A tale of two cities, 1830

Not London and Paris, but New York and Montreal…

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The first appearance of Montreal from the Water is striking in the extreme: all the buildings are roofed with Tin, which causes it to glitter in the Sun, like a City of Silver…

I confess Histories has a British focus because that’s where I am, and where my historical interests lie, but I did also promise we’d cover the rest of the English-speaking world at times. We’ve been, for example, to the gold fields of Australia, witnessed an American Indian ‘war brag’ and had a few too many drinks in 18th century New York. But I’ve been neglecting Canada.

This week we meet a diarist who travelled from her home in Britain to Canada, via New York, in 1830. Francis Ramsay Simpson (c.1812–53) was born in London, daughter of wealthy sugar merchant Geddes Mackenzie Simpson. In early 1830 her cousin George Simpson (c.1792–1860) came to visit. He had been born in Dingwall, Scotland, and worked for his uncle Geddes, before becoming connected to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which in this era was focused on the fur trade in the British parts of North America, particularly what later became Canada. George had considerable adventures of his own in North America in the 1820s, including what is claimed to be the longest North American canoe journey (5,000 miles) in one season. As a result of his endeavours, he became the manager of the HBC from 1826 until his death.

On that visit to his relatives in 1830, he became quickly enamoured of cousin Frances, despite or because of her being 20 years his junior. A lightning-quick courtship ensued, and they were married and honeymooned in a matter of weeks, before sailing back to North America in March.

Frances and her friend Catherine, bride of the HBC’s chief factor John George McTavish, travelled together and claimed (see below) to have been the first British women to have taken their journey by canoe up the St Lawrence river and beyond from Montreal to the HBC’s York Factory on the shores of Hudson Bay. We will follow that journey next week, using Frances’ own diary; but this week I’d like to dip into her introductory memoir1 which describes leaving England and visiting the bright lights and sights of New York and Montreal.

On the 4th of March, I arose from my Bed at 5 A.M. (for the first time in my life) with an aching heart, and a mind agitated by the various emotions of Grief, Fear & Hope…

After taking leave of my dearest Mother & Sisters, (my feelings at which time, I cannot attempt to describe) Mr. Simpson & Myself, were accompanied into Town by my Father & eldest Brother, who conducted us to the ‘Swan & Two Necks,’ to wait the arrival of our fellow-travellers Mr. & Mrs. McTavish, & Mr. McMillan, who, (with our respective Servants) formed the party who were shortly to leave the shores of their native Country, for those of the New World…

We started from London at 7 A.M. and the day being fine, we had a delightful ride; tho’ a great part of its beauty was lost upon me, as my thoughts were constantly wandering back to that spot, and to those scenes, where I had hitherto passed a life of as much comfort happiness, as I believe it possible to enjoy. We arrived at Birmingham between 9 & 10 O’clock, and put up at the ‘Swan’ Inn.

At 8 O’clock the following morning, we were on our road to Liverpool, which place we reached at 11 – we took up our quarters at the ‘Waterloo’ Hotel, & remained there two days during which time, we occupied ourselves in writing to London, walking about the Town & its environs, and visiting the Ship which was to convey us across the Great Atlantic.

She was a beautiful vessel named the ‘William Byrns,’ well manned, and handsomely fitted up, with every accommodation: the Ladies’ Cabin was entirely at our disposal (Mrs. McTavish Myself & our Servants, being the only female passengers) and a very pretty appearance it had; the Wainscot being formed of the Curly Maple, highly polished, and bearing a strong similarity to the finest Satinwood, this ornamental work however, was more for show than comfort, as the carved partitions were constructed so as to slide backwards & forwards, with every motion of the vessel, accompanied by the most tiresome & distressing noise, sometimes so loud, as to render the exertion of talking quite painful.

