Friday 14 October 2022

Jamaican ship's cook: her poison mystery 1764

 Maybe the mysterious cook previously worked in the Jamaican
canefields, like these women?

It's Black History Month. And here's a newly-found story about a rare BAME woman seafarer. 

So this is about race, gender, ships. It's part of the history of maritime diversity, labour and seafarers' forgotten lives. A fluke and your occupation could affect whether you ever arrived home from the sea. 

Only a fragment about this mysterious West Indian woman can be found. And the same words about her are repeated word for word in seven British newspapers. No more information than that is available. 

The story's a gift for a dramatist with a Sherlock Holmes touch. So I hope someone creative will make fiction from this small seed in the Derby Mercury, 10 Feb 1764. 

'We hear that a whole Ship's Crew, lately arrived from Jamaica, have been poisoned by a Black Woman-Cook they had on board, who after she had committed it, threw herself into the Sea and was drown'd. They are all dead except the Captain and two Men, who are very bad.'

Seven good questions to ask

Q. 1. Why does her story matter?

 A. Because women crew were very unusual.Black women  crew were even more unusual. This is the frst black woman ship's cook I've heard about in 40 years of researching maritime women.

Picture from 'Seamen “Love Their Bellies”: How Blacks Became Ship Cooks'  

Q. 2. How did the ship come to have a woman cook, unusually? 

A. Because a cook was needed. This person was available and affordable. It was was common for cooks to be black or disabled.
(See Guadeloupean William Buckland's story Buckland seacook BAME Maybe another black cook recommended  her. Indeed she may have been the widow of a black cook on board who'd died.  

Want to know more about the brief and late history of women cooks (usually white)? See my book From Cabin 'Boys' to Captains: 250 Years of Women at Sea,pp 214-219. 

This picture from it shows (left) Chief Cook Betty Fitch and Freda Price (right) Second Cook, in the tinned food storeroom on the Langleeclyde c1950. (Courtesy Maud McKibbin). Freda and Betty were highly appreciated for their good cooking.

Q. 3. Why did she poison these men? 

A. If it was deliberate, because she was angry and wanted redress. Revenge? Perhaps the ship was a slaver and she was one of the enslaved people who'd endured a bad voyage and seen her shipmates die. Perhaps someone on board had offended her. by assuming she was sexually available,  or had expressed dislike of food she had cooked?

A. If it was accidental, she might have had been supplied with bad ingredients.

Q.4. Why did she throw herself overboard

A. Surely because she knew she would be punished on landing. It was better to end the misery now, and by her own hand.

A. If it was accidental, she might have felt ashamed, and/or feared summary justice. Seafarers could hate bad cooks, because seafaring was hard enough without dismal food.

Q.5. What poison would she have used, if it was deliberate?

A. Women such as her were sometimes doctresses with a knowledge of herbs. Possibly she had a selection of herbs with her. 

A. If the poisoning was accidental, it could have been because the food she was expected to cook had gone off, There were plenty of opportunities were victuals to deteriorate as the 4,000-miles,oyage from Jamaica took between between three  weeks and four months depending on winds etc. 

Q.6. Why didn't everyone die?

A.  Possibly because the cook was given two lots of ingredients to cook, and those for the crew were inferior to the officers' rations. This status difference would not be unusual.

A.  Perhaps, if the poisoning was deliberate, she was targetting lower-decks crew, not officers.

Q. 7. So what else should we be asking about her?

A. All we can!

Pic shows sentimentalised version of a black male cook, with ayah and white girl on Victorian ship.

This story was drawn to my attention to John D Ellis. I thank him very much for his generosity in sharing it, and many other stories too. John is working on the history of black people in the armed services. Some of his work can be seen at

Friday 7 October 2022

Norway - gay seafarers' history is revealed


Queer seafarers and their history are revealed for the first time in a bi-lingual  exhibition opening on 28 October. In Norwegian it's called 'Skeive Sjofolk'. Skeive tarnslated as 'skewed'.

Follow it on Facebook: 

The maritime museum in Bergen is displaying this past as part of Norway's 50th anniversary celebrations of the abolition of a law that criminalised gay sex

Bergen is Norway's second largest city. The port was founded in 1070 and  still plays a major role in Scandinavian shipping.

