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Alan John Villiers spent the majority of his life on the ocean and his love and respect of the sea shines through in all his works. Born in Melbourne in 1903, Villiers left school at the age of fifteen to 'go to sea' and made numerous journeys to ports all over the world. His travels took him to nearly every ocean on earth and many times around the notorious Cape of Good Hope and the treacherous Cape Horn.
Alan spent a brief soujourn as a journalist in Hobart, but the sea was soon to lure him back again, when in 1923 he set sail with the first Norwegian whalers to the Antarctic. These adventures of course became the basis for his hugely successful Whalers of the Midnight Sun, but this was not published until 1934. This was the first of his works for children and over the years, Villiers continued to write for both children and adults publishing a total of 38 volumes, eight of which were for children. Villiers' main inspiration for his stories came from from his own life, which from his books, must have been a fascinating one, he also wrote of historic events and great sailors before him. His experiences racing from Australia to England in 1927 in the Herzogin Cecilie against the Beatrice formed the basis of Falmouth for Orders: The story of a sailing race around Cape Horn and his love of history and battles at sea inspired such works as The Battle of Trafalgar.
Falmouth for Orders (1929), is the story of the clipper grain race from Australia to England between the four masted barques - Herzegin Cecilie and the Beatrice in 1928. Alan boarded the Herzegin Cecilie in Port Lincoln, South Australia and they reached Falmouth in England, 114 days later. He was later to record the journey of the four masted grain barque, the Parma along the same route in 1932. Grain Race tells this tale as a day by day account of the Parma carrying 5000 tonnes of wheat from Australia to Falmouth, arriving in just 103 days.
The square-rigged sailing ships of old were a great love of Villiers' life and he spent many years sailing around the world and becoming an expert in their handling. So much so that his skills were often called upon by movie makers, for example, in the re-enactment of the Pilgrims journey to America on the Mayflower. The New Mayflower (1959), describes this voyage and brings a sense of what the journey must have been like all those years before. Give Me A Ship To Sail also tells the story of The Mayflower journey, but also describes Villiers' adventures sailing the Pequod replica for John Huston's film Moby Dick. Way of a Ship (1953), also tells the story of these great sailing ships of the past, 'Being some account of the ultimate development of the ocean going square-rigged sailing vessel and the manner of her handling, her voyage making, her personnel, her economics, her performance, and her end'. Sadly, Alan's ambition of captaining the replica of the Endeavour and retracing the voyages of Captain Cook were never realised, for Villiers died in 1982, in Oxford, having lived in England for many years. His respect for Cook as a sailor however was expressed through his book Captain James Cook (1967?), this was a biographical account of his life and travels, illustrated by numerous maps and black and white drawings.
Villiers also collaborated with other great nautical writers and sailors to produce certain volumes, including Henri Picard, to write of the great bounty ships of France. Here is the story of the great sailing ships of the French merchant marine which sailed between 1870 and 1920. Subsidised by the French people and its parliament as a national asset, The Bounty Ships of France: The Story of the French Cape Horn Sailing Ships tells the story of these three, four and five masted ships.
