Alan VILLIERS (1903–1982)

Master of square-rigged ships, author, photographer

1A Lucerne Road, summertown

Alan Villiers

Alan Villiers
By courtesy of the Villiers family

Alan John Villiers was born in Melbourne, son of the poet and union leader Leon Villiers and his wife Anastasia. He left home at fifteen to sail on the barque Rothesay Bay plying the Tasman Sea. After gaining some experience as a journalist, he sailed to the Antarctic in the Norwegian whaler Sir James Clark Ross and wrote the book, Whaling in the Frozen South (1925), the first of over 40 books recording each of his adventures and first-hand experience of traditional sailing trades and practices before they passed into history.

In 1928 and 1929 Villiers sailed in the annual ‘grain race’ from South Australia to England, resulting in the books Falmouth for Orders and By Way of Cape Horn. In 1934 he became master and owner of the vessel Joseph Conrad and circumnavigated the globe with a cadet crew, the first of such sail-training initiatives. He sailed with Arab dhows in the Persian Gulf 1938–39, recorded in his book Sons of Sinbad. In 1951 he sailed on a Portuguese cod-fishing four-masted schooner to Grand Banks and Greenland. The resulting book, The Quest of the Schooner Argus, was a resounding success and he was made Commendador of the Portuguese Order of St James of the Sword for services to literature.

In 1956 he co-hosted with Peter Scott a popular BBC series on ships and sailing and in 1957 was selected to captain Mayflower II, a replica of the Pilgrim Fathers’ seventeenth-century ship, on a much publicised voyage across the Atlantic. He also captained square-rigged ships for films, including Moby Dick and Billy Budd and was an adviser for Mutiny on the Bounty. He made a travel lecture film of his own, Last of the Great Sea Dogs, with colour footage of his adventures. His filming of square-riggers battling with mammoth seas around the Horn is unique and still in demand by TV and film companies. His 5000 still photographs form a major part of the National Maritime Museum’s collection at Greenwich and are much used for research.

In WWII he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and was awarded the D.S.C. for bravery in the Normandy Landings where he commanded a flotilla of landing craft. He later took part in the 14th Army landings at Rangoon, Malaya and Singapore. While stationed at Fort William in 1940 he had married fellow Australian Nancie Wills of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Immediately after the war they settled in Oxfordshire and from 1967 lived at 1A Lucerne Road (below).

1A Lucerne Road

Dedicated to maritime heritage, he was a trustee of the National Maritime Museum, chairman of the Society for Nautical Research, and governor of the Cutty Sark Preservation Trust. In Oxford he was invited to be President of the College Barges Trust. He lectured to packed audiences in the USA where he was a celebrity. In 1981 he received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Melbourne. In 2010 an annual Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture on naval topics was established in his honour at Oxford by the Britannia Naval Research Association, the Society for Nautical Research, and the Naval Review.


  • Alan Villiers – Voyager of the Winds, biography by Kate Lance (2009)
  • Australian Dictionary of National Biography, article by Tony Marshall.
  • Footage of the arrival of Mayflower II can be viewed on Pathé News

The plaque was unveiled at 1A Lucerne Road on 6 May 2017 by the Villiers family. The speaker was David Thorpe who had been a crew member on Mayflower II. Among those attending were Capt. Adrian Small who had been Second Mate, Kevin Fewster, Director of the National Maritime Museum, Marietta Mullen formerly of the USA Mayflower Museum at Plimoth Plantation, and Cllr Ray Humberstone, Deputy Lord Mayor of Oxford.

Photographs taken at the unveiling ceremony:

Oxford Mail, 5 May 2017:
‘Proud moment’ for family of adventurer who receives Oxford blue plaque

Oxford Mail, 7 May 2017 (with short video of unveiling):
Tales of the high seas captivate residents at blue plaque unveiling


Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Master of square-rigged ships
Captain of Mayflower II
Writer and photographer of
the last days of sail
lived here

© Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Board


Email: oxfordshireblueplaques@gmail.com