The photography of Alan Villiers

Alan Villiers (1903–82)

Alan Villiers on board the 'Grace Harwar'Alan Villiers on board the Grace Harwar, by Alan Villiers, 1929. Repro ID: N61226 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonAlan Villiers was a distinguished sailor, author and photographer with an enthusiasm for life at sea. His work vividly records the period of early-20th century maritime history when merchant sailing vessels or 'tall ships' were in rapid decline. He was appointed a Trustee of the National Maritime Museum in 1948 and founded the Museum's collection of photographs with Dr Basil Greenhill (Director, NMM 1967–83).

Villiers was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1903. He was the second son of the Australian poet and trade union leader Leon Joseph Villiers. He grew up close to the docks watching merchant sailing vessels carrying their cargoes in and out of port and quickly developed an enthusiasm for the sea.

He first went to sea at the age of 15 as an apprentice on board the Rothesay Bay. This barque was one of the few sailing vessels that still traded, operating in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand in a fast-declining age of sail.

Climbing the rigging on board the 'Herzogin Cecilie'Climbing the rigging on board the Herzogin Cecilie by Alan Villiers. Repro ID: N61036 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonVilliers loved the life and learned quickly. He worked his way to able-seaman rating, crewing on various sailing vessels until he had an accident onboard the Lawhill – an old British four-masted barque. Temporarily injured and unable to work as a seaman, he decided to become a journalist. In 1922 he found employment in Tasmania on the Hobart Mercury newspaper.

Before long, Villiers had the chance to go to sea again. When a Norwegian whaling fleet stopped in Hobart on their way to the Ross Sea, he seized the opportunity and joined them as a reporter on the first modern whaling expedition to Antarctica. He sent his stories back using the ship's radio and they were sold around the world. He later expanded them to produce his book Whaling in the Frozen South. After the expedition, he returned to the newspaper office and was soon promoted to senior reporter.

In 1927 Villiers took six months leave from his job and secured passage to Falmouth, England on board the Herzogin Cecilie under Ruben de Cloux. The Herzogin had been challenged to a race by the Swedish barque Beatrice. De Cloux's vessel won the race in a passage that took 96 days and included the discovery of a female stowaway, Miss Jennie Day. The book that Villiers wrote during the passage, Falmouth for Orders was a great success.

After a few months in Europe, Villiers returned to Tasmania, but only for a short time. He and his friend and fellow journalist, Ronald Walker, decided to make a documentary film to record the last of the great sailing ships before it was too late. They signed on with the Grace Harwar, the last full-rigger in the Australian trade, and sailed for England. The voyage was harrowing. Walker was killed in an accident and the second mate had a breakdown as a result. The ship was under-provisioned and the crew developed scurvy. Villiers recorded the experience on 6000 feet of film and later in his book By Way of Cape Horn.

The Watch going aloft on board the ParmaThe Watch going aloft on board the Parma. This photograph was taken by Alan Villiers on the voyage of the Parma in 1932. Repro ID: N61533 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonIn 1931, Villiers became part owner, with the de Cloux family, of the four-masted barque Parma. After two years of profitable running, he sold his shares back to the family and used the funds to buy the Danish ship, Georg Stage, in 1934. Renamed the Joseph Conrad, she became his training ship. With a crew of international apprentices, she set sail to voyage around the world.

Villiers sold the Joseph Conrad in 1936 to a passing millionaire in New York harbour. She is now preserved in the Mystic Seaport Museum.

In 1938 he began an examination of sailing culture in the Far East and spent 18 months on board the Arab dhow The Triumph of Righteousness, sailing to Zanzibar and back. He recorded his experience of this centuries old way of life in Sons of Sinbad. The project ended prematurely due to the outbreak of the Second World War.

During the War, Villiers commanded landing ships and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He married in 1940 and settled in Oxford, England. He continued to travel, write and enthuse about ships and the sea until his death in 1982.

The Alan Villiers collection at the NMM

Photographic archive

The Alan Villiers collection has 20,000 negatives which reflect the great variety of Villiers’ maritime endeavours. These include his time with the Norwegian Ross Sea Whaling expedition in 1923–24; his long voyages under sail in the Herzogin Cecilie in 1928, Grace Harwar in 1929 and Parma in 1932–33; his pioneering work in sail training in the Joseph Conrad; his voyages in Arab dhows; his war service in landing craft; his voyage with a Portuguese cod-fishing fleet and his captaincy of the Mayflower replica built in 1956.

Villiers also recorded a trip in the Grimsby trawler Samarian to the fishing grounds off the Faeroes, the making of the film John Paul Jones (both in 1958) and the Tall Ships Race of 1964 (Lisbon–Bermuda).

Find out more about the historic photograph collection.

A selection of Villiers' prints are available to buy in our online shop.

Film archive

The Museum holds over 150 cans of Villiers' film detailing voyages in sailing ships from the 1930s to the 1960s. Highlights of the collection include Cape Horn Square Riggers, Arab (Kuwaiti) dhows and pearl fishing during the 1930s.

Find out more about the film archive.