Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Sweets from a Queen



QUESTION: I have an old tin candy box with a picture of the Queen Mary on the front. It says on the side that the box contains candies made by Bensons Confectionery Ltd. of Bury, England. I’ve always like this box and keep extra buttons in it. What can you tell me about it and the Queen Mary?

ANSWER: Bensons was the official confectioner of the Cunard Line, the company that built and operated the R.M.S. Queen Mary. While your box is the more common type, they come in a variety of shapes, including a full rectangle with rounded corners, a more angular rectangle with the corners cut off, and one that has its corners cut off further to almost produce an oval.

The Queen Mary her illustrious career as the most luxurious passenger liner of her day, catering to the rich and famous, on May 27, 1936, the day she departed Southampton, England, on her maiden voyage to New York City, with a stop in Cherbourg, France.  Measuring 1,019 ft long, 118 ft wide, 185 ft high, and weighing in at more than 81,000 gross tons, it was built to accommodate 815 first class, 787 second class, 573 third class passengers and 1,200 crew members.

But the liner’s early days weren’t so smooth sailing. Construction began as job Number 534 on December 1930 at the John Brown Shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland. A year later, Cunard halted construction as the Great Depression took its toll. To get things going again, the British Government loaned Cunard the money to get the project going again with one requirement—that the company merge with its rival The White Star Line.

The infusion of cash was enough to get the ship afloat, and in September 1934, Cunard launched the ship it now called the Queen Mary to great fanfare.

Everyone wanted a piece of the action. Fashion magazines positioned themselves in association with the Queen Mary, as the pinnacle of style and elegance. Advertisers, including   the National Hotel Management Company, which operated a chain of top-end U.S. hotels, also used the maiden voyage to launch promotions of their own.

Unfortunately, World War II put a temporary hold on the ship’s main service. The Queen Mary was just two days way from ending its 143rd crossing cross the Atlantic. The British Admiralty instructed Captain Irving of the Queen Mary to put his ship on war alert in a coded message.

Warned of possible submarine attacks, Irving posted additional lookouts and ordered work crews to extinguish all exterior lights and black out the ship's 2,000 portholes and windows. He also instructed his helmsmen to steer a zigzag course.

Apprehension gripped the passengers as its 2,332 passengers, many of them Americans, realized that they had narrowly escaped Europe as the threat of war became a reality. Two days later, on September 5, 1939, the Queen Mary arrived safely in New York Harbor.

She remained docked at Pier 90 on the Hudson River until March 1940, when the British Admiralty called her into active service. A coat of drab gray paint replaced the bright Cunard livery of black, red, and white. Workers also blocked out the huge letters spelling out the ship’s name. They also removed most of her carpeting, furniture, artwork, as well as 200 cases of crystal, china and silverware and stored them in Cunard warehouses along the Hudson.

The ship then sailed to Sydney, Australia, where Cunard workers transformed the Queen Mary into a troopship. They removed any remaining furniture and all 2,000 stateroom doors
put them into storage. Then they installed wooden bunks and hammocks for troops, converted shops into military offices, and converted her ballroom into a 50-bed hospital.

On her first wartime voyage in 1940, the Queen Mary carried 5,000 troops. Between 1940 and 1946, she made 72 voyages, safely transporting 765,429 military personnel. In fact, in July 1943, she carried 16,683 troops, the largest number of humans ever transported on one vessel at one time—a world record that still stands today.

Until Cunard installed stabilizers in 1956, the Queen Mary was also known as “Rolling Mary.” Cunard even had peach-colored glass used in mirrors in first class so that green-skinned complexions could take on a rosy glow. During a wartime crossing, Bing Crosby spent three days in the cargo hold because the lower on the ship, the steadier the ride.

Following the war, Cunard demilitarized the ship and refitted her. From February to September 1946, she made 13 round trips between Southampton and New York under the U.S. Army's "Operation Diaper," more commonly known as the “Bride and Baby Shuttle.”

A typical war bride menu included a choice of roast loin of fresh pork or cold roast beef, mashed or baked potatoes, salad, fruit, cheese, biscuits and coffee. Not the luxury of prewar meals, but certainly a feast by the standards of the time.

In July 1947, the Queen Mary resumed its role as a luxury passenger liner. She continued to make transatlantic crossings for another 20 years, eventually falling victim to a decline in the number of passengers, as modern travelers embraced air travel.

In May 1967, the Queen Mary had outlived her usefulness. Cunard put her up for sale and the City of Long Beach, California became her new owner for $3,450,000. The ship made a final voyage from Southampton to Long Beach but was too  large to fit through the Panama Canal. As a result, she had to travel down the coast of South America and around Cape Horn.

Conversion from luxury passage liner to floating hotel and tourist .attraction took four years to complete. Today, you can experience her Art Deco opulence and marvel at the 56 different varieties of wood veneers used throughout the ship.

Today, collectors actively seek out any piece of Queen Mary memorabilia, such as this Benson’s candy tin. While the tin sells for around $40 online in good condition, a variety of other items, including posters, timetables, commemorative medallions distributed by the Daily Record, and brochures issued by Cunard White Star Limited announcing the "Launch of No. 534, in the presence of Their Majesties, The King & Queen, Wednesday, September 26, 1934, at Clydebank, are also available.