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.