Royal Geographical Society

Geographical Magazine: How I followed in Nellie Bly’s footsteps

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Magazine of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)

Rosemary Brown: freelance journalist, humanitarian worker and explorer

 As told to Katie Burton; Published in I’m a Geographer  03 Jul 2020

mug shotRosemary Brown is a freelance journalist. In 2014, she followed in the footsteps of American journalist and adventurer Nellie Bly, who carried out a record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889. A book about Rosemary’s trip is due out next year.

‘Last year, two of my lifelong dreams came true. One was to write a book, and the other was to get a Churchill Fellowship. The book is about my trip in the footsteps of Nellie Bly. I maybe didn’t do as much research in advance as I should have, but I’ve learned since that it’s better to get going than to get lost in the research. I did spend some time at the British Library, reading the microfiche newspaper accounts of her trip from the New York World newspaper. My eyes have never been the same.

I’ve always admired these Victorian explorers. I used to read about Gertrude BellFreya StarkIsabella BirdMary Kingsley (they have her hat at the Royal Geographical Society). So they’d always intrigued me. My daughter was 19 at the time, and she won’t like me saying this, but I didn’t really approve of her role models. I just thought, look at what these amazing women were doing, when they couldn’t really do it. It was a man’s world then. Truly.

Nellie_Bly
Nellie Bly redefined the role of women in journalism. In 1889, she set off on a 72-day trip around the world, which inspired Rosemary to trace the journey herself. She chronicles her experiences in her upcoming book.

And so I wanted to do something to put Nellie Bly on the map, and to put female explorers back on the map – the ones from the past and the ones now who just don’t get the same coverage. I thought, I’m not going to rant about it. I’m just going to try to do something.

These women just busted convention. Nellie Bly burst into an all-male newsroom, and she wasn’t welcome, but she excelled. And when she said, ‘I want to go around the world to see if I can go faster than Phileas Fogg’, [the protagonist of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days] they said, ‘No we’re going to let a man go’. And she said, ‘Very well. You send a man. I’m going to the competing newspaper and let’s see who wins.’

So she and I clicked. She was an adventurer. She was a journalist. She pioneered investigative journalism. If she wanted to do it, she just did it. And this is what I think we aren’t doing so much anymore. We seem to be afraid to get out of our comfort zones.

The experience was really great. It’s not the way I like to travel. I don’t like to just go from one place to the other, so that part was quite frustrating. But I had to let Nellie take over. Don’t think I’m bananas, but there were a couple of times when I think she might have helped me. I got stuck in a typhoon in Hong Kong as I was trying to get into China – she went to Canton, which is now Guangzhou. So I thought, what would Nellie Bly do? I just walked down into the typhoon and believe it or not, the trains were running even though Hong Kong was shut down.

Canton_1

Canton, now known as Guangzhou, was one of the places that Nellie Bly visited during her 1889-90 expedition around the world – a trip that would inspire Rosemary Brown to write her upcoming book.

Photo: Royal Geographical Society Archives, Ato Photographic Association

People help you all along the way. And that’s one of the things I say – she believed in humanity. Her colleagues said, if you’re going on this trip, you’ve got to take a revolver. And she said, ‘I don’t believe I’m going to need one’. She didn’t take the camera either which was a drag – there are no pictures.

I thought once I got back and finished up the blog, that would be it. But oh no, Nellie Bly was not through with me. I’ve been able to do talks and we put together the Heritage of Women in Exploration conference – which I believe is the first conference like that ever held at the Royal Geographical Society. I’m also a founding trustee of the Women’s Adventure Expo – a hub for women adventurers. It’s really just about letting people know what women have done and what they’re doing now. If you do what you always do, you get what you always got, so it’s about just getting out there, seeing the horizon.

One of my favourite sayings is ‘leap and the net will arrive’. I’m not leaping so much anymore. But I think if you put yourself out there, things happen.’

CV
1954: Born in Toronto
1976–1983: Journalist for the Lakeland Ledger and the Tampa Tribune
1983: Journalism masters
1986–1989: Lived and worked with homeless women in Soho at the House of St Barnabas
2003–2017: Chair of the board at The Rights Practice
2004–2017: Communications manager at NGOs including The Rainforest Foundation
2013: Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro
2014:  Nellie Bly trip
2019: Churchill Fellowship for work with refugees
2021: Release of Following Nellie Bly: Her Record-Breaking Race Around the World

Originally printed in Geographical, the monthly print magazine of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

A Chain Around the Earth – Acknowledgements

Nellie and her bag“To so many people this wide world over am I indebted for kindnesses that I cannot… thank them all individually.  They form a chain around the earth. To each and all of you, men, women and children, in my land and in the lands I visited, I am most truly grateful. Every kind act and thought, but if an unuttered wish, a cheer, a tiny flower, is imbedded in my memory as one of the pleasant things of my novel tour.” Nellie Bly 1890

I’m with Nellie. My trip couldn’t have been so successful … or even ever happened…without the ‘kindnesses’ shown by so many. I send my heartfelt thanks to the countless people en route who helped me along the way and also to all those who generously donated to UNICEF  through my Footsteps of Nellie Bly page.

