18891227 See an image of the original letter, http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/xnt6-wa33


Georgetown, Demerara.


Friday 27th Dec. 1889


My dear Mother,

Before leaving Barbados on Xmas-day, I recvd. your welcome letters of 2nd & 9th Dec. Together with the family budget of good wishes for the season. Many thanks to all for their letters, which I hope to answer by degrees.

Much interested to hear about Fuhrs’ dance.[1] It is reported out here that the “heirloom” swallow-tail made such an impression on one of the heiresses that she proposed to Julie right away, but he replied that he must first see if his brother James wd take over a young lady whose affections they had jointly engaged at a fashionable seaside resort.[2]

It is well that Mr Willie Brown’s life was so fully assured. I suppose his widow will be comfortably provided for. Have you heard anything more about Miss Brown’s reported engagement? Are Jack Sinclair’s friends subscribing to make him a wedding present? If so I shd  like to join. I shall write to Father about it.

By this time I trust you have all quite recovered from the consequences of the Christmas festivities.

I was invited to take pot luck on Xmas-day at Mr Rickford’s where I spent a most pleasant evg. during my previous visit to Barbados. As I sailed that day I cd not accept.

The letter which I posted by last mail, brought me as far as Monday 23rd. On Tuesday afternoon I played tennis at Da Costas’.   I met there a Miss Haines, a very nice lively girl. She drove me into town in her carriage & asked me to call at their house on my return. Of all the places I know Barbados takes the palm for hospitality.

Earlier the same afternoon I had called at the Austins to pay a digestion visit, & had mentioned that I might be passing through Barbados again abt Janry. 6th on my way from Demerara, whereupon Mrs Austin asked me to dine with them that evg. (Janry. 6th) & go with them to an amateur pantomime – Blue-beard – in which one of the children was taking part.

To anyone who reads my list of invitations at Barbados I must seem a very “uncommercial traveller”. But it all helps business to take a low view of it, & need not at all interfere with one’s work.

The “Eden” sailed for Demerara about noon on Xmas-day. There were only some four passengers on board & we had rather a dull time of it. There was a heavy sea on, & none of us seemed to enjoy very much the turkey & plum pudding served up in honour of the occasion.

After dinner I paced the decks & wondered how you were getting on at home. It was too warm to go below so I stretched myself in someone’s deck-chair & slept there till abt. 4 in the morning, when I turned into my cabin.

We were in Demerara early this morning – 27th – a two days’ run. I know no one here & have only a couple of rather valueless introductions, so I am rather doubtful as to how I shall fare – but Nil Desperandum!

I must tell you rather a good thing about a fellow passenger by the Medway – a young man with a shrill squeaky voice. It seems that when leaving Waterloo Station for Southampton, he took, by mistake, someone else’s portmanteau instead of his own, but did not find out the error till the steamer had started for the West Indies! His own contained a complete new rig-out, new suits, new boots, new shirts, new handkerchiefs with his name (as he pathetically told me) nicely embroidered in the corners. He hoped he might find an equivalent in the other portmanteau but what were his feelings when he discovered that the wardrobe was that of a lady, & that it comprised a ball-dress of some white material, a black silk dress, & a variety of nondescript garments, belonging to some Miss Mary Burgess!

Miss Burgess’s feelings may also be imagined when she finds- instead of her ball dress & her black silk – the new shirts & boots, two pairs of – “divided skirts” of grey tweed with their complementary vests & jackets, not to mention the handkerchiefs nicely marked “J.Smiths”.


1st Janry. 1890    A happy New Year to you all – & many birthday wishes to Emma for tomorrow.[3] It is already tomorrow with you, for it is abt 10pm here, which would make it something like 2 a.m. in Belfast.

For the past week we have had almost continuous downpours of tropical rain making everything, even in one’s bedroom, feel horribly damp. One’s boots become mildewed if not worn for a day, & one’s trunk has a blue-mouldy smell.

To-day a pleasant change has come with the New Year, & after a single day’s sunshine the roads look as if it had not rained for weeks.

