Agatha The Adventuress Transcript

When we think of Agatha Christie, there’s a tendency to recall her as she was later on in her life. A vastly successful author and playwright, comfortably ensconsed in her tweeds and pearls, she glances up at the camera from between two towering piles of books. Her greying hair carefully arranged in elaborate curls, she looks mysteriously off to the side in a dramatic black and white portrait for her book covers. Slightly stooped and arrayed in a shiny frock, she wields a sword to cut a huge cake in celebration of The Mousetrap’s long run on stage.

This was Agatha Christie the celebrity, the record-breaking phenomenon, the brand. She guarded her private life carefully so that her lasting image in the public consciousness has been formed by these relatively few photographic glimpses. In later life, she also begins to share some characteristics with one of her best-known creations — Miss Marple — and there is a temptation to see them as one and the same. Words like adventurous, intrepid and daring aren’t the first that come to mind when describing her.

But the Agatha Christie of forty years earlier, who had come through the strenuous and traumatic experiences of nursing during the first world war only to embark on the new challenges of marriage, parenthood, and a fledgling literary career? She was someone who was prepared, even eager, to take risks and break moulds.

And in 1922, she did just that. On 20th January, she and her husband Archie gave in to the restlessness and dissatisfaction that had plagued them on and off since the end of the war, and set off on a year-long trip around the world. At a time when relatively few people travelled long distances for pleasure, they embarked on a journey that would see them circle the globe and visit places they had previously only dreamed of seeing.

This is the story of Agatha Christie’s grand tour.


Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.


To understand how Agatha Christie came to board a ship at Southampton and travel the world for a year, we need to know a little about her life leading up to that moment.

Agatha had spent the war mostly in her hometown of Torquay, volunteering first as a nurse and then working as a dispenser at the Red Cross hospital there. She and her first husband Archie had married on Christmas Eve 1914 during a brief leave he had home from the war. By the time Archie returned to civilian life in 1918, they had been married for three and a half years but had never lived together and had barely spent more than a few days together in each other’s company. Their relationship had been in a state of suspended animation, something made clear by the fact that even after their hasty wedding Archie continued to address letters to his wife to Miss AMC Miller. Everything had changed, and nothing had changed.

Agatha’s project of the years immediately following the first world war, then, was to begin her adult life in earnest. She had a husband, he had a job, they had a flat, and, after 1919, they had a daughter, Rosalind. Agatha possessed everything that a middle class woman born in 1890 into a conservative, traditional family, should want for a happy life.

And yet. It wasn’t quite clicking. Agatha had published her first book in 1920, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and its success had opened up the possibility of a different kind of life to the one that her mother and grandmother had brought her up to want. Archie was restless, finding his existence as a commuter and an office worker slow and monotonous after the terror and camaraderie of his years of wartime service. So when a chance encounter with a Christie family friend lead to an offer to join something called the British Empire Mission, both Archie and Agatha were intrigued.

This family friend was one Major Belcher, an eccentric and bombastic figure who looms large in Agatha’s accounts of their subsequent adventures. Belcher had been at one point a teacher at Clifton College in Bristol, the independent school that Archie had attended because his stepfather also worked there. Belcher seems to have had what we might call the gift of the gab, and was seemingly very good at talking his way into improbably beneficial situations and then swanning off with the proceeds despite his terrible work and attitude.

A case in point: during the war he had gloried in the improbable job title of “Controller Of The Nation’s Potato Supply”, which he had convinced some official to give him despite the fact that he knew nothing about potatoes or farming. In her autobiography, Agatha somewhat sarcastically wonders whether the terrible shortages of potatoes Britain experienced during the war were in fact because of Belcher’s supposed control of them. Belcher, in other words, was a hustler, and as Christie put it, people seldom discovered that he was “no good” until it was too late.

Belcher’s latest wheeze, and the one that he was inviting Archie to join, was connected to the British Empire Exhibition that was due to be held in Wembley in 1924. This was to be a kind of trade show, exhibiting products and curiosities from all over the British Empire, and Belcher had convinced its organisers that it was necessary for someone (him) to travel to all of the major places to be featured in the event a couple of years beforehand to drum up interest among potential exhibitors. And for this promotional tour, which he had grandly named “the British Empire Mission”, he had decided he required a financial advisor. This was the role that he was offering to Archie.

