“I NAME THIS SHIP….” BRITISH ROYALTY AND CEREMONIAL LAUNCHES OVER THE YEARS

A Queen's eye view. The huge flank of QM2

A Queen’s eye view. The huge flank of QM2

With the media full of rumours that Queen Elizabeth II will launch the new P&O Cruises flagship, Britannia, this coming March, now seems as good a time as any to look back at some famous royal naming ceremonies of the past. Inevitably, most- but not all-of these are associated with Cunard. What might surprise many is that the first of these did not occur until as recently as September of 1934.

On that famous occasion, the ageing Queen Mary lent her name and prestige to a shop that become immortal. Hull no. 534 thundered down the slipways of the John Brown yard at Clydebank, to the cheers of over 200,000 rain sodden spectators. Thus began a tradition that remains- albeit in a different form- to this very day.

In those days, and for many years afterwards, a ship launch was exactly that; a physical progression of a newly christened hull from slipway to river. There would be the naming by a grand- hopefully royal- personality, and then the actual moment when the champagne bottle (or sparkling Australian wine in the case of the Queen Mary) was smashed against the prow. Immortalised in grainy black and white movietone reels. these still have an awesome retrospective splendour to this day.

Four years later, the young Queen Elizabeth did the honours for the second great new Cunarder from the same vantage point, beginning an intimate association with the RMS Queen Elizabeth that would last until that fabled ships’ eventual retirement a full three decades later. Present with her on the podium that day was the young Princess Elizabeth, whose own relationship with the ocean liner and cruise industry continues unbroken to this day.

In the post war world, it was this same young Princess Elizabeth that did the honours for the Caronia, the legendary ‘Green Goddess’ launched on the Clyde in October of 1947. But the future Queen was not solely to be associated with the great Cunarders.

In 1953, as Queen, she did the official duties for the launching of the Southern Cross over at the Harland and Wollf shipyard in Belfast. This new ship was revolutionary more in terms of design, rather than size. With a new, engines aft propulsion system, the new Shaw, Savill and Albion liner would be the trend setter copied by such future, ocean going aristocrats as the Rotterdam and Canberra.

In June of 1955, the Queen went over to the Fairfield yard at Govan, near Glasgow, to give her blessing to the Empress Of Britain, the new Canadian Pacific liner, built specifically for the Liverpool to Montreal run. This era marked the absolute high point of ocean liner evolution. It would be a dozen years before the monarch would again name a passenger vessel. But, when she did, it would begin an almost symbiotic relationship between the two.

“I name this ship Queen Elizabeth the Second…..”

On 20th September, 1967, the Queen returned to Clydebank to launch the successor to the two previous Queens. Aptly, she cut the cord holding the launch bottle with the same pair of scissors used on her two great predecessors. And, as the trim, magnificent hull began her stately progress down the ways, she was heard to exclaim; “Oh, look at her; she’s beautiful!”

The rest, as they say, is history.

After that landmark liner launch, the physical protocol of ship christenings evolved in line with new building processes. By the time that the Queen christened the new P&O Oriana in Southampton in 1995, the champagne bottle was deftly smashed against the side of a fully completed vessel, docked alongside in her future home port. From here on in, all major ship launches would follow a similar pattern.

Her Majesty would perform two similar honours for Cunard; first for the glorious new Queen Mary 2 in January 2004, and for a second, superb new Queen Elizabeth as recently as October, 2011. If the sovereign does, as expected, christen the new Britannia this coming March, it will be simply the latest in a long line of such gilded ceremonial events. But, while the Queen is the absolute gold standard for launching an ocean liner, she is by no means the only member of the family to engage in the time honoured process of naming such great ships.

Many have forgotten now that the late Diana, Princess of Wales, christened the 45,000 ton Royal Princess, again in Southampton, back in 1984. Not to be outdone, it was her sister in law, Princess Anne, that performed the same duty for the Aurora, the great new P&O cruise ship in 2000.

And, in 2007, the new Queen Victoria, the first ship ever to bear the name, was christened in Southampton by Camilla Parker Bowles, in her official capacity as Duchess of Cornwall.

Whatever your view of royalty, it seems completely right that these great, prestigious ships down through the years should be christened by such notable figures. For our current Queen, her interest and continued patronage of the ships she has named  is both very personal and, in the case of QE2 in particular, quite profound.

Britannia will almost certainly be next. It is to be hoped that she will not be the last.

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One comment

  1. It would be appropriate for our Queen to name the new Britannia. After all, HM has previously used the words “I name this ship Britannia” when launching the Royal Yacht. I have cruised or crossed aboard three Cunard Queens launched/named by HM the Queen and a Union-Castle liner launched by HM The Queen Mother. Was Queen Mary really “ageing” when she launched the Queen Mary in 1934? She would have been only 67 at the time. When she died at age 85 she could be described as aged.

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