Since our epic Week of Family Archiving, I’ve been busy transcribing a packet of rather special letters.
Going through our great-grandmother’s correspondence has been a fascinating way to spend a week. It’s taken me that long to get through her Victorian scrawl and style—the Victorians had a great aversion to full-stops, commas, and the word “and,” preferring to use “+” instead, which can be awfully confusing to someone not used to it.
To clarify, this is Nana’s mother we’re talking about—Katharine Appleton. From all the photos I’ve seen of her, she was a stern, unsmiling and broomstick-up-the-bum type of woman.
But reading the letters she wrote from on board a 6-month journey (all addressed to Dr. Davie, her family physician and confidant), I’ve changed my mind.
Katharine was 20 years younger than her husband, Frederick. She was born in Victoria, to an Irish shopkeeper and his Scottish wife. Shortly after her father’s death from stomach cancer, she married Fred.
By the time they married, Fred had already travelled the world—born in Manchester, he’d been to places like Egypt and South Africa, and was quite happy to settle in Victoria, a quiet place where he hoped to spend the rest of his life.
To Katharine, though, Victoria was the “same-old-same-old,” and she was thrilled at the opportunity to escape its confines.
Old Fred knocked his noggin in an accident of the equine variety, and it was recommended by Dr. Davie that the family take a sea journey to fix what ailed him. As one does. I suppose the letters to him were ostensibly to keep the good doctor up to date on Frederick’s condition, as this was mentioned a few times en route.
Otherwise, I think the letters were a diary of sorts for Katherine, a way of pouring out her emotions to a faceless friend.
To put things into perspective, these letters were written in 1911. Katherine mentions it takes over 14 days to sail from Victoria BC to Yokohama. Nowadays that’s about a 9-hour flight. Just saying.
Their ship set sail 28 December, 1910. Katharine wrote her first letter 5 days later. Her final letter (that we know of) was written in July of 1911. At that point, the family was in England and contemplating their homeward journey, which would involve sailing across the Atlantic to Canada, at which point they would have to board a train to Victoria. I assume they didn’t reach their little house in Victoria until September of that year.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
After spending some time in Japan, they sailed to Manila.
“Manila was a horrible place, so very warm but while there we saw the volcano Taal in eruption, a wonderful sight and the sky was full of lightning for hours after the explosion. Everyone wears white in this part of the world, nothing else is possible. We had a week at Manila, the longest stop, so far and we went on shore nearly every day and bought some of the native things, their Panama hats are splendid and we all invested in them.”
It’s interesting that Katharine and her fellow passengers watched the eruption in the same way that we watch fireworks: with awe and a degree of delight. At no point does she mention the suffering the volcano might bring, although she does note in passing that she’s heard the city nearby might be extinct by morning. 1,335 people died because of the eruption.
VISITING HONG KONG
“Hong Kong is such a pretty island, very hilly and picturesque, with lots of barracks and soldiers, and such a tropical growth everywhere, and lovely flowers etc in full bloom in January. Our ship always anchors out in the harbor but the company has a launch at each place we call at and we always get ashore to see the sights. The first day or half day rather, we went on a cable car up the most awful height to the Summit or highest point of the island, and when the car could climb no more, we got into Sedan Chairs with 3 bearers”.
How fun it is that Nana and her family were in Hong Kong 75 years ahead of me. She visited again, in the early 1960s and one final time, for her 90th birthday.
As entertaining as flying fish, volcanic eruptions and Panama hats must be, I’m sure life on board could be a little tedious, which is why Katharine must have been so excited when someone suggested a party. With costumes! Whee!
“Mr and Mrs Davis (related to the Blue Funnel ship owners) are trying to arrange a fancy dress dance on the way through the Indian Ocean and we have no objection as they will supply the costumes. They have spent several thousand dollars on a wonderful collection of old Mandarin robes, they are simply gorgeous and Japanese costumes, all sorts. They are very rich people, I am told, and have no children… The preparations for the fancy dress dance are going on apace and as they are short of ladies some of the men are to be dressed in ladies clothes and are having dancing lessons every evening, some had never danced before and such a thing is unheard of on a ship of this sort.”
