Halloween. 31 October 1967. Tuesday.
I’d been an undergraduate at the University of Southampton for less than a month, and here I was already skipping classes. But, in my defence, it was for a once-in-a-lifetime event. For that was the day that the iconic ocean liner, RMS Queen Mary, owned and operated by the Cunard Line, made her last voyage from her home port of Southampton, bound (via Cape Horn) to Long Beach, California where she was destined to become a luxury hotel and major tourist attraction. Almost 50 years on, she is still a fixture on the Long Beach skyline.
What started as just a whim among a group of friends quickly gained traction. And once we’d persuaded one of our colleagues, Tom Power (a mature student who was studying geology and, more importantly, had his own set of wheels) we had to decide on the best vantage point from which to observe the Queen Mary glide down Southampton Water towards the Isle of Wight and the English Channel. My father’s cousin, Chris Jewett and her husband Norman (and daughters of roughly my age, Anne and Pat) lived in Weston, on the east shore of Southampton Water, and just south of what was then Cunard’s Ocean Terminal in the port. I checked with her and was told that they would have an excellent view from the terrace of their house overlooking Southampton Water. And so, quite early in the morning that’s where about five of us headed, piled into Tom’s Hillman Imp.
And what a magnificent sight the Queen Mary was, surrounded by a flotilla of sailing vessels of all sizes. She was escorted on her way by tug boats, and overhead flew a squadron of helicopters.
So what has brought all these memories to the surface. Well, I’m about halfway through a book I was given last Christmas called Pacific: The Ocean of the Future by Simon Winchester. It’s an interesting series of essays about events and people that have shaped the history and influence of this region of the world. The first chapters were concerned with the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, the rise of surfing as a Pacific Ocean phenomenon, the ‘nuisance’ (his words) that is North Korea and, in the chapter that I have just begun, Winchester describes the demise of the Queen Mary’s younger sister ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth. After the Queen Elizabeth had been decommissioned, it was sold as a possible tourist rival to the Queen Mary (but on the US east coast), but eventually made its final voyage to Hong Kong destined to become the floating Seawise University. Instead it ended up lying on its starboard side, settling into the mud of Hong Kong harbour in January 1972. In what was clearly a well-planned arson attack, the beautiful Queen Elizabeth was destroyed in a wanton act of violence. It was scrapped two years later but its steel lives on in the many skyscrapers that make up the Hong Kong skyline. The Parker Pen Company made a limited edition pen from the salvaged brass fittings on board. What could not be salvaged, mainly the keel, now lies buried beneath one of Hong Kong’s container ports on land reclaimed from the sea.
My father, Fred Jackson, was born in 1908 in the Staffordshire brewing town of Burton upon Trent in the English Midlands. It hard to think of anywhere in the country that’s further from the coast than Burton. Yet, he and his younger brother Edgar both had naval careers, and when war broke out in 1939 and they were finally conscripted into the armed forces, they joined the Royal Navy. But in the previous decade my father had sailed the Atlantic almost 100 times as ship’s photographer on ships operated by the Cunard White Star Line. His favourite ship was the RMS Aquitania.
He met my mother on one of these Atlantic crossings, and before they married in 1936 they returned to the UK on board the Aquitania. He did not serve on either the Queen Mary (launched 1934) or the Queen Elizabeth (launched 1938). However, I recall my mother mentioning that she had sailed just the once on the Queen Mary, but I may be mistaken.
Apart from my university days in Southampton, our family has a long ‘Southampton connection’. Dad’s aunt and uncle, Albert and Rebecca Osman (my grandmother’s sister) settled in Southampton, with their son Jim Osman and daughter Chris who I mentioned earlier. Dad’s brother Edgar moved to Lyndhurst in the New Forest, and their elder son Roger joined the merchant marine spending some years as an engineer on the SS Canberra.
On holidays in the New Forest around 1960, we paid a couple of visits to Southampton Docks, nostalgic visits for my Mum and Dad. In those days you could just wander around on the quayside, enter the Ocean Terminal and get up really close to the ships. Here are a few images of both the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and other ships in port. The girl with my brother Ed and me is our older second cousin Anne Jewett.
There really was a majesty about these great ocean liners. The RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 (launched 1967, but now enjoying retirement in Dubai) and the RMS Queen Mary 2 (launched 2003) carried on the graceful tradition and lines of their predecessors, and are worthy successors to their 1930s namesakes.
The cruise behemoths that now carry 4-5000 passengers at a time have, in my eyes, a fraction of the grace and glamour of the Queens, notwithstanding that they are wonders of modern maritime engineering and technology.