Category Archives: Annie Brassey

The storm after the calm

Emerging from two days of relative peace and tranquility on the train from Saskatoon to Toronto, I am rested and rejuvenated. My priority now being to see Niagara Falls. A few days in Toronto has brought wonderful memories of earlier times in my trip, the markets and area of Chinatown among others. It is also the ideal stop to travel to the falls from.

Once again I am joined by Annie (Brassey) and her journals providing guidance. Having left the ‘Sunbeam’ in Australia I have been travelling solo up until this point, joined again by Annie and her ‘Cruise on the Eothen’ (1872). It’s nice to have some company again.

Arriving at Niagara it was, as I had been warned, a veritable theme park, a concrete mess ‘dedicated’ to the waterfalls and yet brilliantly managing to almost totally obscure them in the process. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Annie, I may very well have taken the same opinion given to me in Toronto when a surprised receptionist looked horrified and said “three days?! that’s far too long”. This was supported by an equally alarmed fellow passenger on the bus from Toronto, herself going to St Catherine’s for the weekend to visit family, who just looked a little disappointed and rather perplexed and spent much of the trip trying to come up with imaginative and alternative excursions for me to take.

Alas, Niagara Falls was a much anticipated highlight of my trip and with Annie as my guide I could not fail to be impressed. She surely was, waxing lyrical, and at length. She also spent about three days there.

I had also splashed out on a room to myself, about thirty minutes walk from the falls at the hostel. I intended to make the most of this. As soon as I arrived I ventured out for a view of the falls. A walk along the river and first sight comes after about twenty minutes, through the Rainbow bridge that connects Canada with the US, a steam of water can be seen as it crashes into the river below.

Niagara Falls, Louise Kenward 2014

Niagara Falls, Louise Kenward 2014

Walking a little further on and the Horseshoe Falls come into view at about the same time it hits you just how disappointing the bits on land are. I held my faith, ignoring everything to the right of me and continued along the river to get the best views of the waterfalls. I remembered that Annie had taken a trip behind the falls and so duly followed suit. It was incredible, to imagine the short distance from my earlier viewpoint and I was actually a part of the falls. As much as you can be without being in a barrel and risking life and limb (for which there is a whole museum dedicated to those who have). Not surprisingly it is the sound of the water, all two million litres of it, every second, as it plummets over the edge, which is most demanding of attention, but there is also an ever so slight vibration throughout the whole of the tunnel which is thrilling if a little unsettling. There are two ‘viewpoints’ of neat squares cut out to stand behind the water, about 10 or 12 feet and from where you can see the blanket of white water and the illusion that it is dancing in many ways as the light plays tricks. It looks metres deep, almost like a solid mass, and impossible to see through. You can then stand outside, at the edge of the falls, looking upwards, and be struck by just how far away you need to be from the water and still get soaked. I came away a little disappointed however, this was not as I remember Annie’s account, although I wasn’t expecting to have to strip and dress in oilskins as she had.

Standing behind the Horseshoe Falls, Louise Kenward (2014)

Standing behind the Horseshoe Falls, Louise Kenward (2014)

'Behind the Falls', Louise Kenward 2014

‘Behind the Falls’, Louise Kenward 2014

Having discovered that the ‘Maid of the Mist’ only runs from the American side, and that the equivalent boat ‘The Hornblower’ does exactly the same thing from Canada, I decided I needed to go to America.

Feeling a little disloyal (Canada does have the best views though), I set out the next day with passport in hand. It may not have been the same bridge Annie crossed but it was, surprisingly a good deal cheaper. She was charged one and a half dollars to cross the suspension bridge. I paid 50 cents (and then a $6 entry fee into the US). It was surprisingly straight forward and America welcomed me.

The ‘Maid of the Mist’ was much more than I anticipated, having been watching it from the land for several hours the day before. Actually sailing up to the falls, along the falls, around the falls and back again genuinely gives you another ‘up close and personal’ perspective of the falls. And, not for the first time, made me worry that I had killed my camera once and for all. The force of the water is palpable when you are so close. Turning from a fairly serene, albeit fast flowing river, at the top of the falls the speed it gathers and amount of water involved as it tips over the precipice is still astonishing.

