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The Risk of Loving History

It’s dangerous to be known as the history enthusiast in your family. It can lead to mockery, sympathy, and occasionally; extra work. When my father was sorting through my late grandfather’s belongings, he came across several boxes of documents, letters and photographs, meticulously collected and stored by his father. What to do with it? These were things my grandfather had thought worth keeping, but someone would have to go through it all to see what was actually there. Turns out I was that someone!

As of writing this I have examined quite a bit, but still more remains in storage, an ongoing tribute to my procrastination. One piece, however that caught my attention: a letter written by my great-grandfather while immigrating to Canada.

It’s a simple four page letter, but it presents an interesting look at the experience of ocean travel during the early twentieth century. For me personally it was a fascinating window into the life of one of my ancestors and his journey coming to Canada for the first time.

I had known the basics of how my great-grandfather (hereafter referred to as William to minimize hand cramps) had come to Canada. Dissatisfied with life in Scotland, and either in a quest for adventure, or as the result of a fight with his father, he chose to immigrate. He was coming to work for the Bank of Montreal (I also found his application letter) and was thought to have sailed around the time of the ill-fated Titanic – a reference that a surprising number of visitors use to date their own relatives’ immigration (often incorrectly, as it was in my case!)

A yellowed illegible letter with handwriting in black ink.

From the first page of the letter we can learn quite a bit. He wrote the letter on the shipping lines’ stationary, and the name of the ship is conveniently filled in. The R.M.S. Victorian, an ocean liner with the Allan Line, was one of the first large passenger vessels to be fitted with turbines, an innovation in propulsion that would become the standard for fast luxury liners heading across the ocean.

In his letter, William wrote of crowds of well-wishers seeing the ship off from the docks in Liverpool, and one noteworthy storm (that he slept through.) He doesn’t appear to have suffered from the constant sea-sickness that would plague many immigrants crossing the Atlantic. There is mention of a death during the voyage (an elderly passenger), and the subsequent burial at sea. A lack of adequate means of refrigeration, among other factors, made burial at sea an acceptable option for many years to come.

For entertainment, William and other passengers played games onboard such as deck billiards (shuffleboard) and football (soccer) with other passengers, then afternoon tea in the ship’s music room. While this doesn’t sound like a riveting time to me, he does mention there are many other details of the voyage he would write about later (I haven’t found such a letter yet). He appears to have travelled in Saloon (1st) class, which surprises me. I would have expected a young bank clerk to have travelled second class at best. Certainly many immigrants experienced the “joys” of third class when immigrating to Canada. William appears to have been lucky to cross in such accommodations, I wonder if the bank paid for his passage?

The letter is dated May 19th 1910 (best guess), so the story of travelling around the time of the Titanic voyage (April 1912) seems to have been a bit of embellishment. He talks about the ship’s mail bag being put ashore in Rimouski, Quebec. I am now fairly certain Halifax wasn’t his destination. He wrote that the ship had just passed Cape Race, Newfoundland, so his landing date would most likely be a day or two later.

With this information in hand, I visited the Scotiabank Family History Centre. Within minutes, my colleague found records of William’s departure from Liverpool on May 13th and his arrival in Quebec seven days later on May 20th. A week at sea could be expected, though there were vessels capable of faster crossings at this time. Even still, it’s hard to wrap my head around such a lengthy voyage when living in the age of air travel. From Quebec he headed to Montreal to get his banking assignment which turned out to be a branch in Mount Forest, Ontario (I found a letter he wrote after his first couple days in Mount Forest which might warrant a separate post at a later date). Three years later he would head back across the ocean, this time with the Canadian Expeditionary Force bound for the trenches of Europe.

One question I still have is how did my Grandfather have this letter? Did William forget to mail it back to his parents in Scotland? Or was it collected with the closing of their estate and brought back across the ocean? If so, does that imply William’s parents also thought the letter worth keeping, like I do now? How many letters like this were sent out by new arrivals, letting loved ones know they had arrived safely across the ocean?

Much of our role as interpreters involves helping visitors discover what it was like for immigrants, also often their ancestors to immigrate to Canada. We help to discover and share the stories of their journeys. Many people today have no idea of the conditions or dangers inherent to ocean travel. It’s simply not done anymore (I don’t count cruises). It’s a topic I find absolutely fascinating; from the earliest crossings, to the decline of the liner, the rise of the airplane and beyond, how were people coming to Canada? I’m looking forward to discovering and sharing even more stories as we welcome new (and returning) visitors this summer. In the meantime, if you have a chance, I encourage you to venture into your dusty attics and filing cabinets (not presuming that you keep untidy households, of course) and see what you can discover.

Click each image to read the complete letter.