Cruising across the Atlantic aboard a luxury liner was considered a quality-of-life time worth remembering, and sailing on Britain’s Cunard Line flagship RMS Queen Mary was one of the best.
The Queen Mary was the bright super-star of the seas during the gloomy years of the Great Depression — making news racing other luxury liners in friendly competition for the Blue Riband, representing the honor of being the fastest.
The Queen Mary’s life started in 1929, when Cunard Line’s board chairman Sir Thomas Royden told its annual meeting about plans to build two super ocean liners to replace the aging Mauritania, Aquitania and Berengaria on the company’s transatlantic route.
The new ships Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth together would provide two-ship weekly express service linking Southampton, U.K., Cherbourg, France and New York.
Work started in 1930 at John Brown & Company shipbuilders in Clydesdale, Scotland, first on the Queen Mary — the project called simply “Job # 534” (hull number). Then the Queen Elizabeth followed as “Job 552.”
The price tag for the Queen Mary was $30 million — $365 million in today’s dollars.
The Queen Mary was 1,018 feet long — bigger than the 883-foot Titanic.
King George V praised the Queen Mary, that was named for his wife, calling it “a ship with a name in the world; alive with beauty, energy and strength.
“May her life among great waters spread friendship among the nations!”
The rich and famous would soon call her “the only civilized way to travel — the spirit of an era known for its elegance, class and style.”
On Sept. 26, 1934, the Queen Mary’s nine-story tall hull was christened by the Queen and released to slide into the River Clyde.
Then the Great Depression brought financial woes, stalling construction for the next two and a half years until the British Government bailed them out with a loan, but required they merge with financially troubled White Star Line — that had owned the tragic Titanic.
Mercifully, the merged Cunard White Star Ltd. didn’t repeat the Titanic’s 1912 disaster. The Queen Mary and sister ship Queen Elizabeth would sail a route south of the Titanic’s iceberg-prone North Atlantic route.
The Queen Elizabeth however did have a tragic end in 1972 after being sold to Hong Kong tycoon Tung Chao Yung. The ship was undergoing repairs while anchored in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour when a fire broke out.
Firefighters flooded the ship with too much water, causing her to capsize and sink — never to sail again.
With loan money, work resumed on the Queen Mary, installing the engine, masts, funnels and other fittings.
The luxurious passenger section would include two swimming pools, beauty shops, nurseries, lecture hall, music studio, prayer rooms and dog kennels.
Phone service was offered to anywhere in the world — a big deal in those days.
An acre of kitchens prepared 50,000 meals on each Atlantic crossing.
By 1936, the Queen Mary was ready for service, and on May 27 departed from Southampton, England, on her maiden voyage to Cherbourg, France, and New York as joyful passengers filled the five dining areas and lounges, two cocktail bars and grand ballroom, while others took in the salt air outside.
There was a hospital on board, and plenty of sports activities on deck — squash, deck tennis, quoits, shuffle board and ping-pong.
The less-energetic could stroll on the decks, lounge in teak deck chairs while being attended by white-gloved staff — or enjoy board games inside.
Winston Churchill sailed on the Queen Mary six times. The bathtub in the historic “Churchill Suite” on the ship — now moored permanently in Long Beach, Calif. — is where he is said to have planned the D-Day invasion.
Celebrities loved the ship. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were regulars, and Elizabeth Taylor brought her French poodles with her.
“I never tire of gazing at the brooding waters of the North Atlantic,” one passenger wrote. “It changes from day to day, sometimes smooth and glassy, sometimes choppy and somber, sometimes sunny, sometimes foggy.”
The Queen Mary offered three classes of service — First Class, Second and Third — also called “Steerage.”
Though pricey, First Class was truly “first class.”
One trip report noted that its menu included mouth-watering “beef Wellington, lobster thermidor, crêpes suzette, black pudding, 20 types of consommé, caviar, champagne, scones, (and) clotted cream.”
Passengers in Steerage sat at long tables and feasted on such mundane fare as steak-and-kidney pies with mashed potatoes and veggies.
Their world was in the ship’s lower bow or stern sections where rough seas were felt the most; and the First Class and Second Class sections were off-limits.
When World War II broke out, the Queen Mary joined the fight.
Stripping off its Cunard red, white and black color scheme, the ship was repainted a dull Admiralty gray, and 40-millimeter anti-aircraft guns were installed on deck. Lush cabins were converted into bunk rooms and its new mission was transporting troops between North America and the United Kingdom.
She also transported enemy POWs.
Most wartime shipping had naval escorts for protection — but the Queen Mary didn’t usually need it because she was so fast that German U-boats couldn’t catch her. They nicknamed her “The Grey Ghost” because of her color and speed.
