Monday 24 June 2024

Gay mystery on liner, 50s-style fiction

PRIDE MONTH. Here’s some authentic fiction for those wanting to lite-ish holiday reading about queer maritime history in the 1950s. 

It’s about the time when passenger ships were increasingly becoming the main workplace where a working-class man could be out and camp; tourists were just starting to cruise; and emigration to Australia was waning. 

Try Stuart Lauder’s un-deservedly long-lost 1962 literary novel, Winger’s Landfall . The picture shows him six years earlier.  

Old copies of the book can be found in on-line bookshops. Mine’s foxed but still has this great dust-jacket.

 WHO WROTE IT?  I've done some genealogical sleuthing and found that Stuart (other name David Stuart Leslie) (1921-99), was the writer of at least 19 published novels. He was the British son of doctor. 

He grew up in Australia, went home to London with his widowed mum on P&O's Narkunda, then headed back to Oz to serve in the RAF in WW2. He was indeed a ship’s steward. 

Googling newspapers I've twice found reports of groups'  petty crime that someone of his name were tried for. But they don't seem to fit.


THE PLOT. Insightful and sensitive but puzzling, Winger’s Landfall is about a butch-ish gay steward’s voyage on the Cyclamen from Sydney to Tilbury. His ports of call include Colombo.

It’s seemingly set just after the seminal 1957 Wolfenden Report, which ten years later led to liberalizing consensual same-same sex: the 1967 Sexual Offences Act.

The publication of a Panther paperback edition
in 1966 suggests the hardback sold well
 and that a gay market existed.

Hero Harry Spears, 29, is an experienced seafarer, no fan of queens’ frippery, and a determined avenger trying to track down what might be a queer paedophile crime against his vanished half-brother. 

We're unsure about his sexuality initially. But the on-board gaydar quickly spots him, and he also has furtive liaisons wth the young and secretive Prince.  

Below stairs on the Cyclamen is a bleak dog-eat-dog ‘community’. Afloat and ashore, women are objectified. They are life’s second most important consumable commodities, after booze and its numbing effects.

THE CAST. There’s a substantial gay cast, including elegant Diamond Lil/Derek, an officer’s beloved, and the vessel's uber-queen he dethroned, ‘Patience Strong’; Marilyn, an amorous bell-boy; and senior hotel staff, all of whom seem to enjoy immunity from any employer homophobia.

THE SHIPPING LINE. This permissiveness exists despite ‘homosexuality’ still being illegal then. I’ve got a hunch the employers were based on P&O. 

The giant transport operators were then one of the most- gay-tolerant companies (but not because it was ethically pro-Pride. It was just keen to keep some of its on-board domestic labour white.)

I don’t say this novel is fun. Stand by for racism about Goan and Lascar shipmates. This is a book that implicitly proves the long-standing need for DEI.

 Why is this book a rare classic?

Because other fiction and non-fiction books about hotel-side life in the merchant navy, by former stewards,  don’t mention the extensive and out queer culture among stewards 1950s-1980s. 

 •           The most famous is Coming Sir, The autobiography of a waiter (1937). Despite the cheeky title, writer Dave Marlowe (real name Arthur H Timmins) doesn’t refer to gay life. That's not least because his focus is the late 1920s and 30s, before that culture became so prevalent and performative.  He also wrote a novel, Gangway Down (1939) which I've yet to find.

           The next most famous memoir,  Ken Attiwill’s Steward (1932) is also gay-free memoir of stewarding 

           My late friend, steward Ron Whitworth, self-published  A Voyage Round My Oyster in 2008. But it’s not only long out of print, it’s also non-transparent. When he was writing it I repeatedly begged him to be frank but he kept insisting, ‘No, people will be able to read between the lines.’  


1. However, you can read the fuller story and see the pictures in a social history Prof Paul Baker and I wrote, Hello Sailor! Gay life on the Ocean Wave (2003 and 2018). Hello Sailor!

This was based on many stories gay seafarers told us. That's why I know that Winger's Landfall is the most authentic queer maritime novel of all time.

2. See also the only queer discussion I've ever found, of Winger's Landfall .  It puts the book, and two other works by Lauder, in the context and queer spaces of the 1950s. 

