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Guest Stories

The Incredible Story Of A Cunard Olympian

November 5, 2009

We Are Cunard

Posted in: Guest Stories

At Cunard we always love to hear stories from guests, as they recall their early voyages on our ships as well as former crew members who come on board for a trip down memory lane. I’ll tell you more about an amazing story I heard recently on Queen Victoria, in a moment but first, thank you again for all the comments, in fact October was a record breaking month for the Blog with more posts and comments than ever before. Queen Victoria is just finishing a Mediterranean voyage before heading back there again next week, including another call to Venice where I’ll head off to the Monfalcone ship yard to get some more pictures and video of Queen Elizabeth. Meanwhile Queen Mary 2 will make her final call of the year to Southampton next Wednesday, before settling in to her Caribbean itineraries for the rest of the year. Now it’s time for this week in Cunard’s history, for the week 6 to 12 November


6 November 2000 Cunard signs the final contract for Queen Mary 2, and unveils her key design details. She will be the largest, longest, widest and tallest passenger ship in history and will enter service in 2004.

7 November 1970 QE2 makes her maiden call Durban, South Africa.

8 November 1999 Queen Mary 2 general plans are completed and the first images are released.

11 November 2008 QE2 begins her farewell voyage from Southampton to Dubai.

12 November 2007 Crew move on board Queen Victoria for the first time


We were delighted to hear that two guests, who recently sailed with us on Queen Victoria, were keen to meet us and tell us their amazing story. Thomas Quinones (Entertainment Staff) and I met up with Mr and Mrs McAllister one morning and what a fascinating meeting it was.


As they showed us their mementos, it transpired that Mr McAllister had quite remarkable parents.

His father, Hugh McAllister, was born in 1900 and when Britain was in the grips of the First World War, like so many of his age at the time, he ran away to sea to serve his country. However when the authorities discovered his true age, he was swiftly sent home again. But he was determined to go to sea, so in 1920 he applied to Cunard to become a Radio Officer.


Although he had no experience or training before going on board, he soon learned, as was so often the way in those days. One of the mementos the McAllister family still treasures is an engraved gold pen that was presented to him by Cunard. It carries the inscription;


“W.H.McAllister S.S.Carinthia. Commemorating consistent direct radio communication with New York during world cruise 1926-27. R.C.A.”.


After a distinguished career at sea he put his electronic engineering skills to use designing rockets.


In the meantime he had met an exceptional lady, with whom he was going to spend the rest of his life. He met Hilda James on the Carinthia on the 1926-27 World Cruise, and they married in 1930. Here she is during a transit of the Panama Canal on that voyage.


Hilda Marjorie James was from Liverpool, and at an early age she had shown an amazing swimming talent. At just 16 she was the middle swimmer in the British Relay Team that won the silver medal at the1920 Olympics. This is the badge that was sewn on to their costumes, which the family still has:


But this was just one of many impressive achievements. She was a true record holder, winning her first major competition in Manchester, when she swam the ASA 300 yards freestyle in just 4 minutes 20 seconds, setting a new world record. She went on to win over 36 competitions in England and Scotland, over the following 4 years, setting a staggering nine new world records. Each time she won a record she was able to add one of these badges to her growing collection:


Her record breaking career also took her to America and here’s a clip from a newspaper published on 5 August 1922 showing her swimming the 300 metres in 4 minutes 33.8 seconds.

By the time she turned professional at the age of 21, she had amassed a huge amount of awards and broken numerous records and here she is proudly showing off her achievements:


She was prevented from attending the 1924 Olympics in Paris, by her parents as the British Olympic association would not pay for her mother to accompany her as chaperone (aged 20!). As the star of British swimming and the current world record holder at several distances, she would have undoubtedly won medals. As a member of the Cunard swimming Club at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel, she had already been offered a chance to join the line as a celebrity crew-member. Hilda was so bitter about the 1924 Olympics that she decided to turn professional and began her seafaring career, by running away from home to join the Carinthia which sailed from Liverpool in 1925. She didn’t tell her parents that she was going until the night before the voyage!

Shortly after she became engaged, she returned to England to set up the family home, because as Mrs McAllister told me “It wasn’t the done thing for a wife of a Merchant Seaman to stay on board with her husband in those days”.

Despite having a family, she kept on swimming throughout her life and often gave exhibitions right until the end of her life, even though she had a pacemaker fitted. Here she is in 1980 at an exhibition in Wallasey with another Olympic Champion, David Wilkie, (who amongst numerous awards, won the Gold Medal at the Montreal Olympics in 1976).

I’d like to thank Mr. and Mrs. McAllister for sharing this wonderful story with us, and taking the time to sit down and chat about another truly incredible Cunarder.

There are lots more great stories on the way and I also have an interview with Queen Victoria’s new Chief Engineer, Ronnie Kierr coming up as well as my next visit to see Queen Elizabeth in about 10 days time. In the meantime thank you again for logging on and all your great comments – please keep them coming. Cheers, Alastair.

  1. Gail Roberts says:

    Wonderful, heartwarming story of a real Cunard family! Thank you so much for sharing it with us!

  2. Gillian Walker says:

    What an incredible story, really great Alistair, looking forward to the Update ON QE – You are making it so difficult you know, with all the pictures etc, i’m really torn between, QV, QM2 and your photo’s of QE, there’s just all so nice – how do you choose, will have to decide in May and perhaps book while on our TOGS voyage.. Keep up the excellent work, it’s really lovely to find out all that’s happening.. Gillian Walker

  3. Anthony j.r. says:

    That is really nice. That just goes to show you everyone has a story to tell, just maybe not someone new to tell it to. I think it was very nice of you Mr. Alastair to do that! Also, I couldn’t be more excited for the next batch of photos of Queen Elizabeth! I can’t believe how much they did in a month! (In the last ones you posted) Seing how much was done then, it is very exciting to see how much will be done next! Thank you for all photos and stories it’s a very nice thing you’re doing!

  4. Freddie Paynter says:


    Thanks once again for another great post. Just a little off topic though, I ‘tragically’ missed a spot on Queen Elizabeth’s maiden voyage, and I was just wondering in what the chances were of being able to attend her naming ceremony. Does one have to receive an invitation, or are there tickets for sale?

    Thank you,
    Freddie Paynter.

  5. Stuart McAllister says:

    I’m the Grandson of Mr & Mrs McAllister :)
    Well done to them for telling the story :) !

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