Bright Spark

THE smiling face, partly obscured by the shadow of a sailor’s cap, had always intrigued retired English academic Alasdair Spark.

He’d discovered it amongst his grandfather James Davidson’s photographs, the image a memento of his time captaining the SS Clintonia after World War II.

There’s a hint of mischief about the smile, and being the only crew member with a cap other than the officers wasn’t the only thing that made its owner stand out.

“Our family history includes photographs of my grandfather’s time at sea and we always wondered who the woman in this photo was, as it was most unusual to have women aboard ship,” Dr Spark said.

Digging into conspiracy theories is one of Dr Spark’s academic specialities, so after some investigation he believes he may have uncovered the identity of the mysterious woman.

“I think it must be Anne Jean Gibbs,” he said.

Ms Gibbs was a Fremantle resident who made headlines in 1949 when the Clintonia visited Fremantle to pick up a cargo of grain, her christian name also appearing in the press as Ann or Anna.

The Daily News of July 14, 1949, took up her story: “A 23-year-old Fremantle woman who stowed away at Fremantle on February 5, and travelled to Egypt, Turkey and India before being disembarked at Geelong last week appeared in the Geelong Court today.

“The captain was unable to put her ashore at any of the ports at which the ship called because she did not have the necessary passport.”

• The sailor under the cap Alasdair Spark believes he’s finally identified. Photo courtesy Alasdair Spark.


Ms Gibbs told the judge she’d been to a party aboard the Clintonia and fell asleep, blissfully unaware that Capt Davidson weighed anchor early next morning.

He tried to put Ms Gibbs ashore in Geraldton after she awoke, but the shipping agent told him not to stop, leaving her to undertake the five-month voyage across the Indian Ocean and through the Suez Canal.

The judge was unimpressed, initially fining Ms Gibbs £10 and then giving her a 14-day prison term when she revealed she wouldn’t be able to pay.

The shipping company had asked for a substantial penalty to deter the growing number of stowaways.

Fortunately an employer put up the money and Ms Gibbs was soon released to take up work as a barmaid.

Capt Davidson’s response to the incident underscored the attitudes in the maritime industry that had locked women out for centuries.

“She was my first stowaway and I had the misfortune to have a woman,” he told the Melbourne Herald.

“You can handle a man, but one woman among a crew of 38 presents a very disturbing problem for a sea captain.

“I had to fit up a bunk for her amidships, and she got a good taste of marine discipline that perhaps might be all to her benefit.”

The crew apparently pitched in to buy Ms Gibbs a sailor’s outfit and Capt Davidson signed her on as a supernumerary to the crew earning 1 shilling a month.

The crew member who’d smuggled her aboard was told he would face charges when he returned to England, but he didn’t make the return trip to Australia after falling ill in Bombay.

Dr Spark says he hopes someone in Fremantle might remember Ms Gibbs or recognise her face from the photo.

“I’d love her living family to see it, as I doubt very much they ever have,” he said.

If anyone knows Ms Gibbs or her family (she’d be 97-years-old if still alive), get in contact with us at and we’ll put you in touch with Dr Spark.


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