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Queens of the Ocean Past

Updated on September 14, 2014

Cunard's Queens in the Golden Age of Sea Travel

Before the advent of regular air service to carry mail and people between Great Britian and America, the Cunard Queens ruled the ocean. It was the golden age of sea travel, and elegant liners ruled the waves.

Three very special ones were the RMS Queen Mary, the RMS Queen Elizabeth, and the RMS Queen Elizabeth 2, and they belonged to the Cunard - White Star Line.

RMS is the abbreviation for Royal Mail Ship. Cunard was awarded a contract to carry the mail, and the right to fly the Royal Mail flag when sailing.

For decades, a number of Cunard vessels ferried mail and passengers between the old and new worlds, but it was the three queens, along with the ill-fated RMS Titanic that stand out in most people's minds. Even though there are new ships carrying on the Cunard tradition today, the three queens of the ocean past made their mark on history and in the hearts of mariners and would be mariners the world over.

Cunard Line and Cunard-White Star

Although most people are at least vaguely familiar with some of the 20th century Cunard ships, some may not know that the history of the famous line dates back to the 19th century. It was in 1879 that Samuel Cunard reorganized his then 39 year old British and North American Royal Mail Steam-Packet Company into the Cunard Steamship Company. So, technically, Cunard has been around for over 170 years.


Swift Crossings

The Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were built for swift transatlantic crossings and commissioned as mail carriers. Badly needed government funding was provided for the venture on the condition that Cunard merge with the White Star Line. Thus, the queens sailed under the Cunard-White Star banner until 1950, when the name reverted to Cunard.

The company could rightly claim and advertise the "fastest ocean service in the world," as the RMS Queen Mary was swift. She captured the Blue Riband for the crossing record. She held it for all but about 13 months during the period from 1939 until 1952.

The Mural in the Grand Salon
The Mural in the Grand Salon | Source

RMS Queen Mary 1936 - 1967

Regarded by some as the greatest ocean liner ever built, the RMS Queen Mary was the flagship of the Cunard (and Cunard-White Star) Line from her maiden voyage in May of 1936, until November of 1946. Not only was she fast, but she was luxuriously appointed, too.

There was an Art Deco flavor throughout and the interior was richly appointed with fine woods and specially commissioned works of art. Passengers could enjoy the use of a library, an indoor swimming pool, and paddle tennis courts. There was even a kennel for their pampered pooches!

Had I sailed on her, I think that one thing that would have fascinated me might have been a piece of artwork in the first class dining room, or grand salon. The salon itself was three stories high, and on the wall was a beautiful map-mural of the ocean route traveled by the Queens, complete with little crystal ships showing the positions of each of them!

Queen Mary at Night
Queen Mary at Night | Source

The Blue Riband

She, and the RMS Queen Elizabeth were built to move quickly through the waters of the North Atlantic, to deliver the weekly mail on time in both directions. And, fast she was!

On her westbound crossing in late August,1936, she captured the prestigious Blue Riband with an average speed of 30.14 knots. The previous record holder, the beloved Normandie managed to win it back the following year, but only held on to it for about a year, at which time, Queen Mary grabbed back and kept until 1952, when the final holder, the SS United States seized it for good.

Queen Mary Stats

Gross Registered Tonnage - 81,691

Overall Length: 1,019 ft.

Speed: 28.5 knots (Her Blue Riband record-winning speed in 1938 was 30.99 kts.)

Capacity: 3,250 (2139 passengers and 1101 crew)

The Launch of a Luxury Liner - Captured on Film

An amazing video - the RMS Queen Mary is christened by Her Majesty the Queen, is launched, and crosses the ocean.

Footage of the Launch of the RMS Queen Mary

Buy Some Memories - of the Beautiful Queen Mary

You can find books, dvds, models and posters of the original RMS Queen Mary on amazon. Here are a couple:

RMS Queen Mary (Classic Liners)
RMS Queen Mary (Classic Liners)

A must for fans of the great liner. Not only does it recount her career, but includes pictures you haven't seen before - from the author's own personal collection.


RMS Queen Elizabeth

RMS Queen Elizabeth, with tugboats alongside, and in the foreground.  In Cherborg, France,  1966.   Original photo by Roland Godefroy
RMS Queen Elizabeth, with tugboats alongside, and in the foreground. In Cherborg, France, 1966. Original photo by Roland Godefroy | Source

From 1940 to 1968

In September of 1938, Her Royal Highness, the Queen of England officially launched the RMS Queen Elizabeth with the traditional bottle of champagne. The ship had been planned to be the sister fo RMS Queen Mary, the two carrying royal mail and privileged passengers to and from New York. The planned 'fitting out,' however was halted due to looming war.

