Queen Mary under construction


80 years since the Queen Mary’s maiden voyage: documenting the construction and launching the RMS Queen Mary

It’s 80 years since the maiden voyage of Cunard’s flagship liner, the Queen Mary, which held the transatlantic speed record from the 1930s to the 1950s. The IMechE library team has been cataloguing printed manuscripts ranging from the 19th to the 21st century,  and one of these is a delightful publication from Cunard-White Star written by EP Leigh-Bennett. It celebrates the launch of 534, as it was originally known, records the renaming of this liner as RMS Queen Mary, and describes the ship’s features. It was launched by Queen Mary and the poet laureate, John Masefield, commemorated the event:

For ages you were rock, far below light,
Crushed, without shape, earth’s unregarded bone.
Then Man in all the marvel of his might
Quarried you out and burned you from the stone.
Read rest…..

Cunard signed the contract for the building of the Queen Mary on 1 Dec 1930, and construction began at the John Brown shipyard in Clydebank, Greater Glasgow. Because of the Great Depression, Cunard then had to suspend construction. However, the government offered the company loans to finish Queen Mary on the condition that it merged with former rival company White Star, to form Cunard-White Star. This new company was better equipped to compete with rivals such as Norddeutcher Lloyd, Hamburg-Amerika, Compagnie Générale Transatlantique and other shipbuilders from France, Germany, America and Italy for supremacy over the Atlantic.

The Queen Mary was launched on 26 Sep 1934, its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, began on 27 May 1936. The 81,000-ton liner could reach a top speed of more than 30 knots and during this voyage it sailed mostly at high speeds, reaching New York on 1 Jun. The ship’s arrival was celebrated with live music, and it was received by admiring crowds who had paid a dollar to charity to see the spectacle. From then on until its retirement in 1967, the liner’s main voyages were across the North Atlantic.

The Queen Mary was the flagship of the Cunard line from 1936 to 1946, and in 1936 it received the Blue Riband – an award given to passenger liners crossing the Atlantic – for its high speeds. In 1937 the Blue Riband was presented to the ship’s main French rival, the SS Normandie but the following year, the Queen Mary reclaimed the Blue Riband and held it until 1952, when it was beaten by SS United States.

The art deco interior of the Queen Mary was elegant and the ships many rooms catered for all passengers, it boasted five dining areas, two cocktail bars, a grand ballroom, a swimming pool, a squash court, a library, a small hospital, a children’s nursery and even a kennel for the passengers’ dogs. To add to her comfort the Queen Mary would have 30,000 electric lamps installed, 40,000 beds, ten miles of carpet, 9,000 pieces of silverware and over 200,000 pieces of earthenware, china and glass.

Queen Mary launches the Queen Mary

At 1,018ft (310.3m) long and 135ft high, the Queen Mary was certainly a huge maritime achievement. One of Queen Mary’s promenade decks was more than twice the length of the façade of Buckingham Palace:

“if you could stand her up on one end alongside the Eiffel Tower, it would top that structure by 18ft…if formed a chain would reach from London to Newcastle – 270 miles, and weigh 4,000 tons…[one can] see where they will cut the 2,000 portholes and windows which will contain an area of glass exceeding 2,500 sq ft”.  Leigh-Bennett

Other impressive features included 27 boilers, 2,600ft of piping, seven turbo-generator sets – developing 10,000kW – and, for the propeller, a quadruple screw arrangement of Parson’s single reduction geared turbines with 257,000 turbine blades. The power transmitted by the ship’s gearing exceeded that of any other merchant vessel and proved to be sustainable as she continued for many years in service, steaming approximately 2,3000,000 miles by 1957.

Leigh-Burnett includes drawings and photographs of this feat of engineering. Three intricate etchings by Frank H Mason, detail the construction and finished ship. High-quality photographs by Stuart Bale are included; his large format cameras resulted in photographs with incredible detail.

Further related reading on ship building in the 1930s is available in the IMechE Library, please contact the Library team.

Leigh-Bennelt, E.P. 1934. Launch of no. 534 in the presence of their majesties the King & Queen at the yard of John Brown & Co., Ltd., Clydebank, Wednesday September 26, 1934 : naming ceremony performed by Her Majesty the Queen, Cunard White Star.

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers




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