Jan Harper: “Letter Home to Scotland from Canvas City”

Canvas City

November, 1852

Dear Father,

I was glad to hear that you are keeping well, thanks be to God for giving you that blessing, and may you ever continue to be so.

I am now biding temporarily on the outskirts of Melbourne Town in Australia. Our ship from California entered Port Phillip last week and sailed to Hobson’s Bay, which was crowded with possibly 100 ships at anchor and smaller boats taking passengers to shore. Being crew, we were the last from our ship to be ferried to the pier at Sandridge Beach, then made our way towards Melbourne Town for about 3 miles through marshy scrub.

With so many goldminers arriving from all over the world, there was too little accommodation in Melbourne Town, so I took up the offer of a tent in what is called “Canvas City” on Emerald Hill, the other side of the River. I cannot tell you how many tents there are here, but it could be thousands. My tent has a wooden frame with calico over, is poorly constructed and not secure, yet is costing me 5 shillings a week. I also have to pay 3 shillings for a barrel of water, which is brought from up river. The tents are arranged along makeshift streets, with names like “The Strand” or “Regent Street”, so fairly easy to find my way around. Some of the tent-dwellers provide services such as barbers, restaurants and food stores. Canvas City is surrounded by dried swamp lands, has poor sanitation, rubbish is piled around, and swarms of flies pester me. However at night the candle-lit tents make quite a pretty picture and there are many sounds of merriment, to which I have contributed.

The behaviour of many of the men here is rough, with much drunkenness and not a little petty theft. But do not worry for me, as I mix only with the more upright characters, and keep the Lord’s commandments, thanks be to you for your teaching. I am more used than some to the crude behaviour, as I already experienced it at the diggings in California. There I was disgusted with the wild ways and uncouth talk of the diggers, with gambling and drinking saloons abounding and much lawlessness and corruption. I had hoped to find a better class of men at the diggings in Victoria, but I expect that conditions will be similar, as men who are greedy for wealth and have no families by them are apt to take no account of God’s directions.

Biding in Canvas City has allowed me the opportunity of meeting other men who may act as companions on the walk to the diggings. Wheeling barrows with our belongings, we must walk over 70 miles to Ballarat. This is a longer, but I understand a much easier, route than the 50 miles I walked across the Isthmus of Panama on my way to the Californian goldfields. I would like to form a partnership with another digger in the gold-mining enterprise, as I learnt from my experience in California that a good mate is essential for success. I met somebody who may suit this morning, outside the Emerald Hotel, where a more respectable class of digger tends to congregate. This man is a Gaelic speaker like myself, and seemingly an honest-enough fellow.

You will be interested to hear about my voyage here from California. I was fortunate to utilise my trade, and gained a position as ship’s Baker. All went well until we were becalmed about half way across the Pacific just north of the equator, where the prevailing trade winds from the north and south collided. We were in the doldrums for many days, supplies of flour began to get low, the ship was over-crowded and we had to ration the bread. Hunger made some of the men vicious and they started to riot and tried to break down the galley door, the other cooks and myself locked inside. Fortunately they were brought under control and we managed to keep our victuals safe throughout the remainder of the voyage.

I am spending this time in Canvas City selecting the requisites I need for the goldfields. I am stocking up on tools for mining, and am at a considerable advantage in this on account of my involvement in California. I will also take some provisions, as experience tells me that these will be much more costly once I am at the goldfields. I am finding what I need but, the tent not being secure, I am either storing things at the Immigrants’ Aid Society or keeping them about my person.

I was able to purchase a few necessary baker’s tools in California, and am supplementing these in Melbourne Town. My plan is to spend a short period trying my luck seeking gold, and after amassing a modest amount, to establish a Bakery on the goldfields to supply what I hear are much needed biscuits and bread to the diggers.

I did have some luck finding a certain amount of gold in California, so I am able to send you the enclosed 10 Pounds. You will have much need of it, as you wrote that the harvest was unfavourable last summer on account of the wetness of the weather, with corn and hay not secured sufficiently, and that the herring fishing was not so successful in Loch Eil as it has been in years past.

Please send my compliments to my sister Ann, who has found it in her heart to bide with you in the croft since my mother’s death. And also send compliments to my brother John in Fort William, who taught me the baker’s trade, which has stood me in good stead. I trust his wife and children are healthy and that his children are being taught to read and write, just as you provided schooling for him and your other children.

I remain your affectionate son,

Sandy McPhee

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