Several exhibitions about gay seafarers have taken place: in Oslo; Liverpool then touring; and currently in Victoria (Canada) and Amsterdam.  I was co-curator of the  Merseyside Maritime Museum exhibition  (see pic) and continue to research the subject.

Bergen curators Gry Bang-Andersen and Bård Gram Økland asked veteran seafarers about the period 1950-1980

They acknowledge 'The ship was a workplace, but also a local community where feelings, friendships, intimacies and sexuality were expressed and suppressed. The community on board was strictly hierarchical, masculine and heteronormative.' 

Gry and Bard have found that 'on some ships, homo-erotic and homo-sexual relations existed ....[These included] relationships between men who did not identify as queer, and between crew members of different ranks, although mostly covertly.'


I'll be comparing this Norwegian pattern with that of other countries.  So far 3 key things I can say are:

1. DIFFERENT. No other nation's seafarers seen to have had had the kind of out, camp and proud subculture that evolved on British ships, especially passenger ships, 1945-1985. 

But certainly many US catering staff on ships were out, as the late US researcher Allan Bérubé  (pictured) found. See his videod talk about intersectionality in the US Marine Cooks and Stewards Union:“No Red-Baiting, Race-Baiting, or Queen-Baiting!: An MCSU History”

2. THEATRICALITY.  The camp, funny and showy British pattern may be connected with the very humorous theatrical tradition on both merchant and royal navy ships, and indeed in home entertainment on land. 

On many long voyages it was normal to put on rumbustious crew shows where men dragged up, including grotesquely: singing, dancing, and impersonating divas like Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, Dusty Springfield and Barbra Streisand.

3.NEW YORK,  AUSTRALIA  & SOUTH AFRICA. Relatedly, a lot of frisky camp activity happened on ships between the UK and its former colonies. 

Gay-tolerant P&O and Union Castle vessels were reputed to be the obvious place for a gay man to seek employment as a  steward. This clear 'go-to' pattern generated increasingly large and confident gay shipboard communities - as many as 70% of catering employees on ships were gay, say some. Success begat success. 

I wonder if Norwegian shipping companies - with their different destinations and clientele - were not magnets in the same way. Certainly Goteberg researcher Arne Nilsson found that the majority of gay Swedish seafarers sailed on Swedish America Lines to New York, not other destinations. 

See Arne's book (in Swedish, pictured) and his ‘Cruising the Seas: Male homosexual life on the Swedish American Line, 1950-1975', Queer scope articles, SQS, [Suomen Queer-tutkimuksen Seuran Lehti], vol 71, January 2006,


Bard and Gry's questions include: 

  1. How might seafarers see their temporary home?
  2. What were the limitations and possibilities that GBT+ men found on board? 
  3. How did “non-queer” seafafers regard the few queer shipmates who were out? 


The answers to these in the UK situation are:
  1. Home? As 'queer heaven', a wild hedonsitic haven which was the most permissive and supportive community/industry avaiable at the time, by far.
  2. Limitations and possibilities? A place where ratings and catering pesronnel could be as out and outrageous as they liked. Deck officers had to be closeted.  
  3. “Non-queer” shipmates? Some became contingently bisexual or simply 'men who had sex with men (MSMs) but did not see themselves as gay. Most were acceptant of gay men, if the gay man did not insist on pursuing him. Homophobes, outnumbered, sought a transfer. Women crew usually enjoyed 'sisterly relations' with the gay crew. It was a pleasure to be friends, not the object of heterosexual objectification.  


I hope you enjoy the exhibition. 

What a good reason to take an autumn holiday in Bergen

Saturday 23 July 2022

Mother commanding thousands at sea; Zheng Yi Sao

Once upon a time, in the early eighteen hundreds, there were two women working as sex industry suppliers in two major ports: one in Macao, the other in Plymouth. 

Then both of them married seagoing captains and went sea with them, giving wifely support in his established business: one in the South China Seas, the other on the St Lawrence in Canada. 

The business was piracy. 

Zheng Yi Sao (1775-1844) and Maria Cobham (fl 1720-1740) were the women. 


This week I'm preparing to film some of Zheng Yi Sao's story - not in that busy world port, Macao, but in landbound Scisset, West Yorkshire. Next week I can reveal  the film production details. For now it’s secret. 

Why am I telling you? Because I’m so happy about sharing stores of women working in fascinating ways at sea. I like boning up on her global context too. 

I hold no brief for pirates at all. But they - and the fantasies about them -  do interest me.


