Before Whale Cay

The other day I was babbling about the wonders to be found among the archives of newsreel studio British Pathé. Case in point: four clips featuring Marion Barbara Carstairs, referred to as ‘Miss Betty Carstairs’ (she herself preferred Joe).

Joe Carstairs, then, born on this day in 1900, was a pioneering speedboat racer, “the fastest woman on water”.  We’ve spoken about her before, inspired by Kate Summerscale’s excellent 1997 biography, The Queen of Whale Cay.

The four Pathé clips, filmed over four successive years, are fascinating not just because they are (to the best of my knowledge) the only footage of Carstairs competing. They also show her at a crucial juncture in her career, moving from triumph to ignominy as the heedless buzz of the 1920s wears off.

In many ways, Carstairs was a larger-than-life embodiment of that decade. After all, as Summerscale says, “Joe loved everything the children of the 1920s loved: speed, machines, fancy-dress parties, treasure hunts, cabaret, nightclubs, cocktails, dancing, motor cars, sex, and — above all — boyishness.” Few of course took boyishness to such lengths. Not for Carstairs a simple page-boy bob and a slim-hipped silhouette; Carstairs could be, and frequently was, taken for a man.

The first clip shows Carstairs in 1928 tearing across Windermere at “over 60 miles an hour!” as the titles proclaim. It was the kind of reckless display that endeared her to the public and the press, whose attention she initially relished.  The following year she’s presenting Estelle IV, the latest weapon in her compulsive drive to go faster on water than anyone ever had – man or woman. This quest would consume huge portions of her inherited fortune.

She returns in 1930 with a new Estelle, but even from this brief clip it is clear that the wind has changed. The 1920s are over, the press has turned on the cross-dressing Carstairs and she no longer seems comfortable in the spotlight, smoking nervously, warily returning the camera’s insistent gaze. Finally, in 1931, comes the humiliation of an accident while competing in Southampton in which she “takes a ducking” as the titles phrase it; the note of relish is unmistakable. She would retire from racing later the same year.

Carstairs was driven from the UK by hostile press (plus some tax issues), but if living well is the best revenge, living well and ruling over your own tropical “kingdom”, as she did on the Bahamian island of Whale Cay, must have been pretty satisfying as well.



  1. jeh2847111

    What would Jo be like if she lived in the insanitarium of the present? She, who was so damned Butch and so embrocated in a gestalt of angst, ambition and dislocated sexuality, exploiting the metaphor of speed with her phallic boat engined as an escape route from the ocean of femina-centiricity she so clearly wished to be released from. She is indeed an archetype refugeed out of an aquatic version of Johnny Guitar seasoned with a heavy dose of Greek Myth. So clearly and naturally masculine, would she have resorted to the lurid ministrations of the surgeons art to realize the surface glissando of maleness, she so clearly sought?

    The speed was real, as well as the danger and the narcissism. As I watched the clip I wanted so much for her to win. She bet the farm and she lost. What a damnable humiliation for her. Jo if you are listening, let me buy you a drink or two or three. Tomorrow we will plot your comeback.

    John Hastings

  2. Do you know if there exists any other footage of Carstairs? I recall once seeing a brief clip (in color) of her swanning about on a sailboat with Dietrich in some documentary or other, but besides that… nothing. These clips were a treat!

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  6. iain carstairs

    Great to see that fi;m footage. I’m a distant relative of hers, another Carstairs.. very nice to see a genuine original so far back in our family history. thanks

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