Arthur Ransome, his boats and the Altounyan family

‘Paddling with Peter Duck’, John McCarthy’s  documentary for BBC Radio 4, portrays the boats owned by the author Arthur Ransome and includes extracts read by Kate Taylor from his classic book Swallows and Amazons.

Peter Willis in the Nancy Blackett with John McCarthy

While the broadcast is a portrayal of Arthur Ransome and his boats, it touches on his friendship with the Altounyan family who inspired him to embark on writing the series of twelve Swallows and Amazons books. It is easy to understand this when looking at their photographs.

Family Photo with donkeys

The Altounyan children with friends in Syria.

The girls seem to be Taqui, Brigit and Titty

Could it possibly be Arthur Ransome sitting on the right? He visited the family in Syria in 1932, when he must have been about forty-eight, but was never known to have worn shorts, although it would have been exceptionally hot in the Middle East. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Possibly Arthur Ransome in bow of Peter Duck the boat he took to Syria

Is this Arthur Ransome ? sitting on the bow of Peter Duck in Syria, the chap wearing the same hat and clothes as in the photo above? He took this  dinghy out to Syria as a gift for the Altounyan  children and wrote his novel Peter Duck while he and his wife Evgenia were staying with the family in Aleppo.

Possibly Arthur Ransome in the Altounyan's dinghy Beetle II on Amouk in Syria

Possibly Arthur Ransome sailing Beetle II the Altounyans’ gunter-rigged dinghy at Amouk in Syria

Dr Ernest Altounyan 1935

Ransome’s friend Dr Ernest Altounyan in 1935

Dora Altounyan 1935

Dora Altounyan (nee Collingwood) in 1935

Was Dora the model for Mary Walker, the Swallows’ mother who grew up in Australia?

Roger at Dovedale

Roger Altounyan as a boy

Roger sailing off Peel Island 1978 by Asadour Guzelian

Dr Roger Altounyan sailing ‘Mavis’ on Coniston Water.

Sadly there is no sign of the original Swallow bought at the same time as Mavis by Arthur Ransome and Ernest Altounyan in Barrow-in-Furness, and later sailed by the Ransomes on Windermere.  Mavis was later re-named Amazon by Brigit Altounyan, the youngest of the five Altounyan children, known as The Ship’s Baby.

Brigit seated

Brigit Altounyan as a girl

Brigit married, becoming known as Brigit Sanders and later became President of The Arthur Ransome Society. The original lugsail dinghy Mavis or Amazon can be visited in the Coniston Museum in Cumbria. To read more please click here to see this previous post.

Ernest Altounyan sailing Mavis on Coniston

Dr Ernest Altounyan on Coniston Water with ‘Mavis’, one of the dinghies that inspired ‘Swallows and Amazons’

These unique photographs were recently found in Cheshire by the antiques dealer John Jukes who asked me if I could return them to the Altounyan family. This I have done and show them here by kind permission of Roger’s daughter, Barbara Altounyan. Please do not copy these photos.

To listen to John McCarthy’s  Radio 4 broadcast, please click here

You can read other stories behind ‘Swallows and Amazons’ here:

Author: Sophie Neville

Writer and charity fundraiser

24 thoughts on “Arthur Ransome, his boats and the Altounyan family”

  1. Hello Sophie – Gorgeous photos!
    Your readers might like to look at an online piece that I wrote a few years ago, after a dual adventure (partly with Alan Hakim) in search of the lake where Ransome sailed Peter Duck (the little dinghy, not AR’s later yacht) with the Altounyan children in what was then Syria in 1932: You’ll recognise the location of some of these photos!

    Alan and I are giving a talk, about our finding of the lake and the boathouse in SE Turkey, at the Southern TARS’ Autumn Gathering on Sat 21 November 2015 at 1 pm, at Chidham Village Hall, near Chichester, PO18 8TP. The cost is £5 (£3 for juniors), and there are various other literary happenings; contact the chairman, Iain Khan-Gilchrist, on 07760 454767 and for more details.

    1. Wonderful! I’ll try to make it to Chidham. I could invite Barbara Altounyan.
      Do you think it is Ransome in one of these photos?
      Alan confirmed the location of the gunter-rigged Beetle II.

  2. Hard to say about the Mystery Man; and the two men may not be the same – in photo 2 he’s fatter, and possibly whiskered, and his shorts maybe more elaborate, and his shirt has more of a collar; the hat is a common one, as evident in photo 2. Photo 2 does seem to have a look of him, and I can confirm from having been there that this is taken from right next to the boathouse where they all spent weekends during his visit.
    It would be terrific if you could come to Chidham! My talk won’t be properly illustrated as we haven’t been able to source a PowerPoint projector (Alan’s will be as he has slides and a slide-projector); but I’ll be showing the photos of the boathouse etc from my solo 2nd expedition on a laptop for people to see.

    1. Would you like to add any of these? the originals were very small but I could ask Barbara.

      Do you have any photos of the Ransome’s in Aleppo or other shots of Peter Duck, the dinghy Ransome took to Syria?