Famous Captains of the Coral Sea
Villiers' travels took him to virtually every ocean on earth, which inspired him to produce his 'Oceans of the World Series'. This included Wild Ocean - the story of the Atlantic Ocean and the men who sailed it - a geographical and historical account of the voyages and adventures on the Atlantic ocean, beginning with Christopher Columbus. It contains photographs and drawings and information about the men and women who explored the Atlantic, the pirates, the whalers, the shipwrecks and the two world wars. The Coral Sea is a 'history of explorations, outlaws, desperados, runaway whalemen, beachcombers, treacherous wooders, blackbirders and missionaries'. It contains maps drawn by Stephen J. Voorhies and numerous historic photographs, accompanying those of the author. The Western Oceans is also a geographical and historic account of such master seamen as the Phoenicians, the Vikings and Christopher Columbus. The stories of the Spanish Main, the Roanoke mystery, the Jamestown story, the Mayflowers' travels, of privateers, pirates, slavers, whalemen, fishermen, the packet ships, the Mary Celeste and the two world wars. Monsoon Seas (1952) is the story of the Indian Ocean with maps and photographs and tells of 'exploration, battles, shipwrecks and a history of the Indian Ocean as the great spice seaway between Australia, South/East Asia, India and Africa'
Villiers was a man with a great love of life and living, having travelled all over the world. As the above blurb indicates Alan was awarded the DSC for bravery and excellence and travelled in a wide variety of vessels including Arab dhows, square riggers, World War II landing craft and in the nuclear ship Savannah. Sons of Sinbad: The great tradition of Arab seamanship in the Indian Ocean is an account of Villiers travels with the Arabs in their dhows in the Red Sea around the coast of Africa and Arabia to Zanzibar and Tanganyika. It is the story of these great pearl fishers of the Persian Gulf, the life of the ship masters, and of mariners and merchants of Kuwait. His 1930 publication By Way of Cape Horn tells the story of the voyage of the Grace Harwar, to make a motion picture record of life abourd one of the last full rigged deep sea sailing ships. It includes photographs by Villiers and also Ronald Gregory Walker who was killed during the voyage. The book is dedicated 'To the memory of Roland Walker' and contains the following words, 'written about two years before he was buried fromt he poop of the Finnish full-rigged ship Grace Harwar, on the road to Cape Horn'
Villiers also had a great love of youth and of sharing his adventures with them, not only through his books but also in actions. In 1934, Villiers bought the Sqaure-rigged training ship the George Stage, he eventually renamed it the Joseph Conrad and spent the following years sailing around the world with school boys as his crew. The Cruise of the Conrad (1955), describes some of these adventures, which were no doubt truly memorable for all those involved. The Joseph Conrad, a ship of 212 tons, spent 3 years cruising the world from 1934 to 1936, visiting such places as the East Indies, the South Seas, and becoming the last of the full rigged sailing ships to travel around Cape Horn. The Cruise of the Conrad includes numerous photographs, a glossary, a list of crew members, extracts from the log book, charts and plans. Stormalong: The story of a boys voyage around the world in a full-rigged ship is another children's book telling the adventures of the boys on board the Joseph Conrad. It is illustrated by James Fuller with photographs by Villiers and is the story of two of the cadets, nicknamed Stormalong and Hardcase. Making of a Sailor (1938) is also the story of both the George Stage and the Joseph Conrad in photographs. It includes 200 photographs of the 'methods employed on board in the making of youthful sailors'!
Whalers of the Midnight Sun is highly praised as one of the greatest adventure stories produced by an Australian, featuring the unconquerable ocean in a leading role. Although first published in 1934, it wasn't until its re-release in Australia in 1949 that it won the Children's Book Council award for the Best Australian Children's Book of the Year. It is the story of three teenagers gaining work on the first ever whaling expedition to the Antarctic. A younger brother of one stows away and therefore also joins in the adventures. This is an extraordinary book of survival against the bleakest odds, with nature at her most powerful and cruel. For me, who just cannot get enough clothes on in winter! - The thought of walking the ice in Antarctica or plunging into the ocean, or standing in such icey winds, is beyond all belief that anyone even thinks of doing such things - let alone survives! It is a powerful book, one that modern day thoughts of saving the whale must be set aside for, as it is gruesome and shocking. Whalers of the Midnight Sun is the children's version of the 1925 Whalers in the Frozen South, which also tells the story of the 1923/24 Norwegian Whaling expedition to the Antarctic, featuring Alan's own photographs as illustrations.
The Whalers of the Midnight Sun is also unique in that the illustrations by Charles Pont are woodcuts. Even in the 1930's this was a dying art and is almost unheard of today. Illustrations of the different whales and the equipment are to scale and pictures of the landscape and the ships are detailed and accurate. The dark nature of the woodcuts, in their eerie black and white add to the atmosphere of the story, to the overall mood, the harsh conditions, and the men's discontentment.
