It’s sunset on 14 September 1887 and we’re floating onboard a majestic yacht in the Pacific Ocean. The body of a fearless female explorer is being committed to the sea between Christmas Island and the north-western coast of Australia. Her grieving husband and their three children stand by to say goodbye and pay their last respects.
Annie Brassey was an international bestselling Victorian female travel writer, photographer, and collector. She died age 47 doing what she loved most, exploring the world with her family on their yacht Sunbeam, which they did at least eight times, each trip lasting four to eight months.
When diaries she wrote during an 11-month around-the-world adventure they took between 1876 to 1877 were published as A Voyage on the Sunbeam, Our Home on the Ocean for 11 Months, they became an instant bestseller and made Annie Brassey famous. The book saw a total of 19 editions in 10 years, was translated into 17 languages. She also went on to write more books.
There’s no doubt Annie Brassey led an incredible life and left behind an inspiring and courageous legacy. Yet, there’s something about her I’m struggling to understand. If you Google ‘Victorian female travel writers’, ‘Victorian female adventurers’ or any other phrase along the same line and plenty of articles come up, not one mentions name Annie Brassey – none I could find, and I read a dozen. Type in ‘Annie Brassey’, and although you’ll find a handful of pieces on her, none in the national media. I only discovered her by chance on a mindless scroll through Twitter, drawn to a curious account in her name. Clearly, it’s another case of a fearless female from history overlooked in a world where adventuring – and pretty much all pursuits out of the home – were for men only. Yawn. So today, we’re celebrating the amazing life and career of Annie Brassey.
She was born Anna Allnutt in London in 1839 the daughter of a wealthy wine merchant. She married Thomas Brassey in 1860, a Liberal politician and MP for the town of Hastings in East Sussex, where the Brasseys are still well remembered as local philanthropists, and several streets are named after them. Brassey inherited £5 million (the equivalent of £29 billion today) from his father, who’d made his fortune building railways around the world.
Together, the couple had four children and built the Sunbeam in memory of their daughter Constance Alberta, who died of scarlet fever in 1873 at the age of four. The lavishly furnished 157ft-long steam schooner made its first circumnavigation of the globe in 1876, carrying the Brasseys and their three surviving children, together with a crew of 30 and numerous pets and livestock.
They Brassey’s may have been wealthy and privileged, but no amount of money could prevent ill health, Annie having suffered from a weak chest from a young age, and later malaria. Yet despite these ailments, she approached her journeys on the Sunbeam with enthusiasm, a mood captured in letters she wrote to her family back home in England. She used simplicity and humour to bring her voyage vividly to life, each letter filled with exciting details of the wonders of the exotic lands they visited. It’s no wonder her diaries became an bestseller:
Soon after this adventure [a storm] 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.”
Annie was also a keen photographer and one of the few female members of the Royal Photographic Society at the time. She even ordered a custom-made darkroom be built inside the Sunbeam to make photography onboard possible and a lot easier. The Victorian photographic community found this exciting and several of her photographs were shown at the annual exhibitions of the Photographic Society in Pall Mall, London.
As well as taking her own photos, she also enjoyed collecting commercial photographic prints from souvenir shops, booksellers, and photographers’ studios. Thomas and Annie also brought sketch artists along with them on their travels, the work of whom they used in Annie’s published books, along with her photographs.
In the next years that followed, the Brasseys made various other trips, including around the Mediterranean; to Egypt; the West Indies, Bermuda, Jamaica and the Azores; and Norway and Scandinavia. In 1887, the family set off what turned out to be Annie Brassey’s last voyage, starting with a tour of India, before setting sail for Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), onto Burma, Borneo, and nearby islands, circumnavigating Australia, with fascinating side-trips to the major towns and even into the bush. On 29 August 1887, as the Sunbeam lay at Thursday Island, off Cape York in Queensland, Australia Annie wrote her last published journal entry before succumbing to malaria. In her husband’s memoir in The Last Voyage, he said to their children, “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.”
A year after her death, her husband opened the Lady Brassey Museum at their London home in Park Lane to make a permanent exhibition of the collection. It was later moved to Hastings Museum in 1919, where you can still see it. In Hastings, you’ll also find several photograph albums and other ephemera held in Hasting Library, located inside a building known as the Brassey Institute, originally founded by the couple as a school of arts and sciences. Elsewhere, the vast majority of her photograph albums are now housed in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, a collection of 70 albums in total, each containing up to 80 thick board pages, said to be a pre-eminent example of a historical travel album; while the golden figurehead of the Sunbeam yacht depicting her daughter Constance is at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, England.