Anne Hailes: Beatrice Grimshaw, the pioneering Victorian Co Antrim cyclist, journalist, author and lone traveller in the South Pacific
Imagine sailing the South Pacific, disembarking at Tahiti in the pearly light of dawn, alighting onto the docks in Papeete the island capital.
The waving palms laden with immense clusters of nuts, bananas with broad green leaves 12ft long, rare stephanotis, tuberose, gardenia and trees with wonderful scarlet blossoms and the smell of coconut in the air...
It was part of an adventure which, in 1904 took this particular 34-year-old traveller through the South Pacific and beyond. She was Beatrice Grimshaw, a woman born into a wealthy linen family living in Cloona House near Dunmurry, Co Antrim.
She was expected to be a model daughter: "I was taught to behave, to do the flowers, to be polite – but not too polite – to young gentlemen, to accept flowers, sweets and books from them but no more."
She was born at a time when Belfast was expanding to become the largest industrial city in Ireland but time didn’t fare well for the family and eventually Cloona had to be sold and it now houses the Colin Neighbourhood Partnership.
At 16 her family moved to Caen in Normandy for a short stay and Beatrice had her first taste of living away from the land of her birth.
Maybe it was the start of her wanderlust, her desire to travel and write. She came back to live in Dublin and applied to the Irish Cyclist, expressing her interest in cycling and journalism.
She did so under the pseudonym 'Belsize' in case they would dismiss the thought of a woman wishing to work for an all-male magazine.
GRAVEL ROADS AND SOLID TYRES
At the age of 23 she was promoted to editor of the sister magazine The Social Review and proved her ability, claiming a world record for a 24-hour cycle by a woman, riding some 212 miles from Dublin to the central plains and back on gravel roads and solid tyres.
"I left my rooms at eleven o’clock at night, rode through the dark alone with provisions packed on the bicycle and an ankle length skirt encumbering my limbs," she wrote.
By 1902 she was working in Liverpool for Cunard and, crossing the Atlantic for the first time, she was hooked on adventure. Being a resourceful woman she had visiting cards engraved calling herself an advertising expert, presented them to the biggest shipping companies who consented to support this young and totally unknown woman as long as she could assure them of newspaper editorial.
No problem, her stories arrived from New York across the South Pacific, she ended up living in Papua New Guinea and eventually died in Australia in 1953.
In the years between, Beatrice travelled where no white woman had gone before; her writing brought the adventure to life, her descriptions entranced her readers.
She stayed with missionaries where possible, ignoring their advice not to travel into uncharted waters and certainly not to ride a horse across Fiji. It all fell on deaf ears...
On the island of Goaribari the lieutenant governor addressed the villagers. He told them to stop eating each other (Beatrice found cookery recipes for the best methods of preparing human food; husbands would kill their wives at will, boil and eat them) and, he said, if they persisted in eating the young people soon the village would die out.
He insisted they were not to kill any white men or women, but to receive them civilly when they came to visit.
HOW DO I KNOW ALL THIS?
Because, with her travelling companion Joyce Brown, seven years ago Diana Gleadhill – librarian, travel writer and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society – did the same journey, walking in the footsteps of the adventurer almost 100 years later.
“I’d been giving a talk in Portaferry sailing club about my waterborne adventures when Jack Foster, professor emeritus of English at Queen’s University, asked me if I’d ever heard of Beatrice Grimshaw.”
Diana was amazed at what he had to say, immediately returned to her home in Killyleagh, called up Google and found Beatrice had published travel books, short stories and 40 novels, two of which were made into films. “I was hooked," she says.
Both women were born in Belfast, both Aquarians, both middle children from linen families and both rode ponies and cycled.
However, when Diana began her research in earnest she found little else.
“But Jack Foster to the rescue again. In his book Irish Novels he discusses her writing and this led to further connections, eventually through much online detective work my meeting up with Hilary Tulloch, a distant cousin of Beatrice, a woman she so admired.
"She agreed her relative’s story should be told as she was a pioneer in several different fields – a cyclist, a female professional journalist and author, a colonial planter in Papua and, most of all, a lone traveller in the Oceanic world.”
Joyce and Diana had many challenges to face and the immensity of it must have hit them as they stepped into a dug-out canoe, sitting on wicker chairs to set off up the Sepik River to the hidden often dangerous villages of Papua New Guinea, reliving the life of Miss Grimshaw as closely as possible, "a wondrously tall journalist carrying a gun and a good camera".
“I wondered was there a man in her life and as a romantic I was delighted to discover there was. She wrote: 'Romance? Yes, such I have never written and never will write. Sorrow and death; a spot in an island graveyard where the mossy marbles rest upon the bravest heart that Papua ever knew.' Before they could married William Little died of tropical fever."
Her resting place in the Roman Catholic cemetery in Bathurst, New South Wales, remained unmarked until January 2017 when Diana was invited to be guest of honour at the unveiling of a plaque on her heroine’s grave.
“It was quite emotional for me being so close to Beatrice’s remains; this remarkable woman whom I had followed across the world at last recognised.”
Shadowing Miss Grimshaw: From Ireland to the South Pacific by Diana Gleadhill is available from Amazon