From the 'Maid of the Mist', Louise Kenward 2014

From the ‘Maid of the Mist’, Louise Kenward 2014

It was only after this that it fully dawned on me, Annie had visited the falls from this side. Her trip was around Canada but the ‘Maid of the Mist’, Goat Island and the ‘Cave of the Winds’ was accessed from here. ‘The Cave of the Winds’ is no longer a cave unfortunately, that has been closed about a hundred years. But there is now a walkway of the same name that takes you around the bottom of the American Falls. Another close encounter, and one I could take rather more at my leisure, or as much as my waterproofs would allow. Again I feared for my camera. My watch got pretty wet here too but both have thankfully recovered.

American Falls, Louise Kenward 2014

American Falls, Louise Kenward 2014

The ‘Cave of the Winds’ was also seen in much better sunlight than had been present the day before. And I saw a rainbow. It was beautiful, and an entire half circle, sitting serenely atop the torrent of activity beneath of splashing and crashing, thundering waters descending as fast as gravity will allow it.

From the 'Cave of the Winds' (Louise Kenward, 2014)

From the ‘Cave of the Winds’ (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Needless to say I was captivated and awestruck. There are places on the boardwalk where you are so close that all you can see is the white froth of the foaming waters above you and heading straight at you. I felt truly immersed and a part of the waterfalls. It is possible to imagine just how punishing a fall from the top would be.

Sunbeam Farm

My journey with Annie sadly left the ‘Sunbeam’ in Australia, with Annie’s ‘Last Voyage’. However, it is not the end of my story with the Brasseys, or with Annie. I pick up again with Annie in Toronto in a couple of weeks time and join her on ‘A Cruise on the Eothen’ through to Nova Scotia before venturing into America.

The ‘Sunbeam’ alas is also in Canada, having lent it’s name to the farm built for Annie’s husband, Lord Thomas Brassey, a few years after Annie’s death. Lord Brassey was involved in various philanthropic ventures, not least in helping to colonise the prairies at the end of the nineteenth century. Settlers had arrived in Saskatchewan and an advert was placed encouraging people to join them. Brassey set up the ‘Canadian Co-operative Colonisation Company’ inviting families to Indian Head where they would have a home and a piece of land, training in farming techniques and support to make a go of it in the new country.

“An advertisement appeared in England early in 1887 encouraging potential emigrants to settle in Qu’Appelle. One of the large farms included in the advertisement was the Brassey Estate. Readers were told ‘Professor H. Tanner, Government Examiner in AGriculture in the Dept. of Science, South Kensington, London, is now engaged in establishing a settlement…Special care will be taken to secure immigrants of exceptionable character and with a practical knowledge of farm life and its requirements…'” (from Qu’Appelle: Footprints to Progress)

“The sudden decision of the authorities in 1881 to run the CPR [Canadian Pacific Railway] along the Qu’Appelle Valley directed the first movement of immigrants to the southern prairies. During 1882 this particular district was one of the great lodestones of that movement. Literally all trails led to the Qu’Appelle” (p27 Echoes of the Qu’Appelle Lakes District, T. Petty)

This should have been a successful venture. Unfortunately with harsh climate and poor management the farm did not succeed. The colonisation did, however, and remains a community today, albeit different from the one envisaged by Lord Brassey 127 years ago.

Sunbeam Farm, Indian Head (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Sunbeam Farm, Indian Head (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Reuniting with Annie

Catching up after all the excitement of reaching Bexhill and I have travelled much of the Australian coastline in Annie’s path, from Adelaide to Townsville. Her descriptions of the landscape and places visited evoke a lovely sense of the country as it was, very much in development, capturing a sense of the attitudes and values of the day. From Annie’s perspective at least.  Some attitudes don’t always seem that distant.