The purpose of the British Empire Exhibition was to foster a kind of post-colonial soft power. As the British authorities began to realise that the Empire itself was coming to an end and independence in places like India was inevitable, they instead began to focus on maintaining primacy through trade. The exhibition would showcase the products of the British Empire and encourage trade links between the nations and companies involved, thus keeping Britain in a vital role as economic facilitator even if the political links were later severed.

According to her autobiography, Archie and Agatha considered Belcher’s offer carefully. It was “a terrible risk,” she said. Archie would be paid £1000 for his year’s work on the tour, roughly equivalent to about £30,000 today, as well as all of his travel and accommodation expenses paid. Agatha, however, would just be along for the ride, and where she couldn’t share Archie’s rooms and cabins, would need to pay her own way. Archie would also need to give up his job, with no guarantee that it would be there for him to come back to. They would need to leave behind their daughter, who would be two and a bit at the time of their departure. Agatha’s older sister and mother were happy to have care of Rosalind, but leaving her for so long was still a major consideration, of course.

They decided to go for it. Here was the chance of a lifetime, as they saw it, and they wanted to seize it while they could. They let their flat, delivered their daughter to her aunt and grandmother, and on 20th January 1922 took the train from Waterloo to meet their ship at Southampton.


Aside from Major Belcher, Archie and Agatha, the British Empire Mission had a few other members. There was Mr Bates, Belcher’s long suffering secretary, Mr Hiam, the mission’s agricultural advisor, and his wife and daughter. Along the way, they were temporarily joined by numerous functionaries and aides, whose job it was to entertain and facilitate the passage of this unusual marketing campaign. Their fellow passengers on the various ships and trains also make appearances in Agatha’s letters home to her mother, which display plenty of her novelist’s skill at observation and character sketch.

The mission’s first destination was Cape Town in South Africa. Their voyage from Southampton aboard the RMS Kildonan Castle took 15 days, with a stop at the island of Madeira. For most of the journey, Agatha was so afflicted with sea sickness that she could barely move from her bunk; at one point she was so ill that she considered getting off at Madeira and staying there to recover while Archie went on without her. But she got through it, and her excitement at their arrival is palpable from her letters. It was very hot in Cape Town in early February, it being summer in the southern hemisphere, and Agatha was delighted at the weather and the views of Table Mountain and the affordable fruit available everywhere. She ate peaches and pineapples in the garden of their hotel and felt like London was a very long way away.

Cape Town is also where Agatha and Archie encountered a pastime that was going to be very important to them throughout this year of travel. At Muizenberg, a beach in False Bay on the Cape peninsula, they tried surfing for the first time. Although they were very bad at it to start with, both of them loved the sport, and for the rest of their time in the area whenever they could get away from official mission engagements, they took the train to the beach and continued to work on their wave catching skills.

Agatha had always been a keen swimmer, and growing up on the so called English Riviera in Torquay, there had always been plenty of opportunity. In Cape Town, though, she encountered warm ocean water for the first time — it being the first time you didn’t shiver as soon as you stepped in, she said in one letter. It was glorious, and in some way made up for the behaviour of the tyrannical Belcher, who was constantly in a terrible mood about some impediment or other to their trip’s success.

The official business of the British Empire Mission in South Africa, and indeed more broadly, is a bit difficult to untangle from Agatha’s account. I suspect this is because the entire enterprise was one of Belcher’s Brilliant Ideas, and once it was actually in motion everyone was a little unsure as to what they were supposed to do. The group met with local politicians and dignitaries, attended events like the opening of parliament, and toured local sites of interest like the Rhodes memorial. They visited farms and industrial areas that might send items to the eventual exhibition. Agatha and Mrs Hiam spent time with various expat families. Many ceremonial luncheons were held. But everyone they meet seems slightly baffled as to why they are there. This didn’t seem to trouble Agatha and Archie, though. As much as they missed their daughter — and Agatha did, a lot, as her letters show — they were thrilled that their big risk was paying off. In South Africa, most of Agatha’s travel expenses ended up being covered by the expedition, and they had plenty of free time to enjoy their surfing. It felt like exactly the break from their London life that they needed.

