Notable women of Hastings: Lady Brassey
from: Lives of Girls Who Became Famous, by Sarah Knowles Bolton, 2004
Every foot of ground at Battle Abbey is historic, and all the country round most interesting. We drive over the smoothest of roads to a palace in the distance,--Normanhurst, the home of Lady Brassey, the distinguished author and traveller. Towers are at either corner and in the centre, and ivy climbs over the spacious vestibule to the roof. Great buildings for waterworks, conservatories, and the like, are adjoining, in the midst of flower-gardens and acres of lawn and forest. It is a place fit for the abode of royalty itself.
In no home have I seen so much that is beautiful gathered from all parts of the world. The hall, as you enter, square and hung with crimson velvet, is adorned with valuable paintings. Two easy-chairs before the fireplace are made from ostriches, their backs forming the seats. These birds were gifts to Lady Brassey in her travels. In the rooms beyond are treasures from Japan, the South Sea Islands, South America, indeed from everywhere; cases of pottery, works in marble, Dresden candelabra, ancient armor, furs, silks, all arrayed with exquisite taste.
One room, called the Marie Antoinette room, has the curtains and furniture, in yellow, of this unfortunate queen. Here are pictures by Sir Frederick Leighton, Landseer, and others; stuffed birds and fishes and animals from every clime, with flowers in profusion. In the dining-room, with its gray walls and red furniture, is a large painting of the mistress of this superb home, with her favorite horse and dogs. The views from the windows are beautiful, Battle Abbey ruin in the distance, and rivers flowing to the sea. The house is rich in color, one room being blue, another red, a third yellow, while large mirrors seem to repeat the apartments again and again. As we leave the home, not the least of its attractions come up the grounds,--a load of merry children, all in sailor hats; the Mabelle and Muriel and Marie whom we have learned to know in Lady Brassey's books.
The well-known author is the daughter of the late Mr. John Alnutt of Berkley Square, London, who, as well as his father, was a patron of art, having made large collections of paintings. Reared in wealth and culture, it was but natural that the daughter, Annie, should find in the wealthy and cultured Sir Thomas Brassey a man worthy of her affections. In 1860, while both were quite young, they were married, and together they have travelled, written books, aided working men and women, and made for themselves a noble and lasting fame.
Sir Thomas is the eldest son of the late Mr. Brassey, ‘the leviathan contractor, the employer of untold thousands of navvies, the genie of the spade and pick, and almost the pioneer of railway builders, not only in his own country, but from one end of the continent to the other.’ Of superior education, having been at Rugby and University College, Oxford, Sir Thomas was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1864, and was elected to Parliament from Devonport the following year, and from Hastings three years later, in 1868, which position he has filled ever since.
Exceedingly fond of the sea, he determined to be a practical sailor, and qualified himself as a master-marine, by passing the requisite Board of Trade examination, and receiving a certificate as a seaman and navigator. In 1869 he was made Honorary Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve.
Besides his parliamentary work, he has been an able and voluminous writer. His Foreign Work and English Wages I purchased in England, and have found it valuable in facts and helpful in spirit. The statement in the preface that he ‘has had under consideration the expediency of retiring from Parliament, with the view of devoting an undivided attention to the elucidation of industrial problems, and the improvement of the relations between capital and labor,’ shows the heart of the man. In 1880 he was made Civil Lord of the Admiralty, and in 1881 was created by the Queen a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, for his important services in connection with the organization of the Naval Reserve forces of the country.
In 1869, after Sir Thomas and Lady Brassey had been nine years married, they determined to take a sea-voyage in his yacht, and between this time and 1872 they made two cruises in the Mediterranean and the East. From her childhood the wife had kept a journal, and from fine powers of observation and much general knowledge was well fitted to see whatever was to be seen, and describe it graphically. She wrote long, journal-like letters to her father, and on her return The Flight of the Meteor was prepared for distribution among relatives and intimate friends.
In the year last mentioned, 1872, they took a trip to Canada and the United States, sailing up several of the long rivers, and on her return, A Cruise in the Eothen was published for friends.
