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Around the World in 384 Days

‘The Journal of Victor Emmanuel Smyth, made on a Voyage to Australia’

Ever since I found a battered typescript in my parents’ house, about a decade back, at this time of year my thoughts quite often turn to Victor Emmanuel Smyth (1856-1947), the younger brother of my great-great-grandfather, who in 1875, set out on what was essentially an all-expenses-paid gap year around the world, in the company of two of his 15 siblings(!), Geraldine and Julian, just four years after Phileas Fogg had ‘done’ it.

An Irishman of comfortably (upper?-)middle-class status (the family owned a tony grocery at No.7 (St) Stephen’s Green, Dublin), Victor Emmanuel had no idea why he ‘was called after the gallant king of Italy,’ but he had been to schools in France, Switzerland and Germany as well as Ireland (perhaps as a result of his mother’s early death, and his father’s relatively-quick remarriage), and come out clearly educated, if not excessively bookish (he mentions reading once or twice, but with few direct literary references: I get the sense he might have been familiar with Fielding, or Thackeray).

At any rate, he had a fully-functioning – one might say noticeably Anglo-Irish – sense of humour, and, buoyed along, sure enough, by the benefits of race, class and money, appears to approach the world with an anecdotally informed and not at all incurious attitude. With good cheer, snatches of insight, and no more flippancy than one might justifiably expect from a 19-year-old, he commits facts and figures, puns and criticisms to his daily diary of derring-do (good Type 2 fun, at least), storm-tossed (and boredom-ravaged) ocean voyages, an almost literally-never-ending procession of church services (of which much more later), and a disconcerting focus on insane asylums… I merely mention now that only two of them returned – for reasons that, I hope, are still not clear to me.

His ‘Journal’, no doubt, was never meant for public (or even familial?) readership, so there may well be much that Victor left out – as well, of course, as things we might wish were not there.

Neither an anthropologist (even by the Victorians’ deeply questionable standards), nor, I feel, egregiously judgemental as an individual, it’s only right to acknowledge that VES was also no more and no less than a man of his time, and his journal uses several terms for people of non-European origin that, while not being concertedly unpleasant in intent – one survey ends, ‘the white men just as bad’ – would nevertheless not meet our contemporary standards.

On the more personal level, his ‘Journal’ refers to the wandering trio as (among other nicknames) ‘the Exiles of Erin’; but if they were in any sense ‘sent away’ on business there is not one overt mention of it. Unhelpfully (for me), he does not spell out who all their friends and/or relations are. Indeed, he doesn’t always get his spellings right at all (at one point noting, reasonably, that trying to jot things down while on a tram, e.g., can be troublesome). Other things – the Kent and Sister Islands? – may just have changed their names since then.

Still: if his adventures don’t quite warrant medals at the Royal Geographical Society (he seems to have taken most things in his jaunty stride, after all), his trip remains a nonetheless amped-up and enviable Grand Tour for the late-industrial era – and, thanks to his neatly-written 208-page ‘Journal’, a highly-colourful snapshot of a whole range of famous destinations in an age and state we can no longer easily imagine now.



The voyage had an inauspicious start, when, departing from Kent on Thursday 4th November, ‘in the good barque The True Briton’ (Capt. George M. Miller; 47 passengers on board), their ship was instantly becalmed for a full fortnight. ‘Quite weak and painfully thin from want of food,’ Victor wrote – jokingly? – somewhere off Dover. One woman disembarked at Plymouth and lost her ‘passage money’, Victor seizing this opportunity to buy four more bottles of sherry.

But by the 18th they were ‘off at last, weather beautiful and coast scenery very pretty. Men of war firing salutes as I pass.’ And then on the 19th: ‘Wind high. Sea rough and ship going backwards. Very sick. Got up for half an hour and then retired for rest of day.’

Now, though, they were well out to sea – a few hundred miles of the coast of Brazil, specifically – getting used to the routine and their fellow passengers, struggling with the increasing heat as they approached the equator, spotting other ships and, if they were very lucky, exchanging a few visitors. ‘Landlubbers can have but little idea how much we enjoyed those few hours.’

Gales had been endured, and shipmates told off for getting drunk. Stewards fought (‘Henry got the worst of it, his face was seen to great advantage next day’). On the 23rd a chicken died (‘flag half mast!’), and in December they ‘got lime juice for the first time, which we all thought delicious.’

The endless sweltering days left him with plenty of time to hone his chirpy aperçus (‘Got a sight of Madeira in the glass. Oh!’ ‘Ship on weather bow (wow!). A barque?’); which is not to say, if pushed, he wasn’t capable of insight, perhaps even a little poetry:

Oh, if half the artists going could only see such a scene as I haven’t endeavoured to describe I think they would rush at once to their studios and tearing the painted canvas from the easel fling it into the fire where they could view in the flames thus caused a much nearer approach to the representation of a ‘tropical sunset’ than their lifelong application could ever have carried them!

Come the first payday they were treated to ‘the drowning of the dead horse’, a ‘remarkable’ celebration in which a stuffed canvas animal was tended to by ‘a quack vet’, then hoisted to the yard arm with a rider on its back, ‘the sailors chanting in chorus “Whisky for my Johnny,”’ before the luckless horse was dropped into the sea, and the hat passed round for ‘largesse’. ‘The actors in this strange tragedy seem to enjoy it very much, a good deal more than the audience.’

Through mid-December they had Brazil, to their West/starboard.

25th December XMAS DAY: Quiet day. Sea rougher than necessary; champagne ‘a discretion’ at dinner with goose and pork – I mean turkey and roast beef. Geraldine got an Xmas card from Mr. Simpson (miniature painting of ship). Third class passengers got fresh meat for first time. Sailors had sack races etc. Singing in the evening.

The night before, there’d been a gale, which sprung the ‘fore top quarter mast’. The following day, the voyagers would see the Southern Cross for the first time.

