Annie Brassey’s Voyages

On September 14, 1887, at sunset, the body of a woman was committed to the sea midway between Christmas Island and the northwestern coast of Australia. Her grieving husband and their four children stood by to pay their last respects, along with the entire crew of the vessel on which they had been sailing for nearly a year.

Annie Brassey

Annie Brassey

The vessel was the yacht Sunbeam, and the woman was 47-year-old Lady Brassey—Annie Brassey, as she styled herself—one of the most celebrated travel writers of her day. Her lengthy voyages with her husband, Sir Thomas Brassey, and their children were simply and beautifully recorded in several lavishly detailed and illustrated books. The volunteers at Distributed Proofreaders have preserved two of them for posterity at Project Gutenberg: the first, A Voyage in the ‘Sunbeam’, published in 1878; and the last, The Last Voyage, published posthumously in 1889.

Annie Brassey was born Anna Allnutt in London in 1839. Her privileged childhood did not spare her from serious health problems. In a memoir of her life published in The Last Voyage, her husband recounted that she suffered from an inherited “weakness of the chest,” apparently in the form of chronic bronchitis. As a young woman, she suffered severe burns when she stood too close to a fireplace and her crinolined skirt caught fire; it took her six months to recover.

When she was 21, Annie married Thomas Brassey, the son of a prominent railway contractor. Thomas was a Member of Parliament who later became Lord of the Admiralty and Baron Brassey of Bulkeley. Annie and Thomas had five children; one of them, Constance, died in 1873 at age five. Annie, despite her chronic illnesses, busied herself with her family and with charitable work, becoming a tireless supporter of the St. John Ambulance, an organization devoted to providing and teaching first aid.

Thomas was a keen yachtsman, and on July 1, 1876, he, Annie, and the children (ranging in age from one to 13) set off to circumnavigate the globe in the Sunbeam—said to be the first private yacht to do so. This was no Kon-Tiki—the Sunbeam was a steam-assisted schooner, and the family and crew totaled 43 people.

Nonetheless, in the nineteenth century, traveling around the world was neither safe nor comfortable, as the Brasseys well knew from prior, shorter voyages. In 1869, Annie had contracted malaria while traveling through the Suez Canal; the disease plagued her for the rest of her life.

But it did not stop her. She entered into the first voyage of the Sunbeam with great enthusiasm, writing extensive letters to her family in England, in which she detailed all the wonders of the exotic lands they visited. Her family urged her to publish these letters in the form of a journal, and the result was A Voyage in the ‘Sunbeam’.

Annie’s journal entries demonstrate a keen eye for observation, boundless curiosity, and a profound sympathy for humankind. It is no wonder that A Voyage in the ‘Sunbeam’ became an instant best-seller. The grace and simplicity of her writing bring the voyage vividly to life, often with understated humor. Here, for example, is her account of what happened after the yacht came through a severe storm:

Soon after this adventure we all went to bed, full of thankfulness that it had ended as well as it did; but, alas, not, so far as I was concerned, to rest in peace. In about two hours I was awakened by a tremendous weight of water suddenly descending upon me and flooding the bed. I immediately sprang out, only to find myself in another pool on the floor. It was pitch dark, and I could not think what had happened; so I rushed on deck, and found that, the weather having moderated a little, some kind sailor, knowing my love of fresh air, had opened the skylight rather too soon; and one of the angry waves had popped on board, deluging the cabin.

Despite Annie’s ill health, the voyages continued, in part because winters in London (with its then dreadful fogs of pollution) were intolerable to her. In the 1880s she published other travelogues, including In the Trades, the Tropics, and the Roaring Forties (1885), currently in progress at DP.

Annie’s last voyage on the Sunbeam began in January 1887. The family toured India and then set sail for Ceylon, explored Burma, Borneo, and nearby islands, and circumnavigated Australia, with fascinating side-trips to the major towns and even into the bush. She participated in these tours in spite of renewed attacks of malarial fever, and throughout her time in Australia she actively promoted the St. John Ambulance.

But the disease that had beset her for so long finally took its toll. Annie wrote her last published journal entry on August 29, 1887, as the Sunbeam lay at Thursday Island, off Cape York in Queensland, Australia. She was so ill that she needed to be carried in a chair as she toured the island that day, but she pressed on, and even discussed starting a chapter of the St. John Ambulance with the local residents.

Thereafter, as her friend and editor, M.A. Broome, puts it in the Preface to The Last Voyage, Annie’s journal entries “are simple records of suffering and helpless weakness, too private and sacred for publication.” She made her last private entry four days before she died. In her husband’s tender memoir in The Last Voyage, addressing their children, he said, “We have seen how your mother used her opportunities to make the world a little better than she found it. . . . I could never tell you what your mother was to me.”

Annie Brassey, with her inspiring courage and humanity, left the world a beautiful legacy in her fascinating journals.

Note: In 1922, the Sunbeam was sold to Sir Walter Runciman. Sir Walter, as it happens, was a distant relative of the late Steven Gibbs, the DP volunteer who provided the scans of The Last Voyage.

7 Responses to Annie Brassey’s Voyages

  1. adhere says:

    Linda,

    Thank you for so eloquently introducing us to this remarkable Victorian woman, and to her life’s work and adventures!

    Andy

  2. Sue says:

    Mrs. Brassey sounds like an amazing woman. Most people would not have persevered the way she did, in the face of chronic illnesses. Thanks for giving us a brief glimpse into this book. It certainly has piqued my curiosity.

  3. LCantoni says:

    Thanks, Sue and Andy, for your comments! After working on The Last Voyage, I realized that Annie Brassey is one of the great unsung Victorian heroines. I wish I had a tenth of her energy!

  4. Anne hibberd says:

    Fascinated to hear the life of Annie and her family and tonight story was echoed on television programme. 25th November 2015. Would love to own her books. Will search for copies
    Anne in Waterlooville an avid reader of historical books

    • Sandie Casey says:

      A book has been handed down in my family called “A Saga of the Sunbeam” by Lord Brassey in remembrance of a voyage in the Sunbeam to Iceland and Canada in 1910. It is a signed copy given only to each member of the crew. My grandfather, aged 23, was a member of the crew. It was published by Longmans, Green and Co. I thought you may be interested to know.

      • LCantoni says:

        What a treasure that must be! Thank you so much for telling us about it – it’s always great to see connections from our books to real life. I see that “A Saga of the Sunbeam” is not yet on Project Gutenberg, but images of it are available online – I’ll inquire into whether DP can run it. If so, it would be a nice addition to PG’s Sunbeam “bookshelf.”

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