“Working men in the colonies have a good time if they can only keep sober and are honest and industrious. Indeed those in the old country can scarcely form an idea of how superior the working man’s condition is out here. Of course there are quite as many ne’er-do-wells here as in the old country, and I fear that the policy of the Government rather encourages this class, and that there is trouble in store in the near future…”

Annie’s experience of rail travel is a little more different, however, I haven’t had any galloping horses when I’ve been late for a train

“We waited until a quarter to seven, and then, as our proffered escort did not turn up, we had to go to the station without it, for fear of missing the train. Five gallant members of the troop joined us on the way. The commanding officer wore blue dress uniform, and the others were in scarlet. It was amusing, on our way to the station, to see the late comers galloping furiously along the road…” (The Last Voyage, Lady Brassey)

Sunlander leaving Maryborough West for Cairns (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Sunlander leaving Maryborough West for Cairns (Louise Kenward, 2014)

One of the most striking practices in Australia which hasn’t altered since Annie’s visit, is the way that each state has their own Governments, their own laws, their own way of doing things. This is a little disconcerting for visitors, but does help to make sense of some of the peculiarities I have come across. This was especially surprising with regards to train travel (I had naively assumed it would be the one company I would deal with travelling around the one country). When Annie travelled by train from New South Wales into Queensland she had to walk through a fence, crossing the border on foot.

At Wallangarra “…we left the train and stepped through the rail fence which divides New South Wales from Queensland. A walk of about 200 yards brought us to the Queensland train, where we found a comfortable carriage prepared for our reception…” (The Last Voyage, Annie Brassey).

From there she travelled to Tawoomba on the rail line running alongside what is now the New England Highway, linking Sydney and Brisbane. The line has ceased use in recent years, although the station on the border is now kept as a museum. Alas, there is still no connecting train service from New South Wales to Queensland. Instead, a convoluted bus connection will travel from Casino to Brisbane. Given the penchant for gambling Australia has, and the chances you take in deciphering the bus timetables, Casino seems entirely appropriately named. I had been looking forward to trying to find the point at which Annie crossed through the fencing on the border, but it is some distance further inland. The train service today runs more or less along the East coast. Again it does seem that it has not altered significantly since the end of the nineteenth century in many respects. While this does add to its charm for the most part, it has made being stranded in Townsville following cyclone Ita all the more frustrating, as I am trying to rebook a train north to Cairns for the third time in as many days.

Sunlander, last stop Townsville (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Sunlander, last stop Townsville (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Sailing through the Whitsunday straits and around the islands last week. (Louise KEnward, 2014)

Sailing through the Whitsunday passage and around the islands last week. (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Whitsunday sailing (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Whitsunday sailing (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Sydney Harbour Bridge by night (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Sydney Harbour Bridge by night (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Great Ocean Road (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Great Ocean Road (Louise Kenward, 2014)

State Library, Adelaide (Louise Kenward, 2014)

State Library, Adelaide (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Travelling from Adelaide to Melbourne, Sydney and on to Brisbane, sailing through the Whitsunday Islands and on up to Townsville, I have crossed Annie’s journey at each point. Lord and Lady Brassey enjoyed a very thorough trip of Australia and I am spending about the same amount of time here that they did. What has also been wonderful is the trace left by their journey. In State libraries I have found references to the couple, from books written about Governors and their wives, with fabulously gossipy tales of the women who did not get along, to entries made in newspapers recording their trip and stops made along the way. Regarding the former, it seems that lovely Annie was far more dignified in her diaries than the ‘perfect Governors wife’ Lady Loch, who’s halo rather slipped when she wrote

“‘I never saw anyone give themselves such airs as Ldy Br and they certainly will not be loved in Australia…I think they stir up my bile (especially Ldy B) more than any one I ever met in my life…’ She [Lady Loch] thought Lady Brassey ‘must be mad’ and when she received a gushing letter of thanks decided that she was a hypocrite as well: ‘Tho’ I knew she hated me she signs herself “my very aff-ate!” Lady Loch’s judgement may not have been so harsh had she known that Lady Brassey was suffering from recurrent attacks of malaria…” Colonial Consorts, The Wives of Victorian Governors, Marguerite Hancock (Chapter 9)

On discovering this, I was keen to re-read Annie’s diaries, I didn’t recall a Lady Loch, and am sure I would have remembered this.  However, the best I could come up with was this:

“…we lunched at Government House. After bidding goodbye to HE and Lady Loch, from whom we have received so much kindness…” (The Last Voyage, Annie Brassey, 20th June)

Straight talking Annie remains as dignified as ever!