New Year came and went – Victor spending the day writing ‘programmes for Monday’s theatricals to sell at 6d each for the Seaman’s Merchant Orphan Asylum box in the saloon’ – and on the 3rd of January,

Had theatricals and miscellaneous entertainment on deck in the evening. The stage was formed of awning and sails lined with flags and carpets out of our cabins on the floor. The piece we played was ‘Advertising for a Wife’ and went off very well, about 90 souls witnessed the affair. I took the part of John.

The next night, ‘I dressed in female’s clothes and caused amusement.’

The rest of the time was spent mending watches (VES was obviously a mechanically-minded sort of bloke), cutting one another’s hair, watching out for wildlife (on whales: ‘they have a blow hole in their backs and blow up a lot of water and air, making nearly as much noise as a locomotive’), exchanging handicrafts, and singing, most often on the part of Geraldine. They did not pass the Cape (400 miles to their North) until mid-January.

Capt. Miller clearly understood the social constraints of the voyage, and did his best to keep the gentlefolk entertained (the Smyths travelled first class wherever possible), with lessons in how to catch an albatross (the trick is pork, apparently), anecdotes about passengers dying on ship and having to be pickled in vinegar-filled coffins, and physics tricks involving corks in bottles.

As for the other classes, though:

31st January: Steerage passengers had a concert in their own cabin. Some of us gents [NB] went for a change, it was a bit common. After the entertainment, there was a row and the Captain sent third officer Mr. Tracey to put them all to bed.

On 14th February, ‘nearly everyone’ got Valentine’s cards. But perhaps, not unforgivably, the social scene was by now more than a little stale.


On Wednesday 16th February, 104 days since leaving London, they finally passed into Port Philip Bay, the Melbourne harbour.

The ‘Warhawk’ alongside, early with pilot and newspapers. We took a good look at the new men on the tug not having seen strange faces for almost three months.

Melbourne had been the first and foremost destination of the trip, and VES, Geraldine and Julian spent the next four months visiting friends and relations, enjoying galleries and public spaces, touring municipal facilities like hospitals, prisons, mints, water works and lunatic asylums, and generally leaving their cards any- and everywhere they thought looked interesting.

They learned to ‘use insect powder at lib on our beds, we’re in the Colonies!’; travelled to places with names from Emu Creek to Sandhurst (Bendigo); visited several vineyards (‘Geraldine unwell, too many grapes!’); and at one point nearly got a seat – so to speak – in the General Assembly, ‘but owing to the crowd we were disappointed.’

On 16th March, Victor descended the Pandora Gold Mine, ‘and wept when I thought how “sinful man” goes to the trouble of digging up the root of all evil from 800 or 900 ft under the earth!’ They were in the ‘outback’ to see some cousins, and spent the time riding, exploring the flora and fauna (‘Passion fruit 1/- a dozen. Something like an egg and very nice flavour’; ‘nervous about sharks which gobble up men and horses when they get at them’), decapitating domestic fowls (‘Lady Jane Grey – nothing to it!’), and dealing with the heat: ‘Hottest day here these 15 years… 112º in the shade!’

Young Victor had a handy line in hotel criticism – ‘There is a moist feeling about everything especially the bedclothes’ – and I imagine he would have had a lot of fun on Tripadvisor, and/or on social media generally.

His main ‘thing’, though, was for religious services. Granted there was no Netflix to binge one’s way through; but he went to them absolutely everywhere, routinely more than once in any Sunday and often to diverse denominations. On one occasion, he didn’t know what kind of church he was in, until a reference to ‘Dutch guns and omelettes’ somehow let on that it was Unitarian. On another, he heard the same sermon twice within a single day. Of the Wesleyan (his?) church on Brunswick St, Melbourne, he notes: ‘seats terribly hard, found great relief in padding my country seat with sundry garments (don’t tell!).’

They even wandered uninvited into ‘the Chinese Joss House’ – ”Pon my word, the place banged Banagher and no mistake’ – and through there into a ‘Chinese place of worship,’ decked out with ‘inscriptions in the celestial tongue’ and ‘a painting of a chinaman glittering with gold who …we put down as some great gun, maybe a canon of their church.’ They then committed some infraction and were thrown out.

He sometimes exhibited a slightly inept streak that wouldn’t have been out of place in Three Men in a Boat. When lent a gun by a friend of a friend, and asked to take care of it, he promptly lost the ramrod (‘which was loose’); and upon visiting ‘the chemists to buy laudanum for my ear… leaning on a counterpane of glass which had been cemented it collapsed. Chemist wouldn’t take compensation.’

But otherwise Victor exuded all the automatic confidence of a young man from the Empire’s second city, from passing judgement on Canterbury Park – ‘a newly laid out public garden, also the lending library. Saw nothing new at either place, although everything was new’ – to being sniffy about the local brass band scene: ‘the music here is as a rule very barbarous.’

In Melbourne, Victor and ‘Ger’ got themselves ‘phrenologised’ – and while this was doubtless just done on a lark (even Queen Victoria apparently had her own phrenologist), on 17th March, they ‘bade Julian and our kind relatives farewell…’ and here their brother drops out of the record. A cousin tells me that he died in Melbourne (in 1887?), and may not have been – in the precise words of one older relative – ‘all there’. I find myself strongly hoping this was not the unadvertised purpose of the voyage. But then it might explain Victor’s repeated interest in a certain brand of institution.

In early April Victor and Geraldine (plus others; they were always picking up travelling companions of one sort or another), took a week’s side trip across to Tasmania, landing at Launceston and getting a coach 120 miles south – ’13 stops in all, with romantic names such as Jericho, Jerusalem and Baghdad. Driver screwed all the time…’ – to Hobart. They missed out on meeting the aboriginal ‘Queen’ Truganini (‘she kicked the bucket a fortnight later’), and on the boat back to Melbourne ‘a certain ecclesiastic named Shaun fell into bacchanal snares which got the better of him.’

