Friday 13 November 2020

The first ship’s doctor to transition

Dr Michael Laurence Dillon (1915-62) was the first known female-to-male person to be a doctor in the Merchant Navy.

Now there are plans afoot to celebrate him with a blue plaque.

 Also St Anne’s College, Oxford, his old alma mater from 1934-38, is beginning a series of public lectures in his name.  Michael Dillon LGBT+ Lecture SeriesSo far there is no indication that any of these talks will refer to his time at sea, 1952-58.

To my knowledge there are just two women doctors who concealed their identity on ships. Army surgeon James Miranda Steuart Barry (1789-1865) sailed out to postings, but was not a ship’s surgeon.   And circa 1927 a US merchant marine doctor was found, on her death, to be female.  No one suspected.

Doctor Michael wrote an autobiography in 1962 which was only published in 2017. He’s got a Wikipedia entry and two other biographies too.

 Recent blog entries focus on his links with St Anne’s, where Michael studied Greats from 1935-38:

At the moment I’m trying to track down Michael’s situation in the shipping industry by speaking to seafarers.

 Born Laura  Dillon, this ex-Girl Guide and Oxford Blue had been sailing, unsuspected, for six years after pioneering surgical and hormone treatment in the 1940s.

 In his autobiography, Out of the Ordinary, he describes how well the ship’s agents and his fellow officers aboard Ellerman's City of Bath behaved when he was outed by the press while stopping over in Baltimore in May 1958.

 He went to see the captain ‘praying he might be in his paternal mood ...  he became kindly and sympathetic at once, and promised to do all he could do to help ... cabled the agents in New York asking for a police guard for the gangway.’

 When Dr Michael went to find out how his shipmates were reacting  to the news ‘The Second poured me out a gin, raised his glass, and knocked mine and then said .... [he and the Sparks]  had discussed it at length over beer the night before ... [They] had come to the conclusion that I had had a rough deal ... since they had liked me before and I had not changed overnight they saw no reason for letting it make any difference.’

 The chairman of Ellermans replied to Michael’s news offering ‘his sympathy’. 

The medical superintendent said he '“still hoped I would stay with the company and would back any arrangements I liked.”’

 ‘But it would have been an impossible situation ... I would have been the target for speculation and whispers, until they got to know me.’

And so ‘Doc Mike’ asked to be discharged from the City of Bath in India. Just after his 43rd birthday be began a new life and went on to become the first western Buddhist novice. He died in 1962.

 By contrast April Ashley had joined the Merchant Navy as a seaman in 1951, sailing on the Pacific Fortune: See.April Ashley's Odyssey   (Picture of April in 2000.)

She had been born in 1935 and sailed the year before Michael first sailed. She became famous for her male-to-female transition after 1960, long after she had left the sea. 

I have met seafarers who regarded her, and Christine Jorgensen in 1952, as inspirational. By contrast Michael was the focus of very little publicity at the time.

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Male allies of ‘mistress mariners’: 1928

‘Should – could – a woman be given a master’s ticket? In effect, could a member of the ‘fair sex’ ever be a ship’s captain? That was the formal topic discussed at Southampton Master Mariners Club in late May 1928. By fluke I’ve just discovered this debate, while looking through online newspaper archives.
‘Thirty-one members ... laughingly voted against, and two have solemnly voted for, the suggestion that women are fit to command ships at sea,’ recorded the UK’s Truth.
The picture shows some of those Southampton Master Mariners' Club members a little later, enjoying  their first Sea Pie Supper, 1929. The founder, Captain SN Braithwaite, is fifth from left on the back row. 

Why does one local discussion matter? Because it was so well-publicised. And it reveals contemporary thinking about the gendered sea, in one of the most significant ports anywhere.
'Women’s Place on Board Ship' was the first debate the club had, after it was founded in February 1928.
And the SMMC's members’ words had a global impact in the English-speaking world. Newspapers in the US and Australia announced the decisions taken by these Hampshire captains of some of the greatest ocean liners.
Although the articles didn’t make the front-page, many  ran along the lines of the Lowell Sun’s: ‘Old salts object to women mariners.’

Equality in context

At that point in the UK women’s equality was anyway a hot topic. The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was due to come into effect in only four weeks’ time, on 2 July. This law meant that, at last, all women had the vote.  
And a yachtswoman, Lady Rasch, (c1880-1944) (pictured) had just been awarded her yachtmaster’s ticket. Katherine’s feat was greatly acclaimed in the society pages of newspapers, including in the US, that month. 
Actually the British Board of Trade had, since 1907, been allowing women to be awarded yachtmasters’ certificates, although it may only have been an honorary award before Lady Rasch’s time. 

Lady Ernestine Brudenell-Bruce (1871-1953) had begun the fight for that right in 1898, when she was not allowed to take her ticket at the end of her course at a Liverpool Nautical College. She leaked the BOT correspondence to newspapers as far away as New South Wales. 
Mr Ingram R Walker of the BOT told Ernestine ‘I am directed by the Board of Trade to state that they have always considered and held that a “master’s certificate” clearly implies that it is confined to men.’  
She carried on sailing anyway. So did some other unticketed yachting stars such as Mrs Grace Schenley (pictured, courtesy of Classic Boat Museum, Isle of Wight).