British Guiana is a prosperous colony. Its principal export is sugar, but gold has latterly been found in fair quantities on the Demerara River & the search for it seems to be a growing industry, though hitherto the yield has barely paid expenses. The present Governor is an Irish peer from County Galway.[4]

Georgetown, the capital, is a place of considerable importance. It is on the Demerara River, which is navigable for some distance. It is a swift-flowing muddy current, about half a mile wide at its mouth, & rolling over its shallow bar it discolours the water for many miles. In fact the first indication that you are approaching Demerara, coming from Barbados, is the change in the sea from deep blue to turbid yellow. The country all around is quite flat, mud is abundant, & mosquitoes have here their home. The houses are all build of wood, as the ground is not solid enough to support stone walls. Some of the best houses look very fine from the outside, with their open verandahs, elaborate venetians or “jealousies” (Fr jalousies) & square turrets; – wood lends itself better than stone to light ornamental architecture for it is so much more easily worked with. The gardens surrounding these houses are very beautiful – thanks more to Nature than to art. The climbing plants, the many coloured crotons, & the infinite variety of palms & other tropical trees, make such a garden seem one vast hothouse & all the air so heavy with the perfumes that we know only in a cactus or orchid house at home.

Along the middle of the wider streets run canals or trenches which serve to carry the rains of the wet season into the river. Several of these trenches are covered with the magnificent Victoria Regis lily, which is now in bloom.[5] I remember seeing sketches of it in the Illustrated London News last year, by Melton Prior.[6] The leaves are quite three feet across, round, with an upturned brim like a large tea-tray. The upper surface is green, but the under, as seen on the reverse of the rim, is a deep red colour beautifully veined. The large blossoms open at night, the outer petals of pure white falling back on the water, the inner, graduating from light pink to dark crimson, rising in a cluster in the centre.

There is a preponderating Scotch element in the business population here. The merchants seem to have retained their old-country characteristics. They are canny & suspicious with a you’re-trying-to-get-the-better-of-me-but-I’m-too-wide-awake- kind of air. I don’t like them nearly so well as the Barbadians.

New Year’s day was a holiday here, & rather a dull one I found it. The niggers seemed to enjoy themselves though, as they paraded the streets in bands of about a dozen, with masks & all kinds off fancy costume, dancing, shouting, & playing drums, fifes, & tambourines.


Friday 3rd Janry. /89   By this time you will likely have rcvd. my first letter & on Monday you ought to have my second. You will have this one abt. Monday 20th I expect.

I mean to leave this place on Sunday for Trinidad, & then go on to Curaçao.

I am taking a direct steamer to Trinidad – a quicker way than by Barbados so I shall miss the Austins’ dinner& pantomime, which I regret. But I want to push on as quickly as I can.

I noticed a nice house here called Norwood Tower, & struck by the name I asked whose it was; I was told that it belongs to a Mr McGowan, of Belfast origin.[7] He has a store here, but is said to be in difficulties & to have gone home to arrange with his creditors.

The mail closes to-night & I have still to write some business letters, so I shall now close my “Fortnightly Review”. I shall not have your letters (written abt Xmas-eve) till this day week in Trinidad. I hope they will bring good news.

Best love to all

Your affectionate son



A letter to Olga goes under separate cover.[8]

  1. The Fuhrs (see Index to People) are Ernest Augustus and Dorothea (née Hanney) Fuhr. They had a very large number of children, both older and younger than those of Jane and Julius (among them “Harry Fuhr” the civil engineer who JMcC meets on his voyages). They live in Belfast and in 1880 are to be found at 1 Mount Pleasant, Strandmillis Road (9 minutes walk from Lennoxvale). In 1901 one of their unmarried daughters is at 52 Malone Avenue (4 minutes walk away).
  2. These are neighbours of the Loewenthals (the Blacks) – and appear in various letters – but not further identified.
  3. Emma is Jack's sister – later known in the family as “aunty Em”. The birthday he refers to has Emma turning 21 (b 2 Jan 1869).
  4. Jenico William Joseph Preston, 14th Viscount Gormanston, GCMG (1st June 1837 – 29th October 1907), was an aristocratic Anglo-Irish colonial administrator. In 1885 Gormanston was appointed Governor of the Leeward Islands, a post he held until 1887, and then served as Governor of British Guiana from 1887 to 1893 and as Governor of Tasmania from 1893 to 1900.
  5. Victoria is a genus of water-lilies, in the plant family Nymphaeaceae, with very large green leaves that lie flat on the water's surface. Victoria amazonica has a leaf that is up to 3 metres (9.8 ft) in diameter, on a stalk up to 8 metres (26 ft) in length. The genus name was given in honour of Queen Victoria.
  6. Melton Prior (12 September 1845 – 2 November 1910), was an English artist and war correspondent for The Illustrated London News from the early 1870s until 1904.
  7. David Hugh McGowan (b Belfast ca 1849). He was listed as a “West India Merchant” in the Walthamstow Census of 1891.
  8. Olga is Jack's sister.


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John McCaldin Loewenthal: Letters Home from a Victorian Commercial Traveller, 1889 - 1895 Copyright © 2022 by Michelle Fink, Robert Boyd, Sarah Watkinson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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