Wednesday 25 December 2013

Sex, race, drugs – and some liberation – in Limehouse’s 1920s sailortown

Sailortowns and port areas of cities have long been seen in popular culture and maritime history as sites of sexual and racial difficulty. Cruikshank’s cartoons early showed that no decent woman would go there. Anyone foolish enough to do so would lose her virginity or her reputation, usually both.
The problem by the early twentieth century was perceived to be not only seafarers but ‘aliens’. Foreign seamen, therefore, were a double danger. Miscegenation was a looming disaster.
In her new book, Modern Women on Trial: Sexual transgression in the age of the flapper, historian Lucy Bland devotes a chapter to representations of the British women in the early 1920s who became wives, lovers and allegedly ‘doped victims’ of Chinese seamen and Chinese settlers in London.

She reminds us that Limehouse, in London’s East End, stood as the epitome of a sinful location. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century equivalent of the red-top press Limehouse was othered as a place of opium dealing and gambling associated with the ‘yellow peril’ that threatened ‘English womanhood’ and all that entire trope symbolised, including imperial identity.
Bland found that some young white working-class ‘women were lured to/by a metaphorical East … whether or not the spatial East (End) figured.’ That is, going to the East End and mixing with Chinese men was a way of metaphorically traveling to the exotic Orient, a sort of ersatz mobility at a time when most women could not afford real voyages.
Racism was mixed with anxiety about sexual morality and criminality, especially gambling – in fact with any unruly modern practices that could not be policed. Within Bland’s chapter “Butterfly women, ‘Chinamen’, dope fiends and metropolitan allure” is a discussion of the way popular culture imagined effeminate, unclean and possibly sadistic Chinese men luring thrill-seeking young white women into debauchery.
This scandalised version of gullible females being drawn into Limehouse degradation contributed, she argues, ‘to a discussion of the modern woman across class, her questionable morality, and her unsuitability, indeed non-eligibility, for full citizenship.’ She was too feckless to be allowed the vote. (Of course, only well-off women over 39 had won the vote in 1918; full suffrage for women was not granted until 1928.)

Indeed the whole book is about the sensationalised legal trials of modern women, 1981-24, be they young flappers or matrons on a troubling path. It’s about women who were accused of being surplus, promiscuous, sterile, sensation-seeking, addicted to cocktails and dope, too easily duped, insufficiently compliant, lesbian, liars, prone to acting with sexual agency, so disrespectful of their husbands that they tried to murder them, and above all pleasure-seeking. The typical flapper’s hair was too short, as was her skirt; her chest was too flat; her waistline was too dropped; her general look far too boyish to be tolerable.
‘The trials in effect became vehicles not simply for the passing of judgement on an individual, or on a particular type of women,’ argues Bland. The reporting of court testimony ‘also entailed the castigation of women more broadly, particularly their pursuit of independence, consumption and sensation.’


The representation of this particular version of a sailortown was thus not just more of the usual stuff, the familiar moral disapproval and othering of sailortowns.
It also, for the first time, linked what we might call women’s liberation with waterfront areas, those physical and social borderlands that allow new possibilities. And this book is the first time anyone has made that connection clear.
Lucy Bland does not discuss any trial of women associated with Chinese seafarers, as such. Presumably there were none. Instead she reports on that of trafficker May Roberts who lived with a Chinese man and of other women associated with opium circles, who “rashly chose to overlook the fundamental incompatibility of ‘East’ and ‘West’”.

People interested in maritime and port history know that the post-war presence of ‘aliens’, including seamen, brought huge white anxiety about jobs being ‘stolen.’ This was most strongly expressed in the 1919 anti-race riots in ports such as London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff, Salford, Hull, South Shields, Newport, and Barry. A strong focus was on South Asian, African, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese and Arab seamen, some of whom accepted lower wages. For more details see
But this book is the first to discuss how anxiety about changing times was expressed and produced by women’s trials and the accompanying narratives about ‘modern femininity’.
In passing, Modern Women on Trial is a help in the new process of understanding women’s positions in this othered world of seafarers. Through it we can see this London sailortown as a socially liminal place where mixed-race liaisons were possible.
It helps us begin to imagine the extent to which those who enjoyed such relationships and felt them to be not transgressive, such as 'Chinatown's happy wives', did so in the face of xenophobic hysteria about miscegenation.
Seafarers’ liaisons across the divide are a subject in urgent need of an oral history study now, while the people of the climate described in this book are still alive to tell its many hidden stories.

Monday 23 December 2013

Lakonia victims resting in Madeira, 50 years on

This morning as I depart from Madeira, exactly 50 years ago rescuers were bringing ashore here the bodies of British people lost after a terrible night of fire on the stricken Lakonia.
The disaster, bigger than the Costa Concordia, was to become one of the key symbols of the dangers of sailing on floating rust buckets operated by Greek cowboys. Finally eight officers were found guilty of negligence.
Those on board had set off for a an eleven-day Christmas cruise from Southampton, back in those days when affordable cruises were only just coming into existence. The brochure had promised them ‘absolute freedom from worry and responsibility.’
This terrible pre-Xmas event in 1963 has poignancy for me because only the other day I happened to be wandering round the British cemetery in Madeira in search of biographical fragments.
Of course the graveyard, in the Rua da Carreira, is full of memorials to distinguished ex-pat citizens such as the Blandys and Leacocks, as well as to visitors who tragically expired on holidays,and to seafarers in the Merchant and Royal Navies, some of whom died here in wartime.

