Captain John Treasure Jones: An undaunted Cunard hero

It is somewhat unusual for any captain to proceed over the sale of a legendary ocean liner to a city but when, in 1967, this particular set of circumstances unfolded, there was only one man for the job – captain John Treasure Jones

Captain Jones had travelled a long way to California for the final signing of the sale’s papers. Even while piloting an ocean liner fast enough to evade enemy engagement throughout the entirety of World War II, it had taken 39 days for Jones, his crew and passengers to traverse the globe from Southampton and arrive in Long Beach.

This wasn’t due to a lack of performance on his part. Nor was it a fault with his vessel, which was none other than the revered RMS Queen Mary, but because there had been a rather extensive soiree; unrivalled in its luxury, with festivities occurring the whole way over from the UK.

Queen Mary’s ‘last great cruise’ had departed from her British home shore via the English channel, before proceeding across both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, via an array of exotic locations and around the tail of South America. Generous measures of champagne, caviar and Havana cigars were enjoyed as passengers worked to send RMS Queen Mary off in the finest splendour.

Meanwhile, at the helm, Captain Jones navigated what most seamen would regard as notably complex obstacles. One was the treacherous Cape Horn, of which RMS Queen Mary was the largest ship to pass, whereas the second hurdle had officials sweating across their brow. Yet, Jones never batted an eyelid.

That panic escalated around him as the landmark in question the Bridge of the Americas grew with each passing length. There was, after all, only four feet to spare when the sizeable Queen Mary tucked herself, and her distinctive red and black Cunard funnels, beneath the structure. Bridge officials practically ran around in a state of cartoon alarm, while captain Jones assured them it would all be perfectly safe.

Captain Jones was right. And he had good reason to be. Having started his maritime career back in 1921, it had taken a considerable 44 years and eight months to become master of RMS Queen Mary, and then some more to get to this point in the liner’s final hurrah.

The gentleman had conquered numerous tricky situations before, and his vast experience and knowledge ensured that nothing could go wrong. As the Panama Canal's engineering marvel was sighted from his ship’s bridge, his only concern revolved around having enough lemon for his afternoon tea. Very little gave John Treasure Jones a vibe of fear, with his steely cool supported by a lifetime of achievements.

You see, Captain Jones had been on a ship torpedoed in the war, and he'd survived after countless hours in the water. He’d commanded a convoy in the Battle of the Atlantic. He’d worked RMS Mauretania through darkness and mud on her final voyage up the Firth of Forth. On cruises, he’d mixed with numerous celebrities, alongside hosting esteemed members of the Royal family.

Within the South East Asia Command, Jones had supported Admiral Mountbatten as an acting-captain RNR. As such, negotiating some overhead spans near Panama would be a doddle. This was merely a finishing flourish for the history books, marking the end of an unrivalled maritime career.

Jones had to start at the bottom of the ladder but great things were in store. Credit:QueenMaryLongBeach

From humble beginnings: Tramp steaming from South Wales

John Treasure Jones was born in 1905 at Cuckoo Mill Farm on the outskirts of Haverfordwest in Wales. His early years were spent on a 45-acre farm with the sea nearby; regardless of which direction you looked, Neptune seemed to be calling. It was inevitable that John would find a career beyond the agricultural lifestyle of his youth, and fate very much appeared to be on his side.

Inspiration for life-upon-the-seas came to Jones through time spent with his Aunt and Grandpa in the Welsh seaside resort of Barry, in the Vale of Glamorgan. John watched ships sail the Bristol Channel from a large telescope on a first-floor balcony, fuelling his imagination and setting the tone for his future.

No fewer than three of John’s uncles were master mariners. Impressively, one had even received a DSO, and John’s grandfather regularly relayed family tales from life at sea. John eagerly read all he could find on seafaring, with vivid daydreams of becoming a captain quilting his mind as school life played out.

Then, in 1921, just as John was preparing to sit his school exams, he couldn’t resist any longer. Hastily, with only a week of school to go, John skipped the exams to join a four-year apprenticeship with Cardiff’s J.C. Gould Steamship Company.

Tramp ships provided valuable experience for any sea-faring gentlemen, but it was hard and dirty work. Credit: Wikicommons

He was so keen that he’d bought his uniform long before ever applying. To his disappointment, he found no use for the uniform upon stepping aboard his first assignment – the tramp steamer Gelgrant – for the work was far too dirty.

It was long days and hard efforts aboard the tramp ship. Thankfully, John’s farming background helped him cope with the worst of it. Amid ever-present coal dust, there was a hearty group of fellow apprentices, and a brotherhood stemmed from the difficult graft. They delivered coal to the Azores, America, the Mediterranean, Gibraltar, Australia, Russia and many other far-flung places.

