ANGUS Shaw, a distinguished Scottish journalist, always had rueful memories of his experience as a young reporter of the Cunard White Star liner, the Queen Mary.

The Clydebank-built ship had been launched by Queen Mary in September 1934. One day in March 1936, it left the wet basin at the John Brown shipyard, bound for the Tail o’ the Bank. It was a hazardous operation, as at the shallowest part of the river the vessel would have a bare 2ft clearance at high water.

Shaw, who in later life would become the Evening Times’s news editor, was leaning on the dock rail with the Clydeside MP, David Kirkwood. “Any chance of Clydebank getting the sister ship?” he asked Kirkwood. The MP hesitated then said: “I have the firm assurance that the sister ship is coming to Brown’s. And ye can publish that, too, laddie.”

Delighted with his scoop, Shaw immediately typed up the story. Alone among the reporters on board, he had arranged a way to get his copy ashore before reaching the Tail o’ the Bank.

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Suddenly, the Queen Mary found itself grounded at the dreaded Beardmore Bend. The escorting tugs took up battle stations. It took a while, but the ship managed to right itself and continue its journey. Shaw now had another exclusive on his hands. He wrote it up quickly.

He stuffed both stories into a slit in a red ball and tossed it overboard at the Renfrew Ferry; unfortunately, the dinghy that had been briefed to retrieve the ball failed to find it. Shaw’s work had been all for nothing.

“Today,” he wrote in 1961, “I like to think of it [the ball] bobbing about the Seven Seas, sailing on and on like the mythical Flying Dutchman.”

Construction on the liner – job 534 at Brown’s – had been stalled for two years and three months during the Great Depression. Many people had initially taken rumours of the suspension on December 10, 1931, as a mere hoax, but the company quickly confirmed that the rumours were true. At that time the hull plating was 90% complete, and the ship stood nine stories high. Work on 534 was not resumed until April 3, 1934.

Come launch day – Wednesday, September 26, 1934 – 30,000 people ignored the steady rain to crowd into the yard. Vast numbers looked on from farmlands and roads nearby; The Glasgow Herald estimated that the launch was witnessed by a quarter of a million people.

The Herald: Christmas dinner on-board the Cunard liner Queen Mary in the 1960s.Christmas dinner on-board the Cunard liner Queen Mary in the 1960s. (Image: free)

Recording the epic launch at Clydebank, The Herald said: “Less than one minute sufficed to make a reality of an age-long dream – the passage of a 1,000ft ship from the launching ways to the river.

“In exactly 54 seconds the greatest weight ever set in motion by human command was safely transferred from the solid ground to the less stable element; inert ‘No 534’ ceased to be a monument in steel resting on keel blocks and had become the majestic Cunard White Star liner. Never was there a more inspiring and enthralling spectacle than on this memorable occasion.”

In many ways the new liner put even the Titanic into the shade: it was longer, with a greater gross tonnage, horsepower and cruising and maximum speed than the ill-fated, Belfast-built White Star ship.

Tales of the Queen Mary and its sightings lived long in the memory. One message girl told her employers in Rutherglen that she’d seen the Queen May sailing down the Clyde but honestly didn’t know what the fuss was all about, as it wasn’t very big. It turned out that what she had seen was the steamer, Queen Mary II, heading for Dunoon.

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One Dumbarton woman took a picture of the Cunarder from the shore east of Dumbarton Rock but was soaked by waves as the liner sailed by. A Glasgow man recalled that his brother had worked as a plumber on the Queen Mary. One night he went home and found that his canary, which he had kept for years, had died. Putting it into a small bag, he deposited it the following morning in the liner’s keel.

A Giffnock woman remembered being impressed by the sight of a small plane flying overhead, a large white streamer trailing behind it, as the Queen Mary made its way to Greenock. A nice gesture, she thought. Not so: the streamer was merely advertising a brand of bread.

And in 1942, a British serviceman was sailing on the Warwick Castle, bound for the Far East. He and his fellow soldiers had been on active duty since 1939, and the recent war news had all been bad. “Then one glorious morning we saw the Queen Mary”, he wrote. “She swept past us, the living symbol of our country’s indomitable spirit, of our faith in victory.”

The liner, all work finally completed on her, left Southampton on May 27, 1936, on its maiden voyage, to Cherbourg, France, from where it departed for New York. It arrived there on June 1, after a crossing of five days, five hours and 13 minutes.

The Herald: Queen MaryQueen Mary (Image: free)

The glamorous liner was an immediate success, popular with celebrities and dignitaries, though in August 1939 it made its final peacetime voyage from Southampton to New York (Bob Hope was on board, as were millions in gold bullion) before being repurposed as a troopship. Nicknamed the “Grey Ghost” after its camouflage grey appearance, it took some 810,000 military personnel across the world. Churchill himself crossed the Atlantic aboard the Queen Mary three times during the war. Its sister ship, the Queen Elizabeth, which had been launched at Clydebank in September 1938, performed an equally valuable war-time service. Fully restored as an upmarket liner, the Queen Mary made its first post-war voyage in July 1947, from New York to the UK, with 1,897 passengers and 1,280 crew members.

Apart from Churchill and Hope, the celebrities who were drawn to the Queen Mary during its golden years included Walt Disney, Bing Crosby, Dwight Eisenhower, Fred Astaire, Liz Taylor and Greta Garbo. As time wore on, however, air travel began to eat away at liners’ custom. In 1961, 750,000 people crossed the Atlantic by ship; two million made the same journey by air.

Cunard announced in April 1966 that the grand old ship was for sale. In July 1967 it accepted a $3.45m bid from Long Beach, California. In late October that year the Queen Mary left Southampton, to the cheers of 10,000 people, for its final voyage, to Long Beach via Cape Horn. More than 1,000 passengers were on board. It was the ship’s 516th voyage.

The liner has remained at Long Beach ever since, as a floating hotel, museum and events space, with casual and fine-dining restaurants. It was, however, shuttered by the pandemic in 2020.

Last November the LA Times said the Long Beach City Council had approved $1 million to pay for ongoing repairs on the Queen Mary. It was “the latest round of funds meant to restore the ageing tourist attraction ... Before the closure, the permanently docked ship was in disrepair and in danger of sinking without urgent maintenance work, inspectors found”.

Two weeks before Christmas the paper said the Queen Mary was back in business, with public tours being offered. It added: “The hotel, restaurants, bar and other amenities will remain closed until plumbing and other repair work are completed in early 2023, according to the city.”

“The Queen Mary has been an icon of our Long Beach shoreline for 55 years,” declared council member Mary Zendejas. “We remain dedicated in our efforts to preserve the ship’s history and structural safety. I look forward to welcoming the community back on board!”