Freya Perowne


William Robinson Clarke

‘‘Housewife’ on ship’s records turned out to be famous explorer’

1893 - 1993

Share this:

As a married woman, Freya Perowne was recorded on the Empire Windrush passenger list as a ‘household domestic’. It could not have been further from the truth. Under her maiden name, Freya Stark, she was a travel writer and explorer whose achievements would lead her later in life to be made a Dame.

She gave her country of last permanent residence as Italy, which was not quite true as she had most recently been living in Barbados with her husband, Stewart Henry Perowne, the island’s colonial secretary.

The couple were married in October 1947 at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, but it was a disaster. When she boarded the Windrush in 1948, Freya mentioned to several officials that she would not be returning to Barbados, and that she felt the marriage was irretrievable. She never remarried and did not have children.

Freya was born on January 31, 1893, in Paris to English parents who were in France to study art. They separated when she was young and she spent her childhood between Devon and Italy. When she was 13, she lost her right ear in an accident after her hair got caught up in a piece of machinery in an Italian factory. For the rest of her life, she covered her scar with hats or sweeping hairstyles.

During the First World War, Freya worked in Italy for the Voluntary Aid Detachment providing nursing care for military personnel. At the end of the war, having studied Arabic and Persian in

London, she began travelling in earnest, intrepidly exploring the Middle East by camel, pony and mule.

During the Second World War, she worked for the British Ministry of Information spreading propaganda in places such as Yemen, Egypt and Iraq. It was in Yemen that she met Perowne, who was also an explorer and an Arabist.

Freya’s journey on the Windrush had begun in Bridgetown, Barbados, and then to Port of Spain in Trinidad, where she joined the ship. Accompanying her was Nancy Cunard, a member of the famous Cunard shipping family. The two shared a first-class cabin and are said to have complained about the oppressive heat, with Freya describing it ‘as bad as Delhi’. However, she spared a thought for those below decks who were ‘without a breath of air’.

Although her adventures trickled to a halt during her short marriage, she was soon back on her travels, making her final expedition to Afghanistan in 1968 when she was 75.

She wrote more than 20 books on her explorations, illustrated with her own photography, as well as several autobiographical works and essays. When she died aged 100 in Asoro, Italy, on May 9, 1993, her obituary described her as one of the greatest travellers of the 20th century.

Share this: