Sunday, 11 July 2021

Pioneering Indian ayahs afloat ( South Asian Heritage Month 2021)

Ayahs (nannies) were the biggest group of South Asian women business travellers in the 19C and early 20C during the Raj.

They sailed to and from Bombay, Calcutta, Rangoon and Colombo, looking after colonial children being taken ‘Home’ by Anglo-Indian parents on furloughs or to British boarding schools.

2021 is the hundredth anniversary of the peak year for ayahs arriving in Britain.

Among the 50 ayahs arriving in 1921 was a woman only known as ‘Ayah Hollick.’(It was normal to refer to servants only by the name of their employers).

Ayah Holllick was sailing from Colombo (Sri Lanka) to London on the Bibby Line’s  SS Lancashire. During the three-week voyage she was looking after Mrs Louisa and Mr FC Hollick, their boy of nine and a baby girl, Anthea.

Ayahs gained status from their employers. So this ayah is likely to have enjoyed the Mr Hollick's referred prestige. He was a tea merchant working for the illustrious Dodwell & Co, direct rivals to those mighty merchants of the Far East, Jardine, Matheson & Co.

On arriving, the whole family went to Matlock Manor Hotel, a boarding house in south London’s Herne Hill. Possibly the ayah shared a room with the children.

We don’t know what the ayah made of England, nor how long the Hollicks stayed. Indeed, if the family’s sojourn was a long one, the ayah may have gone back earlier. 

It's possible that she stayed at the Ayah's Home in Hackney at some point: rates were cheap, the companionship heartening, and prospects for finding a job through networks were good.

Did she work for the Hollicks in Colombo when they returned, and while the children were growing up? Certainly some families had a fast turnover in ayahs. Other ayahs remained devotedly for generations. Some settled as British Asians.   

 After the 1921 trip?

Ayahs were usually proud of ‘their’ children and followed their career from afar, after moving on to work for other ex-pat employers However Ayah Hollick may well have felt ashamed of, or defensive about, what ‘her’ little girl grew up to do.

Age 18, Anthea Hollick not only angered the Buddhist world in Ceylon. She repeatedly made world-wide headlines in 1938-39 as the ‘Buddha Girl’ because of a faux-pas. 

Whether the ayah was in England devouring the Daily Herald, or in the East reading the Ceylon Daily News she'd have been shocked at Anthea's behaviour, especially if the ayah herself was a Buddhist.

On holiday with her fiancĂ© George Lamont Watt in at Anuradhapura at Easter 1938 the "blue-eyed blonde" had seized a photo opportunity. She'd posed in the lap of the seven-foot-high Buddha (pictured). It looked as if she was in the deity’s arms.

When George’s film was put in for processing someone at the film lab spotted the calumny and reported it. Protest meetings ensued. Buddhist organisations then demanded an official apology. 

It was given, and published. Even the Attorney General was involved. 

The couple were fined 1s 6d (7.5p), which would have been worth about £5 in today’s money. The derisory amount suggests the level of local cultural respect. 

Buddhist journals that summer referred to the "barbarous act of sacrilege." Maha Bodhi & the United Buddhist World demanded "how long are these acts of desecration and apologies to continue? 

"In Anuradhapura notices calling visitors’ attention to the penalty for tampering with or defiling sacred relics are prominently displayed in addition to the existence of sit watchers to look after the sacred places and objects.

“Can it then be imagined that these persons acted in good faith? Or, did they ignore all official notice boards and the prevailing customs of the majority of the people of this Island?”

She was so infamous that when she arrived in Britain on the Orient Line’s Ormonde in July 1938, to buy her trousseau, the headlines were ‘Buddha girl arrives.’ 

Reporters came on board at Southampton, while the ship was en route to Tilbury. Anthea was not contrite despite the shaming publicity. See her photo at

The Straits Times picked up Anthea's syndicated comments: "We have lost none of our friends in Combo as a result of the incident – and we have not come home [to England] because of any ill feeling in Colombo."

What’s more, she found a cobra in her cabin trunk on the voyage. 

Had some affronted Buddhist really wanted her to die from a snake bite? Or was it just a story? Maybe so, as there were no subsequent reports about dangerous reptiles, as you’d expect.

She brought her trousseau, and sailed home. But people were still talking about Anthea’s photo in August 1938. 

“The whole matter is closed now,” she said. “We made a mistake. There was not the slightest intention of insulting anyone’s religion, and we have paid for it. We have been through the mill and in Ceylon now everyone is satisfied. That being the case, I am totally disinterested in the whole affair and I don’t care a hoot what people in England think about it.”

The following January, 1939, she and George married in Colombo. Did her old ayah go to the wedding? 

And if so, what were the thoughts about respect that she could not afford to express?  We know only that ayahs had precarious careers. They needed to avoid blacklisting in the ex-pat community.

Ayahs' later voyages

There’s no evidence as to whether Ayah Hollick ever came back to the UK. She certainly didn’t return as ‘Ayah Hollick’. None of the family’s post-1921 voyages included an ayah.

