The QE2 is due to sail into Liverpool next month for her 40th birthday celebrations. Peter Elson reports on Carol Thatcher’s new book on Britain’s world- famous liner
SHE is the last great ocean liner conceived in Liverpool for arguably the city’s most famous company of all, Cunard Line.
And QE2 has a story that mirrors Britain’s national fortunes over the last four decades to an uncanny degree.
Against all the odds, she has become a symbol of enormous British prestige and perhaps the very last large vessel to truly represent what this island is capable of achieving.
As they say, God must be a Scouser, because the omens for this much-loved ship did not appear good, yet here she is 40 years on and still sailing the world.
The blinkered conservatism of Cunard’s Pier Head-based senior management was determined to have two transatlantic liners, despite jet airliners hugely eroding the premium passenger market and it was only very late in the day that they were persuaded, by plummeting passenger receipts, to drastically modify the concept to a single ship which could cruise during the winter when the North Atlantic was decidedly unappealing.
Somehow, it eluded these grand old men that passengers were no longer willing to tolerate six days on a liner practically standing on its end during winter crossings, when they could fly to New York at 600 miles an hour.
I remember John Prescott, our former deputy Prime Minister and ex-Cunard steward, telling me: “Cunard’s Liverpool management at that time were useless. They were completely out of touch with what was going on.”
But without Cunard’s fairly intransigent attitude, we would not have the liner as she is today, with a lineage harking directly back to the PS Britannia, which inaugurated the world’s first scheduled transatlantic steamship service from Liverpool’s Coburg Dock.
QE2 was branded a white elephant practically from the start by the City of London financial experts. Cunard was in a highly precarious financial position at the time of her conception and the travel revolution was well under way.
Her cost of £29m, in April, 1969, nearly bankrupted Cunard, but she rapidly repaid her investment and regular refurbishments totalling 10 times her original build price have kept her competitive.
That she was constructed at all remains a miracle. As in much of Britain, industrial relations at John Brown’s shipyard on the Clyde were appalling during the middle to late 1960s.
The joke went that there is another QE2 elsewhere, because so much of the original was pilfered. John Brown won the contract for QE2’s building (unfairly over the Tyneside yards, many thought) as its order book was the emptiest.
As a result of this lack of potential employment, yard workers endeavoured to keep QE2’s building going as long as possible through constant strikes. Archaic and counterproductive union practices and inept and heavy-handed management all combined to make the job a nightmare.
As with the building of RMS Windsor Castle at Cammell Laird, Birkenhead, almost a decade earlier, out of all this strife and mess emerged another beautiful ship.
Carol Thatcher, daughter of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has just written a first-rate commemorative book about the ship called QE2 Forty Years Famous.
While clearly endorsed by Cunard Line and a firm acknowledgement to its long-standing press and public relations team of Eric Flounders and Michael Gallagher, this book is no whitewash. It is, as it announces, a “warts and all” view of QE2.
“QE2 was launched in an era when the airliner was in vogue and carved out a niche for herself transporting the rich and famous in fabulous style.
“Passengers distinguished themselves by possessing enough leisure time to spare the five days for a transatlantic crossing, as opposed to five hours on an aircraft,” writes Carol.
“She’s always in the news, whether because of stowaways, storms, collisions, ransom threats, drug smugglers, gun runners, terrorist activity, QE2 became something of a celebrity herself.
“In her 40 years of transatlantic crossings and world cruises, she has finally achieved legendary status of the greatest passenger liner of all time.”
Although QE2 has had more books written about her than any other liner, excepting Titanic, Carol hopes there is yet more left to say.
“I hope my main achievement is a comprehensiveness not seen in any other so far, but it also contains much new material – especially relating to the ship’s design and construction.”
That’s certainly true. Thanks to Liverpool’s Cunard fuddy-duddies of the early 1960s, they bequeathed a very special ship indeed (albeit after much painful wrangling) that has stood the test of time.
