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Alan John Villiers, D.S.C., Litt.D.
23 September 1903 - 3 March 1982

Alan Villiers, holdings  |  Alan Villiers, bibliography

A service of thanksgiving for the life of Captain Alan John Villiers was held at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on Saturday, 22 May 1982. The Rev Peter Cornwall officiated.The following address was given by Viscount Runciman of Doxford.

We are here this afternoon to remember Alan Villiers, as is fitting, with affection and admiration. He was a fine seaman epitomising the precept of an earlier master, that 'you must know the sea and know that you know it, and not forget that it was made to be sailed upon'. He also wrote books, more than twenty of them and some of them very good indeed. Other men have been fine seamen and written good books, though seldom in so happy a combination; what made Alan unique in his generation was an idea and an achievement quite different from anything that his contemporaries had in mind.

The seeds of it must have been in him from an early age, nurtured by his own experiences in youth and fully developed while he was still a young man. We can perhaps follow its progress by his own.

He was born an Australian, in Melbourne, and went to school there during the First World War. At the end of that war there were still sailing ships trading out of the port and the young Villiers, having no pleasure in his job on land, went to sea in a small square-rigger in the Tasman trade and when that faded in the depression of the early 1920's he made a voyage into the Antartic and then at the age of 21 sailed as a professional seaman for England in a British four-masted barque the Bellands. In the depth of that depression employment at sea, especially in sail, was hard to find, and in the search for it, having landed up in France, Alan lived in a concrete drain pipe with a Finnish comrade at Bassens on the outskirts of the Bordeaux docks, until by some means which lie never fully explained he got a berth in the four-masted barque Lawhill owned in the Åland Islands and at that time the largest merchant ship wearing the flag of the newly independent country of Finland.

Thus started a connection which was to last, on and off, for the rest of his life. The Ålanders who have never numbered more than 20,000 or so, live in a group of small islands in the Gulf of Bothnia, midway between Finland and Sweden. They are Swedish by language and culture, forming a province of Finland but with considerable political independence, and were originally peasant farmers. After the Crimean war, they began to own ships. They started with sailing ships and for nearly a century they stuck to sailing ships, so that between the wars they owned the last great fleet of sail in Europe. Thanks partly to Alan, these ships attracted other writers of varying merit and became almost objects of romance, which must have surprised the Ålanders, who regarded them as a sensible way of making a living, and did not hesitate to change to powered vessels after the war for their greater profit.

Alan's connection with Åland was abruptly interrupted at this stage by a fall from aloft as the Lawhill entered Australian waters, and the same fall put an end to his whole time career in the merchant service. It also started him writing, and he became a successful journalist on the Hobart Mercury in Tasmania. But the sea was there to be sailed over and he combined his two skills by using his Åland connections to make a passage to England in the four-masted barque Herzogin Cecilie and writea book about it. Falmouth for Orders is a classic which has been in print for most of the half century since it was first published.

His work of sailing the sea and writing about it was now under way. In 1928 he and Ronald Gregory Walker took passage in the full rigged ship Grace Harwar during which they made a remarkable film of her which was the first and remains one of the greatest of its kind. Walker died during the voyage leaving Villiers lonely and sad, but at this moment one of the senior executives of the American National Geographic Magazine, moved by the sight of Grace Harwar under sail in the North Atlantic, brought him into touch with the Magazine which led to an involvement lasting for forty years and produced much labour and many commissions for him as a writer.

These quickly brought him into further contact with the Ålanders and enough money to let him buy a stake in the four-masted barque Parma then the largest sailing ship in the world. Astonishingly, for this started in 1931 at the outset of an even deeper depression, the vessel proved profitable and the proceeds of her trading and three books about her launched him into the adventure which was to be the main foundation of his fame.

He bought the Georg Stage, a full rigged Danish training ship of 212 tons gross register, built 52 years earlier of Swedish iron, got Godfrey Wicksteed to take command of her across the North Sea to Ipswich where he transferred her to British Registry under the name Joseph Conrad and then proceeded to sad her with a crew of which half were cadets, most of whom paid a modest sum for the privilege of going round the Horn with him. He was just on 31 years old.

In the next four years he sailed 58,000 miles, one and a half times round the world. Indeed under his command Joseph Conrad was the last full rigged ship to accomplish that circumnavigation. There was nothing new in cadets going to sea to learn their trade as indeed Alan had gone himself. What was new was that these were not budding mariners but destined mainly for other walks of life, and Alan was the first to practise the art of budding character in youth by the disciplines of wind and sea, from which have developed the scores not to say hundreds of sad training schemes which proliferate in the world today - and by no means all of which Alan can have approved of.

For he was not a romantic or a sentimentalist. 'No man', he has written, 'takes to the sea life naturally. The good seaman would be as good or better in other fields'. He was, to use his own words of Joseph Conrad, 'a noble and highminded man with great ideals and determination'. As such he saw something to be done which seemed to him good, and being born at the right time he did it.

He sold the Joseph Conrad when she needed expensive repairs and he had a good offer for her from an American yachtsman. He then made the remarkable and fascinating voyages in the Arab dhows which were still in their prime and which are so excellently described in Sons of Sinbad. H e returned from the last of these in 19 3 9 to find us at war, and went forthwith to serve with notable distinction in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He had married Nancie, herself from Melbourne, in 1940 and, the war over, faced the task of providing for a young family. For a year he was Master of the training ship Warspite for the Outward Bound Sea School at Aberdovey and the next year made that voyage with the cod fishing fleet from Lisbon which produced The Quest of the Schooner 'Argus' and earned him the Camoès Prize and a high Portuguese decoration.

Thereafter though it could not be said that he had abandoned the Merchant Service or sailing the seas - these were the years in which he took the Mayflower replica across the Atlantic without auxiliary power and commanded several square rigged ships for films - he became increasingly involved in maritime matters ashore and especially in the records and history of the last days of commercial sail. He had been appointed a Trustee of the National Maritime Museum in 1948 and remained one for over a quarter of a century as well as serving on other bodies concerned with the preservation of the ships he knew of and loved. Even before becoming a Trustee he had brought about the founding of the Museum's Photographic Archive thus opening a source of historical information not previously appreciated and which has since enriched the Museum by some hundreds of thousands of prints. With characteristic generosity he eve the Museum his personal collection of prints and films, included the classical film of the voyage of the Grace Harwar.

The twin callings of sailor and author must in their nature be arduous and at times uncertain. For many years Alan worked under pressures which could have daunted a lesser man: almost his last, and one of his greatest books The War with Cape Horn was published when he was in his late sixties. His influence on the scope of educating the young, his contributions to the serious study of merchant shipping, of navigation, of shipbuilding, will remain, even to many who may never have heard his name, an imperishable monument.

Let the last word come from Sir Humphrey Gilbert just on four hundred years ago when he was running before a gale off the Azores in the Squirrel of 10 tons. She was, as is recorded, 'neare cast away oppressed by waves, yet at that time recovered; and giving forth signes of joy, the Generall sitting abaft with a booke in his hand, cried out to us in the Hind (so oft as we did approach within hearing) "we are as neare to heaven by sea as by land".'


Revised: 31 March 2012