Acadia

Acadia

I must first acknowledge the support from my husband David Stanton and daughter Acadia. David helped me design my itinerary, plot the flights and pack my small suitcase so everything fit. Best of all they both believed in what I wanted to do.

My Chain Around the World
UK

WIJlogoAlso on the home front, thank you to Anna Barfield and Janet Goodman for the lovely bubbly send-off at Heathrow. Barbara Richardson, Liz KhanSusan Lacy, Christina Watson, Vicky Webster, Dinah Nichol and Patsy Puttnam also spurred me on, as did everyone in my freelance writing course at City Lit led by Susan Grossman. Alan Taylor contacted our RGS logofriend Nikhil Hirdaramani who introduced me by email to his lovely friends in Colombo. I am delighted that Women in Journalism endorsed my trip and the Royal Geographical Society registered it.  Many thanks to  Michael Blunt, Vice-President of Corporate Communications at oneworld Alliance who asked his airline colleagues en route to offer assistance if necessary. Happy to report that I never needed to call on them because everything went smoothly. Nellie Bly herself travelled with a similar ‘letter of introduction’  from ocean liner officials.

USA

Peat O'Neil (r) and David Stanton at the Newseum, Washington DC.

Louisa Peat O’Neil (r) and David Stanton at the Newseum, Washington DC.

Louisa Peat O’Neil gave me good advice from the start. She’s alwaysnellie-bly-daredevil-reporter-feminist been an inspiration. Back in 1980, she embroidered Rainbow of the Road on my bright yellow backpack and sent me off.  Alice Robbins-Fox, a terrific travel companion who keeps me on track, met me in New York City to share the journey and her birthday. Sally Emery made connections there and helped us plot urban itineraries. Victoria Fulmer offered to come around the world with me…as long as it was on a private jet. Pat Streifel and Vim Maguire helped pave the way. Dolly McCo80days_cover_largey and Arnold Blystone took me to explore Nellie’s birthplace in Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania. Donald and Marilyn Schlief kindly offered their apartment in Washington, DC so we could visit the Newseum that features Nellie Bly. Kristina Heintz‘ birthday card to me featured a dancing girl with the words ‘she could no longer deny the gypsy in her soul.’ Perfect. My trip was enriched by the writing and research of Brooke KroegerNellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist  and Matthew GoodmanEighty Days.

SRI LANKA

The Stapels family and guide at the Royal Botanical Gardens.l

The Stapels family and guide at the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Thanuja Kanchana Camlo Lanka Tours met me at the airport in Colombo and managed to extract my credit card from the machine that swallowed it – rescuing my source of funds for the rest of the trip.

Lakmini, Jevon and Devin Raymond; and Steffi and Moahan Balendra pulled out all the stops to show me the best of Colombo. Nushka Nafeel wrote about Nellie for the Sri Lanka Daily News.

The Stapels family — Bernie, Redda and Julia from Germany — invited me to join them and their guide in Kandy and together we visited the Royal Botanic Gardens that so impressed Nellie.

Adler Hostel (r) in Singapore's Chinatown

Adler Hostel (r) in Singapore’s Chinatown

SINGAPORE

Folks at the Adler Hostel  helped me to map out itineraries taking in all of Nellie’s sites. Stephen Wang at the Your Singapore Tourist Information Office provided tons of history and organised a tour of the Fullerton Hotel with Florence Minjout who shared her knowledge about Singapore in the 1890s.

Windy and I at the Umbrella Seat

Windy and I at the Umbrella Seat

HONG KONG

Sanford Lee, Windy Chiu and Chung of the Hong Kong Tourism Board based at Victoria Gap joined my quest to find the umbrella seat where Nellie rested on her way to the peak. Windy and I trekked to the top and found it!

GUANGZHOU, CHINA

Jenny at the Hilton near Yuexi Park

Jenny at the Hilton near Yuexi Park

With the generous help from the team at the Customs Hotel, I was able to find obscure Nellie sites.  Business man Joe Yang not only gave me directions, but delivered me to the Nanyue King’s Tomb Museum. Jenny at the Hilton Hotel near Yuexiu Park gave me a map, advice and sent me off in the right direction.

JAPAN 

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Yoshihisa and Yoshie Togo in Hakone.

Yoshihisa and Yoshie Togo whisked me off to Hakone with spectacular views of Mount Fuji and Kamakura with the Great Buddha Diabutsu.