Wednesday, 20 April 2016

A Stornoway Girl in New York, 100 Years Ago

A world away from the war...?

A Letter from Canada, May 1916

The writer of the letter transcribed below, aged 22 at the time of writing, was the daughter of a Stornoway shopkeeper. After some time as a student at the prestigious Atholl Crescent College of Domestic Science in Edinburgh, in 1913 she married Joe Flett from Findochty, whose family's fish-curing business took him to Canada in August 1915. This was before the introduction of conscription, but his involvement in work of national importance (food supply) might have rendered him exempt in any case.

Outward Bound passenger records show Joseph Flett, aged 27, Fish Curer, sailed 20/08/1915 on the Tabasco from Liverpool to St Johns, Newfoundland. Country of last permanent residence England, intended future permanent residence Newfoundland.

Outward Bound passenger records show Mrs. Flett, H'Wife, sailed 23/04/1916 on the Tuscania from Liverpool to New York, not shown to be accompanied by husband or child: Country of last permanent residence “Br. Protectorates” [maybe they didn’t know where the (old) Hebrides were?!]; intended future permanent residence USA.
[Some of this doesn't quite fit, but perhaps her seasickness prevented her details being recorded properly if this was done after embarkation, and explains her child not being close by - see letter.]

In fact Mrs. Flett (Lizzie) had her 15-month-old daughter with her and they were going to join Joe in Canada. He met them off the boat in New York and they spent the next 4 days in the city.

Atlantic crossing record for Joe

Atlantic crossing record for Lizzie
Border crossing (Canada-US) for Joe, 27-4-1916
A. Flett & Co.
of Buckie Scotland
Herring Curers

Curling, Newfoundland
21st May 1916

Dear Ma,
            At last I have reached my destination & found time to write. It is more than a fortnight now since we landed; we spent a week in New York & took 4 days to go from there to St Johns where we stayed another few days & finally reached here last Wednesday.
            Marjorie is none the worse of all this moving about & is as fat & rosy as ever. The people in New York used to stand & gaze at her rosy cheeks, the children are all very pale & pasty there. She was not a bit sick on the "Tuscania" but I was bad the first two days. I don't know what would have become of Marjorie those days, but fortunately I fell in with an Irish girl who took a great fancy to her & looked after her all the time. She was going out to Bermuda as housekeeper to a naval doctor; she was one of the most decent creatures I have ever met. She thought that babies should get a bit of everything that was going & when I came up on the 3rd day I found Margie having a high old time with peppermints & ginger cake. She even used to get her share of biscuits & cheese at lunch.
            It is a wonder to me she wasn't half dead, but she fairly enjoyed the trip & was the pet of the whole ship - "Red coat" was all the rage. You would have laughed to see her trotting down the deck in a breeze with the deep sea rowl & her head down in the approved style. Joe met us at New York & fortunately she went to him at once - I was quite thankful. He was wild because I did not travel first class & understood all the time that Mary was coming with me. We had a most glorious time in New York, it beats London & Paris to sticks - better shops, better theatres, better restaurants & better fashions & far nicer things to eat. I was just enchanted with the famous Broadway & 5th Avenue. We went about all the time with Mr & Mrs Vidvotsky wealthy Russians in the herring trade. They were awfully nice to us - their servant took Margie out in the afternoons & stayed with her at nights. We bought a nice small American pram which was most useful - you should have seen Joe pushing it down 5th Avenue - I wouldn't dare put my hand near it. We used to take her out ourselves in the mornings, then the girl took her to the park in the afternoon while Mrs Vidvotsky & I went to a matinee or shopping & our husbands did business. Then after we had put Margie to bed we would all go off together to dinner, the theatre & have supper at some dancing cabaret. Mrs Vidvotsky is awfully nice - she is only 24 & has been married 5 years - they have no family. She showed me round all the shops - I bought two nice hats & some white blouses also a white linen dress. The childrens clothes were simply lovely. I got some nice dresses for Marjorie - a fine yellow linen empire, with turned back cuffs & collar of white & a black velvet belt - short sleeves. She is a dream in it with blue socks & black patent slippers; I also got her a blue in same style & a white linen with blue smocking. All this description is for Mary A's edification.
            We came up to St John's by boat & of course I was sick again. It is quite a busy place but the shops are not up to much and the fashions very demo. If I was old fashioned in New York, I was the biggest swell in St John's by a long chalk. This place is nearly a day's journey from St John's. It is very quiet, but pretty & I think I will like it all right. Joe is not yet sure whether we will be here for any length of time. He likes being here very much & says he has no desire to return to Scotland. He says I may go home for 2 months every winter if I like, but who would be bothered crossing the Atlantic in winter for that.
            Joe is quite balmy about Marjorie - I found that everyone in the place had seen her photo & knew her name, age & weight & one kid had a doll called after her. [...]

            I will be expecting a letter soon with all the news. [...]

                        Love from us all


Birthplace of the couple's two younger children
"Curling is a sub-division of the city of Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador. Located in the humber arm of the Bay of Islands, Curling was originally a fishing community. It is the oldest section of Corner Brook."