And I like to wonder about: 

1. how women in authority on the waves handle the male hostility. Did the skills she learnt in managing men as clients on floating brothels on the Pearl River help her with her extraordinary feat: organising and streamlining a confederacy of 400 vessels as seafarers plundered ports and terrorised ships local in South China? Maria Cobham was only involved in one ship, with a maximum of 100 workers. Zheng Yi Sao was commanding 60,000 bandits, the same amount of people as Amazon employs in the UK, and twice the number of fulltime personnel in today's UK Royal Navy. 

2. How family/work balance works. Zheng Yi Sao  had her two young sons with her. 


You can find out more, now, from: 

  • The main expert on Zheng: Dian H Murray (pictured). See her TED-Ed animation The most successful pirate of all time,;  and her (now online) chapter 'Cheng I Sao in Fact and Fiction,' in my 1995 book: Bold in her Breeches: women pirates across the ages:
  • Dian Murray, “One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques 8, no. 3 (1981): pp147–61.
  • Dian Murray, Pirates of the South China Coast, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987.
  • For a feminist academic view see Yoriko Ishida, 'A Desexualized Pirate in Yuan Yung-Lun's Ching Hai-Fen Chi: Analysis of Ching Yih Saou's Body and Gender from a Perspective of Butlerian Theory.' International Journal of Literature and Arts. Vol. 6, No. 6, 2018, pp. 83-93. doi: 10.11648/j.ijla.20180606.11
  • For the wider context see Robert J. Antony, “The Suppression of Pirates in South China in the Mid-Qing Period.” American Journal of Chinese Studies 1, no. 1 (1992): 95–121.

Saturday 18 June 2022

Sexual assault at sea: poignant celebrating and mourning


Hope Hicks

Please celebrate and mourn with me today. There are two inspiring things relating to whistle-blowing officer cadet Hope Hicks, the most famous maritime rape survivor: 

1.  this afternoon she graduates from the US Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), despite her ordeal. 

2. this week she waived anonymity for the first time. Up until Tuesday she'd only been known only as Midshipman-X and not seen in any photograph.

Hope has not enjoyed a simple training period.  The then-19-year- old's revelation that an engineer raped her in 2019 went viral. The appalling story of drunkenss and shipmates'  complicity led to hundreds more disclosures by women and men, and to much discussion by policy-makers. 

Hope's brave honesty has created the most productive furore yet in the history of battling to end sexual abuse at sea.

Ahead of her is a future as an officer with the US Navy -- and soon her well-supported New York court proceedings against Maersk Line Ltd. 

She's alleging that 'Maersk failed to adequately protect U.S. Merchant Marine Academy midshipmen from sexual assault and sexual harassment while working aboard Maersk ships as part of the USMMA’s “Sea Year” program.'

'“Speaking up against a powerful corporation is intimidating, which is why, up to this point, Hope has declined to reveal her identity, opting instead to go by the moniker Midshipman-X,” said Christine Dunn, Partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp and counsel for plaintiffs  [14 June]. 

“But, today, Hope is publicly identifying herself in an effort to seek justice for the sexual assault and harassment that she, and others – like Midshipman-Y, endured aboard Maersk vessels.”'

Akhona Geveza: murder or suicide?

Let's respectfully mourn Hope's predecessor, possibly the most tragic maritime rape victim of the 21st century: officer cadet Akhona Geveza from Safmarine Kariba.  

She didn't survive to campaign in court and on social media.

Both women are crucial figures in this struggle for safety at sea. 

Akhona was drowned off Croatia on 24 June 2010, twelve years ago next Friday. Both she and Hope were only 19 at the time that these alleged and separate-but-related incidents shifted the courses of their lives forever.  

Did Akhona jump (to avoid the imminent showdown with her alleged rapist) or was she pushed (to shut her up?) And was she lying? And was sexual misconduct really not a problem at all on Safmarine ships? 

Those are still the telling questions being asked. Akhona made headlines, briefly, before #MeToo took off. 

Her case has yet to bring the staggering amount of useful publicity and the attempts at legal redress that Hope's situation continues to generate.   

Midshipman-Y: knife, begged

Plus ca change? One of Hope's colleagues, Midshipman Y, is joining in filing a civil lawsuit against Maersk. In 2020 she was on the same ship,  M/V Alliance Fairfax, (pictured) just after Hope. 

