Today (August 26) in London History – the jeep that sailed across the Atlantic

The jeep that sailed across the Atlantic ocean took to the road and drove up to London on August 26, 1951. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

We’ve seen it before, we’ll see it again.

Novelty. Spectacle. Eccentricity. Foreigners. All roads leading to London. They’re some of the main notes in the London anthem. 

The great American poet Emily Dickinson speaks of the heft of cathedral tunes and how it oppresses. 

Well, if cathedral tunes have heft and oppress, our London tune – it’s not just one tune, it’s variations on a tune – our London tune gambols, jollifies, effervesces. Does the opposite of oppress. It delights, gladdens, lightens the heart.

When a few of the notes of that London tune waft our way we recognise them immediately, nod sagely, and murmur “there you go, that’s London for you – it’s got London written all over it.”

Ok, let’s cut to the chase.

It’s August 26th, 1951.

We’re down on the Strand. Along with thousands of other Londoners.

And it would be the Strand, wouldn’t it. It’s just so appropriate that it’s the Strand. London isn’t just the home of poetry, London is poetry. 

What I’m on about here – the word Strand comes from an Old English word meaning sea-shore or shore. Today the Strand is a long way from the Thames. But let us not forget, a long time ago the Thames was 50 per cent wider than it is today. It only reached its present proportions when it was embanked in the 1860s. Before the Victoria Embankment came along the Strand was just a stone’s throw away from the much wider Thames. It was the road that ran along on the north bank of the Thames. Ergo its name – the Strand. So, yes, bears repeating, London isn’t just the home of poetry, London is poetry.

And there we are on the Strand, right by Aldwych Station – still there but now one of London’s ghost stations, no longer in use – right by Aldwych Station and here it comes, the Amphibious jeep “Half-Safe” – yes, that’s what the Carlins named it – the amphibious jeep that sailed across the Atlantic ocean.

It was a honeymoon voyage.

Ben Carlin, a mining engineer, was an Australian. His bride, Elinore, was an American. Groom persuaded bride that it would be a good idea to have an engineer honeymoon. Ben said to Elinore, let’s spend our honeymoon crossing the Atlantic in a jeep. Actually, crossing the Atlantic wasn’t the half of it. They went round the world in their amphibious jeep. So, yes, some honeymoon – it’s been described as history’s most insane around-the-world adventure.

Ben bought a Ford GPA – effectively an amphibious version of the ubiquitous U.S. Army Jeep. A vehicle designed to cross streams and ponds.  But not oceans. Ben modified it for ocean travel. Giving a hostage to fortune he named the vehicle-vessel Half Safe. He asked Ford to sponsor them. Ford declined, said the contraption wasn’t half safe. Ben and Elinore set sail from New York in 1947. They got 40 miles and five days out from New York when they had a mechanical failure and had to be rescued. That was the first of six attempts. The first five attempts all went pear-shaped. But Ben and Elinore didn’t give up. For their sixth attempt they set sail from Halifax on July 19th, 1950. Three years after they were married. Theirs was the honeymoon that would not quit. Sixth time lucky. They made it to the Azores after 32 days at sea. Then to Madeira. Came ashore in Morocco. Crossed the Straits of Gibraltar. Motored up through Spain and France to Copenhagen. Copenhagen’s important for our London connection. Then they headed back down to Calais for the Channel crossing. 

In Calais the Carlins were joined by a Belgian friend and the three of them – in the Half Safe – their sea-going and sea-worthy jeep – sailed across to Deal in Kent. They hit a rough patch in the Channel – the notorious Goodwin Sands where more than 2,000 ships have been wrecked – and in fact the Half Safe was in a doubly dangerous position because it was near a wreck. In consequence the Walmer lifeboat went out from Deal just in case – but the Half Safe made it ashore under its own power. Safely ashore, the Carlins motored to London, to the Strand, in their jeep.

And that’s where we and a huge crowd of Londoners greet them on this day, August 26th, 1951. 

