Saturday, 18 September 2021

Ten interesting things about working at sea in the past: BBC2's A House Through Time

BBC2's A House Through Time, broadcast 14 Sept 2021, featured
ship's steward Edward Partridge Fearnley.

If you want to know more about Edward   (see pic), who lived at Grosvenor Mount in Leeds,  read on.This is my extra detail about him, to supplement the show. It builds on research done by the Twenty-Twenty team too, especially Anna Bates.

The Board of Trade official  photo shows he looks fairly attractive and intelligent. He sported the fashionable Adolphe Menjou moustache. I happen to be able to analyse hand writing, so I detect that he was cultivated and steady. At that time, by contrast, stewards hit the headlines as flashy wide-boys into bigamous adventures  and swindles.


Edward was born in 1877 and became a ship's steward sometime after 1901. He did around 38 years and died at sea at 62, in 1939, with lung problems. Certainly he was a ship’s waiter by 1905, when he was 28 - quite old for a newcomer to the sea.

We don't know how or why he took to seafaring work. He worked first as an import clerk, which may have fuelled his interest in travel and connected him to someone who could give him a reference for Cunard, one of the biggest names in shipping. He'd have travelled to its Liverpool HQ to be interviewed. Certainly reliability and a good service ethos were among the required traits.  

He was employed mainly by Cunard and didn’t change ships much. (See list below). Staying with the same vessel was normal if the Chief Steward and Head Waiter wanted you on their ship. Not everyone stayed with the same shipping line, because they wanted to go to other destinations instead. Edward might well have got tired of going to New York. But if he fancied Australia or Japan he certainly didn’t act on that wish and join, say, P&O instead.  Maybe he was happy being home one week in three, and on the best-tipping route in the world – to and from New York. 

He was buried in the Cunard section of a Manhattan graveyard; possibly his family didn’t think it was worth shipping his body home, or were persuaded against it.


Being a waiter was a white job, except for the low-waged Asian stewards working for shipping lines such as British India. Edward would have got several times their basic pay, plus good tips as he was working with American passengers, who tended to be generous with the gratuities.


Being male meant he was privileged and mobile in this maritime world. Women were not allowed to be waiters until a handful were allowed in on Buries Marks tramp ships for a gimmick in the 1950s, then later on Union Castle liners as stewardettes in the 1960s. See YouTube: Dining rooms were the area where you had greatest access to tips, so for as long as they could men made sure they - not women  - secured those rights.


Hotel and catering work - on land and sea - was an area where it was fairly common to employ gay and bi men, or at least men who sometimes had sex with other men. So Edward would have had queer shipmates. Maybe he even shared the same dorm as some gay stewards.


As a waiter his day began at 6am and ended around 10 pm. He served breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea on alternate days, and dinner, too. When he made it to First Class waiter his job was easier: only one sitting for dinner, not two, and better baksheesh - but stuffier diners.

Edward on Orduna's crew list, 1915.


Waiters sailed in war, mainly on their usual ships which had been converted to carry troops. Edward was certainly at sea in Dec 1914, Jan and Feb 1915 on the Transylvania, with 312 other crew. In 1917 a German U-boat sunk the Transylvania; Edwards seems not to have been aboard.

In In March 1915, as a First Class waiter on the Orduna to and from New York, Edward is likely to have been bringing Canadian officers (and their families) to the UK to train before going to the Somme. In war crew were expected to also learn to use the ships' guns in emergencies. So Edward might well have been as adept at targeting as he was at Silver Service, going to and fro across the Atlantic. Not many areas were mined at that stage. A German torpedo narrowly missed the Orduna in July 1915. I don't think he was aboard at that time. He died before WW2 began. Stewards lost their lives in both wars.


Edward’s Dad was a stuff merchant’s clerk in Shipley, who died when Edward was 14. So Edward went with mum and siblings to live with his maternal grandparents in Headingley, the house featured in the A House Through Time programme. (See photo of presenter David Olusoga there today). It was fairly posh, but VERY crowded. He had a genteel upbringing and reasonable education, so he'd know about how to behave with the elite passengers upon whom he waited.


There's no typical pattern for stewards' families of that period, except that usually seafarers’ children followed in parental footsteps. Edward's dad was in textiles and Edward had no children, so he was not part of a maritime dynasty. Two of his younger sisters became teachers. Edward would have been able to put in a good word and help get them jobs as stewardesses, if they had fancied what was seen as a daring life for a genteel lady. About 50% of seafarers were married, as Edward was, although we don't know when exactly he married. Shipmates did have adulterous relationships, but more so on long-distance voyages.


Was he an exception? No, only in dying on board. 24:7, Edward did not live the good life his wealthy passengers enjoyed. Most ship's stewards ate their meals on the hoof, so they had gastric problems and kept popping Rennie indigestion tablets. Many men smoked at that time, which worsened lung problems for lowly crew sleeping in poorly ventilated area.