"According to the complaint, Midshipman-Y was so severely sexually harassed aboard a Maersk ship during her Sea Year that she slept clutching a knife for protection.

"Midshipman-Y’s complaint alleges that she experienced extreme sexual harassment, unwanted touching and discrimination while on board the same Maersk vessel two years later. 

"... Midshipman-Y was severely sexually harassed by a crewmember who was known to other Maersk officers and crewmembers as being violent. Although crewmembers and officers were allegedly aware of the harassment, no one intervened or reported the misconduct.

 "The complaint further alleges that Midshipman-Y was treated less favorably than male crewmembers on account of her gender. 

"Driven to desperation, at the first opportunity, Midshipman-Y begged USMMA representatives to get her off the ship prior to the completion of her required sea time. 

"As a result, Midshipman-Y is unsure if she will ever be emotionally capable of completing the USMMA."

Will Alliance Fairfax go down in history as a Ship of Shame; The Ro-ro That Put  Rape Culture on the Map of Infamies; or as The Final Frontier for Sexual Abuse at Sea? 

More importantly, 

  • Will all shipping companies now be working harder to change their cultures? 
  • Will there be discussion about charges that offshore abuse is an extension of onshore abuse in headquarters? 
  • Can we air some seawomen's telling concern that speaking out about abuse is counter-productive; it can lead to shipping companies deciding not to employ women at sea because it's too much trouble? 

Read about Hope's latest steps at:


Making ships safer, happier workplaces

Hope celebrated her 22nd birthday last Tuesday, the day that she inspiringly went even more public. 

Akhona didn't get to be that old, nor that publicly courageous. And she died just a fortnight before she was about to celebrate her graduation day. 

But Akhona can posthumously inspire others to speak out. 

As a veteran historian of so many seafarers who've suffered discrimination I feel  sad and angered. All young seafarers deserve to celebrate their birthdays, to feel pride as they pass out into graduate life, and to enjoy long careers free from harassment and assault. Don't they?

  • 'Say no to violence against women',urges the International Transport Workers' Federation.  Here's how: ITFguide  
  • You can get free support and info via Safer Waves. It's the charity supporting merchant seafarers who have experienced sexual assault, sexual harassment or gender discrimination.

Monday 13 June 2022

Hello Sailor exhibition spawned Queer at Sea show, 2006 to 2022

One of the loveliest moments of my life happened this morning. I’ve just found out, by fluke, that I inadvertently played a part in the creation of a new exhibition I admire.

This is what happened. I was googling for more information about the Queer at Sea exhibition that’s just opened in Canada. I  found a podcast by museologists at the Maritime Museum British Columbia. 

In it MMBC Board member Jelena Putnik (pictured) said that its Queer at Sea exhibition developed when Jamie Webb, ‘our board chair, was out east in Halifax [Nova Scotia] and came across the Hello Sailor! exhibit of queer lives in the trans-continental liner community.’


Now, it so happens that I (Jo) was co-curator of the original Hello Sailor! exhibition, in Liverpool in 2006. The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax NS then hired it and  expanded it in 2011.

I’d been delighted to go out and be part of the launching process in Halifax. See this pic of that happy opening night (I'm in the foreground, in a dark top).  

I hadn't known maritime museums could rock, till then!

Anyway, a decade later Jelena recalled that Jamie  (pictured) had been ‘really excited about the exhibit, loved that it featured part of the history of the maritime community that doesn’t often get seen or heard ... [He] came back really charged, with ideas about how we can do something similar on the west coast [of Canada].’

MMBC Executive Director Curator Brittany Vis  (pictured) added ‘Around the same time of that happening, museum staff here were also aware of that exhibit and ... starting to consider, “Oh, like maybe there’s something we could do on this coast as well.”  

'It just finally became the right time... I was like, “... that was right on my list as well’” ...[there was] a melding of everyone’s minds all at once.'


And the result? On May 17 this year the exhibition, curated by Heather Feeney (pictured looking up at boat) opened in Victoria, BC.
Did I get to celebrate there as I had in Halifax, NS?

No. But I’m hoping a fairy-godmother  will help me go out to Canada and see this interesting off-shoot of a dream I had round about 1975. 

I never imagined then, pre-internet, that the subject of homosexuality at sea would grow in all these interesting ways!  


