A journey from London to Aden in 1865

by Chris Bertram on November 16, 2022

I discovered recently that my late Aunt Mary, who was in her time PA to the Postmaster General and a crack typist, had transcribed a letter from a distant relative of ours recounting a journey in 1865 from London to Aden (part of a journey to India). The letter seems sufficiently interesting to post here at Crooked Timber. Among the points of interest are the speed of the journey to Marseilles (remember, we are only 35 years into the railway era), seeing de Lesseps in Egypt — who has constructed the “Sweet Water Canal” (the Ismaïlia Canal) and has yet to complete the Suez Canal), impressions of the various places he passed through, and the tragic funeral of a young man who has died of drink. But much else besides. I’ve digitized by using the OCR on my phone and have checked the various oddities and spellings, so this should be an accurate reproduction.

S.S. Mooltan, Red Sea
22 December 1865

My dear Nelly,

I promised Mamma that I would send you all a letter but the old “Ripon” made such bad weather of it that although an old sailor I could not write very comfortably on board her and therefore all the writing that I did on board was either on business or to your dear Mother. We are now in a very fine large ship and as the weather is fine the sea very smooth and I have a cabin to myself, I can write in comfort and without being disturbed. You will I am sure like to have a kind of log or journal of my proceeding since I left you all on Monday and I will try and recollect the places that I have passed through and any little incidents that may be interesting and jot them down on paper to post at Aden, and although addressed to your dear Nelly you must understand that this letter is meant for all my dear children, and as I shall probably not write to your Mother from Aden, why, this will suffice to let her know also that I am in health and as happy as I can be while away from all I love.

Well, to begin my journoyings, you know I left home shortly after 6 or Monday the 11th December, arriving in plenty of time for the train at the London Bridge Station of the South Eastern Railway which started punctually at 7.50 a.m. Having discharged the cabby, paid for my ticket by rail and steamboat through to Marseilles, registered my luggage so that I should have no further bother with it until I arrived in Paris, said Goodbye to George and taken my seat in a comfortable carriage with three other gentlemen, we were off, and without further adventure than incurring the risk of being fined by transgressing the rules of the Railway Company in smoking in the Carriage, we got safely to Dover. The morning was most beautiful; my Railway companions were agreeable, and the only drawback to enjoyment was the thought that every mile we travelled removed me farther from my loved ones at home. I looked out at Redhill Junction, thinking perchance that your Uncle William might be there but he was not and this was well, for as we did not stop there or at any other station on the road I could not even have shaken hands with him had he been there. The train went on to the pier at Dover and we stepped out of it and on board the steamer “Prince Imperial”, and it was a great comfort to feel that I had not to look after my luggage, as, being registered, the Railway Co. took all that trouble off my hands. We had a delightful run over to Calais which occupied about 2 hours and on arrival at Calais the sun was shining most brilliantly and it Appeared altogether a different climate from that when I had left At Calais I breakfasted at the Railway Refreshment Room at about ½ past 11 a.m, getting some nice hot cutlets and some excellent Coffee. I of course did not see much of Calais but it seemed to be a very dirty place, not inviting one to investigate its beauties if it has any. We started for Paris at 12.10 punctually and in the same carriage was a gentleman whom at first thought was Mr. Julius Sandeman, but a second look convinced me I was mistaken. He was evidently outward bound for India and there was also a studious looking man in the Same Carriage with spectacle-bestridden nose who was studying Bengalli in the Carriage and whose luggage was marked Passenger per “Ripon” for Calcutta.I immediately began to wonder whether either of these gentlemen or both would be likely to be berthed in the same Cabin with me on board and as the studious looking man appeared to me a man likely to be afflicted with sea-sickness I hoped that I might not be blessed with him as a Cabin Mate. To the other gentleman, Whose name I found was Dawson, and who was bound to Madras, I took a great fancy and really hoped that we might be together as he was evidently a thorough gentleman, both by birth and education.

Well, after a very pleasant journey we arrived in Paris, a distance of 203 miles, to our time exactly, viz, 6 p.m., having stopped at Saint Amer, Hazebrouck, Bethune, Arras, Longnean and Creil we had to wait at the Station about a quarter of an hour to claim our luggage and to have it examined, and owing to the parcels that I was taking out for your Aunts Emma and Kate I was very near having to pay a lot of Customs Duty for them; but having shown the Customs Officer my Overland Ticket for India and having that I was just going through to Marseilles by the next train, not stopping in Paris, he allowed my baggage to pass. while my baggage was under- going examination my travelling companion (Mr. Dawson) hired a small Omnibus drawn by one horse to take ourselves and our luggage to the Terminus of the Lyons Railway, which is on the South side of Paris and about 4 or 5 miles I should judge from the Northern Railway of France. On our way to the Lyons Terminus a Wagon ran up against our Omnibus and broke one of the shafts. As we had not much time to spare to save the train, and as we wanted dinner before we started, I was afraid we should be rather delayed, but the driver got down, took off the broken shaft and drove on with only one. It is as well that I should tell you the method of driving in France is different from what it is in our own country as in France when two vehicles meet they pass each other on the near or left-hand side, while in England as you know they pass each other on the off or right-hand side. The French method is also followed in America which was the place indeed where I first noticed this, to me, strange custom. Arrived at the Terminus of the Lyons Railway while Registering my luggage through to Marseilles, was agreeably surprised to meet Mr. Phipps who was going on by the same train, and as he offered to attend to Mr. Dawson’s luggage and mine and to secure our seats, we had more time to attend to our dinner, to which we did ample justice and had just about five minutes to spare before the train started. Seated in the Carriage with us and all going through to Marseilles were Mr. Phipps, Mr. Dawson, Mr. Lachlan and myself, all passengers by “Ripon”. A Frenchman near me, who was evidently a sea captain, 2 other Frenchmen and a French lady, coarse, fat, and forty at least. However they were all agreeable fellow-travellers only we should have had much more room and consequently more rest had there been four only instead of eight in the Compartment; but as the whole of the Carriages were alike filled there was no room for us to grumble. The 1st Class Carriages on the French Railways are exceedingly comfortable and are each supplied in the winter with two large footwarners which go all across the floor of the compartment and thus your feet are always warm and Comfortable. For these comforts they make no extra charge as on some of our lines, and they change them frequently on the journey so that they should not get cold. We started fron Paris at 7.43 p.m. and arrived at Marseilles, a distance of 534½ miles, at 1 p.m. on Tuesday the 12th December just one hour behind our time, of which in so long a journey we could hardly complain. On our way to Marseilles we stopped at Monterreau, Laroche, Tonnere, Dijon (where we had refresh- ments at 2 oclock at night), Chazny, Macon, Lyons, Vienne (not Vienna), St. Rambert, Valence, Montelimar, Orange, Avignon, Tarascon and Arles. During the journey from Lyons we were travelling by daylight and as the Railway runs principally along the valley of the Rhone the scenery was very beautiful and the views of the river from various points quite charming. In the neighbourhood of Valence we first caught a glimpse of the vineyards of the South of France and from that town until we reached Marseilles a constant succession of vineyards and Olive and Sweet Chestnut Groves came into view from the Railway. The green of the Olive tree looked very refreshing amongst the naked- ness of almost all other trees. The vine is not cultivated here as it is with us in England, trained to Walls or in Greenhouses, but grows about the size of a large Currant bush or two: vine twigs are bent down and tied together in the forn of an arch as Mamma will explain to you we used to train the Raspberry Canes in Ireland. Or course the vineyards had lost their beauty, being bare both of leaves and fruit. At Orange and Avignon we saw a number of Roman remains which were pointed out to us by one of the French passengers.In the former place the remains of a very large Roman Amphitheatre and in the latter place amongst other antiquities a large palace, formerly the residence of the Popes of Rome. On our right hand mountains, in the background spurs from the Pyrenees and on our left the Basses Alps, some of the tops of which were covered with snow.

On our arrival at Marseilles we had again to wait about a quarter of an hour for our luggage and then drove to the “Hotel du Louvre et de la Paix” (having accomplished the journey from London to Marseilles, a distance of about 840 miles, in about 30 hours). Here I had a bath and dined and then went on board the “Ripon” to ascertain what time the vessel started in the morning, then back to the Hotel, wrote some letters, then took a walk for about an hour with Mr. Phipps to look at the City which is in process of complete transformation, all the old dilapidated buildings of the original town being pulled down and magnificent Warehouses, Offices, Shops and private residences being put up in their stead. The docks and wharves are very fine and when the whole of the improvements are carried out which have been begun at the instigation of the present Emperor of France and who has greatly assisted the townspeople with Government grants to effect the improvements, Marseilles will doubt- less be one of the handsomest and busiest cities and ports of France. After our walk I went back and wrote letters until bedtime; rose at six in the morning and went on board the “Ripon” where I breakfasted at 9 a.m. (I forgot to tell Mamma and she will be pleased to hear that I bought such a beautiful high-crowned wide-awake hat in Marseilles, which I hope to preserve in good order until I return as I know you will all be pleased with it, especially as it is now covered with a magnificent “puggery” which I bought at Suez yesterday.)

We were delayed at Marseilles owing to a mail bag being missing for more than an hour, after we had breakfasted, and then we started with a fine fair wind and delightful weather, but as soon as we were clear of the Islands at the entrance of the Bay the wind came right ahead and there was a very heavy sea which sent all the lady passengers and most of the gentlemen also below so that we had very few at dinner and many of those who came to table were obliged to leave before it was all over. The bad weather and heavy sea continued almost during the whole passage to Malta, where we arrived on Saturday morning. On our passage we passed between Corsica and Sardinia and when just through the Straits of Barrateria the little Island of Caprera, the home of Garibaldi, came in sight. The next day we sighted Mauritius, a small island about 12 miles from Sicily, and shortly after the island of Sicily itself, and running in sight of the island all night we had Mount Etna in sight in the morning but the whole island was so enveloped with rain clouds that we could see nothing distinctly.

