Historic documents saved from bonfire for just £25 come to auction with a £4,000 price tag at Ewbank's

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Historic documents saved from bonfire for just £25 come to auction with a £4,000 price tag at Ewbank's
Correspondence from the Rintoul family, who had the pans after the war. It is included in the lot. Image courtesy of Ewbank’s Auctions.

LONDON.- A car boot sale find 25 years ago has turned out to be detailed original plans for one of the most important luxury cruise liners from the golden age of steam.

Costing just £25 in 1996, they are now expected to fetch up to £4,000 when they come up for auction at Ewbank’s in Surrey on March 26. More important, says the owner, is that he bought them after learning that the car boot vendor intended to put them on a bonfire when he got home if they didn’t sell.

The full set of plans for the RMS Queen Mary – one of the three grandest liners of the period – comprise 14 individual sheets, each measuring 11ft long by 2ft wide, packed with intricate details of the ship prior to it being stripped for conversion to a troop ship in WWII, capable of carrying nearly 17,000 men including the crew.

The conversion is said to have involved removing six miles of carpet, 220 cases of china, crystal and silver services, tapestries, and paintings for storage for the duration of the war.

Meanwhile protecting the luxury fixtures meant covering the woodwork in the staterooms, the cabin-class dining room, and other public areas with leather.

Built in the mid 1930s and launched by the Cunard-White Star Line, the RMS Queen Mary won the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing just a few months after her maiden voyage in May 1936.

Along with RMS Queen Elizabeth and the French liner SS Normandie, she was the largest and pre-eminent luxury liner at the peak of the glorious cruising age of steam, plying a course between Southampton and New York via Cherbourg.

Dramatic dash across the Atlantic

The Queen Mary arrived in New York as Britain declared war against Germany on September 3, 1939, and remained there in berth alongside the Normandie for the next six months before being joined by the Queen Elizabeth, which had made a dash across the Atlantic to safety from Clydebank.

The plan was to use the ships as troop carriers, but the Normandie was destroyed in a fire during the conversion process. Meanwhile the Queen Mary left for Sydney in Australia where the Admiralty’s plan for conversion went ahead with a view to her transporting troops from Australia and New Zealand.

Among the luxury fittings removed were the stateroom furniture and decoration. In their place were fitted with triple-tiered wooden bunks. Anti-mine protection was applied to the hull, while the grand cruising colours of her hull and funnels – black, white and red – were painted over in navy grey. She was soon dubbed the Grey Ghost.

Apart from their size, the ships were seen as ideal for transporting troops because of their speed, which meant that they could outrun the Germans’ lethal U-Boats.

It was not all plain sailing, however. On October 2, 1942, as she set off with thousands of American troops to join the Allied forces in Europe, the Queen Mary accidentally ploughed a course directly across the deck of her cruiser escort, HMS Curacoa off the Irish coast. The Curacoa sank with a loss of 239 lives.

Just under a year later, the Queen Mary set a record for the largest number of passengers ever transported on a single vessel when she carried 15,740 soldiers and 943 crew. It was a memorable voyage for another reason too: the huge storm she sailed into while 700 miles off the Scottish coast, when she was hit by a wave estimated to have been almost 100ft high. According to one account, she was a mere three degrees from capsizing in the dramatic pitch of her rolling amid the waves.

The Queen Mary also played a vital role carrying the wartime prime minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to the United States for meetings. He travelled incognito, listed on the passenger manifest as Colonel Warden.

When the war came to an end, the Queen Mary was refitted and went back to her duties as an Atlantic cruise liner. Apart from an accident where she ran aground off Cherbourg in 1949 (she was refloated the next day), she continued in service into the jet age, when passenger numbers fell away dramatically as people took to the skies for the much faster crossing. Eventually she was sold off and can now be found moored permanently off Long Beach California as a tourist attraction.

Now Ewbank’s are helping to recall that golden age of the RMS Queen Mary and its dramatic wartime adventures with the sale of the full set of plans, all printed to a scale of one eighth of an inch to 1ft.

Liverpool museums verified plans

The Sun deck and Sports deck plan bears the modification stamp showing the Admiralty mark 1939 – when they would have been reviewed for the conversion – and the plans are being offered alongside two discs containing digitalised version of the plans, as well as numerous personal archives.

The vendor has carried out in-depth research into them over the years. This included having them verified by the Maritime Archives and Library, Liverpool, which hold the original builder’s plans of the Queen Mary as part of the Cunard Ships Plans Collection.

The plans have also been shown at Westminster Halls at the Annual Ocean Liner Society's meet. It is thought that no other full sets have come to light.

Papers that came with them showed that they had come from a house clearance at Henley on Thames. There they had been in the possession of David Gough an Emeritus fellow of Oriel College Oxford who was executor for Miss K Rintoul, daughter of Colonel D Rintoul. The personal archives relate to Miss K Rintoul, her brother Dr S Rintoul and Colonel D Rintoul.

It is thought that Dr Rintoul, who became a WWII ship’s surgeon, or his father Colonel Rintoul, may have acquired the plans.

“These were an exceptional find for a car boot sale,” said Ewbank’s Head of Valuations, Jack Wallis. “All the more so because the set is complete and has been well preserved. The additional research and care undertaken by the vendor over the intervening 25 years, and their conversion of the plans onto computer discs that are being offered alongside them, make this a very attractive lot for any bidder interested in this fascinating slice of history.”

The estimate is £3,000-4,000.

They can be viewed online at www.ewbankauctions.co.uk where you will also find details about live bidding online.

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