Catch the fascinating online Leeds Ph.D thesis of Simon DR Ofield: An investigation of the resources available for interpreting visual cultural production related to male homosexuality in Britain; 1940 to the present.  (1998). Get it free at

Saturday 22 June 2024

Empire Windrush's voyage from the Caribbean: 1948. White expat women among would-be residents

Voyage stories can be told from many vantage points. Often 'the Windrush story' is told simplistically, mono-racially and omits women.

So let me offer you this unusual version, which I've melded from the letters of a veteran travel writer escaping her new husband (who's turned out to be tedious), plus passenger lists, and extracts from the Kingston Gleaner

Two footloose white women are the focus. Their voyages begin separately, in Barbados, late April three years after war’s end. Boredom is their trigger.  

Barbados 1948

On the Anglicised island nicknamed ‘Bimshire’ and ‘Little England’  (Barbados) ennui is inevitable for these visitors whose usual lives involve voracious discovering in new location after new location.  

After three months Freya Stark (left), the famous travel writer, has exhausted her capacity to play the diplomat’s wife there. She wants to escape to her home in Asola.  

Her cabin mate, scandalous writer-publisher and black rights activist Nancy Cunard (right), is similarly bored with the Bridge-playing world at her cousin Edward’s  beachside house in Glitter Bay. She’s been recovering there for two months after a Horrible Holiday in Mexico where a cactus pieced her cornea and her latest lover careered away.

Perishable berths going begging

So here's the story. Around Easter-time in 1948 Caribbean newspapers offer a batch of one-way cheap passages to Britain. The shipping company wants to avoid loss by filling up perishable berths, just as tramp ships traditionally take on non-human cargo too 'as inducemnt offers'.  

Carpe Diem, the women say. They each. separately, book a bargain basement ticket that costs as much as five cows, or forty weeks' wages for a banana loader.  It’s £43, because females are all, by definition, 'ladies' and must therefore travel 'A' class, in cabins. By contrast men prepared to rough it in 'C' class dormitories pay only £28.10s. 

In May Freya tells Jock Murray, her London publisher, that she is unfortumately leaving just as all the frangipani are in flower. The Caribbean Sea is ‘emerald green because of the Orinoco waters.’ As she starts the 251-nautical miles crossing it’s strange to see Bimshire ‘vanishing back into the waves and clouds from which I saw it emerge so few months ago.’ 

Via Trinidad and Xaymaica 

Port of Spain, six years earlier)
Like the other Britain-bound passengers from British Guiana, Grenada and St Lucia, Freya goes to a hub: the nearest embarkation port, Trinidad. 

According to Nancy’s biographer, Daphne Fielding,  Nancy waits for  ‘three suffocating days ... in evil-smelling Port-of-Spain after which she felt she really knew what it was like to be a poor Negro living in one of those wretched wooden shacks in Cock-Crow Alley or Barking-Dog Lane.’  

The passengers are joining the ship for the last two legs of its outward voyage from Southampton: Jamaica, then Bermuda, before it heads north east and back home to the UK.

Just after 20 May, Captain John Almond’s under-full ship bears them away from Trinidad. Passing the French West Indies and British Virgin Islands they make the 1,299-nautical mile journey north to the island once called Xaymaica (the Taino word for ‘land of wood and water’). 

Man-free ladies at their typewriters

Is it a recipe for ructions, to coop up two headstrong, grand public figures - one radical, one conservative? Impeccable manners and busyness help.  Nancy is writing about Mexico. Freya is doing her autobiographical Traveller’s Prelude (published 1950). 

Maybe they share personal stories as both are struggling with failing relationships with younger bisexual partners.  Nancy, age 52, has been ditched by wealthy wanderer William Le Page Finley. 

Freya, three years older, has recently married the Hon. Stewart Perowne, Colonial Secretary to Barbados who has metamorphosed into ‘the perfect Civil Servant.’

When they get to the Royal Mail Lines pier at Kingston, Jamaica  they find that, like all freshness-hungry newspapers in any small port, the Gleaner details all arrivals and departures. 

In this case it records the many disembarking: 57 A-class passengers;  175 of the homeward-bound second Gloucester Regiment who'd been based there; and 215 demobilised Jamaican RAF men, who had recognised there are absolutely no opportunities in the UK for Caribbean men, now that the war is over. 

