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Friday, January 8, 2016

#31 - Nellie's Fateful Trip to Canada

Early in 1912 Nellie Steele must have quit her job as kitchen maid with the John Poynter Millers, as she was planning to travel to Canada to marry Jack.  Her sister, Elizabeth (married to David Gould Bell), was pregnant and ill.

Family memory tells us that Nellie was to cross the Atlantic on a new ship in April, 1912.  But her sister being ill kept her in Scotland.

Elizabeth had acute peritonitis.  She had an operation on May 2nd and died 6 days later:

Nellie stayed in Scotland to help adopt the baby out.  She ended up leaving for Canada at the end of September, 1912.  I have yet to find any documentation relating to the adoption or the birth of the baby, but the family remembers her name as Peggy Black.  (As a post script, a descendant of Peggy Black contacted me and I now know that this was indeed the right name and she went on to live a happy and full life - see this post).

If you know your history, you may have already guessed, that, according to family on both sides of the "pond," Nellie had a ticket on the Titanic.

Although I did wonder about the accuracy of this family legend, after talking to members of the family in Scotland who remembered the same story, and seeing the timeline of the family history and Elizabeth's death, I have less reason to doubt it now, and I wonder if her connection with the Miller family had anything to do with her ability to get a ticket, or her choosing that ship.  It is also quite possible that she had a ticket for another ship and would have been moved to the Titanic.  Due to a shortage of coal that a strike had caused, passengers from the Oceanic and Adriatic (both also White Star Line ships) along with their coal stores, were moved to the Titanic at the last minute.  In any case, she was supposed to be on the Titanic and cancelled her plans because of Elizabeth's illness.
Had she been on the Titanic, she would surely have been in Steerage (third class) and would have died.  So, because of Elizabeth's death, our line of the family exists.  
It is a strange thing to know that you got life because someone else died.  But, then, I am not alone.

Her trip eventually happened on the S.S. Athenia of the Donaldson Line.  It left Glasgow on the 14th of September, 1912, and arrived in Quebec on the 22nd.  It also stopped at Montreal.  After landing in Canada, Nellie would have taken a train across to Vancouver.  She was only 21 years old - quite an amazing trip for such a young woman to take by herself.  After the tragedy and loss of life on the Titanic, it must have been somewhat nerve-wracking to get on a steamer and head into the Atlantic.

We are very fortunate in our family to have a typed copy of a letter she sent.  She would have hand written it, so this typed copy was done by someone else.  There are some inconsistencies in it - for instance, someone typed at the top of the page that she took the SS Athenia to the USA and then to Canada.  I have not seen any evidence for the ship stopping in the US.  Also, the dates are a week off - perhaps someone added the date later and was incorrect.  In any case, it is a good summary of what she experienced on the ship.  It is also the only thing even close to a daily account of her activities that I have ever seen.  The only other writing I have of hers is on a few of the postcards.

Here is the text of the letter with corrected dates:

"Saturday 14th Sept. 1912.  Sailed from Glasgow 11:30am.
We have just started on our journey.  I saw Aunt Maggie standing on the dock at Glasgow until we were a good way out to sea, it is a lovely day and just like a pleasure sail.  Arriving at Greenock; a few more passengers are taken aboard, a woman came up to me, then in conversation with her, she told me she was going to Vancouver; she had six children with her and was going out to her husband. I was quite pleased to think I should have her company all the way.
On going down to my cabin to see who my companions are, I found a lady and a young girl; The lady (an American) was married; and the young girl like myself, going out to be married.
The sun is shining lovely; I am informed that we have no more stoppages until we reach Further Point [can't find this place, but I assume somewhere in Newfoundland] the journey will be almost over then.
Lunch time; off we go to get it, I feel hungry:
I enjoyed it splendid; it was much to my taste.  There is a nice music room containing a piano where we can sit if we choose; but as it is at the extreme end of the steamer it is not much patronized; because when you sit down you can feel the vibration of the ship and it inclines to make one sea-sick; and we all want to avoid that if possible.
Dinner time; then tea time came, then off to bed.

