Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens!

In celebration of Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, we thought we’d present the author’s views on Kingston from his travels to North America, as documented in American Notes, published in 1846:

The   time of leaving Toronto for Kingston is noon. By eight o’clock next morning the traveller is at the end of his   journey, which is performed by steamboat upon Lake Ontario, calling at Port Hope and   Cobourg, the latter a cheerful, thriving little town. Vast   quantities of flour form the chief item in the freight of these vessels. We had no fewer than one thousand and eighty barrels on board between Cobourg and Kingston.

The latter place, which is now the seat of government in Canada, is a very poor town, rendered still poorer in the appearance of its market-place by the ravages of a recent fire.  Indeed, it may be said of Kingston, that one half of it appears to be burnt down, and the other half not to be built up.    The Government House is neither elegant nor commodious, yet it is almost the only house of any importance in the neighbourhood.

There is an admirable jail here, well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect.  The men were  employed  as   shoemakers, ropemakers,  Black­ smiths, tailors, carpenters,  and stonecutters;  and    in building  a   new   prison,  which  was   pretty  far  advanced towards completion.   The   female prisoners were occupied in needlework. Among them was a   beautiful girl   of twenty, who had been there nearly three years. She acted as  bearer of secret despatches for the self -sty led  Patriots on Navy Island during the  Canadian Insurrection: sometimes  dressing as  a  girl, and   carrying them in her stays; sometimes attiring  herself as  a  boy, and  secreting them in the lining of her hat.  In the latter character she always rode as a boy would, which was nothing to her, for she could govern any   horse that any   man could ride, and could drive four-in-hand with the best whip in those parts. Setting forth on one of her patriotic missions, she appropriated to herself the first horse she could lay her hands on; and this offence had brought her where I saw her.  She had quite a lovely face, though, as the reader may suppose from this sketch of her history, there was a lurking devil in her bright eye, which looked out pretty sharply from between her prison bars.

There is a bomb-proof fort here of great strength, which occupies a bold position, and is capable, doubtless, of doing good service; though the town is much too close upon the frontier to be long held, I should imagine, for its present purpose in troubled times. There is also a small navy-yard, where a couple of Government steamboats were building, and getting on vigorously.

We left Kingston for Montreal on the tenth of May, at half-past nine in the morning, and proceeded in a steamboat down the St. Lawrence River. The beauty of this noble stream at almost any point, but especially in the commencement of this journey, when it winds its way among the Thousand Islands, can hardly be imagined. The number and constant successions of these islands all green and richly wooded; their fluctuating sizes, some so large that for half an hour together one among them will appear as the opposite bank of the river, and some so small that they are mere dimples on its broad bosom; their infinite variety of shapes; and the numberless combinations of beautiful forms which the trees growing on them present; all form a picture fraught with uncommon interest and pleasure.

In the afternoon we shot down some rapids where the river boiled and bubbled strangely, and where the force and headlong violence of the current were tremendous. At seven o’clock we reached Dickenson’s Landing, whence travellers proceed for two or three hours by stage-coach: the navigation of the river being rendered so dangerous and difficult in the interval, by rapids, that steamboats do not make the passage. The number and length of those portages, over which the roads are bad, and the travelling slow, render the way between the towns of Montreal and Kingston somewhat tedious.

Our course lay over a wide, unenclosed tract of country at a little distance from the river-side whence the bright warning lights on the dangerous parts of the St. Lawrence shone vividly. The night was dark and raw, and the way dreary enough. It was nearly ten o’clock when we reached the wharf where the next steam boat lay; and went on board, and to bed.

She lay there all night, and started as soon as it was day. The morning was ushered in by a violent thunderstorm, and was very wet, but gradually improved and brightened up. Going on deck after breakfast, I was amazed to see floating down with the stream a most gigantic raft, with some thirty or forty wooden houses upon it, and at least as many of these rafts afterwards, but never one so large. All the timber, or “lumber,” as it is called in America, which is brought down on the St. Lawrence, is floated down in this manner. When the raft reaches its place of destination, it is broken up; the materials are sold; and the boatmen return for more.

At eight we landed again, and travelled by a stagecoach for four hours through a pleasant and well- cultivated country, perfectly French in every respect: in the appearance of the cottages; the air, language, and dress of the peasantry, the signboards on the shops and taverns; and the Virgin’s shrines and crosses by the wayside. Nearly every common laborer and boy, though he had no shoes to his feet, wore round his waist a sash of some bright color: generally red: and the women, who were working in the fields and gardens, and doing all kinds of husbandry, wore, one and all, great flat straw hats with most capacious brims. There were Catholic Priests and Sisters of Charity in the village streets; and images of the Saviour at the corners of crossroads, and in other public places.

At noon we went on board another steamboat, and reached the village of Lachine, nine miles from Montreal, by three o’clock. There we left the river, and went on by land.

Queen’s Archives also possesses two letters, purchased by the University in 1977.  Perhaps our readers may wish to try their hand at transcribing what is written within in our comment section?

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One Response to “Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens!”

  1. S. Carr Says:

    “Dear Sir,
    I go so very seldom to the Parthenon and have so neglected my duties as a member of the committee, which I have never yet been able to attend, that I feel a great delicacy in proposing any candidates and cannot therefore comply with your request. “

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