Nancy as anthropologist-celeb in Ja

Miss Cunard, ‘whose affinity for the cause of the coloured peoples of the world caused such a furore in the middle 1930s’ is one of the celebrity arrivals who is scooped: ‘During her [two-and-a-half-day] stay, short though it is, she hopes to see as much of the island as possible. 

'She is particularly keen to observe at close hand the mental and political changes which have taken place in Jamaica’ since her 1932 visit. 

What the ladies see - differently

So Nancy notes the new and quotidian, thinking about what could happen politically, including the forthcoming West Indies Federation 1958-62.  

And Mrs Perowne gazes upon evidence of much older colonial glories.  A brigadier whisks off Freya  and shipmate Lady Ivy Woolley, a veteran of her husband’s postings in Nigeria and Cyprus. They use the official residence of the Governor, Sir John Huggins as their day base.  

Freya visits Port Royal with a Nelson-revering naval guide. She finds it's no longer a swashbuckling buccanneer base but near-derelict waste land.  Determined to make the most of every opportunity, Freya obtains passes for a jaunt on an ordnance boat. Out in the waters round the Palisadoes it’s bliss, admiring the accompanying pelicans and dreaming of enjoying walks and wayside inns in those distant Blue Mountains. 

Back on board the troop ship - desolating and miltarised 

Then, bump, it’s back to the ship’s ‘desolating efficiency’. 

By the evening of 24 or 26 May 1948 (the accounts vary) tentative newcomers are finding their feet with the established communities in cabin and deck class. It’s full.  

And the atmosphere is more militarised. The public address system ‘blares’, Freya haughtily complains. ‘One’s time and thought taken up forcibly in listening to things one doesn’t want to hear. And [yet one has] only life in this world.’ 

Underway, luscious grapevines are a much more welcome form of communication than tannoys. Soon gossip reveals that one of the six stowaways who got on at Kingston is – gasp – a female! 

She’s dressmaker Evelyn Wauchope, aged 27. (pictured).  Enter gallant rescuers who collectively pay the fare for what the Gleaner calls ‘this adventurous woman [who would otherwise] be imprisoned on arrival in England. Jamaican musicians including Delroy Stephens give a benefit concert for her. 

‘From then on nothing very exciting happened,’ wrote one student passenger.

To Tampico for Poles, regimented

Detouring east, to Tampico to pick up Poles, makes Freya chafe:  ‘It seems wildly extravagant to send a huge ship, 2,000 on board, eight days out of its way for sixty passengers who could have been flown or taken by schooner to Bermuda’. 

Throughout the war she had coped overseas with distant Whitehall bureaucracy. Now she believes ‘it is just that someone in London was unable to realise the difference made by looking at a small-scale map ... [They must have] thought this was all on our way.’ 

For four days and 1,436 nautical miles there’s confinement, ‘chugging through the Mexique Bay, cutting its dark flat waters in swelter of heat and noise.’ Freya writes to her husband  ‘I hope I may never have to travel in a troopship again; regimented from morning to night... It really is sordid.’

No punkahs here

Perhaps it’s privation that intensifies British upper-crust solidarity. ‘It is a godsend to have Nancy Cunard. We omit breakfast and lie with very little on in our cabin till lunch, and then sit in hot shade with typewriter or Russian. Heat really exhausting.’  

At night the ship is ‘as bad as Delhi’, where she had enjoyed the Viceroy House’s elaborate hospitality. With not so much as a punkah to waft her now she finds: ‘the sheets scorching; and poor miserable people are down below in decks that descend to E without a breath of outside air.’

Going west, up the P├ínuco River towards the lush grandeur of the ‘New Orleans of Mexico’ they’re dismayed at not being allowed ashore. Instead the sixty Poles join the ship by boat.  

Having been placed in Mexico for the last few years of the war the Polish women are now on their way to being reunited with their demobbed husbands in the Resettlement Corps in the UK. 

Diverting to Havana

Fresh water supplies are low. The ship’s desalination system isn’t adequate and currency problems mean no water can be bought in Mexico.  So there’s a new interim destination: Cuba, 93 nautical miles away. 