It sounds like Edward had a serious health problem because in April-Jun 1932 he became a lift attendant on the ship - a non-arduous job, like lavatory attendant, which was a sort of grace-and-favour job allocated to loyal elderly staff who were not capable of much exertion. Then for a further six months he became a servants’ hall steward, which was light work. The fact that Cunard did not get rid of him when he became poorly indicates that he was regarded as a useful company man. It's very unusual to die in your bunk, at sea, of natural causes. Most shipping employers would have been ‘let go’ before they reached that state of ill health.

What ships was Edward on?

1905: Campania

1914: Transylvania

1915. Orduna

1921-33. Aquitania

1934. Scythia

1935-1939: Lancastria

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Only Female Survivor of Royal George, 1782.


The “Royal George” at Deptford Showing the Launch of “The Cambridge”, 1757 (Credit: John Cleveley the Elder, National Maritime Museum.)

Taster for recommended blog entry. 

Dr Hilary L Rubinstein's sleuthing has produced The Only Female Survivor of the Sinking of the Royal George.

'The woman was Elizabeth (“Betty”) Horn, née Badcock, daughter of a Plymouth shipwright.'Baptised in 1758, she had since 1778 been married to John Horn, an experienced seaman who was now a petty officer, serving as one of the ship’s quartermasters  ... 

'[When the ship sank at Spithead, because of a mistake, 'A chivalrous seaman dragged the surrounded, struggling Betty out of one of the  [portholes] and threw her clear of the ship.

'No sooner had he done so than the ship lurched further, so that the portholes were almost horizontally above the heads of people who had not yet managed to escape, and who consequently dropped back into the ship.

'To the sound of haunting screams, the ship then sank, trapping most of her terrified occupants ... into the sea.'

For fuller details, including other women's plights, see

Hilary's latest book is Catastrophe at Spithead: the Sinking of the Royal George, by Seaforth Publishing, 2020.

Monday, 9 August 2021

First ayah rescued from shipwreck, 1832

Nearly two hundred ago Ayah Carruthers (her own name is not recorded) was apparently the very
first ayah rescued at sea by her English employer. 

Ayah Carruthers' employing family may have looked something like this picture. It's a representation created just seventeen 17 years earlier: Charles D'Oyley: A European Lady and Her Family, Attended by an Ayah, or Nurse (1815). 

Working for a mobile family was a mixed blessing for South Asian servants, including ayahs (nannies and maids). They found travel could be:

  • an unusual adventure for a lowly woman, and an extrinsic perk of the job
  • life-threatening, especially in the days of sailing ships.

But, when shipwrecks inevitably happened, being a woman did bring the chance of gallant rescue - even if she was brown or black. By contrast male 'native' servants were usually expected to look after themselves. 

All we know of this ayah now is that she was old, and rightly scared, in autumn 1832. She was probably from Calcutta (Kolkata), as she was accompanying Josephine and Matthew Carruthers from there to Tipperah (Tripura) in Bengal (Bangladesh). Matthew worked for the East India Company (EIC)

The party's terrible sea experience began just hours after they set off, the very evening  after the Carruthers were married in Calcutta Cathedral on 2 October. (St John's, pictured).

(Although grand the cathedral was already proving far too small for the burgeoning British population; plans were beginning for the current one.) 

Probably  Matthews' EIC colleagues attended the celebrations. That network is likely to have found him his servants too.

After the ceremony  Ayah Carruthers, plus at least one other woman servant and the newly-weds, began their 217-mile voyage. Perhaps Josephine had with her her trousseau.

Depending on conditions such a short coastal and river trip took several days. Sailing was far easier than going 1,025 miles over hilly terrain. 

We can imagine the ayah feeling many emotions ranging from excited or jittery about the journey and her relocation. This could have been her first sea trip. Or, as she was elderly, she might have been a veteran traveller.

It seems that she was going to be working in the home of  Civil Servant Matthew. He was already employed as Assistant to the Collector at Tipperah, a princely state newly under Rajah Krishna Kishor Manikya.

The Carruthers entourage was heading east-north-east. Unruly seas and wild elements entered the scene after four days of travelling, which had made them sea sick.

Disaster strikes

Today no-one today would know about this ayah involved in a routine relocation, except that she was one of the 'helpless female' characters in a talked-up drama:  an 'instance of preservation of life ... through the skill and intrepidity of a gentleman of the civil service, [which] deserves to be recorded,’ according to the Madras Courier and the Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany.

The story was later immortalized in a Victorian compendium, Acts of Gallantry

Under headings such as 'Remarkable Preservation of Life During the Late Gale,' most versions record that: 

'On the 6th the pinnace was forced to anchor, and in the evening the gale came on with terrible violence. Mr Carruthers was dreadfully sick with the motion of the vessel.

'And Mrs Carruthers was lying on her couch suffering under an attack of fever, when the pinnace was blown over and drifted into the stream’ [which means the current].

‘Mr Carruthers caught his wife, and they fell into the water together. When he came up, he succeeded in grasping a part of the vessel, but was knocked off by a man falling upon him.