But there’s a cluster of five graves that are narratively notable and united. They’re the only ones in this cemetery of maybe a thousand souls to focus, quietly, on just one common cause of death – the Lakonia disaster.
Of the 128 who died, some perished in the shipboard inferno. Most were killed by the cold water – they’d been unable to get into viable lifeboats. At least one person in this Funchal graveyard died afterwards of the delayed affects.
Of the 646 passengers and 376 crew a total of 894 people were saved. The city’s Savoy Hotel helped some people continue with their holiday, and they stayed until in mid-January 1964, sailing home on the Stirling Castle.

A very few lie here. They include James Scrimgeour (see pic above), Helen Scott and WR Hills (see pics below) and the Bells.

Others (initially 58, now thirteen after repatriation ) were taken to Gibraltar where the autopsies were held, or to Casablanca.
In fact on December 6 this year a TSMS Lakonia disaster plaque was unveiled in Gibraltar’s North Front Cemetery. Lakonia mourners flew from all over the world to be there at the anniversary.

In Madeira’s cemetery Hilda and Kenneth Bell (see pic, above)are under a memorial erected on behalf of the passengers with whom they’d embarked so happily.
I’d like to report that their graves are now nestled by picturesque bougainvillea, and that they lie in the shade of very lush camellias or angel trumpet trees.
But this is relatively austere cemetery for such a verdant semi-tropical climate. Stone is the principal ingredient.
Almost no graves at all have vases of flowers, not even plastic ones, because any mourners live thousands of miles away. The least I could do was borrow some hibiscus from a nearby bush and lay it on the gravel bed above them.


There’s another story, too, that connects me to the Lakonia.
The fire that caused people to abandon ship was first noticed because smoke was blowing under the hairdressing salon door.
Earlier this year, when writing a chapter on hairdressing at sea for my forthcoming book, I read G-Strings and Curls, by Tony Kaye and Richard Seamon (Arima, London, 2007). Tony Kaye was the hairdresser who owned the salon on board the Lakonia.
He wrote bitterly about the initial accusation that some fault in his rented premises had caused the fire. This was a personal disaster to Kaye, who had just started up as a shipboard hairdresser. Presenting himself grandly as ‘Coiffeur Transocean’ earlier that year he’d asked the General Steam Navigation Company of Greece for the concessionary rights on their ‘new’ cruise ship. They agreed.
That summer fifty years ago this new boy invested all he had in fancifying the rather basic salon that then existed.
So the idea that he was responsible for the fire was a disaster on top of the disaster at this very onset of his career.
Tony Kaye was part of a new wave of shipboard hairdressing. Just as Vidal Sassoon was so hairstyles and Biba was to fashion, so Kaye was the entrepreneur who would build a shipboard empire that for decades rivalled Steiner’s stately dominance of blue-rinsing procedures aboard almost all of Britain’s iconic ocean queens.
In fact an official inquiry found faulty electrical wiring was at fault, not hairdryers. It also criticised the poor maintenance of equipment (some davits rusted), the poor boat drills, and the poor supervision.
That took two years. In the meantime Kaye was struggling to get other shipping companies to take him on despite his reputation.
I found while surfing the website for the disaster,, that the 21-year-old manager of Kaye's Lakonia salon, Joe Benveniste, is still alive and well. He was in the water for five hours but saved by an unknown man called Tony and taken onto the Montcalm.

I’m leaving Madeira today, the day before Xmas Eve, a relatively happy holidaymaker on a plane that I assume will safely bring me home.
Before our plane has taken off another cruise ship will have already arrived – as one or two do every day – and moored just a quarter of a mile from the cemetery.
Down by the bus station near the dock women will be laying out their usual pavement displays of fir boughs, Spanish-mossed branches, and buckets of proteas. Fake Santas will continue plodding their beat in tourist boulevards and cobbled lanes decked with strings of lights and OTT nativity scenes.
CDs of heavily-orchestrated English carols will, for yet another day, be thundering out in every hotel tannoy shopping mall.
Happy Christmas, Madame. Weihachtsgrusse. Come back next year.
It’s a striking contrast to the Lakonia passengers who were so cruelly cut short in their enjoyment of the anticipated festivities, perhaps some of them sporting their new Xmas perms and trims created by Joe, in the new Coiffeur Transocean salon.
I’m pleased that the Lakonia inquiry did finally bring tighter regulation go shipyard safety. But in these penny-pinching days I wonder how much operators of ships are ensuring every voyage is a safe one.

Saturday 14 December 2013

The lost history of Wrens and QARNNS on battleships in WW2: news of event in Jan 2014

A uniformed service woman on a wartime battleship? Surely it's a seeming contradiction that can't be countenanced, like, for example, Prince William marrying a North Korean barber.

But ... it happened. Royal Navy vessels in WW2 exceptionally carried women as semi-members of the crew. They were either Wrens being evacuated or going out to overseas postings, or naval nurses(QARNNS assisting homeward-bound British Prisoners of Wars as the conflict ended.

On Wednesday January 8 I'm giving a highly illustrated talk on the subject at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth. "Grog, darning and gendered un/welcomes; Wrens and QARNNS nurses on WW2 warships" takes place at 5o'clock and is free. (

In it I'll be looking at the way these women were seen as intruders and anomalies that had to be accommodated into closed and traditional masculine institutions. They were "matter out of place", to use an anthropological concept.


