How a quest for glory led to debt and an embarrassing failure.
This is the story of Guy Eardley-Wilmot’s adventure – that he could never tell.
Nearly seventy years ago, an expedition left London with the aim of bringing glory to Britain, but it brought only disgrace in American eyes. Guy Eardley-Wilmot, born in 1893, spent the last months of his life during 1965 and 1966 in King Edward VII Hospital at Midhurst, Sussex.
Right up to the end of his life, he was still trying to get the story told of one of the strangest expeditions ever to leave these shores. While he was in hospital, Guy Eardley-Wilmot learned that journalist and author Tom Pocock was doing research which covered the expedition. During Eardley-Wilmot’s final months the two men exchanged letters, but at the time Tom Pocock was a war correspondent and unable to get to Midhurst. He passed these letters to me some twenty years ago and my own researches have discovered Eardley-Wilmots scrapbooks of the “Disastrous Cruise of the S.Y. Frontiersman”. This story Eardley-Wilmot was never able to tell because, as he said in his letters “I found it quite impossible to dodge the laws of libel.”
Only one member of the crew survived until 1980 and I was able to meet him. His memories, added to much detective work, enable me to tell a little of the story Guy Eardley-Wilmot would have liked told during his last months.
A large and friendly globe-trotting bachelor who never put down real roots, Eardley-Wilmot was known as “Tiny” to his friends. His famous Admiral father wanted his son to follow him into the Navy, but Guy was too inclined to “bend” any naval cutter he was entrusted with, so by mutual agreement he left the Navy and completed the 1914-18 War as a lieutenant in the Royal Garrison artillery.
Always hankering after adventure, he was attracted by an advertisement in a national newspaper, “Adventurers wanted, small capital essential. Those who wish to see the world and help this country apply 6 Adam Street, Adelphi, Strand.”
Until 1924, when the Americans first achieved it, the first manned flight round the world was a great target. The first British attempt in 1922 had failed in the Bay of Bengal and the two fliers, Norman Macmillan and Geoffrey Malins, had returned to plan another attempt. They had fallen in with the Founder of the Legion of Frontiersmen, Roger Pocock.
He had pointed out that, with the range of the current aeroplanes of little more than 400 miles, the main problem of world flight would be the North Pacific section. There, they would have to cover around 2000 miles of uncharted and almost uninhabited Kuril and Aleutian Islands. If a seaborne expedition went ahead, it could dump stores and leave men along the route. This was to be the plan for the World-Flight Expedition to be run under the auspices of the Legion of Frontiersmen.
Eardley-Wilmot was one of the first to sign on and pay a subscription of £200. The hope was that the investment would be recouped by trading along the route. He traveled to Birkenhead as one of the advance crew of the expedition ship, the re-named “Frontiersman”, once the “Vanduara”, the private yacht of the Coats family. With his naval background, Eardley-Wilmot could see that the single-skinned hull did not make her the ideal vessel for iceberg-infested waters. Besides, the engines were almost worn out.
The ship arrived at St. Katherine’s Dock in the Port of London and was opened to the public from June 7th, 1923. Sir Sefton Brancker, recently-appointed Minister of Civil Aviation, arrived to give the Government’s “moral support” and many uniformed Frontiersmen were in evidence.
The ship had been expensively refitted and looked splendid, but trouble was seething beneath the surface. The expedition had received many promises of support, but little actual money apart from the crew’s subscriptions – and there was difficulty raising a full complement of crew. Also, Eardley-Wilmot was not alone in his opinion that, despite the organizers’ claim that the crew were all officers and gentlemen, the criminal classes were strongly represented.
Fortunately, they had persuaded a number of British companies to donate stores and the ship sailed on Saturday, June 16th amid a blaze of publicity.
It was not until they reached Folkestone that they acquired a Chief Engineer who would stay with the engines (the second engineer had been appointed because he had once worked in a garage). These failed comprehensively off Dover and Eardley-Wilmot saw the Dover piermaster dance like a dervish on the end of his threatened pier while the amateur crew struggled to control the powerless ship. Repairs delayed the expedition for ten days.