But some ayahs kept making repeat voyage working for different families. Records show 984 ayahs arrived in England between 1890 and 1960.

There were never as many as the 50 in 1921. The nearest to that peak was 26 in 1925. No voyages by ayahs were listed after the mid-1950s

However, Indian ayahs still work for European, and Indian, families. Now, when required to travel, they fly.

If Anthea Hollick had children she may well have employed an ayah too. My sleuthing skills haven’t extended this far. If she brought them home to see her mother in Epsom they are likely to have travelled by plane.

When we celebrate South Asian Heritage Month we also acknowledge this remarkable group of possibly a thousand pioneering women. They had unusual privileges, but at a cost: precariousness and obedience.

Ayahs crossed the sea partly out of a desire for adventure and partly because the voyage went with the job. They left behind their own children, in order to tend the Antheas of that colonial world.


Sunday, 4 July 2021

Celebrating iconic Falklands steward Roy Wendy Gibson.


Roy Wendy Gibson on the Norland at Falklands.

Camp men who sailed in the 1960s and 1970s have and some spectacular send-offs. Glitz was the byword in life and in death. 

Franco Fantini was maybe the star. Palamino horses with powder-pink ostrich feather plumes drew the fairytale glass carriage bearing his coffin in Southampton in 2009. See

This time, 29 June, it was Hull’s turn, at Chanterlands crem.  Flamboyant Roy Wendy Gibson, formerly a  North Sea Ferries steward, got the Splendid Sendoff he deserved, under a Union Jack. It was an iconic event, probably the first camp LGBT+ Falklands Conflict veteran's funeral.

50 mourners were distanced inside. A further 80 were outside watching it on their mobile phones. Some mourners wore glittering eye shadow and Hawaiian shirts. 

It was, as they say in Polari, fantabulosa. The curtain number was Abba’s Dancing Queen.  And Pet Clark's Sailor, stop your roamin' gained a whole new meaning

Wendy at a piano on land, c 2000. Picture
courtesy of Wendy.
Wonderfully, there was no wary silence about Wendy's orientation. 

The word ‘gay’ was spoken repeatedly, and easily, many times during the service.  

Mourners enjoyed the hilarious story of how Wendy’s late mum coped with his coming out: by clocking him over the head with a frying pan. 

The dented pan was used to cook him a Full English breakfast anyway. Of course it  carried on being daily used in the family home that Wendy left, but  stayed connected to, back in the 1960s. 

Hull Daily Mail had already carried background articles on the death of someone acclaimed as a 'living legend'. For historic photos see;; and 

For funeral pictures see Jason Shipley's remarkable images at 

National hero and game-changer

Wendy with his precious Para tie
But this was not simply a party animal’s posthumous fling. Wendy (67) was  also one of the most important civilian men of the Falklands Conflict. He was honoured for that at this funeral just as he has been honoured for over three decades. 

In a climate that was still homophobic in 1982 he changed military attitudes because of the indefatigable cheer he constantly offered to 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment on board the Norland.

It wasn't just the hours of morale-boosting tunes he belted out nightly on his pink piano to and from the South Atlantic. 

It was also the banter too  that  'Our Wendy' offered 'his boys' who were champing at the bit on the boring, entertainment-less seas. His wit cracked people up, even at breakfast, with quips like 'Could you fancy an extra sausage, dear?'  

Several out gay men were working on the ship. But Wendy, with his self-taught musical skills and willingness to play on,  led the field as the morale booster.

He was so appreciated that the Paras have given him an unprecedented accolade. They've put up a plaque to him at their Aldershot headquarters. 

In July 2021, after the funeral, a Wendy memorial plaque was placed on the Goose Green bench at Aldershot 's Military Cemetery, near the former home of British Airborne Forces.Pics courtesy of Ron Webster.

It’s no accident that uniformed men bearing serious official standards marked the momentous day. 'One standard is good at a funeral. But five!!!" marvelled one Para I spoke to. Wendy was always one for sequins. However the gold and tassels  on show here were of a different sort. They were for this civilian as esteemed veteran.

At the funeral parlour: Norland 1982 veterans
prepare for Wendy's final trip.
And it’s no accident that Danny, the kilted bagpiper who led the cortege, has a day job in diversity. 

This is a city where people take homosexuality in their stride, and support gay rights as proud activists. The previous Lord Mayor, Steven Wilson, is himself gay, and knew Wendy

Wendy had been part of creating that climate, in ships and then ashore. Just days before he suddenly died he’d still been raising morale by entertaining on the joanna. 

A People’s Liberace, Wendy was a man who was never afraid to say he loved men.

Yes, he was a larger-than-life character. 

But I know from my interviews with him that he was also more than a star. He was a truly admirable human being.  

As Colonel Chris Keeble DSO, 2 Para Acting Commander, said in his tribute: 'What a generous big-hearted hero, a talent who brought out the best, especially through music, good humour and fellowship ... We shall always remember Wendy'  

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Re-inventing Jamaican nurse who sailed with baby Grace

Esther Niles in the live version of Waiting for Myself to Appear.
Image courtesy of Black History Month 2019


What do historians do if they can't find evidence of occluded people? Some invent, judiciously.

This weekend only, you can see on line an interview with the creatives involved in a three-screen immersive film installation on constant display in London's Museum of the Home. It marks Windrush Day, 22 June 2021.

The film installation is based on the imagined 19C story of Grace Belmore Sweeney's Caribbean nurse, who accompanied her to England. 

Grace (1837–1907) later married Henry Martyn Baker (1821–1895). He was the much older chaplain of the Geffrye almshouse. (Pictured)

Initially the play was a 45-minute live one-woman show in 2019. Michael McMillan's commissioned production, Waiting For Myself to Appear, imagines Grace's unknown Jamaican carer, 'Mary Anne'. Esther Niles stars. 

As someone exploring BAME caregivers afloat, I'm using this blog to offer information about Grace's likely voyage. However, brown and black carers' sea crossings are not part of any dramatic production, as yet. 

This show is about Hackney, not the ocean. And it weaves in modern times too.


The real name of this Jamaican worker-voyager is unknown. But - if she was a wet-nurse, as is assumed - she helped orphaned Grace Belmore Sweeney stay alive all the way to England. She belongs to a rarely-discussed category: black and brown women who sailed as care-givers, usually on precarious wages.

Unnamed port in Jamaica 1825, by James Hakewill. National Library of Jamaica

Underprivileged women seldom travelled long-distance before the 1960s, let alone earlier. Try to imagine Scarlett O'Hara's enslaved 'Mammy' landing at Falmouth docks, or Rudyard Kipling's ayah turning up at Victoria coach station. Unlikely! So Grace's care-giver had unusual mobility.


Grace's nurse may well have been of African origin, as so many enslaved Jamaicans were at that time. 

African-origin carers afloat are more rare than needles in haystacks. The better-known travelling ayahs and amahs were of Indian and Chinese origin respectively. (See ayah on a later P&O vessel, below).

Some were wet nurses. That meant their own left-behind babies were going without their blood-mother's milk and missing out on that crucial physical bond, as Esther Niles points out.

Mostly carers were at the upper end of the 20-50 age range. Many had children, who were left behind during the voyage. An unknown number were widows and family breadwinners.

Some care-givers stayed with their employing families and looked after generation after generation. They travelled to new locations with them, for example on furloughs 'Home' or when military sahibs were sent to new bases. The families care-givers had to adjust to being obligatory itinerants in order to keep their job.  


What was Grace's carer's voyage like? It's not recorded. But there's plenty of contextual evidence. 

She was aboard an unnamed ship, almost certainly wind-powered. It brought her the 4,705 nautical miles to Hackney in the late 1830s, just after slavery was abolished. 

Voyages were so long that some carers weaned the babies in that time, especially if seasickness dehydrated the women so much that they stopped lactating. 

Grace and her carer would have undergone a five-to-eight week voyage, or more. Speed depended partly on the state of the ship, weather, currents and winds.  Going from Jamaica to Britain the winds were kinder than on the Britain-to-Jamaica trips. 

Storm at Sea by Robert Salmon, 1840

She'd almost certainly have travelled saloon class, as she was with a white, not brown, child. They'd have slept in the Ladies' Cabin. Maybe 8-10 others were there, so a carer's job included shushing crying babies to avoid other passengers resenting the disruption. 

If very lucky their ship would have had a ladies-only lavatory (opening into the sea), not chamber pots. The cook's co-operation would have been crucial if Grace had switched to solid food. And sailing with a crew who liked children was always a bonus; carers felt less alone with their burden.  


The Museum of The Home (formerly the Geffrye Museum) in Shoreditch is to be commended for putting this unusual story of BAME women in the public eye.

 Hopefully, more early African-Caribbean caregivers' stories will emerge as a result.

Friday, 28 May 2021

LGBTQI history book affects seafarers' futures

I don't usually write about personal matters on this blog. But an email I've just had prompts this. 

Nearly twenty years ago Paul Baker and I wrote a history of the UK Merchant Navy: Hello Sailor: The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea  (Routledge 2003).

I thought we were recording and sharing an account of an important past culture - an extraordinary, and very enabling lifestyle for those lucky enough to be on gay-friendly ships in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.  

We  interviewed ex-seafarers who were in their 60s, 70s and 80s. They were speaking about a time before Gay Pride, when homosexual acts at sea were illegal. The past!

But now an email from Captain Lee Clarke, AFRIN, a much younger person still working in maritime today, illuminates the way that the book had another use today: it has helped LGBTQI+ people in modern times feel better. Lee (pictured here) has permitted me tell that surprising story: 

 "When I was a cadet in the early 2000’s,and certainly a junior navigating officer in the Merchant Navy, I struggled to come to terms with my sexuality. I started to hear stories from crew members onboard the RMS St Helena, that serviced Union Castle Lines. 

