On Monday 4 July 1887, an elegant steam yacht glided into the waters of Sydney Harbour, having left England the year before. The harbour was alive. Its breezes filled the sails of hundreds of yachts that had turned out in welcome and rustled along the shoreline where a lively atmosphere sprang from the large crowds who had been anticipating the yacht’s arrival for days.
Onboard was Lord Thomas Brassey, future governor of Victoria and founder of the volunteer naval reserves. Despite Lord Brassey’s stature, however, the adoration of the Sydney crowd belonged to his wife, the celebrated travel writer Lady Annie Brassey, and to the vessel itself.
The yacht was the Sunbeam and it had already carried the Brasseys over many sea miles, having completed, a decade earlier, the first circumnavigation of the world by a private steam yacht. Australians and international audiences alike had followed this historic journey through Lady Brassey’s best-selling book, A Voyage in the Sunbeam (1878), which was published in nine editions and seventeen languages. The success of the book had taken its author by surprise and encouraged her to publish three more accounts of the family’s adventures onboard the much-loved Sunbeam.
Familiarity and strong affection for Sunbeam thus preceded the yacht’s arrival into Sydney Harbour that day, inspiring the city’s residents to flock to the water in a scene evocatively described by Annie:
I had heard so much of the harbour that I had fully expected to be disappointed, but it more than fully realized all my preconceived ideas of its attractions… It really was a lovely sight, and my only wish was to be, like the famous bird, in two places at once—namely, where I was, to help to entertain the [Naval] Volunteers and thank them for their warm and kindly welcome, and on shore to look at the dear old ‘Sunbeam’ surrounded by the mosquito fleet, through which she had considerable difficulty in making her way…
Sunbeam was designed for Thomas Brassey by Mr St. C. Byrne and built by Bowdler, Chaffer & Co. at Seacombe, England, in 1874. Poignantly, the yacht was named in honour of Thomas and Annie’s young daughter Constance Alberta who had died of scarlet fever, aged four, the year before.
Her nickname had been ‘sunbeam’.
Named for a family member, Sunbeam itself became the heart of the Brassey family, and was referred to by Annie as ‘our home on the ocean’. The couple’s children joined them on their extensive travels and the family spent many years within Sunbeam’s timbers as they indulged their love of the sea. Certainly in Sunbeam the Brasseys had comforts enough to feel at home on their long adventures. The vessel included a smoking room, a library, marble bathrooms and individual bedrooms. Around 30 crew members, including a doctor, a cook and a chambermaid all worked within the lavish interiors – and probably had their hands full with the family’s growing collection of travelling pets. Two pugs who formed part of the original circumnavigation crew multiplied during that voyage, and were later joined by several monkeys, birds and other specimens collected along the way.
Despite having sailed Sunbeam as far as Turkey, Tahiti, Macao and Japan during earlier voyages, Australia was not included on the Brassey’s itinerary until their 1887 circumnavigation. However they more than made up for this absence by spending a busy four months circumnavigating the country. After arriving at Cape Howe on May 9, Sunbeam followed the western coastline, travelling slowly south to Adelaide and Victoria. The Brasseys not only explored Australian waters, but delved further inland, staying at cattle stations, rolling through the countryside by train and descending into mines to explore their working depths firsthand. Ambassadors as much as intrepid travellers, the Brasseys also gave public lectures – Lord Brassey on naval matters and Lady Brassey on her work with St John Ambulance services (after her visit centres were established in Sydney and Brisbane). During their stay in Sydney the Brasseys explored the city’s public buildings and were escorted through Parramatta, Seven Hills and into the Blue Mountains by Sir Henry Parkes.
As for Sunbeam, moored comfortably and predominantly in Farm Cove during her Sydney stay, people travelled from afar for the opportunity to see the famous yacht and tread upon her decks. Described by ‘The Illustrated Sydney News’ as “a masterful model of what taste and wealth can accomplish”, the Brasseys returned this enthusiasm by hosting many social functions onboard their floating home.
After leaving Sydney in late July, Sunbeam continued her tour of Australia, sailing north to Queensland, stopping often to take in new sights. Of Sunbeam’s four months in Australia, every township, every event, every sunny day and starry night was diarised in detail by Annie Brassey’s pen.
After such a thorough tour of Australia’s developing settlements, and after meeting so many of its citizens, it is perhaps not surprising that there was a great outpouring of grief in Australia at the news of Lady Brassey’s death onboard her Sunbeam, only days after leaving Port Darwin. Succumbing to malarial fever Annie’s body was committed to the deep waters of the Indian Ocean by her devastated husband. Thomas Brassey later organised her diary into its published form, The Last Voyage, to India and Australia in the Sunbeam (1889), and wrote its introduction, dedicated to their children.
My dear children, I might write more. I could never tell you what your mother was to me.
Sunbeam was to retain a connection to Australia beyond the words of Annie Brassey. The vessel returned to Australian waters in 1895 with Lord Brassey, who chose his beloved yacht over other forms of transport when he sailed to Melbourne take up his post as Governor of Victoria. Many years later, in 1915, Brassey, now nearly eighty years old, sailed Sunbeam to Gallipoli where he handed her over for use as a hospital ship. (Incidentally, Brassey believed that the Gallipoli campaign was a ‘huge mistake’.)
Lady Brassey’s popularity as a travel writer did not wane in the years after her death. Her readers devoured her lively descriptions of recently discovered tribes, mysterious islands and strange lands that had, until the Brasseys made world-travel a family holiday, been the domain of fiction writers and explorers.
Sunbeam was in fact the first of three high-profile circumnavigating vessels to visit Australia between 1887 and 1896. The Brasseys were followed soon after by Englishman Ernest Wythers who arrived to an enthusiastic reception in Sydney in April 1892 in his steam yacht St George. Wythers’ journey was also published – in the book The Cruise of the St George RYS to see the world 1891-92, which reads like a Lonely Planet for the wealthy, concentrating on descriptions of hotels, tour guides, local histories, costs, and attractions.
Audiences remained hungry for these descriptions of their earth, their world, which was gradually giving up its secrets to travellers and explorers. This was particularly true of Australians whose enthusiasm for news of the wider world was perhaps eclipsed by the fervour with which they showcased their own burgeoning culture, industries and cities to these international visitors. And for Australians in 1892, as Wythers and the St George steamed away, the most famous circumnavigator of all was still yet to come…
The Brasseys collected some 6,000 different objects and specimens during their travels, many of which now reside in the Hastings Museum, UK.