After the break: Anna the adventuress.

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At the time of her departure from Southampton, Agatha Christie had only had one book published — her debut and the first appearance of Hercule Poirot, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. While she was at sea heading south, though, her second book had appeared in the UK: The Secret Adversary. We don’t get much sense of Agatha the author from her writings during 1922’s travels, but in one early April letter home she does mention this book as a way of reassuring her mother about finances. “I really feel Tommy & Tuppence is going to be a success, so don’t worry about money,” she says. Shortly after she penned this letter, the tour returned to Cape Town after an extensive tour around South Africa, where Agatha found press cuttings with reviews for this book from her agent which she was delighted to see were “all good, not one bad one”.

Although she mostly gives the impression that she spent this year as a supportive wife and a woman of leisure, there are little glimpses like this that Agatha Christie was feeding the flame of her burgeoning writerly career. Later on, once they reach Canada in September, she writes home that thanks to things like “swedish rights” for Styles, she has “far more money than I ever dreamed I should have after this trip”. Most of the people that she met don’t seem to have heard of “Agatha Christie, detective novelist” — her big breakthrough, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was still four years away — but she did do one interview while in Australia and some networking in New York. Before she departed, she had left the manuscript for her third novel, The Murder on the Links, with her agent, as well as a series of short Poirot stories. She was sowing the seeds, as it were, for what was to come.

Although by her own account it doesn’t seem that Agatha did much writing while the Christies were on their travels, her experiences did appear in fiction pretty soon after their return. The Man in the Brown Suit was published in August 1924 and features the self-styled “Anna the Adventuress”, a young woman who follows the thread of a thrilling mystery from an Underground platform in London to South Africa and beyond. There are lots of details in this book that come straight from Christie’s own travels on her grand tour of 1922. The ship that Anne travels on is called the Kilmorden Castle, a direct allusion to the Kildonan Castle that the exhibition party took to Cape Town.

The carved wooden animals that Christie bought while on the train from Livingstone near the Zambezi River in Zambia become a certain incident with a large souvenir giraffe while Anne is on a similar trip. And the biggest parallel of all is in the character of Sir Eustace Pedler, a thinly veiled version of the British Empire Mission’s very own Major Ernest Belcher. Christie gave Pedler all of Belcher’s bombast and glib confidence, and was apparently going to cathartically kill him off in the book until Belcher heard of this idea and objected. You’ll have to read the story yourself to see what she did with him instead, it’s worth the effort of this otherwise fairly choppy early Christie thriller, especially once you know that Agatha once spent a year travelling around the world with a man like this.


After South Africa, the group travelled by ship to Adelaide on the TSS Aeneas. Agatha was once again terribly sea sick, but enjoyed some dancing on board. The next few days were a whirlwind of travel: first to Melbourne for an official reception, and then almost immediately onto a ship bound for Tasmania. After a week or so there, inspecting a hydroelectric power station and attending some more lunches, they returned to Melbourne and embarked on an ambitious series of journeys around Australia by car visiting everything from brickworks to distilleries to gold mines. After reading Agatha’s descriptions of this, I began to feel slightly weary myself, with the endless turnover of boarding houses, greetings by dignitaries, factory tours and “women’s club” lunches, but she gives no sign of tiring of it, even once they depart Sydney for New Zealand and yet more official receptions. She and Archie are sometimes separated as he goes off to do even more visits with Belcher, and Agatha gets a few days at a time to relax or to visit new friends that she has made along the way. And she had the central treat of the whole trip to look forward to, perhaps, whenever it all began to seem too much: an entire month off from mission business, which she and Archie were going to spend in Honolulu.

The Christies departed Auckland for Hawaii on 25th July 1922. The ship stops for a day in Fiji, eventually arriving at Honolulu on 4th August. Agatha was in raptures, over the flowers, the water, the ice cream sodas, the cars, and, of course, the surfing. She and Archie devoted themselves mostly to their boards, only stopping when they became so badly sunburned that they could barely move. Sunblock not really being available, Archie took to surfing in his pyjamas after that to protect his skin.

