At the beginning of the 20th Century, the world seemed unbearably young. It had yet to experience a World War or the Great Depression. Fossil fuels were the future and any new technology was seen as a good thing. It became known as the Gilded Age and it must have been heady times for those who had the cash to enjoy it. And there were plenty of those. One, in particular, was Thomas W Lawson. At one time Lawson was thought to be one of the wealthiest men in America with a fortune estimated at over USD $50 million (over $1 billion in today’s money).
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.