Jones combined tramping duties with navigational study and turns at the wheel. At one point, he got thoroughly distracted by the fine P&O passenger ship Kaiser-I-Hind. Too busy imagining being captain, the Gelgrant drifted 15 degrees off course. John was soon impolitely told to snap out of it. The daydreaming was still strong, but there was a nightmare ahead.

As Jones' skill and attention matured, he became a senior apprentice and transferred over to Grelhead. Things looked promising until, one month before his apprenticeship was up, the J.C Gould Steamship Company went bankrupt. Jones was sent up to the Tyne, where he briefly found work in South Shields – a shipping hotspot of the highest calibre.

The mighty HMS Hood gave Jones a polished sheen to match his hearty work ethic. Credit: Wikicommons

First taste of the navy

Following in his family's footsteps, Jones joined the Royal Navy Reserve in September 1923. He began with six months of training as a midshipman onboard HMS Hood. At the time, this Naval battlecruiser was the largest warship in the world, fondly nicknamed ‘The Mighty Hood’.

Although John’s time with this vessel was brief, his period aboard would begin to add a polished sheen to the tough foundation gained from tramping. Next up was time assisting on HMS Velox and HMS Ajax, before a Masters was gained at the Nautical College in Cardiff in the summer of 1929.

As the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Jones had to diversify to survive. Credit: Picryl

The Great Depression bites: A non-rising star

As Jones graduated with the eclectic skillset of tramping experience, navigational ability and nautical training, he was on the lookout for his next big opportunity. He plumped for the biggest passenger company in Great Britain – the White Star Line; owners of the revered RMS Olympic.

Joining as a junior officer, Jones supported with taking emigrants out to Australia on SS Euripides and then the SS Delphic. However, the Great Depression had started to bite and soon enough, Jones found that White Star Line could not offer him any further employment.

Despite his hard work, passenger shipping was in deep financial trouble and it would take time before he would be able to return. Instead, Jones mixed labouring back on the family farm with working as an assistant superintendent stevedore in Liverpool.

He later found employment with the Leyland and Blue Funnel Line ships at the Canada and Huskisson docks. The latter is named after William Huskisson, former treasurer of the Navy, and was the primary berth for Cunard liners. Fate was certainly drawing Jones and Cunard closer together.

In August 1933, Jones married Eulalie Lees in Haverfordwest. They would go on to have three sons and a daughter together.

World War II gave Jones a wealth of exploits and circumstances. Credit: Wikicommons/RRM

War clouds gather

Finally, after many years of piecing together a living on land, Jones proudly joined the merger of Cunard White Star Line and the crew of 20,000 ton ocean liner RMS Lancastria. Over the next two years, Jones worked his way up to senior third officer on the MV Britannic, the final liner of the White Star Line’s Olympic class.

In September 1939, grumbles of war turned into official conflict. As World War II commenced, Jones was seconded from the Cunard White Star line to the Royal Navy, to serve as a lieutenant-commander RNR on RMS Laurentic.

Laurentic was the last steamship to be built for the White Star Line. Quickly converted into an armed merchant cruiser, she now carried naval and anti-aircraft guns as well as depth charges and sailed under pennant number F51.

Initially, Laurentic patrolled a line between Iceland and the Faroe Islands, to prevent German ships from frequenting the North Sea. She was then moved on to assist at the Denmark Strait, located between Greenland and Iceland.

From there, she travelled down towards Portugal and the Azores. These were familiar waters for Jones from his tramping days. It was now 1940, and over a year into World War II.

HMS Laurentic perished at the hands of a German U-boat, but Captain Jones lived to seek naval revenge. Credit: Wikicommons

HMS Laurentic: The last White Star liner to be sunk

In November of that year, as HMS Laurentic returned from her patrol towards Liverpool, she received distress calls and went to the assistance of a merchantman – the Elders and Fyffes Casanare – who’d been torpedoed some 300 miles off the western coast of Ireland.

On November 3, as Laurentic and a fellow armed cruiser HMS Patroclus neared the scene, the German submarine U-99 fired a deadly torpedo. Streaking across the water, this hit Laurentic in her engine room, which flooded rapidly.

U-99 was a deadly killer, sinking a total of 39 ships in her career. A second and third torpedo then struck. She was a sitting duck and would only be able to take so much. In the dead of night, Jones reluctantly left the Laurentic.

Two hours later, just before 5am, a fourth torpedo hit Laurentic astern, which detonated her depth charges. This was the final blow and Laurentic foundered quickly, disappearing below the waves in a matter of minutes. A total of 49 lives were lost. As she slipped under the surface, Laurentic became the last White Star Liner to meet a violent end.

