Anna Brassey had the whole town talking when she sailed into Hamilton Harbour in 1883. By the end of her visit, she had launched St. John Ambulance.

Lady Brassey blew into Bermuda in December 1883 on the heels of a hurricane. The weather was entirely appropriate, for Lady Brassey herself—aristocrat, yachtswoman, pioneering travel writer and philanthropist—was a force of nature who swept away anything or anyone who stood in her path. Indeed some of her detractors liked to think that the hurricane was fleeing her. Hurricanes stir things up and quickly alter the landscape. And during her cyclonic visit, Lady Brassey was out to influence Bermudian society. The driving wind and heavy seas of the northeast gale that December beached the admiral’s flagship, H.M.S Northumberland, the heaviest ship in the British Navy of the day, off Ireland Island. For her part, Lady Brassey directed her force of character and her social clout toward more positive effects, touching Bermuda’s medical, geographical and sailing life.

When Sir Thomas Brassey’s splendid yacht—a triple-masted topsail schooner with a 350 horse-power auxiliary engine—scudded into Hamilton Harbour, every Bermudian from the ship’s pilots to the lordly British governor quickly knew that VIPs had arrived. Husband and wife were each well-known in their own right—a rare situation in the 1880s when women, even rich women, tended to enjoy at best only a secondary role in the public eye. Sir Thomas Brassey (1836-1918) was the philanthropic son of a powerful father. His father, also called Thomas, was one of the greatest railway builders of the Victorian heyday of the British Empire. He had risen from the obscurity of a snug Cheshire farm to become the most famous railway contractor of the age before his death in 1870. Hard-driving Brassey senior was world famous for building railways across thousands of miles of daunting terrain in England, France, India, Canada, Australia, Argentina, the Crimea and elsewhere. Thomas junior inherited his father’s vast fortune but not his drive or his acute intelligence. But then, with a fortune, a splendid English country seat (Normanhurst Court near Hastings in Sussex), as well as other large properties in England and Ireland, Thomas the younger did not need to be brilliant to do well, given the class deference that pervaded England and the British Empire in the mid-19th Century. Moreover, Brassey was an earnest and amiable chap deeply interested in yachting, Liberal politics and naval policy. He even served as one of the civil Lords of the Admiralty—under British Prime Minister Gladstone in 1880. He later received the coveted honorific of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Brassey was made a baronet in 1881 and was later raised to an earldom on the basis of his devotion to political and marine issues, expressed through his role as founder and first editor of the Naval Annual, and by his tireless interest in marine facilities during his yacht cruises on the seven seas.

But what of his wife, Annie Brassey, whom this rather diffident millionaire married in 1860? At a time when women, even aristocratic women, were expected to be passive, self-effacing, and sequestered within the rigid roles of gracious lady, devoted mother and deferential wife, the future Lady Brassey dared to be different. Why? Orphaned of her mother at an early age, Annie had been brought up largely at her grandfather’s country estate. As a result, she became a bit of a tomboy, interested in the outdoors and the natural world. There was no mother to make her stick to her embroidery instead of botany and rock collecting. Her strong will was reinforced by a long stint of invalidism when she was badly burned in an accident when she was a debutante. As a result, she developed a lifelong interest in emergency medical care and in adult life, took up the cause of first aid, promoting the formation of branches of the St. John Ambulance Society (founded in 1877 by the Duke of Manchester) all over the Empire.

Twenty-one-year-old Anna Allnutt’s marriage to the fabulously rich Thomas Brassey in 1860 brought her the wherewithal to override convention once she had done her wifely duty and produced heirs. Annie quickly bore four children—three daughters and the expected male heir. Given that one of Thomas Brassey’s great loves was yachting (no belching steam locomotives for him), Lady Brassey’s doctors advised that sea air was good for her delicate health. The family thus spent a good deal of time at sea, first on their yacht Eothen (in 1862 the first private yacht to sail from England to Newfoundland under both steam and wind power—or so its proud owner claimed). When Annie’s nautical husband succeeded to his father’s huge estate in 1870, he quickly acquired an even more staggering yacht, the Sunbeam, a craft so magnificent that it would better have been called “Sunburst.” In any case, Brassey was to sail over 400,000 nautical miles in her over his lifetime, on long voyages through the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and the reaches of the Pacific. On board Lady Brassey fought off frequent seasickness with typically aristocratic ‘pluck’ and began to break the mould of Victorian womanhood in a fashion available only to rich women.

