularity. Smaller, more agile operators purchased ships surplus to the requirements of the larger operators such as Canadian Pacific and revamped and renamed the ships.

Bill Miller has useful illustrations of the ships involved. For example, a picture of the Dutch liner Willem Ruys, which was sold to the Lauro Line and, with a vastly different design profile, became the Achille Lauro. Organized by shipping line, this is a fascinating read and an insight into the changes in liner layout and design over the period.

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