Furthermore, women officers were already on liners. Since 1919 ships had conductresses who acted as social workers for solo female emigrants. And nursing sisters had been accorded officer status on ships for two decades.
 Victoria Drummond (pictured, courtesy of Catherine Drummond-Herdman)) had become the world’s first female marine engineering officer in 1922.

What a question

So why weren’t women fit to command ships – or even work on them as deck officers – according to the conservative, and possibly tongue-in-cheek, chaps of 1928?
There’s much confused reporting, which ignores – ahem – the slight difference of scale in the business of commanding a yacht as opposed to that complex cluster of operations, the ocean-going ships.

But the two main reasons appear to be:
1. ‘The life of the sea breeds characteristics, particularly in the way of vocabulary, not best suited to female comradeship’ went one argument in the Truth. Presumably this was a metonymic way of saying that women belonged to a separate and more refined culture. Therefore mutual intelligibility was impossible.

 2. Sex-segregated space on board would be required, as the women worked their way up the ranks. ‘Whether they enter as apprentices or ordinary seamen, women would have to be berthed apart from the rest of the crew ... I cannot imagine shipowners relishing such an additional demand upon space’ was another obstacle raised in the Truth. The same argument was still being used to exclude women from ‘men’s jobs’ in the 1970s.

Bossy boots

The Truth’s writer thought the discussion in the press which led to the Master Mariners’ vote ‘started from the wrong end.’ He focused on unladylike bossiness:
‘That women have the mental ability to take an extra-master’s "ticket" nobody will doubt. That a large type has fitness to command men anybody with knowledge of boarding house landladies will readily agree.’  (Such  businesswomen were stereotyped as the epitome solo female tyrants). The H  Ryder Haggard characterisation of a woman as ‘She who must be obeyed’ had been jocularly circulating for 38 years by then.

However, the Truth also added somewhat sensibly ‘‘But command of a ship is a goal at the end of a long and very hard  road ...  and the real question is whether women have the physical and temperamental endurance to travel that road.’

Leaking Pipeline Syndrome is still a problem today. The obstacles to women ‘flowing on’ in a lifetime career are now recognised as including that:
  • the on-board social climate can be hostile to women, even on passenger ships
  • shipowners’ non-family-friendly working arrangements  force women to choose between motherhood and career.

How to solve the problem?

So what was to be done, in 1928? In a world where all training ship cadets were male the Truth’s reporter suggested ‘A training ship for women might meet the case up to a point ...  but at the end of their probation the same difficulty of "mixing" would occur.’
‘The real solution would seem to lie in an all-woman "manned" ship,’ (something partly attempted in 1960s China).
The Truth then mentioned precedents: that women disguised as men had got on quite successfully in the maritime past: ‘celebrated examples of successful disguise [included] ... Hannah Snell, Mary Read, Ann Bonny, and Mary Ann Talbot.’
He did not deduce that these disguised women’s success (in low-ranked shipboard roles) proved that the problem was not women’s actual lack of intrinsic competence.
Rather their feats were proof that trouble only occurred because men imagined that any woman who was visibly female must somehow be too cowardly to climb up masts or to survive bad voyages without going into hysterics over the wet chintz cushions or possible damage to her nail varnish.

Male allies

It’s no surprise that the elite Southampton gatekeepers protected their professional enclave.  But it’s telling that two men voted for in support of women - if only for the pleasure of playing devil’s advocate. Today women recognise that male mentors are important. In 2017 the Women’s Engineering Society instituted the Men as Allies Award.
But who were those two enlightened masters mariners nearly a century ago, who deserve retrospective awards?

 1.       The first can barely be traced. Captain SN Braithwaite, MBE, was at that time the Marine Superintendent for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and seemingly in his 50s. In WW1 he had been honoured for his part in the Dardanelles campaign, as captain of the troopship Cardiganshire, which took soldiers out to Gallipoli. 
He had organised the founding meeting of the SMMC, in the RMSPC staff dining room, just a few months earlier. He later went on to become Staff Captain, then Captain, of the Club. In 1933 he became president of Southampton Shipping Golf Society. So maybe his opinion carried some weight.  In other words he was popular and a networker. Often male supporters of maritime women were fathers of lively daughters, but his family life is not known.
Captain Braithwaite declared to the press ‘We have women mayors and councillors, women lawyers, women doctors, why not women master mariners? Personally I should not mind serving under a woman master.’

 2.    Maritime women’s second ally was John Archibald Rupert-Jones, the hydrographer to the Southampton Harbour Board. Then 54, he had been decorated for his RNR service in WW1. And he was esteemed for his survey of St John’s harbour (1912) and Chronological Order of the Introduction of Steam-Propelled Vessels into the Royal Navy’ (1927).
He was married to a farmer’s daughter, and had grown up in an applied intellectual and taxonomic situation: John’s father was the distinguished professor of geology and palaeontologist Thomas Rupert Jones (1819-1911). Thomas had been teaching at Sandhurst when John was born. This background may suggest John was a person who would not have readily tolerated untrained, undisciplined people ‘interfering’. In other words, he wouldn’t be someone to gallantly support just any women fancying herself in gold braid. But he would be able to make space respectfully for those who were competent. 

Beatie Fry: mutiny ‘absurd’

John Rupert-Jones named Mrs Beatie Fry as a ‘living example of a woman who would be a capable master mariner.’  The Press Association journalist on the story gathered some quotes from Beatie Fry (formerly Holme Sumner, 1842-1966). Then aged 66 she was one of the best known female authority figures in Merchant Navy circles as, effectively, the head of the training ship Mercury for three decades. 
‘She who must be obeyed’:  Beatie with her friend Admiral Sir James Somerville to her left. These images are from Ronald Morris’ biography of her, The Indomitable Beatie (2004).