Over the next few days they head east past the tip of the Yucatan peninsula, then across to Havana on 3 June. Four years before the revolution, the city – ironically, architecturally similar to Tampico  –'gives a glance of opulence: wide, straight streets; porticoes, and shops; shiny rich cars: the waterfront finished off with a low parapet of stone and backed with gardens...  one has a feeling of a metropolis standing on its own feet.’  

Frying like the Ancient Mariner

But they are not allowed ashore in this city either:  ‘just frying like the Ancient Mariner on a painted ocean... how maddening not to be able to land,’ Freya tells Stewart. 

Water obtained, they can start heading north east, 4,310 nautical miles to Tilbury. 

Bermuda is a scheduled stop. However, they have to wait two days because of engine failure, which is handled at the British Royal navy dockyard. And they are held up again in Hamilton, the capital. 

The Royal Gazette reports that ‘Bermudians went all out to show hospitality to passengers and crew ... A major social event, with plenty to eat and drink, was a dance on the old Unity Patio in Happy Valley’. 

The calypsonians aboard oblige with extra music.  However passengers are shocked at the apartheid on the then-racist British imperial fortress colony island. Discrimination is especially visible in the education system. 

Posh hospitality

As in Jamaica, Freya manages a brief civilised respite ashore in Hamilton, thanks to her elite network. Vice-Admiral William Tennant (pictured). A WW2 veteran, he is briefly Commander-in-Chief of the America and West Indies Station, and hosts her overnight. 

She enjoys ‘a bathe before breakfast...  slipping down barefoot over the wet grass and finding the little cove all pure and quiet from the night and swimming out among the white birds in an almost waveless sea.’ 

On 11 June she calculates: ‘This depressing boat, eleven more days to go’. Then, as they cross the North Atlantic, two days out the weather changes from hot to cold and dry. They have rough weather for the first time. 

This is the Thames. You lot are a problem

Finally, after a thirty-two-day trip, the two women arrive at Tilbury on 21 June 1948. There they discover that their ship is being seen as not just another vesel but a floating political problem in a cash-strapped UK dis-inclined to support Diversity, Inclusion and Equity (DEI) . 

The rest is known history – and modern spin. Nancy and Freya’s Caribbean shipmates disembark absolutely believing they have arrived as British subjects. That’s what the label says. 

But the post-2018 scandal about citizenship rights was to up-end that. See

More info from me

  • A version of this article was published in Maritime Quarterly. 
  • See also my 'Women of Windrush: Britain's adventurous arrivals that history forgot,' New Statesman, 22 June 2018.
  • Re Nancy Cunard. See my 'The nonconformist who sailed on Empire Windrush,' Morning Star, 22 June 2018.

Reading more from various refreshing authors

There's much unusual reading about Windrush and its aftermath at Historycal Roots: Windrush:

Wednesday 24 April 2024

D-Day’s first women to sail June 1944: exploring questions

It's the 80th D-Day anniversary on June 6. And it's important to recognise that women were initially and deliberately excluded from this major maritime operation. It involved 156,000 allied troops, an unknown number of merchant seafarers, and less than a handful of women at first.

Timeline of first women to sail to France after D-Day 1944
6/7 June overnight: Journalist Martha Gellhorn (36) (stowaway) and 6 US nurses, un-named. On the hospital ship Prague from a south coast port to Omaha beach.
11 June: Joy Taverner, QA nurse (22). She and her colleagues had to first wait 3 days on an LST  (landing ship tank) in the Solent
11/12 June overnight Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service sisters, part of No. 50 Mobile Field Hospital. Iris ‘Fluff’ Ogilvie (nee Jones, later Bower) (29) (pictured)  and Mollie Giles, sailed on HMS LST 180  from Gosport to Juno beach, to found a  field hospital. 
The captain gave up his cabin (with ensuite lavatory, for them). Men were hostile to women's presence. This was obliquely expressed by one commanding officer who warned ‘We can’t cater for you to have toilet facilities on your own.”
19 June: Matron Sally Wade and group of QAIMNSs arrived on HMS Duke of Lancaster
August: Six Wrens went over. They included WRNS Petty Officer telephonist Ena Howes (25) , who was Admiral Ramsay’s telephonist
September: FANYs, including driver Monica E Littleboy, went with motor ambulances, by landing craft
Date unclear: ATS went across to run mobile canteens

War correspondent Martha Gellhorn’s story of her D-Day+1  landing in France, on June 6 1944 reveals five interesting truths as well as raising  at least two fascinating questions about women on wartime ships. Martha (1908-1998) was a leading US  writer and is one of my heroes.

