Help & advice

Celebrate your father's life

Walter was Herbert’s father, Herbert was Douglas’ father and Douglas was my father.  This Father’s Day I want to celebrate all three of them but I can’t.

Oddly, I know more about my great-grandfather Walter, than I know about his son, Herbert, who was my grandfather. 

I wonder how much any of us knows about our families for that matter.  A survey in the UK revealed that 70 per cent of people in the UK don’t know the name of a single great-grandparent.  Well I am lucky.  I know a lot about my great-grandfather.  He was brave, he was loyal, he was kind, he was hard-working and if he were alive today I think I would be in love with him!

How do I know about him?  Well, until fairly recently I didn’t know anything about him, not even his name. But after my parents’ deaths, when I was sorting out their affairs, I was rummaging through a heavy old Victorian desk in the dining room of my childhood home and tucked away at the back of a drawer was a dark brown, well used, leather travel wallet. I opened it carefully. Inside was my introduction to my astonishing and wonderful great-grandfather, a man who had died 127 years ago, 62 years before I was born. 


As I carefully explored the contents I found fascinating letters written in exquisite copperplate handwriting. There were fading photographs and ageing newspaper cuttings. And inside again was a fraying snakeskin wallet with more letters and photographs.

I spent the next few months deciphering the handwriting.  It wasn’t always easy because, to save on paper and postage, he would write a page and then turn the page 90 degrees and over write. It looks like this.

As I transcribed the letters, I began to learn about Walter Mitchell and his adventures.  The more I learned about him, the closer I felt to my long lost relative. He came to life and I began to fall in love with him. I know it sounds mad but it was as though he was still alive and watching over my shoulder.

As I began to get used to his beautiful copperplate handwriting I started by transcribing a brief history of his life. 


I discovered that Walter had been born in Chelsea in London on 20th June 1844. Strangely, the people in my life who I love most dearly are born close to that date - my husband was born on 23rd June and my best friend on June 22nd.

He left school – Oxford House School in the Kings Road in Chelsea - at 14 and learned to be a ‘joiner’, a carpenter. He described how, in 1861 at the age of just 17, he went to sea as a Captain’s Clerk on the East India and London Shipping Company line steam ship ‘Queen of the South’. He travelled via the Cape of Good Hope to Africa, ‘landed there thence to Madras and landed, also then to Calcutta and remained some months and again reached Madras and the Cape and arrive in England and left the ship and went to Southend June 1862.”

So he wasn’t afraid of adventures.  I was hungry to learn more and, as I worked my way through his papers, he became more and more real to me and the more I came to love, respect and admire him.

Among his papers and newspaper cuttings there were 14 letters he had written to his mother, his brother and his sweetheart, Emilie. They charted his journey seeking his fortune in the American Wild West at the age of 23 in 1867, just two years after the end of the American Civil War.

I read how he sailed over on a ship called the Hudson with two chums. How he worked his way west, via Havana (now called Montour Falls), Buffalo, Cleveland, and Chicago, building barns and railway cars until he reached St Joseph in Missouri, which was as far west as he could get on the railways in those days. From there on it would have been a mule train.

And all through his journey he wrote back home.  It is through these descriptive, amusing, vivid letters that not only do I know about living in America in 1867 but I began to learn about the character of the man whose DNA is a part of me. I learned he was brave, loyal and hardworking.


And he was very observant and admiring of many of the customs and people he came across.

“They have some most peculiar ideas here respecting things European…here carriages drive on the right-hand side of the road, the (railway) engine does not whistle but tolls an immense bell.  But I firmly believe here railways by their temporary construction and little outlay in formation, wooden braced bridges and car instituted for the passengers’ comfort and accommodation and not as in England to fulfill the shareholders’ pockets.

“Everyman here is his nearest neighbour’s equal.

"Their manners and customs at table seem strange.  Vegetables, Indian corn milk butter, various mushes, or mashes, and fruit, ‘apple sass’, predominates. The same being helped to you all at once in saucers or glass dishes – perhaps you may have as many as six or seven at one large and small and the correct way is to start with a spoon and everyone respectively by dipping away till you have taken sufficient and then regardless of anyone else, at such conclusion, staring up and pushing out through the room. 

