RMS Queen Mary – Her Maiden Voyage 85 Years On

This year marks the 85th anniversary of the maiden voyage of RMS Queen Mary, one of the most famous ships in the world and the last survivor of the golden age of the transatlantic super liner. To celebrate her, we have published historian and TV documentarian David Ellery’s book RMS Queen Mary – 101 Questions & Answers. In this blog, David details the build up to the ship’s maiden voyage, and her glorious career after.

We’re so used to high-tech, fast paced lives full of instant communication it’s hard to imagine the impact Britain’s largest ship made on the world in the 1930s. It was huge.

To fully appreciate why, we need to look back a few years prior to Queen Mary’s maiden voyage. The new liner’s keel was laid in December 1930; Donald Skifflington, Yard Manager of the famous John Brown Shipyard in Clydebank, proudly hammered home the first rivet and the building of Cunard Line’s newest North Atlantic liner was underway. The ship had been years in the planning and the British public had waited eagerly, none more so than in Clydebank; construction provided thousands of local jobs.

‘Job number 534’, as the new ship was known, went well; initially at any rate. This, however, was the time of the Great Depression, one of the worst recessions in history, affecting economies around the world. Cunard managed to keep its head above water but money for the new liner ran out. The construction was put on hold. This meant nearly 4,000 local men employed directly on the build were out of work and a further 10,000 contractors and sub-contractors involved in the supply chain suffered the same fate. This alone indicates just how massive a project it was.

The half-finished ship towered above the Clydebank yard gathering rust for nearly two-and-a-half years; an ominous reminder of Britain’s financial crisis and an image which appeared in newspapers across the nation. Eventually a deal was struck, and a loan was made available by the UK government for the completion of ‘534’ and for the building of what would become Queen Mary’s running mate, RMS Queen Elizabeth.

It was a moment of huge jubilation when the yard gates finally re-opened and work resumed in April 1934. Not only were local people back in employment, the whole nation saw this as a morale-boosting indication of things getting better. It even caused a sharp rise in the value of shares on the London Stock Exchange! Six months later the ship was launched by Her Majesty Queen Mary and the new liner took to the water for the first time.

After fitting out and sea trials Queen Mary was ready to be handed to her owners Cunard (now officially known as Cunard White Star Line). RMS Queen Mary’s port of registration became Liverpool as this was where Cunard’s British offices were based, but her homeport would be Southampton.

Queen Mary was designed specifically for Cunard’s North Atlantic service between Southampton and New York calling at Cherbourg in France for European passengers. At 81,000 tons she was Britain’s largest liner and first British ship with a length of more than 1,000-feet. (Queen Mary would have been the largest liner in the world had the French not pipped her to the post with their slightly longer Normandie, which entered service in 1935.)

The publicity machine did its thing to promote the liner. Mind boggling statistics flowed in abundance and were lapped up by an eager British public who followed the story of ‘their’ new ship with pride and excitement: ten million rivets had been used in her construction and 70,000 gallons of paint applied to her outer hull! But the stats didn’t end there. Illustrated comparisons appeared in the press to help convey Queen Mary’s vast size: “The diameter of each funnel would permit 3 modern locomotives placed abreast to pass through” or “The sirens of Queen Mary can be heard at least 10 miles away.”

Cunard was inundated with requests for tickets for the ship’s first Atlantic crossing. Two thousand places were available, but the Line could have sold ten times that number. The ship was split into three distinct classes, originally designated: Cabin, Tourist, and Third. They varied in opulence and decorative detail. Prices ranged from £18 and ten shillings up to £102 for a luxury return during the ship’s first season. A hundred of the initial tickets were allocated to the world’s press. Queen Mary was big news.

Shortly before her first outing with fare-paying passengers HM King Edward (later the Duke of Windsor) flew to Southampton where he met his mother HM Queen Mary, the Duke and Duchess of York and his nieces Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, along with other royals, ministers and MPs. The royal party toured the ship. HM The Queen took special interest in the kitchens, while the princesses watched Micky Mouse cartoons in the Cabin Class Playroom!