From girlhood she had been notorious for her ‘manly’ disregard for feminine conventions: she rode astride, wore masculine clothing and had been involved in a sex scandal.
Beatie Fry joined this SMMC debate by asserting she would ‘have liked to see women given the chance of becoming master mariners. The necessary qualifications which she named, nerve [“not nerves”], comprehension, self-control, and stamina were, she considered, present in some women as in some men.'
‘She herself frequently led the boys of Mercury aloft, a feat which she considered presented no difficulty to the average woman. Like [Prime Minister Stanley] Baldwin, she was convinced you cannot cheat the sea: competence for the job, and competence alone, can save a skipper’s face and make a skipper’s reputation.’ 

‘Such competence would, she considered, be recognised and reverenced by a crew as readily in a woman as in a man skipper. Mrs Fry’s robust and generous faith in her own sex is both convincing and refreshing’ opined The Woman’s Leader.
‘Asked “What about mutiny?” Mrs Fry said “There would be no fear of mutiny if a woman were in command. As for sea-sickness, a woman is no more liable to sea sickness than is a man," reported the Nottingham Evening Post.
Two weeks later Captain Thomas Luther Evans, who had 29 years’ experience, told the Western Mail her claim was ‘absurd and impracticable.’ He ‘would strongly advise her to drop a subject for which she is totally incapacitated.’

Women today

‘Today thirteen of the club's 250 members are women,’ says SMM Club membership secretary Barry Peck. 'Of these, five as Master Mariners  and one is a Younger Brother of Trinity House. times have moved on since 1928. '

Captain Rachel Dunn NMN, is an example of this. ( Pictured above on the Admiralty pilot boat after bringing in HMS Dauntless, Portsmouth 2015.
She joined in 2000 when five month’s pregnant with her twin girls.
‘It’s a great place to have knowledgeable collective discussions about how to create a comradely happy ship.’
She found the members were still so unused to female captains that they mentored her and saw her as a novelty. But they respected her endeavour.
When she became the first female captain of the Club in 2019 she did not want her gender to be commented upon in the media. ‘I was a ship’s master and my qualifications were just the same as those of any other captain of the club,’ this STEM ambassador told me this week.

 What does it mean?

This SMMC debate, and its global publication, is not only a really useful way of understanding gendered social ideas about women in authority in the maritime past.
 It’s also a way of figuring out which women were being seen as significant in the maritime world of that period: the notorious Beatie Fry, Victoria Drummond, and Lady Ernestine Hunt (nee Brudenell-Bruce). Their aristocratic backgrounds helped them rise.
By contrast their forbears, such as Hannah Snell, succeeded despite being working-class, because their gender was invisible to their shipmates and because they did not seek authoritative positions.
(The author is grateful to Barry Peck and Terry Clark of the SMMC, and to  Rachel Dunn, for their co-operation over this article).

Friday 26 June 2020

Melville, Whitman and seamen's sensation seeking

Sailors: the Wheels on Melville's Coach, is an almost elegiac video, yet it quests. See it at

 It's made by Mitchell Santine Gould, of He is an independent  US expert who is interested in the romantic poet Walt Whitman.
Twenty-one minutes long, the film will be of interest those thinking about ways to understand love between male sailors in history, and emotional life on ships, including risk-taking up masts.
This innovative cultural history brings a new angle on the straight history of maritime labour, primarily in 19C New York and Nantucket.
Clips from historic films, plus cartoons, paintings, photos are presented by an unseen, deep-voiced male narrator who speaks with persuasive authority.


Very freshly, the maker looks at these men's 'hypersexuality', as he sees it, (though not referring at all to heterosexual Sailor Jack's alleged propensity for philandering.)
He explores at the words of poet Walt Whitman and novelist Herman Melville (Redburn, Mardi, White-Jacket and Moby Dick) through the lens of modern psycho-biologist Marvin Zuckerman and his followers.

Marvin Zuckerman
Gould contend that in Redburn (1849) 'Melville astutely identified the heart of the problem as a sailor’s intrinsically reckless, restless, thrill-seeking personality.
'Melville intuitively understood that what modern psychologists call “sensation-seeking behavior” resulted in a distinct “class” of men “who bear the same relation to society at large, that the wheels do to a coach.”
And that coach, eased along by sailors, bore 'passengers' who were shipowners on a journey towards great profits.

Who profits?

In Gould's abstract for the 2019 conference on toxic maritime masculinity (where this first was presented) he says 'My presentation suggests that the time for arguing over whether or not sailors were mutually sexually engaged is over; the evidence is conclusive.
'The problem that lies before us now is to understand how capitalists exploited a sensation-seeking labor force, in analogy to their lucrative extraction of timber, fish, and minerals from the natural world.
'What economic value could be assigned to the kind of hypersexuality being studied in modern-day sensation-seekers, among both strait and gay populations?'
I take these lines to mean something like 'Did shipping companies (consciously) attract recruits who were psycho-biologically predisposed to seek sensations? Was the career 'sold' as something very demanding, but for which there would be all sorts of rewards, including increased sexual activity?'