1.DIVERSITY. Actually D-Day was not a totally male military business. 
On the evening of June 6/7 the woman who was to become one of the most female journalists of WW2 stowed away on the Prague, a Great Eastern Railways Harwich to Hoek Van Holland ferry that been converted into Hospital Carrier number 61. 
Her cover was the six US nurses also on board. Good at sweet-talking her way into situations, Martha pretended she was going to interview the sisters for a magazine. You can read the story of what she said she really did in the 29 choppy hours to Normandy and back at ‘Martha Gellhorn, D-day: 60 years on; Second world war’, Guardian, 28 May 2004.
2. WOMEN.  She was one of the first seven women in the D-day invasion. British nurses were only allowed to go several days later.
3. UNCHALLENGED. The presence of this civilian female with no right to be there was oddly unquestioned. Reasons for that include:
  • she too was American, so she fitted in 
  • she was a pretty, plausible, personable blonde
  • as a Bryn Mawr girl and seasoned journalist she had agency and confidence  
  • her dad and brother were medics so she knew the hospital staff's cultured
  • on the confused ships nobody understood enough to challenge her
  • she had already travelled so much that she was a ship-savvy able traveller and could fit in well. (From 13-27 May she’d sailed, precariously, as the only passenger on a convoyed Norwegian cargo ship from the US to Liverpool; it carried dynamite, forbad booze, and had no lifeboats. She read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, enjoyed iceberg sightings, and, sighting the English coast in the 4am dark felt ‘such a feeling of wild happiness.’)
4. HANDY. As someone who could speak French and German she was useful for translating in communications between European casualties and US medics. Also she distributed cigarettes, emptied urinals, and worked with cabin boys creating corned beef sandwiches.
5.  DESPITE SEXISM. She achieved this feat in the teeth of official opposition and ‘curious condescension’ towards women journalists excluding women from this key moment in WW2, and despite the opposition of her own husband, writer Ernest Hemingway.

Her double whammy success was:
  • to get there anyway
  • to actually land in France, on Omaha beach, trumping her husband who was confined to watching from a landing craft out at sea.
1.  Lasting impact.  What effect did this 29-hour voyage have on Martha’s feelings about the war, and women’s place in it? She was to go on to do so much more, especially in Italy. She had already done so much
2.  Emotion handling. Martha was dealing with a hostile husband. The day after her arrival at Liverpool docks, ten days before D-Day,  she had just told Hemingway their four-year marriage was over. His cowardice, lies, bragging, selfishness and philandering had finished her. (They were to divorce in 1945.)War meant brought many relationship heartbreaks, some about masculinity and sex. With what other personal preoccupations did other women, like Martha, sail into the post D-Day events? In other words, we don’t participate in war as 100% single-minded warriors. So how do all our emotional preoccupations – especially sexual betrayal and anger about misogyny – effect our efficacy? Martha was private about this.


READ. Read her novels, collected letters, and reportage, plus biographies. A good starting point is

VISIT. You might like to visit the exterior of Martha’s flat at 72 Cadogan Square, London SW1X 0EA. (She didn’t write of her voyage there; she’d only moved there in the 1970s).  It has a blue plaque about her now. She had at least eleven homes in London, mainly Knightsbridge.

PASS BY: You can browse past her Welsh holiday home (1980-1994), Yew Tree Cottage, at Kilgwrrwg, near Chepstow, Monmouthshire, NP16 6DA. See purple plaque at gate. NB it’s a private residence, please respect that. The Purple Plaques campaign marks the achievements of remarkable women in Wales.

WATCH. See Philip Kaufman's  2012 movie, Hemingway & Gellhorn, No, it doesn’t go into her voyages.

Thursday 14 March 2024

Big voyages and broad-minded Wrens. Dr Dorothy Hare's story.