They talked of times when gay seafarers had their own language and culture onboard, as well as meeting in their own places all across the globe. This drew me towards Hello Sailor and I felt I connected more to the men in those pages than I did with other LGBTQ+ movements circulating at the time.

"I had honestly felt at that time that I had no heritage or understanding of the rich history that came with being a gay seafarer.  

"I came across Hello Sailor in 2015 and just could not put the book down. I connected to a history I was so proud of, but also connected to the pain on land of hiding my sexuality, and the importance of being able to escape to sea.

 "My ultimate favourite part of the book was learning about Polari and how people used it to communicate discreetly. I found this amazing. 

"I posted on LinkedIn about in 2016: er/?trackingId=NjgP5%2BkqSVyQsQJCliJfzA%3D%3D

"During my time as a cadet manager from 2015 to 2019,  when LGBTQ+ cadets approached me feeling disconnected about their sexuality and wondering how they would fit into the merchant navy, my first recommendation was to read Hello Sailor. 

They did, and it made them proud to be in the merchant navy and to be LGBTQ+. "

I'd like to thank all the people who told us about gay life at sea, and thus enabled this story to be told, and to continue to have its effects.

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

UK Navy appoints first woman admiral

It's taken 120 years of women being in naval services. But on 26 May the Royal Navy finally appointed its first female admiral. 
Commodore Jude Terry, OBE, (47) will become a rear admiral next year and the highest-ranking woman in the Navy. 
Women have, of course, worked with the Navy informally and formally for centuries, including in uniform as members of the QARNNS, WRNS, and VAD. They were also in many roles such as nursing aides afloat and wives who funded their office husband's career. 
But until 1991, seven years before Jude joined, women were not allowed to serve at sea. This meant that, however able, they could not attain senior positions. 
The decision to appoint Jude Terry follows the  controversial culling of 'excess' admirals in 2019 (when there were 34 male admirals), as well as decades of equal opportunities efforts. She stands on the shoulders of giants. I know about those shoulders: I've been tracing the pioneers' progress.
Her current role is Deputy Director People Delivery Royal Navy, and next summer she will be fully the Director.This task involves handling 33,520 Regulars. 
Of these, about a tenth are women. Since 1960 the Navy's usual number of women has been just over 3,000. 
The goal is now that women will be 20 per cent of the Navy by 2030. Observers suspect that this improved ratio may be achieved by further cutbacks in male numbers.

Commodore Terry's most pioneering UK predecessor was Katharine Furse, the first director of the new Women's Royal Naval Service in 1917 (pictured right). 
Dame Katharine wrote in her autobiography that when she showed off her new uniform at the Admiralty: 
'The First Lord ... pointed to one of my new buttons and said. "those are Admiral's Buttons, why has she got them?" The Second Sea Lord explained that the Director [WRNS] had equivalent rank for certain purposes and therefore ought to wear the buttons... they were approved.' 
Women were civilians in very separate naval services. Some naval men had trouble seeing their value and respecting their authority.
Initially women were permitted to wear dashing tricorne hats. But when it came to insignia they were only allowed blue braid, not gold, because gold was 'definitely the prerogative of the men' and would be 'wasted' on women. 
Today such discrimination would be unthinkable. Jude Terry will be working in a changing culture. 
Making women leave on marriage, or when pregnant, is a thing of the  past. Earlier than the 1990s Wrens and QARNNS became activists and took the MOD to court for discriminatory behaviour. 
Women also fought for the right NOT to go to sea: see CPO Jacqueline Cartner' s 2012 struggle (pictured, left). More recently women pressed for combatant statues. 
The Naval Servicewomen's Network, which Captain Ellie Ablett (pictured right, in uniform) founded in 2013 helped women work collectively for a fairer deal, including access non-traditional roles. 
At that time no-one would bet on when a woman would finally become an admiral.

~ If you want to know about Commodore Terry the best place to start is a Youtube interview with her made by students at Barnhill Community High School in 2020. They interviewed her for 20 minutes and she was frank. See Captain Terry Interview
In it she said she had 'always been a tomboy' and was 'fiery.'  (However, she married in 2009. See picture of her wedding to a Merchant Navy pilot, Captain Noel Charlton. He's on LinkedIn at
She spoke of her father being in the RN, and her mother's initial opposition to Jude joining. 

Asked about role models Jude named three men: Nelson Mandela; a really good RN commanding officer Richard (inaudible); plus the inspirational General David Hancock. 

~You may also like to look at social media. Jude Terry tweets at

~ On LinkedIn she can be found at 

~ And for the fullest details, free of pay walls, see the article below. I have lifted from the website of the Association of Wrens and Women of the Royal Naval Services:

"For the first time in the centuries-long history of the Royal Navy, a woman officer will be appointed to the rank of admiral. 
"Commodore Jude Terry, who has served her nation and Navy for nearly a quarter of a century, has been selected for promotion to rear admiral – making her the most senior woman in the Royal Navy, past or present. 
"She will be responsible for sailors and Royal Marines from the moment they are recruited to their final day in Service – spanning their entire careers by overseeing training, welfare and career management. 