Great tension caused by some Wrens who were seen as transgressing gendered boundaries by expecting that if they worked as men did they should also get men’s rewards, including grog. Wrens on warships were positioned as boys (at best) or troublemakers and spoilers to be got rid of (at worst.
But on some more progressive ships officers were proud to flaunt Wrens on deck as they sailed in a celebratory way into the world’s harbours.

The only accounts of QARNNS on ships show that they were welcomed, and even made honorary members of ship’s companies, because they were not challenging. They sewed for the men and did not expect to be treated as full participants.
In other words, they behaved as lady visitors traditionally did: appreciatively and supportively. The outcome was sometimes marriage.


With what degrees of welcome and dismay were women, as matter out of place and feminised representatives of civilian and domestic life, handled by their hosts?
What place could women negotiate in total institutions geared to war, the support of the status quo, and the avoidance of ‘weak’ emotions?
And what do these cases reveal about women’s and men’s attitudes towards something approximating gender equality?
Using concepts such as ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas) and ‘hosts and guests’ in ‘total institutions’ (Goffman) this accessible but scholarly talk explores three recorded cases as examples of possible underlying trends in attitudes towards gender on British warships in WW2.
Why do it? Because during my research into women at sea in both world wars, for a book to be published by Yale University Press next year, I stumbled over these women and found their experience fascinating and telling.
I want to share it with you and anyone who's interested.
Hopefully it will be helpful in understanding naval men's attitudes towards women fifty years later when females were allowed to serve on some warships, as Smiles' cartoon shows (May 2000, Navy News).
The caption reads "The last [HMS] Dauntless had an all-female crew - why not the next?" So far, of course, there has been no all-female warship, although there were many all-male ones.

Thursday 12 December 2013

The British women ‘who never cry’ are released by Germany

Over 70 years ago on this day, Thursday 12 December 1940, British women prisoners of the Germans were finally released from the ship on which they’d been detained for a fortnight. German sailors landed them on Emirau Island in what is now Papua New Guinea.
It was the beginning of the end of being in enemy hands. At last they would no longer be at sea in wartime dangerous waters.
Among the women were Betsy Sandbach and Geraldine Edge, escort nurses who had been captured while returning home from Australia after delivering child evacuees for the Children's Overseas Resettlement Board.
Picture: Several weeks earlier. The children and the escorts had arrived safely in Sydney.

The women who'd thought they were returning home, child-free, to Britain were instead captured by German Kriegsmarine vessels and transferred to a kind of floating detention centre, Kulmerland.
On this pre-war Hamburg-New York passenger liner renamed as the Tokyo Maru, the original amiable staff were still on board.
Genial cigar-smoking Captain Bshunder, who had charmed so many peace-time Kulmerland passengers said ‘“Why should I not be kind to you. War is senseless” … then added the stock phrase we heard so often, “We do not make war on women.” “Sez you,” we softly murmured,’ reported Geraldine and Betsy.

Clearly women were angrily seeing their German ‘guards’ as an enemy group who were puzzlingly unlike the barbarian stereotype but had to be opposed at all times.
On the other hand the Germans were proceeding in a gallant manner. They wondered rather anthropologically at the pluck and tenacity of their female unexpected ‘guests’.
The two escorts write a triumphal version of one much-repeated story about gendered and nationalistic relations aboard. There was a day when the doctor asked one of his very poorly CORB patients:
‘”Do you English women never cry?” “What would be the good? We have no handkerchiefs,” was the laughing retort. Two were immediately produced, but the tears, needless to say, never came.’
By contrast another escort, Florence Cebild, recalled a more complex, and less-quoted version where the patient bravely replied ‘“Oh yes, when we have something to cry about” ... [but later in the darkness was] sobbing quietly.’

Two weeks later, in the early afternoon of that final Thursday ‘came the longed-for and joyful command, “Will the ladies and children go off the ships first, please?” We needed no second bidding. Down the gangway into a waiting lifeboat we hurried,’ said Geraldine and Betsy.
The women were more fortunate than the 150 white men, who were taken back to Prisoner-of-War camps in Germany.
After that Betsy and Geraldine’s group endured two weeks of what one newspaper described as ‘a rollicking Robinson Crusoe adventure’ on Emirau (‘Squally’) Island. It was not.
Then on Christmas Day an Australian Naval initiative rescued them and took them safely to the Antipodes.
Very quickly, Betsy and Geraldine wrote their vivid book, which was published in September 1941.Now forgotten, it is one of the only books about women on the wartime seas. It must also have been important early propaganda, by women, with which women readers could identify.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Race, British seafarers and Mandela: Remembering seamens' contribution to opposing apartheid, on Mandela's funeral day

Seafarers, especially in the 1960s,70s and 80s, quietly contributed to the ending of apartheid in South Africa. This blog,on Nelson Mandela's funeral day, commemorates their roles in the struggle he headed.

Their stories, particularly that of Gerry Wan, highlight the way that the sea not just wet space but an actor in the struggle for justice. And seafarers aren't just people who happen to do an itinerant job. They're global citizens who can use workplace opportunities to make connections that can change the lives of millions.


