Saturday, March 26, 2011

Old Mrs. Wallen 1

In great old age, our three times great-grandmother Catherine Anne Wallen, a member of the club of thirty-two, lived in quiet retirement with her eldest son, Robert Elias Wallen and his family at Harlech, their large house in Hawthorn. There, in a minuscule, spidery hand, she wrote a brief but meandering memoir of her childhood that carries us all the way to the West Indies right in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, and to Regency London. Old Mrs. Wallen was the daughter of Charles Gibbons Hobson, of Dominica, and Anne, the daughter of a M. Audibert, who, according to Aunt Jean, fled with his people to their estates in the West Indies during the French Revolution. Inevitably, perhaps, what she wrote must have conflated certain recollections of her parents, siblings, cousins, and friends also, especially the unusual circumstances in which she was born. The frequent repetitions, circular double-back chronology, and recurring points of emphasis are probably due to stopping and starting as the domestic routine at Harlech dictated, and sheer forgetfulness. However, hers is a charming first-hand account of life as the Atlantic-commuting daughter of a reasonably well-to-do planter in the decade following Emancipation:

“I was born on the Island of Dominica on the 6th May 1812 during the time of the eruption of the Volcano in St. Vincent. The noise of it sounded like the firing of cannon and the people were in a state of terror as the French had been there not long before when all the women and children were ordered out of town and their husbands had to fight. Martial Law was proclaimed. My father’s house and furniture were completely destroyed. My Uncle was in bed with gout at my Father’s and would not move until a cannon ball came through the house, then he found the use of his legs and got away to the country. My father lost everything—the soldiers destroyed the furniture. Indeed between hurricanes and this loss his circumstances were much reduced. It was like beginning life anew. And it was necessary to take my brother Charles and sister Eliza to England for their education. My father took my mother also as she was desirous to see the country. Myself and brother Edward were taken also and our black nurse Madelon. We had Neptune on board crossing the line and my father had to give the sailors a jar of rum and some money not to shave our nurse who was in a state of great terror from all she heard would be done to her. We landed in Dover and went direct to the Astons in London. Mr. Aston sold my father’s shipments in London and had a house in Guildford St. I remember nothing but seeing a Punch and Judy. My brother was sent to school at Ramsgate and my sister to [the] Miss[es] Babington’s. They had a school at Chelsea. They were three old maids, sisters of the great Dr. [William] Babington [F.R.S.] of London. My sister and brother were placed under the care of Mrs. Aston who had them at her house during the holidays and saw to everything they required and Mr. A. settled the bills. Mrs. A. was a good religious woman, well educated and very kind. My Aunt John was in England shortly after my mother left and she placed my cousin Clarissa at Miss Babingtons but under the care of the Constables. Mr. C. was in the Commissariat in Dominica and had made a fortune and settled at Battersea—bought a lovely place there and my cousin spent her holidays with them after Aunt John left England. My cousin Mary Anne was born soon after my Aunt arrived in London and she was so pleased with England she remained there until Mary Anne was four years old. She had placed her sons at school and thought it a pity to take Mary Anne to the West Indies, so left her at the Miss Babingtons with her sister. My uncle never saw her until she left school. When my sister was 18 years old my mother went to England to bring her out. She was very clever and could play and sing well, and tune her own piano—no one in the island could do so. My father bought a new piano from London. My sister commenced to teach us and I got on very well, but there was no school for my brother Edward so my father decided to take us both to England as several of his friends were going to take their boys. They settled to go with Captain Faulkiner, a Scotchman and first rate seaman. There were nine children, only one girl besides myself and no stewardess: the captain’s son was cabin boy. (This was probably in 1822.) Each passenger put on board provisions for the voyage, fowls, ducks, guinea fowls, and a goat each—a sheep and all sorts of wines. It was decided my father should order all meals as no one was satisfied when he did not. What a delightful voyage it was. We had such calm lovely weather. The captain put up a swing for us and we had all sorts of games. They even fished and caught dolphins. When we arrived in England my father took my brother and myself to Mrs. Aston’s and Mrs. A. placed me at a school at Islington kept by a clergyman’s widow. It was a finishing school, very few big girls. I learned to sew