Combined with re-tracing places visited, identifying locations the Sunbeam docked, and people met, it has evoked a greater sense of Annie’s presence. This shift in time and place was made all the more real when, in the Victoria State Library in Melbourne, the very helpful librarian, Katie, seemed surprisingly knowledgeable of the Sunbeam and Annie, as if she was regularly being asked about this Englishwoman from the nineteenth century. As I made to leave, we chatted more about my trip and the reasons for my interest, at which point Katie tells me that she is in fact a descendent of one of the crew who allegedly ‘jumped ship’ from the Sunbeam. I was utterly awe struck. A very physical connection to the very boat I have been tracking around the globe. Tall story or not this is golden to me. To be so close to the Sunbeam and the voyage I am following, it was incredible. There have been moments in my journey where Annie has felt as though she is just around the corner, and once again I am left wondering just how far away Annie actually is.

Annie’s farewell.

After almost five months, many trains, planes, buses and boats, I have arrived in Australia. It’s a very early morning landing after a short flight over night to Darwin. I am ‘down under’. The water does go down the plug hole the wrong way, and while acclimatising myself (and waiting to be able to check in to my hostel) I am genuinely greeted with a cheery ‘G’day mate’. Cars have stopped to let me cross the road, and of the few people I have seen, I’m the only one who isn’t running. Feeling a little like Alice, I think I may have stepped through the looking glass.

Early morning, Darwin waterfront (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Early morning, Darwin waterfront (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Just a few days here before I cross the desert on The Ghan, and I’m occupied with this being Annie’s last visit and the Sunbeam’s last port of call before she died of malaria while heading home. Annie had been unwell for some time. It was mentioned that she may have contracted malaria at the Madai caves in Borneo, although I have also since read that it could have been the Panama Canal. Either way, Annie had experienced poor health for a considerable time. Despite this, she had continued in many duties regarding the St Johns Ambulance, travelling, entertaining, writing and other Ladyship activities. She wasn’t one to be easily distracted or put off from something (see previous post).

So although this is far from the end of my journey with Annie, it is a punctuation in the trip. At this stage in the Last Voyage Annie’s journal ends. Her son TAB however, also kept a journal and it is this which I refer to in learning of her last days. He writes very personal accounts of life on board the Sunbeam, tending to his mother’s bedside and day to day life as family sit all hoping she will again pull through.

6th September “…Port Darwin is an enormous harbour with arms running in all directions, but it is not pretty as the shores are low with the exception of Table Hill, on which Palmerston stands. They have had some cases of small pox at Palmerston so for fear of being quarantined by Mauritius we determined to hold no direct communication with the shore…
…The railway is already finished for some 25 miles from here and the section as far as the gold fields…should be completed within the year…

…The doctor who came on board to see Mother did not speak very hopefully of the prospect of the Northern Territory…Mother, who was lying on the deck had her long chair turned that she might see them [supplies of coal and food coming aboard]. She has been so terribly weak today that the doctor almost despairs of her pulling through, but in spite of this she insisted upon sorting all the letters and papers this morning…” (TAB Thomas Allnutt Brassey, 16 Months of Travel, 1887).

On the 7th September the Sunbeam started its voyage on to Mauritius.

One week later, on the 14th September, Lady Annie Brassey died. Passing away “peacefully and painlessly” (TAB, 1887).

“…We buried her the same evening at sunset. The body was borne aft to the lee of the gangway by the four oldest hands, Mr Kindred, John Fale, Muston and Mr Jones. The doctor read the service. Father read a few words on her life instead of the lesson, and her body was committed to the deep. Nothing can be more solemn or more impressive than a funeral at sea, and it was a fitting end for her who loved the sea so well. Our great consolation is that we were all with her at the last and that these last days have been so peaceful and so quiet.” TAB 16 Months of Travel, 1887.

