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RMS Queen Mary

RMS Queen Mary

History and Background


First planned in 1926, the goal was to have two ships that, between them, could provide a regular weekly shuttle service across the Atlantic, carrying both passengers and mail reliably year round.  As Sir Percy Bates, the chairman of Cunard explained:


The speed is dictated by the time necessary to perform the journey at all seasons of the year, and in both directions, plus the consideration of the number of hours required in port on each side of the Atlantic.

The size is dictated by the necessity to make money by providing sufficient saleable passenger accommodations to pay for the speed.

In the opinion of its technical advisors, so far from attempting to construct steamers simply to compete with others in speed and size, the Cunard company is projecting a pair of steamers which, though they will be large and fast, are, in fact, the smallest and slowest which can fulfil properly all the essential economic conditions

The  Queen Mary

In Service                                              1936-1967

Line:                                                       Cunard-White Star, London

Builder:                                                  John Brown & Co., Clydebank, Scotland

Launched:                                             September 26, 1936

Tonnage:                                               81,237 GRT

Length:                                                  1,019.4 feet

Beam:                                                    118 feet

Draught:                                                39 feet

Speed:                                                   28.5 knots (32.8 mph)

Radio Call Sign                                     GBTT

Capacity:                                               Passengers: 2,139

                                                                      First class: 776

                                                                      Tourist class: 784

                                                                      Third Class: 579

                                                                Crew: 1,101

Fate:                                                      Hotel, restaurant, museum ship – Long Beach CA

The planning for such massive and expensive ships posed problems. For one thing, insurers were reluctant to cover the full value of the ship. Some judicious politicking resulting in the British government agreeing to insure the uncovered amount. Then, the problem was the size. The Queen Mary was larger than any ship to date and neither Southampton nor New York had dry dock facilities adequate for it. It was only after lobbying by Cunard and some pressure from politicians that both ports agreed to build the required facilities.

With agreements in place, the hull started to be laid in December 1930. Work was done by the John Brown Shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland. Although good progress was made, the Depression made itself felt and work was abandoned on December 11, 1931.

For more than a year, work was at a standstill. Meanwhile, negotiations were ongoing to provide low-interest financing to Cunard to finish the Mary and construct the Elizabeth on the condition that they merge with the White Star line. By April 1934, agreements were reached, and work had restarted.

For more than a year, work was at a standstill. Meanwhile, negotiations were ongoing to provide low-interest financing to Cunard to finish the Mary and construct the Elizabeth on the condition that they merge with the White Star line. By April 1934, agreements were reached, and work had restarted.

RMS Queen Mary hull under construction

The hull of the Queen Mary lays idle and rusting.

Prior to launching, the ship was known as Hull 534. Choosing the name was critical. The thinking at Cunard White Star was to name it after Queen Victoria. This needed royal permission so, King George V was asked if the ship could be named “after the most illustrious and remarkable woman who was ever Queen of England”. The king responded: “That is the greatest compliment that has ever been made to me or my wife. I will ask her permission when I get home”. Thus Hull 534 became the RMS Queen Mary.

By September of that year, the ship was ready to be launched, in preparation for converting the empty hull into a ship with equipment, public rooms and accommodations for 2,038 passengers and 1,285 officers and crew. And so, on September 26, 1934, Queen Mary, the wife of King George V had the honor of smashing a bottle of Australian wine and launching her namesake.

Once launched, the hard work of fitting it out started.  The décor was a matter of much discussion. The general goal was to be “modern” both because it reflected current tastes but also because they were generally simpler and less expensive than older styles. However, the concern of one Cunard director was:

If you tell a decorator one would like something modern in a room one feels it is dangerous, because he may feel it incumbent to produce something striking and unrestful.

RMS Queen Mary Verandah Grill

The Verandah Grill, intended to be the most elite dining spot on the Queen Mary designed by Doris Zinkeisen. Known as both a painter and a theatrical designer, its interior design and murals for the Verandah Grill.

