When Hollywood came to HMS Unicorn

She was one of the most famous stars of her day and one of the highest paid film stars of the 1930s but did you know that in 1949 this Hollywood star graced the decks of HMS Unicorn?

Gracie Fields was born, over a fish-and-chip shop, in Rochdale, Lancashire in 1898 and started her career in revue in the late 1900s. ‘Our Gracie’, as she became known, was a singer, actress and comedian who was famous for her Northern, working-class character.  So much of a box office draw was she that in 1937 she signed a £200,000 contract with Twentieth Century Fox that was billed ‘as the highest salary ever paid to a human being’.  In 1938 she became the first female variety artist to receive the CBE and a Dame shortly before her death in 1979.

Her career in the post-war period had dwindled somewhat but she was still a popular draw and it was to a packed Caird Hall in Dundee that Gracie performed a sold-out concert on the evening of Friday 5th May 1949.

After the concert, she was whisked off to HMS Unicorn (then known as HMS Cressy) to present prizes at a boxing tournament, which was taking place on board.

It was a rare treat for Cressy’s cadets. 200 people welcomed Gracie to the gangway as Captain Douglas R. Miller, commanding officer of Tay Division R.N.V.R., greeted her on board and, in a typically Gracie fashion, on seeing the low ceilings of the ship, she queried ‘Will I hae to boo doon?’.

She joined the crowd of nearly 300 to watch the last fight, before she awarded the prizes and medals to winners and runners-up, even taking time to notice that Cadet B. Ogilvy’s clan tartan was ‘smashing’! In a canny move she also stole the Cadets hearts by admitting ‘Soldiers are all right, but I just love sailors’!


Before she left she treated the cadets to a few songs, including her most popular tune ‘Sally’ before she was bid farewell by Lieutenant A.C. Burgess and three loud cheers from the cadets before another large crowd waved her off as she headed back to her hotel.

Do you recall when Gracie visited Unicorn? Share your memories with us!

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Thanks to Andrew Jeffrey for the links to the pieces in the Evening Telegraph.

Billy Rough, HMS Unicorn, Operations Manager