"Should you patronise a drinking saloon as I did in New York for brandy having had a nasty touch of diarrhea (sic) you ask for simply brandy drinks and the bottle and glasses are invariably put before you to help yourself."

 I sat shivering in sympathy as I transcribed his letter home about his first winter. 

 "The winters are very long here indeed and very cold.  I have worked at mill with the thermometer at 38 degrees below zero. How would you like that all the ink in the bottles standing in a room, with a roaring fire in it, frozen a solid lump.  It is so cold that in the bedrooms ones’ breath freezes on the counterpane while asleep. Have had one toe frost bitten and it has been very sore; blistering exactly the same as a burn would and making a fellow comparatively lame but it is nearly well now, and for the time any small ailment have cessated. Winter lasts about 4 1/2 months here and I am given to understand about the same temperature now."

I cannot but respect Walter when at the end of this his first letter home to his brother he says: “… don’t satisfy everyone how unfavourable things look, ‘Walt will come out strong’ one day yet I hope.  Self-help is indeed a fine true work.  I have spent many a spare hour on its perusal and believe in it being a fine creditable collection of successes under difficulties by past and present great men.”

And so, as I read I learned he was optimistic and dogged.


What is more, I discovered what a loyal friend he was. He writes how he has saved some money from building a grist mill but:

“Another little drawback has been occasioned by my having to assist poor old MacDonald who was very fortunate in securing a berth at last, however he has got a school teacher’s berth but cannot draw a cent until his term expires, pay being held as a guarantee for his conduct and abilities.  However it is just exactly what he would have done for me and we are all bound to assist each other when necessary which I am satisfied we shall ever do.”

More than that, in a letter to his sweetheart, Emilie, Walter tells her of his other companion's problems.

"Here Emilie dear I have without doubt been doing very well indeed but unfortunately have had several drawbacks; one of those poor “pal o’ mine” Tom Fife has been, poor fellow, dangerously ill with typhoid fever for about 3 months and being without a trade and penniless it was my duty to see him righted and cared for.  This I did and now he has two days resumed work, this being coupled with the other “pal” also being without work a long time came rather weighty upon the “pal” who had a trade and sympathy. But now this is over and I trust they can now jog along unassisted."


My heart begins to melt as I come to know him from his letters. Then, I learn about his ambition – to build a homestead of his own.

"Coming over on the “Hudson” we there met a very intellectual young Englishman who initiated us into the secrets of western farming and he has gone west (to Nebraska) about 3000 miles west of N York, - since going he has written me most favourable accounts of the place and its productions. At present it is almost wild prairie land and government will allot any one man an appropriation of 80 acres on conditions that he cultivates so much yearly, builds him a house and makes conditional improvement and in five years this becomes his for life or to sell.

 "We all three mean on earning 100 dollars each, the necessary sum to go to Nebraska take up and improve our land, cut down our wood and build a house with which we can make a start and having my tools there is no difficulty – go into stock farming (ie) cattle etc. and adopt farming as a livelihood.  I can assure you the country is rapidly filling, soon no land will be able to be got short of a little fortune (for purchase) and as civilisations thickens and closes round such places thus taken up. it gradually rises in value but you need to go west for such chances; as land here now worth 100 dollars an acre was to be bought 50 years ago for one dollar and any chance is equal to any other persons." 


And so he went west to seek his fortune. I anxiously read about his journey in the next letter he sent entitled ‘Westward Ho’ about his journey to St Joseph in Missouri.

"On our arrival at Saint Joe some days after our arrival a quantity of red Indians, (peaceable tribe) the Mohawk, we were informed had pitched their wigwams on the shores of Kansas territory and being very anxious to see the red man of hair raising (otherwise scalping notoriety) we paddled our own canoe to the shores of Kansas across the Missouri river and with much bother and sundry little mishaps made our canoe fast to a tree and introduced ourselves to the real live injun being surrounded by a heap of warriors, squaws and their papousees (children).

"The aboriginee seemed to regard us with some little attention and seemed to eye us over with the air of a man who understood and appreciated tender subjects,

"However after seeing a good deal of their skill in crow shooting for our amusement and smoking “ye pipe of peace” with them after rewarding their youngsters with some coins which they thought a deal of – and again pulling across a rapid current reached St Joseph Missouri in some few hours having certainly been not a little amused by the trip and considering the fact that we had taken a friendly pipe with such a distinguished foreigner upon the pristine prairie".


