RMS Queen Mary (1934)

The "Queens" Concept

The task of building the Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth necessitated the solution to many architectural, engineering and structural problems. The Queen Mary had been on the design board since 1926 being a replacement for the Mauretania.

The ships would have to be reliable, carry large volumes of passengers and capable of high speed. In addition, a ship of this unprecedented size would need to be berthed at her ports of call where she could be serviced. Moreover, the insurance on the ship would be very high and not all the costs would be recoverable in the event of a claim.

Once satisfied that they had the right ship, Cunard prepared plans. It then became the company's task to convince the commercial world. Sir Percy Bates, Chairman of Cunard, approached the British government and outlined the insurance problem. The ship was estimated to cost £4.5 million; of that the limit of the maker’s risk was £2.7 million. In July 1930, the government approved in principle that the Treasury would cover the balance of the cost as estimated.

The two Queens attracted great interest. However, the additional knowledge that no dry dock cap-able of taking the ship existed in Britain, revived the controversy as to whether a monster liner should be built at all.

The Times wrote on 22 September 1930:

“Is it wise that Parliament should be asked to lend a [financial] hand to a project planned on so colossal a scale that private enterprise could not find the means to carry it through?”

The article warned on the implications to the insurance market in the event of the ship's possible loss.

“The real question is whether so large and so elaborate a masterpiece is really needed to convey passengers across the Atlantic. The possibilities of the vessel's being an economic failure have to be faced.”

The reporter doubted the wisdom of the project.

“Building a ship which strained to the utmost the existing resources of shipbuilding insurance. It is impossible not to admire the Cunard Company's ambition and analogy is against the crying down a priority of any great undertaking, but in this case there appear to be obstacles in the way of a kind never before experienced in shipbuilding.”

In December 1930, the Cunard (Insurance) Act was passed with provision for the Government to insure a second ship with the stipulation that she should be laid down within six years.

Cunard had to resolve other issues as well. The Southern Railway was reluctant to construct a dry dock at Southampton, when already committed to a massive expansion of wet dock facilities. They did not foresee the growth of passenger traffic, which would be attracted to the port once the new quays were built. Cunard argued that the construction of the ships would be good for the economy and help reduce unemployment.

With two extra ships there would be an increase in revenue not only for Southampton (dock dues, stores, and voyage repairs etc.), but would also increase the Southern Railway's own passenger receipts. The argument had now come down to the bare statement “no dry dock, no ship.” which Sir Percy Bates used on more than one occasion.

On 27 November 1930, Sir Herbert Ashcombe Walker, a railway manager, advised Sir Percy Bates that the Board had decided to construct the dock at a cost of about £1.5 million. It would be 1,200 feet in length and have a width of 135 feet and a depth of 48 feet. On 1 December, the building berth was ready at Clydebank to receive the first keel plate of the new Cunarder.

Discussions began between Sir Ashley Sparks, Chief Representative of the Cunard Line in the United States, and the New York Port Authority to build a new pier that would be 1000 feet in length to support the ships. The French supported building a bigger pier to accommodate the Normandie.

Early in 1931, it was announced that new piers would be built on the North River in New York and the approach channels to New York were also given attention so that there would be adequate depth of water for the big ships. The harbour at Cherbourg, the transatlantic port of call, was reconstructed and enlarged. Her Gare Maritime provided a deep-water quay, baggage and customs sheds and a railway terminal. These projects illustrate the effect the Queens’ construction had and their importance.


Construction of RMS Queen Mary

The Queen Mary was built by John Brown & Co under yard number 534. Her hull plate was laid on 1 December 1930 and her keel was laid down by 31 January 1931. On 11 December 1931, the Cunard Board announced that work on the ship was to be suspended. The world economic depression had hit the shipbuilding industry and Cunard were forced to pay all outstanding bills and lay off the Clydeside workforce indefinitely.

It will be recollected that from 1930 to 1934, the White Star Line (WSL) reported trading loses, making them bankrupt. On 30 December 1933, the Directors of Cunard and WSL met to discuss a merger. Cunard began negotiations to buy out the WSL and entered into negotiations with the British Government. On 28 March 1934 the North Atlantic Shipping Bill was passed by Parliament and given Royal Assent which formed the Cunard-White Star Line. The Government lent the company £9.5 million, the majority of which was used to complete the Queen Mary and build a sister ship.

In April 1934, work resumed on the Queen Mary. The work was completed by August and she was launched on 26 September and taken to its fitting out berth. She was 1,019.4 feet long with a beam of 118 feet and had a gross tonnage of 81,237.

She had three funnels, 24 boilers and 4 Parsons single-reduction geared steam turbines which could produce 158,000 kW of power. She could accommodate 2139 passengers: 776 First Class, 784 Cabin Class, 579 Tourist Class passengers. She had over 1100 crew.

RMS Queen Mary leaving New York C. 1950s
RMS Queen Mary leaving New York C. 1950s
NEXT: RMS Queen Mary's Interiors