The Restless Emigrant

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Haszard’s Gazette 16 November 1852 p.3

The most common story told of immigration to Prince Edward Island is one of a family from rural England, Scotland or Ireland who came on a packed immigrant ship to find a new life in a new land. Through hard work and good luck, they succeeded and founded family lines which helped create the Island population we have today. Much is missing from this line of narrative and when examined more closely Prince Edward Island did not always resemble the promised land that had been promoted. Some immigrants left for nearby colonies almost as soon as they had arrived. Others stuck it out for a few years but with a dearth of free land as was offered in other places, the Island was less attractive. For still others there was the lure of busy new cities such as Halifax, Montreal, or Toronto, or even Boston, New York, or the American west, where a good mind could be more of an asset than a strong back. For 19th century Islanders there were both “pulls” and “pushes.”  Some simply could not settle and their stay on the Island was brief.

The Island was advertised as a “good poor man’s country” but not all who came were poor men. There were others who seem to have ended up here and then left again for reasons unknown. There were many options open to them; South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, British Columbia … and they had options. Perhaps they had a little money, perhaps they knew someone who knew someone. Perhaps they simply picked one of the pink spots of the world map. For some, settlement on Prince Edward Island was part of a wanderlust which created no permeance and was simply a stop on the way.

Such may be the case for Dr. Henry Brougham Hillcoat who first appears in Prince Edward Island as a passenger on the steamer Rose on its regular trip from Pictou to Charlottetown on 30 October 1852.

Hillcoat, born in 1823, was the eldest son of a clergyman. In 1843 he married Cecelia Julianne O’Toole and the same year entered service with the army of the East India Company with the rank of Ensign, the lowest rank for a commissioned officer.  He served in a number of locations in India for the next six years, moving between regiments at his own request on a number of occasions but never attaining promotion.  During this period two children were born in India. In early 1849 his name was removed from the army list but it is not clear what the circumstances for this were. He and his family appear to have returned to England as a third and then fourth child was born, the latter in Gloucester in April 1849.

Following his return from India Hillcoat qualified as a doctor and became a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons MRCS early in 1851. One source notes him as a M.R.C.S.E. or Member of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh but this appears to be a misunderstanding of the abbreviation for the Royal College of Surgeons of England (MRCS). Although armed with his new qualifications he did not elect to practise in England and was soon bound for new areas.

The family with four children arrived in New York on board the vessel Devonshire in April 1851. It is not clear how the next year was spent. In late October 1852 Hillcoat, presumably with his family, arrived in Charlottetown on board the steamer from Pictou.  Just over a week after his arrival the Doctor was advertising in the local press that he could be consulted at his residence, Newport Cottage, on the Princetown Road daily from 9 to 2, and that he would be happy to attend country calls day or night at as moderate rate.  Only a week later he had removed to the Crapaud area and a new advertisement stressed his “very moderate” terms with produce of all kinds and trade taken as payment when cash was unavailable.  He was remembered as only the second doctor in the district and one reminiscence was that he had a negro assistant who was studying medicine in hopes of going to India to work.

In September 1853 a fifth child was born to Henry and his wife Cecilia although strangely the place of birth is shown as Georgetown. By mid-January 1854 the mother was dead, possibly from complications of the birth, as the obituary mentions several months of intense suffering.  Only a few months later in September 1854, perhaps not surprisingly for a widower with five small children, the 31 year old Hillcoat re-married. His second wife, Hellen Gertrude Bell, was the daughter of Joseph Bell, a medical doctor living in St. Eleanor’s. She was eighteen at the time. Dr. Hillcoat had removed to Charlottetown by June of that year and was living in Keppoch House where he advertised consulting hours between 9 am and 2 pm.  Hillcoat purchased the Keppoch Estate on the east side of the entrance to Charlottetown Harbour and he warned of legal action against any persons taking away seaweed or trespassing on the premises. The property had been owned by Charlottetown merchant and shipbuilder James Duncan. The Keppoch farm was 232 acres and included a substantial house. The deed for the property was not executed until March 1855 and shows that Hillcoat had paid the not inconsiderable sum of £1,200 Island currency for the property.

Hillcoat’s young family continued to grow with son born in September 1855 and another in 1856. The final addition to the family was a son born in October 1857.

There is some evidence that Hillcoat was accumulating debts  by this time. Actions filed in the Island courts note non-payment of notes including two totaling more than £800 owing to a Liverpool merchant with the very Welsh name of John Thomas Thomas. One of the larger debts was not satisfied until the 1870s, long after Hillcoat had left the Island.

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Examiner 15 February 1858

By 1857 it appears that Hillcoat had resolved to quit the Island. In October he advertised this intention stating that he would leave for Port Nelson on South Island New Zealand the following July in a vessel called the Snow Drift and that he would have room for a few passengers. Although there was much in newspapers concerning the gold fields of Australia the valuable ore had also been found in New Zealand and several companies were advertising land available. There were several groups if Islanders that successfully voyaged to New Zealand at this time. Before leaving for the gold fields it appears that Hillcoat temporarily returned to England, for in April of 1858 he was to be found aboard the ship Majestic bound for Prince Edward Island. A fire aboard meant the loss of the ship with a close-call rescue of the crew and passengers at the last minute. The story of the fire aboard the Majestic is found here.

At the time of advertising, Dr. Hillcoat’s new ship had not yet been built but it was launched in April the following spring from the shipyard of R. Barker of Vernon River. In the summer of 1858, the brigantine left Charlottetown. It is not known if Hillcoat succeeded in finding any passengers willing to make a voyage half-way around the world in what was, even for the time, a very small vessel.

Notwithstanding the assertion of sailing direct to the gold diggings September of 1858 saw the Snow Drift in the harbour of Port Talbot, a port in southern Wales, near Swansea.  There the voyage came to a premature end owing to a disaster in the family.

While Hillcoat was writing in the cabin of the vessel which was planned to depart for Cadiz, one of his children asked to go to the boat to retrieve a model vessel he had left there. The lad unfortunately fell into the water trying to reach the model. His father hearing the child’s cries leapt into the water and although he was able to reach the child and the boy succeeded in reaching an oar held out to him. Hillcoat was not so lucky and was drowned leaving a widow and eight children. The large family was left with resources, their sole asset being the Snow Drift which, according to Welsh papers “had not paid its expenses.” Several of the news accounts noted a charitable fund being set up for the family.

It is probable that his widow and their younger children returned to Prince Edward Island and the Bell family while the older children were cared for by the Hillcoat family relatives in England.  Several of the former group were living on Prince Edward Island or in New Brunswick in 1881, as was their mother.  As well, several of the children of Henry and Cecilia eventually emigrated to Australia. Even without a lasting legacy the story of a restless doctor who travelled the Empire is part of Prince Edward’s Island’s story.

I am indebted to Welsh researcher Lynne Rees whose query about Hillcoat and Keppoch caused me to look more closely at the man and who added much to this story.


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