Working with the Northern Territory Library, I have been able to trace records of the time which show the outbreak of small pox at Port Darwin and document the arrival of the Sunbeam. The Administrators report for the following year also shows the doctor who attended Lady Brassey, noted by TAB in his journal at the time.

“Unhappily Lord Brassey’s visit here was made under most sorrowful as well as most unfavourable circumstances. The Sunbeam arrived on September 6th with Lady Brassey seriously ill with malarial fever she contracted on the Queensland coast [a third contender!]. …Dr Wood was called into consultation, and thought Lady Brassey’s state of health presented very serious symptoms. As is now well known with deep regret Lady Brassey expired within a week after leaving Port Darwin.

[Due to the small pox outbreak at Palmerston] Lord Brassey did not think it expedient that he or any of the visitors on the Sunbeam should land. I was permitted, however, to have a long conversation with Lord Brassey from my gig, and such information as under these circumstances could be furnished was supplied.” Government Residents Report on Northern Territory for the year 1887.

With thanks to Margaret and Suzy of the Northern Territory Library, Darwin for all your help and for tracking down this report for me.

Gormantong Caves

North East of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) sit the Gormantong caves. One of the sites the rare and much prized bird’s nests of the apparently culinary delight from which bird’s nest soup is made from. Annie Brassey had been very keen to visit these at the time of her visit to what was then Northern British Borneo in 1878. She had been able to visit Madai caves where the swiftlets also nested. Reached more readily by boat, the Sunbeam docked at Darvel Bay from where there was quite some expedition still to reach their destination. The trip is documented well in Annie’s journal and in photographs and sketches made at the time. The nests she brought back from her trip are also still in tact and currently being looked after by the Bexhill Museum. What is also well documented is her desire to reach Gormantong. A good deal further from Darvel Bay, her journal gives the impression that she had already had someone attempt to discourage her from such a venture. Despite this Messers Wilson and Walker were sent to survey the area on foot. Crossing rivers, swamps, jungle and general inhospitable land, they finally reached the caves some days later. Little detail is given about the caves themselves, however, and what they found on their arrival, rather emphasis spent assuring Lady Brassey that it really would be an impossible journey for her. With great reluctance she relents and they move on. This did, however, make me curious to recreate an expedition. Not the travelling through rivers, swamps and jungle, I anticipated that some years later it would be a little easier to get to.

Black bird's nests caves, Borneo "looking awkward" (Lady Brassey photograph collection, with kind permission from Hastings Library)

Black bird’s nests caves, Borneo “looking awkward” (Lady Brassey photograph collection, with kind permission from Hastings Library)

Planning as much as I could from the UK, with time restrictions and a less than clear answer from the internet, I arranged to join a tour that took me overland through Sabah, principally because it included a visit to Gormantong caves. With extra days to spare I still held out hope of reaching Madai but if nothing else, reaching the caves that eluded Annie so, and that she so wanted to visit would certainly be good enough.

Dressed in hard hat and head torch, long sleeves, trousers and fully covered shoes, I embark on my own expedition. A short walk through jungle, the orchestra was playing loudly and jubilantly. No one else was around and I wondered how much the environment had changed from the views that would of greeted Messers Wilson and Walker on their eventual arrival, and how much cursing dear Lady Brassey may have received. Long houses flank the entrance to the caves where equipment is stored for harvesting. A large cavernous opening awaits and I’m warned of cockroaches and falling guano. Nothing could deter me from going in. The central area is very tall with a small opening at the top allowing a small amount of light in, where I could see bats circling. On the ground lay a large mound of guano. Helpfully a walkway had been built around the perimeter so, unlike Annie and her group, I didn’t need to walk through too much goo. Blessed with a cold for this part of the trip my olfactory senses were blissfully hampered. The stench that kept others at bay did not bother me.

Gormantong Caves (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Gormantong Caves (Louise Kenward, 2014)

The atmosphere was cool and dark, taking in as much of the beauty of the caves, the light and the structure of the rock face I was completely absorbed and almost didn’t notice two people sitting in a small wooden hut constructed to one side at the base of the caves. Wardens of the caves, they are careful to protect their valuable bounty. As in awe of the structure and the cave as I was, I’m not sure I’d actually want to live there.

