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Cruising with the Courtaulds, 1930s style

Dr Andrew Hann, Properties Historian Team Leader, explores Stephen and Virginia Courtauld's global adventures in the 1930s. Owners of Eltham Palace and Gardens in London, the Courtaulds were well known for their lavish lifestyle including international travel, sometimes on their own yacht, the Virginia.

Image: The Virginia
The Virginia

Stephen and Virginia (Ginie) Courtauld of Eltham Palace, were immensely wealthy members of the Courtauld textile dynasty, who led a luxury lifestyle of parties, philanthropy and travel. One of their favourite pastimes was cruising, both on ocean going liners and their private motor yacht, Virginia. During the 1920s and ’30s they travelled all over the world in some style. This exclusive article charts some of their adventures in a bygone era of genteel exploration.

Image: A 1934 portrait of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld with their pet lemur, Mah-Jongg. © Bridgeman Art Library
A 1934 portrait of Stephen and Virginia Courtauld with their pet lemur, Mah-Jongg.
© Copyright: Bridgeman Art Library

International travel in the early 20th century

The early 20th century was the golden era of the luxury cruise liner which was the main means of intercontinental travel before the development of long-distance air routes in the 1950s. Rich and poor alike used liners to cross the Atlantic or reach far flung corners of the globe. Often cargo and mail travelled alongside passenger and shipbuilders and cruise lines competed to build ever bigger, faster and more luxurious ships. Competition was fiercest on the north Atlantic route where White Star Line and Cunard battled it out with German and French competitors. Cunard’s sister ships RMS Lusitania and RMS Mauretania, both launched in 1907, each won the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing. In response White Star commissioned three liners of the ‘Olympic’ class, including the ill-fated Titanic, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1912. During the First World War liners became hospital ships or were used to transport troops, but the post-war recovery was rapid. A number of new liners were commissioned and older ships refurbished. Many of these liners were the height of luxury, including the Queen Mary, launched in 1934, whose lavish Art Deco interiors featured two indoor swimming pools, beauty salons, libraries, a music studio and lecture hall, and telephone connectivity anywhere in the world. Its style is said to have inspired some of the interiors at Eltham Palace.

Images of Machu Picchu from the Courtaulds' South American tour
Images of Machu Picchu from the Courtaulds' South American tour

The Courtaulds as avid travellers

The Courtaulds were inveterate travellers, spending several months overseas each year. During the 1920s and ’30s they could often be found criss-crossing the globe by cruise liner, always travelling first class. In July 1929 they travelled to Quebec in Canada aboard the Canadian Pacific ship, Empress of Scotland accompanied by Ginie’s lady’s maid, Lilian Crome. Their return journey in late September was from New York to Plymouth on the Mauretania, holder of the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing for over 20 years after her maiden voyage in 1907. In late December 1932 the Courtaulds headed to Madeira for a short Christmas break catching a ride on the Union Castle Mail Steamship, Warwick Castle en route to Cape Town in South Africa. During the later 1930s they planned more ambitious extended winter breaks, taking in a different continent each year. Over the winter of 1936/37 they travelled the length of Africa from Alexandria to Cape Town before taking the Dunnottar Castle back to Southampton. Then during the winter of 1938/39, with war on the horizon, they toured South America, arriving back from New York on 6 April on the French liner, Normandie, the largest and fastest passenger ship afloat when she was launched in 1935. Travelling with the Courtaulds in first class were political writer, Sir Arthur Willert and Canadian photojournalist, Gerald Richardson, on his way to photograph King George VI and his family at Windsor Castle. Of their experience on the Normandie, the Courtaulds said in their travel journal:

"The interior of this fine ship gives an impression of immense size – one can hardly see the length of the great gold dining saloon, and there are many spacious rooms and lounges and a beautiful cinema theatre (which provided a welcome pastime). On deck she seems not much bigger that the usual big ship; but there is a good clear sun-deck on top. This we did not use, as the weather was cold and windy; it was not rough, but the vessel rolled sufficiently to necessitate fiddles on two out of the four days at sea. There was no vibration. We had two good cabins each with a bath, the service was efficient, and the food very fair. "