The Victorian age was the golden age of travel literature. For Englishmen—and women— the far-flung British Empire lay open for exploration, analysis and reporting. An affluent middle-class reading public had developed on both sides of the Atlantic, a public with an appetite for books about the exotic and unfamiliar in landscape, animals and peoples. As early as 1812, Annie Brassey began to keep journals of her maritime travels, at first only for the eyes of family and friends, in particular her father, an exclusive audience suited to her gender and class. But she soon wanted more. 

With the help of an editor and gifted artists who created wonderful wood engravings as illustrations for her journals, Lady Brassey soon began to publish her work. Naturally she donated all the royalties to charity, as befitted a lady. Moreover, one of her first published works had a lavish dedication which firmly framed her unconventional behaviour in terms of socially acceptable benevolence. One of Lady Brassey’s volumes was dedicated to “the care worn toiler in dusty ways” who could by means of the book share “my joys with me.” Yet, far from demurely concealing her identity, the front of the book boasted a portrait of Lady Brassey at the centre of an elaborate tableau of marine motifs of her sea voyages. Lady Brassey was thus a do-gooder, but she was no Victorian shrinking violet. When she wrote a Sunday-school novel based on some of her travels, she even transformed herself into a male character, a persona better suited to her adventurous spirit and strong opinions.

The frontispiece of Lady Brassey’s book shows her grandiose self-image

Even Lady Brassey was unsurprised, however, when her first commercially published book, A Voyage in the “Sunbeam”: Our Home on the Ocean for Eleven Months (1878), became a best-seller in England and America, going into 19 editions and five languages over the next two decades. But then what harried, penned-up middle class housewife—and her harassed businessman husband—did not like to fantasise about sailing the world in a yacht and servants at one’s beck and call, and with cabins peopled by congenial friends and associates? To her surprise, Lady Brassey the author received fan letters from the backwoods of Canada and the sheep stations of Australia. On her voyages, admirals and governors deferred to Lady Brassey and her rich husband. Colonial hostesses flattered her even as they envied and deplored her high-handed, adventurous ways.

The 157-foot Brassey yacht was an eye-popper, as a fawning description in The Royal Gazette of December 1883 makes clear. The writer, fresh from a reception given on board by the Brassey’s, was understandably awed by the Sunbeam’s opulence below decks—its massive plate glass mirrors, superb paintings, caged exotic birds and the imposing black ebony writing desk crowded with art treasures in Lady Brassey’s “fairy boudoir.” Not least awe-inspiring was the autocratic Lady Brassey herself, bent on passing judgment and doing good works in each port she visited. At the Bermuda reception, Lady Brassey shone splendid in jewels, lace and linen. Gazette readers not of the exalted social level of the Goslings, Grays and their Bermuda ilk were told that “round about and in and out among chairs, tables and visitors, daintily trip[ped] her Ladyship’s favourite poodle Sir Roger, whose artistic coiffure excited the admiration of everybody.” But Lady Brassey was not simply in Bermuda to dazzle the locals, or even just to make a whirlwind tour of the island’s predictable attractions—Devil’s Hole, Tom Moore’s, St. George’s, Dockyard—though she did do that. Even while sightseeing, she collected specimens of shells and other natural curiosities to display in the museum the couple created in Hastings (where these treasures can still be seen today, along with a model of the Sunbeam.) Lady Brassey’s critical eye scoured the colony. When she published In The Trades, The Tropics and the Roaring Forties (1885), an account of her West Indies voyage, however, she told readers that she was shocked by the “hideous business-placards” stuck on rocks on the islets in Hamilton Harbour which “spoiled the picturesqueness of the landscape. She was happier with Hamilton itself “a nice clean little place,” but she deplored the “tough cutlets” and “greasy… potatoes” that were its standard restaurant fare. She was more impressed by the coral reefs and the skilled black boatmen of Bermuda, even going swimming in the warm sea in her usual bluestocking style after the latter assured her there was little danger of sharks within the reefs.

At heart, however, Lady Brassey, like many Victorian dowagers, was propelled by a cause, a good work. It was, moreover, a cause whose benefits many Bermudians agreed that the Rock needed. Wherever she went, Lady Brassey bullied, cajoled, and lobbied for the creation of a branch of the St. John Ambulance Society, with its devotion to the cause of first aid. During her short life, she was instrumental in lobbying for the creation of branches of the Society from Singapore to Australia to the Caribbean. Moreover, she broke the mould by giving public speeches on the issue. Even while she was violating a social norm for woman, her speeches shrewdly invoked the support of middle-class women, telling them that they would be better “angels of the house” if they had first aid training to tend sick and dying family members, one of the crowning duties of the Victorian middle-class matron. Lady Brassey thus used her social clout to break out of her gender role to effect change.

