Mrs. Brassey is not amused by Charlottetown

In spite of a few scurrilous comments from muckraking journalists it is often difficult to get a sense of what 19th century visitors to Charlottetown really thought of the place. By and large the published reports were polite. After all, they would appear in newspapers or books which the population might read.  Exceptions can be found in private accounts such as diaries and personal letters not intended for publication. Another outlet for the uncensored remarks was in private publications not intended for any but a select few of family and friends. Such is the case for an illustrated volume which was privately printed in 1872 by Anna Brassey.

Brassey was the wife of Thomas Brassey whose family had made its fortune in railway construction in England which enabled the family to live a comfortable life of leisure. Although Thomas served as a member of parliament he was also an avid yachtsman and traveller. Anna documented their voyages in a series of volumes, several of which became best-sellers. The best known of these was the A Voyage in the Sunbeam (1878) which described the round the world tour of their private yacht.   An earlier trip to North America is the subject of a volume printed for private distribution titled A Cruise in the Eothen.

Screw Steam Yacht ‘EOTHEN”  Royal Yacht Squadron 1864

The Eothen, a 340 ton steam yacht, had been built of iron at the James Ash shipyard in London for Arthur Anderson in 1864. Anderson was chairman of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, an enterprise which still exists. One of their P&O cruise ships visited Charlottetown in the summer of 2019. Brassey acquired the Eothen in 1872 and set off for North America. The Eothen was the first steam yacht to cross from England to Canada but Anna was not aboard for the Altantic crossing as she came to Canada on one of the Allen Line Steamers to Montreal and joined the yacht there.  The family toured Quebec and Ontario and then took the Eothen to New York. Anna’s brief sojourn in Charlottetown was one of a number of stops. The Eothen came down Northumberland Strait and anchored inside Point Prim owing to strong winds. The next day the yacht approached Charlottetown.  The three-masted iron vessel must have seemed a considerable extravagance to the townsfolk. She was 152 feet long and 22 feet wide and even though her sails were a supplement to her 62 horse powered engine she had a graceful and pleasing shape. While the residents of Charlottetown may have been impressed by the vessel the feeling was not reciprocated. If Anna was underwhelmed by Charlottetown (a second-rate country town) she was appalled by the people (their ugliness is extreme).  All in  all it was not a happy visit, or perhaps Anna was not a person easily amused. The residents of the town remained blissfully unaware of her comments as her book was likely not circulated in the colony.

Anna Brassey 1839 – 1887

Tuesday, October 8th.—The fires were only banked up for the night, and at daylight we started again, and steamed up Hillsborough Bay, a distance of ten miles, to Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward’s Island, where we dropped anchor at nine a.m. Here we found H.M.S. the “Niobe,” which divides with the “Lapwing” the task of looking after and protecting our fisheries on this coast. At the present moment, owing to some absurd local dispute between the officials of Prince Edward’s Island and those of America, the fishing vessels from the United States are not allowed to take fish within three miles of the shore, where all the best fish are to be found. This seems very greedy, as the waters are quite wide enough, and there is fish in plenty and to spare for all.