Learning more

There are many avenues here that could be further explored, in depth. If you want to read onward I suggest you try:

  • The 2019 toxic maritime masculinity conference:
  • Bert Bender, Sea-Brothers: The Tradition of American Sea Fiction from Moby-Dick to the Present,
  • MS Gould, 'Friends of the New York Seaport: Antebellum Quaker Commerce, Culture, and Concerns', Quaker History, Volume 108, Number 1, Spring 2019,
  • Marvin Zuckerman, Sensation Seeking and Risky Behavior, American Psychological Association, 2007.

Sunday 24 May 2020

Victoria Drummond! You're in a P&O exhibition.

An open letter to the late Victoria Drummond (1894-1978).
Good morning Miss Drummond,
You don’t know me. But I know of you. First of all may I say what a privilege it is to be addressing the world's first woman marine engineer.

Women on the Waves: courtesy of P&O Heritage

This letter is to tell you about a new online exhibition that includes you, in the context of your former employers, P&O. The exhibition is WOW – Women on the Waves. P&O’s Pioneering Women Seafarers: Past, Present and Future.
In it 23 'boards' tell the story of how women have risen from stewardess in the 1820s to captain in the 1990s.
You are there on one of the later boards: 'Exceptional Engineer.' The information about your success in becoming an engineer despite the odds comes just after the advent of ships' nurses in the 1920s, and good way before the start of women in deck and engine jobs in the 1970s.
Yes, women who were in WW2 – like you – are visible there, being stalwart and even getting medals for it, as you were.
The exhibition mentions that you were on the TSS Mulbera. I wanted to know more, and to see those 1927-28 years in context, so I’ve been looking them up in the biography published by the Institute of Marine Engineers. You were its first lady member.

1970s and equality struggles

You'll remember that in the decade just before you died in 1978 there was a lot of equal opportunities legislation (and behind the scenes struggles to shape it and enforce it). That pressure enabled women engineers to start doing the job that were right for them.
They progressed, even though many men thought it was unsuitable for a woman; it was as if all your decades of work hadn’t proved anything.
The exhibition shows how much young women cadets began to do legitimately – but not easily – what you had to do solely through personal struggle and your contacts.

Your first ship: Blue Funnel's Anchises, 1922-24

Cherry Drummond, your niece, edited your words about your career. So we know about your first ship, the Anchises, which was slightly larger than your next ship and had a triple expansion steam engine.
You were the Tenth Engineer.  At 27 you were quite old to be starting in such a basic position but delighted. The Far East and Australia were among your destinations.
 You got on well with Malcolm Quayle, the permanent Second Engineer on the Anchises. I'm glad he stood up for you against the persecution by the relief Second, Mr Howard. Mr Waite, the Chief, liked you too.
You called Malcolm 'the Hedgehog'  and he called you 'Kate' because you, like him, were prickly; it was a reference to stroppy Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
But then Blue Funnel Line wouldn’t carry on employing you. You guess they feared there would be a scandal about your closeness with the (married) Second. And maybe there was more to it than that, too.

Sailing on BIS's Mulbera, 1927-28

You had almost three years on land, when you passed your Second Engineer's exam (Steam). Third time lucky.
Then began the period when you were with the British India Steam Navigation Company BIS) which became part of P&O. That period makes 34 pages in your memoirs. You explain that although you'd passed your Second Engineer's exams you were unable to get any shipping company to employ you, at any level:
‘I got Mummy to write, too, to everyone we could possibly think of. Suddenly I heard that British India Line would possible take me. I rang them and [was told] "Lord Inchcape is agreeable to your sailing with the company and therefore I think I shall put you on the TSS Mulbera, 9,100 ton, turbine-driven, oil fuel burning, running out to East Africa. She goes to just below Mombasa.The Chief and Second are both very nice"' (p112) 
Finally you began on 12 April 1927, age 32. The Mulbera was a medium size passenger-cargo ship, built in Scotland like you. Under Captain WR Steadman you were one of 153 crew.  You don’t mention the cargo. Your steward was Indian and didn’t speak English, so ‘I started working on my Hindustani books.’ (p113).  I wonder if you spoke it to any other Asian crew too.
Via I’ve seen a digitised version of the Mulbera  passenger list – which maybe you scanned in reality on that trip. The list shows us the names of the 23 passengers (some of whom were rude to you as a  WOMAN engineer). You were headed for Colombo, Calcutta, Madras, and Port Said. They were all ports you knew.

Mulbera, courtesy of P&O Heritage

You were pleased with your cabin, as you would be:  BIS ships were known for their beauty, especially the polished hardwood:‘It was a much more comfortable room than on the Anchises ... [but] there was not much privacy as both ports opened on the deck and any passenger could look in. In addition, I had to share a bathroom.’(p113)  
It wasn’t seemly for women to share with men, so perhaps you had shared it with lady passengers including two ladies travelling solo in second class: Margaret Copeland, a Tunbridge Wells nurse, and Phoebe Parsons ,a school inspector from Hornsey.

Mulbera crew, with Victoria on extreme right, second row, seated. Image courtesy of Catherine Drummond-Herdman. 