Some Bermudians found her bossy and arrogant. Some whispered that her forthright opinions were bolstered by a fondness for alcohol, but many others knew that she was right—about the need for better medical care on the Island at least.

One Bermuda physician, Dr. Kidd, chief medical officer of the military garrison of the day, pointed out with devastating directness in The Royal Gazette that the colony had in 1883 no formal medical facilities whatsoever—no public dispensary, no infirmary, no hospital-outside of the British military establishments on the Island. There were doctors, true, but civilians got sick and died at home. Organised first aid was non-existent, and Kidd wrote that many an epileptic or stroke victim had died when they had fallen sick in public, ignored or mistreated as drunkards or madmen. Moreover, even though prosperous whites could arrange for what medical care was available, what of poor blacks, whose cottages were tiny and whose coins were scarce?

Other advocates for a St. John Ambulance Society, like prominent Bermudian Reginald Gray, urged Bermudians to throw off their innate dislike of interfering outsiders and help the St. John Ambulance take root in Bermuda. The Royal Gazette appealed to the “ladies of Bermuda” as well as to the Island’s medical men to make it possible to “be glad to have in their servants, male and female, persons on whom they could rely in cases of difficulty and emergency.” After stirring up some action, Lady Brassey sailed off in mid-December for an English Christmas, heading for home port at last after a four-month sea voyage that had ranged from Malta to the Caribbean to Bermuda.

In fact, the Sunbeam had not even been scheduled to stop in Bermuda, but Lady Brassey had longed to visit the Rock ever since a planned visit here 1862 aboard the Eothen from Canada had to be cancelled. And what Lady Brassey wanted, few (including her husband) had the backbone to deny her.

She was equally determined to get the Ambulance into Bermuda. Before her departure on December 10, after just over a week on the Island, she admonished Bermudians from the governor on down that she hoped soon “to be able to write and congratulate [Bermudians] on having established one of the most useful Centres” of the St. John Ambulance.

Even Sir Thomas had been busy in Bermuda with his own pet projects. He had drunk rum and talked of maritime matters at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, that bastion of the white elite. He also inspected Dockyard and other British military facilities, discussing what he saw with the admiral in charge of the West Indies Station, as well as with the Governor and even with Prince George (later King George V) who was also visiting Bermuda aboard H.M.S. Canada that December. Sir Thomas and Lady Brassey were disappointed when, because of blustery weather, the Sunbeam had to sail before a Bermuda regatta could be held by the Yacht Club for the new ‘Brassey Challenge Cup,’ a silver trophy endowed by the baronet.

Front Street merchants were delighted by the Sunbeam’s visit. Brassey’s crew had provisioned the yacht with an expensive raft of goods; Hatchers of Reid St. had been engaged to paint the storm-battered yacht as she lay at anchor. The Brasseys also bought £5 life memberships in the prospective St. John Ambulance Branch. According to historian Henry Wilkinson, Princess Louise, another aristocratic Bermuda visitor earlier that year, soon accepted the presidency of the Ambulance Society and the new colonial surveyor its secretary-treasurership. Lady Brassey had succeeded in sowing the seeds of a society still active in Bermuda today. If you faint in the heat and excitement of Cup Match, or need an ankle taped at a football game, St. John Ambulance training brought to Bermuda by Lady Brassey so long ago may come to your rescue.

And what of husband, wife and yacht? What became of them? Lady Brassey, plagued by bouts of malaria caught sightseeing in mosquito-infested lagoons in Borneo, died at sea off Western Australia in September 1887, after cruising the Pacific reconnoitering exotic sights and prospective Society branches. She was just 47-years-old. A somewhat bemused Lord Brassey, newly an early, wrote an affectionate memoir of his strong-minded, capable wife for his children. He soon married a more traditional society woman after a suitable interval of mourning. He died in 1918: his son and heir died of influenza a year later without a male progeny, and the earldom lapsed. The Sunbeam, the yacht so beloved of husband and wife, was given to India as a hospital ship in 1916. But if you seek Lady Brassey, look out to sea—her body was committed to the waves off the west coast of Australia.

Like the hurricanes, she is out there beyond the horizon somewhere.