Back in Melbourne, they found much of their stuff had been pinched from the Seymours’ shed/warehouse. And on 21st April they watched some sort of Labour Day parade, then went to a depressing cricket match ‘between so called Aboriginals (only half castes) and the South Melbourne Cricket Club. The darkies, who seemed to be all drunk, lost the game and although the Governor Sir George Bowen honoured the players with his presence, the greatest indifference was displayed on both sides.’

Victor had close shaves with quite a lot of royalty, in fact, as he recounts in one of his more-spectacular entries:

15th May: Went over the female portion of the Kew Lunatic Asylum which is a fine building and contains over 400 imbeciles. One woman followed me with a jam crock which made me somewhat uneasy, another imagined herself Queen of somewhere, a Mrs. Trotter had to be kept in a yard by herself with a straightjacket on, when we saw her she was singing ‘Tom Finnegan’s Wake’. One old crone abused us right and left for coming on her washing day, another was making neckties with great rapidity and taste out of her flannel petticoat and one suffering from a religious mania was very violent, preaching sermons without texts and had to wear great leather flappers on her head with which she made a terrible row. About as sad a sight as we witnessed were 3 little idiots in a nursery sitting in chairs quite helplessly.

At this point I remind myself that ‘Finnegan’ would have rung a rather different bell to book-learned types born and brought up before the emergence of that other peripatetic Dubliner, James Joyce. Ditto, that VES travelled a world which as yet knew nothing of even the Boer War (either of them), let alone the two world wars to come. Victor himself – it seems extraordinary – would live to see all of these.

Meanwhile, he celebrated his 20th birthday (on the 20th May) with a visit to the synagogue: ‘the girls had to go to the gallery. All the men down to the Rabbi kept their hats on and most had towels thrown across their shoulders. There did not appear to me to be much solemnity in the service. We went to the St Francis R C Church after.’

And four days later, the local armed forces celebrated Queen Victoria’s birthday (‘a general holiday here, all shops closed’) with a ‘review at the Albert Park in the afternoon and sham fight between guard ships in the bay and shore batteries.’

On 6th June the already substantial trip kicked itself up a gear. ‘We have decided upon going to New Zealand at once and thence home by the Overland Route across America.’

They said their various goodbyes, changed their money – Geraldine carrying £100 in gold in a bag under her dress – and boarded the Alhambra. Waved off at the docks by a dozen or so friends and family, Victor wrote, ‘I know of nothing more unpleasant than seeing friends off in the rain especially if at the time one is fighting with the emotions.’

Another rough crossing gave him more time and scope for character assassination, not least of a ‘Mrs Ching… who is passionately fond of the song the ‘Ten Little N***** Boys’ [asterisks mine] when it is well sung’ (lots to unpack, there!), the flirty Miss Dowling from Melbourne, and ‘a maiden with a superabundance of brain to whom the cook presents apples when she is sick.’


19th June: Hove to outside Hokitika at 5.30pm, fired the cannon, sent up a rocket and burnt a blue light, all of these signs intending to convey to those on shore that we should feel obliged by their sending out the tug to take us ashore, but their answer was ‘wait until morning’.

The Captain ‘stood’ a customary supper of hot potatoes and red herrings and stout at 9 o’clock which if we did not enjoy as a repast we did as a novelty.

Their experience of the frontier-ish gold-mining town of Hokitika will ring bells with anyone who’s ploughed through Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries; but they had missed the rush. Though there was some listless, small-scale sluicing still going on in various parts,

There are only 2 streets running at right angles, the one facing the river at the back, the other facing the sea, the houses without exception are wood. Bricks I’m told cost 3d each. The immediate surroundings of the town are swamps with old drains, stumps of trees, broken fences and lots of ferns. As it happens, for a wonder to be a fine day (it rains daily as a rule here but never snows), Mr. H. took us out for a ride. We first visited the deserted diggings of the Stan [illegible] with its water race said to be 14 miles in length and on to Kaneiri (pronounced Canary), a mining village on the river’s bank.

Figs could be got for 2/-, oranges for 6/-, while the services of a washerwoman for the day would set you back 10/-. Watch-cleaning (a subject close to Victor’s tinkering heart) cost 20/-. ‘They have no coppers here and small silver coins are scarce, postage stamps are generally given as change’; and he was startled to find a 10-word telegram back to Australia was 10/6, ‘address and name of sender counting as words’. But on the plus side, Hokitika ‘boasts of a very fine gas works’, and the down-at-heel feel of the place did not preclude ‘a hired piano’ arriving, so that Miss Smyth could sing. ‘The Owl and the Pussycat was encored 3 times!’

The next day they went to visit ‘a Maori hamlet’, and ‘unwisely all at the same time’ crossing a temporary bridge over a little creek, ‘the bridge gave way and we came down a distance of 6 or 7 feet into a little stream below. Fortunately no-one was hurt…’

Another visit to a Maori village proved more profitable. They toured the school – where ‘they read English, pointed out places on the atlas and can write, all in a way European[s] would not be ashamed of’ – and noted that the Maoris seemed well off (specifically from land rents) and were represented in Parliament. They also visited the ‘runanga’ or council chamber:

in one corner is a table with a cloth, handbell and some prayer books in Maori upon it, and in the centre of the room is an iron bar, upon which during debates they hinge a wooden figure about 40 inches in height in such a manner that it can be turned towards any speaker in the rooms. This is the Chairman and any remarks will please be addressed to him! On his head was a kind of wig with some white feathers stuck in it, an apron of sheepskin with the hairy side in and a pair of soiled balbriggans hanging about his ankles was all the clothing he wore. The body was painted brown and carved all over to resemble tattooing. A round hole in his breadbasket to receive the handle of a hatchet and I presume to command respect for the ruling of the Chair.