In letters home seafarers from the UK who sailed to South Africa repeatedly mention their disgust at the white racism there. These were not radical people, simply average ones who believed in fairness.Some say they never want to go back, they are so appalled - and puzzled - by the bigotry.
British women seafarers, it seems, weren't involved in direct action.
However, being a historian has taught me that one never knows anything for sure. Many late-emerging tales prove evidence of the contrary to existing assumptions.
On ship and ashore these upper-working-class women met black people traveling as passengers and crew. Early 20C stewardesses (such as Julia Andrew, see picture, on Elder Dempster ship, laundresses and nurses came back with stories and photos which educated those around them who had less understanding of people from other cultures and their struggles for justice.
London Recruits, an anthology of writings by committed radicals who smuggled anti-racist material to South Africa, shows clearly (but too briefly) that some seafarers took their sense of outrage a step further. They used their position as people going routinely to and from for their work, to help the struggle, via the African National Congress and the South Africa Communist Party. See London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, compiled and edited by Ken Keable, Merlin, London, 2012.
The book's website includes fuller stories that have newly emerged:


One of these is of Gerry Wan ...'a Liverpool-born black seaman who worked on the Union Castle line. He sailed out of Southampton to Durban on a regular basis' according to Roger O'Hara's speech on that website.
Gerry ‘would carry messages, documents and sometimes large amounts of money that he left in “post boxes” for the ANC to pick up later. As he once said, he realised, if he was caught and being black, the regime would not jail him, but treat him much worse.'
Ex-seafarers George Cartwright, Eric Caddick and Pat Newman at very short notice joined luxury yacht Avventura to take 20 young freedom fighters from Mogadishu to somewhere on the South African coast to join the armed wing of the ANC.
Engine problems stopped them continuing. South African police caught and killed five of the 20 young men as they attempted to travel over land instead.
British supporter Billy McCaig was supposed to prepare the Avventura’s reception. But he was captured and with Sean Hosey was tried as part of the Pretoria Six. Hosey served five years in jail.
O’Hara, who knew the Merseyside seafarers, said ‘Some years later we were informed, by ANC members who were studying at Liverpool University, that we shouldn’t see the episode as a failure... The government media had [implicitly] alerted the population the ANC was not dead.'
The publicity around the slaughtering had actually revealed that although 'Mandela might be in prison the ANC was still active. This news was dramatic as it gave the rank and file ANC members their confidence back.'
And Liverpool City Council has agreed this year to put up a plaque commemorating Merseyside people's contribution, especially that of the seafarers.


At least seventeen young women from Britain were among the people who in the 1970s and 80s smuggled British-published flyers and newspapers and leaflets to be circulated to activists in South Africa. It was vital information that the South African upholders of apartheid had suppressed.
Mary Chamberlain was one such student. In 1972 she sailed with her ‘husband’ Carey Harrison as newly-wed immigrants on the SS Vaal,.on board were couples ‘hoping for a new and better life in South Africa where we could raise a family in a wholesome environment, free of the stresses of unbridled immigration and interfering socialists.’
Mary and Carrey took ‘old-fashioned wooden tea chests … each …with a false bottom containing brief histories of the South Africa Communist Party and copies of a comic book. Simon and Jane told the simple love story of a young couple torn apart by apartheid, and driven to take up arms and fight for justice. Its centre-fold gave instructions for making a Molotov cocktail.
‘We had over twenty packing cases containing 2,000 SACP histories and 5,000 comic books, all printed in super-fine paper … We filled the cases with duvets and pillows, plastic colanders and egg-whisks, anything that looked plausible but weighed nothing.’
Much stress followed as Mary’s article on the website shows. But they accomplished their mission and returned safely. Mary is now Emeritus Professor of Caribbean History at Oxford Brookes University.


Mandela had not then achieved 'Living God' status but was simply one of the many black brothers (often underground and in prison) whom socialists identified with and helped. Acting as courier was just doing one of the many covert and unsung things internationally that helped build the African National Congress and eventually bring it to power.

This is a good day for remembering two things: how much we still need to work together worldwide as people struggle for justice; and how much some fair-minded unsung people all over the globe inspiringly helped to win the justice implicitly being commemorated today in Soweto.

Friday 6 December 2013

Sailing through Xmas: women crew and women passengers

Ayah at children's party on ship, 1889. Painting by Godefroy Durand

Christmas on ship for women crew and women passengers in the past has varied depending upon the period and the vessel.
In the early and mid-twentieth century routinely stewardesses on liners and cruise ships decorated the public rooms with paper chains, lanterns and baubles. Sometimes the women passengers helped dress the tree with fairies and tinsel as they might at home. Male passengers didn’t; it seems to have been a feminine rite.

In wartime women and men in the armed forces sometimes were en route to overseas postings during the Yule period. When Territorial Army nurse (TANS) Mary Wrangham Hardy was sailing from the Middle East to Italy on the Melita, just before Christmas 1943:
‘It gave us a strange feeling …. On Christmas Eve everybody collected on one of the decks for carols. Next day we all sat on the steps and the floor to get as near as possible [to the wireless] for the King’s Christmas Broadcast. The reception was perfect – we could hear every word and felt that it was a link with our families at home. ‘

For other women the principal feeling was not nationalistic nostalgia but wonder at the difference between their usual Christmas in Britain and the possible other versions of it in other countries. Women’s Auxiliary Air Force member Yvonne George loved docking in the Bay of Algiers on Christmas Day 1943.
‘When we saw the view confronting us we all thought we had been transported to Paradise. There before us under bright blue skies with the sun beating down stretched among leafy green trees in the hills where white villas, some looked like palaces all nestling among orange and lemon trees in full blossom with the sweet perfume … permeating the air. Coming direct from the dark gloom of blackened-out England … it seemed to us that we had suddenly fallen on a different planet.’