"The 47-year-old from Jersey will be promoted to rear admiral next year and take over as the Royal Navy’s Director of People and Training and Naval Secretary. Of making history she says simply “someone has to be first”. 
"She continued: “I have always thought of myself as a naval officer first, then a logistics officer, then Jude and finally as a female. The Navy genuinely doesn’t look at your gender and is an equal opportunities employer – it wants you to be part of a team and deliver outputs to support operations. 
"“I have been really lucky throughout my career. I’ve enjoyed great jobs, wonderful support from my family, worked with great people, seized the opportunity to see the world and contribute to a number of operations which have made a difference to people’s lives including Afghanistan, Somalia and Sierra Leone to name a few.”
"She currently serves as deputy director of the department she is earmarked to take over, with the goal of helping to shape the Royal Navy and its people up to 2040.

"First Sea Lord Admiral Tony Radakin [pic left] said: “I am delighted with Commodore Jude Terry’s selection for promotion to Rear Admiral. Jude is part of a cohort of trailblazers in the Royal Navy who have seized the opportunities on offer, and risen to the top. 
"This builds on a rich career of naval and broader Defence appointments, all of which she has excelled at.”
"Commodore Terry hails from a naval family and joined the Navy in 1997. 
"She has spent the bulk of her seagoing career in Plymouth-based warships, including survey vessel HMS Scott and two spells with helicopter carrier HMS Ocean.

"Of her 12-month second draft to HMS Ocean she spent ten away from the UK in the Baltic and Gulf and was responsible for working with a documentary team producing the series Warship for Channel 4. 
"Her career has taken her to the Gulf and Middle East, Indian Ocean, Far East and the Caribbean. 
"Numerous staff appointments have included the Royal Navy’s logistics branch manager, dealing with issues as varied as recruiting and training, retaining experienced personnel, ensuring ships and submarines have enough chefs, review of tattoo policy, and a review of welfare provision across the service. 
"And Commodore Terry was awarded the OBE in the New Year’s Honours List in 2017 for her efforts during three years at the UK military’s operational hub, Permanent Joint Headquarters, during which she was involved in: 
# the end of Britain’s front-line operations in Afghanistan
#  overseeing the closure of bases at Lashkar Gar, Bastion and Kandahar 
# the successful efforts to curb the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa in 2014 – 2015. 

"Away from the Royal Navy, Commodore Terry still lives in Jersey, enjoys its shoreline, outdoor activities and water sports ... as well as travelling, reading, good food and good weather."

Sunday, 16 May 2021

Wot dunnit? BAME nursemaid’s puzzling death, Suez Canal 1909.


Mystery, race, gender, bravery, and power at sea in a colonial context. This is about the intensely puzzling case of ‘Amah Bird’. 

Amah Bird was an un-named Chinese nanny who drowned while steaming between England and Hong Kong in 1909 on the liner Palawan (see above, Palawan's sister ship, Sunda).

In looking at the sparse and racialised story of her final moments we can see the image and realities of a certain sort of worker and voyager, more normally pictured in a nursery on land. (see pic) 

Amah Bird is a reminder that sea travelling – which sounds so delightfully liberating, and which Virginia Woolf was already reflecting upon for The Voyage Out  – can damage your emotional health as well as your physical health. 

And that seems unfair when you are only at sea as an obligatory part of your job.


Not just external factors such as torpedoes, acts of nature, or navigational incompetence lead to voyagers dying en masse as, say, on the Titanic.

But also individuals on board die, singly, because of misadventure, stressful emotions and misjudgement. Some inadvertently fall overboard. Some jump. Some are pushed.

In other words, it’s not necessarily bumping into the iceberg wot dunnit. A dislocated person’s anger and fear can be a cause of maritime death too too.

BAME women who travelled for work as nursemaids, accompanying mainly European families involved in empire building, are a particularly interesting category of passenger.

These ayahs and amahs are barely known as subjects. So any evidence, including reports of their mishaps, is useful. 

The P&O Building, Hong Kong. The Bird family
would have got their tickets from here.
Image courtesy of 
Reading between and beyond the lines of newspaper articles about their deaths can help reveal something about their lives and contexts. The more the column inches, the more the leads available to historians in pursuit of these occluded female worker-passengers.

Posterity can benefit from just five column inches about Amah Bird.

The few words help sleuths begin to ask ‘What was going on, at breakfast time on P&O’s little Palawan, in the Suez Canal on 23/34 October 1909?’

Did Amah Bird jump or did she fall? Was there a murder-and-suicide combined? Or was there just a tragic mistake that terminated two promising lives, Amah Bird and two year-old Elinor Bird?

Was the amah a selfless heroine? A murderer?

Or, tragically, was she just a diligent, under-informed  carer in a messy, ambiguous and quotidian situation that became briefly elevated into a race-tinged late imperial drama?