Staying with some step-cousins, Victor was set to chasing errant donkeys, clearing huge tree stumps from the section behind the house (‘a very healthy occupation, it is but unprofitable, as after many days labour I left the stumps very much as I found them’), and dressing up as a woman (again) to amuse the children. On the 26th he attended ‘a lecture on Shakespeare in aid of the Literary Society’, which was ‘not much’; and on the 30th ‘Mrs. Tabart sent in 5 caw caws (a sort of mongrel parrot) for eating.’

On 1st July, he and Mr Hardcastle went out shooting. ‘We got separated on arrival in the wood, and remained so all day’ to the considerable anxiety of his hosts. ‘Became pretty well acquainted with New Zealand vegetation this day if not with its game.’ The 5th was an especially big day: ‘Got up, remained so, and then went to bed.’

Ever interested in the technical/commercial side of things, Victor was not blind to the aggressive deforestation, and other inevitable eco-effects.

In one place, there was a great hole dug about 50’ deep at the bottom of which was a tunnel for carrying off the water and earth and through which the hose was brought which conveys the water used in the washing. The sides of this chasm are blown in with gunpowder as required. I was told this undertaking had already cost £1400 and as yet no gold had been found. In another direction, we saw a small hill nearly washed away. This work is playing old Harry with the land as in once place one sees but a vast heap of stones and in another lower level nothing but mud.

In late July they steamered up to Nelson, and thence to Auckland, where, the Albert Hotel being full, ‘we had to content ourselves with rooms in the very horrid Star Hotel’. The ‘household odour’ was terrible, they draped their handkerchiefs over the pillows, and the next night ‘our landlord threatened to cast a plate of hot soup at his mother in law’. A couple of days later, a Mrs. Moss showed him some pictures of Fijians, including ‘a Fiji pillow of bamboo (drawing) after which I did not mind the soiled pillow covers so much.’

They bought and/or were given souvenirs (‘it seems the rule here to show kindness on every possible occasion’), and on the evening of the 1st August boarded the City of New York (‘a fine steamer but … by no means a comfortable passenger vessel’): ‘We spent the time up to 11.15pm in the ‘Social Hall’ or deck saloon in which there is a piano which was for a considerable time manipulated by a young man who laboured under a false impression with regard to his musical talents.’

The ship had Fire Brigade exercise at 3 o’clock sharp, in which the firemen (all ‘chinamen’, apparently) ‘performed with commendable alacrity’. After this, the stewards (‘all West Indian half bloods’) ‘underwent an examination before the captain … having to take off boots and stockings’. And every morning all the cabins were inspected ‘on sanitary grounds I believe’ – which sounds suspiciously as though they thought someone (of whatever standing or ethnicity) might use the cover of the fire drills to purloin things.

On 6th August they stopped at Kandavu in Fiji, to meet the Sydney boat.

Our ship was very soon surrounded by a fleet of boats manned by natives with green coconuts, green lemons, oranges and bananas for sale. These are a jolly looking lots of fellows, generally in prime condition, which we were in a good position to judge of as they do not strictly adhere to our idea of fashion as far as clothing goes, one man had a sheet partly thrown over him and a small red shell tied by a string around the neck completed his outfit. Their hair is naturally black and grows long and very dense, but they shave it off and plaster the head with lime, the aftercrop turns out of a reddish hue. No accounting for taste, even here!

Here ‘our small party is now increased by an Opera Company… who set us all an example in honesty, sobriety and quiet demeanour, etc.’ (this must be irony. I have met opera singers.) – as well as a couple of travelling preachers, one of whom, needless to say, ‘we heard lecture in Melbourne and were recognised at once.’ Victor particularly liked the Rev Charles Clark: ‘He said it is all fudge for parsons to be telling people not to be thinking so much about making money, they are only too glad to get it themselves when they can.’

The following day was once again the 6th of August,

and a Sunday also. By some stratagems in navigation we have gained 24 hours. This is I believe owing to our passing from the east to the west longitude. It has put us out very much but the mate says tomorrow we shall have a change which is a consolation as when one is not used to it it is very monotonous being forever on 6th August 1876. Wonder how the Fijians can stand it.

Although in NZ he’d been briefly puzzled as to how a telegram would arrive in Melbourne ‘earlier’ than it left Hokitika, crossing the date-line he was plainly unperplexed, unlike P. Fogg, whose whole bet (ludicrously) almost came unstuck over this issue. The change of company proved tricky, though: ‘There are a great number of Smiths on board; my neighbour at meals is a Smith and when he ventures a remark it’s hard to know which of us he is addressing.’

Smith, Smyth or otherwise, all were seasick as they sailed northeast through the Pacific, and it got hot again as they passed Tonga heading back to the equator. They bathed (briefly) in lukewarm sea water, the ladies slept on mattresses in the social hall, and Victor’s sealing wax stuck to everything in his (desk) drawers. There were immense cockroaches in ‘the “Inferno” that is the baggage room.’ Geraldine did not so much enjoy playing the diva in front of ‘the profession’, and they discovered that while they had originally found bananas tremendously exotic, ‘now that we get them daily we don’t care for them.’

16th August: At 8:30am, we found ourselves at Honolulu, Sandwich Islands [Hawaii, now]. The town is very like a French rural town, the dress of the native male Sandwiches certainly helps to give it that appearance [as] they are all attired in blue blouses and trousers. The women wear one all sufficient garment, a dressing gown extending from the neck to the heels. Some of them had wreaths of lovely flowers on their heads just like Jupiter.

They exchanged money, posted letters, bought fruit (incl. ‘a water melon as big as a Baby and 12 pints of orange cider to wash the other things down’), were driven in buggies to the Pass – ‘where once upon a time a fierce and sanguinary battle took place ending in a complete triumph for the victors who hurled their antagonists down a steep cliff’ – and went to theatre to here the Rev Clark lecture on the Tower of London: ‘the audience was very meagre, the Rev lecturer did not exert himself in consequence.’ They also considered dropping in on the Queen [Emma Kalanikaumaka’amano Kaleleon?lani Na’ea Rooke, since you’re asking] in her palace, ‘but the others backed out of it, not having their cards with them.’

