The first entry in this notebook, written in the shaky hand of Hephzibah Watson and dated 1st November 1924, begins:
“Exactly 2 years ago, we started for S. Africa in precisely similar condition as to weather. S. Westerly gale blowing & an incessant downpour.”
This is the sequel to Hephzibah’s 1922 journal of the family’s voyage to South Africa. She seems to have grown frailer in the intervening 2 years, as her handwriting is much shakier and harder to decipher; in fact much of this journal is written by her daughter, Mabel. It is also much shorter, for reasons which I speculate on at the end of this post.
The Watsons (Hephzibah, her husband Alfred, and daughter Mabel) begin their journey at Avonmouth Dock where they board the S.S. Bayano. Their first night on board sets the tone of the journey, which is far more eventful than their previous voyage: “It was a wild night & the boat soon became very lively with her antics & we had little or no sleep.” By the end of the first week the weather has worsened: “Very tiresome for even going up & down the corridors, & one feels like being pitched out of bed…. The night was appalling! By the morning I had really to cling to the bedstead, & thought every minute would find me on the floor”. By evening, however, “The sea has gone down a lot so I hope we shall get more sleep tonight. They have got the gramophone on the boat deck & are dancing there by moonlight”. Sure enough, the next day, “The sun poured through our two portholes this morning & the whole day has been brilliant & delightful. Such a warm soft west wind & the sea deep blue tipped with white“. However, she is appalled to note “Such a strange Sunday! The Captain objects to taking a service & there is no clergyman on board.”
At 11a.m. on November 11th, Armistice Day is observed with two minutes’ silence on board, and poppies. Even the ship’s engines are stopped, and there is “dead silence, nothing but the lapping of the waves”.
This, however, is the archetypal calm before the storm. By nightfall the wind has risen and the ship is “rolling & pitching” alarmingly. The next morning, Mabel writes:
“The storm was so violent that scarcely any one got an hour’s sleep & at day break the weather was very misty, with heavy rain, & a high sea, there was no possibility of [landing]… At 7.30 the storm seemed to be at its height & there was a terrific lurch, causing great damage & confusion.. During the morning a notice was posted, that owing to the weather, it was very unlikely that any landing would take place. Since the 7.30 shock, the ship has been kept head on, & we are remaining in the vicinity of Bermuda”.
Hephzibah, who has been suffering from a bout of illness, adds later in very shaky hand: “Our cabin trunks were tearing about the cabin, kicking at everything, mine actually reared itself on end … A horrible thing happened when the big crash came. A poor old man who was travelling alone, in fact he was going out to Bermuda to stay with his son – he slipped down & was thrown down a companion way & broke his neck! So his arrival was a very different one for his poor son”.
The storm dies down later, and they are able to drop anchor at St Catherine’s Point where half of the passengers disembark. The Watsons stay on to Jamaica, enjoying the peace and quiet of the semi-deserted ship: “we scarcely see a soul between meals & have a delightfully quiet time for reading & walking. The sea is very calm & a deep, deep blue tipped with white, the sky deep blue, too, with banks of odd shaped white clouds, and a delicious breeze, so the circumstances are very pleasant…I wonder what the weather is in England!” Hephzibah is sharing a cabin with Mabel and one morning she is so moved by the “glorious glow” of the sunrise that she wakes her daughter to see it: “I never saw a sunrise equal to it”.
Their journey ends on November 18th when they disembark at Kingston, and another adventure begins:
“When we got to the foot of the gangway two people met us, a little gentleman & a tall woman. He, ‘Are you Mrs Watson?’ ‘Yes’, she, ‘You are Mrs Watson! Miss Beaumont asked me to meet you & take you to my house as she is full’. He, ‘Bishop Bently asked me to meet you & take you home with me’. So they went on fighting quite a battle! I did like the man & I did not like the woman & so it ended in our coming home with him, especially as he had come from the Bishop. They were in a beautiful old Jamaican house, 1 mile from town (4 Shoredale Avenue, Kingston). It stood firm through the earthquake of 1907 & has large, lofty rooms, very fine old furniture, a lot of ground round with magnificent flowers of all sorts.”
They are happy with their accommodation, despite being kept awake by barking dogs and crowing fowl, and stay put even though, two days later, “That wretched woman who wanted to seize us is trying to make us pay her money!” The family are soon out sightseeing, socialising and paying visits around town. They take a tram to visit Hope Garden, which Hephzibah describes as: “a most wonderful ride, through beautiful roads of fine houses & gardens, & in the distance all the time the charming hills. The gardens are a glorious sight with their bewitching glow of flowers & the trees! It is a veritable fairy land. Such curious things some of them are”. Local wildlife includes “a firefly in the room all night giving quite a bright light. … Lizards are all over the place & some hummingbirds & lovely butterflies“.
Their social life includes visiting Canon Wortley and his family, who run an orphanage in Constant Spring, and with whom Mabel becomes quite friendly. They also take tea with the aforementioned Bishop Bently [possibly D.W.Bentley?].
The journal ends abruptly on November 29th, with this unremarkable entry by Hephzibah:
“Warm & brilliant again. Mosquitoes very bad in night. We started for town before 9. Went to look at [a house]. Lovely place but absurd prices. 30 shillings a day for single room! Back by tram”.
The rest of the notebook is left blank, with no explanation given for the sudden ending. However, I think there may be a clue in this passage from my mother’s memoirs. Mabel was Mum’s father’s cousin, and acted as a fond and kindly aunt to her, and later to us children. Mum wrote of Mabel:
“Her mother’s health was not good and she and her parents spent the winter abroad each year, cruising. On one cruise to the Caribbean Mrs Watson became ill but a hurricane prevented the ship from docking and she died before medical aid could be obtained.” Clearly this did not happen on the journey described above, but Mum notes that Hephzibah is buried in Jamaica, so perhaps she died there on this trip. The family archives do not contain any more travel journals written in her shaky, but unmistakeable hand. I have enjoyed getting to know her through these anecdotes, written almost a century ago.