Learning more

# Hear/read the podcast about the evolution of the current Victoria Queer at Sea exhibition at Queer(y)ing Museums: Maritime Museum of BC:

# Take a virtual tour of the Queer at Sea exhibition at

# Watch the Halifax curator Dan Conlin (pictured) and me speaking about the 2011 exhibition on TV:.

Sunday 22 May 2022

New play: Sexual harasssment at sea

Corrina Corrina, Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, UK (17 May – 4 June 2020

Corrina faces a metaphorical storm. All pictures by Helen Murray

Workplace sexual harassment today is a big mental health issue, especially for seafarers. Victim’s lives are wrecked. Promising careers are wasted in an industry facing severe shortages.

The death of Cadet Akhona Geveza in 2010 and the at-sea rape of Midshipman X in 2021 mean most people now know that being on a ship where someone senior is pursuing and disrespecting you is a 24:7 hell that needs to be stopped forever. Pronto.

For the first time, a play – not a trade union survey or policy document – is making that story of sexual harassment at sea come alive. Corrina Corrina also shows the structural injustice and the gas lighting in a context of the racial injustice against the Filipino crew.


Third Mate Corrina Wilkinson (Laura Elsworthy) is 28, smart, fair-minded and set on becoming a captain. She joins container ship MSC Keto in Felixstowe, headed for Singapore. The good news is that her captain (smug David Crellin) prides himself on being progressively pro-women. That’s one battle less for her, she thinks.

Then Corrina  finds that she knows the First Officer, Will Lewis  (creepy Mike Noble) from Warsash training college. He’s a guy who once before didn’t believe her ‘No’ meant no, although conveniently he now mis-remembers her as complicit.

Being a prat and egotist, he thinks he’s in with a chance this trip. But she’s makes it clear she just wants to get on with her job.

The Filipino crew have mixed feelings about a woman onboard. Corrina doesn’t endear herself by telling bitter gendered jokes, swearing, eating in the crew space and not being up for karaoke. She’s not being an acceptable sort of lady, and that’s as upsetting as Mr Bligh’s bad language was on the Bounty.

Luckily, in this tenderness-free zone, deck worker Angelo (loveable James Bradwell) and Corrina become pals. They enjoy the kind of extraordinary camaraderie that can be possible between even the most mismatched of shipmates; they  trust, despite the class divide.

Not so luckily, Will takes against this (non-sexual) affinity. In a racist way he warns her that as an officer and woman she should keep her distance. They aren’t used to a woman being  ... open with them.’ 

Confrontation on the Keto: Rafael, Coriina, Rizal and Angelo.

Angelo’s fellow crew members are uneasy about this friendship too.  Lonely Rafael (a convincingly wary Martin Sarreal) resents people crossing boundaries. And the older Rizal (Angelo Paragoso) stays circumspectly out of the way.

Trouble mounts as Will ‘chivalrously’ bullies Rafael, which undermines Corrina. Will clearly becomes a liability when he plays a traumatising trick on Corrina. (This is a thriller, so I’m holding back. On what happens, but it’s so bad that she complains to Captain.

Will not only denies what he did, he wrecks her status – which may ruin her future career.  Similarly, his impact on Angelo causes an irredeemable tragedy and worsens class/race relations on board.

Stressed out of her wits, Corrina takes revenge. See it to find out how she does so.


This is a moving and wise play, about the importance about integrity and respect, and the proximity of suicide. It’s a world where a Dolly Parton song can save your life, where loan shark attacks are inescapable, and where pix of your kids are a constant reminder that your shipmates can never be your real family.

The two-tier set makes the class conflict clear: white officers can move between the high-tech site of control aloft and the scruffy crew mess room below with its pitiful microwave and sauce bottles below. But the crew are sentenced to the netherworld dump where the karaoke machine is the company -supplied sweetener that doesn’t ever make up for the structural injustice.

The production by Headlong and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse, with a script by Chloe Moss. The director is Holly Race Roughan. If you can't wait until a tour gets sorted then pre-order the book at

Traumatised Corrina faces Will in the ship's citadel


I’ve watched and read a lot of ship-based dramas. This stage play ranks with the two best modern merchant shipping movies: Stowaways (1997)  by Denis Chou nard and Nicolas Wadimoff, and Fidelio: Alice's Odyssey (2016) by Lucie Borleteau. 

Corrina, Corinna is about a totally different world from Anything Goes, Carry on Cruising and the Love Boat TV series. The production gives us a  profound understanding of human relationships and the intensity that can make a voyage life-changing, even fatal.