On the whole, Victor concluded, and notwithstanding the mosquitoes (‘poor little Beatrice Johnson appeared in the morning with a face like an ill used batter pudding), ‘this place is a perfect Paradise’. ‘We lose 6 gents and 1 lady here who are so delighted with the place that they are going to remain a month till the next mail is passing.’

Back at sea there was more church, more fire practice, and a full-blown concert – complete with opera singers – which raised £22.5.0 for the Orphan Asylum at San Francisco. ‘Ger who couldn’t get out of it sang ‘Evangeline’ in good style.’ But ‘the Rev Chas Clark played the fool and got called to order by Mrs Davenport whereupon he went below ashamed of himself.’


On August 25th they sighted the mist-draped Californian coast, where Victor ‘failed to observe the beauty of the “Gate” or to see the “Gold”.’ He wasn’t that much more excited by the hotel/railroad touts all round the wharves, the San Francisco ‘customers’ (customs officials), or the coachman who parked ‘several cwt of luggage’ on or about our his neck and backbone.

He was, however, impressed by the 2000-room Palace Hotel (‘the largest in the world I suppose’), the First Congregational Church (‘the prettiest and most comfortable church I was ever in’, and with paid singers), and the cost and quality of the Chinese laundries (America particularly lent itself to Victor’s thirst for industrial-type facts and figures). All the same, he concluded, ‘there is very little to be seen in Frisco,’ and ‘with tact the City could be done in a day.’

Speaking of tact, he notes ‘the young ladies [I am assuming he means prostitutes] are very much “got up” and pain profusely.’ He also finds the American ‘very fond of sweets and ice creams’, and the Frisco bankers ‘rather smart‘. I can’t tell if he means sharp business practices, because he then goes on to praise the quality of leather goods, buying ‘a portmanteau for $16 and the nicest pair of boots I ever wore, ready made for $8 = 32/-.

They ‘went over the Mint’ (natch) – where ‘our guide said each coin is weighed 13 times’ – toured a Mechanics Fair and Woodwards Gardens (aquarium/zoo/botanical), and made a day trip to a dusty San Jose ‘(San O-za)’. On their return that night,

A very considerable fire broke out in the city at 11pm. Of course I ran out to see it at once and met Mr. Johnson at the door going on the same errand. We remained at the scene till 2.30am when the Brigade had to the mastery. A whole block consisting of 80 wooden houses and the German Hospital were destroyed. The 60 patients who were in the latter building at the time of the outbreak were removed to a place of safety. There was great danger for some time of the fire spreading owing to the wind but fortunately the breeze fell at 3 o/c and the fire got under. I counted 12 fire engines at the scene, one fireman was killed, the damage being estimated at from 600,000 to 1 million dollars.

Checking in at ‘an ugly Post Office’ (wherein the counters were segregated by gender), they found a ‘letter from Father who wishes us to see Yosemite where we has not intended going.’ Still, Father was paying for everything, so they bought their tickets ($106 for 2), despatched their trunks halfway across the continent, and rather grudgingly set off on what was, to be fair, a long and grimy dogleg via train and coach.

Whether reasonably or otherwise, Victor contrived to be quite unimpressed here also.

1st September: The great feature of the Yosemite is the various waterfalls over perpendicular granite cliffs some 2 or 3,000 feet high but it happens that there is but little water at present either in the falls or lakes and the valley is bereft for the time of its principal attractions. I must say, after all I had heard of the place, that I was disappointed with it at first sight, and on leaving doubted in my inmost heart whether the game even at the proper time of the year ‘vallait la chandelle’.

But a horse ride the next day did get the blood flowing a little.

Here it is I got one of the jolliest frights I ever got, it happened thus wise. On the way up Fergusson was telling me all about the rattlesnakes in the valley and how the Indians catch them with a forked stick etc. so during a ramble alone after dinner, I happened to jump with my canvas shoes into a bramble, one of the thorns entering my foot with a bang. My mind being on snakes at the moment it is not unnatural that my feet were in an instant on others, so I sat down on a rock, recalled to mind the sins of my past life and took off my shoe so as to allow the foot to swell up with greater facility. As this did not take place, I put the shoe on again and returned to Snows thankfully delighted to see my friends once more.

He was (relief!) ‘delighted with the big trees’ of the sequoia forests at Mariposa and Calaveras. ‘The bark, of which I brought a large piece home from one of the trees, is about 24 inches thick.’ The seven of them in their party attempted to line their horses up around the 94ft trunk of the ‘Grizzly Giant’, only to estimate it would take 18 horses, nose to tail.

He was less chuffed to rise at dawn and ride off up the valley to see Mirror Lake, only to find ‘the surface was in ripples’ (he bought some photos, ‘beautiful works of art’). And generally speaking, he was not enamoured of the tourist-trap prices in the area, either, ‘little short of open robbery, although the clerk wouldn’t agree with me on the point.’

In Stockton, with time to kill before the Overland Express, Victor bought new ‘pants ($8) in lieu of a pair left behind at Clark’s,’ and a Yankee felt hat (replacing that trashed by the coach trip to Yosemite) – and then they popped in to the Insane Asylum, a 1200-man (and -woman) brick edifice, ‘beautifully clean’ and tidy, and ‘surrounded by well kept gardens’. ‘The walls of the corridors are hung with paintings by the inmates, the subjects being in some cases very doubtful to inexperienced eyes such as ours. They are altogether curious productions devoid of perspective, but of sufficient artistic merit ‘to go mad about’.’

The Overland Express sleeper they judged to be not much better than their boat experiences. ‘Fortunately,’ wrote Victor, ‘ there is no scenery to miss seeing.’ The ‘express’ was often ‘going like a snail’ (‘these rails have been laid in rough and ready manner to be improved upon as the line pays’), the era of the great plains buffaloes was over, they weren’t blown away by the ‘hurried repasts’ at various depots, and the occasional snow sheds (to protect the track/train from drifts and avalanches) ‘are a fruitful source of interruption when one is reading on the train.’