Four years later they decided to go round the world, and for this purpose the beautiful yacht Sunbeam was built. The children, the animal pets, two dogs, three birds, and a Persian kitten for the baby, were all taken, and the happy family left England July 1, 1876. With the crew, the whole number of persons on board was forty-three. Almost at the beginning of the voyage they encountered a severe storm. Captain Lecky would have been lost but for the presence of mind of Mabelle Brassey, the oldest daughter, who has her mother's courage and calmness. When asked if she thought she was going overboard, she answered, ‘I did not think at all, mamma, but felt sure we were gone.’
‘Soon after this adventure,’ says Lady Brassey, ‘we all went to bed, full of thanksgiving 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.
‘I got a light, and proceeded to mop up, as best I could, and then endeavored to find a dry place to sleep in. This, however, was no easy task, for my own bed was drenched, and every other berth occupied. The deck, too, was ankle-deep in water, as I found when I tried to get across to the deck-house sofa. At last I lay down on the floor, wrapped in my ulster, and wedged between the foot stanchion of our swing bed and the wardrobe athwart-ship; so that as the yacht rolled heavily, my feet were often higher than my head.’
No wonder that a woman who could make the best of such circumstances could make a year's trip on the Sunbeam a delight to all on board. Their first visits were to the Madeira, Teneriffe, and Cape de Verde Islands, off the coast of Africa. With simplicity, the charm of all writing, and naturalness, Lady Brassey describes the people, the bathing where the sharks were plentiful, and the masses of wild geranium, hydrangea, and fuchsia. They climb to the top of the lava Peak of Teneriffe, over twelve thousand feet high; they rise at five o'clock to see the beautiful sunrises; they watch the slaves at coffee-raising at Rio de Janeiro, in South America, and Lady Brassey is attracted toward the nineteen tiny babies by the side of their mothers; ‘the youngest, a dear, little woolly-headed thing, as black as jet, and only three weeks old.’
In Belgrano, she says: ‘We saw for the first time the holes of the bizcachas, or prairie-dogs, outside which the little prairie-owls keep guard. There appeared to be always one, and generally two, of these birds, standing like sentinels, at the entrance to each hole, with their wise-looking heads on one side, pictures of prudence and watchfulness. The bird and the beast are great friends, and are seldom to be found apart.’ And then Lady Brassey, who understands photography as well as how to write several languages, photographs this pretty scene of prairie-dogs guarded by owls, and puts it in her book.
On their way to the Straits of Magellan, they see a ship on fire. They send out a boat to her, and bring in the suffering crew of fifteen men, almost wild with joy to be rescued. Their cargo of coal had been on fire for four days. The men were exhausted, the fires beneath their feet were constantly growing hotter, and finally they gave up in despair and lay down to die. But the captain said, ‘There is One above who looks after us all,’ and again they took courage. They lashed the two apprentice boys in one of the little boats, for fear they would be washed overboard, for one was the ‘only son of his mother, and she a widow.’
‘The captain,’ says Lady Brassey, ‘drowned his favorite dog, a splendid Newfoundland, just before leaving the ship; for although a capital watchdog and very faithful, he was rather large and fierce; and when it was known that the Sunbeam was a yacht with ladies and children on board, he feared to introduce him. Poor fellow! I wish I had known about it in time to save his life!’
They ‘steamed past the low sandy coast of Patagonia and the rugged mountains of Tierra del Fuego, literally, Land of Fire, so called from the custom the inhabitants have of lighting fires on prominent points as signals of assembly.’ The people are cannibals, and naked. ‘Their food is of the most meagre description, and consists mainly of shell-fish, sea-eggs, for which the women dive with much dexterity, and fish, which they train their dogs to assist them in catching. These dogs are sent into the water at the entrance of a narrow creek or small bay, and they then bark and flounder about and drive the fish before them into shallow water, where they are caught.’
Three of these Fuegians, a man, woman, and lad, come out to the yacht in a craft made of planks rudely tied together with the sinews of animals, and give otter skins for ‘tobáco and galléta’ (biscuit), for which they call. When Lady Brassey gives the lad and his mother some strings of blue, red, and green glass beads, they laugh and jabber most enthusiastically. Their paddles are ‘split branches of trees, with wider pieces tied on at one end, with the sinews of birds or beasts.’ At the various places where they land, all go armed, Lady Brassey herself being well skilled in their use.
She never forgets to do a kindness. In Chili she hears that a poor engine-driver, an Englishman, has met with a serious accident, and at once hastens to see him. He is delighted to hear about the trip of the Sunbeam, and forgets for a time his intense suffering in his joy at seeing her.