Monday 25 April 2022

Women working at Lloyd's Register in history

The justifications for women being excluded from seafaring in the past are understandable, though not solutions-oriented.

 But why exclude women from the safe premises of shipping businesses on land, for example Lloyd's Register (pictured), which began as a maritime classification society in 1760?

Anyway, a Lloyd's Register blog now reveals that women were indeed in this centre of maritime life and at its outposts. 

See Mina Ghosh's Women at Lloyd's RegisterSeptember 12, 2019. Yes, it was was written a while back but it's  interesting, and it may not have reached many readers.

It reveals some elements that are are akin to the history of women at sea: like "she shouldn't have been there, but ... she was, and she did well."

For example Ann Johns was the first unofficial female surveyor, in October 1860. She took over when her husband was poorly - and did  a good job at Bangor. The first female surveyor to be properly employed was Sonia Stavroula Anastassaki in 1979. Li-Rong Zhou (pictured) qualified as a surveyor in 2001.

"The first women employed at the Society were the housekeeper’s daughters, the Misses Ginn, who worked as cleaners. It would be another three quarters of a century before another woman was employed at the Society’s head office. Clara Kitchen joined in 1912 as a cleaner. She retired after 49 years of service.

"Though there was a reluctance to employ women at the head office in a role other than as a cleaner, the Society’s out ports were more forward thinking and began employing women in clerical roles from 1907."

In 1947 the first lady mathematicians came along. And Elspeth Parkes became the first public relations officer, after 1956. (Pictured.)

Do read on, and check out the telling pictures at Women at Lloyd's Register

Saturday 19 March 2022

'Indolent' Madras girl orphans voyaging to Australia 1842

This month the British Library is running  a series of blogs about the emigration of children from the Madras Orphan Asylums to New South Wales: BL Blog orphan girls

There's a little information about the usual anxieties  about girls' virginity on the voyage, which was safeguarded by a matron. Other histories have shown that some young migrating women eagerly escaped their chaperones to secretly meet men on dark decks. Some were sexually used by male crew and passengers. Some ended up pregnant, which impaired their job prospects. From 1850 the law stepped in.

In the BL blog no mention is made of whether the children were mixed race. But occupying British troops in India at that time had children by local women and then abandoned these 'Anglo-Indian' dependents. Possibly only light-skinned children who could pass as white British were sent off overseas. 

Here's what the blog says: 

18 MARCH 2022: Emigration of children from the Madras Orphan Asylums to New South Wales – Part 3

Discussions about sending girls to New South Wales from the Madras Female Orphan Asylum took place throughout 1841 and 1842.  The Asylum drew up a list of girls willing to emigrate, with details of their ‘Character, Disposition, and Proficiency’ ..

On 3 January 1843 the [new steam] ship Duchess of Kent arrived in Sydney with ... five girls travelling in steerage.  

There were a number of convicts on board ... no objection was raised because a ‘steady and respectable matron’ had been employed to look after the girls in case they might be ‘corrupted’.  

Matron Woolller's travels

Mrs Wooller accompanied the girls for a fee of £35, half paid in advance and half paid on arrival in Australia once the ship’s captain had confirmed that she had discharged her duties properly.  

She had recently accompanied the family of Major Cortlandt Taylor [1798-1874, and seemingly his wife Emily] from New South Wales to Madras and now wished to return home to Hobart Town.

[From my own searches it looks likely that Mrs Wooller had initially sailed to New South Wales in 1829, on the Princess Royal. I've found an Elizabeth Wooller who was thought to be 30-odd (born 1799-1800). It's not clear why she sailed at that time, for example was she the wife of a convict? 

[Two years later she was granted the right to marry convict Matthew Flynn. We may wonder if he had died or if the marriage had not worked out, as she was sailing under her own surname in 1842 and had a mobile career.]

Too indolent already

The girls were taken initially to the Female Orphan School near Parramatta [pictured, in 1825] ... the New South Wales authorities said a report on their ‘disposal’ would be sent after six months.  

A letter from Sydney to Madras dated 26 April 1844 ... said that the girls had been ‘kept in India too long, having apparently acquired confirmed habits of indolence’.  In future, no girls should be sent from Madras above the age of ten or eleven  ... [These five were 13, 14 and 15] 

Who sailed?

