A 99-Year-Old Veteran Traveler Recalls the Maiden Voyage of the Queen Mary

·6 min read
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty
Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty

Heather Beagley was an impressionable 14-year old English schoolgirl when her family embarked on the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary. On May 27, 1936, the magnificent Cunard flagship set out for the first time from Southampton, via Cherbourg in France, to New York. Heather is now 99 years old, but her vivid memories of that unique journey are fresh and vital. She recently gave a talk to the fellow residents of her seniors’ care home in Hertfordshire, England.

“It was rather like going to the moon today,” Heather recalled. “The excitement, of course, was tremendous.” The Queen Mary’s completion had been delayed by the Great Depression of the early 1930s, but by 1936 she was finally ready for her inaugural voyage. Tickets were almost impossible to obtain—Heather’s father had applied many months in advance to obtain reservations. Her headmistress gave her permission to skip school for two weeks on the grounds that the voyage would be an education, to the envy of her fellow pupils. The Beagley family’s many neighbors and well-wishers from their home town of Bristol motored to Southampton to wish them “Bon Voyage.” They were not alone—nearly 1 million observers flocked to cheer the enormous ship. Vast crowds lined the quayside, the docks and surrounding coastline, or packed onto a flotilla of small craft, paddle-steamers, fishing boats and dinghies, to cheer the great ship as she inched down the Solent and out into the English Channel. Overhead, planes buzzed the ship, with news cameramen recording the departure for patriotic newsreels to be shown the following days in cinemas, where it would be watched avidly and triumphantly by millions more. “With her goes the hope and pride of a nation,” boomed the commentator, above the swelling chords of Rule Britannia.

Heather was amazed at the sheer scale of the Queen Mary; first seen looming mightily over the Southampton quayside when the family embarked. The ship weighed 81,000 tons, and was longer in length than the height of the Eiffel Tower. Each propeller was 20 feet high, and powered by 200,000 horsepower main engines. The forward funnel was 70 feet high. There were 30,000 lamps and 21 lifts on board, and the ballroom was the largest ever constructed inside a ship. Just as later generations were enthralled by spacecraft, in the 1930s ocean liners totally captured the public imagination.

There were 2,079 passengers on board the Queen Mary, and 1,100 crew. First class passengers paid £100 a head for return tickets (approx £5000 today) while Third class paid £33 return per person (about £1890). Mr and Mrs Beagley had a first-class cabin, while their daughter shared a four-berth cabin with three other young women in second class. Heather joined her parents for spectacular and delicious meals in the magnificent dining room. She remembered that the Art Deco style interiors of the ship were like those of a fantasy world, with subtle wood paneling, superb lighting, and red roses at every table. The public spaces came alive especially in the evenings—glamorous galas peopled by men and women in evening dress or beautiful ball gowns, fueled by ample champagne—and a spirit of celebration marked the whole voyage.

For passengers, the emphasis in daytime was on leisure and pleasure. All classes were free to mingle on deck on this first voyage, and for sociable adults, convivial afternoons afloat were often spent in reclining chairs on the upper decks, with a rug over one’s knees, gossiping and chatting while attentive stewards hovered with a trayful of tea and cakes, or cocktails. Heather enjoyed playing deck games with fellow travelers, reading in the well-equipped library, or watching movies in the cinema. The 1930s was the Golden Age of film, and a number of glamorous celebrities were making the journey, including actress Olivia de Havilland and Scottish-born actor / manager Jack Buchanan. He was tall, handsome and distinguished, and he partnered Heather every evening as, after dinner, they danced to Henry Hall’s Dance Band in the gigantic ballroom.

The Queen Mary’s inaugural crossing took 4 days, 5 hours and 20 minutes, just 40 minutes slower than her great rival, the Normandie. All the great liners, whether American, British, French, or German, competed for “The Blue Riband,” an informal prize for the swiftest crossing of the Atlantic. Heather recalled that there had been an iceberg scare during her voyage, after the ship encountered fog. The awful fate of the Titanic which struck an iceberg on her own maiden voyage only 24 years earlier was still fresh in the minds of transatlantic travellers, so Cunard were disinclined to challenge the speed record on this first outing. However, on a later trip the Queen Mary managed to cross in less than four days, and she subsequently held the Blue Riband for 14 years.

On 1 June 1936, the Queen Mary reached the end of her first voyage and sailed into a rapturous reception. “The welcome in New York was astounding!” Heather recounted. She watched in wonder as airplanes flew overhead in salute, ships of all shapes and sizes hooted, and fire hoses sprayed giant jets of water, creating rainbows over the Hudson River. VIPs came out in little boats to greet the new “Ocean Greyhound,” and crowds of cheering sightseers lined the quays to welcome the ship. The general pandemonium raised by the competing sirens, plane engines, brass bands, whistles, and whoops, was drowned out by an answering blast from the ship’s sonorous horn, a resonant vibrato, likened by some to hearing Dame Clara Butt singing There’ll Always Be An England.

Heather’s delightful personal memories add a great deal to what we know today of that prestigious and momentous journey, 85 years ago. The Queen Mary is now moored permanently at Long Beach in California, where she is a popular visitor attraction and hotel. This venerable, elegant ship is the last of the great ocean liners of the interwar era, the magnificent vessels that linked the peoples of Europe and North America, before the advent of commercial flight in the 1950s. “The Mary” as she was known to her crew, is still regarded with great affection by the thousands of people who sailed in her during her four decades in active service. But perhaps the most pertinent tribute comes from the lady who sailed on her inaugural visit as a teenager. More than eight decades after that voyage, Heather Beagley simply says “It was the most inspiring trip of my life.”

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Siân Evans is the author of ‘Maiden Voyages: Magnificent Ocean liners and the Women who Traveled and Worked Aboard Them’. Published by St Martin’s Press, 10 August 2021, US $28.99

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