As Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen got her first impression of what christening a new ship entailed on 27 September 1938. At the age of 12, she and her sister, Princess Margaret, accompanied their mother to John Brown Shipyard in Clydebank. From the podium, she watched as the largest ship in the world at the time – Cunard’s mighty Queen Elizabeth – was launched. As the towering ship slid stern first down an inclined slip and splashed into the sea for the first time, the cheers of hundreds of thousands of people along the banks of the River Clyde undoubtedly impressed the young princess.
From there she made her own maritime history. Queen Elizabeth II christened 21 ships during her lifetime, more than anyone else in the nation’s history. She served five Cunard vessels, two of P&O Cruises’ ships, and a mini-armada of Royal Navy vessels, not to mention her own Royal Yacht.
On 30 November 1944, Princess Elizabeth launched her first ship – HMS Vanguard – Britain’s largest and fastest battleship; three years later, for her last public engagement before her wedding to Lieutenant Mountbatten, she returned to Clydebank to launch Cunard’s Caronia. As Queen, the ships she launched include some of the most famous in recent maritime history.
The Queen’s Fleet
Built specifically for transatlantic crossings and calm warm-weather cruising, Cunard’s Caronia would be affectionately nicknamed “The Green Goddess” due to her distinctive livery of four shades of green, similar to Liverpool’s trams. At its launch on 30 October 1947 in Clydebank, the princess and her future husband, Lieutenant Mountbatten, were met by a crowd of 30,000 spectators “wildly”, according to a local newspaper.
The princess’s association would remain throughout the luxurious vessel’s career; Her portrait – showing the prince and princess in a pastoral setting on their honeymoon at Broadlands – occupied a large space in the main drawing room. Unfortunately, the fate of Caronia was a grim one. Under tow to ship breakers in Taiwan; she foundered off the coast of Guam.
Her Majesty’s Yacht Britannia was launched by Queen Elizabeth from the John Brown & Company Shipyard on 16 April 1953. Over the course of more than 44 years, the Royal Yacht traveled over a million nautical miles and became one of the most famous vessels in the world. Britannia provided the perfect royal residence for glittering state visits, official receptions, royal honeymoons and relaxing family holidays. After a decommissioning ceremony in 1997 in which Queen Elizabeth was visibly upset, Britannia became a visitor attraction and exclusive venue in Leith, the port of Edinburgh.
Queen Elizabeth 2, 1967
Cunard’s second Queen Elizabeth was also built at John Brown’s Shipyard in Clydebank, and launched by the Queen on 20 September 1967. She cut the ribbon with the same gold scissors her mother had used to launch the Queen Elizabeth back in 1938. This released the bottle of Empire- wine that smashed into the side of the mighty liner. She then pressed the button that electrically released the trigger, but the ship did not move.
The queen looked confused; the smile disappeared from Prince Philip’s face. Workers high up on the ship’s deck shouted “Give us a push,” and yard manager George Parker joined in the spirit of the wish: wearing a bowler hat, he sprang to the bow and pushed. He waved his bowler jubilantly as she accidentally began to slide smoothly into Clyde, about two minutes after the Queen had named her.
The name itself caused some controversy. Her Majesty had said: “I call this ship Queen Elizabeth the Second. May God bless her… May God bless her and all who sail in her.” And so began a maritime conundrum. Did the name refer to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, or was the name meant to suggest the second Queen Elizabeth’s liner? A A Cunard spokesman said: “The ship is named as the second liner of that name. Queen Elizabeth will be out of commission next October; Queen Elizabeth 2 will be in service shortly thereafter. It’s that simple”.
In fact, no one found it easy. In 1969 Assistant Purser, Harry Smith received a letter addressed to ‘The QE II’. He immediately marked it “try Buckingham Palace” and returned the letter to the post office. The ship was given the Arabic “2” instead of the Roman “II” and became known globally as the QE2.
In July 1990, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh took the Royal Review of QE2 and assembled Royal Navy ships at Spithead from the aft deck of the Royal Yacht Britannia. The Queen and Duke were later transferred to Cunarder by Royal Barge for a celebratory lunch. On that day, the Queen became the first reigning monarch to sail on a commercial route with passengers on board.
On 2 June 2008 she returned to QE2 for the last time to say goodbye to this famous ship. Between 1969 and 2008, the QE2 sailed 5.8 million miles and carried 2.5 million passengers in style and luxury. The large ship is now a floating hotel in Port Rashid, Dubai.
On 6 April 1995, Queen Elizabeth christened Oriana, the first cruise ship specifically designed for the British cruise market. This was the first time a reigning monarch had officiated the naming ceremony of a P&O Cruises ship. Just before the ceremony began, the Band of HM Royal Marines and the Choir of Westminster Abbey performed ‘Fair Oriana, Beauty’s Queen’. In August 2019, Oriana was sold to a newly formed Chinese cruise line and renamed, incongruously, Piano Land.
Queen Mary 2, 2004
37 years after the launch of QE2, Her Majesty traveled to Southampton on 8 January 2004 to christen Queen Mary 2 – the largest, longest, tallest and widest ocean liner ever built. That ceremony is still regarded as the most spectacular ever staged and featured performances by the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines (Portsmouth), the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and soprano Lesley Garrett.
A heart-stopping moment was provided when Heather Small performed a particularly extended version of her anthem ‘Proud’. As the orchestra, chorus and soloist came to a moving crescendo, the entire stage backdrop disappeared to reveal the Cunarder’s towering forecastle and colossal superstructure. There was an audible gasp from the assembled crowd.
Queen Elizabeth, 2010
A new Queen Elizabeth joined the Cunard fleet on 11 October 2010. A full 72 years after attending her first Cunard event, the Queen traveled to Southampton to name Cunard’s third Elizabeth and thus claim the distinction of being the only person to attended the launches. of all three Cunard “Elizabeths”.
The Queen told those in the Royal Party about the time she and her sister accompanied their mother on a return trip to the First Queen Elizabeth on October 8, 1946, as the ship’s refit following her war service neared completion. At that time the Royal Party was escorted to the bridge, where both princesses were given a stopwatch to measure the speed of the Cunarder over a measured mile. On her third attempt, the liner achieved exactly 30 knots. While on board the new Queen Elizabeth, she revealed that – in those rationing days – that’s when she saw white bread for the first time.
Looking resplendent in a petal-peach coat, the then 88-year-old monarch took her place in the grandstand built in front of P&O Cruises’ Britannia, whose hull was painted with a 308ft Union Flag. The patriotic christening ceremony on 10 March 2015 at Southampton’s sea terminal was one of the last public occasions when Prince Philip accompanied Her Majesty. His sense of humor remained sharp. Seeing his wife sign an empty picture mount – where a glossy portrait of the monarch was later placed – the prince said adorable: “It’s not a very good likeness, is it?”