This article, written by Michael Gallagher, public relations executive and historian for Cunard Line,
is part of an ongoing series of key moments in Cunard Line's history
Sister ships can be funny things. Take Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth – two of the most famous ships ever to ply the North Atlantic. Both similar in size, style and speed and both heralded by Churchill for shortening the Second World War by a year thanks to the role they played. But one, Queen Mary, was always the more popular (with both passengers and crew) and no-one can quite say why! Queen Mary just had "something" is a common response from those who knew both ships despite her younger sister being slightly more modern.
One reason I'd suggest Queen Mary being the more loved of the two is she carried the hopes of a nation for a brighter future and was hailed as a symbol of the end of the Great Depression.
Cunard Line did not set out to create what King George V called “the stateliest ship now in being,” nor did it intend to give birth to a ship which her last Master, Captain John Treasure Jones, said was “the nearest ship ever to be a living being. She breathed, she had character and she had personality.”
It was purely by circumstance that the company produced a ship which more graphically shared the country’s triumphs and tribulations, and which was more loved by people who had never even seen her, let alone set foot on her, than any which had gone before.
Cunard’s intention had been simply to replace their aging transatlantic fleet with a new pair of leviathans which could provide a weekly service in each direction and so meet the growing challenge of German competition on the North Atlantic. When the first of the pair, Number 534, later to be named Queen Mary, was revealed to be the largest and most powerful ship ever built, the Chairman of Cunard, Sir Percy Bates, diffidently said she was just “the smallest and slowest ship which could accomplish such a service.”
Work on Number 534 began at the Clydebank yard of John Brown and Co late in 1930. She was being built at an estimated cost of £6.5 million out of Cunard revenue, without the benefit of any state subsidy. Almost alone at the time Cunard operated on the North Atlantic as a commercial concern; every other major line was subsidized to a significant degree by its national government, but Cunard was expected not only to compete but to ensure Britain remained dominant on the North Atlantic without a penny of state aid.
The company did so until the Depression cut revenues of £9 million in 1928 to under £4 million in 1931, and despite Cunard staff on shore and at sea taking a pay cut, work on the construction of Queen Mary stopped just before Christmas 1931.
Immediately 3,640 men in Clydebank – a town where half the wages came from Queen Mary – were thrown out of work. But the ripples were felt by 10,000 ancillary workers further away. They were felt in Stoke-on-Trent, busy working on 200000 pieces of crockery; in Sheffield, where 100,000 items of cutlery were being crafted; in Walsall, which was producing 400 tons of tubes; in Rugby, manufacturing seven turbo-generators; in Liverpool, producing 2,500 square feet of toughened glass; in Millwall, casting four 20-foot propellers; in Darlington, forging the 190-ton stern frame; in Belfast, working on the 5.5 ton gear wheels; in Halifax, weaving 10 miles of blankets; in St Albans, producing 600 clocks; and in other towns up and down the land making curtains, carpets, anchor chains and furniture. All of them stopped.
The rusting skeleton of Queen Mary, with 80 per cent of the hull rivets in place and £1.5 million already spent, was symbolic of the financial catastrophe which hit both Britain and America.
It was so graphic a symbol of which the general population was so conscious, that members of the public sent thousands of unsolicited donations of money to Cunard in an effort to get the work restarted.
The Government was implored to lend Cunard the money to complete the ship and get so many back to work – but the Government steadfastly refused until 1934 when, in a complex deal which required Cunard to take over the running of White Star’s ailing transatlantic fleet, Neville Chamberlain, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer, agreed to lend Cunard sufficient to complete Queen Mary and build her sister, Queen Elizabeth.
And so, on 3 April 1934, the John Brown workforce, led by the Dalmuir Pipe Band, returned to work and began by removing 130 tons of rust and dozens of nesting crows.
Just five months later Queen Mary, wife of King George V, became the first monarch to launch a merchant ship, a job which she accomplished with a bottle of Australian wine rather than the traditional French champagne. As she said the words, broadcast over the radio, “I name this ship Queen Mary; may God bless her and all who sail in her” millions of the King’s subjects heard his wife’s voice for the very first time.
Two hundred thousand spectators watched the launch – and many, on the opposite bank of the dredged and widened Clyde, got wet up the knees as an eight foot wave surged across the river when the enormous hull entered the water.
A popular story has it that Cunard’s Board had not intended to name the ship Queen Mary, and, intending rather to stick to the traditional “ia” endings prevalent among the Cunard transatlantic fleet, they dispatched one of their members, Lord Royden, to ask his friend the King for permission to name the ship “Queen Victoria.” Allegedly, he didn’t ask directly but intimated that Cunard would like to name the ship after “England’s most illustrious Queen.” “My wife will be delighted,” replied King George, “I will go and tell her now.”
A good story – but not true. Cunard had already decided that since the White Star and Cunard transatlantic fleets had been combined under the new banner Cunard White Star, neither the traditional White Star “ic” ending or the Cunard “ia” ending was appropriate. The first ship of the new company needed to break with tradition – and Queen Mary it was intended to be.
The maiden voyage began in Southampton on 27 May 1936, and Queen Mary left to the sounds of bands and ecstatic crowds. On board were the famous bandleader, Henry Hall, scheduled to give a series of live radio broadcasts during the crossing; the virtuoso harmonica player, Larry Adler; and a well-known singer of the time, Frances Day, who performed a song written specially for Queen Mary by Henry Hall, “Somewhere at Sea.” And, much as she may have liked being at sea, Miss Day did not trust the ship’s eggs to be fresh by the end of the voyage so she took along her own chickens.
Queen Elizabeth never had the glorious entry into service planned for her in 1940 - as discussed on a previous article – and was pressed straight into military service. When her time came in 1946 a war-weary Britain had other things on its mind.
After the War Cunard's two sisters would rule the Atlantic for the next 20 years. Queen Elizabeth was the largest passenger ship ever built (and would remain so until 1996) and Queen Mary was the fastest (until 1952).
Two great ships indeed only really differing in the affection people had for Queen Mary over Queen Elizabeth. And while I never saw either, Queen Elizabeth is my girl!
Source: Cunard Line
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