Image: Model of the Virginia (copyright Historic England)
Model of the Virginia
© Copyright Historic England

The Courtaulds’ yachts

As well as travelling the world on ocean liners the Courtaulds also loved cruising on their own yachts. Their first vessel, the steam schooner Eun Mara, was built in 1906 by John Reid of Glasgow and originally owned by Stephen’s elder brother William Julien Courtauld. By the late 1920s, however, Stephen was working with his brother-in-law Captain Wilfred Dowman and designers G L Watson & Co. of Glasgow on a new motor yacht, Virginia. This vessel would combine the graceful design of a steam yacht with the power of a motor yacht, with twin screw diesel engines. Her clipper bow, long overhanging stern and raking masts and funnel drew general admiration. She was built at the Dalmuir Yard of William Beardmore and Co. on the Upper Clyde and launched in June 1930. At 210ft (64m) long with a 29ft 6in (9m) beam, Virginia weighed in at an impressive 712 tons. The interior was roomy and luxurious, decorated in Art Deco style by the Marchese Peter Malacrida, who would later be responsible for the interiors at Eltham Palace. The Virginia could accommodate a crew of almost 30, plus the Courtaulds and up to six guests in some style.

Image: Pictures of Ithaca
Pictures of Ithaca from the Courtaulds' travel album

Cruising in the Mediterranean (1933)

During the summer of 1933 the Courtaulds went cruising around the Mediterranean on the Virginia, keeping a record of their adventures in a neat scrapbook. Accompanying them on this tour were Margy Graham; the banker, Francis Rodd and his wife, Mary; Peggy Sheridan; the naturalist, and authority on spiders, Bill Bristowe; oil executive, Victor Butler and the film producer, Basil Dean, who Stephen had worked with at Ealing Studios. They started their tour at Brindisi in southern Italy, crossing the Strait of Otranto to Corfu, where they walked in the hills and visited the Old Town and Temple of Artemis. Next they visited the island of Ithaca before passing through the Gulf of Corinth, stopping off at Delphi and Corinth, where they saw the ancient walled city and Temple of Apollo. The Virginia then passed through the Corinth Canal, reaching Athens, which the Courtaulds used as a base to visit the Holy Monastery of Daphni, the ancient theatre at Epidaurus and the beach at Cape Sounion. They next took a detour around the coast to Mycenae, before crossing the Aegean Sea, stopping off at Delos, Patmos, Rhodes, Santorini and Melos, and then passing back through the Gulf of Corinth. The tour of Greece concluded with visits to Olympia and Cephalonia, before they headed west stopping off in Sicily, and finally reaching Barcelona around 20 July.

Image: Pictures of Scotland from the Courtaulds' travel album
Pictures of Scotland from the Courtaulds' travel album

Scandinavian & Baltic tour (1934) and Round Britain tour (1935)

In the spring and early summer of 1934 the Courtaulds toured round the Baltic sightseeing in Copenhagen, Malmo, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Konigsburg (now Kaliningrad) and Danzig (now Gdansk) amongst other places. The following year they spent the summer cruising with friends round the coast of Britain. Photographs in their scrapbook show them stopping off at Land’s End in Cornwall and Corfe Castle in Dorset, picnicking in the Scottish Highlands and watching a naval review in the Solent. Virginia Courtauld’s pet lemur, Mah-Jongg joined them on board. Jonggy even had his own miniature deckchair. This was not their first excursion in home waters as there are also photographs of them in the Highlands, at Arisaig on the west coast, close to Mallaig in August 1930 only a few months after the Virginia had been launched. Indeed, Virginia’s first duty had been to host a farewell lunch on the Thames in London for the members of the British Arctic Air Route Expedition on 5 July. Stephen Courtauld was the main sponsor of the expedition which looked to improve maps of Greenland’s coastline, and gather climate data from the interior during the polar winter.