A time so long, in fact, that transatlantic sea crossings came back into vogue stimulated by the worldwide growth in cruising that was looking for other ocean travel experiences. When Carnival Cruise Lines took over Cunard, it immediately latched onto this market potential and conceived and built Queen Mary 2, the largest ocean liner ever constructed.
QM2 was profoundly based on QE2, but by this time the British shipbuilding industry had practically expired, so she was built in France.
Which is just another reason why there’ll never be another QE2 once she retires to Dubai next year. Meantime, this marvellous book, packed with great stories, detail and photos, will steam on.
CAROL THATCHER’S book, QE2 Forty Years Famous, is published by Simon & Schuster, £25
A proud moment
ONE of the proudest days of Capt Robin Woodall’s life was bringing QE2 into the Mersey on Cunard Line’s 150th anniversary, in 1990.
This was the first time that QE2 visited her owner’s original base and decades since a Cunard liner had graced the Mersey.
Capt Woodall, who lives in Hoylake, recalls first seeing QE2 in the Clyde, dry-docked in Greenock, on December 17, 1968, still undergoing completion by her builders.
“Capt Bil Warwick, a very famous Cunard figure from Merseyside, was in charge and I was second junior officer on the four to eight watch, having transferred from the frigate HMS Undaunted.
“My previous Cunard ship was Franconia, which was much smaller and older. She looked fantastic and I had always wanted to go on the ship ever since she was planned.
“I don’t know how the officers were picked and I wasn’t one of the originals, but must have been a first reserve. John Fisher left to become a pilot and I took his place.
“I was just very proud and happy to be appointed to the ship. After we were commissioned, there was all the turbine engine trouble and we went to Southampton and took the turbines out. I was amazed at how small they were.
“Bil Warwick was very good at letting the officers play with the ship. As the one and only second officer I was on watch and experienced in the handling of the ship so we learned a lot.
“In those days, changing course was a big event and she turned very nicely. She was a beautiful mover.”
Capt Woodall served on all of Cunard’s famous postwar fleet, bar Britannic, until his retirement.
He says: “Affection for QE2 was always there and has grown. She was built for the North Atlantic and cruising, so she needed a hull like a brick chicken house in Alabama. You always felt very safe in her, even in the worst weather.
“The worst position in bad weather is running before the wind and there’s not a lot you can do, the ship will tend to roll, the faster you go the better. But at times navigationally you were constrained and any ship will roll. The worst roll was about 20°, but you never worried she wouldn’t right herself.”
For her first world cruise starting in New York on January 4, 1975, Capt Woodall went to Panama in his capacity as first officer and navigator.
“Two years earlier in 1973, I went on what I called ‘Woody’s world walkabout’. My air ticket said ‘from London to London via the world’, he recalls.
“This included inspecting the Panama Canal locks and control tower. There was a margin of 2ft 6ins width and 23ft either end on the gates and the bridge wings overhung the lock sides.
“The worst scenario, if we rolled, was that we would come within six inches of the control tower. On QE2’s transit, I was out on the bridge wings and thought ‘she’s not going to fit’, but she did. I was so worried about having made a mistake in my calculations.”
Capt Woodall was back briefly as staff captain in 1976, and then finally as captain in 1987. He says: “It was absolutely fantastic it was the end of all my ambitions.
“As a small boy looking at the Wonder Book of Ships, with pictures of the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I thought, one day, I’ll go there in command.
“I was lucky in working under Bil Warwick. He was one of the new breed of captains who were far more outgoing with officers and letting them get on with it.
“I likewise tried not to lose my relationship with the crew. Cunard only had three liners at that time and so I knew all the officers in this close-knit community.
“You don’t try to stamp your own authority, it just sort of happens. You also got to entertain the passengers in playing the part of the captain that they expect to see, but you’re not trained for that.
“My late wife, Eileen, was a great asset in that respect. The positive role of officer’s wives in projecting this image of the company was something Cunard realised, but took ages to do anything about it, although they were allowed to travel from the early 1960s.”
And what about Capt Woodall’s favourite home? “There’s a simple answer to that,” he says. “Home. It keeps me out of trouble.”