The order of our meals on board “Ripon” was Breakfast at 9; Tiffin at 12; Dinner at 4; Tea at 7; and wine and grog was put on the table for those who wished for any at 9 p.m. I did not go on shore at Malta but I was almost the only person who remained on board and I should probably have gone had I not wanted to write to your Mother and to Uncle William. So I was a good boy you will say and did my duty in preference to taking my pleasure, and I hope to enjoy that one on my return home. I was however amused a little after I had finished my letters by seeing a Maltese dive for money thrown into the water by one of the passengers. We left Malta at 5 p.m. on Saturday and on that night we had very heavy storms of rain and thunder and lightning. On Sunday we had service on board both Morning and Evening as I wrote to Mamma and on Sunday night and Monday we had very heavy storms of wind, rain, thunder and lightning. On one of those nights the rain was so continuous and the lightning so vivid and constant that the men on watch could scarcely distinguish anything between the flashes; therefore at half past eleven at night the Steam Whistle was blown to warn any vessels that might be near us and that our men might not see. The whistling was kept up at intervals of every three minutes till 3 oclock in the morning when the weather cleared a little The first whistle woke me up but when I listened and found it was continued at regular intervals I knew it was for the purpose of warning vessels and therefore in a short time I went to sleep again, though many of the passengers were very much alarmed.On Tuesday the weather moderated, the rain and lightning ceased and we had fine weather until we reached Alexandria where we arrived at 12.15 p.m. on Wednesday. The entrance to Alexandria does not present any object worthy of notice; the town itself is low, in fact the whole neighbourhood is composed of low sand hills, some of the buildings look grand and imposing at a distance but distance lends enchantment to the view, for when you get near then everything is so filthy that you are glad to get out of the place as soon as possible. We landed from the “Ripon” in a steam tug about 2 p.m., giving the Captain and Officers three hearty cheers as we left them and expecting that as soon as we got into the train we should be started off for Suez, but we were doomed to be disappointed, being detained on the miserably dirty jetty for 2 hours and then for nearly an hour after- wards kept moving backwards and forwards while the local train (as they call it) from Alexandria to Cairo was being made up; then we were attached to it and off we started. By this time it was nearly dark so that we saw very little of the country that we passed through. what we did see was wretched-looking, with the exception of a few fields of Cotton bushes and Tomatoes which grow here most plentifully; there were also a few date Palms but little other vegetation worthy of notice. The lower classes of the Arabs live in little clusters of mud hovels, all jumbled together for all the world like large mole- hills but without the order with which those little animals work. We saw one Jackall stealing out of its lair just after sunset no doubt intent upon the robbery of some hen-roost. We made various stoppages at sundry Arab villages to give the names of which is simply impossible as I never heard them and had I done so I could not spell them, for I made a great mistake in writing the name of one to Mamma where we stopped to dinner at about 9 p.m; the name as I have since learned should have been written “Kafferzayet”. Here we had a very good dinner and then after sundry other stoppages at places with un-pronouncable and certainly unspellable names, and across the Nile twice, we arrived at Cairo at about 1.30 a.m. We thought we should have to remain here for the night but were agreeably surprised to learn that we were to go on a special train to Suez. While waiting at Cairo I thought I should like a cup of Tea but what do you think they had the conscience to ask for one cup of Tea, nothing more? liny, only three shillings!!! and sixpence for a roll of bread about the size of an ordinary breakfast roll in England. I declined the honour of paying so much for a cup of Tea and therefore took an Orange instead. I managed to sleep during the journey through the desert, waking up just before we arrived at Suez. The morning here was very cold, but it got fine and bright and warm towards the middle of the day. We breakfasted at the Suez Hotel and then I went through the Bazaar. Oh! such a dirty lot as the people are there!! and afterwards to the Post Office and P&O Co’s office; here I saw Mr. Coyle and two or three others who knew Edith. Mr. Coyle introduced me to the Purser of the “Mooltan” and as nearly all the passengers’ berths were filled and it was necessary that some of the Officers should turn out of their cabins to make room for those passengers who were without berths, the Purser gave me his Cabin so that I am able to write without being disturbed; Having some time to spare before dinner and before going on board I walked with two other passengers to the P&O Co’s workshops, saw them making Ice and doing other work and then we continued our walk to the entrance of the Sweet Water Canal where we saw a small vessel called the “Eugenie” being towed through and she was afterwards towed and made fast to the Wharf opposite the Suez Hotel where on our return I saw Mr. De Lesseps the Engineer who designed and accomplished the making of the Sweet Water Canal and who is still employed in executing work on a much grander scale named a Ship Canal between Alexandria and Suez. Whether this latter undertaking will ever be accomplished is a great question but one thing is certain, his Sweet Water Canal is a perfect success and this alone is one of the greatest boons that could have been conferred upon the inhabitants of Suez, as before this they depended for their supply of fresh water on the Water Trains which used to be run from Cairo to Suez every night. Mr. De Lesseps is a very handsome man and looks strong and energetic with such a determined look about his eyes (which are black) that having seen the man I can well understand that he is one that would surmount all difficulties that came in his way. By the kind permission of his Chief Assistant I went on board the “Eugenie”, a pretty little schooner yacht built by themselves. She does not draw above 2 feet 6 inches of water, is fitted up with a raised deck in midships under which is the saloon in which are sofas capable of giving sleeping accommodation to 4 persons. Abaft this was a Washing Room on the right hand side and two sleeping berths on the left hand side, while abaft it again was the deck on which the Officer navigating the vessel and the man who steered had their location. The gentleman who took me on board told me that they had been just 24 hours making the passage from the Mediterranean to Suez; of course they had occupied more time than this but the time they were actually underweigh was only 24 hours. As this is the first vessel other than a barge that has passed through, you may suppose that I was very pleased to be fortunate enough to witness her arrival and to see the man whose brain had conceived and whose indomitable energy and perseverance had accomplished so wonderful an undertaking through a sandy Desert. We dined at the Hotel at 3 p.m. and at five exactly we started for the “Mooltan” on board which ship we are now capidly passing down the Red Sea hoping to arrive at Aden on Tuesday the 26th inst whence I hope to post this.

The weather is gradually getting warmer each day and today (Saturday) I am sitting writing in my cabin with my coat off and the port open and thoroughly enjoying the state of perspiration I am in.

