The Concept of Queen Mary

Queen Mary

Cunard’s legendary Queen Mary had a troubled start. Designed in the 1920’s as an eventual replacement for Mauretania, the ship’s original plans called for a liner similar to Aquitania. The ship’s dimensions called for a liner over 1,000 ft long and 81,000 tons!

On 31 January 1931 the keel was laid on Hull 534 at the John Brown shipyard in Clydebank. Construction of the ship progressed well and the launch was scheduled for May 1932.

However, on 11 December 1931 Cunard announced that work on the ship was to be suspended, due to the crippling effect of the Great Depression. Cunard and the British shipping industry had been hit hard by the lack of travellers, and Cunard were forced to lay off the John Brown workforce indefinitely.

White Star Line was also facing economic ruin. The smaller line had approached the British Government for assistance. Cunard, desperate to complete Hull 534, also approached the government for assistance.

The British Government were particularly concerned about the state of the British shipping industry. Germany, Italy and France had all eclipsed Cunard and White Star Line with tonnage including the legendary Bremen, Rex and Normandie.

In December 1933 a government brokered deal was reached whereby the two companies merged to form Cunard-White Star Line. In return, the government lent the company £9.5 million. This allowed Cunard-White Star to recommence construction on Hull 534 and also plan a running mate. In April 1934 work began again on the ship.

Early Years

With the workforce back aboard the ship, work progressed quickly. It was completed by August 1934 and the ship was launched as RMS Queen Mary on 26 September by HM. Queen Mary.

The ship’s fit out saw a magnificent art-deco interior installed aboard the liner. By March 1936 Queen Mary set sail for her sea trials.

Queen Mary’s maiden voyage departed on 27 May 1936; sailing on the Southampton to New York (via Cherbourg) service.

Despite Cunard declaring that the Queen Mary was not designed to race against France’s Normandie, expectations that the ship would try to break speed records on its maiden voyage were strong among those on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, in the final days of what would have been a record crossing, a thick fog descended upon the ship and Queen Mary was slowed, making a record attempt impossible.

In August, Queen Mary undertook a record breaking crossing from Bishop’s Rock to Ambrose Lighthouse, capturing the Blue Riband for the first time from Normandie.

Normandie reclaimed the speed record from Queen Mary however in August 1938 Queen Mary regained set new records for both the eastbound and westbound crossings; this time holding the record until 1952.

Queen Mary made her last peacetime voyage from Southampton on 30 August 1939. Upon arrival in New York, the ship was berthed until the end of the year while the war escalated and the Admiralty decided what role the ship would play.

Queen Mary’s War Service

Having been joined in New York by Normandie, Mauretania and the new Queen Elizabeth, for a brief period four of the world’s largest liners sat idle together in the harbour.

Queen Mary

However by March 1940 Queen Mary was called into military service. She sailed from New York bound for Sydney, Australia. Upon her arrival she was sent to the Cockatoo Drydock on Cockatoo Island, and work commenced to convert the ship into a troop carrier. Queen Mary’s luxury fittings and interior were removed and stored. In their place, bunks and hammocks were installed.

Small caliber guns were fitted on the ship to offer protection against air attack, however the Queen Mary’s main protection was her speed. To that end, the liner was ordered to sail at high speed when carrying troops to avoid danger from enemy shipping.

On 4 May 1940, Queen Mary departed Sydney with 5,000 troops of the Australian Imperial Force on board, bound for the Clyde. After operating on this route, and various others, Queen Mary concentrated on voyages between Australian ports, Singapore and Suez.

Once American entered the war on the side of the allies, Queen Mary’s trooping capacity was increased to 10,000+, with her new role as a mass transport of troops on the North Atlantic. On this service, Queen Mary carried the most people ever transported by a ship; 16,082 in one voyage!

On 2 October, while Queen Mary was steaming at 28-knots in a zigzag pattern the ship collided with her escort the HMS Curacao. The accident resulted in the smaller escort being cut in two, and sinking. Queen Mary’s hull was damaged, and between October and December 1942 Queen Mary was repaired at Boston.

At the end of the warm Queen Mary was used in the urgent and time consuming task of repatriating thousands of servicemen. Following this duty, the ship was used on the war bride service, being employed in this capacity from January to September 1946.

Passenger Service

Queen Mary was returned to Cunard on 27 September 1946, having sailed some 600,000 miles; carrying 800,000 people. Following an extensive refurbishment, the ship was returned to Cunard service; having had her passenger capacity adjusted to carry 711 first class, 707 cabin class and 577 tourist class passengers.

Queen Mary’s first post-war voyage departed on 31 July 1947; sailing from Southampton to New York. Later that year, industrial action hindered the service however despite this Queen Mary remained a popular liner during the 1950’s. Along with Queen Elizabeth, the liner was able to complete the world’s first and only two-ship weekly transatlantic service.

In 1952, Queen Mary lost her speed record to the SS United States. The American’s had seen the success of the large Cunard liners during World War II, and with the Cold War now in full swing, the US Government supported the United States Lines in building what remains the world’s fastest ocean liner.

Despite this, Cunard’s Queen Mary remained popular. Business was good for most of the 1950’s – however air travel was becoming increasingly dominant.

In March 1958 Queen Mary was fitted with Denny-Brown stabilisers. Originally trailed aboard the smaller Cunard liner Media, these stabilisers greatly helped Queen Mary’s stability.

In 1958, Boeing’s 707 jet made its first commercial service across the atlantic. This signalled the beginning of the end of the transatlantic liner. By the beginning of the 1960’s there was speculation that Queen Mary would retire. In December 1963 Queen Mary made her first cruise, and this use became an increasingly important part of the ship’s career.

However Queen Mary was not well suited for cruising. Her art-deco interiors were by now a dated style; while any benefits from cruising were undermined by the Seamans Strike of 1966. The strike cost Cunard £4 million. This made retaining the loss making Queen Mary impossible. Sold to Long Beach California, Queen Mary sailed on her last transatlantic crossing on 16 September 1967. She then undertook her longest ever peacetime voyage; sailing around Cape Horn before docking in Long Beach.

Today Queen Mary operates as a floating hotel, conference centre and museum. She is berthed near the new Carnival Cruise Line terminal and is often used as a hotel by guests travelling aboard a Carnival Cruise Liner.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.