After the installations of engines, and much consideration and re-consideration of what to do with her, she embarked on her first voyage - without passengers.

Rumors flew about where she would be going... Southampton? Halifax? No one really knew! (But the Germans thought they did)

In March of 1940, the new queen put out to sea under top secret sealed orders.

Not even the skeleton crew knew where they were bound. Once at sea, CaptainTownley opened the secret orders, and dutifully steamed full speed ahead to New York Harbor, as German warplanes flew in search of her over the sea route to Southampton.

Queen Elizabeth stats

Gross Registered Tonnage - 83,673

Overall Length: 1,031 ft.

Speed: 29 knots (She was ordered not to eclipse Queen Mary's record, so was held to < 30kts on sea trials.)

Capacity: 3,283 (2183 passengers and 1000 crew)

Prized Collectibles - RMS Queen Elizabeth

Here's a piece of RMS Queen Elizabeth memorabilia currently up for auction on eBay

The Great Ladies Go To War

| Source

Three Great Ocean Liners Fled to New York - Temporarily

RMS Queen Elizabeth found safe harbor in New York, along with the SS Normandie, and the RMS Queen Mary. There they were, great floating treasures ... the three largest ocean liners in the world, snug alongside one another, far from the hostilities in Europe. But that was not to last. The war was about to dramatically reshape their destinies.

By mid November of the same year, the queens had been ordered to sail from the safety of New York, and were readied to serve as troop carriers. Their fine china, crystal, artwork, carpeting, and other fine accouterments were removed and stored. In their place were put bunks and more bunks.

The ships had been built to be fast, and still were, so they were capable of outrunning Uboats. And they carried massive amounts of precious human cargo - sometimes as many as 10,000 to 15,000 in a single run. In fact, the Queen Mary set a record in 1942 that stands today, when she carried 16,082 from New York to England.

(As for the Normandie, she met a fiery demise during conversion to a troop carrier, without ever having left New York.)

RMS Queen Mary Trubute

Cunard Line's RMS Queen Mary was dubbed the "grey ghost" during World War II, owing to the gray paintjob...

Post War Glory

and eventual retirement


The Queen Elizabeth was the first to be relieved of war duty, in 1946. And so it was that she finally underwent her official initial sea trials - some six years after her secret maiden voyage, having already sailed half a million miles, carrying passengers numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

As her return to regular passenger service was quite a while before that of Queen Mary's, the Queen Elizabeth took her place then as Cunard's flagship.



The Queen Mary carried on in her war role for an additional year, bringing many more thousands of soldiers home from faraway lands.


By mid 1947, the world had returned to normal for the two Queens of the Sea. Their wartime grey paint was gone and their traditional liner livery restored, along with their interior appointments. Gone, too, were the guns that had been mounted on deck.

All was right with the world, and the Queens dominated passenger service on the North Atlantic sea route, and they did so in stlye. They had always been loved, but now, they were revered as not only grand ladies of the sea, but grand and heroic ones. But, more change was soon in the air.


By the mid 1960's, transatlantic air travel had become the dominant method of travel between the two continents, and ocean liners sailed less than full, and profits declined. Some effort was made to refit the ships to refit and repurpose the ships to serve as cruise ships, but the ships were aging, and would not last forever.

In 1969, Cunard announced the retirement of the two queens.

Ocean Liners Serving their Country - in Time of War

It was a fascinating part of a horrible war - the part played in it by two luxurious ocean liners. If you'd like to read more about their part in history, here are some books that may interest you.

RMS Queen Elizabeth 2


Cunard's Longest Sailing Ship: 1969 - 2008

Built to (initially) replace both the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth 2 was designed to be smaller, more fuel efficient, and more cost effective than her immediate predecessors. Unlike the Elizabeth before her, she was a panamax ship - able to transit the Panama Canal. Her shallower draft that opened up the possibility of visiting Caribbean ports of call. It worked. She soon was paying back the government loan and turning a real profit.

Like the Queen Elizabeth before her, she became a much-loved ship with an intensly loyal following.

The itineraries she sailed included not only Transatlantic crossings in the Cunard tradition, but also world cruises, as well as voyages to the Caribbean. In her latter years, her service was more that of a cruise ship than an ocean liner, but she never completely abandoned the crossings for which Cunard was known.