Down in the engine room you were surprised at the difference it made to be on an oil-fuelled ship, unlike the Anchises. ‘This was balanced by the noise of the turbo generators, which was so strong I could not hear myself shout in the engine room. At first it made my head ache but I soon got used to it.’ (p113)
And for the next three years you sailed as Fifth Engineer, mainly to East Africa,

No paparazzi

In the 1970s P&O, like other shipping lines, celebrated the advent of young techie women. They were in newspapers, some even had their vital statistics referred to, and certainly their hair colour and prettiness.
Hardly anyone had celebrated your achievement, only The Woman Engineer, 50 years earlier. It  is  the journal of the Women's Engineering Society, which had begun just three years earlier. In 1924 it pictures you on your first ship, the Anchises. (pictured).

A couple of years later The Woman Engineer for December 1926 mentions you had popped into their London offices ‘to announce the good news that she had just obtained her Second Engineer’s certificate ...  after making six trips on the Anchises.
Your colleagues from the Anchises, the article said,
‘have paid many fine tributes ... [including] "she was been a wonder to us. She has done everything that could be expected of a man engineer. She has taken the usual day and night watches, and has never been known to miss a watch, no matter how high the sea has been, nor how hard the work."' 

I’m glad you felt able to promote your achievements, as other pioneers did in those pages.  Of course WES didn’t mention the social costs, the price paid for the success.

Today most people don't know how hard it was for your successors in the 1970s too. Some pioneers have told me privately how much they struggled, and had grit their teeth. Some wrote home about it. Others kept schtum; they didn’t want to upset their families or risk their career progression.

Surviving bullying

Their misery is not recorded in this, or any, exhibition, so far, However, fortunately there is now much general campaigning for these women's rights, include the right to just get on with your job and not to be harassed.
Your words about the Mulbera reveal a couple of problems that are still typical today. The main challenge was hostility from your second engineer, Mr Lamb.
At 34 he was, you say, as tall and thin as the Chief was short and fat, and as hostile as your chief was fair.He seems to have taken an irrational dislike to you, bullied you, and indeed punished you.
You came to nickname him the Tiger Cat, for his vicious attacks.(p113). If he'd been fair he'd have let you have time off to recover from your injured thumb.  Instead, the problem was prolonged for years.
Mr Stuart, your ‘very Scottish’ Chief, was indeed 'nice' and stood up for you when the Tiger was cruel again.
 ‘One day he was bad I went to the Chief and told him in confidence about my trouble. The Chief was very understanding and I felt better now that he knew my position.’ (p122)
Excuse me noticing, Miss Drummond, however, that you don’t say he took any action (although you say of a later complaint, ‘The Chief fixed the Tiger Cat good and proper’’ p128.
Also you call it ‘my trouble’, taking it on yourself. Did you not see the Tiger as behaving in an oppressively discriminatory way that would have troubled any woman?
Do you think the Tiger Cat – maybe like the relief Second you’d briefly dealt with on the Anchises – felt threatened by a woman being capable of passing the same exams that he had passed?
 At the end of your trip ‘the horrid Tiger was spreading such nasty stories about me that I thought it best not to stir anyone up so that I could just get my last two voyages in.’ 
Young women today say being constantly chipped at grinds them down. You too.‘I was so unhappy. It was such a miserable world,’ you said. (p140)

The legacy of good mentors

But you had good times too, including happy runs ashore. And I'm very struck by the way your late friend and mentor, Malcolm Quayle, 'the Hedgehog' from Anchises,  helped you from beyond the grave. On the Mulbera at 2am one night close to Calcutta, when you were dog tired, you had forgotten to do a job:
‘Suddenly I heard a voice behind me say, “I say, Kate old thing, slip down and sound the settling tank.” I looked around and there was nothing, but the old Hedgehog might have been at my elbow. I hopped down to the Engine room and found the settling tank stood at 1 ton, the least amount that could be allowed before changing over. If I had not changed over then all the fires in the boiler would have gone out!
Another time I was taking a blow on top and I felt someone close behind me, and then the Hedgehog’s voice said, “Kate, a freezer engine connecting rod bearing is hot.” I ran down and it was!” (p148).  

What next

In 1927 the Tiger Cat’s behaviour was the reason you left British India's Mulbera: that and the lack of enough leave. When you left
 'the splendid Chief gave me a first class reference; attentive to her duties, civil, willing, and obliging and I hope to hear of her future success. She is of an exemplary character." How Jean and Frances laughed when they read that, or had it repeated to them by me, as they often did.' (p150)

Then for 12 years you were ashore, mainly in London, initially working for the Chief's certificate, trying to scratch a living, and getting to know the new babies in the family.  (Catherine, the grand-daughter of your brother John, was later to help with this new P&O exhibition.) You went to visit Mr Stuart, who had just retired from British India, in Chingford. At his request you gave him a little black cocker spaniel like your dog, Sox. You later heard that Mr Stuart
'would sit in his chair in the dark, with the photo of me pulled close to his side, and listen to the scrape of the little dog's feet on the floor.'  
It must have been hard to lose both him and your dear Hedgehog. Engineers do die young. Did it make you wonder if your life would be brief, too, if you carried on up the ladder?
There’s external evidence that you continued to have strong identity as a woman engineer. You don’t mention it in your autobiography but WES recorded that in June 1928 you were a speaker at the Electrical Association for Women conference in Glasgow.
In keeping with the theme "Women’s Work in the Modern World", your session was on Business and Professional Women. In it you spoke about engineering and were referred to as 'the first seagoing woman engineer’. Maybe you got the chance to go home to Megginch too.

