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1872 Mystery Letter

1872 Letter from Jonathan Hirst in Paris, Ontario to family in Lancashire, UK 

Can you locate this house?


I thought you folks might like to read an account of a visit to Paris in 1872. On August 30, 1872, my gg grandfather, Jonathan Hirst, editor of the Oldham Evening Chronicle (Lancashire UK) wrote back to his young 10-year-old daughter, Florence, at home. Jonathan (b Nov 2 1818 in Holmfirth, WRY) had arrived in New York early in August,. He quickly moved on to Philadelphia, visiting relatives, and then moved on to Paris, via Utica and Buffalo.

After arriving in Paris, he wrote back: "I have written so many letters yesterday and today that I scarcely know what I have to say for you, but perhaps you may be interested in knowing something about your Aunt Hannah's Canadian home, so I will try to tell you what it is like. What I shall find to say in Ma's letter I don't know, but I suppose that something will turn up to write about. "The town of Paris is a very straggling affair with little more than one street in it, the rest being planted with houses here and there with gardens before and behind them. Mr Ravell's house is a considerable distance from the town proper in what is called up-town. Like most of the houses in this part of the country it is built mostly of wood, but the outside is lath and plaster, rough-cast and whitewashed. "As you come along from the station half a mile or so from the low-town you travel along the side paths paved with planks, almost like a chamber floor but with broken pieces here and there for your umbrella to catch in and sometimes large enough to trip you up if you don't look sharply about you. "When we were at Chicago, I very narrowly escaped having a very ugly fall on one of these planked side walks, for I stepped on one that was very nearly broken in two and had to look pretty active in getting safely away from it. These sideways serve as causeways for passengers, the rest of the streets in Paris being sand and pebbles like an ordinary turnpike road or highway in England, only not so firm and good, for when wet weather comes there is plenty of sandy mud to walk through. However people provide against this by putting planked crossings in the streets at intervals so that you may get on pretty well if you attend to the proper places for going from one side of the street to the other. Coming from your aunt's house you find a row of shady maple trees in front, on the street side of the wooden causeway, and turning to look at the place you see that it is separated from the street by wooden palings, something like those by the iron gate leading to the meadow but higher. You enter by a wooden gate about a yard wide -- another wider gate at the kitchen end of the railings leading to the kitchen door, or one of them, for there are two kitchen doors, and to the barn, stable and cowhouse, behind and little to one side of the house. "On entering the narrow gate you are in the garden and a walk round the front to the left brings you round the end of the house to the usually used kitchen door, still in the garden. But we will go up two or three wooden steps to the front door and ring the bell. When the door is opened we find ourselves in a square lobby, the right-hand door leading to the sitting room and that on the left to the parlour. Going into the parlour we find that at the end of it there is a door leading to the parlour bedroom, and going back to the lobby or hall, we enter the sitting room from which we can pass to the kitchen, to the sitting room bedroom or to the staircase leading to the upper bedrooms, of which there are four, one of which is usually used as a storeroom. "The little sketch which is enclosed (note: it does not survive) will give you, or at least such as can understand ground plans, a better idea of the relative position of the rooms than all the words I may make use of. "In the garden there are plenty of gooseberry bushes, the fruit of which is only just done, but we can grow far better gooseberries in England than they can in this country. There are also currant bushes in profusion well laden and with good fruit. Even yet I could pick quarts from them. Then there are a number of vines trained against the walls of the house with plenty of bunches of grapes, but they are still green although turning rather soft. There are also plenty of flowers and one or two plum trees with large plums nearly ripe together with cucumbers in the open air trailing on the ground with plenty of tomatoes, which grow very like the potato in appearance the fruit being represented by the potato apple in our country. "There is not a fireplace in the house. The heating is done by stoves, one of which in the parlour heats it and the bedroom above through which the pipe runs, and the large kitchen stove with pipes and what is called a drum for the sitting room heats the rest of the house. Of course, the fuel for the stove is not coal but logs of wood of which there are large quantities ready stored for use during the winter, which is just as severe as the summer is hot. They tell me that the ground is sometimes frozen in a very hard winter to the depth of 5 feet and that very few flowers will stand in the gardens over the winter, so that they have to bring all that they care much for into the house or to cover the more hardy ones with straw. Even the English ivy will not grow, nor our common daisy." Can anyone help me to identify Aunt Hannah or Mr Ravell? I know nothing about them. It is possible that Hannah is Jonathan Hirst's sister -- Hannah Hirst -- or that she is Jonathan Hirst's wife's sister, in which case she would be Hannah Greensmith. The Ontario census of 1871 lists a William Ravell in Paris. Is that the Mr Ravell of the letter? Were Hannah and Mr Ravell married? Is there any way of finding out more about them? I visited Paris a couple of years ago -- a mad dash from Buffalo for the afternoon -- but found out very little when I called in at Paris Library. I left a copy of this letter in the hope that another searcher might find it, but no luck. Anyone got any ideas?

Phil Hirst, Oldham, Lancashire, UK

Jonathan Hirst wrote a second letter to Florence about Canada, although it's about Montreal and surrounding area. Here it is:

Second letter from Jonathan Hirst to his 10-year-old daughter Florence about Canada -- from the American Hotel, Portland, September 19, 1872. "Dear Florence, When we were at Montreal we went to see the Indian village of Cannawanga, pronounced something like Caw no wan'Ka, and as I cannot remember telling you about it, I may as well do so in this letter although I should have plenty of stories to amuse you with when I come home again which I cannot attempt to write. "We took return tickets from Montreal to Lachine, just above the rapids or where they really begin and then went in a steamer across the St Lawrence which is about two miles broad at that place, perhaps it may be more. "On landing at the Indian village we scarcely knew how to proceed but we went through the place looking as well as we could at the cottages of the people. They are very small as a rule and nearly all built in the same way. The door usually goes in at the gable end and there is one or two windows, but seldom or never so far as we could judge more than one room. The men were mostly outside in the unkempt streets but we saw little of them, and on asking what they did we were told that they went out to farm. I suspect that they do nothing but hunt a little and boat a little. "The girls and women appeared all busy inside their houses making Indian bead work baskets, mocassins (sic), tc tc, and I shall bring you a few samples of their trade. There was scarcely any trace of cultivation in their gardens for although each hut almost has some pretension to an enclosure it was in every case overun with weeds. A few blades of Indian corn and a straggling pumpkin or two were all I saw in the way of farming. "Lazy dogs, far too idle to bark or even get up and scarcely willing to undergo the exertion of turning their heads to look at us lay in the dirty streets. They could scarcely be called streets, for no paving except what Nature has provided was visible. A flat rock or two one walked over and then if there is a pond (?) the path diverges a little to find another. Some of you may have seen similar natural pavements above Hill Top. "One extremely fat Indian woman, dressed in some sort of pink striped calico, wh appeared to be merely a loose garment thrown over her, for I am sure she had nothing else underneath, opened her window and displayed some mocassins, baskets, pincushions, watch pockets &c for sale but when we went to look at her wares we found that she could scarcely speak a word of English and the others in the house did not understand a word, I believe. I tried to bargain for a pair of mocassins but the creature wanted about double what they were worth. "My paper is full so I must stop and tell in my letter to Alfred (note: his third son aged 17) how the steamer left us and what trouble we had to get home that night." After Portland, Jonathan travelled on to Boston (Sept 21), then to New York (Oct 3), then to Philadelphia (October 10) and back to New York. He left for England in the third week of October and arrived back home in the second week of November, Having spent about three months in the USA and Canada.

Phil Hirst, Oldham, Lancashire, UK



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