Canadian Royal Heritage Trust

A National Educational Charity

RMS Queen Mary

by Claudia Willetts

The huge Cunard steamships can trace their ancestry back to the Maritime provinces of British North America, according to JMS Careless in Canada: A Story of Challenge. The early nineteenth century was the day of ‘wood, wind and water’ and the building of clipper ships, but the steamship was not entirely ignored by Maritime sea-enterprise. In 1833 the steamship Royal William, built at Quebec and named for the regning King William IV, became the first vessel to cross the Atlantic Ocean under steam the entire way. Soon afterward, the British government considered establishing a regular Atlantic steamship service for mails. Though few Britons would risk the undertaking, yet the leading business figure in Nova Scotia, a shareholder in the Royal William, was prepared to do so. In 1839 Samuel Cunard of Halifax secured a British government mail contract, and the next year the first Cunarder “steamship on schedule” crossed the Atlantic. As early as 1852, iron replaced wood, and propellers replaced paddle wheels. The company’s ships’ names were preceded by “RMS”, standing for “Royal Mail Ship”, and so in time, there was the Royal Mail Ship Queen Mary, though she was primarily designed as a luxury passenger liner.


In 1926 the Cunard design office in Britain began ambitious plans for the building of the world’s greatest liner, according to the booklet The Queens. That year, over a million passengers had crossed the Atlantic, but by the early 1930’s when the liner was in mid-construction, this number had dwindled to less than half that, and the nation’s financial crisis was serious. In December 1932, shipbuilding in Scotland was stopped, but eventually the government was forced to act, and work resumed in April 1934. On 26 September 1934, Her Majesty Queen Mary, in the presence of King George V and Prince Edward, Prince of Wales, performed a brief launching ceremony at Clydebank in Scotland, watched by two hundred thousand people.

Two years later in 1936, prior to sailing from Southampton, England on her maiden voyage, the ship was again visited by Queen Mary to present a replica of her personal standard. The Royal Party accompanying Her Majesty on this occasion included her son, now King Edward VIII, the Duke and Duchess of York, the Duke and Duchess of Kent, and ten-year-old Princess Elizabeth of York. Dorothy Laird in Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Her Support to the Throne During Four Reigns tells us that all the adults of the Royal Family were wearing court mourning for King George V at the time. Cunard officials expected that Princess Elizabeth would like best the elaborately equipped nurseries, but it was the vast, white-washed engineroom which most fascinated her.

Jane Hunter-Cox in Ocean Pictures: The Golden Age of TransAtlantic Travel 1936 to 1959, recounts the story of the choice of name. When the Cunard chairman consulted the Royal Household on the selection of a suitable name for the ship, the consensus was that she should be named “Queen Victoria”. Thinking that the involvement of King George V was but a courteous formality, some time later the chairman approached His Majesty for permission to name the ship “after England’s most illustrious Queen”. To his surprise the King replied that Her Majesty would be delighted, referring to his consort Queen Mary. Since the chairman could not argue with the King, Queen Mary she became. This, in spite of orders already having been filled for thousands of items of china and porcelain under the company logo and the name “Queen Victoria”, which had to be destroyed.

After spending World War II in the service of King George VI as a troop transport ship, the Queen Mary resumed regular passenger service in 1947. In 1954, Geoffrey Wakeford tells us in Thirty Years A Queen: A Study of HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, the Queen Mother returned to Britain aboard the Queen Mary after a lengthy and exhausting trip to the United States and Canada. Though she had lost five pounds on this strenuous tour, she rarely rested on the way home. It was said that, going about her business of being pleasant to everybody, the Queen Mother got to know the fourteen decks of the vast Cunarder as intimately as she knew the rooms of her home at Clarence House.

For twenty years the Queen Mary continued her role, always maintaining the highest standards of service. Finally in 1967, she arrived back at Southampton having completed her 1,000 th and last Atlantic crossing as a Royal Mail Ship. Her retirement was to be spent moored at Long Beach, California. She was born and bred during the Depression, tempered by the fires of war, and had been a favourite of the elite of the civilised world including members of the Royal Family.