He tried to keep their spirits up by offering excerpts from his Lonely Planet:

8th September: [We] passed the ‘Maiden’s Grave’ which is noticeable by a large white cross quite close to the line and bearing that inscription.  An emigrant Lucinda Duncan fell sick here and despite the watchful care and loving tenderness of friends and kindred, her pure spirit floated into the unknown mist dividing the real from the ideal, the mortal from the immortal (this is an extract from a rigmarole in the guidebook).

Having made a point of experiencing pretty much every denomination of Christianity (and beyond) that you can think of, on the 9th they took the branch line out to Salt Lake, ‘City of the Blessed’. They bathed in both the sulphurous hot springs and the lake itself (‘each person is supplied with a bucket of fresh water to wash off the brine, if this wasn’t done it might be a case of Lot’s wife with everyone’), and attended services at both the President’s Sabbath School and the Mormon Tabernacle (with the Presbyterian church in between, just for good measure!), where they were informed that a) ‘there had been no religion till the angel had an interview with John Smith prophet and first Mormon in 1823’, and b) ‘that we Gentiles don’t understand the Bible at all and that our religion is consequently all wrong.’

Victor felt that they, the visitors, ‘seemed to be the only persons listening’; but he was much struck by the 10,000-seater Tabernacle, with its many doors, large organ, and the ‘second largest self sustaining roof on the continent’. He was struck also by ‘the great number of atrocious ugly women in the congregation,’ and remarked that – perhaps there’s no connection – while men and women might bathe together in the lake (albeit wearing a ‘cumbersome dress’), in the Tabernacle they sat separately.

After lunch they ‘brushed up a bit’ and sauntered, as you do, over to the offices of Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor as head of the Mormon church, Governor of Utah Territory (no coincidence), epic polygamist, and founder of Salt Lake City itself, as well as of two universities.

Arrived there at 3 o’clock half an hour after the latest time for receiving visitors. The clerk however at the office had pity on us and went across the street to the Amelia Palace, a handsome house just built for the favourite wife and informed Brigham that 5 important travellers wished to pay homage. After a bit, the old gent appeared. Judge our surprise on seeing before us an old man with only 2 arms, 2 legs, a head and no tail, in all other respects fashioned like one of us! He is rather stout, grey beard, eyes keen and small, low sized but his health seems to be much broken and to all appearance will soon join his departed saints. The clerk introduced Dr Armand and told him to introduce the rest of us which done we all sat down. Then someone ventured a remark with reference to the weather and crops after which a lull. The office walls were hung around with portraits in oil colours. For want of something better to say, the Doctor asked who those personages were and Brigham using his stick to point them out told us the names of each one in succession. John Smith was the first and only one I remember. That done, we rose and shook hands and after writing our names in the visitors book we departed.

They trundled on across the plains, until ‘five o’clock pm’ on the 14th found them ‘rolling into the wonderful city of Chicago, which by its gloomy aspect the buildings visible from the train and the deep mud in the streets reminded me at first sight of Home Sweet Home.’

Needless to say, they visited the waterworks and the parks, saw the Kemeys lions outside the Institute of Art and the $80,000 house of Mr Pullman ‘of railway car fame’, and toured ‘one of the great pig sticking establishments for which Chicago is noted’ (20,000 pigs killed in just this one institution daily, in the busy season). There is a lot of gory detail on the abattoir – but not nearly so much as on V’s overdue visit to the dentist.

Now, to find a dentist in Chicago is by no means a difficult matter, ‘their name is legion’, that terrible word is seen in gold letters in every other window all over the city, the thing is to find a good one. Having no one to advise me in the matter, I called on chance at Mr. Day’s rooms … His study was a most uninviting spot, dark and dirty, the chair springs all broken and the wall bespattered with the gore of former victims. For an hour, he ground away at a large back molar with an ingenious treadle machine grinding on the ivory and the nerve alternately causing me the most exquisite torture, which changed afterwards into a continued agony…

The next day he went back ‘first thing after breakfast and got 2 teeth stopped. My sufferings were not as intense as yesterday although it was bad enough. He had a curious hand instrument with a spring, by pressing which it hammered away at the stopping and made an awful noise in my poor head and seemed to me to have loosened every other tooth in my jaws.’

On the 18th, the took the night train to Niagara, ‘and drove to the Clifton House on the Canadian side which is the best hotel for seeing from if one can get front rooms.’ Not only did he experience a repeat of his conclusions on the Californian tourist circuit – ‘the accommodation and table are not much but the charges are ($4.50)’ – but in a ‘native curiosities’ shop ‘for the second time in my travels my arms went through a glass case and had to cure the pane with a dollar.’

In the morning, ‘we stood for the photographic “en groupe” with the Falls in the background,’ but after several attempts the photographer shooed them away until they were ‘in a more tranquil mood’. Victor took himself for a stroll along the roaring Niagara River, ‘to have the delightful toothache which I owe to my Chicago dentist all to myself.’

By the 21st, though, the poor chap could barely carry on.