The 8th of March, at 9 A.M. we left the Hotel, and about 10 embarked, (altho’ blowing a gale) and bade ‘Adieu’ for some time to Old England. Immediately upon clearing the Dock-gates, I went below for the purpose of writing a few lines to my Father (to be sent ashore by the Pilot) but had scarcely put pen to paper when I felt the Cabin reel, and saw every color of the Rainbow dancing before eyes: in less than half an hour, I was safely deposited in my Berth, where I remained for three weeks, during which time I was extremely ill… From that time I began gradually to recover, after having experienced the distressing effects of Sea Sickness to such a degree, that I felt at times perfectly indifferent as to whether I lived, or died.

I must pass over in silence the rest of the voyage, remarking only the tempestuous weather, and head winds, which kept us beating about the coast of Ireland, for 20 days: after which the wind came round, and continued favorable, till we got within sight of Sandy Hook, at the entrance of New York harbour, where we were provokingly detained 5 days by thick weather, each morning preparing and expecting the pleasure of again setting foot on Terra Firma: at length a breeze sprang up, the Sailors sung merrily to their work, the Pilot came on board, and I believe no one ever felt more perfectly delighted than I did on entering the harbour: the day was fine, clear & warm – but how to describe the appearance of New York and the surrounding villages, and country, I am at a loss, as any representation will fall far short of the reality.

The beautiful Basin was crowded with Shipping, the banks on either side clothed with verdure, Houses, Garrisons, & Buildings of every description scattered along the shore, and in front was seen the City (which is built on an Island) with its seven beautiful Spires, shewing themselves at a great distance, the most conspicuous objects, and glittering in the Sun, as if in proud to be exhibited in full splendour to welcome the approaching Strangers. The Town is flanked on the left side by a strong battery, which, with the fine gravel walks, and tastefully arranged gardens surrounding it, forms one of the principal places of fashionable rendezvous, in the Summer Season.

The main Street is called ‘Broad-Way,’ and is the Bond Street of New York, as the Ladies & Gentlemen here promenade dressed in the gayest manner, rows of Trees are planted on either side of the Street forming a cool & pleasant shade from the heat of the Sun, which at times is quite overpowering.

We took up our residence at Mrs. Mann’s Boarding-house where we had a suite of private apartments, and were here called upon by many of the first people in the City, who were very polite & pressing in their invitations, especially Mr. Wilkes President of the Bank, and Mr. Aster (founder of the Settlement of ‘Astoria’ since rendered famous in story by Washington Irving)… During our stay we were fully employed in walking, riding &c. we also went to the Theatre, which is a very pretty house, but did not at that time shine in performers.

The principal Edifice is the Senate House, built of White Marble, in a very chaste and handsome style.

There are several fine churches, at one of which we were all delighted with the chanting which was very Superior.

The Shops are excellent, and the fashions the same as those of England.

On the 19th of April, at 9 A.M. we embarked from New York in the ‘Commerce’ Steam-vessel, and proceeded up the beautiful river Hudson, the banks of which exhibit all the variety of Rock, Wood, Hill & Dale, and are thickly studded with Villages, Farm-houses, & Gentlemen’s seats: it is also rendered interesting from the different spots being visible where so many battles have been fought and where so many brave fellows have perished.

[Frances then describes her journey through Albany to Sandy Hill (now Hudson Falls) and Whitehall, NY, giving the differences between British and American stagecoaches and explaining how the roads “are seldom or never repaired”.]

The Country thro’ which we travelled is highly picturesque, fertile, and abounding with large fine Orchards: the Inns clean, & well furnished, and the people obliging & attentive: these however must be late improvements, as they were noted for want of cleanliness and incivility a few years ago

…we embarked on board the ‘Franklin’ Steam-boat, to cross Lake Champlain, the banks & Islands of which, form perfect Fairy Land:– Stupendous rocks, some covered with verdure, others barren; the Apple & Almond trees in full blossom, and here & there, a few houses forming little Villages, at which we stopped to take up, and set down passengers…

[They cross the lake to St John’s and La Prairie (now a suburb of Montreal).]

