Islington writer goes on epic world trip in memory of Nellie Bly
PUBLISHED: 07:00 18 November 2015
On November 14, 1889, an intrepid young journalist named Nellie Bly set sail on the Augusta Victoria liner from Hoboken Pier, New Jersey.
The voyage was just the start of an epic 21,470-mile journey around the world that would take her 72 days to complete – eight less than the fictional hero Phileas Fogg, whose journey in Jules Verne’s bestseller Around the World in Eighty Days had inspired her trip.
It was quite a feat for a woman of her time – but then Nellie was no ordinary woman.
A journalist by trade, Nellie had become well-known for her undercover reporting in the US – on one occasion she had even faked insanity in order to investigate reports of brutality and neglect in a mental asylum.
Her record-breaking journey and subsequent book, ‘Around the World in 72 Days’, captured headlines worldwide, and has since earned her the reputation of being one of the greatest female adventurers of all time.
More than a century later, her journey still manages to capture the imagination, including that of Islington-based freelance writer Rosemary Brown, 61, who last year followed in the journalist’s footsteps to mark the 125th anniversary of Nellie’s journey.
“I have always had an interest in women adventurers – especially Victorian ones – and don’t think they get as much publicity as male ones,” says Ms Brown, who lives in Canonbury Park South.
“When I found Nellie on Wikipedia, she just jumped out at me. And when I saw that it was going to be 125 years since she achieved this, I thought I need to do something about it.”
Ms Brown, who has a 20-year-old daughter named Acadia, hopes that more women like Nellie will be revived as role models for young people today.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do this was to put her back on the map so that journalists and women can have her as a role model – instead of people like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Kim Kardashian,” she says.
Setting out on September 6 2014, Ms Brown tried to emulate Nellie’s trip as much as she possibly could.
She began her travels in London, which was Nellie’s first stop after the US – like the journalist, she travelled alone with one small cabin bag.
Because ships no longer follow the majority of Nellie’s sea routes, Ms Brown travelled by air – which inspired her to call the blog that documented her journey: ‘Nellie Bly in the Sky’.
To her dismay, much had changed since Nellie’s voyage.
“The one place that has changed beyond recognition was Yokohama, Japan, a port 20 miles outside of Tokyo,” said Ms Brown. “In 1923, almost everything vanished – swallowed by the Great Kantō earthquake that claimed the lives of 30,771 and injured 47,908.”
Some countries, like Egypt and Yemen, were simply too dangerous for her to visit at the time.
Others, however, were practically untouched.
“Not surprisingly, it was in the poorest country I visited – Sri Lanka – where many of the same places remained intact. It was the only place where I could stay in the same hotel as Nellie did – the Grand Oriental Hotel in Colombo.
But it was her visit to the house of Nellie’s hero, Jules Verne – in Amiens, France – that left the strongest impression on her. In the house, which is now a museum, Ms Brown was able to follow the adventurer’s footsteps through Verne’s salon, study and winter garden.
Nellie’s visit to the novelist’s home had been unplanned.
“When Nellie was in transit between London and France, she received an invite from Jules Verne in Amiens,” Ms Brown explains. “She was only eight days into the trip, and it would mean missing two nights of sleep, but she just couldn’t miss the opportunity.
“Neither spoke each other’s language but they just bonded and he [Verne] followed her trip and sent her a telegram at the end.”
Another highlight for Ms Brown was her visit to the Great Buddha of Kamakura, Japan.
“When Nellie visited, she could climb a ladder inside – straight up to his eyes – and view the surrounding countryside,” she said. “I could only go as far as his belly, but that was exciting enough.”
On one occasion, when Ms Brown arrived in Hong Kong at the same time as a typhoon, she felt as if Nellie herself was guiding her.
“I made it back to my hotel just in time before Hong Kong ‘battened down its hatches’ and all services ceased,” she says. “The next morning, Hong Kong was still closed due to raging winds and rain; but I had to get to Guangzhou, China.
“A strictly time-limited visa meant I didn’t have much choice. So I asked myself what Nellie would do.
“She never took no for an answer, so I didn’t either as I walked out into the storm, battling it all the way to the train station and hoping against hope the trains were still running to Guangzhou.
“They were! Times like that made me feel that perhaps Nellie was guiding me along the way. I think she was.”
On Sunday, ‘Nellie Bly in the Sky’ was published as an e-book and can be downloaded for free from the blog.