The ball was a complete success, as Katharine mentions a few letters later:
“We had the ball, it was most funny and the ingenious costumes the officers contrived for themselves, we had a gramophone for music and even got my husband in to a costume, it was all so amusing that we had photos taken the next day in costume.”
After visiting Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and and sailing through the Suez, they’d reached the halfway point of their journey.
At one point, camels were spotted by Nana and her brother. Katharine observes, “a number of camels with nothing for them to eat for miles around. One of the children asked an officer how they fed and he said “oh they put green goggles on them and they eat the sand” and so they have been crammed with all sorts of rubbish and information of sorts.”
I love this paragraph, it puts a human face on the family, showing the children to be silly and perhaps a little gullible, and Katharine to be good-humoured mother.
CALLING AT LONDON
Not only did Katharine beat me to Hong Kong, but also to London. It’s a peculiar feeling to think Nana, her brother and her parents were walking through the Wallace Collection 91 years ahead of me. To think I live a mere 10 minute walk from there.
That’s twice now, that she’s been somewhere before me! It’s hard to be an innovative traveller when your grandmother’s been there almost a century before you.
“In London again, we went to see the Wallace Collection of Art – a private house, donated to the nation, and just overflowing with lovely paintings and china and old french furniture and clocks of every age and description. The Sevres China is said to be the best collection in the world…”
At one point, Frederick leaves her in London, and goes up to Manchester to visit his relatives. She has a wonderful time without him.
They behaved as modern-day tourists, visiting Madame Tussaud’s, the Brompton Oratory, Harrods Departmental Store, Tate Art Museum, St Paul’s Cathedral (where Katharine was disappointed in the quality of the singing, commenting that she’d always heard “how beautiful their singing was”), and finally, a night at the theatre. She happened to see the great actor of the day, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in Henry VIII, playing Cardinal Wolsey.
And lucky thing, she got to see a coronation.
CORONATION OF GEORGE V AND QUEEN MARY
“We had a splendid view of the whole procession and the troops of soldiers were a wonderful sight for me. Lord Kitchener looks a splendid soldier, on horseback and some of the Indian officers looks gorgeous and ride splendidly. Fred would not go to see it, at all and gave his card away, but I took the children, of course all they have seen is a great education for them, but will not help them out in an arithmetic exam at school…
I think I told you I had seen the German Emperor and his wife and daughter and since then, the Crown Prince and his wife, who were here for the coronation. The 17 year old Prince of Wales is a small boy and his 14 year old sister is very tall and looks about 17 or 18.”
Of course she’s talking about Frederick III and his wife Vicky ( eldest child of Queen Victoria) and their son, the future Kaiser Wilhelm. At this time, Europe was at peace, but give it 3 more years and all hell was about to break loose.
There’s some regret and sadness in Katharine’s letters too. I had no idea that she had longed to live in England again, yet Frederick had no interest in moving.
“I don’t think for a moment that we will make a home here. My husband is more of a Canadian now, than I am, and I have to use my best persuasion to prevent him from going right back without a glance at England beyond our first stay in London, which he detested.”
Katharine valiantly tried to persuade him to send their children to school there, and arranged tours of Eton and Harrow, but he would not be swayed.
That must have rankled her terribly.
Poor Katharine. Still a young, healthy woman, she has a sick, aging husband, has already lost one child, and has little say in her own life.
“I find I still have a large capacity for enjoying things but Fred detests London and the people and the life, generally, and just longs to get back to to some old farm in BC, so the sooner we go, the better and the next time I set up traveling I will certainly leave him at home.”
Well. There you have it.
As the letters go by, they cease to be travelogues but instead become words from a private journal.
She lived for another 24 years and to my knowledge, never travelled again.