The Great Liners:












Modern Cunard Ships:



Should the Queen Mary have been built?

Her Specifications

  • Gross Tonnage - 80,774 tons
  • Dimensions - 297.23 x 36.14m (975.2 x 118.6ft)
  • Number of funnels - 3
  • Number of masts - 2
  • Construction - Steel
  • Propulsion - Quadruple screw
  • Engines - Single reduction steam turbines
  • Service speed - 29 knots
  • Builder - John Brown & Co Ltd, Glasgow
  • Launch date - 26 September 1934
  • Passenger accommodation - 776 cabin class, 784 tourist class, 579 3rd class

How it began

The physical task of building the “Queen Mary” and “Queen Elizabeth” has been described many times by other authors.

Many architectural, engineering and structural problems had to be solved. There could be no margin for the slightest error. The “Queen Mary”, the first ship on the drawing board, grew in sketch form during 1926; over the next four years, as has been described elsewhere in these pages, there were to be many meetings, and arguments, for and against this type of machinery, this type of passenger lay­out.

Dominating all argument was the necessity for an entirley reliable, high capacity ship of high speed. Necessarily, she had to be very large to fulfil these conditions. And this is precisely where difficulties of another kind presented themselves. There was no point in creating a ship that could not be handled and serviced in her ports of call. Moreover, the insurance market at that time could not absorb the full risk such a ship represented.

The Cunard Company had satisfied itself that, on paper, it had the right ship. It then became the company's task to convince the commercial world. To begin with, the Chairman, Sir Percy Bates, approached the Government and outlined the insurance problem. The ship was estimated to cost £4,500,000; of that the limit of the market's risk was £2,700,000. In July, 1930, the Government approved in principle that the Treasury would cover the balance.

Is the ship necessary?

The pros and cons of the arrangement naturally were publicly aired. It was inevitable that an obstacle of this kind, and the additional knowledge that no drydock cap­able of taking the ship existed in Britain, revived the controversy that a monster liner should be built at all.

The Times wrote on 22nd September 1930 :

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

The article continued with a warning on the implications to the insurance market 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 leader went on to doubt the wisdom of

“...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."

Eventually the insurance question was resolved with the passing in December 1930 of the Cunard (Insurance) Act. Provision was also made for Government insurance cover on a second ship with the stipulation that she be laid down within six years. A footnote to the insurance story was contained in the final account, published in 1954, when the open market having expanded to a point where it could absorb all risks on both "Queens," the credit balance due to the Government stood at £880,539.

"No drydock, no ship"

Concurrently, there were other difficulties besides insurance. The Southern Railway were reluctant to construct a drydock at Southampton, when they were already committed to a massive expansion of wet dock facilities. Their view was the drydock would be a one-dock-oneship affair, lying empty for most of the year. What it overlooked was the growth of passenger traffic, which would be attracted to the port by the new quays then being built. Also from the Cunard Company's point of view, it was important to build the ship because in doing so would provide jobs for many unemplyed persons.

There was also the question of the second ship, and the overriding fact that both ships would, with their immense passenger capacity, increase the flow of revenue not only to Southampton itself in the way of dock dues, stores, and voyage repairs, but add considerably to the Southern Railway's own passenger receipts. For seven months the drydock hung in the balance. The argument had now come down to the bare statement “no drydock, no ship.Sir Percy Bates used this quote on many occassions.

The other leading figures concerned in the drydock negotiations were Sir Herbert Walker, of the Southern Railway, Sir Thornas Bell (Chairman of John Brown's shipyard who were to build the ship), and Sir Julian Foley of the Board of Trade. Each was as concerned as the other that a satisfactory outcome should be found. The Cunard Company received the assurance it wanted, that a drydock would be ready for the ship in the summer of 1933, after the Develpoment Grants Committee had signified its willingness to the Southern Railway to make an offer of assistance.

On 27 th November 1930 , Sir Herbert Walker advised Sir Percy Bates that his board had decided to go ahead; the dock, to cost about £1,500,000, would be 1,200 feet in length, with a width of 135 feet and a depth of 48 feet. On 1 st December the building berth was ready at Clydebank to receive the first keel plate of the new Cunarder.

Making Ready

Across the Atlantic talks of a similar kind had been continuing between Sir Ashley Sparks, Chief Representative of the Cunard Line in the United States, and the New York Port Authority. The question here was one of piers of a sufficient length, and with sufficient draught of water alongside, to take not only British ships of 1,000 foot length, but others such as the projected French superliner “Normandie”, and new Italian ships, whose length ranged between 850 feet and over 1,000 feet.

Early in 1931, the go-ahead was announced for new piers on the North River in New York, the piers which more than justified their cost. In peace times when the “Queens” berthed week after week, and in war when they becanic the starting point for the voyage to Europe of American forces. The approach channels to New York were also given attention so that there would be adequate depth of water for the big ships.

Finally, at Cherbourg, the Gare Maritime came into being, which was to he the French port of call for the new ship, providing a deep-water quay, baggage and customs sheds and a railway terminal.

These successive major building projects in the ports, plus the nature of the insurance burden, throw into relief how the audacity of the original concept of the “Queens” outstripped the capacity of the ports to handle them. To that degree they anxicipated the future, and also demonstrated the influence which increasing size of ship (later it was to be aircraft), had on the development of facilities on both sides of the Atlantic .

(Back to the top)


  © TPD Turner 2014