I left the others to enjoy their drive to Brock’s Monument and went to tell all my sorrows to a dentist. Dr. Martin, who has rooms over some Bank, became the happy object of my patronage, he was a nice man and my choice was a fortunate one. I directed him to undo the Chicago man’s work i.e. to unstop the tooth and lose the nerve. Being filled with metal and stopped immediately upon an inflamed nerve, the operation was a most painful one. He prepared it for filling and told me to return in the afternoon which I did when he put in what he said was a substance non-conducting of heat. Paid him his 2½ dollars and retired with thanks, but at 9pm the toothache returned with such severity that I resolved ‘conte qui conte’ and notwithstanding the hour to get the offender drawn. I crossed the bridge and fortunately found Dr Martin close by. I stated my case to him and he lit the gas and being refused ether or chloroform I resignedly opened my mouth… The tooth broke at once, forceps had to be dug through the gums more than once, head was dragged from the trunk in an awful manner when after 5 minutes most of it was out the remaining splinters to work their way out at leisure. The dentist would not take any further fee for this last operation so barring the pain in my maw, which remained for some weeks, nothing more occurred in connection with this unpleasant affair. I considered all my sufferings and trouble were due to the unskilled manner in which the Chicago man did his work in the first instance and I wrote him a letter the same evening giving him in violent terms my opinion on the subject carefully abstaining from putting date or name in the epistle, after this I felt much relieved.

On the 22nd, they arrived in New York, where they were put up by some relatives in Brooklyn, booked tickets for (contrarily) a tour to Canada, heard the million-selling reformer Thomas De Witt Talmage preach, and, thanks to attending yet another church service, missed the sight (but heard the boom) of a three-year-old girl detonating some river-obstructing Hell Gate rock with dynamite, ‘through an electro coil’.

At 8am on the 25th, they set off up the Hudson on the Daniel Drew, en route to Montreal via Albany, Saratoga, Fort William Henry, Ticonderoga and Plattsburgh. ‘The scenery was most enchanting,’ wrote Victor, who had seen both, ‘but why people draw comparisons between [the Hudson] and the Rhine I don’t know as it is totally different.’

They embarked on a botched rapids excursion to/from Kingston, imbibed some culture (incl. Van Dyke’s Crucifixion), stayed at the St Lawrence Hall (‘the Prince of Wales put up here on his visit because there is nowhere else to go. Charges very moderate’), and visited the Bon Fecours night market. ‘Most of the lower class speak in French and are quiet, respectable, polite folk. Wolf and bear skins are $75, buffalo $30.’ A ‘very dilapidated Nelson’s Column,’ it was noted, ‘faces the jail and has the mighty ocean at his back.’ At the Mount Royal cemetery, ‘In winter, the great depth of snow at times prevents internments from taking place in which case the coffins have to be deposited temporarily in the mortuary chapels for months at a time, thus it sometimes occurs that more than one member of a family is laid beneath the sod at the same time.’

Then they steamed down the St Lawrence to Quebec, where, on 3rd October, they paid their respects to Wolfe and Montcalm, as cows grazed on the Plains of Abraham.

After breakfast we drove to the Indian village Loretto at 9 miles distance and here we paid a visit to the Huron Chief Tahourhenshe or as the French of whom his tribe have also been allies [call him] Paul Picard. To know that this shabby old gent has any pretensions to Indian blood one would require to be told it beforehand and then you fancy you can detect something about the eyes… He was very affable and showed us a bronze medal he got at the Dublin Exhibition of 1865 for Indian Curiosities, some of which he had in his room in the shape of snow shoes, moccasins of moose hair and imitation tobogammies. Of course we were expected to and did purchase a few thingamabobs to pay for our welcome. He had affair which combined the emblems of peace and war in the shape of a tomahawk the opposite end from the blade being a pipe bowl and the handle forming the pipe stem. This is called the Pipe of Peace with which we were told many Englishmen had smoked.

Another curiosity very old and valuable was shown to us. The Wampuno is a sort of mat of agate bugle beads strung and woven on to a sort of grass. When the then existing 6 tribes met in Council about 200 years ago this mat was used as the mace is used by our Commons.

On the evening of the 4th they set off on a tortuous and chaotic train journey back through New England – pausing only to tour a paper mill and admire the trees ‘in the full glory of their autumn dress’, ‘the effect… that of a huge Turkey carpet spread out beneath our gaze’ – checking into their Boston hotel two full days later.

Arriving in ‘the finest city we have yet seen in the States’ in the centenary year of the Revolution, there was a natural theme to their itinerary. They climbed Bunker Hill where they saw ‘2 brass cannon called the Adams and Hancock’, saw Maj Gen Warren’s statue, and went round Harvard’s Memorial Hall to the 300 students who died in the War of Independence. The Prince of Wales, apparently, had averred that “it [was] high time that these old things should be forgotten”; but at the Porcellian Club they found ‘4 young gents discuping a bottle of wine’ who were all too happy to show them round the building’s seven decades of history.

They also saw the Washington Elm (under which the eponymous general undertook to command the Continental Army), ‘very old and cobbled together with plaster and iron bands,’ and Longfellow’s house, where Washington had once lived. Then they drove out to the ‘great granite Sphinx commemorat[ing] the War of the Union [only just 10 years earlier] and abolition of slavery’, and – perhaps fittingly – saw the monument at Mass. Gen. Hospital to the 1846 discovery of ether: ‘Neither shall there be any more pain.’

Over the next few days, they toured the Perkins Institute for the Blind and Dr. Cullen’s Home for Consumptives, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Public Library – ‘the finest in the world’ – and the Rand Avery publishing house, where they were shown round by Mr. Rand himself, an acquaintance from their time on the Pacific Railway. And of course they took in a good few churches, new and old (and, in the case of the New Old South Church, both): ‘The Protestant element here is very strong and the people are a good church-going lot.’

On the night of the 9th, the ‘palatial steamboat Providence’ to New York had 2500 on board, so while the womenfolk were squirrelled away in a spare cabin, the man ‘lay about the decks on mattresses all night.’ This can’t have been too warm, and Victor remained awake all night to avoid people walking all over him.

And thence straight through to Philadelphia where, thanks to the convenient proximity of the United States Hotel to the grounds of the Centennial Exposition (the first official World’s Fair to be held outside of Europe), Victor regretted not having much excuse to see the rest of town.

No matter. He spent the better part of three days wandering the halls (the grounds had their own monorail), just one of which – the Machinery Hall – was ‘4/5 mile long…. In the centre of this building is a huge 1400hp Carliss engine which could turn all the machinery in the place at the same time and turn all the people out at closing time if it liked.’ All told, the 115ha Fairmount Park hosted almost 15,000 business from 35 countries, for the occasion.

