Stranger Things Have Happened at Sea
Investigating a mysterious letter, Curator Joanna Espin discovers a deeply personal window onto a journey taken 135 years ago...
While auditing and packing the museum collection, I came across a very intriguing envelope. It is addressed to ‘Clark B Holbrook, Springfield’, the next line is quite illegible, and then it reads ‘U. S of A’. There are lots of hand stamp impressions on the envelope, marking it as ‘UNDELIVERED’, ‘RETURN TO SENDER’, and ‘Insufficient address’. There are also several dates stamps: ‘1912’, ‘1913’, and then a huge jump through the years to ‘1967’ and ‘1968’.
We have the letter that accompanies the envelope, dated 1881, which gives the impression that it was bouncing around the postal system for over 80 years. However, this is unlikely, and is more probably a case of postal mischief or accidental reposting. It may have been undeliverable because of the illegibility of the State or because there are 38 towns named Springfield in the United States.
Undelivered letters are very evocative; communication in 1881 across long distances was very dependent on letters. One can imagine how important receiving word from loved ones was, and how one might worry if news did not arrive.
This letter was written by Charles Holbrook to his brother Clark B Holbrook, at sea near Queenstown, during his voyage from New York to Liverpool. Charles writes to his ‘Dear Brother’ of the ‘pleasant weather’ initially enjoyed on board, which deteriorated to fog with ‘head wind’, ‘high waves’, a wet deck ‘and everything uncomfortable’.
The envelope bears the stamp of the S.S Richmond, Inman Steam Ship Company. Although the ship was designed and built for the passenger trade, you can imagine that, in a sea as potentially turbulent as the Atlantic, a crossing could be quite unpleasant, and sea sickness was often suffered by passengers making this journey.
Charles Holbrook wrote that he ‘stood the voyage as well as could be expected and hope to improve soon as I get on shore’. In fact ship life seems to have been rather dull; he writes that the voyage is ‘tedious with but little to enliven it’, with his fellow passengers providing little distraction. On board was the ‘usual average of a crowd’, with a few exceptions including ‘one Banker from London’. The stand out enjoyment from the crossing was ‘the passing of a great steamship at night with all her coloured lights… signalling us as she passed all her way to our native land’.
Sadly, I have not been able to trace the passenger record for Charles’s passage from New York to Liverpool. According to Ancestry.co.uk, ‘ no official lists of passengers exist in any local repositories in the UK prior to 1889’.
However, I was able to locate Charles Holbrook’s 1881 passport application, which lists information useful to a family history search such as the date and place of his birth. There is also a detailed description of his appearance. He was 5 feet 10 inches tall, with a ‘broad’ forehead’, ‘light blue’ eyes, ‘slightly Roman’ nose, ‘medium’ mouth and ‘large’ face. It’s like finding a cartoon of the person you’re researching. How accurate these descriptions are is questionable, though; on a further passport application seven years later, Charles’s mouth is described as ‘large’, so it would seem that the size of one’s mouth is really down to personal interpretation. Regardless, the descriptions bring an image of Charles to mind, and we are lucky to have access to such records.
Charles Holbrook returned to the United States on a passenger ship named SS Gallia, which arrived in New York from Liverpool on 20 December 1881, 117 days after the date of the letter. The Gallia, a Cunard transatlantic passenger liner, could carry 300 first class passengers and 1200 steerage (the cheapest class) passengers. There were two baths on board for all passengers and crew, which you can imagine were in high demand during a crossing which could take two weeks.
Charles Holbrook died in the San Francisco area at the age of 94, and his Funeral Record lists his occupation as a ‘Retired Hardware Merchant’. Clark Holbrook, the brother to whom Charles wrote the letter, was born and died in Swanzey, New Hampshire, over 3000 miles from Charles in San Francisco.
Despite finding some rich sources about Charles Holbrook, we still don’t know what prompted his trip from New York to Liverpool and back. One can wonder at whether their correspondence continued to keep them in touch across this great distance, and indeed whether they ever saw each other again.
– Joanna Espin, Curator