In Santiago she describes a visit to the ruin of the Jesuit church, where, Dec. 8, 1863, at the Feast of the Virgin, two thousand persons, mostly women and children, were burned to death. A few were drawn up through a hole in the roof and thus saved.
Their visit to the South Sea Islands is full of interest. At Bow Island Lady Brassey buys two tame pigs for twenty-five cents each, which are so docile that they follow her about the yacht with the dogs, to whom they took a decided fancy. She calls one Agag, because he walks so delicately on his toes. The native women break cocoanuts and offer them the milk to drink. At Maitea the natives are puzzled to know why the island is visited. ‘No sell brandy?’ they ask. ‘No.’ ‘No stealy men?’ ‘No.’ ‘No do what then?’ The chief receives most courteously, cutting down a banana-tree for them, when they express a wish for bananas. He would receive no money for his presents to them.
In Tahiti a feast is given in their honor, in a house seemingly made of banana-trees, ‘the floor covered with the finest mats, and the centre strewn with broad green plantain leaves, to form the table-cloth.... Before each guest was placed a half-cocoanut full of salt water, another full of chopped cocoanut, a third full of fresh water, and another full of milk, two pieces of bamboo, a basket of poi, half a breadfruit, and a platter of green leaves, the latter being changed with each course. We took our seats on the ground round the green table. The first operation was to mix the salt water and the chopped cocoanut together, so as to make an appetizing sauce, into which we were supposed to dip each morsel we ate. We were tolerably successful in the use of our fingers as substitutes for knives and forks.’
At the Sandwich Islands, in Hilo, they visit the volcano of Kilauea. They descend the precipice, three hundred feet, which forms the wall of the old crater. They ascend the present crater, and stand on the ‘edge of a precipice, overhanging a lake of molten fire, a hundred feet below us, and nearly a mile across. Dashing against the cliffs on the opposite side, with a noise like the roar of a stormy ocean, waves of blood-red, fiery liquid lava hurled their billows upon an iron-bound headland, and then rushed up the face of the cliffs to toss their gory spray high in the air.’
They pass the island of Molokai, where the poor lepers end their days away from home and kindred. At Honolulu they are entertained by the Prince, and then sail for Japan, China, Ceylon, through Suez, stopping in Egypt, and then home. On their arrival, Lady Brassey says, ‘How can I describe the warm greetings that met us everywhere, or the crowd that surrounded us; how, along the whole ten miles from Hastings to Battle, people were standing by the roadside and at the cottage doors to welcome us; how the Battle bell-ringers never stopped ringing except during service time; or how the warmest of welcomes ended our delightful year of travel and made us feel we were home at last, with thankful hearts for the providential care which had watched over us whithersoever we roamed!’
The trip had been one of continued ovation. Crowds had gathered in every place to see the Sunbeam, and often trim her with flowers from stem to stern. Presents of parrots, and kittens, and pigs abounded, and Lady Brassey had cared tenderly for them all. Christmas was observed on ship-board with gifts for everybody; thoughtfulness and kindness had made the trip a delight to the crew as well as the passengers.
The letters sent home from the Sunbeam were so thoroughly enjoyed by her father and friends, that they prevailed upon her to publish a book, which she did in 1878. It was found to be as full of interest to the world as it had been to the intimate friends, and it passed rapidly through four editions. An abridged edition appeared in the following year; then the call for it was so great that an edition was prepared for reading in schools, in 1880, and finally, in 1881, a twelve-cent edition, that the poor as well as the rich might have an opportunity of reading this fascinating book, Around the World in the Yacht Sunbeam. And now Lady Brassey found herself not only the accomplished and benevolent wife of a member of Parliament, but a famous author as well.
This year, July, 1881, the King of the Sandwich Islands, who had been greatly pleased with her description of his kingdom, was entertained at Normanhurst Castle, and invested Lady Brassey with the Order of Kapiolani.
The next trip made was to the far East, and a book followed in 1880, entitled, Sunshine and Storm in the East; or, Cruises to Cyprus and Constantinople, dedicated ‘to the brave, true-hearted sailors of England, of all ranks and services.’
