18891201 See an image of the original letter, http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/8nr8-6w78


S.S. Medway


Sunday 1st Dec.


My dear Mother,

I wrote you a few hurried lines & sent you a wire from Plymouth, as directed, both of which I trust were duly delivered.

We are now three days out, so I shall begin to note down a few incidents of the voyage so as to have a fairly long account to post to you by first opportunity.[1]

As cabin companion I found I had a little Frenchman from Martinique, – tolerably clean – as French West Indians go – which isn’t saying much;

Providence helps those who help themselves & it is very useful to bear this principle in mind when travelling. And so I went to the Purser & told him I didn’t relish the little Frenchman very much, & as there were not many passengers perhaps he could give me a cabin to myself. Now he has given me one of the best cabins on the ship – a three-berth one, large & well ventilated – in fact one that costs half as much again as the one my ticket entitles me to, with the further advantage that I have it all to myself – which makes a wonderful difference to one’s comfort.

The first two days of the voyage were calm, y’day & today have been very rough & just now the ship is rolling so that I can scarcely sit on my campstool, & I have to clutch my inkbottle to prevent a spill. The crockery on board is having a high old time of it & the trunks are performing a war dance in the neighbouring cabins. All this is not conducive to polite letter writing, so you must excuse if both style & characters are rather jerky.

Many of the passengers are still lying wedged in their berths, with groanings that cannot be uttered. One man has just told me that he wd cut his own throat for sixpence, from which I take it that he doesn’t find existence under these circumstances an unmixed joy. – Another charitably hopes my time will come too.


Monday 2nd Dec.

Much calmer today; my porthole is open & a pleasant breeze comes in. Temperature just pleasant, neither too hot nor too cold. Several fresh faces have shown themselves on deck today, – I mean fresh in the sense of new – for they still look very green.

The Most Reverend The Archbishop of Trinidad is playing quoits with an old French priest, – reminds me of Mrs Black & Mrs Byers at the potato game. There is bad whist going on in the smoking room. I was looking on for a bit, but when the best player of the four held king, queen, & four small trumps & didn’t lead them, I got disgusted & came away. Well for him he hasn’t somebody we know for a partner!

I had intended reading some German poetry, but this exhibition brought on a paroxysm of nervous excitement, so I came down to my cabin to work it off by writing and munching chocolates out of the boys’ hamper. I have just given a couple of sweets to a dirty-faced little urchin outside – I hope he won’t choke over them – On second thoughts, I don’t mind if he does, if it’s the same one that howls at nights. I wanted to persuade him to say “thank you” & I tackled him in Spanish, German & French, but without eliciting a sound, so I have come to the conclusion that, whatever he speaks, he does not speak it with Castilian, Parisian, or Hannoverian accent.

The Azores are in sight, so we have about one third of our voyage over. Till noon today we had run some 1250 miles since leaving Southampton. Today’s run was 340 miles, just over 14 knots per hour – a very fair pace.

I have finished “Hypatia” since I came on board – & I shouldn’t care to have to read it again. It doesn’t increase the small admiration I ever had for Kingsley.[2] I suppose the picture it gives – not very flattering one – of Alexandrian life & the Christian Church in the fifth century is tolerably correct, & in so far it is interesting, but the book as a whole is undeniably tedious. Kingsley’s inflated style is very different from George Eliot’s compressed thought.


Tuesday 3rd Dec.

It is a lazy life on board ship, sleeping & feeding take up most of the time.

The latter goes on pretty well all day long. At 6 in the morning there is a tea or coffee for those that want it; breakfast at 9, luncheon at 1, dinner at 6 & tea & coffee again at 8.

I have my salt-water bath at abt. 8 o’clock, & most refreshing it is. I always begin breakfast with stirabout,[3] as at home, then chop, steak, or bacon & eggs, & wind up with marmalade. We have fresh milk every morning – not from the cow, but from the refrigerator, where it is stored in frozen blocks. Fish & meat are kept in the same way. For luncheon there is soup, sardines, cold beef, ham, mutton etc, sweets, fruit, cheese.

As for dinner, I send you the bill of fare for last Sunday, from which you will see that we are not in any immediate danger of starving. The oyster patties were very fair & the pheasant was excellent. See what hardships a poor traveller has to put up with! Then I have your jolly plum-cake to fall back on. Half of it has already gone the way of all plumcakes, & the rest of it will ere long dissolve & leave not a wrack behind. I gave some of it last night to three fellows with whom I played whist, & they appreciated it muchly. One of them thought it rather rich to eat at night, or, to continue the quotation, that it was “such stuff as dreams are made on”, but he took another piece all the same.


The Royal Mail Steam Packet Company's steam ship Medway (1877), a watercolor print showing the ship (built 1877) at sea, with three masts and two funnels.
The Royal Mail’s steamship Medway was launched in 1877.

