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30 April 2024

Travel First-Class with Agatha and Anne on a 1920s Steamship

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Travel First-Class with Agatha and Anne on a 1920s Steamship

Agatha Christie loved to travel and she frequently drew on her personal experiences when writing travel descriptions in her novels. Perhaps the most obvious parallel is Anne Beddingfeld’s fictional sea voyage to Cape Town, South Africa. Anne’s journey is related in The Man in the Brown Suit which was published in 1924, just two years after Agatha completed the same trip.

An elaborate showcase of the British Empire had long been planned but was postponed due to war. It was finally scheduled to be held in 1924 at Wembley. To drum up participation in the event, a committee was formed to visit territories around the world that were under Britain’s influence. The committee included Archie Christie. Agatha made the difficult decision to leave their two-year-old daughter behind with family to accompany Archie on this ten-month-long, around-the-world adventure.

Agatha and Archie sailed from Southampton on the R.M.S. Kildonan Castle. The fictional Anne sailed from Southampton on the R.M.S. Kilmordon Castle. The name figures as one of the earliest puzzles in the story because Anne doesn’t realize at first that Kilmordon is not an actual castle, but a ship operated by the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company Limited.

Union-Castle became an entity in 1900 when the Union Steamship Company and the Castle Mail Packets Company merged. Their main focus was regular service between England and South Africa, a trip that took about sixteen days.

Most of us are more familiar with the big trans-Atlantic ocean liners. Before commercial aviation, ships were the only travel choice for newsworthy politicians, entertainers, and aristocrats, although with the growing middle class, accommodating second- and third-class passengers became even more profitable. During their heyday, shipping lines competed for the Blue Riband speed record while offering ever more luxurious accommodations. The Olympic and her sister ship, the Titanic, are two such examples.

Union-Castle’s ships were not quite as large as those crossing the Atlantic, but they were also luxuriously outfitted to serve well-heeled travelers. Fortunately for Anne Beddingfeld, her legacy was just enough to cover a first-class ticket so she could sail in style and hobnob with the people who figured in the mystery. Since the lower-class passengers had their own dining saloons and lounges, she might never have met Sir Eustace and Mrs. Blair otherwise.

Anne recounts a serious bout of seasickness. The stewardess eventually cajoles her out of the cabin and into a deck-chair with a rug around her knees against the chill and some hot beef tea to sip. By all accounts, Agatha was also a poor sailor and no doubt spent some time recuperating in the same way.

Once she feels better, Anne strolls on the Promenade Deck, plays deck quoits, and even goes to a “fancy dress dance.” “Fancy,” in this usage, is derived from “fanciful,” with partygoers dressing up as fanciful characters, not just wearing the most decorative clothes in their closet. For an example of what this might have looked like, take a look at this bit of film that appears to be a costume parade on a 1920s ship.

Before the merger, the Union Line provided service to South Africa beginning in 1857, with the Castle Packet Company following suit about a decade later. By 1977, however, the Union-Castle Line had ceased to operate. Their glory days were probably in the 1930s with new ships built in the mid-1920s to take advantage of updated technology and to replace ships that were destroyed during World War I.

Many of the Union-Castle ships were requisitioned during the War, serving as armed merchant cruisers and as hospital ships. Eight of them were torpedoed or mined and while lifeboats rescued many, hundreds of people were lost along with the ships.

Similarly, while there were some survivors, more than a thousand people died when the trans-Atlantic Lusitania was torpedoed early in the War. Agatha wrote about this ship, too, in The Secret Adversary, but only briefly. For details about life aboard ship, The Man in the Brown Suit is the better resource. In addition to solving the mystery, you can follow Anne and her fellow travelers as they amuse themselves while also speculating how much of Anne’s experience was that of Agatha herself.

Photo: R.M.S. Kildonan Castle/Wikipedia 
CC BY-SA 4.0

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1 comments on article "Travel First-Class with Agatha and Anne on a 1920s Steamship"

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5/16/2024 8:13 AM

Very good review and very good description of the books.

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This website is the home of the Agatha Christie database as annotated by Kate Gingold, hence the name Agatha Annotated.

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... has been a huge fan of the works of Agatha Christie her entire adult life. Christie's vivid descriptions of picturesque English life in the early-to-mid twentieth century fascinated Kate, but many of the people and places were unfamiliar to her. A writer herself, as well as a researcher and historian with several local history books to her credit, Kate began a list of these strange words and set out to define them. Now, Christie fans like you and all those who come after will be able to fully enjoy the richness of Agatha Christie novels with their own copy of Agatha Annotated.

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