Daphne French – Remembering a pioneering yachtswoman

Today, March 8th is International Women’s Day. To celebrate it, we have a guest blog from David Carroll to recall the life and times of Daphne French, a yachtswoman who lived in Dunmore East during David’s childhood in the 1950s and 60s. David was the son of the Harbour Master, Captain Desmond Carroll, and his mother Freda, and had a front-row seat to much of the seafaring activities of the village.

When I was growing up in Dunmore East, people arriving at the village along the Ballymabin Road would have been familiar with a sign outside a bungalow called ‘Pamir Cottage.’ Many may have wondered what ‘Pamir’ meant and pondered the background of this name. However, I knew all about the famous barque called Pamir, thanks to my father’s seafaring knowledge.

Pamir was a four-masted barque, built in Hamburg in 1905 and owned during the 1930s by the famous Finnish shipping line of Gustaf Erikson for use in the Australian wheat trade. In 1949, Pamir was the last commercial sailing ship to round Cape Horn.  The ship would play a significant role in Daphne’s world of sailing and significantly she named her house in Dunmore East after it.

Daphne French was born in Co. Roscommon in 1905. The French family were Anglo-Irish whose home was Cloonyquin House near Strokestown.  It is said that they were decent landlords, their estate was never subject to land agitation. Daphne’s father was Arthur John St George French, born in 1853. He married Pauline Anna Haddock in 1898 and they lived at Lichfield in Staffordshire, where he served in the Army. Arthur’s younger brother, born in 1854, was the popular, well-loved, and yet sometimes neglected of Irish geniuses – William Percy French or as he was more popularly known, Percy French, songwriter, humourist, entertainer, and painter.

Cloonyquin House near Strokestown, Co Roscommon. Image courtesy of Percy French Society.

The 1911 Census shows Daphne living in Meath Terrace, Bray with her family. Her father is described as a retired military officer. Daphne’s age is given as four years, which surely is an error. Her older sister, Maeve, is noted as being born in Lichfield, Staffordshire.  Interestingly, the family’s governess is named Frances Alcock, who was born in Co Waterford. Edward H Alcock was the harbour master of Dunmore East in 1884 and one wonders if there is any connection?

It may have been living close to the sea that gave Daphne her lifelong love of sailing and the sea. Journalist Lorna Siggins has said that her life revolved around sailing and boats, since, as she said herself, “she read nothing but sailing and adventure books in her childhood.”

In 1935, Daphne French was the owner of a 30-foot ketch Embla. While sailing back into Dublin Bay after a cruising holiday with her friend Betty Parsons, she saw the Pamir entering Dublin Port with a cargo of wheat.

Ketch Embla, built in Southampton in 1908. Drawing courtesy of Irish Cruising Club

On reaching the shore, Daphne and  Betty caught a bus to the South Wall, boarded the Pamir and requested to see the master. They asked to be taken on the ship’s books for the ship’s next voyage – to Australia. They were signed on as stewardesses at one shilling per month. The voyage to Port Lincoln in South Australia took a record seventy-seven days to complete. “The irresistible silent march of the great ship, under 50,000 square feet of canvas, was a fine sensation,” Daphne wrote in her log.

Pamir berthed at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay, Dublin, 1935. Photo: Courtesy of Cormac Lowth.

The arrival of the Pamir and subsequent stay in Dublin Port gave rise to much coverage in newspapers.  An overly descriptive report of her departure on October 10th, 1935, appeared in the Irish Independent on the following Monday and was written by a journalist who was titled ‘J.A.P.’  The article began with a transcription of Masefield’s Sea Fever. Near the conclusion of the report, the two female sailors are mentioned:

On arrival in Australia, the 12,000 miles voyage voyage made by the two female sailors was reported in the newspapers.

Daphne and Betty did circumnavigate the world, but their homeward voyage was on another Erikson four-masted steel barque, the L’Avenir. The following year, (1938) while sailing from Australia to Hamburg, with a cargo of wheat, the vessel radioed her position as 51˚ S and 172˚ E on March 1st, stating ” All well.” She was never heard from again.

Daphne’s arrival home to Ireland was noted in the ‘Irishman’s Diary’ columns of the Irish Times on June 16th, 1937. It noted that she had arrived back in Liverpool on June 5th and had left for a two-week holiday in Roscommon while her yacht was being fitted out in a Ringsend boatyard for a planned cruise.

In 1939, as clouds of war gathered over Europe, Daphne with one crew member and a paid hand embarked on a 2,500-mile cruise, through the Forth and Clyde canal in Scotland, across the North Sea and as far as the Aland Islands, north of Stockholm.  Many of the crew members of the Pamir were natives of the Aland Islands so maybe that was the attraction in venturing that far. This cruise took forty-four days and seventeen nights at sea with twenty-two days spent in port, starting on July 5th, and safely returning to Dún Laoghaire on September 8th. Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1st, and Britain had declared war on September 3rd. In recognition of this epic voyage, the prestigious Faulkner Cup presented by the Irish Cruising Club, was awarded to Daphne.