Thursday 6th Dec.

We are just a week out today. Only last Thursday we were shivering in our top coats & winter clothes. Today those who are lucky enough to have brought tennis flannels have put them on & we place our chairs in the coolest corners under the awning on deck. There is scarcely a ripple on the water & not a cloud in the sky.

There are about a hundred saloon passengers – a very comfortable number. There are not many ladies on board & only two or three young & pretty ones – of these one is said to have a nice little dot of £150,000! A dragon-like “Mamma” keeps the strictest watch over her & never lets her out of sight. The “heiress” as she is called, does not seem so grateful for this motherly care in keeping the men at a distance as a right-thinking young woman ought to.

There is another fair one with a “cocky” straw hat & a suspicion of paint about the eyes, who flirts in the most outrageous fashion, in the opinion of all sober matrons, with the officers of the ship from the Captain down.

There is, of course, the ubiquitous “yachting man”, got up – regardless of expense from the yellow leather boots up to the blue knitted cap of that inverted–jelly–strainer form, which is popularly supposed to be the exclusive property of yachtists & Italian bandits.

His wife is rigged out “to match”. She is a tall fine-looking woman & the couple pose for the benefit of the rest of the passengers.  Mr H. tells me that his wife enjoys an evening cigarette in the cabin of one of the officers. She doesn’t smoke it elsewhere for fear of “treading on the toes” of the other passengers.


Sat. 7th Dec.

Father’s birthday: – many happy returns to him.[4] I shall drink his health at luncheon in XX or Pilsener.[5] When at Adelaide Road I heard that the usual box was coming over from Germany – with marzapan, goose-breast & I suppose other good things.[6] They will last longer through my absence. The savoury Limburg cheese will be supplanted for a time.[7] You will quite miss its all-pervading fragrance & you will have to partly fill the void by going in heavily for Fynan haddock; – not your poor fresh stuff with no more smell that singed hair, but good venerable haddock of mellow aged odour, compared with which “Ceylon’s spicey breezes”

or “The sweet South

That breathes upon a bank of violets” are but as gilded tinsel to “refined gold” or as a “taper” to “the burnished eye of heaven.”[8]


Sunday 8th Dec.

These reflections on haddock & cheese were cut short by the steward who came to settle my cabin, & turned me out of it.

At the end of our first week out everyone was agreed that we were having a very dull voyage, so on Thursday it was voted by common consent that the do-nothing-ness had lasted long enough & that an effort should be made towards mutual entertainment during the rest of the trip.

We now have a daily sweep-stake on the run of the ship during the 24 hours. The entrance is 4/- & there is a first prize of £1 for the holder of the winning number posted up by the Captain at the entrance to the saloon at noon each day, & two second prizes of 10/- each for the numbers immediately above & below the winning one. The surplus goes into the box for the fund on behalf of the widows & orphans of the Royal Mail Co’s sailors.

On Thursday evg. we had a concert in the Music Saloon, which is a kind of round gallery above the Dining Saloon. There was no extraordinary talent, but the proceedings were made lively by several good comic songs & one or two amusing incidents. One young man forgot an accompaniment he had volunteered to play for another fellow, & after half a dozen false starts they both retired amidst considerable laughter.

At the request of the Archbishop, who is himself an Irishman, an Irish priest sang Killaloo in the most rollicking fashion, while a broad appreciative grin spread itself over the big round red face of the Archbishop.[9]

After the concert there was dancing on the quarter-deck to the music of a concertina, a banjo, & a guitar, played by three of the sailors. The ship was rolling pretty well, & it was very funny to see erratic revolutions of the dancers, & their helpless rushes first to one side, then to the other. I danced a Schottische (that word doesn’t look right somehow) with an indefatigable Scotch girl, & she nearly killed me. I wouldn’t give in, & we danced the music out, earning the applause of the onlookers.[10]

A young chap who occupies the next cabin to me told me his partner valsed him till he was ready to drop. He did not like to ask her to stop, but he squeezed her gloved hand very hard, hoping that would have the desired effect, but in vain. It was only afterwards he found out that she had a mechanical arm & that he had been squeezing an india rubber hand!