Sunday 24th Dec. This day we had service Morning and Evening. Revd. Firminger said prayers in the Morning and Revd. Clough preached an excellent sermon from 10 Acts 34 and 35 Verses; and in the Evening Mr. Clough read prayers and Revd. Firminger preached from 3 Ephesians 19 V., and an extemporised choir sang the Song of the Angels. On Xmas Day we had service in the Morning. Mr. Stewart read prayers and Mr. Perth preached from 9 Danial 24V and the Christmas Hymn and Jerusalem the Golden were sung. This day was very warm and we were at noon abreast of an island called Jnibel Tier. We had a very grand dinner of which I send you the Bill of Fare and according to the difference of longitude you must all have been dining together at the same time and were thinking of one dearly loved who was far away from you in person but very near in thought. You were scarcely out of my thoughts during the whole day, and many a silent prayer my dear children was offered up by me for your spiritual as well as temporal welfare. I hope Grandfather and Uncle Aunt and Miss Drummond were able to be with you and that you spent a very very happy day. May the coming year be blessed to you all and though I shall not be with you when the New Year is ushered in I shall not fail to think of and pray for all of you. This may arrive about Mary’s birthday: you must each of you give her a kiss for me and wish her all the happiness she could desire herself. Also do the same for me to dear Mamma on her birthday.

We passed Perim, an island at the entrance of the Red Sea about ten this Morning (27 Decr.) and hope to be at Aden by 9 or 10 this Evening where this will be posted. We had a sad thing occur last night. A young man who was on his way out to join his Regiment (Bussell by name) after having been ill for several days of Delirium Tremens arising from hard drinking, died. He was to have been buried this Morning but the Captain at the request of several Officers on board who knew him has consented to take him on to Aden so that he may be buried there.

27 Decr. 7 p.m. We are just about one hour’s sail from Aden and as letters go on shore in the Ship’s Box I must close this with blessings on you all and much love and many kisses to yourselves and your mother as well as to Aunt Mo.

Your loving father

Edwd. A. Smith



Abby 11.16.22 at 7:30 pm

Thank you for sharing this letter. I found the information regarding de Lesseps and the earlier canal particularly fascinating and informative. I had no idea how quickly Suez could be reached at that point. In partial recompense, one typo: “Sented in the carriage” ->”Seated”. Thank you, again.


Chris Bertram 11.16.22 at 8:17 pm

Thanks! I fixed that.


MisterMr 11.16.22 at 11:19 pm

Other typo: Capreva -> Caprera


TM 11.17.22 at 1:07 pm

“I left home shortly after 6 or Monday the 11th December… 27 Decr. 7 p.m. We are just about one hour’s sail from Aden”

Jules Verne’s hero in 1872 took 12 days from London to Aden. Interesting…


MisterMr 11.17.22 at 2:53 pm

other 3 typos:
one on mv return -> my
when You ret near -> when you get near (?)
Dy the kind -> By the kind

This is a very fascinating read!


Chris Bertram 11.17.22 at 3:20 pm

Many thanks @MisterMr!


Mercurius Londiniensis 11.17.22 at 8:05 pm

Marvellous. In fact the distance from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon (on the street, not as the crow flies) is only 4.9 km = 3 miles. Interesting to know that even in 1865 the Paris traffic could make it seem longer.


oldster 11.19.22 at 1:48 pm

I liked that, Chris. Always good to get a glimpse of real lives, told first-hand. Thanks for publishing it.
I can’t tell — were the people in this story more or less censorious than our age would be about someone drinking himself to death?


John Quiggin 11.19.22 at 6:37 pm

Finally got around to reading this. Fascinating!


alfredlordbleep 11.19.22 at 7:10 pm

Oldster’s “. . . about someone drinking himself to death” off-handedly-free-associatively reminds me of—
Shaw’s Eliza Doolittle: There’s lots of women has to make their husbands drunk to make them fit to live with. [Now quite at her ease] You see, it’s like this. If a man has a bit of a conscience, it always takes him when he’s sober; and then it makes him low-spirited. A drop of booze just takes that off and makes him happy.

(not quite 1865—1913)


Steven 11.21.22 at 4:01 pm

Very intersting, thank you.
Saint Amer is more probably Saint-Omer.
And if you fancy a glace at the “Ripon” you may go there :
“Arrival of the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company’s paddle steamer Ripon at Southampton Docks on 3rd April, 1864.”


Chris Bertram 11.21.22 at 4:28 pm

@Steven That seems right, but Saint-Amer is what’s typed in the text I transcribed and I don’t have access to the handwritten version (so far as I know).

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