Megginch today:

WW2 – anew phase

When WW2 began in 1939 you say:
'I felt it was time for me to get back on a ship. I was desperate. I wrote sending my certificates of competence, my list of voyages on the Anchises and the Mulbera, recommendations from the captains and Chiefs I served under, to anyone I could think of ... No one would have me. They might be short-staffed but that was no reason to employ a woman engineer. And certainly not in wartime.' (p177)
 You went down to the Royal Albert Docks and in a cafe you were
 'hailed by a cheery voice, my old donkeyman from the Mulbera', who you had last seen 11 year earlier. “Hullo, Fifth! Come and have a cup of tea on us’ he urged. When you explained about your futile job search he offered ‘” I tell you what I would do, sail under a foreign flag.'' And so the Mulbera donkeyman fixed it for you, telling you ‘"You got us out of a spot in Hamburg with your German. One good turn deserves another."
He introduced you to a man recruiting for tramp ships. Initially he was rather shocked – a woman! – but then saw your documents and approved: "You have been in two of the best companies ... Blue Funnel and British India.’ (pp 177-8) 
And so you began the rest of your seagoing career, never again sailing with any ships of what became the P&O group. I'm sure you would have done so, had they offered you work – work commensurate with your status.
And you became recognised as a hero in 1941, with your MBE and Lloyds Medal for Bravery.
You often worked in a lower-ranked jobs, on your many ships (which people can read about on Wikipedia). No-one persecuted you as badly as on your first two ships. And you died in 1980, finally ‘Finished with Engines’, as Cherry said.

Oil painting of VD in uniform, by Philip Agnew Lambe, 1947. Courtesy of Catherine Drummond-Herdman.

You through modern eyes

Miss Drummond, I think you'd like this P&O exhibition, including the unusual pictures your descendent Catherine Drummond-Herdman loaned to it.
Seeing you in it will mean a lot, too, to the modern women I’ve met, who’ve won the Nautilus Award named after you, and studied in the University of Solent engineering block that bears your name.
Getting this new angle on you, in your P&O context, has shown me that I'd like to go to your old home, Megginch, which is still the family's private home, to get a sense of your progress from Perth to the Orient: a woman who liked engines and travel.

Thank you for persevering with your impressive career, and for putting up with the Mr Lambs and Mr Howards of this world.
Hopefully new protocols will never mean young women have to suffer again the attacks of unfair bosses in lonely ships far from home support. Thank heaven for the Hedgehogs and Mr Stuart of the world.   
With esteem, from a woman who writes the histories of your seafaring sisters and belongs to WES because she supports women’s right to do STEM work.

Monday 11 May 2020

The Lady with the Ship: Florence Nightingale - sea voyager, chronicler.

The classic image: The Lady with the Lamp receiving the wounded at Scutari Barrack Hospital's west gate 1856. The wounded had sailed there on overcrowded ships, down the Black Sea and the Bosphorus from Sebastopol. Painting by Jerry Barrett, 1857, now at National Portrait Gallery.

Forget the Angel of Crimean War wards at Scutari, as we prepare to celebrate the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale's birth on 12 May 2020.  
Step round the canonized figure we read about in Sunday-School prize hagiographies. Ignore, momentarily, the epidemiology-minded female statistician who’d have been analyzing our Covid-19 data with her BS detection kit.
If we look beyond the myths, and through a maritime lens, at that complex person Florence Nightingale we'll find something very unexpected: one of the 19th century's best women writers about voyages and ships.
Her ship-savvy accounts (in her collected writings) are of especial value as they are by a woman, and someone observant and analytical, almost an ethnographer.
And her reports of the shipping situation in the Crimean War have the same tone: aware of the bigger picture, usefully critical, full of telling descriptions, and with a sense of collective responsibility rather than individualized petty carping.

Early voyages

Florence Nightingale was from such a travelling family that she was conceived and born in Florence (hence her first name).
In her girlhood she made many trips with her sister Parthenope: these young Victorian women had the mobility and motility of elite men. Fortunately they wrote to each other - and others - about their travels.
And fortunately Florence's later fame ensured that all she wrote became available in the public domain.

Venice 1838 

On her eighteenth birthday in 1838 she wrote home 'My dear grand-mamma, I daresay that you remembered the day that I was 18 … [3 days ago. This is the] first birthday that I have spent out of our own family. We are Venice now … 'We go about everywhere in a long pointed black boat, which they call gondola ... 'On Saturday there was a great storm and so there was no milk to be had in all the town because no boat would venture out to the mainland to get it.’

Round the Med 1847-50

As a young woman she also voyaged with her friends Selina and Charles Bracebridge: to Rome 1847-48, and from 1849-50  from Alexandria to Athens on a range of ships including the Austrian Lloyd ship Arciduca Lodovico.
While in the Mediterranean they enjoyed expat hospitality which included visiting British naval ships, which she viewed with an inspector's eyes.

On 29 April 1850, she told her sister, Parthe,
'We spent that day on board the fleet, which looks in the Bay of  Salamis like a whale in a rivulet; three great three-deckers, besides frigates four, and steamers ...‘I hate an English man-of-war; the three grand luxuries of life – solitude, space and water – are so unattainable there. 'What would be said of us if we stowed 1,000 persons in a workhouse, as they are stowed on board a man-of-war? The tree of freedom and the British oak...never excited my enthusiasm.'

Portrait of Florence by Parthe, just before 'the undertaking of her life, Crimea in 1854.

