Monday, 19 April 2021

A Curious Survival

 Going through some papers just now, I came across a photocopy of something my paternal grandfather (whom I never knew; he died in 1936) wrote – an account of a journey from Liverpool to Montreal in 1892 on the steamship Sardinian. Handwritten and illustrated with little pen-and-ink sketches, it's very nicely produced, in the style of its time. The attitudes too are very much of their time, and the early pages, in particular, make for amusing reading.
  When the ship drops anchor off Moville in County Donegal, my grandfather and a few others take a rowing boat to the shore, where they are 'besieged by a crowd of jaunting-car drivers, whose remarks were very witty, chiefly consisting of absurd brag about one's own particular car, and biting sarcasm as to their rivals' vehicles'. As they walk around the town, the party find 'the whole crew of Jehus following us about with great persistency and never-ending jabber'. Eventually they strike a deal with one driver to take them to 'Greencastle, an old ruin of very dubious character' (which is all my grandfather has to say about Greencastle). Later, at the post office, 'a most amusing incident occurred'. This was a lengthy dialogue in which a woman complained, in 'an extremely rapid flow of genuine Irish', that a Post Office vehicle had run over one of her ducks and the Post Office should pay her compensation. I guess you had to be there...
  A great deal of singing and music-making goes on – weather and mal de mer permitting – as the journey proceeds, and of course there are church services. At one point my grandfather reports that 'steerage passengers have been encroaching on our part of deck today, and have been repulsed, looking very savage'. He sympathises though: 'Poor beggars. I feel very sorry for them. How on earth they exist in that hole of a steerage, I can't imagine. The smell is unbearable down there, and none of them appear to have had a wash since last Christmas.' At least they get their own church service, in the fo'c'sle, and later they have a dance 'to a bad fiddle accompaniment'. 
  My grandfather notes various of his fellow passengers, including Colonel Haggard, a brother of Rider Haggard, and his wife, who sounds like a formidable lady: 'She came on board with a large deerhound and a small pug. She is a fine tall lady. This lady, I understand, spends a good deal of time in the Rockies, wearing for the purpose a Norfolk jacket and breeches, being, of course, quite isolated from civilisation.' Well, quite. After several days of heavy weather, the boat comes in sight of land, passing Belle Isle and coming close to a flotilla of icebergs. My grandfather does not get to visit Quebec, as the ship docks at Lévis, on the opposite shore. At journey's end, he finds Montreal 'a very fine city' with 'very clean white buildings and streets'. Churches, priests and nuns abound. 'Many of the sidewalks are paved with wood, and the greater number of the streets are planted with tall trees, which look very fresh & green. Some of the houses are covered with creepers and flowers in the main streets of the city.' All of which sounds very different from the Montreal that I visited a few years ago. 
  My grandfather's account comes to an abrupt and anticlimactic end, describing a 'Japanese gentleman' on board, a Mr Arthur Hart. 'The Jap lady is his wife, Mrs ArthurHart. He speaks very good English, although he might be taken for pure Japanese.' Finis. Well, this document is a product of its time, but I am glad it has survived. 
  Nine years later, the Sardinian was the ship that carried Marconi to St John's, Newfoundland, to set up his radio station there. She ended her days ignominiously as a coal hulk, before being scrapped at Bilbao in 1938. 


  1. Col. Andrew Haggard is much less celebrated as an author than the author of She, but he wrote a number of entertaining histories of various personages - the Regent Philippe d'Orleans, Madame de Stael, etc.

  2. Thanks Foose – I had no idea he was a writer too...