Queen Mary – California

As a child I was always fascinated by the story of the Titanic and all the other liners that were around in the early decades of the 20th Century, one of these that I loved was that of the Queen Mary, launched in 1936 from John Brown’s on Clydebank, Glasgow and almost immediately put into war service, heading off to the States to ferry troops once America had entered the war and still holds the record for the number of people carried on one voyage (over 15,000). But by the mid 1960’s the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were being left behind in the shadow of the new jet age as more people flew to their destinations and less took the slower ocean liner. So both were sold, Queen Elizabeth was to be used as floating university but actually caught fire and sank in Hong Kong in 1972, Queen Mary was fitted out as a hotel and opened as such in Long Beach, California in 1971. 

In 2016 my wife and I got married in Southampton just a stone’s throw away from the very docks that Queen Mary sailed from many years ago, and just days later we were heading off to the states where after a week visiting San Francisco it was a short (but bumpy) flight over to Los Angeles where a taxi took us to our hotel – the Queen Mary. As soon as we stepped on board it was like we had travelled back in time, I was so excited I couldn’t believe I was on board. The room I had booked was a suite, so a room with bed, mirror, shelves etc., a second room with sofa, fridge and cupboards and of course en suite bathroom. Each room had original items in from her time as a trans-Atlantic liner – the fan on the wall, the hot and cold taps for both fresh and salt water (obviously these were all just for nostalgia they did not actually work).

Original hot and cold taps 

There were several tours I could go on, but I was on here for a week so I had no rush. There were two ghost tours that were on, I went on both just because this was the only opportunity to see some of the locked areas like the swimming pool and boiler rooms, whether you believed in the tales of the spirits or not, the opportunity to see these rooms was breath-taking, the size of below decks without any boilers was amazing. Another self-guided tour was taken whereby you had a audio guide and you simply went around the ship yourself and listened to the stories as per the buttons to press. I spent so long doing this that the guide ran out of battery in the end!

Engine controls and pressure gauges
Radio Room

Some areas are done out like it was during the wartime Atlantic runs, some are done like they are about to have First Class Passengers embark, others are left just the way they were upon decommissioning. Each day at certain times the ship’s horn would sound a long blast which could be heard for 10 miles according to one of the posters, needless to say it made me jump as I was posing for a photograph on the fo’c’sle and seconds later BBBBRRRRRRR!!

Stopping for refreshments there was the coffee shop on the Promenade Deck, enclosed yet still having birds fly in and come pay us a visit. The nearby restaurant catering for all your needs, although if you want something a bit more extravagant there is Sir Winston’s restaurant near the stern, named after one of its most famous guests, that of Sir Winston Churchill. Information boards show the other distinguished guests on board over the years – The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Elizabeth Taylor, Bing Crosby and Clark Gable, to name just a few. Today there are suites and private rooms named after many of the famous names of the 1930s-1960s as well as after the ships of the owners, the Cunard line – Carpathia and Mauritania. Some ships have had huge models built and are on display on the opposite side to the Promenade Deck, in the old days this was just the same but it has since been split up and enclosed to make the restaurant and displays. Here you will see a cutaway of Titanic, Normandie and of course the Queen Mary herself. But this was not the only model – a huge Lego version is in another nearby room where every day the person at the front desk would hide the Lego cat and you would then spend a bit of time trying to spot it.

Huge ship models
Lego model of the Queen Mary

The aft section had several fascinating parts to see, the engines and one of the ship’s huge propellers, encased in a cofferdam permanently so that you can simply look over the edge and see it shining in all its glory. The sickbay area showed where many troops will have been cared for, but another information board showed that in her 30 year lifetime this ship had 49 people die on board, some in very tragic circumstances – a young man was crushed in a watertight door and this has been the focus of many of the ghost hunts ever since, many people today saying that this is disrespectful to the poor guy’s memory.

One of the ship’s huge propellers

So a week on board the Queen Mary was the most amazing museum visit of my life. To actually sleep on board this ship and tour it every day was a dream come true. She is much too far away to visit on a regular basis, but I would definitely return one day to see how things have changed since the funding and maintenance crisis’ that seem to blot her career as a hotel, as well as COVID having a drastic effect when she had to close. What I did notice was that many compartments were un-used and just used for piling things in that weren’t needed, yet there was no mention of a huge part of this ship’s history – the sinking of HMS Curacoa. In 1942 during a convoy manoeuvre the warship cut across the liner’s bow and the larger Queen Mary sliced the ship in two killing over 200 people. Nowhere on the ship is this mentioned, so with that in mind I contacted them and suggested one of these small rooms could be used as a memorial chapel to remember the incident and to tell the story. So far I have yet to see anybody respond.

Would I recommend Queen Mary? Absolutely. This is one museum ship that will hopefully live a longer life and will continue to be maintained and have guests walk her historic decks once again.

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Richard M. Jones

Richard M. Jones is an author and historian specialising in disasters and shipwrecks along with two World Wars. Spending his time between Hampshire and Yorkshire, he has put up 12 memorials to victims of forgotten tragedies and published 19 books along the way.