But for additional safety, the Queen Mary would also zigzag across the Atlantic, making an enemy attack even more difficult.
On Oct. 2, 1942, she was sailing north past Ireland heading for Scotland and was joined by the Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Curacao as an anti-aircraft escort.
Both ships were zigzagging, when at one point, officers on the Queen Mary noticed that a collision looked imminent, but believing the cruiser would yield right-of-way, didn’t use standard maritime collision avoidance procedures.
The Curacao didn’t change course, and the massive liner’s bow sliced through the much smaller cruiser, cutting the warship in half. It quickly sank and 239 lives were lost.
Under wartime orders, the Queen Mary was forbidden to stop and pick up survivors because of the danger of enemy attack, and sailed on.
It was a dark chapter in the long and glorious history of one of the world’s most historic liners.
Years later after the war ended, a board of inquiry blamed the Admiralty for the disaster, but after appeals ran out, the court’s final decision placed three-quarters of the blame on the Admiralty, and assigned one quarter to the Cunard Line.
When World War II ended in Europe, the Queen Mary in its wartime role as troopship brought the troops home. On one trip to New York, a record 16,683 American and Canadian troops were on board — the most people on any ship in history.
Returning to peacetime duty, the Queen Mary was repainted its original Cunard red, white and black colors and carrying paying passengers across the Atlantic.
That lasted until 1967 when the jet age made it no longer profitable to cross the ocean by sea.
Cunard’s fleet was operating at a loss, so they sold the Queen Mary for £1.2 million, after completing her 1,000th and final crossing of the North Atlantic.
At 9:42 a.m. on Oct. 31, 1967, while the Royal Marine Band played as passengers sang “Auld Lang Syne,” portside propellers started churning and docking ropes were released.
Excited passengers lined the railings and the air was streaked with bright streamers.
Then the Queen Mary gave three blasts of its horn and sailed out of Southampton for the last time — escorted by four Royal Navy ships.
The ship listed 1,093 passengers and 806 crew onboard its historic 39-day “Last Great Cruise.”
They stopped at Lisbon, Las Palmas, Spain and Rio de Janeiro, before sailing around Cape Horn to Valparaiso, Callao, Peru, Panama and Acapulco before receiving a tremendous welcome at Long Beach.
Surrounded by a dock and stone corral, the Grande Dame of the Sea is still alive as a floating museum, hotel, tourist attraction and historic landmark, so far hosting more than 50 million visitors. During her long illustrious career, she carried 2.2 million passengers 3.8 million miles.
When the Queen Mary was launched in 1934, British psychic Mable Fortescue-Harrison predicted that the ship “will know its greatest fame and popularity when she never sails another mile and never carries another passenger.”
She was right.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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Naming the Queen Mary…
“The ship was named after Mary of Teck, the wife of George V. The king died shortly before the ship’s maiden voyage. Legend has it that Cunard wanted to name the ship Victoria, but after asking the king for permission to name the ship ‘after Britain’s greatest queen,’ he replied that his wife would be delighted.”
— The Telegraph, U.K.
Winning the title…
The Queen Mary won the Blue Riband in August 1936 for being the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic, but lost the title to France’s Normandie the following year, and then winning it back in 1938. Fastest leg was 36.47 mph. The Queen Mary held the title until 1952, when beaten by the new SS United States. Of the 35 Atlantic liners to hold the Blue Riband, 25 were British, followed by five German, three American and one each from Italy and France.
Queen Mary ghost stories…
The Queen Mary carried enemy POWs during its troopship service in World War II. Many are said to have died on the lower decks, their ghosts still wandering the corridors. And the ghost of a little girl named Jackie haunts the now empty swimming pool, while watertight door No. 13 is where an engineer was crushed to death. No one uses room B-340 because in it dwells “a particularly aggressive poltergeist.” Another stateroom is alleged haunted by the spirit of a person supposedly murdered there.
“Our fellow passengers in first class were very ‘stuffy’ and standoffish. It was not proper to initiate a conversation unless ‘properly introduced.’ A perfunctory ‘Good morning’ nod was de rigueur, nothing more! Formal dress was required at dinner.”
— Warren E. Spieker, International Travel News
Stowaway on last voyage…
Stacey Miller was a 21-year-old America railroad worker from Chicago backpacking across Europe and was sitting in a waterfront bar in Lisbon when he heard the Queen Mary was heading for the U.S., so he sneaked aboard. Quickly discovered, Captain John Treasure Jones compassionately allowed the young man to stay providing he agreed to work off his fare at a dollar per day — an offer he quickly accepted.
Each funnel on the Queen Mary was 100 feet wide — big enough to hold three locomotives side-by-side, and there were some 30,000 light fixtures installed on board, as well as a 36-car garage.
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