All seafarers are acutely aware that they can’t be with the people they care about back home. Today this can be remedied to some extent by Skype and mobile calls if they can get a signal. (You can’t in always in mid-ocean spaces).
People also phone via satellite communications, such as SAT-M and V-Sat, on bigger ships. Satcomm companies offer cheap rates for festive periods including Eid and Diwali (Quiet Time, Super Quiet Time) because business traffic is less on those days. The more generous shipping companies allow free phone calls and internet access.

In the past, cards and presents would have been snailmailed many weeks earlier – and wouldn’t necessarily have arrived at the right port on the right day. As on land, women tended to be the ones who organised sending cards; they were not likely to be the recipients to the same extent that men were. Today’s e-cards arrive more reliably -- if you’re within signal range.

Seafarers, especially young ones, often say that they expected their first Xmas at sea would be lonely and that they’d miss home. But then they actually have a wonderful time. This is not least because operators of cruise ships catering for the West European market put on so many festivities. (Profit-focused, they want passengers to have such a good experience that they come back, ideally with extra paying guests).
And staff are part of that fun, as well as helping organise it as cruise directors, social hostesses, shop assistants etc. Behind the scenes, Christmas is yet another excuse for a boozy staff party in someone’s cabin, although modern prohibitions on crew alcohol consumption mean no one is as legless as they were in fifty years ago.

On the Chusan in the Red Sea in 1955. a woman passenger wrote :
“25 December - went to breakfast and found that a menu and Christmas card was placed for each person. Church service was at 10.30…after lunch walk around the dining room to see the Christmas spread, the amount of work the chef had done, there was a boar’s head, two sucking pigs, a large ham, turkey, Christmas cake, a cake made into a clock and decorations were wonderfully done. After that went up in the lift and there was a piece of mistletoe right in the centre and one of the ship’s officers was standing right under it, when it was pointed out he was in a dangerous spot he quickly moved to the side. Then we heard the Queens speech, we are two hours ahead of English time…
And so to dinner. I wore my spotted cocktail dress and it was very comfortable. We had a super time, three bottles of bubbly, the Chief Radio Officer footing the bill and we wore our hats and were kicking up an awful din blowing whistles and playing the fool generally”.

As in hotels, work doesn’t stop for Bank Holidays. Most seafarers work a seven-day week, every day of a trip. So Xmas means being on duty as on every other day. It’s just that you might wear a pair of fake antlers and a Santa hat in Caribbean sun as the tannoy belts out songs about sleigh bells and you scatter fake snow by the pool.
The carnivalesque tradition of the upper ranks getting waited upon by the lower ranks in a Christmas meal was once a common occurrence.
Secular folks haven’t a snowflake in hell’s chance of avoiding traditions like carols and Christ’s manger if they’re on a British-operated passenger ships. But being in a floating hotel is a very good way to avoid having to cook a turkey and pud for a large family.


On tankers and cargo ships chefs used to pull out all the stops to create a festive day. Shipmates made up for the absence of relatives by being each other’s family.
Today almost all non-passenger ships have crews who may not speak English or celebrate Christian and European festivals. So a British person on board can feel lonely. Some ships are dry, too. So the difference to Christmas on land is very marked.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Nelson's women - a talk to come

On Wednesday January 8 2014 there'll be a talk at the Queen's House Greenwich on Nelson's women. It's at 14.30.
The stories of Lady Emma Hamilton (above, as Miranda), his lover; Fanny Nisbet (below), later Viscountess Nelson; and Horatia, Nelson's daughter, will all be explored. I certainly believe it's worth thinking about why Emma's is represented in popular culture as both an iconic lover and British heroine as well as blowsy and theatrical working-class upstart.

The talk is free but you need to book. See
If you can't make it to hear about Nelson’s relationships as evidenced by manuscripts from the Caird Library collection, then try:

1. Seeing the movie, That Hamilton Woman (1941)which Churchill said was his favorite film and claimed to have watched over 80 times.

2. Reading Tom Pocock's book, Nelson's Women, Andre Deutsch, London, 2002.
I reviewed the hardback for Mariner's Mirror in 2000, but am not sure it was ever published. The review read 'there is scope for more sophisticated and analytical work to be written by scholars with more understanding of women's subjectivity and a more contextualised understanding of Emma and Fanny as partners of naval men.'
Less politely, the book seemed to be a rather Hello Magazine version of history. It needed 'to show these women's structural relations with their society' and tackle gender rather than just add on potted biographies built of slight vignettes.
Here's hoping this talk is an example of that necessary thoughtful approach.

Monday 2 December 2013

Women, sea shanties and singing fishwives

Last week (Nov 28 2013)the UK National Maritime Museum organised a Women and the Sea Evening, at Greenwich. Women's sea shanties and sea songs were the order of the day.

The Cecil Sharp House Choir and the Fishwives Choir sang. Rum was served - as it never was to women on battleships. People had a really good time.

And it was great that a maritime museum put so much effort into putting gender on the agenda.

Pic: The Fishwives Choir.

The Fishwives Choir members are all connected to fishing families. The choir was founded after the death of a Jane Dolby's fisherman husband. They fundraise for The Fishermen's Mission to enable them to continue supporting other fishing families facing hardship or bereavement.

The website says Colin 'Dolby's body was lost at sea for almost a year and during this time, his widow Jane was unable to prove her husband was dead as without a body, a death certificate cannot be issued. This meant she was unable to plan his funeral, claim bereavement benefit, stop her husband’s banking direct debits or even cancel his mobile phone contract as the authorities and financial organisations would only discuss Colin's accounts, with Colin.