The organizers had planned to sail the “Frontiersman” across the Atlantic, but the sails were hopelessly inadequate and the crew unskilled. So, large quantities of expensive coal were consumed. They found one use for the sails and rigged up a sail bath in the tropics. While the crew were enjoying this luxury, one bright spark cut a supporting rope and crew and bath collapsed on to the deck. The bath water flooded the engine room which was directly underneath – no benefit to the elderly engines – and Eardley-Wilmot, whose main duty was as coal trimmer, was not amused.
They put in at the West Indian paradise island of St. Lucia, then an unspoiled island untroubled by visitors. They were met by the Governor, Col. Houston, and some of the crew were invited to dine at his residency. After dinner they moved to the balcony to smoke cigars and look out on the tropical charm OF Castries, the island capital. They were greeted by a spectacular display of fireworks from the ship. Pains Fireworks had donated £150 of fireworks to the expedition for trading purposes. One crew member had got roaring drunk and set them all off – and £150 at 1923 values made a display never to be forgotten by the inhabitants of that island.
When the ship sailed the next day, many of the native residents were in tears to see them go – and so was a crew member with a large hangover. His part in the adventure was over as he had spent the value of his investment!
Great difficulty was experienced in paying the dues through the Panama Canal, and when they arrived at Manzanillo in Mexico they found that the emergency cash tin had been opened and the money stolen by one of the dishonest crew members. This produced problems in paying for the supplies of coal they needed. Eventually a guarantor was found for a cheque. Even then, the coal proved to be largely shale, so a disconsolate and bitter crew docked the “Frontiersman” at San Pedro, the port of Los Angeles.
The Scions of the Nobility
Ahead of the expedition had arrived one Fred Thomson, a man with connections in the infant film industry, whose job for the expedition was to handle publicity. This he had done rather too well and the Americans welcomed the expedition crew as all scions of the nobility – sons of Dukes and Earls!
The crew members were quite overwhelmed. They visited film studios, meeting Douglas Fairbanks and other stars and were given dinner at the Thos. Ince Motion Picture Studios where they watched the filming of a scene from “Anna Christie”. As this showed the flooding of a ship’s engine room, Eardley-Wilmot and some of the others, did not enjoy the similarities.
Meanwhile, frantic cables home had produced no more money. Bills had been pouring in to London and the expedition was deeply in debt. Macmillan and Malins, who were trying to arrange the aircraft, were in a most embarrassing situation.
Into the bay sailed a yacht owned by American millionaire William B. Leeds, a friend of Eardley-Wilmot who crewed for Leeds over many years. Eardley-Wilmot and senior members of the expedition had long discussions trying to persuade Leeds to finance the ship as far as Canada where there was a possibility of full backing. But all the time feeling was growing locally against the expedition. The ship had been given the moorings of the exclusive California Yacht Club for a day or two, and had soon outstayed this welcome.
All hopes of finance collapsed when one day the prohibition officers boarded the ship and broached the rum casks which had been sealed on entry into American waters, to find that they contained only water. The criminal elements of the crew had worked the switch and sold the rum to local speakeasys. The day’s drama was not yet over, for, as soon as the prohibition authorities had left, on to the ship strode U.S. Marshal Bill Finn to nail a writ for debt to the ship’s mast.
The expedition was effectively over. Eardley-Wilmot was one of the first to work his passage home on another ship. The Legion of Frontiersmen had totally disowned the expedition and washed its hands of all responsibility as soon as it found out there was serious trouble.
Guy Eardley-Wilmot set about trying to publicize the disaster and some newspapers took an interest in the matter, but most of the crew were still in prosperous America where they were doing quite well in various enterprises. In any case, two of the most powerful newspaper men of the day, Viscount Burnham and Thomas Marlowe, were strong supporters of the Legion of Frontiersmen, so only “John Bull” waged a bitter attack on the Legion’s treachery and the Government’s ample supply of wordage with minimum actual support.
The probable last surviving member of the expedition told me that the £100 he personally put in was the best investment he ever made. This man became a Prison Governor and told me it was because he became so interested in criminals in that strange crew that he decided to enter the prison service when he returned to Britain.
Guy Eardley-Wilmot never ceased trying to get the true story of that disastrous adventure told and was still working on this during his final illness. The full story of the adventure could almost fill a book and I am pleased to have the well worn albums of Guy Eardley-Wilmot and another expedition member together with the privately published autobiography of the man who became a respected prison Governor.
© Copyright Geoffrey A. Pocock. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in part or in full, without prior permission.