The book is intensely interesting. Now she describes the Sultan going to the mosque, which he does every Friday at twelve o'clock. ‘He appeared in a sort of undress uniform, with a flowing cloak over it, and with two or three large diamond stars on his breast. He was mounted on a superb white Arab charger, thirty-three years old, whose saddle-cloths and trappings blazed with gold and diamonds. The following of officers on foot was enormous; and then came two hundred of the fat blue and gold pashas, with their white horses and brilliant trappings, the rear being brought up by some troops and a few carriages.... Nobody dares address the Sultan, even if he speaks to them, except in monosyllables, with their foreheads almost touching the floor, the only exception being the grand vizier, who dares not look up, but stands almost bent double. He is entirely governed by his mother, who, having been a slave of the very lowest description, to whom his father, Mahmoud II., took a fancy as she was carrying wood to the bath, is naturally bigoted and ignorant.... The Sultan is not allowed to marry, but the slaves who become mothers of his children are called sultanas, and not allowed to do any more work. They have a separate suite of apartments, a retinue of servants, besides carriages and horses, and each hopes some day to be the mother of the future Sultan, and therefore the most prominent woman in Turkey. The sultanas may not sit at table with their own children, on account of their having been slaves, while the children are princes and princesses in right of their father.’
Lady Brassey tells the amusing story of a visit of Eugenie to the Sultan's mother, when the Empress of the French saluted her on the cheek. The Turkish woman was furious, and said she had never been so insulted in her life. ‘She retired to bed at once, was bled, and had several Turkish baths, to purify her from the pollution. Fancy the Empress' feelings when, after having so far condescended as to kiss the old woman, born one of the lowest of slaves, she had her embrace received in such a manner.’
The habits and customs of the people are described by Lady Brassey with all the interest of a novel. On their return home, ‘again the Battle bells rang out a merry peal of gladness; again everybody rushed out to welcome us. At home once again, the servants and the animals seemed equally glad to see us back; the former looked the picture of happiness, while the dogs jumped and barked; the horses and ponies neighed and whinnied; the monkeys chattered; the cockatoos and parrots screamed; the birds chirped; the bullfinches piped their little paean of welcome.... Our old Sussex cowman says that even the cows eat their food 'kind of kinder like' when the family are at home. The deer and the ostriches too, the swans and the call ducks, all came running to meet us, as we drove round the place to see them.’ Kindness to both man and beast bears its legitimate fruit.
Two years later she prepared the letter-press to Tahiti: a Series of Photographs, taken by Colonel Stuart Wortley. He also is a gentleman of much culture and noble work, in whose home we saw beautiful things gathered from many lands.
The last long trip of Sir Thomas and Lady Brassey was made in the fall of 1883, and resulted in a charming book, In the Trades, the Tropics, and the Roaring Forties, with about three hundred illustrations. The route lay through Madeira, Trinidad, Venezuela, the Bahamas, and home by way of the Azores. The resources of the various islands, their history, and their natural formation, are ably told, showing much study as well as intelligent observation. The maps and charts are also valuable. At Trinidad they visit the fine Botanic Gardens, and see bamboos, mangoes, peach-palms, and cocoa-plants, from whose seeds chocolate is made. The quantity exported annually is 13,000,000 pounds.
They also visit great coffee plantations. ‘The leaves of the coffee-shrub,’ says Lady Brassey, ‘are of a rich, dark, glossy green; the flowers, which grow in dense white clusters, when in full bloom, giving the bushes the appearance of being covered with snow. The berries vary in color from pale green to reddish orange or dark red, according to their ripeness, and bear a strong resemblance to cherries. Each contains two seeds, which, when properly dried, become what is known to us as 'raw' coffee.’
At Caracas they view with interest the place which, on March 26, 1812, was nearly destroyed by an earthquake, twelve thousand persons perishing, thousands of whom were buried alive by the opening of the ground. They study the formation of coral-reefs, and witness the gathering of sponges in the Bahamas. ‘These are brought to the surface by hooked poles, or sometimes by diving. When first drawn from the water they are covered with a soft gelatinous substance, as black as tar and full of organic life, the sponge, as we know, being only the skeleton of the organism.’