Colin died when his youngest child was just 3 years old. It was one week before his daughters 8th birthday and 6 weeks before Christmas. With no money coming in and 4 children to support but no way to claim benefits, the whole family were helped by not only family and the local community but by a remarkable charity called The Fishermen's Mission and in particular, a wonderfully kind, wise and compassionate man called Tim Jenkins who worked for the charity.

For the weeks, months and even years following Colin’s death, The Fishermen’s Mission has supported Colin's family practically and emotionally just as they do hundreds of other fishing families suffering hardship, despair and tragedy.

Jane always promised Tim Jenkins that when she was back on her feet, she would do something to repay their kindness.' She certainly has. And the Fishermen’s Mission continue to need support.

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Changing identities at sea: camp gay seafarers

Maritime History and Identity: The sea and culture in the modern world has just come out with a chapter of mine in it. The book is edited by Duncan Redford and fourteen chapters discuss the identities of navies, seafarers and regional identities.
My chapter‘They thought they were normal - and queens too: gay seafarers on British liners 1945-1985’is on pp230-250, IB Tauris, London. It's in a section on individual seafarers which includes Cori Convertito's discussion of how tattoos were used to express individuality in the Victorian Navy

I write that 'The question crucial to this essay [is] What was it about the sea that enabled members of a pilloried subculture to finally feel that they were ‘normal’? How did conventions become so inverted that members of the shipboard Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) culture saw heterosexuals and men without frothy petticoats as the odd ones out, even as inferior beings?

The opening lines explain: 'This chapter is about a hidden history that challenges ideas of a ‘normal’ male seafarer. It enables a far more nuanced history of human beings if we see the un-problematically macho Jack Tar with his legendary girl in every port as just one possible identity, and maybe even a myth.
'Seafaring work aboard British passenger ships in the 40 years after WW2 offered remarkable opportunities for men to enjoy a post-modern transcendence of fixed sexual and gender identities.
'Shipping lines such as P&O, Cunard and Union Castle inadvertently enhanced the future of British men operating at various places on a whole spectrum of identities. This included those who were quietly homosexual masculine-acting men; those who were contingently bisexual; anyone who habitually put on a frock for fun; semi-professional female impersonators; drag queens (who do not necessarily seek to pass as women but utilise irony through campery); and intersex people born with intermediate or atypical biological characteristics.
'Previously labelled hermaphrodite or androgynous, some such men felt they had been born into the wrong body. Those who could afford surgical and chemical intervention would later have sex reassignment surgery (SRS) to assert their ‘proper’ identity – as did the iconic ex-seafarer April Ashley. The range of human activity and the labels that different people choose for themselves are myriad and fluid, deserving both attention and respect.
'A permissive culture on celebrated liners and cruise ships ... enabled thousands of members of this casual workforce ... to confidently establish satisfyingly solid identities. These identities went beyond that of hegemonic masculinity ....
'They thought themselves not only normal, because they were in the majority on some ships. Going further, [some queens] also asserted they were as elite as the Hollywood divas they emulated – but with varying degrees of irony and theatricality. This was play. This was fun.'

The chapter's conclusion says 'By examining ships as institutions that allowed some values to become so deeply topsy-turvy, we can wonder all the more at the over-stated polarisations of land/sea (implicitly ‘constrained’ versus ‘free’).
'The exceptional potential for identity change that is possible at sea suggests that societies may well need offshore opportunities of this kind as a way to embrace the actual diversity of human identity. These hidden histories therefore also raise important questions about geographical mobility’s connections with psychic and social mobility.
'This examination of one brief period in maritime history has sought to be a contribution not only to what I hope will be many more explorations of real seafarers’ transcendence of the Jack Tar figure’s heterosexual fixity.
'It is also part of the academic move towards exploring how different situations produce different sexualities, and how such situations can enable every human being to self-actualise and become all the selves they desire to become.
'Implicitly it is written in furtherance of my wish for a world that outlaws stigma, where diversity, equal opportunities, tolerance and justice will be normal.'

Monday 17 June 2013

Gender perspective crucial in writing about maritime history

From shore to bridge, outsider to 'Master'.

Marianna Massa has written a useful on-line article about why it is crucial that not just women but gender should be central in writing about maritime history.
'Making the Marginal the Pivotal: The importance of writing maritime history from a "gender perspective"’
is in the online journal (anyone can access it)Blue Stocking.

She argues:
'Women have been the ones left behind on the shore looking wistfully at the ocean wondering when their husband will reappear on the horizon; always the supporter of a son’s or a husband’s ambition rather than the pursuer of her own life.
'There are accounts of exceptional women who have ‘set sail’ that aim to challenge this assumption, however, that is exactly what they are: exceptions. A lack of data on women at sea in their various capacities highlights the need for grounded, contextualised analysis in order to deduce patterns in women’s behaviours and their relationship with the sea.
'There cannot be one hegemonic literature regarding maritime history. As Simone de Beauvoir points out, the "othering" of women "tends to cast suspicion upon all the justifications that men have been able to provide for it, because it has not accounted for differences in experience."
'Applying a gender perspective engages women’s histories with the histories written by men and about men. It moves women away from the periphery in order to make a more whole and complete history.
'Applying the category of gender not only reveals women’s relationships with the sea, but also their relationship with men, as a constructed feminine being. It unites the land with the sea, and confronts the hierarchical relations amongst men, women, and different races.'