The public also had opportunity to look round the vessel. During a three-day period around 15,000 visitors each paid 5 shillings (25 pence) for a glimpse of the ship’s interior. It didn’t fail to impress. The public rooms in the Cabin Class area of the liner, located amidships, were magnificent.

Visitors would have seen the huge restaurant and the stunning art deco swimming pool with its mother of pearl ceiling, a gymnasium, squash court, main lounge and Observation Lounge & Cocktail Bar with view forward out to sea. (This would prove a popular haunt of film stars and the aristocracy throughout the ship’s commercial service. Queen Mary is now in retirement in Long Beach, California; most of these rooms survive to this day with many of their original features. They are still very impressive.)

Finally, the day of Queen Mary’s maiden voyage arrived: 27th May 1936.

Special souvenir editions of national papers like the Daily Mail, who ran a 4-page spread, hit the news-stands and vast crowds formed at vantage points along Southampton Water.

Heather Beagley, now 99, was one of the 2,000 passengers lucky enough to be aboard the ship. Just 14 years old at the time, it left a lasting impression: ‘It was the most inspiring trip of my life,’ she says. ‘The quays were absolutely full of people and bands playing; there was an enormous celebration.’

At 4.30pm, loaded with tons of provisions for the 5-day crossing and her passengers boarded, Queen Mary was edged out of her Southampton berth. An estimated quarter of a million people turned out to see the historic departure. In an interview for Regal & Retired, a documentary about the ship, another passenger, the late John Barnard, recalled: ‘All the way down, both sides of the water were crowded with spectators and we were surrounded by hundreds of boats. They stayed with us for quite some considerable time.’

The local newspaper, the Southern Daily Echo reported in the day’s final edition: ‘Tens of thousands of people, who travelled to Southampton and neighbourhood by road and rail, by air and sea, joined in giving Britain’s finest ship the greatest send-off which the land of her birth has seen.’

You’d be forgiven for thinking that was probably the highlight of the voyage, but no, more drama was to come. After crossing the English Channel, the ship arrived in Cherbourg where new facilities had been built specifically to accommodate the new ship.

Unfortunately, an error had occurred in the calculations. Consequently, when the wide gangway was slid out from the dockside building for the first time, instead of connecting with the ship’s door, it was found to be 6 feet (2m) short! A temporary fix was made and after a delay of around 2 hours the ship was on course for New York.

As the voyage progressed the public were kept up to date of events on board. The BBC had installed twenty-three remote controlled microphones in various locations so twenty broadcasters from five countries could make live radio broadcasts!

In addition to Queen Mary’s crew and passengers there were two names which didn’t appear on the ship’s manifest. Two stowaways managed to hide on board at Southampton and are mentioned in the Captain’s log. The first was Frank Gardner, an unemployed labourer from Cardiff, the other, a woman who it’s believed was part of a newspaper publicity stunt. The woman was put ashore at Cherbourg, but Mr Gardner wasn’t detected until later in the voyage so was put to work in the kitchens. He was promptly sent back to Britain by US immigration officials when the ship arrived in America!

The liner’s inaugural arrival in New York on 1st June 1936 has gone down in history as one of the most rapturous welcomes ever given by the port. Remembers Heather Beagley: ‘All the ships came out, big and small and they all sounded their hooters. VIPs came out to meet us and crowds lined the quays – it was absolutely incredible.’

As Queen Mary berthed at Pier 90 in New York her maiden voyage was over, but an ocean-going career of 31 years, 1,001 North Atlantic crossings, war duties and nearly 4 million passengers lay ahead… this was just the beginning!

Queen Mary is today the very last surviving 1930s ‘superliner’ left in the world.

You can read more about this incredible, historic liner in the fully illustrated and freshly updated RMS Queen Mary – 101 Questions & Answers, which we have just republished. It is available in both print and ebook editions through all good retailers (ISBN 9781472993113) at an RRP of £9.99 or with a 10% discount direct from our website: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/rms-queen-mary-9781472993113/