‘On coming up a second time he saw his wife struggling with her women, who were trying to save their lives at the expense of hers. Seizing her by the hair, and grasping one of the iron stanchions, he got into the wreck, Mrs Carruthers being nearly lifeless ...

'watching for a favourable opportunity, when near the shore, he directed Mrs. Carruthers to take off her flannel gown and cling to his waist ... they committed themselves to the stream, which carried them down many yards ...

'by dint of labour, in about half an hour, he had the delight of landing his wife upon the bank, though at night, without shelter, she nearly naked, the wind piercing cold, and the rain descending in torrents ; at length they procured some dry clothes and a fire from the natives.

'The ayah, or female attendant of Mrs Carruthers, still remained on the wreck, and Mr Carruthers plunged into the rapid and dangerous river a second time, and brought the poor old woman to shore. Six of the crew, and one of the women, were drowned.’

Pinnace budgerow (left)  on the Hooghly River, looking at the EIC
factory at Cossimbazar, c1800.

The tragic story is so unclear that we have to guess a lot. 

1.What vessel was carrying the Carruthers party? 

They were said to be in a pinnace. This is rather puzzling as a pinnace is just a  ship’s boat that acts as a small tender taking people to port. It seems unlikely that they would have been using a small boat for the entire voyage from Calcutta, round the upper Bay of Bengal. So maybe the reporter's use of the word 'pinnace' is anachronistic and refers to something like the independent vessel pictured.

2. Where exactly was the shipwreck?  

The article refers to a river, indicating the likelihood that the tragedy happened somewhere on the vast and tidal Meghna River. Three miles across, the estuary is a significant waterway and the start of an ancient route to significant Bengal towns.

The nearby shore is mentioned. Possibly - as they were in a small boat - the Carruthers were very near the port where they intended  to disembark for Tipperah. Chandpur, at the junction with the Padma River, is the most likely transport hub.   

Who was the ayah with?

Josephine's memsahib was born Josephine Parker and was 22. Little is known of her. But records shows a HM Parker was secretary of the Board of Customs, Salt and Opium. I'd place a small bet on his being Josephine's father.

By contrast EIC records reveal much about Matthew. He was 22 and on the rise. Having an ayah was normal after such a man married. 

Matthew was the Eton-educated second son of David and Mary Carruthers, of Bloomsbury Square, London. 

David seems to have been a wealthy merchant, involved in EIC internal politics and supported of free trade with China - a stance that was linked to opium trading politics. The extended Carruthers family of Dumfriesshire had long been involved in EIC India. 

In 1828-29 Matthew been trained as a writer (meaning administrator) at the East India Company College in Hailey, Hertfordshire. Later referred to as Haileybury, the college groomed bright 16 -18 year olds for elite careers In India.  (see picture below, right, of the college today).

Chris Hunt, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https:creativecommons.
org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The subjects on his curriculum included Urdu (Hindustani) Bengali, and Marathi, as well as natural philosophy and the classics. 

All his education meant he understood not only the correct British Christian chivalry required when shipwrecked. He might well have been able to speak the ayah's language too. 

After leaving Hailey Matthew arrived in India in 1830. He'd have been familiar with Calcutta's Writers Building, (left of the Court House, the old  EIC headquarters, in this picture). 
EIC architecture showed such men their own significance in the social order, including in relation to humble ayahs.  

After gaining his feet in Dacca (Dhaka) Matthew had worked in Maimansinh (Mymensingh). It seems likely that the ayah, and maybe Josephine too, were going to this rural outpost for the first time, to set up the marital home.

Arriving on dry land

  • Did the Carruthers forgive Josephine's 'women, who were trying to save their lives at the expense of hers' in primal terror? 
  • Did the ayah express gratitude to her rescuer, but feel resentment at the way her employer had seemed to initially abandon his powerless protectee?
  •  Did she curse the need for a job, which led to her potential drowning? 

Who knows. But she probably gained a materially comfortable life. Matthew's EIC career records show that he stayed in the area for six years after the shipwreck, including becoming acting civil judge in Tipperah

Back home in England David, Matthew's father, was making pro-Free Trade speeches,  arguing against EIC power. He was part of the pressure group that curbed the EIC with the 1833 Charter Act, and helped open up trade with China.  He briefly became MP for Kingston Upon Hull, in 1835, a little before William Wilberforce.  

in her local community the ayah would have accrued vicarious status from this elite family. She had time to recover from the traumatic voyage, and to network with ayahs in other British-India households. 

But perhaps EIC supporters there would have been hostile to her household because of David Carruther's part in the major 1833 row about the extending the EIC charter. Ironically it was written up in the same journal that praised his son's bravery: The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany. 


Next trips?

Matthew died in 1838, aged 27. This meant Josephine, the ayah, and any children, would have to leave. 

The odds are that Josephine married again within  a year, and took her ayah with her. 

Did they have the courage to travel again by sea? We can only guess: yes. These were indeed becoming mobile times for ayahs in the EIC's India. 

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 fiancé 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."