Like the two Queens of the Ocean before her, she was pressed into war service for her country. Fortunately, her time as a troop carrier did not last as long as that of the older queens. Her support in The Falklands War of 1982 began in May and was over in June.

Also of interest is the fact that she was, until 1986, the very last of the oil fired steamships providing regular Atlantic crossings. Beginning in 1987, she was powered by a new diesel power plant.

The QE2 holds the distinction of having sailed for Cunard the longest of any ship - 40 years.

Queen Elizabeth 2 Stats

Gross Registered Tonnage - 70,327

Overall Length: 963 ft.

Speed: 32.5 knots

Capacity: 2,932 (1892 passengers and 1040 crew)

The QE2 in 2008

Docked at the Port of Tyne in 2008
Docked at the Port of Tyne in 2008 | Source

Have You Sailed the Queen Elizabeth 2?

Did you , or someone you know, ever sail on the QE2?

See results

If You Sailed the QE2

If you ever sailed on the QE2 - or even wanted to - then you may be interested in owning a book about her, or perhaps a model of this beloved ocean liner.

And Then, They Sailed No More

What Happened to the Queens of the Ocean Past?


Retired: 1969. She is now permanently berthed in Long Beach, California, where she serves as a hotel and venue for special events. There, she is called The Queen Mary. The RMS is dropped, as she no longer sails carrying mail. She no longer sails at all, for that matter.)


Retired: 1969. Destroyed by fire in Vistoria Harbor (Hong Kong) during renovations to turn her into a floating university.


Retired: November, 2008. She was currently laid up in Port Mina Rashid, Dubai, with an uncertain future for an extended period. Now, it appears a new life may await her in Hong Kong.

The Queen Mary Lives on in Long Beach - But Is She Haunted?

You can still tour the Queen Mary. You can even sleep in one of the former staterooms, now hotel rooms - except for one , There's a certain stateroom that they won't rent out because of numerous reports of 'unusual' activities there. Supposedly ghosts.

Multiple people claim to have seen and / or felt apparitions aboard the ship. Paranormal Investigators have spent hours on board.

This ship that some have dubbed as one of the most haunted places in America' is said to be home to no less that 130 ghosts, including many of children.

If you search, you'll find several videos about the spirits on the Queen Mary. Here's one of the shorter ones, so you can decide for yourself.

Did You See a Ghost?

Have you toured the Queen Mary, and if so, did you see a ghost?

See results

Sad Fate of the Queen Elizabeth

Known at the last as Seaward University, the former Queen Elizabeth met her demise in Singapore harbor when fires erupted
Known at the last as Seaward University, the former Queen Elizabeth met her demise in Singapore harbor when fires erupted | Source

Seaward University Fires and Sinking

After her retirement from Cunard, there had been plans to moor the Elizabeth (her first post-Cunard name) permanently at Ft. Lauderdale, FL, for use as a tourist attraction. However, that part of her life was short-lived, ending in 1971, when she was auctioned off. The buyer, Orient Overseas Line, renamed her Seawise University, with plans to make her a floating campus.

Seawise University was undergoing refurbishment when several (yes, several) fires broke out on board. Between the blaze, and copious amonts of water poured upon her by fireboats, the ship capsized.

Some parts of the former queen were salvaged, but it has been reported that arond 40% of the wreck still lies under a thick layer of mud at the bottom of Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor.

Queen Elizabeth 2


Past Royalty with an New Future

The Queen Elizabeth 2, with the Cunard name removed was laid up at Port Rashid, in Dubai, awaiting her fate for several years. She had been purchased to become a luxurious floating hotel. The investment firm had been maintaining her with a full tie staff. But, reports surfaced about a two years ago that economic woes had forced the new owners to cut the staff. The prospects for the fulfillment of those plans were beginning to look rather bleak.

At one point, the future of the QE2 was, at best, uncertain. She had apparenty been abandoned by the owners who had taken her to Dubai.

In late 2012, word came that they had agreed to sell her as scrap to a Chinese entity. It was a horrific turn of events for the grand lady of the waves and those who loved her. But . . .

Shortly afterwards, in early 2013, there was happier news. Now, it appears she is set to head for Hong Kong, where (after extensive refurbishment, already underway) she will become a luxury hotel.

