THE financial problems of businesses struggling to survive in today’s pandemic are similar to 90 years ago during the world-wide Great Depression.

International holiday travel suffered a serious decline. Transatlantic shipping companies slashed their fares in a desperate bid to fill their berths.

Scroll through our gallery of pictures above to see more of Islander Gilbert Attrill and his life on a White Star Line ship...

The big liners of Britain, America and Europe teetered on the edge of financial disaster. More ships were tied up in dock than were at sea earning money.

Isle of Wight County Press:

A picture of style - the White Star Line ship, Homeric's first-class lounge. Image courtesy of Anne Grant.

In New York, the harbour fees increased. British liners had to honour their scheduled departure dates for passengers pre-booked to sail for England.

The average stay in harbour was five days and some revenue was earned from sightseers who paid a small sum for a few hours on board. They sampled the type of luxury most Americans could only dream about.

Similar ‘day specials’ happened in England too. Islanders enjoyed such inclusive day trips to Southampton on Isle of Wight ferries, to admire the best of the world’s great liners in port.

The popularity of these may have inspired the next big money-spinner by White Star Line. Their simple innovation started a trend still existing today. It also caused some tension between Britain and America.

White Star introduced special 24-hour, overnight trips out to sea. White Star’s one-day cruise cost £2, within the pocket of New York’s office workers.

By sailing 12 miles outside the US coastline, alcohol could legally be served to ‘dry’ Americans. This new market in taster cruises infuriated America’s alcohol prohibition supporters who called them ‘whoopie cruises to nowhere.’

It all started during America’s Columbus Day bank holiday weekend of October 9-12, 1931.

Working as a waiter on White Star liner Homeric was my grandfather, steward Gilbert Attrill of Haylands, Ryde.

That hectic working weekend for the ship’s crew was, in effect, the first ever ‘booze cruise’ and resulted in sold out day trips.

It earned an estimated £10,000 per trip in tickets, bar takings, food, souvenirs and optional berths for passengers who wanted some sleep before docking to New York next morning. (£10,000 equates to over half-a-million today, an astonishing sum.)

This lucrative trade temporarily staved off White Star’s financial ruin. Their liner Majestic also cashed in on similar trips after Homeric sailed for Southampton.

Isle of Wight County Press:

The White Star liner, Homeric’s “Ship of Splendour” postcard was a popular souvenir on trips. Picture courtesy of Anne Grant.

Cunard, Britain’s other major shipping line, quickly joined in with their great liners Aquitania and Mauretania.

They too profited handsomely and vowed to run more at every opportunity of their “New York to New York” cruises.

If a special relationship existed between Britain and America, it was severely tested in 1931-1932.

Irate US authorities searched for ways to stop England’s “aggressive profiteering” against which America’s ships could not compete because of US Prohibition Laws.

Threats were made that all profits from these jollies should be taxed in the USA. Complaints were made to England’s government, to no effect.

In the end America did nothing, for prohibition had started to lose widespread support.

There was also suspicion that some in positions of power in New York had enjoyed a “whoopie trip” or two!

For Gilbert Attrill, that weekend was a welcome opportunity to earn much needed wages and tips.

Shipping statistics showed that half of Britain’s stewards were unemployed. He had worked ashore for months in New Jersey, as a houseman for a wealthy family called Dwight.

Isle of Wight County Press:

Gilbert Attrill in New Jersey with Will Stant’s sons in the wheelbarrow. Picture courtesy of Anne Grant.

Employed in the same house, as butler, was his friend Will Stant. Gilbert’s childhood neighbour in Haylands, was Nell Baker. Nell married Will and they had sought a new life in America in the 1920s.

Then the 1929 Wall Street Crash and ensuing Great Depression turned the tide of fortune against them.

The cry of ‘America First’ became dominant. Non-Americans (aliens) were removed from many jobs, including domestic servants. Vast numbers of aliens were deported.

Were the Dwights connected to the Isle of Wight? One Dwight believed their name derived from Earl de Wight, others greatly disputed this.

What is certain is during the 17th century the Ark and Dove sailed from East Cowes for Maryland, USA, and Isle of Wight County, Virginia, was named after it’s English ‘parent’ Isle.

This may have been reason enough for Henry Dwight to favour Will and Gilbert, even when the authorities encouraged citizens to inform on aliens so that they could be deported.

Gilbert Attrill eventually managed to join Aquitania in New York and return home to his young family.

Dwight retained Will until Stant was able to get Nell and his sons home to Ryde. The Great American Dream was over.

In Britain, the inevitable financial collapse of our roaring twenties merchant marine resulted in the enforced merger of White Star and Cunard.

Many of their beautiful old ships were scrapped. The new liners that replaced them were the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

Gilbert Attrill got a new job in Yelfs Hotel, Ryde. Having served on “Ship of Splendour” Homeric was his passport to serving hotel guests.

The Great Depression came to an end, as did America’s Prohibition Laws. Some things stayed the same. Special day trips still take place today to view our latest mega-liners, for luxury cruising has enjoyed a revival in recent decades.

Yes, it has been hit by the current world pandemic, but this too will pass. Everything comes around again eventually — even ‘America First’!

Did you read Anne's last article? Historic Schneider Trophy win at Ryde recalled 90 years on

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