1854. Crimea

Fast forward five years. She's been to Germany, twice, to do some unusually scientific training for nursing. She had been the Lady-Superintendent in a Harley Street hospital for gentlewomen.
 Now it's the Crimea War: the 1853-56  conflict between an alliance including Britain, fighting against the Russian Empire.   
And unusually for a woman, this 34-year old is:

  • working away from her home country 
  • involved in military matters at an authoritative level 

She was managing the British volunteer nurses at the army history in Scutari, the Constantinople suburb. They too were remarkably mobile for non-elite women of their period. 

The voyage from Britain

She and her team of 37 nurses had sailed out from Britain, a 13-day trip, involving
  • sailing from the UK to Calais on the night boat
  • overland via Paris and Lyons
  • ship up the Rhone to Avignon
  • rail to Marseilles
  • steam ship to Constantinople (Istanbul) at 13 knots (15 mph)
  • ferry across Bosphorus to Scutari, arriving Nov 4 1854. 

The final part of her voyage from Marseilles to Constantinople was on the new steam-powered P&O ship Vectis (900 grt). 
Beyond Malta, where they stopped to coal, a storm was so bad that 'the Deck Cabins were washed away, & the vessel all but lost.'  
Populist writers who are not maritime historians have described the Vectis as an old, cockroach-infested 'mailboat' and not fit for purpose. This is puzzling. In fact it was new.
The Vectis had just been built in the Isle of Wight, where Florence Nightingale had holidayed and enjoyed conchology as a girl. (See picture of the Vectis being built, initially as a paddle steamer.)
This vessel was not something she  would have felt to be alien or seedy. She had long been a  ship connoisseur. It would have interested her - if she had the ability to focus on anything other than her task - to try out a ship propelled by this novel form of power.  

Seasickness - and ship design

On board she was said to have been so seasick that she didn’t venture on deck - a place where this avid tourist usually longed to be.
It's a good idea to recognize that the mal de mer was not necessarily due to her fragility. It may well have been a consequence of the unsettling style of motion:

  • often passengers were more sick on steam ships than on sail ships
  • the Vectis's engines were later found to be too powerful for the ship, and replaced. That is, the nurses were enduring teething problems.

The nurses' 2,080-mile voyage, from Marseilles to Scutari on the Vectis.
 Map from Country Joe McDonald’s tribute website to Nightingale.

1855 onwards. In Turkey 

After her arrival at the 'polluted' army hospital in Scutari her team tried to deal with the deluge. It was a war in which 900,000 of the 1.6 million soldiers of all nations died in a fight that ended in a peace treaty.
There were 4.5 miles of beds, only a foot apart. The hospital could take 5,000 and was far more crowded than London's new Nightingale Hospital with its 500 beds and potential to deal with a further 4,000 Covid-19 cases in April 2020.
Overcrowding had troubled her several years earlier when looking at the military ships at Salamis – ships full of healthy soldiers.
Now she was seeing overcrowding and military mismanagement of human beings again as 'unwholesome transports' with a capacity of 200 carried as many as 500 people from Sebastopol to Scutari. She wrote: 'In one instance the captain of a transport has asserted that seventy bodies were thrown overboard from his ship in one voyage, without their names...being entered into any report.' (vol 14, especially p 668).
The Medical and Surgical History of the British Army which served in Turkey and the Crimea during the War against Russia in the years 1854–1856 records appalling levels of loss on the packed and squalid troop transports making the 13-day transit from Sebastopol to Scutari across the Black Sea.

The 299-mile voyage from war zone to hospital.made by combatants, the wives who nursed them, and by Florence herself, ill, on an inspection tour in early summer 1855
 Map from Country Joe McDonald’s tribute website to Nightingale.

Page after page of tables in that official chronicle show what was becoming evident: bad conditions on ships are bad for people's lives.  On the Shooting Star a total 47 of the 130 patients died:  36 per cent.
Mortality rates on transports later improved. But the problem was, she pointed out,  that the wounded passengers then arrived at a Scutari where the mortality rates were worsening.
The death rates on overcrowded ships don't mean that her unease about overcrowding on ships at Salamis earlier in the decade was any kind of premonition.  
But they are a sign of her pre-existing concern that military practice of packing large quantities of human cargo into unsuitable spaces was an inhumane way to solve a logistical problems. And her research into hospitals, before the war, had enhanced her understandings about the transmission of disease in tight places.

War over. Nurses go home

Some nurses had already sailed away from Scutari, usually invalided home or sent away in disgrace, by the time war ended on 30 March 1856.
On 12 May, her birthday, FN was urging that her remaining staff should come home 'by degree'... I must come home last of all...I believe everyone expects me to arrive next week, via Marseilles, heading  a triumphal procession of nurses en masse.' (vol 14, p402).
Instead she did finishing-up work including dispatching excess supplies onto other places such as Malta, dealing with allegations about a few nurses' bad behavior, and massing data to help her argue her case for reform.
Letters show she issued precise instructions about the conditions in which small parties of nurses should sail home. It may be a war-related voyage but she wanted them to be sail in a respectful situation. On 13 June 1856 FN planned that seven 'lady nurses' and eight 'non-commissioned' nurses, along with 60-odd soldiers' wives and children should be sent home on the 32-gun frigate HMS Thames.
These non-commissioned nurses 'should not be cast aside like old shoes when there services are no longer wanted.' If they couldn't be given officers' cabins then at least 'I must beg that a separate compartment be constructed for them from the soldiers' wives, as I cannot class them in the same category. And they must be at least second-class passengers.' (vol 14, p414).
She arranged the women's trip home with the same forethought that she had organised her own recreational travelling eight years earlier.
Grandly she tried to ensure Miss Tebbut, the Superintendent of the second Scutari hospital, should get her wish to see Constantinople. (She'd always been too busy to tour the other side of the Bosphorus.)
'I dare say Captain Keatley could delay his vessel for one day for her to do this.' 
However, the passengers were very much still under matron-like surveillance on the ship: Miss Tebbut, or the elderly and frail Mrs Annabella MacLeod, should take charge of the party and 'report to me how they have behaved on their passage home.' (vol 14, p422).