U-99 then turned on Patroclus, who also succumbed. Jones was among hundreds of survivors in the water, eagerly hoping for help themselves. U-99 suddenly scurried as the British destroyer HMS Hesperus moved in, driving the submarine away before returning to pick them up.

Adrift for almost six hours, Jones never forgot his close call with death. His wartime experience underscored his peacetime activities with an indefatigable and gracious work ethic.

Jones captained the HMS Sunflower towards the end of World War 2. Credit: Wikicommons/RRM

HMS Sunflower – A first taste of command

A month after the loss of the Laurentic, Jones was appointed command of HMS Sunflower. It was a satisfying yet challenging first taste, for ninety percent of his crew had never been to sea before. He opted to take them to Tobermory, Scotland, where they trained solidly for two weeks.

HMS Sunflower was a Flower-class corvette that carried depth charger throwers. Her role mainly covered escorting duties, to defend merchant shipping from U-boats, and Jones was eager for a U-boat strike. He headed for the Battle of the Atlantic – but a considerable challenge lay ahead.

The group commander did not join the mission, leaving Jones responsible for the safety of the entire convoy, not just HMS Sunflower. This consisted of no less than four Corvettes and around sixty merchant ships. There were attempts to ram and depth charge several submarines while also keeping watch over 61 vessels, something that left his superiors open-jawed.

Two years later, in December 1942, HMS Firedrake was torpedoed and sunk by U-211. Throughout difficult conditions and 60-foot high waves, HMS Sunflower collected 27 survivors before Jones took over the convoy escort that Firedrake had been commanding. For this, Jones was later mentioned in dispatches.

The emblem for Great Britain's South East Asia Command. Credit: Wikicommons/RRM

South East Asia command – Promotion to Captain RNR

Three years later, Jones was posted to South East Asia Command under Admiral Mountbatten, great-grandson of Queen Victoria and maternal uncle of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Appointed as a divisional sea transport officer of the Netherland East Indies, Jones was based in Batavia. His duties involved the movement of troops, supplies, civilians and military prisoners of war.

Jones was promoted to acting captain RNR and then subsequently captain RNR, before being demobbed in 1947. With a sterling track record and an impressive CV, the high-end cruise lines awaited his talents.

Life aboard the liners

Following the war, almost immediately after being demobbed in March 1947, Jones reestablished himself with peacetime shipping. This time he was on another path to victory, joining the illustrious Cunard line.

Compared with continued post-war rationing on shore, conditions on board the liners were far superior. Life here was good and opportunity remained ever-present. Jones soon added RMS Samaria, RMS Ascania, RMS Scythia and RMS Georgic to his repertoire.

In April 1948, Jones was appointed the senior first officer on RMS Queen Elizabeth. Although an enviable post, Jones found the equivalent of stepping back to fourth position from captain difficult, and briefly considered returning ashore.

Thankfully, Jones held his nerve and was promoted to staff captain in March 1953. His first liner command arrived in May 1957 with RMS Media and two happy years at her helm followed. This was followed by RMS Sylvania and RMS Saxonia, who took the new captain into the early 1960s.

In December 1962 came the command of RMS Mauretania. Built on the Mersey, Mauretania weighed in at 35,655 gross tons. She was his largest vessel to that point, and provided Jones with his first opportunity to cruise out of England since the war.

Jones became very fond of Mauretania. She handled well and shared a memorable experience with the captain, when they entered the waters of Milford Haven together. In 1964, Texaco completed a new oil refinery just 10 miles from where John had been born. To celebrate, they chartered Mauretania to take guests from Southampton to Milford Haven and back again.

RMS Mauretania, seen here docked in Scotland, firmly became a favourite of Jones. Credit: Wikicommons

These were home waters for Jones, who now soaked up the privilege of bringing in the biggest passenger ship to ever enter the harbour. The opening ceremony was performed by the Queen Mother, whom Captain Jones hosted for lunch – alongside fellow distinguished guests. Surrounded by Royalty while in command of Mauretania, he had come a long way since those days on the tramp steamers.

It was an interesting time but sadly, in the autumn of 1965, Cunard announced that they would withdraw Mauretania from service. Jones was tasked with commanding her last voyage. They travelled up to Scotland where Jones navigated Mauretania up the Firth of Forth on the midnight high tide, taking her into Ward’s ship-breaking yard in Inverkeithing, just before the river continues underneath the cantilevered Rail Bridge.