Saxby (1969, p. 173) comments, 'The reader turns from this powerful story with the conviction that it is not the leaving of life that matters, but its living - and here at last is a theme worth presenting to children.'
List of Works for Children
1934, Whalers of the Midnight Sun, (illus. by Charles Pont), Bles, London, UK. (and Scribner, New York, NY).
First published in Australia in 1949 by Angus & Robertson and reprinted in 1964
1937, Stormalong, (illus. by James Fuller), Scribner, New York, NY. (and Routledge, London, UK, 1938).
1937, The Cruise of the 'Conrad', University of London Press, London, UK.
1939, Joey Goes To Sea, (illus. by Victor Dowling), Scribner, New York, NY.
1953, Pilot Pete, (illus. by H. T. Caldwell), Scribner, New York, NY. (and Museum Press, London, UK).
1953, And Not to Yield, illustrated by Jean Main and David Cobb, Hodder & Stoughton, London, UK.
1959, The New Mayflower, Scribner, New York, NY. (and Brockhampton, Leicester, UK).
1963, The Battle of Trafalgar, Macmillan, New York, NY.
1929, Falmouth for Orders
1930, By Way of Cape Horn, (First published in the US in 1952 by Scribners of New York).
1931, Vanished Fleets, 'Sea stories of ships and men of old Van Diemans' land'. The history of Hobart and Tasmanian ships at sea - the forward gives thanks to all those involved in Villiers' year long search for information. (Reprinted in 1974 and 1975).
c.1934, The Last of the Wind Ships
1935, Sea Dogs of Today
c.1938, Grain Race
1940, The Sons of Sinbad: The great tradition of Arab seamanship in the Indian Ocean, (First US edition produced in 1969 by Scribners in New York).
1949, The Coral Sea.
c.1949, The Set of the Sails, featuring photographs by the author, telling the stories of wind ship vayages on the Rothesay Bay and Bellands. Included in the book are tales of the Sir J C Ross, Garce Harwar and the Joseph Conrad.
1952, The Monsoon Seas: The Indian Ocean
1953, The Way of a Ship
c.1956, Posted Missing: The story of ships lost without trace in recent times, (Revised edition published in 1974).
c.1958, The Story of Louis de Rochemont's Windjammer, 'The story of the Norwegian windjammer Christian Radich, its crew of young cadets and the film it inspired'. (Includes School of the Sea and Sailing a Square-Rigger).
c. 1962, Of Ships and Men
c.1967, Captain James Cook
(Date unknown) The Western Ocean
(Date unknown) A Voyage to the South Seas - illustrated by Geoffrey C. Ingleton
(Date unknown) Wild Ocean
(Date unknown) The War with Cape Horn - featuring maps and illustrations by Adrian Small. This is 'the complete account of the voyages of the great spare-riggers fighting to round the Horn', bringing one hundred years of sailing and trading up to date.
(Date unknown) Ocean - Man's Conquest of the Sea - Which features black and white photographs, maps and illustrations of sea going journeys from ancient to modern times.
(Date unknown) The Navigators
(Date unknown) The Sea in Ships: The story of a sailing ships voyage round Cape Horn - told through Alan's photographs and featuring a plan of a 4 masted Barque.
(Date unknown) The Last Grain Race
(Date unknown) A Seaman's Selection of Great Sea Stories
(Date unknown) Great Sea Stories
(Date unknown) The Quest of the Schooner 'Argus': A voyage to the Banks and Greenland - the story of the Portuguese dory fisherman off the Greenland coast.
(Date unknown) The Cutty Sark: Last of a Glorious Era - Contains an introduction by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh.
(Date unknown) The Bounty Ships of France
(Date unknown) Give me a Ship to Sail - First American edition published in 1959 by Scribner, New York.
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