Image: Mah-Jongg the lemur

The South East Asian tour (1937/38)

During the winter of 1937/38 the Courtaulds embarked on their most ambitious expedition yet, a three-month cruise around the South China Sea, visiting Malaya (Malaysia), the East Indies (Indonesia), Siam (Thailand), Cambodia and Vietnam – a round trip of 21,632 miles. They flew to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) on 6 November with friends Leila de Probizer, daughter of a wealthy Italian diplomat, and Terry Bective, an Irish aristocrat and owner of an electrical company that later worked at Eltham Palace. There they were joined by Terry’s wife, Elsie, and George Binney, an Arctic explorer and steel company executive. They boarded the Virginia which had sailed from England in advance. Joining them later at Surabaya in Java was the young writer and adventurer, Freddy Spencer Chapman, who seems to have found the shore excursions rather tame, noting in his diary, ‘How dull we are. We just come here and do nothing’. Stephen Courtauld in contrast found much to hold his attention in the flora and fauna of the islands they visited. ‘We have collected a few orchids from the islands of Java, Bali, Komodo, Flores, Alor and Banda, and expect to get a few more from Celebes and Malaya’ he wrote to his friend, John Gilmour, the Assistant Director of Kew Gardens. These were carefully stored on deck and then sent to Kew on arrival back in England. Some turned out to be undocumented species. The Courtaulds and most of their guests left the Virginia at Portofino, in northern Italy and continued the journey back overland. Chapman stayed on board to work on a book about his travels in Tibet the previous year. The yacht docked at Southampton in early April a few days after the Courtaulds got back to London.

mage: the Virginia at war (Imperial War Museum)
The Virginia at war
© Imperial War Museum

Afterlife of the Virginia

The Courtaulds’ touring was brought to an abrupt halt by the outbreak of war in September 1939. The Virginia was immediately requisitioned by the Admiralty, as were many other private motor yachts, and put to work on anti-submarine patrol following a refit. Returned in a poor state of repair in 1945, she was sold three years later to the newspaper baron, Viscount Camrose. For ten years Camrose cruised extensively on the Virginia, which was regularly refitted and continued to attract a good deal of admiration. By now the Courtaulds had left Eltham Palace, first for Muckairn in the Scottish Highlands in 1944, and then for the Imbeza Valley of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1951, where they built a new house, La Rochelle, in the style of a French chateau. The Virginia by chance ended up in Africa too. In 1957 she was purchased by the President of Liberia, William Tubman for use as his presidential yacht and remained in service until the late 1960s. Sold in 1971 as part of a campaign to clean up corruption she ended her days as a floating casino in neighbouring Sierra Leone until heavily damaged by fire. In 2020 it was reported that the wreck was still in existence and could potentially be rebuilt.

Image: The Map Room at Eltham Palace
The Map Room at Eltham Palace

The Map Room

As a postscript to this story, in 2014 during restoration work at Eltham Palace a series of maps and painted illustrations were uncovered in a small ante-room adjacent to Virginia Courtauld’s boudoir which had always been known as the Map Room. The eleven maps show places all over the world that Stephen and Virginia would have visited during their travels, and the skilfully painted marginal illustrations complement them beautifully – a Komodo dragon beside the map of the south-east Asia, a camel and rider in a desert scene alongside the map of the eastern Mediterranean. It’s likely that the Courtaulds used the decoration in this room as a memento of their travels. Whilst travelling they also kept scrapbooks, and took lots of photographs and cinematic film. Film shows of their holidays in the Italian Drawing Room were certainly a regular feature of house parties at Eltham. The politician, Leo Amery noted in July 1938, ‘After dinner they showed us their last film with wonderful coloured pictures of Bali, which seems in its way a simple little paradise, and of the horrible Komodo dragon; whose flickering bright yellow tongue might well explain the legend of dragons spitting fire.’ Clearly the Courtualds were never happier than when travelling, and found pleasure in sharing their experiences with their friends just as many of us do today.

Image: family exploring a site with the shadow of a jouster on a tunnel wall

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