At least eight incidents on the high seas between 1848 and 1915 brought the deaths of ayahs and amahs.  I’ve been inspired to investigate, as part of the new Ayahs Research network that is uniting scholars worldwide. 

See, for an example, Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Servants in Australia and Britain 1780-1945,

Relatedly, over the next few months, my blog will offer stories of the ten known seagoing Asian nursemaids for whom travel was fatal. Class, gender and race contribute important dimensions to these fatal voyages.

Amah Bird is the first I’ve written up here. But at least eight had preceded her in the nineteenth century. No known photos exist, but the picture (left) shows a classic representation of an amah. (Image courtesy of

Not only does her overlooked voyage offer the opportunity to explore the history of one of these beloved but anonymous ‘almost-mothers’.  

The story also helps people speculate about the hidden and exceptional upstairs-downstairs tensions in the nursemaid’s employment. She was temporarily obliged to be on the high seas, in conditions not of her own free choosing. What was that like? What was the nuanced context?

The exceptional manner of Amah Bird’s death enables us to wonder at the possible emotional and dynamics involved: her own, and that of those of the distant people who only read, the highly mediated reports about the last mysterious hours of this ‘British’ Deck-Class passenger in  a floating ex-pat enclave heading for Yokohama.


 Chapter one of the story emerges just over a day later, on 25 October 1909. A syndicated report was circulated by Reuters, then the world’s leading English language news agency. Even the far away Leeds Mercury picked it up, verbatim:


Port Said, Saturday.

Yesterday, while the P. and 0. steamer Palawan was passing through the Canal, a child named Bird fell overboard, and a  Chinese ayah jumped into the water after it. Mr. Jones and Quartermaster Watler [sic?] rescued them, but the child and ayah died two hours later.

The information was telegraphed, at speed, so necessarily brief. The headline implies a common imperial trope: the idea that native servants are so devoted to their white charges that they will lay down their own lives for the sake of ‘their’ children’s.

Many modern historians of empire charge that imperial subjects were regarded as only uneducated natives who acted with emotionality or irrationality.  Such a view underlines white superiority and thereby justifies imperial rule.  And Amah Bird was female, to boot; the word ‘futile’, qualifying ‘bravery’ is important here.  

Chapter two of Amah Bird’s story is revealed 24 days later. Probably the Port Said authorities released a more detailed story to journalists working for English-language papers in Asia.

This new, less melodramatic, turn seems not to have been picked up by Reuters or other European news outlets. 

The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser announced:

‘It appears that shortly after breakfast the alarm was raised of man overboard. The body of the little girl Bird was seen drifting away, whilst behind was the Chinese amah.

‘A second class passenger, Mr AW Jones, who we are informed is proceeding to join the Shanghai Police force, jumped overboard from the poop deck and swam to the rescue.

‘He got up to the child, who was still alive, and supported her till rescued by the [ship’s life-] boats, the rescue taking considerable time.

 ‘The amah, when brought on board was dead, having been drowned ...  the child was still alive, the theory being that a blow she had received in falling overboard made her unconscious for the time and prevented her struggling.

 ‘Everything possible was done to save her life but she died shortly afterwards from shock and exhaustion.’

‘Extraordinary to relate, the child and amah fell from one of the lavatories through the porthole.’

Mr Jones was feted. The British Consul at Suez was informed. 

And ‘a verdict of accidental drowning was decided on. 

'The burial took place at sea.'

‘The greatest sympathy was shown for Mr and Mrs [Lennox and Margaret] Bird, who were on board, and the affair cast a gloom over the whole ship all the voyage.’

Picture: Architect Lennox G Bird in later life, as officer of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps


And so ends the public story. The private one of the impact on the amah’s family, and the Bird family, has never been told.

112 years later I’ve found much more information, which will be published in a detailed account elsewhere. 

Exciting discoveries include learning Elinor’s name;  glimpsing the life she might have led, by seeing her sister’s career story on; and accessing images of Bird houses in Lugard Road, Shek, which the amah would have known, had she lived longer.

Picture:27 Lugard Road, designed by Lennox Bird for his brother. Lennox lived at no 28.Image courtesy of Gwulo: Old Hong Kong


What remains is the mystery about how and why and how Elinor and the amah got through a small porthole. As someone who knows about gendered disasters at sea, my idea is as follows.

Step 1. The amah and Elinor had gone to the communal First Class ladies’ bathroom after breakfast. They went everywhere together, as they had on land.

Step 2. The amah held Elinor up, the better to look through a porthole. Maybe they were looking at a camel on the banks of the canal. Elinor struggled out of the amah’s hands and into the sea.

Step 3. The amah, on adrenalin, did the first thing that occurred to her: took direct action and tried to save the child by diving after her, rather than running up on deck to alert an officer to arrange a rescue. She may have thought she didn’t know who to tell, or felt unconfident about her skills in communicating in English. Maybe Mr Jones was alerted by the splash, or a yell from the amah.

Step 4.  Once in the water, the amah perhaps found her ability to swim was poor or non-existent, so she couldn’t catch up with the child.

