Alan Villiers’ essay about his first great voyaging and film-making expedition, and the death of journalist colleague, shipmate and friend Ronald Walker

The mizzen of the Grace Harwar with crewmen aloft photographed by Alan Villiers from the ship’s main cross trees. The photo, now in the National Maritime Museum in London, is taken from the Wikimedia Commons

Ronald Gregory Walker was a newspaper reporter on the staff of The Mercury, Hobart. As such, part of his duties consisted in writing up what news there was in the port in a column called, exactly why is not clear, “Shipping Intelligence”. He often used to say that he did not know that shipping had any intelligence ; and in any case no intelligence was necessary in chronicling whatever newsthere was about it.

‘But that is by the way.

‘Ronald Walker was deeply interested in the ships and in all concerning them. He loved the newspaper work too, and knew that city life held no more interesting job. All his young life he had been strongly interested in the sea. Ships and travel, sea and aeroplanes, strange lands – these things moved him. He had a little yacht he called the Murmur, and in her many a happy week-end was spent. He wrote about yachting matters for his newspaper and pottered about the ships that came to port, and his days were pleasant.

‘Hobart, small though it was, had a lovely harbour to which strange ships sometimes came – great steamers, with greenheart bows and slipways cut into their sterns, which were bound upon Antarctic whaling voyages ; big steamers in distress from the storms of the roaring forties; game little crayfishing schooners and, now and again, big sailing ships with timber from the Baltic.

‘He did not care about the big Orient and P & O steamers, carrying to England squatters’ daughters whose money might have been better spent in their own Australia. The spectacle of the big cargo steamers he found interesting but not stirring.

‘But the sight of a great Cape Horn sailing ship deeply moved him.

‘They did not come often to Hobart; when one did, it was with difficulty that he could be prevailed upon to go home. He loved to go across the broad Derwent in his yacht and to lie in the sun on the cliff at Bellerive, looking at the loveliness of Hobart at the foot of its mountain, and at the shipping round its wharves, and to dream. He had ideas; he thought deeply. He was not content to find his ideas and to shape his actions from he read in newspapers, heard other people say, or saw upon the screens of motion-picture theatres.

‘He was very restless. He loved Hobart and was profoundly moved by the grandeur of its surrounding scenery. But he wanted to see the great world outside.

‘One day he conceived the idea making a film of the voyage of a Cape Horn sailing ship. He told me about it – for I was a reporter on that newspaper too – and I said it couldn’t be done. How could we make a film ? I asked.

‘We had no money. We were not camera-men. We knew nothing about the production side of the film industry, and had no chance to learn. I agreed that the subject was a stirring one and that film should be made, but I did not see how we could do it.

‘He said we could. He said there was a moving-picture camera on the market that was almost fool-proof. We agreed, then, that we sh0uld get one of these and practise with it the following year – which would have been 1930 – shipping together in a Cape Horn sailing ship to make the picture.

‘Before we had a chance to buy the camera, we read a letter in the London Daily Mail, written by a Mr C Greene, imploring somebody to make a real sailing-ship film while the chance remained. The letter was a serious thing to us. It meant, although probably no one would take notice of its sound sense, the idea was broadcast. We thought that we should have to set out immediately if we were not to be forestalled. We decided immediately to go.’

This are the first words of Alan Villiers’ essay about filming and sailing on board the full-rigged ship Grace Harwar, along with his friend and colleague Ronald Walker in 1929. The ship sailed from Wallaroo in South Australia, to New Zealand, around Cape Horn, to Queenstown in Southern Ireland (now Cobh), and then on to Glasgow. It was dangerous work, and tragically Walker was killed when a yard fell on him while aloft during the voyage.

The footage they shot eventually became part of the first Windjammer film.

Villiers essay can be downloaded here.

The films are available to watch at the British Pathé website.

My thanks to Chris Brady for pointing this one out. He asks whether Walker’s diaries have survived, and whether they have been published?

One thought on “Alan Villiers’ essay about his first great voyaging and film-making expedition, and the death of journalist colleague, shipmate and friend Ronald Walker”

  1. The National Maritime Museum edited footage shot by Villiers and Walker into a film – Voyage of the Grace Harwar – some years ago. I can’t remember exactly when, but I have a copy on a VHS tape. The footage, as I understand it, had only just been discovered and had undergone restoration. The film was given a soundtrack with an Australian actor speaking the words of Villiers (from the book), with music by yours truly, on various squeeze boxes. The squeezed me into a tiny recording booth in Blackheath while I watched the footage on a monitor and played traditional sea-associated tunes to fit between various bits of the dialogue.

    I think the idea was to put the film on sale in the museum shop. And I have been meaning to get it transferred to a DVD, since VHS players are becoming rather rare these days. The film is 23 minutes long and tells the story of Villiers brilliant foresight to sign before the mast and document the working one of the last great sailships.

    It would be good divide it up and upload it to youtube, but permission would have to be got from the Museum first.

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