Allow me to introduce you to Lady Isabella Lucy Bird. Never heard of her? Don’t worry – before this week, I hadn’t either. But as luck would have it, I chanced upon a quote of hers pertaining to a visit she made to Charlottetown, followed up on it, and stumbled upon the content of this post. Forewarned is forearmed, however – you’ve a bit of reading ahead of you.
Where to begin? Well, perhaps from the beginning. Lady Isabella Lucy Bird was born on 15 October, 1831 at Boroughbridge Hall in Yorkshire, England. Her mother was Dora Lawson, the daughter of a clergyman, and her father was the Reverend Edward Bird. She was largely educated by her parents and precocious in nature, and likely would have made for a gifted scholar had she chosen to go that route; Bird, however, was a curious soul born to do one thing: to travel the world. To explore.
Travel was something that came early in Bird’s life. Between 1832 and 1848, the family moved three different times as the Reverend Bird’s ministries took him across England. Beginning in the 1850s, she began to extend her horizons in earnest, and by the time of her death in October 1904 a week shy of her 73rd birthday, had succeeded in quite literally travelling the world. She’d explored Australia, North America, Asia, Malaysia, the Pacific, India, Africa, and the Middle East. In the process, she’d cemented a formidable reputation as an explorer, writer, photographer, naturalist, and woman of grand adventure. She managed to squeeze in a short-lived – and ill-fated – marriage to an Edinburgh doctor, John Bishop, and in November 1892 became the first woman ever elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Bird travelled more in her lifetime than many people do today. And one of the very first places she ever visited outside of her native England? Why, little old Prince Edward Island! But in order to tell the story, we have to travel back to the days before she became a famous explorer and writer, when she left the nest (pun intended) for the very first time.
It was the Summer of 1854, and at the behest of her doctors, Bird was set to embark on a voyage across the Atlantic to North America. Always quite sickly as a child (spinal issues, nervous headaches, and insomnia, to name but a few ailments), she had recently had a tumour removed from her spine. Travel, her doctors felt, would do her a world of good. With a sizeable sum of money in hand courtesy of her father, Bird took passage on board the Cunard liner Canada. North America wasn’t necessarily her first choice of destination; however, as it just so happened, her cousins, Swabeys, were heading in that direction, on their way to visit their parents in Prince Edward Island. It seemed as good an opportunity as any to cut her teeth in the wider world.
The Canada departed Liverpool on July 22, and by the 30th it had reached Halifax, where Bird and her cousins disembarked. The party spent a grand total of two days in the city which, Bird later admitted, she largely detested (sorry, Haligonians). By the first of August, the troupe had begun the journey north, passing through Truro and Pictou, where passage was booked on the Lady Le Marchant, a tiny steamer used in the conveyance of mails and persons between Nova Scotia, the Island, and New Brunswick. The journey across the Northumberland Strait was rather undesirable. As Bird would later write, a strong head wind and rough water earned them “five hours of the greatest possible discomfort”. The Island, however, proved a sight for sore eyes (but really, when doesn’t it?).
The Lady Le Marchant docked at the wharf in Charlottetown and Bird’s relatives, whom she’d never met, were there to welcome them, whisking them away to Captain William Swabey‘s sizeable red-brick mansion where she would spend the majority of her six-week sojourn on the Island.
With time on her hands, Bird set about making a keen study of the Island’s capital, just a year away from becoming an incorporated city. She took note of many things, which wound up forming over thirty pages of her first travelogue, The Englishwoman in America (1856). Some of her descriptions are simply too delightful and spot on not to share in full.
Of the landscape, Bird wrote:
There are several commons in the town, the grass of which is of a peculiarly brilliant green, and, as these are surrounded by houses, they give it a cheerful appearance. The houses are small, and the stores by no means pretentious. The streets are unlighted, and destitute of side walks; there is not an attempt at paving, and the grips across them are something fearful. “Hold on” is a caution as frequently given as absolutely necessary. I have travelled over miles of corduroy road in a springless waggon, and in a lumber waggon, drawn by oxen, where there was no road at all, but I never experienced anything like the merciless joint-dislocating jolting which I met with in Charlotte Town.
She couldn’t help but notice how politics and religion had conspired to wreak havoc on social interaction:
I never saw a community in which people appeared to hate each other so cordially. The flimsy veil of etiquette does not conceal the pointed sneer, the malicious inuendo, the malignant backbiting, and the unfounded slander.
Or, for that matter, how differences might be settled:
It may be remarked, however, that society is not on so safe a footing as in England. Such things as duels, but of a very bloodless nature, have been known; people occasionally horsewhip and kick each other; and if a gentleman indulges in the pastime of breaking the windows of another gentleman, he receives a bullet for his pains.
She was even fortunate enough to be able to attend Sir Dominick Daly‘s first-ever party as Lt. Governor, a position to which he had only recently been named. There she had the honour of rubbing shoulders with the likes of the “prime minister”, the Hon. George Coles:
He is a self-made and self-educated man, and by his own energy, industry, and perseverance, has raised himself to the position which he now holds; and if his manners have not all the finish of polite society, and if he does sometimes say “Me and the governor,” his energy is not less to be admired.
But her keenest observation?
I should think that Charlotte Town may bear away the palm for being the most gossiping [place of any she visited in North America].
She goes on to write:
There is a general and daily flitting about of its inhabitants after news of their neighbours – all that is said and done within a three-mile circle is reported, and, of course, a great deal of what has neither been said nor done. There are certain people whose business it is to make mischief, and mischief-making is a calling in which it does not require much wit to be successful.