On our arrival here, I was introduced to Mrs. Moffatt a genteel, pleasant woman resident in Montreal, who had that morning crossed over for an airing, (a frequent custom among the Ladies who reside in the City) and was waiting the return of the Steam Boat…

The Boat having returned we were conveyed down the noble river St. Lawrence at the breadth of which I was perfectly amazed, and which added to the of the Town, and the beauty of the surrounding Country, would have made a fine subject for an Artist.

The first appearance of Montreal from the Water is striking in the extreme: all the buildings are roofed with Tin, which causes it to glitter in the Sun, like a City of Silver – the most conspicuous object is the Roman Catholic Church (the largest place of Public Worship some Cathedrals excepted I have ever seen) situated nearly in the centre of the Town, and which rises with an air of grandeur, to height which appears almost gigantic. – The ‘Mountain’2 (which is one of the chief ‘Lions’) is also an attraction on account of the relief its verdure affords the eye.

On approaching the Quay the vessel was soon crowded with friends who came to welcome us to Montreal… Mr. Moffatt then conducted us to his house where a large party was assembled at Luncheon… We were invited by our host, to accompany his family in the evening to a grand Military Ball, given by the Officers of the Regiment then stationed in the Town we were however too much fatigued by travelling to avail ourselves of this invitation. – Before taking leave of our kind entertainers, we were surprised by the entrance of Mr. Keith, (the Gentleman in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Comp[an]ys Establishment at La Chine) who learning by accident, that the Boat was that day expected at St. Johns, had driven into Town to meet us. We then took our departure, and arrived at La Chine to dinner at 5 O’clock.

The Country is beautiful, being varigated [sic] with Farms, Orchards, & Meadows as far as the Village in which the house is delightfully situated, having the St. Laurence running in front: – it was almost too early in the Season to judge of the productions, and vegetation, but it must be a charming Summer residence.

We remained here 8 days, during which time I was visited by the principal families, far & near, but declined accepting their numerous invitations, and dined only at Mr. Moffatt’s, and Mr. Richardson’s, the latter of whom,3 is the oldest inhabitant of the City, known for his upright and honorable character, and a general favorite. – We were very handsomely, and kindly entertained at both houses, where large parties were invited to meet us.

Mr. Simpson’s time & attention were devoted to business while here; and I found full occupation in writing to my dear friends in England, and viewing the ‘Lions' of the City viz. the New Church [see the illustration above], the Nunnery, the Mountain, and other attractive objects. The interior of the Church is not however equal to the exterior, at least according to my taste, as it appeared to me too gaudy and light, to suit the sacred purpose to which it is dedicated.

At the Nunnery we were ushered into a large room with one very high window, white-washed walls and every article of furniture of the plainest description – this is occupied by the principal Nuns [i.e. the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, known as the Grey Nuns], seven of whom we saw: they were very lively, & agreeable, and seemed much gratified by our visit, but regretted they could not show us over the house, as it was being cleaned and prepared for the reception of the sick whom they attend…

Mrs. McTavish and myself were escorted round the ‘Mountain’ by Mr. Gale (the Barrister) who resides in the City, and is well acquainted with all the beauties of the surrounding neighbourhood.

This is a spot worthy the attention of all Strangers. – There are two roads, one winding up each side, till it reaches the summit, from whence the eye is feasted with a magnificent, and extended prospect. The sides exhibit patches of large Timber, clumps of young Trees, Underwood, & ornamental Shrubberies; rich Orchards, & gardens belonging to several fine houses which overlook the Town, River, & opposite shores.

After occupying the morning with this delightful ride, we returned home, accompanied by Mr. Gale, who was to favor us with his company, the first two days of our voyage to the Interior.

Speaking of this voyage, I must observe that it was regarded as a wonder, was the constant subject of conversation, and seemed to excite a general interest – being the first ever undertaken by Ladies, and one which has always been considered as fraught with danger.

Next week: that voyage to the Interior!


Published in The Small Details of Life: Twenty Diaries by Women in Canada, 1830-1996 (University of Toronto Press, 2002).


I.e. Mount Royal.


I think this is probably James Richardson (c.1759–1832).