Marianne is right. At the moment I'm interviewing seafaring women pioneers who sailed from the early 1970s.
These women engineers, deck officers, 'floatographers' and pursers weren't waiting politely and prettily on shore for any male relative to return - and then go off again leaving the ladies to pine.
They decided they wanted to sail. Despite all the odds - including careers teachers who said it was impossible and employers who suggested would-be captains should instead become ship's nurses - sail they did.
Women seafarers were enabled partly because of the equal opportunities climate and legislation that were a product of the Women's Liberation Movement. They sailed despite an 'othering' reception along the lines of 'What's a nice girl like you doing on a ship like this (and in boiler suit too)?'
It's clear that their struggle and progression in a maritime career were crucially affected by gendered attitudes and a hierarchy in which women were lesser, other and seen as 'matter out of place.' Many women didn't necessarily recognise these deep gendered currents were going on, and were unfair and inappropriate.
The 'constructed feminine beings' to whom I've been listening with such fascination these last few weeks negotiated a path determined by many factors.
Some were helped by generous male mentors in shipping offices who, as fathers of competent daughters, believed women should have a fair chance at a maritime career.
At times on ships some faced hostile officers who flung missiles at them, groped them, mistrusted their abilities (until proven very wrong), undermined their authority, and with mistaken kindness put up Playgirl posters of studs like Burt Lancaster so that women too could have pin-ups on the workplace bulkheads.
Seagoing women's stories reveal ships as places where 'Woman' was considered to be irrelevant, intruding, and unsuitable. And then real women who pulled their weight and could do their job came to be valued.
Some male shipmates were able to generously say that their ships were far better places when women shared in the daily running. And some women felt a sense of victory when at last their gender was disregarded; the point was that they were seafaring workers who were just very good indeed at doing their job.
I'll be trying to show this in my next book, From Cabin 'Boys' to Captains: A history of women at sea, History Press, 2015.

Sunday 2 June 2013

Love Me Sailor: heterosexual desire on ships

Robert S Close's 1945 novel, Love Me Sailor, was banned in his native Australia and the writer imprisoned for writing something so obscene. It was a sort of forerunner to the controversial Lady Chatterley's Lover. Most entries about the book on the web say things like 'Why on earth would it be banned? It's moderate by today's standards.'

20th century pulp novels are something seldom discussed in histories of maritime labour. But I've just read it because I think it may have been a formative book for young male seafarers in the 1950s. Something so iconic might have helped construct seafarers' sexist attitudes to women on board.

That impact is yet to be explored. But after reading these 218 pages through my particular lens, what strikes me is:

1. the book's great literary merit. This is fine writing, especially about men's romantic idealised notions of women (Ern, the violin-playing Third Mate) versus butch Bill Hawkins, the Second, who just want to get into the solo woman passenger, Emma Miller.

2. that sex is so associated with violence and power. Almost everyone on board the Annabella is focused on 'rutting' Miss Miller as magnet/object. They all have different reasons, none of which include a desire for profound and equal communication.
It is as if her presence there is both a challenge and a taunt. She is 'matter out of place' (Woman on Man's territory)and therefore has to be punished and 'rutted' into a relegated place, back in order.

3. that sexual conquering seemed to be even higher priority than saving the (sailing) ship full of nitrate in a hurricane. Why did the writer suggests such unlikely prioritising?

4. that it is so binary: Emma Miller entirely loses her charm for the men the minute it's found out that she has gone 'all mad' (she was, it seems, always a bit 'mad', which means too sexy and anxious, the result of her father abusing her).
The final lines show that, after the storm is successfully survived, thanks to Bill's toughness, this once-alluring figure is bundled off the ship onto a steam ship that will take away her polluting presence. The once-temptress is now just in a makeshift strait jacket tied with curtain wire: 'Furled in the grey blanket, she looked as stupid as a booby bird in its next...[we] looked at her ...then we moved away from her. We went over to the rail and spat.'
Insanely penetration-focused men, it seems, only want partners who are certified sane and also desire-less.

On reflection I wonder if Close (who was himself at sea) wrote this as an exploration of emotions at sea? Or a critique of machismo in a place (an old-fashioned sail ship, not a namby-pamby steam vessel) where the ultimate rugged masculinity rules and where the most Alpha male inevitably gets to be top man? After all, Bill (who was fond of young Ern) smashes Ern's violin after his death, ie he tries to symbolically banish this token of tenderness and 'civilisation'.

Or is just literary porn-come-derring-do?

I'd be interested in what other readers think.

Monday 27 May 2013

Iconic Wrenning... at the plotting table

Until I had the opportunity to pose at a mockup WW2 plotting table last month I hadn't realised how iconic the image of such Wrens is.

And I just had to have a go. And yes, pushing those fake ships around the world's ocean I could see you really would feel pride and deeply involved in naval operations.

The table - with handy uniform hats available - is at Scapa Flow Visitor centre at Hoy in Orkney.

The once-crucial communications centre at Wee Fea is now just an empty concrete block where sheep shelter. Birds have burst through the wire-netting over the former windows. But standing there overlooking Scapa Flow it's very easy to understand how Wrens working there would indeed have felt both at the heart of naval operations and very far from London.

Patsy Adam-Smith - first Australian woman seagoing wireless operator, 1950s

In looking for information about seagoing women Radio Officers I found this touching and lively memoir of a woman sailing round the Bass Strait and Tasmania area 1954-1960. Patsy Adam-Smith, There was a ship, Ringwood, Penguin, Victoria, Australia, 1995 first published 1965.