But his dream faces a serious set-back. He reveals in a letter to his mother (Muffs) that he is more than a loyal friend, he is a loyal subject to Queen Victoria.

“ I am sorry to say I cannot I find take up any land here under the Homestead Act unless I become an American naturalised citizen and as you may rest assured my dear Muffs that your boy Walt has not so far forgotten his country and his Queen (bless her) as to swear allegiance to a foreign power. Unless I buy any land outright you may rest assured that inducement cannot I hope have the effect of making me disavow all that is dear to me, as I am an Englishman and glory in her institutions, some of them seem constrained after seeing the free and don’t care way they pile up their notions here but I guess I can whittle a stick now with any of them and they know it “they due” (sic).

Walter desperately wants his sweetheart Emilie to join him in his American adventure but I don’t think some of the descriptions in his letters will have helped his cause.

"I have commenced this scribble with a tolerably cool and collected state of mind (I don’t know whether the former word can be used here tho’ with any truth) but should I finish it a la raving maniac don’t be surprised at anything I may give vent to.  It is, in the first place, unmercifully hot, and I should say (if they were measured) there are several dozen bushels (more or less) of flies. (Wretched cheeky biting Yankie flies) round my particular cranium, with whom I am continually waging war with a palm leaf fan – but after killing many thousands, the cry is still they come  Coupled with this I have my respected person covered literally with prickly heat, you have heard me explain it when in East Indies but thank God, excepting occasional touches of diarrhae (sic) arising from heat and water I am jolly well and get on with the best of them."


But he tries to woo her with descriptions of the fashion and illustrates his letter with drawings of fashionable hats.

“The “ Shemale” portions of America during hot days mostly rejoice in shaker bonnets and in the morning “kalliker” dresses very straight down a la town pump style but the bonnets are good I believe to protection from sun. I guess you can’t see any face till they turn around.


"Some few rejoice in hats of two patterns. First pattern much worn. Second ditto used “sum” .

"The fashionable color(sic) in St Joe may be said to range from Royal Blue to Deep Red including yellows and pinks, brown and other tints, as a matter of course being of the number so various are the colours worn they in fact dress very much like the “Lowthir arcade dolls” , only they don’t wear pink shoes and their eyes ad tongues more without pulling a string."

And he chastises her for being too generous with the paper she uses to write to him, not because he begrudges the paper but because he thinks he has a long letter from her and it turns out that there is little writing on a lot of paper.

He says “Young lady I have a little word for your private ear – (learn to be economical), why do I say that you ask me, for you feel satisfied no doubt it is about making puddings or shirts, but it isn’t about either. Why do you send me so many sheets of paper making me believe I have an immense lot to read and about every other second its turn over – now if I send you a lot of paper there is also a lot of spider crawling over it, also and sometimes the aforesaid spider takes it into his sagacious head to walk north and south, as well as each and west, so just be kind enough when next you write to put the words a leeeeeettle nearer together and the lines a lieeeetle less wide.  I don’t mind how any sheets you fill but I won’t be swindled  into the idea I have a “lot of letters” when I haven’t “that’s what’s the matter” .

But there is no doubt from his letters to Emilie that she is the love of his life.

"I hope (to be plain) to be married quietly and take a trip to the dear old Isle of Wight or Lowestoft before finally making up our minds what future to dot out for ourselves;  I may be building castles but this is my whole and sole wish and God grant it may be so."


It is also clear that he has come to love many aspects of American life.

"America teaches every body that plain openness is indispensable here and so it is really everywhere; if form and appearance, my dear girl, were less studied in England t’would be infinitely better for all; here if a visitor calls and house cleaning is being performed, it makes no difference. The hostess will appear in a scrubbing bib, should that be on at the time and if the visitor does not admire things generally, she can skidaddle at once, but this rarely if ever happens.  The ladies here go to market and carry their own things home, everybody does it here and who cares one jot who sees them.  Twas repugnant to my feelings to go about at heavy work (unaccustomed as I had been) outside amongst the folks got up, regardless of expense, but when I saw men I knew to be worth (“many dollars”) with coats and waistcoats off slogging into it as hard as myself, my false pride left me I hope a wiser man; it seems strange do doubt to you but here a mechanic dresses and is respected as well and equal to a millionaire.