 If Elinor was indeed unconscious (as a result of hitting her head against the hull as she) fell then the amah is likely to have panicked and felt desolate that Elinor was not able to reach out her arms to be helped. 

The amah’s distressed breathing and any drop in morale would have worsened her ability to save herself, especially if wearing a hampering sari and if the Canal was cold. 

(The water’s overnight October temperature is 66 degrees F at worst.)  (See picSuez Canal. Courtesy State Information Services, Egypt. 


One of my next stories in this series will be about a Japanese amah who deliberately pushed her little charge through a porthole, and then flung herself overboard. Fatally.

As a result of that indication of possible travel rage I wonder if Amah Bird could have been a strict disciplinarian? Or was she someone at the end of her tether about a child’s capriciousness, the employers’ attitudes, the upsetting behaviour by someone else on board in that discriminatory hierarchy?

Could extreme stress have led her to administer the utmost punishment or revenge? Any Sherlock Homes will be alert to the words ‘blow she had received.’

 Either way, the amah’s promising career at the margins of Hong Kong high society and her trip to fabled England ended in tragedy for her. Maybe her actions also re-triggered wider xenophobic doubt about the general reliability of amahs as custodians of the empire’s upcoming generation.

Sunday, 11 April 2021

The piratess wore Marigolds


Picture: Debbie England doing her show on pirate Radio Atlantis, c 1974. 

Picture by Steve England.

... Or rather, she would have worn rubber gloves, had been available on board her rusting old ship. 

So I found out when interviewing Debbie England (now Royle), in land-locked Cheshire this week. She was Britain’s first woman DJ on Radio Caroline and Radio Atlantis, in the great days when pirate radio ships rocked the airwaves. 

Debbie was aboard these North Sea music heavens because she was accompanying her husband, DJ Steve England.  They had run a mobile disco service together in Deal, with Steve’s sister Paula and brother Rick. 

But in 1973 when Steve got his Big Chance – to go off and DJ in this exciting new world of pirate radio – he took it. Debbie and Paula continued the disco business in Deal for a while as the Disco Dollies.


A few months later Debbie was allowed a quick visit to Steve aboard this semi-co-operative on Mi Amigo. So she went the 5 miles out to the old ship anchored off Scheveningen in Holland.

Getting from tender to ship could be alarming. Big Dutch crew members virtually hauled her on board when the waves allowed her near enough. 

The most exciting-sounding pirate radio ship in the world was a dump.  It was scruffy, basic and ad hoc. ’I was shocked when I saw inside. But you got used to it.’ 

And she stayed on even though ‘I’m not that brave and I was usually too scared to even ride a bike. I certainly couldn’t swim.’  Sometimes they were aboard for weeks at a time. She learned ‘The North Sea can get pretty rough.’

Debbie’s main role was in the galley, cooking ‘mainly stew.’  She admits that as a young untrained woman of 23 ‘I wasn’t much good’ with the food. But she coped when fresh supplies from shore didn't arrive in time and even in wild weather when the big pots threatened to slide off the galley stove and scald the poor chef. 

Aside from cooking, Debbie DJ’ed from around 1973. She was on Radio Caroline, and then on Radio Atlantis when Steve moved there in 1974. 

Radio Atlantis was an old trawler stationed off Knokke on the Belgian coast. The trip out from Vlissingen in Holland was about 14 miles.

Picture: Debbie and Steve at the Astor Theatre in the 1970s. Picture by Steve England.



And in the studio she succeeded because, she told me unassumingly, ‘I’ve always been good at chatting.’  The technical skills she’d acquired when running the disco ashore meant she needed no techie to help her broadcast to the millions on land. And her knowledge of pop music must have been huge.

She graduated to doing two-to-three hour-long shows, which she remembers were called something obvious like ‘The Debbie Show’. But ‘I don’t think I thought I must play songs because they’re  by women.’ 

If she’d been too assertively feminist that might have meant she couldn’t carry on. It was very much a situation where it was crucial to muck in with your peers, to be a co-operative shipmate..

Today Debbie doesn’t recall the first number she played. But she can’t forget the last track she placed on the turntable as Radio Atlantis was finally towed into Sheveningen in 1974: the Three Degrees singing When will I see you again?

‘It was fun’, she sums it up. ‘It was just all about having a good time’ in trying circumstances. ‘ A bit like wild camping. ‘Hard and quite tough. But an experience.  You’d never get it again. It makes you a stronger person.’


This modest pioneer’s story sounds almost like the Ann Bonny story of 1719, aboard Captain Calico Jack Rackham’s vessels. You can read about Ann’s situation in Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 classic, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates.

Because I’ve written a history of women pirates throughout history I can see ways that being a woman ‘camping out’ on a grubby pirate radio ship in the 1970s had similarities with being a woman on a real pirate ship in the early 1700s. 

1. You were part of an off-shore team who were outlawed. The ‘rebels’ felt themselves to be fairly legit – and mis-perceived. That sense of ‘us against them’ sometimes bonded them (and you).