The Verandah Grill, by day the smartest restaurant, after dark the smartest nightclub. Passengers paid an additional cover charge for the privilege of eating here.

RMS Queen Mary First Class Suite

Cabin/First-class Suite

RMS Queen Mary third class cabin

The Queen Mary had three classes of service. The most elite was Cabin Class, later renamed First Class. This was followed by Tourist Class, later renamed Cabin Class and finally Third Class later renamed Tourist Class. Although certainly more spartan than First Class. Third Class was not without its comforts even having its own cinema.

Third Class Stateroom

On May 27, 1936, the work was completed, and the Queen Mary set out on its maiden voyage. Although the first few crossings did not break records, by the end of August, it made the first Atlantic crossing in less than four days – 3  days, 23 hours, 57 minutes. There were some shake down issues. The ship rolled and vibrated so badly, that within a few months, it was taken back to dry dock to have re-enforcement struts installed and new propellors.

The Queen Mary continued its trans-Atlantic service until September 3, 1939 when Britain went to war. At that time, it was a few hours out of New York and once safely moored, it stayed there. The Queen Mary was joined in New York by the Queen Elizabeth, the Ile de France, Normandie, Aquitania and Rex, idled by the U-boat threat but not yet enlisted into the war effort.

Three biggest ships in the world 1939

[By State Library of New South Wales collection -]

In March 1940, work crews came to paint it war-time grey and strip out all of the portable furnishings. It then headed south for Cape Town and then to Sydney. Once in Sydney, it was refitted as a troop carrier, now able to carry 5,500 soldiers. Then, in April 1941, with its companion, Queen Elizabeth, they began shuttling Australian troops to Suez to fight in the Desert War.

Over the course of the war, the two Queens carried 1.5 million soldiers, rivaling the number of paying passengers that they carried in commercial service.

With the entry of the US and Japan into the war, Australia needed reinforcement. Now their mission shifted, rushing 20,000 American troops to Australia to help defend against the Japanese threat. Once that mission was accomplished, they shifted to shuttling GIs to Europe.

RMS Queen Mary in Battle Grey Paint

The Queen Mary, in its war-time grey, transporting troops.

With the arrival in NY, they once more were refitted, this time to carry as many as 15,000 troops. To do this, the US military developed a standee bunk that allowed six GIs to sleep in thin shelves stacked on above the other. When not in use, the shelves could be folded out of the way. The bunks were put everywhere including the cocktail bar and the drained swimming pool. In addition, sleeping was done in shifts, usually two shifts, but sometimes as many as three per day. In the summer, hammocks were hung outside on the decks. This meant that 10,000 troops could be carried in the winter but in the summer they could carry 15,000.

The Queens were fast enough to outrun any other ship. In addition, they traveled in zig-zag patterns to minimize risk from U-boat torpedoes. In three years, neither ship encountered the enemy.

On the trips back to America, the ships carried diplomats and wounded as well as many German prisoners-of-war who sometimes ended up laboring on American farms.

Winston Churchill took the journey to America on the Queen Mary three times during the war.

Sir Winston Churchill onboard the Queen Mary 1943

Winston Churchill and his Chiefs of Staff around a conference table aboard SS QUEEN MARY en route to the USA, May 1943.
Seated around a conference table aboard the RMS Queen Mary are, left to right: Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, General Sir Alan Brooke, Mr Winston Churchill. Prime Minister Churchill is presiding over the meeting at the end of the table.

Date: May 1943

Source: Wikimedia Commons, the free repository

With the end of the war, the Queen Elizabeth was returned to Britain to be refitted for commercial service. However, the Queen Mary had one more mission. Between February and May 1946, 12,886 war brides and their children were brought to their new home. It then made one final trip bringing Canadian war brides and their children.

From 1947 through 1967, the Queen Mary returned to civilian service.

As trans-Atlantic passenger loads fell, the Mary, showing its age, needed a new mission. Cunard, in 1967, decided to sell it to a company in Long Beach, CA to become a floating hotel and convention center.

The Queen Mary berthed at Long Beach

The Queen Mary docked at Long Beach

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