musings from Canadian author Cheryl Cooke Harrington ... home of The Write Spot

Saturday, April 06, 2013

A letter from Alice

A few years ago I wrote about Family Ghosts and shared some of the treasures I'd found in lovely old box passed down from my maternal great-grandmother. Understandably, most of the contents came from Mom's side of the family but during the years when my parents kept the box, Dad added sketchy bits and pieces from his past as well. Dad lost both his parents at an early age. His memories of them were few and family history was pretty much non-existent until a packet arrived from England in 1976. The packet included a letter written by his Mother in May of 1913, shortly after her arrival in Toronto. Dad kept that letter in the box but I think he must have visited it often. I remember him saying how strange it was to read his Mother's words but be unable to recall her voice.
I've been re-reading the letter this morning and thinking how terribly brave my grandmother Alice must have been, leaving home and family in England to travel alone across the Atlantic to a new life in Canada.  Did she cry herself to sleep that first night on the boat or was she too excited to sleep at all?  How long had she been apart from her betrothed, Jack? Did the thought of meeting him again give her butterflies?  Would I be so brave? Would you?

While I ponder, I think Alice's voice deserves to be heard. Here, then, is her first letter home.  
21 May 1913
Toronto, Canada

My dearest Mother and Dad,
               This is the second attempt I've had to write you. Jack is at my elbow all the time and I can't get to do anything.  You would get the cable from Jack saying I arrived safely. We were late getting to Montreal but I did not mind. it was so lovely on board. it was 7:30 Saturday evening we landed. I took train at 11:15 p.m. travelled all night and reached Toronto 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

                I was quite sorry to leave the boat it was almost as bad as leaving home and this little friend of mine was so affectionate. We were very friendly. You will be very interested to know we were spoken of as the two nicest girls on board. She was very pretty and was very like our Flo in ways. We parted at Montreal. She went on to Winnipeg.
                I have thought of you such a lot since I left home and I want you to feel quite happy about me. I need scarcely say Jack is delighted to have me here. He is having a few days off to take me around. It won't do him any harm for he is looking far from well. From what his sister tells me, he was very upset when his Mother went. He is picking up now tho. They are all getting over it now and are looking at it in a common sense way.
                It is very pleasant here. We are on the crossroad and see quite a lot going on all the time. The cars pass which makes it very convenient.
Alice's handwriting

                Yesterday evening we went around the town and Yonge St. was a perfect blaze of electricity. Tradespeople go in for that mode of advertising.
                I expect Harry is getting very excited about coming and by the time you get this he will be pretty near landing. I do hope he has a good voyage. If he does as well as I he will enjoy it to the full. The last few days of my voyage were simply glorious, scarcely a ripple on the sea and the sun was quite warm. Coming up the Gulf of St. Lawrence was charming. I've never seen such scenery.
                Jack and I have talked things over and we have decided not to get marry yet as he says his Mother's illness was a big pull and by going out for a few months it will give us both a chance. I hear places are very good here but Jack won't hear of my getting one until Harry comes and after all there is plenty of time for us.
                Tell Flo that about 6 glasses were broke. Also 2 glass dishes. After all my careful packing too. The box Harry covered was knocked about. It was a good thing I corded it for both padlocks were off. Still it has managed very well.
                When I got here I did not feel I was so far from home. In fact, I don't realise it now. People who have made the journey don't think of it in that way.
                Jack's youngest sister has another baby boy 3 weeks old. You know which one I mean, Stanley's Mother. It is quite a bonny boy. I've also seen Ernie and his wife and boys. They came down on Sunday. Also A. Hurpel's sister and her husband called on Monday night to see me. She is coming to England this summer.
                I thought of going quite into detail when I wrote you first but I will wait until I know more about Toronto before telling you what I really think about it. One thing is very certain. I feel perfectly at home and happy and am looking forward to my next voyage with [rapt?] pleasure. For I was not at all sick. There was scarcely a soul on board who was not ill for at least a day.
                We went into the Marconi operating room. It was very interesting. No one else had the privilege – we were introduced to the operator as the two nicest girls on board and he invited us up. Will tell you more about that later on. With the best of love to you all especially Mother.
                Always yours lovingly Alice.


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At 8:04 pm, Blogger Sheila Seabrook said...

Wow, what a journey that was, Cheryl. I'm not sure I would have been as brave either. Perhaps because our generation is more "protected" than the previous generations.

I'm also amazed at the fact that she knew so man people in Toronto. It makes me wonder what percentage of people in the tiny English villages made the trip overseas. A quarter?

At 10:10 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

I was surprised by that, too. I suppose then, as now, immigrant communities tended to form close support networks in their new community so that might explain it somewhat. I'm curious about the percentages, too. I read somewhere that there were around 150,000 immigrants from England each year in the time just before WWI.

At 12:39 pm, Anonymous Susan said...

One thing that struck me was that if you took out the date it could have been written by one of the many brides who followed their husbands to Canada after World War II. In some ways it sounds like a hundred years ago (which it is in May) and yet it could have been written many decades later. You are very lucky to have these ties to your history. I would love to have a packet of letters written by my ancestors from that time. Thanks for sharing them.

At 1:12 pm, Blogger Cheryl said...

I do feel fortunate to have this connection, Susan. I know so little about her because Dad was so young when she died. There are a couple more letters but Alice's handwriting had deteriorated, so even more difficult to decipher - she was battling severe depression when they were written.

At 10:04 am, Anonymous Jillian Dagg said...

There are many Cornish immigrants in Canada. I belong to the Toronto Cornish Association which is on FB. The TCA has published two books about Cornish immigration written by various members of TCA.

At 10:15 am, Blogger Cheryl said...

Thanks for this, Jillian. I'm going to look them up.


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