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Voyage on the SS St George, 1867 by John Gwynn Swain

The following was taken from a collection of letters written by John Gwynn Swain, aged 17, to his Mother in Edinburgh, Scotland. The letters were published in 1869 entitled, Letters from John Gwynn Swain, to His Mother. John writes of his voyage to Canada and of the things he saw. He also took a ship on the Great Lakes up to Fort William and that trip is also described briefly. John is what some refer to as a ‘gentleman immigrant'. This paper is from the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproductions Collection, #41405.

John wrote his first letter onboard the SS St George on June 5, 1867 at Greenock. On June 6, he wrote:

I have just made a capital breakfast, as the sea air gives one a good appetite, and as the captain is going ashore this morning I knew how glad you would be to get a line from me. The berths are far more comfortable for sleeping than I thought. I never woke once all night. I have got my luggage all in my bunk, and so has Hugh, so we have everything at hand. The cabin passengers join us here at 12 o'clock, as we are almost the only ones that slept on board. We start at one to-day, and don't stop till we reach St. Johns, Newfoundland, where I will write you, so you will get a letter sooner than I expected....p. 3-4

On June 12, John wrote about their departure from Glasgow:

Here I am, going to write you my first letter in the saloon of the "St. George," more than 1000 miles from the nearest land, and in the middle of the deep Atlantic; but if I go on in this style, I shall never get any news told to you, so I must begin in earnest. ...(he goes on about friends and family and then...) and then away we went for the "Mavis Bank Wharf," which we reached about half-past 12.

Such a crowd of people were there, all crying and roaring at an awful rate. ... we went on board and saw the captain, and got our luggage all stowed away in our room; by this time the steam was getting up, so all went on shore but Hugh and I, who ran on shore afterwards and shook hands with all our friends; we had just time to hurry on board when the ropes were cast off, the screw revolved, and we found ourselves slowly drawing away from the quay; then wasn't there a hullabaloo, about [can not read] hundred people or more all shouting, crying, hurrahing, and waving their hats and handkerchiefs; Hugh and I jumped on the stern, and waved our caps, and kissed our hands till the dear faces we knew so well were no longer in sight, and then for the first time we felt the loneliness of our situation. We had dinner, and got to Greenock about 3 p.m., where we stayed all night. p. 4-5

John then begins to describe life onboard the ship:

We went to our bunks early and slept well, as we were tired; by the by these same bunks are very comfortable, and I slept as well as if I had been in my own little room at home. Next morning we got up to shoot gulls of which we shot nine during the day. At 12 o'clock the tug came alongside with those passengers who chose to join at Greenock, ...We started in earnest about 1 p.m., and steamed off down the Clyde, passing the "Kyles of Bute," "Goatfell," "Ailsa Craig," and lastly, the "Mull of Cantyre,"–this is one of the roughest parts on the Scottish coast, and as there was a high, chopping sea running, we got plenty of tossing, and then began a scene. Now I am going to tell you something you may find hard to believe, and that is, that neither Hugh nor I have been the LEAST SICK; this is not said as an exaggeration, but is, I assure you, perfectly true. The first day we were at sea both of us felt heavy and out of sorts, but never the slightest sick, nor confined to our rooms even for one hour. How to account for this I don't know, but the captain told us we were the only passengers on board that were not ill. To return to my subject, the above mentioned "scene" was, the steerage passengers lying like pigs vomiting in all directions, over each other and under each other, and indeed everywhere. That night (Thursday 6th) the sounds I heard were awful. The steerage is right under the cabin, and consequently when lying in our bunks, and all quiet, you heard with the greatest distinctness. The retching was frightful, not fetching anything up, but "belching" all night long, and the poor babies (of whom there are an immense number) were crying most piteously, of course their mothers were all too ill to attend to them. I was driven half "daft," and didn't know where to go to get away from the noise; however, I managed to keep all right by thinking about it as little as possible. On Friday morning when I went on deck (as I was the only one well enough) there was no land to be seen, nothing but sea, sea, sea, on every side, and as it was rough, the huge Atlantic waves came in at an awful pace, and kept us rocking and pitching all day, and as it was my first time really at sea, I could not help a solemn awe and reverence stealing over me at the wondrous works of the Creator, and feeling how small and insignificant I was (and even the ship) compared with that mighty deep which lay stretched before me. Captain Smith is a splendid gentleman, and gives us lots of fun. We have got a gymnastic apparatus rigged up on the quarter-deck, which allows us plenty of exercise, also lots of games peculiar to a ship, which are no use telling you, as you would not know the meaning of the names, or how they are played. We had a concert on Monday night, which went off splendidly; the steerage passengers were called into the cabin, and the performance began at 7 o'clock. There were two violins, and a guitar which the doctor of the ship plays beautifully. I sang the first song, which was my old favourite one of "Alonzo." I was dressed in a most absurd manner, and caused roars of laughter and lots of applause. I also sang "Dublin Bay," and the "London, Chatham, and Dover." Captain Smith and the doctor are both good singers, and gave us some fine melodies. Last night (Thursday 13th) we had a dancing party on deck, where I again distinguished myself in dancing Scotch reels and Irish jigs, much to the delight of the passengers, who are mostly English. We have had rather a bad voyage, for until these last two days, there has been nothing but head winds and heavy seas, making the ship roll horribly, and of course retarding our course considerably. I can assure you the waves of the Atlantic and the waves of the Forth are two very different affairs. It is great fun dressing, and I often lie in my bunk and laugh like to burst myself at Hugh, as he always gets up before me, there being no room for two to dress at once. Perhaps he will be drawing on his trousers, when a suddden lurch of the ship precipitates him among the trunks, and his trousers most likely in the wash-hand basin, or some place equally ridiculous; then again, washing yourself, very likely half the water is thrown over your legs, much to your discomfiture, and your friend's amusement. We had English service and sermon from the captain on Sunday morning in the cabin, which office he fulfils most satisfactorily. We have had two deaths on board, of two children, caused by natural debility and a very severe attack of sea-sickness, which affected their brain and caused fits: the one was a baby and the other a fine boy of six years. It was indeed a solemn ceremony the burial. The captain and officers are all full dressed, and the former reads the burial service. The corpse is sewn up in sailcloth, loaded with shot, a flag (Union Jack) is over all, it is then put on a board, and is then shot into the water through one of the port-holes. There never has been a death on board this ship before, so it was a new and solemn duty the captain had to perform. I felt very much for the poor mothers, and went to my room and thanked my Maker for preserving me. There are some nice gentlemen on board, officers, &c., and we have lots of fencing, boxing, &c. I have made the acquaintance of a young farmer whom the captain introduced to me, and have promised to visit him, as he lives close to Toronto, with his mother and family, on a large farm of his own. We will reach St. Johns, Newfoundland, to-morrow, where we are to get on shore to see the town, &c. I shan't post this letter there, as it gets to you no quicker, but wait till I reach Quebec, which will be Tuesday or Wednesday, and then I will have more to tell you. p. 6-9

John talks about his family and then he continues...

The other evening the moon was shining beautifully, and I really could not go to bed; all went to bed but me, so I walked the quarter-deck and conversed with the officer on watch all night, being determined to see sunrise, as well as sunset, on the Atlantic. The first tints of dawn began to show themselves about 1 o'clock, and it gradually got lighter till half past 3 a.m., when I noticed a certain point in the horizon become a golden hue. There I fixed my eyes, and in a few minutes they were greeted with that which was indeed a lovely sight. The sun rose slowly, bit by bit, till it was clear of the horizon, then up it shot like a ball of white hot iron; the first officer said he never saw a finer morning, as the sky is generally clouded; so I was lucky. When I told them all at breakfast in the morning, they were every one of them angry at themselves for not staying up, as it is very unlikely the same thing will happen again this voyage, for although we often see a glorious sunset, it is very seldom a fine sunrise. To-day (Saturday 15th) I witnessed that curious phenomenon called mirage–ask Mr. McKie and he will tell you all about it; you would have sworn you saw rocks in the distance, with the waves breaking over them, whereas when we got up it was nothing. p. 9-10.

St. Johns, Newfoundland was the first land they touched and John describes the short stop over there:

Land came in sight about 4 o'clock this afternoon (Saturday) and we reached St Johns, Newfoundland, about 7 p.m. I rushed away and dressed myself after tea, and six of us made up a party to go on shore, as we had got leave from the Captain till 12 o'clock. When I put my foot on the ground I felt very queer, as I missed the rocking of the ship, and it also was the first foreign soil my foot had touched, and that caused peculiar thoughts and sensations to pass through me. There is nothing peculiar about the town nor people; their shops are the same as ours, except the prices, which are very different, and the fashion of their clothes, which is a little behind ours, but not much. I noticed they all wear "hoops" here and very large ones too. We (the Captain and I) went to the English Cathedral this morning (Sunday) where there was a splendid service, as they happened to be ordaining two young priests by the Bishop, and as I never saw it before, it was very interesting to me. They have a very fine choir and organ, and the interior of the edifice is very much after the style of Ludlow Church, as represented by my grandfather. We left "St Johns" the same afternoon, and steamed away for the St Lawrence; it came on one of those nasty fogs, so dangerous and only too common to the coast. You could not see ten yards before you. The ship had to stop for four hours during the night in consequence of it. In the course of the next day I saw five icebergs, which are very fine sights, but unfortunately we were not close enough to get a proper look at them, but they were very large. There are two very nice young ladies on board, and we have had another concert and lots of dancing, and I assure you I will be very sorry to leave the "St George," for I have got so accustomed to the regular life we lead. I feel extremely well and strong, and a vast deal better for my sea cruise. I have got a splendid colour, and am already greatly improved. Last night (Wednesday 19th) I witnessed a splendid sight, namely, the "Aurora Borealis" or "Northern lights;" there was a large arch in the heavens, and the whole was one mass of light,–green, purple, and yellow, changing continually, and presenting a gorgeous spectacle to the eye. I also saw the Canadian woods on fire, which is caused by the beating of the sun upon the old grass and leaves of the previous year; there is not much flame, but a huge quantity of smoke, which keeps smouldering for miles, and seldom bursts into a conflagration. This is Thursday morning, and we are in the splendid river St Lawrence; the pilot has just come on board, and the captain expects to reach Quebec about 5 a.m. to-morrow morning, and as the mail does not leave till Saturday, I will be able to tell you about that city and its environs before I post this epistle. p. 10-12

John then talks about the family and then about Toronto, his destination:

(Friday 21st) Reached Quebec this morning, and what do you think, I slept so sound that the firing of the guns did not awaken me, and the consequence was, that I was carried away to Montreal, so I have go to go back. However, it is only a short distance. p. 13

The trip down the St. Lawrence to return to Quebec is described:

On Monday (24th) I took the river boat and started for Quebec, as I told you I missed it on my road up. These river steamers are like floating houses, and the saloons are fitted up in a most luxurious manner, everyone having a piano, on which I had several tunes; the charge is 4s. including tea and bed, as it takes about ten hours to go down. We arrived about 6 a.m. p. 16

John's letters continued for the next year giving details of the various places he visited in Canada. On May 24, 1868, John took a ship through the Great Lakes to Fort William, at the top of Lake Superior. He wrote:

I left Toronto on the day I wrote my last note to you, namely the 11th, at 4 o'clock p.m., for Collingwood, which is a town on the Georgian Bay where the boat starts from, which we reached at 9 p.m. Our party consisted of Mr Savigny, Captain Strachan (the late Bishop of Toronto's son, whose funeral I think I told you I attended), myself, and the captain's dog, "Jerry," which is a very fine retriever. We slept there that night, and in the morning were joined by a Mr Brown, a young man who is Mr S's surveying assistant. My luggage consists of a knapsack–containing three shirts, six pair of socks, and some other necessaries,–a fishing rod, and the suit of clothes I stand up in now, so you may guess I am not over-burdened; but Captain S. has go no less than thirteen packages, some very large and heavy, as I know to my cost.

Next day (Tuesday) at twelve o'clock, we got on board, and by 1 p.m. we were steaming away up the "Georgian Bay," which is a part of Lake Huron. We had splendid weather, and I enjoyed myself immensely; we passed through some of the finest scenery in Canada. When we began sailing up Lake Superior I was perfectly struck. I knew it was the largest piece of fresh water in the world, but still, when I found myself really on it, I could not help being surprised. Only fancy a piece of fresh water big enough to put the whole of England in, and lots to spare; and fancy being out of sight of land for a day and a half. I gave you a description of the steamers here in my second letter home, so need not repeat it, suffice it was just the same, and called the "Algoma." [Although John says he described the vessel in his second letter, all he described was the ship he took to return to Quebec from Montreal as given above.] We arrived in sight of "Thunder Cape" on Saturday morning. It is a splendid promontory of solid rock 1,560 feet high (more than twice the height of Arthur Seat), and rises from the water like a wall. It forms one end of the land which encircles "Thunder Bay." When we got to the Bay, what was my surprise to see it full of ice (on the 16th May). We had to proceed very carefully, and could not get up to "Fort William." p. 65-66


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