I talked about the poetry of their coming along the Strand – the meaning of the word Strand. But there’s not just one strand – sorry – of history there. The word Strand isn’t just an Old English word. It’s also a Danish word. And sure enough, right where we catch a glimpse of the Half-Safe and the Carlins and their Belgian friend – right there you’ve got the two island churches – “island” because they’re in the middle of the road – the two island churches St Mary Le Strand and St Clement Danes. Remember, the Carlins were in Copenhagen before heading down to Calais for the Channel crossing. Copenhagen – St Clement Danes – tenuous you say, as connections go. It doesn’t matter. And – more poetic history in London names – we’re in front of Aldwych Station. Aldwych means old  trading place or old settlement. It’s where Anglo-Saxon London was. Londinium – Roman London – was/is hundreds of yards east. Come the Anglo-Saxons – who after all were out of the forests of northwest Europe – urban they weren’t – they didn’t like cities – the Anglo-Saxons effectively relocated and renamed London. They called it London wych or Londonwich. It was where the Aldwych and Covent Garden are today. It was there because of the terrain. The shore of the Thames – the Strand – was gently sloping there. Whereas further east, Roman London, the Thames banks were steep and vertical. Suitable for the Romans’ deep draft, ocean-going vessels but not for the Anglo-Saxons’ shallow-draft flat bottom vessels. The Strand was a perfect place for them to haul those vessels ashore and hold a river market.

Unfortunately, it was also a perfect place for the Vikings to ram-rod their war boats ashore, jump out and do what Vikings did – rape, pillage, murder. Which is why – you’re getting a quick thumbnail sketch here of hundreds of years of London history – that was why Alfred the Great relocated London back to the old Roman city. You can’t ramrod Viking war vessels ashore where they’re facing steep, vertical banks. So Alfred relocates – to what we call the City today – the historically oldest part, effectively the Roman city. Relocates it and renames it: Londonburgh. Which means fortified place. 

Anyway, to end let’s blow the bubbles of those London notes. An amphibious jeep that’s crossed the Atlantic ocean and the English channel – that’s novel and we know about London’s appetite for the novel. And that jeep that thinks it’s a boat chundering along the Strand. That’s Spectacle – another note in the London anthem. And crossing the Atlantic in a jeep – that’s eccentric. Yes, another London note – London loves the eccentric. And the honeymooners Australian Ben and American Elinore – they’re foreigners. Yup, another note. It’s regularly the case that Londoners take foreigners to their heart. But how could it be otherwise. London’s a city of foreigners, of immigrants. A city founded by immigrants, a city peopled by immigrants. Final note: all roads lead to London. Ben and Elinore coming to London in their amphibious jeep – that was always on the cards.

And here’s the wild card for you – the Half Safe – Ben and Elinore’s amphibious jeep – isn’t half safe – gosh, the way that name lends itself to nuancing – there’s poetry in the very name – the Half Safe isn’t half safe – it’s on permanent display at Ben’s old school, Guildford Grammar School. Guildford. Stockbroker belt. In the London ambit, in other words. And that’s also very London – this town has made a habit – increasingly it’s come in for stick for doing so – it’s made a habit of hoovering up – collecting – gathering unto itself – the world’s treasures. I mean what a great boat day that would make – going to Dulwich College to see the James Caird, the 23-foot whaler that carried Shackleton and his five companions on their epic, open boat, 800-mile voyage across the south Atlantic in the Antarctic winter of 1916. And then on down to Guildford to see the Half Safe.

Final point. The honeymoon lasted eight years. Covered 62,744 kilometres by land and 17,780 kilometres by sea. 

Not just history’s most insane around-the-world adventure – into the bargain history’s most insane around-the-world honeymoon.

And on that note, let’s put ashore on our Today in London recommendation: and what do you say, let’s for once make this little section a fruit salad you can pick at. We were down on the Aldwych so how about a trip down there to go to a concert at St Mary le Strand? Or a concert at St Clement Danes? Or – said it already – how about a trip down to Dulwich College to see the James Caird. And should you feel like it it’s an easy train ride from East Dulwich to Guildford and Guildford Grammar School, the safe haven of the Half Safe. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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