Four of the five young women were far from biddable. One was:

• Caroline Smith [14] – Sullen and idle.  Went to Mr Mills, schoolmaster at Parramatta, on 25 July 1843 as a children’s maid.  Conduct so bad that she was only kept there two months.  Then sent to Mr Buchanan, a clerk at North Shore, without wages.  Was returned again to the school with ‘a most disgraceful character’.

• Mary Watts [15] – Very good conduct.  Went on 25 July 1843 to live with Dr Smith of 99th Regiment as children’s maid, but returned on 2 December after the baby died.  Went on 4 December to Mr Fletcher, shoemaker in George Street Sydney.


  • Shipboard matrons, were NOT akin to employed and domiciled hospital matrons but to prison wardesses, only on one-off contracts to travel on a specific voyage.some became 'frequent business travelers.' For more re voyages see emigrants women sea
  • To understand how the matron role morphed into conductress (the first officer role for women), and then into social hostess see pp139-159 of my book: Women on ships
  • For more on the Madras Military Female Orphan Asylum, from which the young women seemingly came, see Madras Orphan Girls

Monday 28 February 2022

High camp, ships, snaps, Cunard' s Green Goddess and the future of archives

For seafaring men who liked donning glam frocks Cunard’s Caronia II was The Ideal Place To Be in the 1960s. 

Whatever their sexual, gender or relationship identity, seafarers added extrinsic pleasure to their work aboard such luxurious cruise ships.

Quirky and hilarious photos of seafarers’ extraordinary camp subculture reveal the ways men temporarily staged themselves as flashy ladies: adorable, and irrefutably right.

Fortunately such images are still readily available online. Peter Stevens’ rich Caronia website has the most – both in colour and black and white. See at Steve's site

Frisky and outrageous camp shots appear in the context of the Caronia's  huge illustrated timeline, with its parallel strands of crew life and the ship’s voyages.

Peter Stevens' take on queer Caronia life

As a mere lad, Steve, as he’s called, long before he began this website, was a commis waiter on board the Caronia 1964 into 1965. After a spell working abroad he rejoined as a first class waiter on the 1966 world cruise.

“When I left school I was so green I could have successfully hidden undetected in a cabbage patch. So, meeting effeminate men at work, and encountering their open expressions of sexual preference, came as quite a shock. I was not a little embarrassed!

“Next stage was coping with 'gay' men who were not so 'camp'. Talk about adults being totally bewildering!

“Then there was their secret language to cope with. In Polari they could, apparently, bring you down a peg or two. After a while, I treated Polari like I'd learned French, on the basis that the only point in doing so was to be able to swear back at any Frenchman, in his own language.

“If someone wants to 'clean' me, then I wanna know - exactly - what they're saying, even if I do end up a nervous wreck. Even to this day, I'd think twice before taking on any queen!

Unusual collections elsewhere too

Steve's  pictures are complemented by the Wellcome Institute’s website, which
carries a few camp Caronia pictures. See 1950s pic above:

They’re part of James Gardiner’s collection, which he created for his 1996 book Who’s a Pretty Boy Then? (Serpent’s Tail, London. Sadly, it’s now out of print.)

Several LGBT+ ex-seafarers alive today have carrier bags full of visual records of their time at sea.

But seafarers were sometimes aboard a fresh vessel every trip. That means their collections reveal the gay subculture on their many different ships, including the Andes ('the Queerest Ship Afloat’).

Caronia timeline site as special resource

It’s unusual to find collections focused on just one ship. So these visual revelations of continuous life on the Caronia are precious.

And they’re extra-precious because they reveal how very high the standard of cross-dressing was. Never before have I spent so much time peering at impeccably beautiful ‘women’ and thinking ‘Surely that can’t be a bloke?’ Take, for example, waiter Lana (Allan Horsburgh) here in a photo shared by Ave Quin.

Catch 16 substantial references to LGBT life on board, including the gay scene, the crew variety shows, a mincing laundryman, a 1962 Sandringham Parade queen, and a  tongue lashing in Polari.

There’s a search option ‘LGBT’ and much rich material on the September 1965 page and the October 1960 page. You can also find gay life at:

  • Crew → Assorted crew : Party Nights
  • Crew → Assorted Crew : Variety Shows
  • Crew → Wareham & Bergen Trophies

What’s in shot?