Reaching the sunshine again I’m a bit disappointed not to stay longer, but as with a tour I have to move on. Very very happy to have reached the caves and keen to report back to Annie.

Trains and tiffin

Back on the trail of Annie Brassey, and I’ve made a brief diversion to Borneo. It has temporarily taken me further away from Australia, but having heard a little about Annie’s time here made it a place not to miss. Annie visited the Darvel Valley area (of what was then North Borneo) in search of bird’s nests. It had also been thought that this search through caves had been the place she contracted malaria (surely I had to visit).

The prized bird’s nests of the swiftlets in Borneo are now harvested with a little more attention to health and safety and sustainability than might have been the case when Annie visited. Her photos and journal indicate that the harvesting of bird’s nests was something of a high risk and precarious activity. Albeit for high returns. Darvel Valley is now an area of significant scientific interest and conservation. The white bird’s nest that Annie collected from her visit to the Madai caves is now held at Bexhill Museum. She had also wanted to visit another cave, the Gomantong caves which, after sending a couple of people from the voyage off to do ‘a reckie’ she was eventually persuaded that these were not accessible, she wouldn’t be able to visit. The two men in question having waded arm pit deep through swamps, hacked through jungle and swum not inconsiderable distances to find the caves before turning around to report back some days later. For me, alas, it is the Madai caves which are proving a little more elusive. I have, however, been able to arrange to visit the Gomantong caves later this week. I think Annie would be pleased.

North Borneo Railway (Louise Kenward 2014)

North Borneo Railway (Louise Kenward 2014)

In the mean time, while spending time in Sabah’s capital of Kota Kinabalu I have also been able to get back on the train. A tourist train, it is nonetheless the only stretch of railway in Borneo. It is also advertised as serving breakfast and tiffin. For this alone it is worth the trip. Annie talks a great deal about tiffin. Understandably two of her greatest concerns seem to be where to eat, when, and who with, and where she will be spending the night. I have never ‘taken tiffin’ so am intrigued and looked forward to it with great anticipation.


Vulcan Locomotive, Lancashire (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Vulcan Locomotive, Lancashire (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Arriving at Stesen Tanjung Aru I am greeted by a number of members of staff dressed in pressed cream outfits, long shorts and knee high socks for the men and pith helmets all round. The 1950’s and 1960’s music of the Everly Brothers, The Chordettes ‘Mr Sandman’ and Danny and the Juniors ‘At the hop’ emitting in and around the turn of the century steam engine from  Lancashire (and Japanese carriages) only adds to the slightly surreal sense of time and place. It is not for the first time I consider Kota Kinabalu to be slightly off centre (I was greeted by a life sized horse with a lampshade on its head in my hotel). We are issued with passports, menus and fans before sitting down at designated tables and wait to depart. The tables are all set for breakfast and iced lemon tea is served. As we pull out of the station, a selection of pastries and tea and coffee is distributed. The scenery as we leave the city behind changes to a coastal view with wooden houses on stilts in the sea, before returning inland and watching the change from greenery and rivers to small collections of wooden houses, interspersed with new constructions of brick and metal. Most of Kota Kinabalu is built on reclaimed land, almost 90% in the last 30 years.

Kinarut )Louise Kenward, 2014)

Kinarut (Louise Kenward, 2014)

The first place we stop is Kinarut, a small town which is mostly made up of old wooden buildings and a variety of shops. It all looks a little ramshackle and only adds to the sense of another time. After a short stop we return to the train and our final destination, where we get out again for a stroll around Papar and it’s market. The locals greet us rather bemused. The layers of references to different times, places and periods in history makes it feel slightly disorientating and perhaps the kind of place and time when I might even have bumped into Annie.


Papar, the end of the North Borneo Railway line.


 Passports are stamped and iced tea is served.


Tiffin! Four fabulous dishes served as we leave Papar on the return journey to Kota Kinabalu.

Menu on board North Borneo Railway (Louise Kenward, 2014)

Menu on board North Borneo Railway (Louise Kenward, 2014)