While all this travelling was being enjoyed, and made most useful as well, to hundreds of thousands of readers, Lady Brassey was not forgetting her works of philanthropy. For years she has been a leading spirit in the St. John's Ambulance Association. Last October she gave a valuable address to the members of the ‘Workingmen's Club and Institute Union,’ composed of several hundred societies of workingmen. Her desire was that each society take up the work of teaching its members how to care for the body in case of accidents. The association, now numbering over one hundred thousand persons, is an offshoot of the ancient order of St. John of Jerusalem, founded eight hundred years ago, to maintain a hospital for Christian pilgrims. She says: ‘The method of arresting bleeding from an artery is so easy that a child may learn it; yet thousands of lives have been lost through ignorance, the life-blood ebbing away in the presence of sorrowing spectators, perfectly helpless, because none among them had been taught one of the first rudiments of instruction of an ambulance pupil,--the application of an extemporized tourniquet. Again, how frequent is the loss of life by drowning; yet how few persons, comparatively, understand the way to treat properly the apparently drowned.’ Lectures are given by this association on, first, aid to the injured; also on the general management of the sick-room.
Lady Brassey, with the assistance of medical men, has held classes in all the outlying villages about her home, and has arranged that simple but useful medical appliances, like plasters, bandages, and the like, be kept at some convenient centres.
At Trindad, and Bahamas, and Bermudas, when they stayed there in their travels, she caused to be held large meetings among the most influential residents; also at Madeira and in the Azores. A class was organized on board the Sunbeam, and lectures were delivered by a physician. In the Shetland Islands she has also organized these societies, and thus many lives have been saved. When the soldiers went to the Soudan, she arranged for these helpful lectures to them on their voyage East, and among much other reading-matter which she obtained for them, sent them books and papers on this essential medical knowledge.
She carries on correspondence with India, Australia, and New Zealand, where ambulance associations have been formed. For her valued services she was elected in 1881 a Dame Chevaliere of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
Her work among the poor in the East End of London is admirable. Too much of this cannot be done by those who are blessed with wealth and culture. She is also interested in all that helps to educate the people, as is shown by her Museum of Natural History and Ethnological Specimens, open for inspection in the School of Fine Art at Hastings. How valuable is such a life compared with one that uses its time and money for personal gratification alone.
In August, 1885, Sir Thomas and Lady Brassey took Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone, and a few other friends, in the Sunbeam, up the coast of Norway. When they landed at Stavanger, a quaint, clean little town, she says, in the October Contemporary Review: ‘The reception which we met in this comparatively out-of-the-way place, where our visit had been totally unexpected, was very striking. From early morning little groups of townspeople had been hovering about the quays, trying to get a distant glimpse of the world-renowned statesman who was among our passengers.’ When they walked through the town, ‘every window and doorway was filled with on-lookers, several flags had been hoisted in honor of the occasion, and the church bells were set ringing. It was interesting and touching to see the ex-minister walking up the narrow street, his hat almost constantly raised in response to the salutations of the townspeople.’
They sail up the fiords, they ride in stolkjoerres over the country, they climb mountains, they visit old churches, and they dine with the Prince of Wales on board the royal yacht Osborne. Before landing, Mr. Gladstone addresses the crew, thanking them that ‘the voyage has been made pleasant and safe by their high sense of duty, constant watchfulness, and arduous exertion.’ While he admires the ‘rare knowledge of practical seamanship of Sir Thomas Brassey,’ and thanks both him and his wife for their ‘genial and generous hospitality,’ he does not forget the sailors, for whom he ‘wishes health and happiness,’ and ‘prays that God may speed you in all you undertake.’ Lady Brassey is living a useful and noble as well as intellectual life. In London, Sir Thomas and herself recently gave a reception to over a thousand workingmen in the South Kensington Museum. Devoted to her family, she does not forget the best interests of her country, nor the welfare of those less fortunate than herself. Successful in authorship, she is equally successful in good works; loved at home and honored abroad.
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Lady Brassey's last voyage was made in the yacht she loved: the Sunbeam. Three or four years before, her health had received a serious shock through an attack of typhoid fever, and it was hoped that travel would restore her. A trip was made in 1887 to Ceylon, Rangoon, North Borneo and Australia, in company with Lord Brassey, a son, and three daughters. While in mid-ocean, on their way to Mauritius, Lady Brassey died of malarial fever, and was buried at sea, September 14, 1887.
Bessie Rayner Parkes
Dr Sophia Jex Blake
Dr Elizabeth Blackwell
Dr Anna Kingsford