A wave for RMS Queen Mary

A wave for RMS Queen Mary

A six-day crossing of the Atlantic on the penultimate voyage of RMS Queen Mary, before the ship was retired in 1967, seems a short time to establish friendships. In fact, the heart-throb of the powerful engines, the whistle of the wind, the to-ing and fro-ing between choppy and calm seas and the novelty of living like a lord all gave it the impression of a long journey. Cunard made their passengers feel special. On this occasion they were to be extra special.

Harmer and I joined in all the activities available, patronised all the food & beverage outlets to be found and talked to all the passengers we could meet. As advertising men we were in an era of discovery. Mass media of the billboard sort was becoming more intimate. Cinema commercials in the semi-privacy of the back row of the stalls developed into TV commercials in the front room of the house – the nearest you got to personal media in those days.

Sea voyages allow inhibitions to be cast aside. The temporary nature of relationships permits frankness scrupulously avoided ashore. Joys and sorrows are more easily expressed; interest in the other person, more fruitfully engaged. The concept of a local, benign and likeable leader – the Captain – is more graciously accepted. The good sides of our natures seem to flourish, the bad sides left behind or pushed ahead for ‘later’. Excitement stirred, worry calmed. More than anywhere else ‘now’ is for now, at sea.

One wall of the dining saloon was a vast map of the Atlantic with the British and Irish shore lines at one end and the coast of the USA at the other. I quickly noticed the two models on the map – the Queen Mary and her slightly younger sister ship the Queen Elizabeth. I also observed early on that the two models moved – not steadily but spasmodically.  I went round to the back of the wall after a meal to see what advanced mechanism enabled this sporadic tracking of the liners’ progress.

The mechanism turned out to be an ageing man, with half-rim glasses, tucking into a hearty ham sandwich. He was equipped with the remains of a broken billiard cue. When he had finished a mouthful, or perhaps a column of the paper he was reading, he would stand up and move each ship along a couple of inches. Apparently, in between meals he had other duties to perform and the models were becalmed, but for now he was the mover-on.

We gave many parties, several of them in the Verandah Grill, a beautiful restaurant overlooking the wake of the ship. Watching the churning waters easing back to gentleness and quiet was like feeling tears being soothed away from your eyes by a kindly but firm hand. Comfort is never greater than when supported by kindness. The sea may be cruel at certain times but she is also maternally loving at others.   

So enthusiastic was our entertainment that we became recognised as from a past era when people stayed up most of the night and slept in a comfortable chair on deck after lunch. The band were particularly enthusiastic about our revelries. They told me nobody had ever kept them quite as vigorously engaged so late into the night since before the war. To reward their warm enthusiasm I made a deal with them – for every half hour we kept them playing after midnight I sent them a bottle of champagne. The last dance wasn’t until dawn.

On the fourth night there was a ‘hats competition’ in the First Class salon. This was intended to give the widows a chance to display their creative talents. Beautiful headgear designs, some even of the Queen Mary itself, were paraded by these brave people proving their ability to overcome loss. Harmer entered the competition as “Gone with the Wind”. His bald pate and disinclination to make a hat allowed for no other title. After the winner had been announced and rewarded, Commodore John Treasure Jones, the Queen Mary’s Captain, gave a runners-up prize to each of the other entrants.

When Harmer approached to receive his consolation gift the Captain smiled and whispered in his ear “Bloody barrack-room lawyer”.

No matter how big the liner, you get noticed at sea.

John Bittleston


“A wave for RMS Queen Mary” is the third of my stories from the past about the penultimate voyage of the great liner across the Atlantic. There will be one more story about this particular, amazing journey in a week or so. 

Your questions will be welcomed. If answered, they will be answered honestly.

24 April 2023