Joseph Ballard’s journal is one of the very best. It was written in the final year of the Napoleonic Wars, but was not published until Ballard’s descendents decided to bring his work to print: 98 years after Ballard wrote his journal, a run of just 525 numbered copies were produced, ‘in the hope that it may be found to be of interest to others as a picture of the life and times in England in the year of the battle of Waterloo’ These words are from the introduction, written by one of Ballard’s descendants, Joseph Ballard Crocker. Ironically, so many of these magnificent travel journals start with the writer apologising for their lack of linguistic finesse. Here, Crocker does the apologising on behalf of his ancestor:
‘It is interesting to conjecture whether at twenty-six years of age, when this journal was written, he would have acquired a greater ability to express his thoughts, a more considerable knowledge of social, political, and economic conditions, and a keener power of observation if he had had the advantage of modern educational methods.’
Crocker does Ballard a disservice with this criticism. Although the young Bostonian left school at the age of fourteen to become an apprentice, he more than made up for his limited education. He was an enthusiastic reader, enjoying publications such as The Spectator and The Gentleman’s Magazine. He came from an enterprising family: his father, who would nowadays be termed an ‘entrepreneur’, established the first hackney carriage in Boston.
In 1815 a trip abroad was a serious business. It took Ballard around a month to cross the Atlantic from Boston to Liverpool, and two months to return. Included in his journal is an advertisement for the ship on which he sailed, the ‘regular trading copperbottomed ship Liverpool Packet’, which was ‘provided with excellent accommodations for passengers.’ Sailing across the Atlantic was not without its dangers, even for such a large vessel. Conditions could be terrifying for an inexperienced traveller:
‘On the 29th we experienced a tremendous gale of wind. The waves ran mountain high, and presented a scene so terribly grand as to surpass all description: then I would have gladly exchanged our gilded palace of a cabin for the meanest hovel in creation.’
Having survived the crossing, the next problem was gaining entry to the harbour of a country that had been at war with America. In fact, the purpose of Ballard’s visit to Britain was not merely sightseeing, but an attempt to restore business relationships in the wake of the War of 1812. Peace had been made in December 1814, and the last, belated skirmish of the war had been fought in January 1815, the Battle of New Orleans. News travelled slowly across the Atlantic, and by April the British Navy still seemed wary of an American ship arriving in their waters. The Liverpool Packet had the honour of confirming that Britain was now at peace with America.
‘April 4th we fell in with sixty sail of English vessels under convoy of the Musquito, – brig of war from whom we were boarded. They had heard a rumor of peace and the officer appeared highly rejoiced at our confirming it. Our mate went on board with the ship’s papers and the captain’s compliments offering to furnish their commander with refreshment. After a short detention he returned with the British captain’s steward to whom we gave some fowls and newspapers.’
The next day brought further danger, when they were ‘chased by a frigate who compelled us to heave to after firing her bow guns at us several times.’ Fortunately, this encounter also provided the Liverpool Packet with the means to make her way safely into port: once the commander of the vessel had established that ‘peace was certain’, his fleet of a hundred ships accompanied them all the way to Liverpool. The wars with France and America were clearly at the forefront of the minds of many people in Britain at the time. Ballard arrived in Britain before the Battle of Waterloo, but after Napoleon’s escape from Elba, during a period known as ‘Napoleon’s 100 Days’. Only a few days after his arrival in Britain, Ballard discovered that opinions of both this and the War of 1812 were strongly held and strongly expressed, when he encountered a difference of opinion between a ‘democratic Scotsman’ and a ‘loyal English colonel’:
‘The Scot was a warm friend to Bonaparte and asserted that the ministers had broken every treaty they had made with him. This was sharply resented by the colonel, and there is no telling where the dispute might have ended had not the conversation turned upon American affairs. The colonel complimented the American troops in a curious manner by observing that they were brave and it was not to be wondered at since they “were descendants of Englishmen.” It required all my gravity to make an acknowledging bow for this compliment!’
Ballard’s reaction is interesting. Early to mid 19th Century journals written by Americans visiting Britain often give the impression of a high regard or fondness for the ‘motherland’, a sense of returning to one’s roots. Ballard’s description of Britain is more from the dispassionate perspective of a traveller to a foreign country, and displays none of the usual discomfiture of contemporary American patriotism. As the century progressed, Ballard’s critical, disinterested approach would become increasingly common as the hereditary links between Britain and America faded into the past.
As for all American visitors to Britain in the 19th Century, the first town Ballard encountered was Liverpool. His first impressions were mixed. He was moved and impressed by a blind asylum, which he felt was ‘an honor to humanity’ , but the shady characters he encountered on the way to his lodgings and the ‘sombre appearance of the buildings’ disappointed him. Venturing out of Liverpool, he saw for the first time the contrast between wealth and poverty in England, a running theme of his journal. On his way to the manufacturing town of Warrington, he passed the estate of the Early of Derby, who had ‘a living in his gift the income of which is £10,000’ and was ‘much addicted to horse racing and gambling.’ But the journey to Warrington also showed him the other end of the financial spectrum:
‘I was much amused at the activity of the tumbling boys who turned head over heels at the side of the coach and with such swiftness as to even keep up with it for some time, which is done in expectation that the passengers will throw them a penny, their parents being so miserably poor that this is resorted to as a means of subsistence.’
In Warrington Ballard gained an insight into the cause of the poverty, when he discovered that the local inhabitants worked in ‘glass-houses, iron foundries, cotton works, breweries, &c.’ His interpretation of the problem was not low wages, but the spending habits of the workforce:
‘Opposite the inn were assembled a vast crown of these workmen having (as it was Saturday night) received their weekly wages. This they were spending in ale which soon intoxicated a greater part and such a scene of riot ensued as I shall not attempt to describe. These men are generally intemperate: were it not for this habit they might live quite comfortably on their wages. As it is, their families are starving for food while they are spending all they can in drink.’
To blame poverty on the poor in this manner would be a controversial view if offered by a modern social historian, but it was the honest observation of an unbiased visitor to the town. He also discovered that the men would not always return to work on Monday, if any of their previous week’s wages remained to be spent. Later in his journal he attributed this behaviour to the ‘ignorance’ of a lack of education, which left them with only ‘beastly ignorance and insensibility’ for enjoyment. He saw old women in the streets who were dressed in such rags as to remind him of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and was troubled by child poverty in particular:
‘There is also an incredible number of children from two to four years of age swarming the street in such a state of nudity and uncleanliness as is quite disgusting. These wretched little beings are at quite an early age buried in the manufactories. I saw some in one who were not seven years of age. They had scarcely a rag to cover them.’
This is what makes Ballard’s account so fascinating. He was not merely a tourist who saw the sights and left, but instead he took the time to visit asylums and factories. The latter, apart from revealing their harsh working conditions, gave Ballard an insight into Britain’s thriving manufacturing industry. Despite uneasy trading relations with Europe, which would not be rectified until Sir Robert Peel’s ‘free trade’ budgets of the 1840s, some businesses were still thriving, especially where the products on offer were of an exceptionally high standard. Ballard visited a glassworks in Warrington that was busy making an exquisite service for the Prince Regent of Portugal, an entire year’s work for the factory.
We will continue looking at Ballard’s journal in the next blog post.
England in 1815 was published by Houghton Mifflin Company, in 1913.
I have attempted to make my observations as accurate as possible, but I welcome any comments.