Studio portrait of Joe
Studio portrait of Lizzie

Toddler Marjorie
in Newfoundland

The letter was addressed to her mother in Francis Street, Stornoway

SS Tuscania was a luxury liner of the Cunard subsidiary Anchor Line, named after a town in Italy. She was torpedoed in 1918 by the German U-boat UB-77 while transporting American troops to Europe and sank, sending 210 people to their deaths.[3]
See also;

commemorative service was held on the centenary of the Tuscania tragedy (BBC Scotland news item 5-2-2018, also available in Gaelic.) [And see comment below].

Monday, 4 April 2016

When the NHS came to the Isle of Lewis

Thoughts of Calum Smith on the impact of the National Health Service on his home community.
(Some of these may relate to the Highlands & Islands Medical Service, forerunner of the national organisation.) 
A View of Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
From an unpublished letter written in July 1990:-

            About your query reference the National Health Service, my recollection is of a revolution in attitudes towards the seeking of medical attention. No longer did sufferers have to wait until at death's door, before calling a doctor, because of fear of the subsequent bill. Now immediate attention was freely available, with specialist or consultant expertise if required. A far cry from the days when, for example, in many villages, the only midwife available was an untrained local woman whose only claim to any qualification was personal experience. In my own family [myself and four siblings] were all delivered by Eilidh Mhor (Big Helen), a near neighbour. It was only after we left Shawbost and moved to the outskirts of Stornoway that my mother had the benefit of a District Nurse to help her.
            But always there was the prevalent fear of doctors' bills - probably stimulated in the Hebridean mind by the recollection of the drastic consequences that could follow any form of debt incurred, especially non-payment of rents. Your great-great-grandfather [named] was evicted from his croft in Uig for rent-arrears, and landed with his family on the inhospitable Atlantic coast at Shawbost. your great-grandmother [named] was twelve years old. (A digression!)*
            But among the G.P.s in rural Lewis there were some Robin Hoods - they made sure they were well paid by those who could afford it and sent no bills at all to the very poor. In fact my sister [A] tells me that there was one practitioner (who shall be nameless), who when he sent his bills actually sent a receipt to my mother.
            But in spite of all the generosity and dedication of many G.P.s, the great reluctance to ask for help remained.
            So I suppose the main impact of the introduction of the Health Service was the realization and acceptance by ordinary people that medical help was available and that they did not have to count the cost.
            I hope that this is a help [...]

* For background on the rent-arrears trap and its dire effects, see :-
1851 Diary by the Chamberlain (landlord's agent) - 


Extracts from: John Munro Mackenzie, Diary: 1851. Stornoway, Acair, 1994.
p.20 Thursday 23 Jany.  Wrote to the Lochs, Uig and Barvas Ground officers at considerable length on emigration, stating the offer made to the people by the Proprietor and directing them immediately to make a tour of their several districts to ascertain what number will be got to emigrate volun[t]arily -- There are two classes I would propose to emigrate, first of all bad payers, say those in two years in arrear of rent if able bodied & have no reasonable grounds of excuse for being so far in arrear -- Secondly -- I would propose to clear whole townships which are generally in arrear and are not conveniently situated for fishing and can be converted into grazings several of which are in the Parish of Uig...
p.32 Thursday 13 Feby.  Walked to the Manse of Uig... Went to the Parish School & found it quite crowded there being more than 40 schollars [sic] present, and on enquiring the cause was told that Mr Watson gave notice to the people that unless they sent their children to school he would pindfold *[sic] every sheep & cow of theirs he found on his grass – He expects to get the parents to attend his Church in the same way but I fear he will be disappointed -- Met with the people of [4 place-names] and explained to them the condition on which they were to emigrate... We fixed on sending four families from Braenish none consenting [further details follow]... The greater part of the people fixed on today for America are even now destitute of food, several families have not even one meal of food -- Carnish should be cleared altogether....
"*[pinfold] ...To confine in or as if in a pinfold. [Middle English pynfold, alteration of Old English pundfald : pund-, enclosure + fald, fold.]."

"No seer foretold the children would be banished/
That a degenerate lord might boast his sheep."
- Canadian Boat Song
The diary includes many such tables,
listing families' arrears and whether they were "willing" to emigrate
also 13/2 (p.32)  [R]eceived a dispatch from the Sheriff with a parcel containing the Census papers -- With Mr Camerons [sic] assistance divided the whole island into enumeration districts...
Friday 26 [September]  Proceeded to Shawbost... North Shawbost is one of the largest townships in the Lews, a portion of it occupied by people removed from Uig who I hope will do better here than in their former holdings... There are several in North Shawbost who I fear cannot pay rent... 
Ruthless as some of the above statements may sound, Mackenzie was far outdone in this respect by his successor as Chamberlain (Factor) of the Matheson estate, whose reign of terror and eventual overthrow are described in: None Dare Oppose: The Laird, the Beast and the People of Lewis, by John MacLeod (Birlinn, 2011). The eviction to which Calum refers would have occurred in the latter's time as Factor, c.1859. 

A beach at Uig, Isle of Lewis
(Photo: I.R.M.)
On medical services on the island before the NHS, see Stornoway Historical Society article:
 Early Medical Men of Lewis