 Interestingly, Daphne was not the first female sailor to win this prestigious award with that honour falling to Elizabeth Crimmins of East Ferry in Cork in 1934. In more recent times, the award has gone to Co Waterford sailor, Máire Breathnach of Dungarvan, who made a rounding of Cape Horn in 2004.

Map of Embla’s voyage to the Aland Islands, Baltic Sea, July – September 1939. Courtesy of the Irish Cruising Club.

During the war, Daphne was a trainer of women trainees who were drafted to work aboard canal boats, as part of a Ministry of War Transport scheme, on the Grand Union Canal, delivering coal by barge from coalfields around Coventry to the factories along the Birmingham and Fazely canal and down to the docks in London.  

Daphne French on board the barge Cleopatra. Photo: Courtesy of Cormac Lowth.

After the war, Daphne came back to Ireland and moved to Dunmore East, setting up home in Pamir Cottage with its beautifully maintained garden.  

I can remember Daphne French well during my childhood in Dunmore. With my father as Harbour Master, she was a regular and courteous visitor to our house discussing seafaring matters and seeking my father’s advice or opinion on a myriad of nautical issues. She was a distinctive dresser, always wearing blue or navy sailing clothes, denim trousers, a reefer jacket, a knitted hat and sailing shoes. She drove a small ‘bubble car,’ a Messerschmitt. I can remember the distinctive sound of the two-stroke engine as it went up and down the village.

In Dunmore, Daphne sailed Dara, a small 4-ton yacht that was moored near the RNLI lifeboat, Annie Blanche Smith, close to where the Island was in the harbour. She had a circle of friends that crewed with her on short cruises from Dunmore or ones further afield. Paddy Billy Power, the well-respected coxswain of the Dunmore East lifeboat was a great confidant to Daphne, assisting her with the care and maintenance of Dara.

Dunmore East Harbour 1950s.  Dara is moored close to RNLB Annie Blanch Smith. Photo: Courtesy of Brendan Dunne, enhanced by Brendan Grogan.

The 1956 Irish Cruising Club Annual details an account of a cruise made by Daphne and her crew on Dara to the Scillies off Cornwall and back to Dunmore East. 

I can remember on one occasion, Daphne invited my mother to afternoon tea in Pamir Cottage and being an only child, I also went along. It was like a scene from a sea captain’s house in an Enid Blyton Famous Five novel. There were numerous books, ships in bottles, paintings of ships and all sorts of nautical memorabilia decorating the lovely bungalow.

During her time living in Dunmore, Daphne French was the Port Representative for the Irish Cruising Club. This entailed meeting and greeting the visiting yachts of club members and attending to their needs. Each year, she compiled a list of visiting yachts to Dunmore, and this was published in the Irish Cruising Club Annual. Her report in the Annual from 1962 makes interesting reading:

“In spite of gales of wind and rain, sixty-two yachts, sail, and power, visited Dunmore East between May and September. The pier as it was, is hard to recognise. The removal of the stone houses by blasting began in August. They have buttressed the outer wall against the most furious storms for 150 years, and it is difficult to imagine that their destruction could be justified in order to provide a double lane for fish lorries for a limited period- architecturally it is a tragedy.”

D. French.

The sailing activity was much curtailed during the harbour development for a period from the mid-1960s. It was not until the sailing club premises were completed and sailing activity moved to the Stony Cove area, that it flourished again. Unsurprisingly, during this period Daphne sold her yacht. Her active sailing time was ending and in 1966, Pamir Cottage was put up for sale and sold by Palmers from Waterford.  

Daphne spent the last years of her life living in Greystones, Co. Wicklow. She lived a life close to nature, tending her garden and learning to paint watercolours after the style of her Uncle Percy. She fascinated many of her sailing friends with her tales of the sea.

Daphne French died on July 20th, 1995, aged 90 years, and is buried at Redford Cemetery, Greystones. A fitting epitaph from the RL Stevenson poem is written on her grave – “Home is the sailor, home from the sea.”

The assistance of  Brendan Grogan who enhanced the Dunmore East 1950s photograph is appreciated. I also wish to thank Cormac Lowth, Brendan Dunne, John Aylward, Captain Alex Blackwell of the Irish Cruising Club, Mr Berrie O’Neill of the Percy French Society and Karen Poff and June Bow of www.youwho.ie. All assistance for this article is very much appreciated.  Previous related writing by Marine Correspondents Lorna Siggins and WM Nixon were a source of information.

More on the role of women in the area here:

If you liked David’s account you might also like to read another of his stories of growing up in Dunmore East

To receive notice of the blog by email, please complete the form below and hit subscribe