I had a good night's rest: I wondered a little where I was when I awoke and heard the sea roaring.
After getting up I go and have breakfast after which I feel a little sick; not much.  If I never get worse I shall be fortunate; A great number of the passengers (numbering 135) [which, by the way, is not what the ship's manifest states at 372 - perhaps she was talking about Steerage] in all are terrible put to with sea sickness, half the passengers are children it is heartbreaking to see the poor things afflicted with sea-sickness and yet I am unable to do anything for them.  It is very foggy this morning, the steamer keeps sounding her "Fog Horn" and it makes such a peculiar sound.  AT 10:30am a religious service is in course.  I went in, but feeling a little sick I came out again, and going to my cabin all afternoon; not that I was tired or sea sick but it was very cold up on deck, the stewardess brought my tea down to me.  Dinner time came round, I went up to the dining room for it and enjoyed it splendid then after a short time retired to bed.

Nellie Steele

It is a lovely morning; no fog but there is nothing to be seen save the Heavens above an the Ocean through which the steamer is ploughing her way.  Breakfast at 8am a cup of beef tea at 11am they are very good to us, that is with food.
Many more passengers are sick today; I am feeling well but I am getting tired of the boat.  Jack said when he sailed it was the best holiday ever he had.  I am sorry I can't say that - I am quite tired of it already.  I shall be glad when I reach Vancouver.  They tried to get up a concert every afternoon at 3:30, but every body seemed to have quite enough to do to look after themselves without trying to amuse others.

Another foggy morning; I was awakened early by the sound of the fog horn.  Today we have given up our steamer tickets and received tickets for our inland journey (on the train) in exchange.
The SS Hyperian [possibly Hesperian] passed us at 4 am on Sunday; she is now 150 miles ahead of our ship.  The officials of this steamer have received a wire from her stating that they have encountered a heavy storm; we expect to have this storm also.
Today I met another young lady going to Vancouver.  The lady I spoke to at Greenock has been sick all the way I feel heart sorry for her.  As I go to bed a heavy storm is rising on the sea, and continues all through the night, but towards morning it abates a little.

I am sick today but I am not going to bed as I find walking about is better for me than lying down; I took a little brandy; it relieved me so I hope I am done with sea sickness.  I have not missed a meal since I boarded the vessel.
The waiter was chaffing me, saying that I deserved for keeping up so well for the first journey at sea.  I have been up on the top deck today watching the porpoises, it was lovely to see them; and there was such a large number of them, they followed us quite a long way.
A great number of birds are following the vessel, but I don't know what species they are: they are new to me.

I got up this morning feeling unwell, last night was the worst I have had at sea, but I shall go and have a cup of tea after which I'll go back to bed all fore-noon: I've not kept up to my record today as I've not been able to go for my lunch.  The stewardess brought me down a cup of tea, she says it is only a slight cold that I have got and that I will soon be all right.  I went up and had my dinner, I enjoyed it very well, considering that I was not well.  I went right away back to bed after dinner; not that I was in need of it but being a little unwell I felt that my company would be a bore to anyone.

I am all right again today.  But it is terribly cold.  The steamer was stopped for 5 hours during the night on account of thick fog and a stormy sea which will delay us considerably as long as it lasts.  The storm and the fog has also delayed the Hyperian [again, Hesperian?].  She is now only five miles in front of us.  Towards mid-day most of us were up on deck seeing an iceberg it was a very large one, it makes me shudder to look at it.  This has been a terrible lonesome day today it is so cold we are obliged to stay in our cabins to keep warm.  I brought some work for me (crocheting) but I am sorry to say I have been unable to do any of it for whenever I sit down to it my head begins to sway, and I don't want to give way to sickness now after holding out for so long.
There are still a great number of passengers sick, and I have so much to be thankful for as I have not been bad, but I am tired, tired of the sea.
We are expecting to see land today about 4 pm, it is not 1 pm yet.  On going to lunch, we had not been seated two minutes when a great commotion was distinctly noticeable i wondered if a collision had taken place, but I was informed that we had sighted land.  I went on deck and saw Belle Island on one side and Newfoundland on the other, and five huge icebergs, everybody was glad to see land but it will only be for a short time.  Belle Island is covered in snow; a light house is also to be seen on it.
The mail goes this afternoon so I'll send you this just now.  The sea is not quite so stormy, it is extremely cold, of course that it caused with us being in close proximity to the icebergs.
We expect to reach Montreal on Tuesday then I have six days in the train after that."

At the end of the letter, there is a line and then another little jot, which I suspect may have been sent on a postcard.  The dates are wrong on this one, too.  "I had a pleasant journey on the train arriving at Vancouver on October 5th.  The wedding took place on Wednesday October 9th [they were actually married on October 2, 1912].  Everything passed off successfully.  The Reverend George D. Ireland conducted the service."

I really do wonder why the dates are incorrect.  That is a mystery that may never be solved.

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