Disappointed at not being able to dine in the ‘New England Farmers House of 100 years ago’ (‘were told that the beans were out which left us under the impression that the people of New England dined exclusively of this vegetable in the good old times’), he nonetheless put in nine straight hours on the 13th, admiring ‘John Bull’, ‘the first locomotive used in America built by Stephenson’, weaving and etchings done by Queen Victoria herself, and ‘a sleeping lady worked in butter’ who could only appear at intervals since she needed otherwise to be kept chilled. The next day he went back to see ‘Old Abe’, an eagle which had served three years with the regiment of Wisconsin (‘won 15 battles’) and who now sold pictures and ‘signed’ copies of his life story. Alas: ‘After a few hours of this, he gets quite bewildered and refused to write his name so the purchaser gets a feather instead. I saw, whilst looking on, quite a number of feathers abstracted and calculated in a week’s time the cook would have but little trouble in either killing or plucking this poor warrior.’

One could have gone down several hundred entire rabbit warrens in the course of reading Uncle Victor’s document (and I did); but I should note that even a cursory glance at Wikipedia suggests the Philadelphia Centennial also showcased such minor developments as the telephone, the typewriter, and Heinz Tomato Ketchup – none of which the admittedly ‘bewildered’ Victor even mentions!

Back in New York – where he was somewhat surprised, ‘at Smith’s Church in the evening’, to see ‘the Witch scene from Macbeth read during the sermon’ – the travellers had a day off, ‘for the first time since leaving Melbourne.’ Inevitably, Victor spent it mending locks.

As their tour began to wind down, he and Ger took in some more art galleries (‘saw Turner’s Slave Ship which we took for granted is very fine although we couldn’t make it out at all’), a nickel works, the aquarium (‘which we don’t believe is the finest in the world’), and started to say farewell to friends and fellow travellers – and of course attended a last few church services: ‘Ed took me to [mega-famous preacher] Beecher’s in the evening. Went ¾ hour early and got good seats. He preached from the centre of a perfect bower of branches and bouquets, does a good deal of acting and introduces a humorous element into his sermon. I didn’t care for him.’

There was also the small matter of a Presidential election looming – Hayes (R) v Tilden (D) – and though Victor could hardly be accused of overdoing it on the political analysis, in the run-up to November he did observe ‘a “barbeque” in the city tonight… Oxen roasted whole and divided among the crowd’, and a Democrat parade featuring floats of coopers, smiths, boilermakers, gunmakers, bellmakers – what with the cheering and the fireworks it was as interesting as it was noisy.’

7th November: Election Day and a very wet one for which reason they say the result will be favourable to the democrats as the “silk stockings” won’t care to turn out. The Banks and some of the stores are closed and the outlook is like that on a wet Sunday. The polling booths are generally barbers or should I say Tonsorial Artists shops where on the counter are placed 7 boxes with glass fronts. The voter enters with 7 slips of paper, is questioned as to his name and address, backed up with an oath and winds up by putting his papers in the aforesaid boxes.

He can’t be blamed for not reporting on the outcome. Hayes v Tilden would prove to be one of the most contentious on record, Tilden ‘losing’ by a single Electoral College vote after a compromise – not agreed til March the following year – which saw the Republicans agree to withdraw the last troops from the South, thus ending post-war Reconstruction.

On the 10th, ‘there was a gathering in the evening of sisters, cousins and aunts in our honour. And on the 11th November, ‘at 2:15(pm?) the Britannia was on her way to the Old Country…. Everything is first class… the sea is as smooth as a millpond… the saloon is handsomely decorated with a fine open marble fireplace, cottage piano and a library… the only thing wanting is a few more salt cellars.’

13th November: ‘Passed some pieces of wreckage but saw no one clinging to them.’

14th November: ‘Steady head wind. Captain carrying on with a girl who is going over to be married to someone else.’

15th November: ‘It being rough today, I feel queer but nothing more.’

One last concert – attended by Mr Ismay of Ismay and Imrie (founder of the White Star Line), and Senator A.T. Galt, the Canadian Chancellor – and one positively final gripe about the services (‘tried the Chants but should have kept them for dinner as they made a hash of them’), and on the 20th they changed on to the Queenstown tender and got word that their father was awaiting them at the Imperial Hotel in Cork.

On Tuesday 21st November, 1876 – after 384 days at sea, by road, or on the railway – Victor Emmanuel Smyth returned to Dublin. And ‘thus ends the true and faithful narrative of my voyage Round the World.’


Irreverent, itchy-footed and not by instinct undercritical, I find I see a lot of ‘Uncle’ Victor in myself. (His dislike of mangos certainly trickled down/sideways through some generations.) That said, I’d like to know much more about him. For one thing, where are all his photos, souvenirs, and other knickknacks? The NZ jade, the rattlesnake skin, the ‘little stone’ from Gen. Wolfe’s monument? How long, I wonder, did he wear those eight-buck leather boots? Did Geraldine, perhaps, not keep a journal, too…?

The rest comes from his ‘Autobiography of VES’, a slightly sad 15-page coda to the ‘Journal’ manuscript.

On his return to Ireland he went back to the family grocery on Stephen’s Green, ‘was given a share in the profits as a limited partner’, and lived upstairs next door, at No.6. But when his father died ‘and left his business to my brother… thus ended my connection with Stephen’s Green.’ Nor is this the only patch of cloud in an otherwise seemingly sunny disposition (also a family trait, I feel).

At something of a loose end, in 1895 Victor bought his first camera (he’s known within the family for some trick shots), and three years on went into business as a photographer in downtown Dublin. But by 1910 he’d jacked it in ‘owing to heavy rent and poor outlook’. He lived on for another 37 years.

For Perspective magazine

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