Professional shots of campery at sea are usually about shipboard theatricals. By contrast, the amateur shots tend to show cabin parties, frivolity in corridors, and shore excursions.  The 1960s Caronia images follow this pattern, too.

Many pictures were taken and donated by seafarers such as Roger Birch and Ave Quin. For decades Steve has also been assiduously buying Caronia images from all over the world. The result is that we can now see camp life as part of the ship’s life, not exceptionalised.

And unusually we can also see the ship’s camp culture extending – seemingly non-problematically – into life ashore.

The Caronia annually called into Bergen where football teams made up of waiters from Sandringham and Balmoral, the ship’s two restaurants, played each other on a local pitch. (Unlike aircraft carriers, cruise ships didn’t have enough deck space for matches.)

Each team had its supporters club. They planned a new theme for each year's parade through the city. The day was filled with pageant. Seafarers in crazy costumes paraded as if skirt-wearing was just innocent fun, not an exploration into gender transgression.   

July 1964. The jolly camp day that's beautifully revealed by the Caronia website is the 1964 North Cape Cruise event. The theme was Cleopatra. Not just any old Cleopatra but Cleopatra as played by Liz Taylor in the hit movie released the previous year. 

In their spare time supporters of the Sandringham Restaurant crew had made a float featuring a huge papier maché sphinx mounted on gold-painted pallets, held aloft by ‘slaves’ in togas.  Engineers' steward Denzil ‘Pagan’ Norton posed as Cleopatra. 

For Pagan it was a day of stardom. He Luckily Steve can remember it all. He was one of the poor souls in togas lugging the heavy float through the port’s cobbled streets.

Pagan saved pictures like this, below, forever.

Star shooters and camp snappers

Photos of camp theatricals at sea are relatively available because bigger passenger ships carried a ‘floatographer’, sometimes two. They were employed by agencies such as Ocean Pictures and Marine Photo Service.  

Shipping companies’ savvy public relations experts had sussed that, if happy passengers could go home and share high-quality visual proofs of fun aboard, then valuable free word-of-mouth publicity would ensue. Professional shots of fancy dress parties like this crew Hawaiian night were enjoyed.  (Pic by Ave Quin).

On and off duty, these concessionaires photographed everything that would be lucrative. Some had an anthropologist’s eye. All knew how to compose a flattering shot.

Before the age of selfies, skilled ‘floatographers’ customers included femme crew who wanted to be recorded at the apotheosis of their transformation into stars of the below-decks hedonistic world.

These many resulting professional 10”x 8” B&W shots are a fine foil to that other genre: amateurs’ colour shots. These were a low-resolution informal record, and faded all too soon.

 It’s possible that the onboard photographer also developed risqué snaps taken by gay crew, who feared they would be reported and prosecuted if they sent their photos to Boots (the usual way films were processed at the time).

SOS: Save these snaps

It’s so important that these images are kept for posterity - and restored if needs be. Steve has worked hard to make some faded colour slides viewable.

But where next? This period's general dilemma is how to ensure websites such as Steve's have a life long after he's gone. Seafarers' stories need preserving. LGBT+ stories need preserving too. Steve says:

"After 20 years of collecting and assembling a website I've realised that I've created quite an archive in its own right.

"Along the way visitors have sent me many, many instances of often heartfelt feedback. These add still further to the richness of the social history records that the site has quietly amassed.

"Then came a steady stream of growing shocks.  Several websites that I have enjoyed over the years are suddenly no more!

"Other sites are being 'rationed' as owners succumb to the inevitable process of reaching their twilight years.

"Is this the fate that will eventually befall my Caronia Timeline? At this moment the risk is very real!

"I've found that anyone and everyone will happily accept my paper archive. They would do, wouldn't they! 

"But Instead, I've found that public bodies regard making any kind of commitment to maintaining the website as a step too far.

"If almost every piece of ephemera collected brings an aspect of the ship's history to life - and if viewing images of these saves endlessly rummaging through the originals - which is the more valuable: The archive or the social history?  More on this on Wot's New on Steve's site


  • Paul Baker and Jo Stanley, Hello Sailor: Gay life on the ocean wave, 2003
  • Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests, 1993.
  • John Graves, Waterline: Images from the Golden Age of Cruising, 2004.
  • Jo Stanley, section on women ship’s photographers, in From Cabin “boys” to Captains: 250 years of women at sea, 2015, pp.206-7.