Dorothy Hare c1955,
by FJH Whicker

March 15 1933 #onthisdayshe, Dr Dorothy Hare (1876-1967) sailed into New York as a passenger on one of the world’s stylish ships, the Aquitania.

Had she needed the doctor on board she's have seen a man; women did not become ships' doctors until over 20 years later. Female nurses, by contrast, had been working on passenger ships since c1900 . 

Sailing was nothing special to her, anyway, as a motility-minded person. Dorothy's sister had lived in Venice, her brother in Ceylon, her father in India. Dorothy herself might have settled overseas had she not been too busy pioneering a UK career in medicine.

She’d qualified in 1908 and worked in Malta for the RAMC since 1916, where only a tiny number of servicewomen had been posted.

And from 1918 she'd been the Women's Royal Naval Service Deputy Assistant Medical Director  (pictured, left, in WRNS uniform. Her gold stripes would have been interleaved with scarlet, for medics).  Dorothy was also a great frend of  the WRNS director. 

Dame Katharine Furse (right) was the  arts-minded, nurse-trained, former head of the VAD. Katharine prized her closeness with women friends. Her father was the pioneering investigator of homosexual love, John Addington Symonds. 

This may suggest that Dorothy and Katharine were part of a community where people felt able to live in gender-expansive, non-heteronormative ways. 


Dorothy Hare deserves to be celebrated because:

# She was a pioneering woman doctor

# She helped set up two interwar hostels for women with STDs (especially as  consequence of loosened wartime morality and high infection rates)  because such women were often cast out by families and rejected by homes for unmarried mothers. Her close friend, WRNS officer Berenice d'Avigdor,(1873-1937) set the hostels up with her.

# After retiring to Falmouth with her lifelong partner Dr Elizabeth 'Lesbia' Lepper in 1937 (left of Dorothy, in picture) and travelling the world for two years, she helped revive the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic for art students. 

Her hand-illustrated voyage journals delighted her friends. I would love to track them down. 

The women's voyages incuded sailing first class from Cape Town  on the Dunnottar Castle. 

The senior doctor in the WW2 WRNS, when it re-started, was a married mother.

See also




Thursday 8 February 2024

Transitioning, the sea and surgery: Dr Michael Dillon

Ship's doctor Michael Dillon is a key person in LGBT+  maritime history. We especially recognise his significance at this point because LGBT+ History Month 2024 focuses on medicine. 

On Feb 28, Pride in Maritime Day, we can celebrate that it is 72 years since seafaring gained its first trans surgeon.

In Spring 1952 Michael (1915-62) put on his gold and scarlet braid. 'Never had I dreamed I would one day adorn myself in such glad rags!' 

At King George V Dock joined an (un-named) P&O coaster. That night 'I went to my bunk feeling intensely happy, This was the life for me. I would see the world and become a real sailor!'  

A Folkestone person, educated in Oxford, with aristocratic Irish roots, Michael Dillon was 37 and a mature student newly out of medical school. He saw himself as 'victim of a sex mix-up', which he had had rectified. No regrets. 

To use the language of LGBT+ history month 2024 he'd put himself # under the scope. He made medical knowledge work for him, despite its infancy.

 From 1940 he'd been taking testosterone. Between 1945 and 49 a total of 13 operations effected the transition.  He'd been living successfully as a man for three years, and owned to no fears of being misgendered on board. 

His fields - seafaring and medicine - were the two factors that helped Michael most with living daily with this change of identity. 

His professional context

All ships carrying over 12 passengers were legally required to carry a doctor. Michael was one of many on British merchant navy passenger or passenger-cargo vessels. Commercial flying was just beginning; migration to Australia was a popular way to evade post-war difficulty.

For six years from 1952-58 Michael, who was accepted as a male by shipmates and passengers, looked after the health of people travelling the world, be they troops, holidaymakers, Ten-Pound Poms, or Mecca pilgrims, whatever their sex and gender. 

At that time hardly any women were seafaring doctors. The are women, usually newly qualified, were mainly on educational cruises working with children. Treating male crew for STDs was a cause of blushes. Gender divisions and sexuality were serious matters.  

Some male seafarers seeking to transition took advantage of different regulations in other countries to transition there, or at least acquire hormone medication there. Usually they did not share that information with their ship's doctor, so there was little help sought if the process went awry.