Agatha became a fairly proficient surfer over the course of the month, managing to stand up quite often, and writing later in her autobiography that it was “one of the most perfect physical pleasures that I have known”. This, I think, is why the Christies really agreed to go on Belcher’s madcap empire expedition. Although hardly political radicals, they had no interest in promoting the interests of the British Empire, or really much thirst to go on endless colonial factory tours. They wanted a complete change from their somewhat dreary post war lives in London, and the adventures they found in the waves off Honolulu provided that and then some.

All good things must come to an end, though, and on 9th September Belcher arrived in Hawaii to shepherd the Christies onto a ship and onwards to Canada. And it was on this last leg of the mission’s trip that the strain began to show. Firstly, there were money worries. Unlike elsewhere, Agatha’s accommodation was not often covered, so she was paying her own way. She could afford the rooms, she found, but it left very little over for food, so she mostly survived on eating a very big hotel breakfast and then mixing herself up a mug of meat extract in the evenings. She managed to make a single jar of this paste last ten days at one point, and every time she was invited out for lunch by some local women’s society, she would eat everything in sight.

Agatha was also suffering from bad pain in her shoulder, which she thought was the consequence of a surfing injury, and which was preventing her from sleeping. Then, after a visit to a grain elevator near Toronto in mid October, Archie “collapsed completely”, and Agatha had to nurse him back to health with whatever local medical assistance she could afford to summon. He had a terrible fever, a rash all over, and difficulty breathing with bronchitis — possibly as a result of an allergic reaction to the grain. Belcher, of course, was furious at the delay, and by this point Agatha has dropped all pretence of finding him amusing or even tolerable. He has become “the detestable Belcher” in her letters.

In November of 1922, Agatha and a recovered Archie part ways again. He goes north to Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland with Belcher, while she — to save money — remains in Toronto for a while before setting off to New York where she has an aunt with whom she can stay for free. You would have thought that after months of travelling with Belcher, she would have been accustomed to having little control over her own itinerary, but it is only in this final week in New York that we see Agatha chafing at the restrictions of life with Aunt Cassie, and yearning to be in charge of her own days again. She is ready to go home and resume real life once more, with all its difficulties and inconveniences.

The British Empire exhibition opened about 18 months after Agatha and Archie returned home, on 23rd April 1924. It was vastly popular, with about 27 million visitors over the two years that it was open, but it also lost millions of pounds as costs spiralled out of control — perhaps inevitable in a venture that was partly organised by Major Belcher. I haven’t been able to find any evidence that the Christies ever went to visit it. Agatha certainly didn’t record her impressions of it in her autobiography, despite devoting pages and pages to the trip around the world she took under its banner.

Just a few years after the Christies returned from their grand tour, the life they had been building together was broken apart. Agatha’s mother died, Archie fell in love with another woman, and her infamous breakdown and 11-day disappearance in late 1926 brought their marriage to an end. The next time Agatha would set off on her travels, it would be alone, as she went east on the Orient Express on a path that would take her to Iraq, Syria, archaeology, her second husband, and all that lay beyond.

She didn’t know any of that, though, when her ship docked at Southampton on 1st December 1922 and she eagerly anticipated her reunion with a now three year old Rosalind. She was ready to retire Agatha the Adventuress for a while, and just revel in being at home.


This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton. Find links to all the books mentioned and other information about this episode at I publish transcripts of every episode including this one; find them all at

All the sources I’ve consulted for this episode are listed in the description, but if you’re interested in knowing more about Agatha Christie’s round the world trip, I highly recommend the book Agatha Christie: The Grand Tour, published by HarperCollins in 2012. It includes extracts from her letters during the trip as well as dozens of photographs.

If you’d like more Shedunnit, consider joining the Shedunnit Book Club — I make two bonus episodes a month for members, or three if you join at the higher level. You can find out more and sign up at

Shedunnit is edited by Euan MacAleece. Production assistance from Leandra Griffith. Member support for the Shedunnit Book Club from Connor McLoughlin. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back in two weeks with a new episode.

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