Cunards newest ship was christened MS Queen Elizabeth in 2010
Cunards newest ship was christened MS Queen Elizabeth in 2010 | Source

Queens of the Ocean Present

Yes, You Can Still Sail on a Cunard Queen!

Three new Queens now sail the ocean under the British Flag.

The RMS Queen Mary 2, MS Queen Elizabeth, and the MS Queen Victoria carry on the Cunard tradition today.

Are You a Present Day Cunarder?

Have you ever, or do you plan to sail on any of the three new Cunard Queens?

See results

Please let me know you were here!

The Guestbook is: OPEN

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    • CruiseReady profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from East Central Florida

      @chezchazz: hmmm. . . . maybe the haunting only began after she quit sailing ... or maybe there aren't actually any ghosts on the Queen Mary ...

    • chezchazz profile image


      6 years ago from New York

      Interesting lens. My wife's 90+years old great uncle actually returned to the states from Europe at the end of WWII on the Queen Mary. He never mentioned it being haunted though, although his son did take the ghost tour on the QM when he visited Long Beach, California.

    • LouisaDembul profile image


      6 years ago

      I wouldn't mind staying a night on the Queen Mary, as long as it is far away from the haunted cabin! Wonderful lens, full of interesting details.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image


      6 years ago

      Love the Queen Mary.

    • CruiseReady profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from East Central Florida

      @gregoryolney lm: Must be a wonderful memory!

    • gregoryolney lm profile image

      gregoryolney lm 

      7 years ago

      I sailed from Southampton to New York on the Queen Mary in 1963 - a wonderful experience. Cost me £68 for a one way ticket !

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      A nice voyage down the memory lane!

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      My parents in law went on the QE2. I am not keen on a cruise.

    • Cinnamonbite profile image


      7 years ago

      I'm jaded. I live in Florida. I've been on a cruise and couldn't figure out the big deal. Yeah, ocean, sandy beaches...and? I can do this at home, LOL

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I would love to sail on a Cunarder Queen one day. I loved the excitement on the launching of the Queen Mary video...and without a hitch! What a wonderful historical document you have created here!

    • indigoj profile image

      Indigo Janson 

      7 years ago from UK

      Excellent look at these beautiful ships of times gone by.

    • CruiseReady profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from East Central Florida

      @anonymous: Oh, I think you most assuredly count as a Cunarder!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      16 voyages on QE2

      2 voyages on Caronia

      2 voyages on Queen Victoria

      3 voyages on Queen Mary 2

      I am booked on Queen Elizabeth in January 2012 so I think I count as a Cunarder

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      7 years ago from Colorado

      I'm ready to set sail! You really got me in the spirit. :-) Nicely done!

    • FanfrelucheHubs profile image

      Nathalie Roy 

      7 years ago from France (Canadian expat)

      I have never been on any of these beautiful boats. To me these ships rhymes with art deco for some reason, I I found collectibles about them interesting (mostly advertising from the earlier days, be it Cunard or nay other lines). Beautiful page!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      v informative lens, it was worth reading, thanks for providing this info.

    • TonyPayne profile image

      Tony Payne 

      7 years ago from Southampton, UK

      I love the magnificence of these great old ocean liners, but I have no desire to go on a modern cruise. I have been on the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and my cousin has stayed overnight there as well. We live in Southampton, which is where the Queens and also the Titanic sailed from. Just this week they retired the last of the Tug Boats from that era.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Awesome Just Awesome. The history behind these ships are amazing. Thank you so much

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I toured the Queen Mary a number of times with visiting family, everyone wanted to see this famous ship. I enjoyed every visit as I am a collector of nautical items.

    • capriliz lm profile image

      capriliz lm 

      7 years ago

      I did visit the Queen Mary when I was in Long Beach. Beautiful, majestic Lady!

    • CruiseReady profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from East Central Florida

      @Paul Ward: How wonderful it must have been to see them!

      We went to the pier earlier this week and saw the Queen Victoria on her first ever port of call here. I couldn't help thinking at the time how much I would have liked to have seen one of THE queens.

    • Paul Ward profile image


      7 years ago from Liverpool, England

      Ah, childhood memories - my father was a timekeeper for Cunard (so paid off seamen after a voyage - all cash in those days). I'd sometimes accompany him and see these ships and others - early 60's Liverpool. Angel blessed.

    • CruiseReady profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from East Central Florida

      @PrettyWorld: You are so right!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Those ships are so much classier looking than the modern day floating hotels.


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