Four aspects of maritime life that helped Michael deal with his loneliness and conflict included:

1.That at sea he could construct an emotional disconnected way of living that suited him 

2. That in ports he found friendliness at Missions to Seamen centres. worldwide. This included Durban, Antwerp, Kobe, Singapore, and Victoria Dock Road, London. There in Whitechapel  'The Lady Warden, the padre and his wife, the girls in the office were all friends, and sometimes I would serve in the canteen if they were short-staffed.' He also enjoyed the jolly country dancing  - more than evenings in ships' stately ballrooms.

3. He was very publicly outed by the Sunday Mirror and then by newspapers worldwide in 1958. Who had made the anonymous tip-off? Probably his ex-beloved, Roberta Cowell, whom he'd helped to transition. 

But on ship collegial support when outed came from:

  • Michael's captain on the City of Bath when in Baltimore. He was 'kindly and symathetic .... keeping reporters off the ship and cabling the New York agents asking for a police guard for the gangway.' 
  • The Second Officer. He poured me out a gin, raised his glass, and knocked mine and then said .... [he and the Sparks]  had discussed it at length over beer the night before ... [They] had come to the conclusion that I had had a rough deal ... since they had liked me before and I had not changed overnight they saw no reason for letting it make any difference.’ 
  • The Third Mate. He was ysmpatheric because he'd suffered the stigma of a hare lip until operated on. Matily he joked that they would chuck an insistent press photographer overboard.

4. His employers, Ellerman's, supported him and didn't want him to tender his resignation, as he thought honorable. The chairman of Ellermans offered ‘his sympathy’. The company's medical superintendent, Michael's line manager, said he '“still hoped I would stay with the company and would back any arrangements I liked.”’

Mixed responses to transition revelations

The maritime industry support that Michael got was not total. 

  • The Mate sneered: he'd always known there was something fishy. The Sunday Express didn't publish Michael's 'defensive' letter criticising the paper for ruining a man's career just to titillate its readers for five minutes.  
  • The captain turned hostile, presumably with the stress. Michael believed that the captain had two personalities, the kind one and the one 'which was always looking for some grounds for resentment.'   Michael's decision to leave the ship at Calcutta (which meant the ship was minus one of the two surgeons) meant the captain was 'almost permanently' in his aggrieved state, wrongly imagining that he (not the purser ) would be forced to deputise. 
  • This rejection by a patriachal semi-ally made Michael's last weeks in the merchant service even more miserable.
  • 'Deserted', Michael mourned the limited fraternal support, quoting this Rudyard Kipling verse to the press:

Nine hundred and ninety-nine can’t abide

The shame and mocking and laughter

But the thousandth man will stand by your side

To the gallows’ foot and after.

How did being in the medical profession help Michael?

1. It gave him (although he paid privately) the operations he wanted, and some support. Harold Gillies was his friendly surgeon

2. By training, at Trinity College, Dublin (pictured)  (1945-51) he gained a kind of acceptance, a sense of active agency as a change-maker for others.  For example, he risked prosecution by giving Roberta Cowell a then-illegal inguinal orchiechtomy (castration).

3. Becoming  a surgeon at sea  (rather than a GP on land) gave him a lifestyle that worked for him, as a loner and rover. He had valued status, some privacy, and companionship in temporary non-normative floating communities.  

What happened?

  • Michael felt forced to leave the sea after being outed. Indeed he exited Western life for a contemplative one as a Buddhist., transitioning spiritually He died four years later. 
  • At least one ship's surgeon, who'd been in the Royal Navy, transitioned to female a little later. 
  • Roberta Cowell carried on motor racing and creating a cultural climate where British men were inspired to transition. 
  • Today there is no transitioned ship's doctor who is visible on the internet. This does not mean they don't exist. 

Learning more

  • For a quick read, see my illustrated blog item, The first ship’s doctor to transition. Go to  
  • You can also ask to book my Powerpoint talk about him.
  • To understand Michael's own story more fully see  his autobigraphy: Michael Dillon/ Lobzang Jivaka, 'Out of the Ordinary', eds Jacob Lau and Cameron Partridge,  Fordham University Press, New York, 2017. 
  • See also Roberta Cowell's stories, including on Wikipedia.