Not a showy voyage, please

On 27 June FN herself planned to go home from Balaklava on the Ottawa, stopping at Scutari for a day. On board were the Lady Matron Anne Ward Morton, and one of her kindest nurses, Elizabeth Logan. It was expected to be a good passage home.
Somehow FN didn't leave for another month, not least because she was involved in rows about her requisitions.
After the prolonged process of organizing evacuation and repatriation, on 22 July she told Admiral Edmund Lyons, the Commander of the Fleet (pictured), that  she would not take up his kind offer of a berth on HMS Caradoc, a two-gunned, iron-paddle gun boat that had taken part in the war, 'because I conceive it would be quite the showiest method of getting myself home and I shall be glad to take the quietest.'

She was right. The Commander of the British Army in the East, General Sir William Codrington was part of the illustrious party on board, heading to Marseilles via Smyrna and Malta. En route he ceremoniously visited two other hospitals used by the British.
Instead, later than Caradoc party, an exhausted 'Miss Smith' left Constantinople on an un-named French  steamer. And no record of this voyage remains. Was she too tired to write? (vol 14, p433).

1856. To London and acclaim

‘Nearing Home - Some Of Our English Land Birds Settling on The Ship, Told Us We're Nearly Home,’ B&W engraving of painting by J. D. Luard, 1858. 

Fast forward again to 1858. The war's over. FN has become famous, and sentimentalized in patriotic climate. 'Ministering angel'  starts to become a description used for the new professional nurses. 
Military artist John Luard creates an image of a woman nursing her officer husband on deck on their homeward-bound ship.
Why does it matter? Because:

  • it’s  a rare picture of a woman at sea in that war.
  • the deck is so empty; this officer is not going die of proximity, as did so many men on other military ships
  • art auctioneers Sotheby's commented in 2008: 'It seems likely that the female nurse in Luard's painting, although thought by the Art Journal to represent the soldier's wife, is intended as a symbolic portrait of Nightingale or one of her nurses.'
I don't think so. Perhaps Sotheby's was infected by that virus, 'The Nightingale-ization of Everything To do with Female Nursing.'  
Actually there were thousands of under-trained women nursing and offering sutler-style support services at Crimea, as well as more experienced non-Nightingale nurses including Mary Seacole. And there were an astonishing numbers of tourist-wives of officers, such as Fanny Duberly.
So the Sotheby's re-interpretation unfortunately mis-sees the many women involved in shipboard nursing at any level in the Crimea War.
The catalogue note certainly mistakes the role that FN, that elite manager, would actually have had on her homeward-bound ship in August 1856. 'Miss Smith' was returning privately, not as a militarized heroine still on duty.


 Here are six Trivial Pursuits- type questions you may like to tackle, about the sea-loving travelling  woman who became fixed as the Lady with the Lamp figure.

1. Who developed her love of seashells? Miss Finch, a friend’s governess, in October 1834 when FN was 14.  This amateur conchologist "told me a great deal about shells and showed me many and I copied out a great many names into by drawing book for my shelves at home which she told me."

2. Did she know how to cure seasickness? No. Her advice, which she gave in a letter to her cousin Frances Bonham Carter in 1852 was ‘keep your berth or your mattress on the deck. Sitting up is the devil ... A little arrowroot and sherry, which can be made in a minute, is a great comfort on board a ship, where you sometimes can eat nothing else. But my advice is, eat not at all.'

3. What did she think was the big puzzle about being on ship, in the days before en suite freshwater showers? 'The real mystery of the sea voyage is the impossibility of washing, and that I don't know how to cure. I think the India rubber bath, which folds up into a bag, is a great comfort. It is so difficult to get tubs anywhere. But even that is difficult to get filled on board the vessel.'

4. Why did was the best thing about being women for FN and her friend Selina Bracebridge  on the Arciduca Lodovico  (pictured) to Greece in 1850, at a time when seagoing women were segregated into a posh dormitory-style Ladies Cabin on ship?  ‘We have had the inestimable comfort of being the only ladies all the way … [so] we have had the Cabin all to ourselves and lain in all the berths in turn.’

5. What was her most sublime moment when looking at the sea rather than being on it? In June 1850  she went to the home of Henry  Ward,  Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands, in Corfu and ‘walked in that lovely little garden with the rose acacias and the Albanian lilies and the balustrade on the sea. ... In the evening sat on the balcony looking upon the sea, the moonlight shining in under the arch and throwing flickering shadows on the sea. Never spent so poetic a day.'

6.  Were ships were named after her?  Yes, many. They included a cargo ship, an Elizabeth Cady Stanton-class US troop transport, a fishing vessel, a Mediterranean schooner – and a hospital ship.