"In their households they are very plain with regard to furnishing but in their eating and drinking  which is various and surprising) their washing and the clothes they wear, they are scrupulously clean and if a clean spoon or knife drops upon the carpeted floor will insist on changing it before being used. 

"I am satisfied after a while you would like their style of arranging things tho very different to what we have been accustomed to."


While living in St Joseph, Missouri he writes about his life there and his work.

"Things are very dear here comparing what I have been accustomed to my wages have some weeks amounted to 21 dollars = £4.7.6 greenbucks and  = £3.0.0 gold – now this is tolerably good; but I can tell you the Americans do 1 1/2 days work to the Englishman’s 1 day, certainly not always as neat but they do a heap of it."

 “ I have recently started a shop of my own here dear and am going in for a little business now, tho’ very little, as I saw no chance of getting occupation otherwise and this idleness perfectly kills me."

He’s not very happy about the levels of crime.

"Shooting and stabbing, I regret to say, is most common here and, what is worse, the law enforcing its discontinuance very very faulty, bail being accepted in any case, this plan simply prizing any man’s life at so many dollars bail."

He was an animal lover, as far as I can tell, from this mention of the horse he kept in St Joseph.

"Jim my horse, I had to part with it, cost me such a lot to keep at livery during winter and tho I much regretted it, it had to be done, but I could see him some in town occasionally and that’s some satisfaction to know he’s treated well."

And while there he became prominent in the St George’s Society which he helped set up.

“You will see by a paper I sent you I am vice president of the St Georges Benevolent Association for these six months; they having conferred the first vice presidency upon Chas Messiter Esquire the English gentleman I spoke of who was out here last fall and who returned to England in the winter and who has I understand recently come heir to an Earldom, a very jolly fellow and an intimate friend of mine whilst here.

And in another letter he says :

“Our society, the St Georges I mean to which I belong, are to have a grand fancy ball on the 23rd of this month St George’s Day when I must attend being on the committee of management.”


Eventually, after many more adventures, he fails to persuade Emillie to join him and so he returns to England, marries her, has three children and works as a very successful Clerk of Works in London.

He was clearly a popular, ‘jolly’ fellow, as a cutting tucked away in his snakeskin wallet illustrates.


Like so many others I have photograph albums full of elegantly dressed anonymous Victorians, who must be my relatives, but infuriatingly they don’t have any captions and so there is no way of knowing who is who.  Then one day leafing through a frail and cracked tan leather album, searching for something that might reveal Walter, I came across a loose picture and when I turned it over it had the photographer’s details. Geo. Adams. (over Leland’s Music Stores) Main Street, Worcester, Mass.  So here was Walter at the age of 25.  At last I knew what my hero looked like. An earnest photograph of a smartly dressed chap with a snazzy cravat!


As I looked fondly at that young man, whose DNA flows through my veins, I was struck by some parallels in our lives.  As a child I had dreamed of going to America but in those days it was only for the rich and famous to travel so far.  When I was 19 I seized what I thought would be my only chance and applied to be a Camp America counsellor working in a summer camp in New England. I loved my time there and I had absolutely no idea that I was following in Walter’s footsteps.

Like so many people who take part in the television programme ‘Who do You think You Are?” I found his letters deeply moving. I was proud to have such a man as a great-grandfather. But without those letters I would know nothing of him.

Of course with genealogy I could have found out his name and his date of birth but nothing of the character of the man. He has given me a passion to help other people record their life story for their family so they can share the joy I have in knowing about Walter.

And so, inspired by Walter’s life story, and my beloved mother's unexpected death, at the age of 60 I started a business, for the first time in my life. It’s called autodotbiography and it helps people tell their family their life story.

Walter wasn’t famous, he wasn’t a celebrity but his story is very precious to me. On this Father’s Day why not get your dad and his father to write, or record, their life stories. There are all kinds of ways to do it. Video record them, sound record their memories, get them to write down what life was like when they were little.  It doesn’t matter how they do it, just get them to do it.  Don’t let them be a mystery to future generations, give their past a future. It isn’t difficult and it will become a family heirloom - like Walter’s letters.

Why not buy them an autodotbiography - I guarantee it will create a beautiful book of their life story. It will be the gift of a lifetime.


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