She was cook, she was on the wheel and she also operated the wireless on the small Naracoopa serving the remote Cape Barren Islands.It's rare evidence of women's seafaring work, because so few women were sailing coastally on cargo ships,in any country, at that time. She wrote:

‘To get a radio operators' certificate [Third Class] didn’t require any excess of intellect, but it did need a lot of courage to get going. The very first time I gave [our] sign the Melbourne operator said , "I'm imagining things today, chaps. I thought I heard a woman’s voice calling then, ha ha." It was difficult to call back after that...In time they all got over the shock’ and the operator referred to her as Mam’selle Naracoopa and ordered "Ladies first" if several senders spoke at once when Patsy was trying to transmit. (p171)

By contrast, there seems to have been only one British seagoing 'brass-pounder' at that time:Angela Firman. And she had to sail on Scandinavian vessels as British ones didn't allow women in such roles. Although women could readily acquire the skills to operate wirelesses on land, on ships it was seen as men's high(ish)-tech work

Patsy Adam-Smith (1924-2001), then the mother of a young daughter, became a prolific author. She writes well about life on board, where privacy was so respected that no-one ever asked her 'where's your husband?'

Perhaps the bonus is that she draws attention to a long-forgotten novel that seems to be the seafaring equivalent of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover. Robert Close's Love Me Sailor was prosecuted for obscene libel in 1945, in Australia (see

It describes a lone woman's passenger's experience on a windjammer full of men. Adam-Smith comments from her own experience as a lone but affable labourer on a ketch full of men: 'There is little scope on small ship for dalliance. Lack of privacy is one dissuading factor; another is fatigue. When I read Robert Close’s Love Me Sailor I laughed and laughed'.(p143).

Monday 28 January 2013

Chinese stewardess & young daughter captured in WW1

What a revelation this image is! A Chinese female shipboard worker in wartime. It's evidence of a past that is not at all visible in mainstream historiography. It shows that at least one Chinese women worked at sea despite the war. Not only that, she traveled with her child (meaning working a double shift). Not only that, both were captured by the enemy.

Women in many countries worked at sea as stewardesses throughout WW1. (Far fewer did so in WW2, in Britain at least). They faced risks of capture and shipwreck, as male crew did. They didn't necessarily count themselves as women when the 'abandon ship' order said women and children should leave first.

As the war went on ships' stewardesses dwindled in number. This was partly because of the convention that women should not be in danger zones, which increasingly meant European shipping lines replaced women crew with men. But also, so few women passengers (bouches inutiles) were allowed to take up scarce space on wartime ships, that there were no women for the stewardess to serve.

Many women were prepared to travel, no matter what the risk. They regretted that they were forced to stay home.

I've found evidence of only one British stewardess sailing by 1917. But this Chinese stewardess was sailing as late as 26 September 1917. She was on the Indian Ocean on the Japanese freighter, Hitachi Maru.

Having her her young daughter with her was not exceptional. It was a Chinese custom for seafarers to have families at sea. Many women passengers were on this ship too.

This image from the Australian War Memorial shows the unnamed stewardess and her girl among the Chinese crew. It's taken after they were all captured by the German armed merchant raider, SMS Wolf, south of the Maldive Islands.(Image number P05338.160, Photographer unknown)

After being captured crew and passengers alike had to wait a month at Suvadiva Atoll. The ship was scuttled. And they were, presumably, freed. German crew were often gallant to women and children, even at that fierce stage in the war. In some cases German crew let women go free or gave them priority.

Was this the case here? And what did the women make of an experience that is normally traumatic experience? It looks oddly matey here. Who knows. But how useful it was that a man on the Wolf had his camera with him, used it, and that the picture survives.

Black servicewomen sailing to UK in wartime

Black women's history is so hard to find. But in exploring who sailed where and why and how in WW1 and WW2, I've found some things by accident, not least because the original label doesn't say 'black' or 'African-'.

First there's this great picture which has been put in Wikipedia Commons (by the US National Archives and Records Administration) meaning everyone can use it. Hopefully it should give these African-American nurses sailing in WW2 a high profile. Most people in Britain know about we had black GIs here, but not women too. These women are sailing into Greenock on Tuesday 15 August 1944.

Having seen hundreds of images of white women and men in transit it seems to me that what it shows is par for the course on wartime voyages. You're marshalled in batches. There's nowhere to sit and have a hot drink (a joke!). You wait around, for this, then that, then wait again. And if you're lucky it isn't raining as you queue on an open deck.

Although these 'enforced travellers' were be thrilled at being selected for the 'adventure' of going overseas and really keen on contributing to the war effort, days of mal de mer often took the shine off arriving. (Women are twice as likely as men to be seasick too; it's a not-understood physical problem connected to women being more prone to migraines than are males. Even nurses didn't get issued with motion sickness tablets, which were anyway still in their chemical infancy. Clever ones bought their own Mothersills).

At least they were crossing in summer (less choppy), As it was just after D-Day, they had grounds for being optimistic about victory. They'd be nursing troops injured in that successful Allied landing in occupied France two months earlier.

These women's crossing from the segregated US must have had gendered and racialised aspects, but obviously they are not officially recorded in publicity photos. That's why doing oral history is essential.

Some of my finding are in a light article (2,000-ish words), Searching for Histories of Black Women’s Service across the Seas in the Second World War which is newly posted on the History Workshop blog. It has been tweeted a lot already, as 'interesting'.

There's also a great film about Afro Caribbean women's experience here, Frances Anne Solomon's Reunion.