What’s that saying the French have? Oh, right – plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose!
After a while, however, Bird began to grow restless and yearned to venture outside the environs of Charlottetown…so that’s precisely what she did. On one excursion, she appears to have travelled up the Hillsborough River to Mount Stewart where, in the company of friends and the Reverend Dr. Louis Charles Jenkins, she visited an “Indian [Mi’kmaq] village”.
For her final week on the Island, Bird opted to spend it as far away from Charlottetown as she could get, embarking on a five-day tour to reaches north-west accompanied once more by the Reverend Dr. L.C. Jenkins and his daughter. The journey proved a “delightful change”:
It was a relief from Charlotte Town, with its gossiping morning calls, its malicious stories, its political puerilities, its endless discussions on servants, turnips, and plovers; it was a bound into a region of genuine kindness and primitive hospitality.
Travelling by horse-drawn wagon, the party appears to have headed towards the North Shore before turning west along the coast for a piece. At some point, they began to move south, for they eventually ended up in St. Eleanor’s and then Green’s Shore, an old name for Summerside, where a fisherman kindly took them out on his boat and taught them the ins and outs of catching mackerel.
Their journey took them further west, where they crossed the Grand River and attended a service at Port Hill (“one of the most desolate-looking places I ever saw”), catching a glimpse of Lennox Island in the process. Next up was Bedeque, where they were kindly put up by none other than Joseph Pope, a prominent figure in political circles.
On their last day, according to Bird, they covered the entire distance from Bedeque to Charlottetown in one go. Having developed a taste for the rural lifestyle of Islanders, she was a bit disappointed to find herself in the capital, and eager to leave; but forces beyond her control would conspire to have her stay just a little bit longer.
On the day of her planned departure, Bird arranged travel once again on the Lady Le Marchant, this time to New Brunswick by way of Bedeque, where she hoped to continue her exploration of the Maritimes before venturing across the border into the United States; however, miscommunications led to delays, and the vessel only put to sea (barely) at nightfall:
An amusing scene of bungling marked our departure from Charlotte Town. The captain, a sturdy old Northumbrian seaman, thoroughly understood his business; but the owners of the ship compelled him to share its management with a very pertinacious pilot, and the conflicting orders given, and the want of harmony in the actions produced, gave rise to many reflections on the evils of divided responsibility…in an attempt to get the steamer off she ran stern foremost upon the bowsprit of a schooner, then broke one of the piles of the wharf to pieces, crushing her fender to atoms at the same time. Some persons on the pier compassionating our helplessness, attempted to stave the ship off with long poles, but this well-meant attempt failed, as did several others, until some one suggested to the captain the very simple expedient of working the engines, when the steamer moved slowly away, smashing the bulwarks of a new brig, and soon in the dark and murky atmosphere the few lights of Charlotte Town ceased to be visible.
The compass was then required, but the matches in the ship hung fire; and when a passenger at length produced a light, it was discovered that the lamp in the binnacle was without that essential article, oil. Meanwhile, no one had ascertained what had caused the heavy smash at the outset, and certain timid persons, in the idea that a hole had been knocked in the ship’s side, were in continual apprehension that she would fill and sink.
By dawn the following morning, the Lady Le Marchant had made it to Bedeque, amid a heavy rain. The Jenkins’, who had agreed to travel with Bird this far, convinced her to come ashore and dry herself before the steamer raised anchor once more. From there, it was across the Strait to Shediac, and on to a lifetime of adventure after adventure after adventure.
So there you have it: before she became a world-famous explorer, Lady Isabella Lucy Bird explored the Island. I borrowed heavily from her anecdotes of her time here, but she has such a way with words that I couldn’t resist. So I’ll end with her final thoughts on the Island:
I cordially wish its people every prosperity. They are loyal, moral, and independent…when their trade and commerce shall have been extended, and when a more suitable plan has been adopted for the support of religion; when large portions of waste land have been brought under cultivation, and local resources have been farther developed, people will be too much occupied with their own affairs to busy themselves, as now, either with the affairs of others, or with the puerile politics of so small a community; and then the Island will deserve the title which has been bestowed on it, “The Garden of British America.”
PEI History Guy
P.S. – Because I got sort of carried away with today’s post, I decided to cut out information here and there (believe it or not). Whenever you see red text, be sure to give it a click for further reading!
P.P.S. – As you can see, I was hard up for photographic material this week. Mea culpa.
January 23, 2016 at 12:23 am
This is brilliant, imagine we are moving to Charlotte Town, reading this I am thinking oh my what are we in for. Of course we have been to PEI so all this is too funny for words. However I think it is still a place were gossip is inevitable given the size of the place and everyone seems to know everyone else.
January 25, 2016 at 10:21 am
Although a lot of the observations Bird made have since improved (more or less), you’re right: that thing about Islanders and gossip certainly hasn’t gone away.
January 25, 2016 at 4:32 pm
Well we are ready for our 2 week visit in February and we already have lots of people to meet, we do not know any of them, but they have heard of us, through the grapevine. LOL! We have even had people call us here at home, introduce themselves and we realize they know people we know in common. Suggesting more people we should meet. Now what I take from that is that PEI sounds like a really friendly place. I wonder would they supply us with free groceries? Just kidding.
January 26, 2016 at 9:58 am
Islanders – we’re friendly to a fault! And while you may only be kidding about ‘free groceries’, don’t be surprised if people do approach you with offers of food!
January 24, 2016 at 12:08 pm
“I should think that Charlotte Town may bear away the palm for being the most gossiping [place of any she visited in North America].”
As you said, the more things change…….