2. You were usually the only woman in a masculine culture, living with men who were essentially techies.  Few of them cared to do domestic roles but they appreciated home comforts e.g. palatable food.  

3. You cooked and cleaned – because that’s what women traditionally were expected to do.

4. Often you were the partner of a senior-ish man on board.  That meant the rest of the  men aboard saw you as out-of-bounds sexually. Men were not rivalling each other for access to you, so the ship was not a powder keg. And no liberties taken, unlike today on ships where sexual harassment is a major problem.

5. You could sometimes grab the occasional opportunity to play a more active ‘masculine’ role when it was a case of all hands to the pump. Such openings including DJ-ing in Debbie’s case, and fighting enemy vessels in Ann Bonny’s case.

6. The ship you were on had been ‘acquired’; it was not purpose-built for the task. So the team were always coping ad hoc with an imperfect situation.

7. Rough weather really mattered. So did your ability not to be seasick.  (Some studies think women are more liable to suffer mal de mer). 

8. Sometime you and your team were up against force of law and order, as when law enforcers circled round threateningly, or attacked the ship (took radio masts down) and towed the ships into port. 


Of course there were also difference between the Anne Bonnys of the 1720s world of piracy and Debbie’s offshore radio life in the 1970s. Here are nine key points:

1. Debbie and her shipmates were not roving the seas but anchored in one place. 

2. They weren’t there to attack enemy vessels and plunder doubloons, but to relay music to land – a kind of public service. DJs did not plunder other vessels. However some opponents think pirate radio abused musicians’ rights but not paying for each disc spun.

3. She was in the cold North Sea, not far away in the sunny Caribbean.

4. 250 years on, the women’s liberation movement had started. Women were just starting to glimpse that their talents had been habitually overlooked and their rights restricted.

5. Pirate DJs are never punished by hanging, as pirates were.  So Debbie was not at risk of being widowed because of her husband’s job, although sometimes prison was on the cards.

6. Your pirate radio ship was sometimes one that had no motor. You had to be towed, whereas a pirate ship of the past had sails and could move.  Those pirates had a sense of collective agency. Motility was taken for granted. 

7. Debbie’s ships had chest freezers that trundled up and down the corridors in bad weather.  Tins fell off shelves. But cooks in Anne Bonny’s time contended with brine barrels, kidnapped turtles, and ship’s goats.  Like Anne’s cook (as the captains’ wife, Anne was above such things)  Debbie also had to deal with limited fresh water supplies and lack of green veggies.  

8. A pirate vessel tries not to reveal its presence. A pirate radio does the opposite. Its reason for being is that it is widely audible, and visible to visitors. 

Picture: Debbie (left) and Lynda doing the cleaning on Radio Atlantis, 1974. Image by Steve England, supplied by Pirate Radio Hall of Fame. 


Not at all. See my blog of 15 March 2021:

Debbie adds other women were involved in offshore radio too, after the mid-1970s. 

Dutch women were sometimes on Radio Caroline.

Kate Cary, who was married to DJ ‘Spangles Muldoon’ (Chris Cary), was working in the land-based side of Radio Caroline’s operations with him in 1972-73.

Lynda Anderson (c. 1953-2014) was involved in 1974. She was married to Radio Atlantis DJ and sound engineer Andy Anderson. Mainly Lynda did the cooking, sharing it with Debbie. 

Steve England says ‘Lynda did one show on Atlantis but, after we gave her some advice and criticism, refused to ever do another show... [However] she did speak on air from time to time in other people's shows and on the farewell show.’ 

Is it possible that some pirate DJs were not very tactful about the ways they gave advice to newbies? Could there be a possibility of jealousy or sexism when women stepped from galley to technology-filled studio?

Picture: Lynda Anderson, photo by Steve England, loaned by Hans Knot to


‘Did you think of yourselves as piratical?’ I asked Debbie. She thought that was funny. Being on her pirate radio ships was more like living in a shambolic shack at sea. 

But, she said ‘Yes, Sometimes. We were not trespassing but we were outside the law.’ There could be a feeling of joyous rebellion, like a waterborne version of the new counter-culture.

Women pirates sound so excitingly swashbuckling. But maybe it pays to think more realistically. A woman on ‘pirate’ vessel was a woman in a man’s world of a very specific kind.

Is there a non-glamorous way of seeing women’s role in kinds of piracy, as part of a team of defiant co-creators ?

Is there a missing sign somewhere proclaiming ‘A piratess’s place is in the galley – expect exceptionally.’ 

Debbie’s story suggests that when women were allowed to be involved in the ship’s main activity – relaying music in this case – they rose to the task. 

Training, role models and men who were generous  helped. Debbie must have inspired so many girls on land. 

Learning more about pirate radio 

Go to the encyclopaedic and picture-rich The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame at

For more reading see my blog about other pirate women DJs at 

With many thanks to Steve England, Jon Myer, Simon Prentice and Debbie Royle.