On Friday evg. the concert was repeated, & as it was too rough for dancing, one of our amateur musicians afterwards gave us a selection of comic songs with banjo accompaniment. Among others he sang that one about the young lady “whose age it was red & whose hair was nineteen.”[11]

Y’day afternoon we had athletic sports. They began with a “grasshopper race” in which the candidates for distinction had to run on “all fours”. Then followed a potato race – similar to our potato game, but with about a dozen potatoes & no spoons. The next item was an egg-race, the egg being placed on a tea-spoon which the racer held in his mouth. After that came a tug of war between the passengers & the officers, the latter winning after a very hard pull. There was to have been a race for the ladies to see who could drink a lemon squash most quickly through a straw, but as there were no entries, that did not come off. One very amusing competition was ducking for eggs in a large tub – two men ducking at the same time burying themselves – up to the shoulders – in the tub, & butting each other’s head under water. As two fellows had succeeded in securing an equal number of eggs it was arranged that they should decide the match by fishing for one more, and that there might be no advantage to either they were to put down their heads over the tub & the egg was to be dropped in between them. But in their excitement & without knowing it they smashed the egg between their heads, & when the first man came up to breathe he had it all plastered over his ear, but all unconscious of the fact he dived into the tub again to search for the missing egg, while the spectators fairly shrieked with laughter.

The meeting concluded with an obstacle race, the impediments consisting of a sail full of water, to be waded through, stools to be gone under, lifebelts & a long wind-sail, or canvas tube used for ventilating the hatches, to be crept through. Two fellows were wriggling in the middle of this tube when the chief officer turned the hose into the far end of it. I thought the fellows would have been smothered &, as it was, they came out looking like drowned rats. Fortunately they had rigged themselves out for a wetting, so no harm was done.

It becomes hotter & hotter. This afternoon the breeze died away & I felt that I shd like to take off my skin & sit in my bones. Still I prefer it what you are probably having at home.

This Sunday, as well as last, the Captain conducted the Church of England Service in the Saloon. First the crew is mustered on the quarter deck in their Sunday best, & the roll is called; then the bos’n pipes for prayers & they all troop below.[12] The Doctor presides at the harmonium, having previously got a choir together. As there is no Church of England clergyman on board we have no sermon.

Roman Catholic service was held at the same time in the fore-saloon, the Archbishop officiating.

Once a week there is a “fire drill”; the fire bell is rung, the crew all rush to their places, some to lower the boats, some to pass buckets or carry blankets, some to the pumps, & some to the hose, with which they try to put out the sea.

When the Captain considers that everyman has done his duty & the sea is duly extinguished, the bell is rung again & all danger is over.


The Careenage in Bridgetown, Barbados, with ships unloading goods for the Da Costa warehouse, ca. 1890.
The Careenage in Bridgetown, Barbados, with boats unloading goods for the Da Costa and Company warehouse, ca. 1890.

Tuesday morng 10th Dec. 6 a.m.

We shall be at anchor in Barbados in half an hour or so. I shall now bring this letter to a close & post it as soon as we land, on the chance of it catching a mail via New York.

With best love all round

Your affectionate son



P.S.  I add Xmas & New Year good wishes in case my letter shd arrive in time for them to be seasonable. Many happy returns also of birthdays to Julie, Grannie & Emma.[13]



  1. 3 days out from Plymouth on 1st December – therefore left around 27-28th November 1889. Azores in sight on 2nd December – 1/3 of the way to Barbados. Arrive in Barbados on 10th December. Thus approximately two weeks’ voyage.
  2. "Hypatia", or "New Foes with an Old Face" is an 1853 novel by the English writer Charles Kingsley. Intended as Christian apologia, it reflects typical 19th-century religious sentiments of the day. For many years the book was considered one of Kingsley's best novels and was widely read.
  3. porridge
  4. Julius Sr’s 55th birthday (b 7/12/1834)
  5. Dos Equis XX Special Lager: A crisp, refreshing, light-bodied malt-flavored beer.
  6. The residence of Ferdinand Adolf Loewenthal Sr ("Uncle Addie") was at 205 Adelaide Road, Hampstead, London. See Index to people. “Marzapan” is JMcC's spelling.
  7. Limburger is a strong-smelling Belgian cheese.
  8. A wry reference to Orsino's speech in Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night".
  9. "Killaloe" was written in 1887 by Irish composer Robert "Ballyhooly Bob" Martin for "Miss Esmeralda", a burlesque production based on "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".
  10. The schottische is a partnered country dance that apparently originated in Bohemia. It was popular in Victorian era ballrooms as a part of the Bohemian folk-dance craze.
  11. The song was called "The Maid of York Beach". It is featured in William H. Hills' Students' Songs, first published in 1880: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/hvd.32044043901040.
  12. A boatswain, bo's'n, bos'n, or bosun, also known as a Petty Officer, deck boss, or a qualified member of the deck department, is the seniormost rate of the deck department and is responsible for the components of a ship's hull. Other names: Bosun; Petty Officer; Chief rate. Department: Deck department.
  13. Birthdays: Julie = Julius Loewenthal Jr, b 17th December 1872. Grannie = Ann Isabella McCully (Jane’s mother) b 25th December 1803. Emma Loewenthal, b 2nd January 1869.


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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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