With the publication of the uncensored version of We Fought Them in Gunboats, Julia Jones reflects on the book’s author, Robert Hichens, and the role he and others played in…
Julia Jones was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk and spent much of her childhood on board Peter Duck, the yacht that had been built for Arthur Ransome. Her bunk was created from the space where Ransome had planned to store his typewriter — it was the perfect reading spot.
Her father George Jones was a yacht broker and her uncle Jack Francis Jones a naval architect. They’d both been contributing to Yachting Monthly long before Julia and her brothers were born. In fact, if Julia’s mother-to-be hadn’t answered a Yachting Monthly advertisement, placed on behalf of the East Coast Yacht Agency, when she wanted to buy her first small yacht, the next generation would never have come into being.
Peter Duck joined the family when Julia was not quite three, ensuring happy hours spent reading afloat from earliest years. Julia studied English at university and, much later completed a PhD on magazine fiction. She’s been a bookseller, an OFSTED lay inspector, a WEA tutor, and community education organiser. Currently she runs Golden Duck – a home scale publishing business, is editor of The Deben magazine and a co-founder of John’s Campaign (dementia support) – in addition to being YM’s literary contributor.
Her career as an author began with her biography of Essex detective novelist Margery Allingham but it was the return of Peter Duck from a period away from family ownership that gave her the confidence to try writing nautical adventure fiction. The six books of the ‘Strong Winds’ series were the result and there will, eventually, be a seventh.
Meanwhile the chance discovery of a cruise typescript among her late father’s papers prompted a change of course. The date was 1939 and he was 21. With war on the horizon he had joined the RNVSR — the Yachtsman’s Reserve — and found himself on a small motor cruiser, heading for Danzig. This was August 1939! George and another RNVSR yachtsman were photographing German warships and other strategic locations. They were escorted away from German waters before they could reach Danzig.
By the time George got home to Suffolk, war had been declared and his call-up papers were waiting. He sent his warship photos to the Naval Intelligence Department. It wasn’t long before Yachting Monthly also changed, devoting a section of every issue to RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) news. Yachting Monthly’s editor, Maurice Griffiths, had also joined the RNVSR and left his deputy, Kathleen Palmer, coping almost singlehanded for the next six years. She found time to write to George encouraging him to try and get his August 1939 typescript published. But there were more urgent things to think about then.
Just 80 years later Julia’s been researching the lives of some of those other yachtsmen who volunteered for unknown wartime service. Her resulting book Uncommon Courage will be published in spring 2022. It’s been a fascinating project but meanwhile her Yachting Monthly book page postbag offers constant reassurance that the spirit of adventure isn’t dead – and neither is the urge to write and read about completed voyages – whether it’s high latitude exploration or a home waters creek crawl.
Julia still owns Peter Duck, with her husband, writer Francis Wheen. It’s a particular delight to see some of her own children and grandchildren learning to love East Coast sailing. A couple of them have even had contributions published in the magazine….