  3. Hello Sophie – if we had a PowerPoint projector for 21 Nov I’d certainly say yes! As it is, we’re reduced to bringing a small laptop on which I’ll put my photos (2006 and 1930s) on a circulating slide-show, which interested people can crowd round and watch after the talk; so not an ideal intro to these lovely new photos. Most frustrating, and it would have been a perfect event at which to show the new ones. If you can think of anyone who could lend us one for the day*…. If so, I could quickly incorporate these new photos into my PowerPoint and give everyone a treat.
    * (I live in Lewes and Alan in Havant if delivery of the machine to there would be a possibility)

    And I have a couple of photos of Peter Duck, but completely infuriatingly my email is dead this weekend and I have to wait until Monday to phone the helpline – aarrgh. But once I’m back on email I’ll send you anything that I have. Not a great weekend for hi-tech….. :-/

      1. I am not really placed to judge, but since Taqui’s eyes are so piercing in every photo, I think she was absent from the tennis picture. So I’d say you are right. (Going back to the 5 adults swamping the rowing boat: it’s possible the bespectacled figure is Ernest?)

        1. In, second photo down on the R, you can see a photo of Ernest on land at exactly the spot from where the ‘overloaded boat’ photo was taken. He was a thin chap (and different hat!!) – and I suspect that an Armenian doctor would have been even less likely than AR to bare his legs? We’ll have to put the trail-hounds onto this one……

  4. Magnus’s photo is interesting. I’d been told at some stage, I think by Taqui, that AR had only been to their mountain summer house at Sogukoluk once, and without the children. But at Sogukoluk they had a tennis court (which Alan and I found in 1994), and this looks (from our 1994 visit) like the wall construction and landscape at Sogukoluk……
    My email has returned to life, so I’ve emailed you with the three photos that I have of Peter Duck.

    1. Hi Jill. I hope to see you at Cobnor. AR’s diary ought to record where he was (two or one visits to Sogukoluk), though his details are often very bare. I know a lady who has transcribed all the diaries! She might be interested in helping out.

      1. Good thought about the diary, although (as you say, he’s minimalist) he may not mention presence of children. Genia’s diaries are much more informative. I went to Leeds and read both sets in 1994, so you spur me to rootle in the attic and see if I have any relevant notes from back then. I’ll report back, and if needed we might ask the lady who has nobly transcribed AR’s diaries – many thanks.
        Meanwhile, message for Sophie – I could take the electronic versions of the photos on my laptop to Chidham at any rate, for people to see, if Barbara Altounyan would be kind enough to allow me to show them?
        Magnus – see you at Chidham, I hope!

        1. In In Aleppo Once (2001, Amazon Publications with a postscript by, er, me), p105, letter from AR to his mother: ‘I have been playing tennis with the children every day’, but indicating that he’s in his room in Aleppo; so the photo might be in Aleppo after all. Certainly the photo isn’t right by the Sogukoluk tennis-court, but it might have been by the house (see my photo of the stone wall on p149). The thick plottens……

          1. I’ve been delving through my notes from my 1994 visit to the Leeds collection. Evgenia’s diary has much about visiting the lake area (where the Altounyans had a farm), but the only actual mention of visiting Sogukoluk was on 8 April 1932: ‘Drove with Dora and Ernest to Sogukoluk’.
            Meanwhile, thinking of the 1930s photos of various visitors in this thread, here’s an extract from a letter from Taqui to AR, 28 April 1932: ‘I took Mr. S. [Stolzfus] in P.D. and he waggled the tiller about and when we were going about always said “Say! how do I turn round”. … Mrs. S. fished and caught a very small fish, and Julie fished and caught a large weed!’ Now I may be prejudiced, but the gentlemen 2nd from L in the boat picture (and note the two ladies), and in the front in the on-land picture, somehow encapsulates the visiting American to me, I don’t know why!
            I’ve forgotten exactly when the Ransomes left Syria – certainly in April, and they arrived in UK on 8 May; but were they still in Syria on 28 April so that the solid figure in the boat photo could be AR?
            These are deep waters, Watson…….

  5. I listen with great interest to John McCarthy’s document ‘Paddling with Peter Duck’. My parents had a great friend, Robert Cooper, who owned Lottie Blossom II [I think], and I can remember one day in the 50’s being taken out on with my parents, Robert and his dog Oscar. That wonderful day has stayed with me, I think that is when I knew I wanted to sail. Somewhere there is a photo. How sad that Lottie’s whereabouts are not known.

    1. Thanks so much for writing in.

      You can always go to see the Nancy Blackett, Ransome’s first yacht, currently on the Orwell. At times she meets up with Peter Duck and Annette III, who might have been called Lottie Blossom (I) and belongs to the Chairman of TARS East.

      This post I’ve written about the Teasel might interest you:

      Are you a member of The Arthur Ransome Society?

  6. These photos are lovely and the background information on the Altounyan family is especially interesting. Such an important group of people, and not just from the Arthur Ransome point of view!

      1. That’s the case with a lot of things like photographs or letters. They can come into the hands of someone who just doesn’t recognise their value or importance. Fortunately, that didn’t happen with these.

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