Eothen in Montreal 1872. Note that the foremast now carries yards

We landed at Charlottetown with considerable difficulty, as there are no steps anywhere and we were obliged to climb across rafts, and over huge blocks of timber.
This city is very like most others in America. It contains no handsome buildings in particular, but there are numerous shops, and it may be fairly compared with ordinary second-rate English country towns.
The land in Prince Edward’s Island generally, but especially in the vicinity of Charlottetown, is of great fertility, and to its agricultural resources the island owes its activity. The day we arrived was market day, as well as the great annual cattle-fair, and the streets were therefore crowded with a most cadaverous-looking population. There were a great many Micmac Indians selling baskets. These Indians are not unlike gipsies in appearance; their complexions are dusky brown, and they are remarkable for their long, lanky black hair, and very high cheek-bones.
The Market Hall is a fine building, well supplied with fresh provisions, which included all the vegetables and fruits familiar to us in England.
The cattle and horses at the fair were anything but first-rate; there were, however, a few good specimens, which is perhaps as much as we ought to expect, considering it is but a small island.
The Post Office is an enormous structure, but there is not much business going on there, except when the mails arrive and depart, once a fortnight. There is no postal delivery here, so every one has to call for letters.
After lunch we started in two waggons to call on the Governor first, and then to drive round the “royalties,” as part of the island is called. Our horses were good, but the drivers fearfully reckless; and as the roads are very bad, and full of deep ruts, it was a marvel we did not come to grief, as we seemed to be plunging in and out of the most frightful holes, whilst driving at considerable speed; indeed, several times we were nearly thrown from our seats. We must have driven a distance of sixteen miles, making quite a circuit through the country, the scenery of which was pretty and park-like, the land rich and well-cultivated. Towards evening, on our way back to the town, we met all the people driving out in small one-horse carts. There were a few on horseback, but none on foot.
We were much struck with the unhealthy look of the population in general: they are so pale and thin, their ugliness is extreme, and they all seem to have an extraordinary tendency to squint. We looked in vain for the robust and hearty peasantry of the rural districts of the old country, It seems hard to conjecture the cause for this marked deterioration of the descendants of Scotch, Irish, and English settlers. Probably the long winter may be to a great extent the reason. The impossibility of active and out-door operations at that season, and the consequent temptation to spend the day in heated rooms, smoking, and sipping strong liquors, are extremely prejudicial to the health of the population.
Prince Edward’s Island has not yet joined the Canadian Dominion. A railway is, however, being laid down, for which a loan is necessary; and as soon as the increased burden of taxation is more distinctly felt, it is probable that the people will be prepared to unite with the Dominion.
In the numerous crowd at the fair we were surprised to see so few persons bearing traces of superior refinement and culture. We had supposed that the poor gentleman might have found a field for enterprise in the Colony as well as the industrious labourer. But, however, it is not so. The farmers of Prince Edward’s Island are evidently men who, if they had remained at home, would have been earning a scanty living as day-labourers.
When we returned to the yacht in the evening we found it was blowing half a gale of wind.
Wednesday, October 9th.—Our wedding-day, twelve years ago. We started at six a.m., in spite of the gale blowing and the barometer being low; but the wind was fair, though strong, and we had only fifty miles to run in a comparatively sheltered sea.

From Pictou the Eothen visited Halifax and a number of American cities before returning to England. Again Anna took a regular steamer to cross the Atlantic. In 1881 Thomas was knighted and in 1886 became Earl Brassey, making Anna, Lady Brassey. In 1876 Brassey and his whole family took a year-long cruise around the world in a new yacht the Sunbeam which became the first private yacht to make a circumnavigation.  This trip was the subject of Anna’s most popular book.  She died aboard during another extended voyage in 1887.

 

8 thoughts on “Mrs. Brassey is not amused by Charlottetown

  1. Leo J. Deveau

    Hi, I’d be interested in knowing when the Brassey’s arrived in Halifax and if she also shared in writing her impressions of the people in Halifax? Thanks! Leo.

    Reply
  2. Brian Macdonald

    Have you read Isabella Lucy Bird’s book “The Englishwoman in America”, released in 1856?

    It gives a lengthy and interesting account of her visit to Charlottetown, among other ports of call.

    I highly recommend her book, usually re-read it annually

    Reply
    1. sailstrait Post author

      The Bird book is a great source. I have been able to locate well over 50 travel accounts before 1900 and those by women make up a very small proportion of the output.

      Reply
    1. sailstrait Post author

      Permission given, as always. I am pleased that you enjoy my humble offerings. I have now gathered more than fifty travellers accounts and descriptions of pre 1900 PEI and I hope to be able to publish them at an early date.

      Reply
      1. Willym

        Rather than re-blogging I’ve provided a link this time around. Hopefully it will be well used by my readers. Now that’s a book I’d want to have in my library.

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