and mark and made a beautiful sampler but I became ill through the cold winter and not being warmly clad coming from a warm climate. A big girl coaxed me into giving her my nice gold chain and cross to her in exchange for a few scraps of silk and ribbon. She left the school soon after and other girls wished me to complain to Mrs. Hadman, but I didn’t like to. My cough was so bad when my father came to England on business, he consulted a doctor who said the best thing was to take me back to a warm climate. When my father had just landed there was a letter for him announcing the death of my sister Selina, a lovely little girl of three years of age. My brother Edward was at school at Highgate. As my brother Charles was over 16 my father decided to take him back to Dominica. A young man called Soverain, son of a Frenchman who died and left my father his guardian came out with us in Captain Faulkiner’s ship. There were three other gentlemen, one lately married with his wife. We sailed from Gravesend. When we got to Portsmouth the wind was dead against us and we were there a fortnight. My father landed and we had a room at the hotel, but the Captain’s family lived at Portsmouth and they invited me to stay at their house until the ship sailed. We were detained there with contrary wind. My father and other gentlemen went ashore there and left my brother and the young Soverain to look after me. The beach looked so lovely and the green hills. We were wishing we could get to the shore and my brother persuaded the mate to let a boat be lowered and one of the sailors row us to the beach as it looked quite close but was a great distance from the town. I could not be left so I went on shore with them and we picked shells and never thought of the time. They signaled for the boat to come for us but they did not come until so late and we were getting rather alarmed. My father never said anything to me but the captain gave me a lecture next day, told me that if the wind had got up it might not have been possible to get me back in a small boat. We sailed next day and got to the Downs, the weather too stormy to procede—the gentleman’s wife very ill from sea-sickness—the gentlemen joined together in buying a cow at the Downs, also a barrel of oysters. The captain’s son would open for me as many as I liked and being the only child on board I was spoiled. I learned to play whist with my brother and George S.—and Dummy—we played every day—at night the gentlemen required the cards. My father was as good as a mother to me. He mended my clothes when I tore them. Two toothbrushes and my soap, left on a little shelf in my bunk, disappeared. I was near a small window near the companion stairs. My father thought I did not replace them when asked but they were found on a place where the meat was kept. A monkey belonging to one of the sailors had carried them up at a part of the mast called, I think, the Trees. The passage was a very long one. The poor lady was never out of her room all the voyage. When we arrived at Dominica my brother Charles went as articled clerk to Mr. Blanc, the lawyer. My sister commenced to teach me again. She had a nice quiet horse and often went to ride before breakfast. A number of ladies and gentlemen went together. I could always get a pony or donkey. On one occasion the pony belonging to one of the officers ran away with me, on the Parade Ground, and only that he happened to be coming down, Mr. Bana saw me—hurried and got up in time to save me or I would have been thrown. Mr. Court, who lived near us, accompanied my sister on these rides and was at our house every evening. He was widower and well off. He asked my sister in marriage but she would not have him. It was at this time I used to look out of our drawing-room window into Mr. Court’s office, watching Tom Court instead of learning my lessons. A dancing master came to the house to teach me dancing as Tom Court had never learned and wished to do so. My mother begged his uncle to let him come over and have lessons with me, so we learned the minuet. The master was an old coloured man—had been an opera dancer in France. My sister was invited to stay with my aunt in St. Vincent’s on a visit. My cousin Clarissa had arrived and, my sister requiring a change, my father took her over. Mrs. Constable, who had the care of my cousin at school, had a grown-up daughter and 2 sons. The eldest, John, was desperately in love with Clarissa and asked her to marry him but she refused. He did not get over it for a long time and it caused a coolness with my aunt’s family. They did not invite my cousin Mary Anne when I was often invited to spend a few days. They had a lovely residence. Mr. Constable made a fortune in Dominica in the Commissionary [sic] and wisely took his departure and settled his family at Battersea. When my sister left for St. Vincent I was sent to a day school and as Fanny Court had arrived from England for a visit to her Uncle she offered to give me music lessons...”

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and charming. Thanks for posting this.