Upon stepping off Mauretania, Jones had to walk through the mud that had threatened to trap the fine Cunard ship. Jones did not turn to look back at her for fear of being 'turned into a pillar of salt'. He hoped he would never have to bring another ship to such a place.

At the crescendo of his career, Captain Jones took the helm of RMS Queen Mary. Credit: Wikicommons

A glorious career peak – Command of RMS Queen Mary

RMS Queen Mary (once robbed by Frank Sinatra, y'know) soon soothed her new captain’s brow when Jones officially took over command in late 1965. She was a fine ship, famed for her unparalleled luxury, as well as an impressive reputation as a former troopship during World War II. Queen Mary was – quite simply – the peak of Captain Jones’ career.

Upon becoming Captain of RMS Queen Mary, Jones received congratulatory letters from some of the men he’d worked alongside back in his tramping days. It was a thoughtful touch.

The following year, between May and July, Queen Mary found herself sitting docked for several months due to the 1966 seaman’s strike. This allowed shell to build up on her lower hull, leading to reduced speed and poor performance upon her return to the open water.

That simply wouldn’t do. Once the shell was removed, Captain Jones opened the taps and showed the world once more what his ship could do. Queen Mary tore across the Atlantic at an average of 29.46 knots, claiming the fastest eastbound passage for the ship since August 1938. Queen Mary was back on form.

Never one to show emotions in public, the RMS Queen Mary's final voyage proved an emotional one for Jones. Credit: Cunard Line/QueenMary/RRM

The last great voyage – dual retirement in Long Beach, California

Eventually, in 1967, Cunard opted to retire the Queen Mary. To many this was unthinkable, but Cunard were firm in their decision for the ship was now making a significant loss, largely thanks to the emerging trend of transatlantic flight.

Impressively, Queen Mary avoided the scrapyard when the city of Long Beach in California made a bid of £1,230,000. Shortly afterwards, keen passengers boarded for one last great hurrah – an epic and glorious 39-day tour before RMS Queen Mary arrived at her new home in the United States.

At the helm was Captain Jones, calmly navigating several tricky obstacles, including Cape Horn and the Bridge of the Americas. While he may have been giving most of the partying a miss, he revelled in being Master of such a colossal and renowned ship. Jones was very pleased to serve as Queen Mary’s last Captain, ensuring to savour every moment of his one-year and 10-month command.

As Captain Jones brought Queen Mary into Long Beach, America welcomed the ship with open arms. Jones requested ‘finish with engines’ one last time. As he did so, both he and RMS Queen Mary entered into retirement.

Captain Jones presided over the Long Beach ceremony, upon where he signed RMS Queen Mary over to her new owners. Credit: Facebook

Two days later, on December 11, 1967, Jones lowered both the Cunard house flag and his own Blue Ensign as he conducted the sale of Queen Mary in Long Beach.

In return, Jones was gifted several awards, including Honorary Member of the Panama Canal Pilots Association; Honorary Pilot of the Port of Long Beach and First Honorary Port Ambassador of the Port of Long Beach.

Briefly finding himself unable to control his feelings, Jones shed a few tears on Queen Mary’s deck. No one minded the Captain’s moment of emotion for the handover of RMS Queen Mary had equated to both a social and historic event. That moment also concluded a career of 47 years.

Aboard the Cunard liners, Jones mixed with celebrities and royalty while never forgetting his working-class roots. Having worked his way up, despite testing economic circumstances and conflict, Jones was a survivor of the Second World War and a consummate professional throughout his career. This made him one of the most distinguished mariners of the 20th century, and the epitome of Britishness throughout an era that witnessed social and economic change.

He may have finished with the engines back in 1967, but legacy hasn't finished with captain Jones.

Captain Jones and his good lady wife were reunited with RMS Queen Mary on various occasions before the couple passed away, a week apart from each other, in 1993. Credit: Facebook

Captain John Treasure Jones
August 18, 1905 - May 12, 1993

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About Gillian Carmoodie

Gillian has been a part of the heritage world for longer than she would care to admit. From piloting pre-war racers across Montlhéry and traversing the Cumbrian mountains with an Edwardian automobile, to flying a WWI Tiger Moth and obsessing over all things shipping, Gillian lives for history.

Starting out on Classic Car titles for Bauer's extensive portfolio, Gillian has since moved onto a successful freelance career covering all manner of heritage aspects as both writer and photographer. She is currently involved with the RNLI's bicentenary and was a proud part of the new Land Rover Defender's launch campaign.

When not buried in a book or lost to the archives, you'll usually find her under the bonnet of her classic Rover or exploring the old shipyards of the North East. Gillian mostly runs on high-octane Earl Grey.