This is the fourth part of my article on Grant Thorburn’s journal. For the previous parts please see the earlier entries from 1st July, 5th July and 9th July 2015.
At the Royal Society of Surgeons, Thorburn viewed the dissecting rooms and the collection of renowned 18th Century surgeon John Hunter, whose anatomical specimens are still housed at the Royal Society to this day.
In one of the large rooms is kept the collection which belonged to the late Dr. Hunter of London. This is said to be the largest and best anatomical collection in Europe. In visiting these institutions the mind is lost. You there see the human frame in all its parts, inward and outward, and in all its forms and deformities. But volumes could not contain the matter that might be written on these subjects; and perhaps in no language could the subject be expressed in such emphatic words, as in the 139th Psalm – “We are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
In the College, I saw the skeleton of Burk, the man who was hanged in Edinburgh some years ago for murdering subjects, and selling them to the doctors for dissection.
The skeleton of William Burke is now housed in the Anatomy Museum at the Edinburgh Medical School. The deeds of Burke and Hare and other such body-snatchers had led to concerns about protecting the dead, and new precautions had to be taken.
The dread of the resurrection-men has induced many of the parishes in England and Scotland to erect towers in their burying-grounds, where a watch is kept all night; and many, even of the poorer class, bury their dead in cast iron coffins. I saw numbers of those coffins piled up in the corners of the church-yards. The lid is fastened on with strong screws.
Fascinating though Edinburgh was, the highlight of Thorburn’s travels was his homecoming, to Dalkeith. This was a time of mixed emotions for Thorburn. Joyous as he was to return home, he now felt a little out of place.
You are a stranger at your own door. You look round; there stands the same venerable church and school-house, and may be some ancient oak, under whose limbs, in youth, you whiled away the long and sultry summer day. You hail them as friends. You talk to yourself and the moss; and the ivy on their darkened walls seems to respond to your whisper. This exquisite feeling is only enjoyed by him whose birthplace is a village, a small deserted village, where five hundred souls live as one family, where each one knows and is known – for in large cities, man is a stranger among strangers. I stood on my village green. I knew no body, but every body knew me. I sat at the table, the friends of my youth on each side. I tried to trace in their healthy sun-burned faces some lines of the school-boys’ countenance. They were gone, and replaced by the wrinkles of time – the flowing locks were shorn, and on their bald foreheads sat the snows of age.
These were Thorburn’s feelings when dining with his old school friends, whom he had not seen since leaving Dalkeith at the age of 21. He was pleased to see that many had achieved success in their lives, findings ways out of poverty ‘to wealth and respectability by their own exertions’. Ironically, the most successful of them had been considered ‘wicked chaps at school.’
Most emotion of all, though, was Thorburn’s return to his family home. His father was now in his 90s and had gone blind. After so long, Thorburn was curious about whether his father would recognise him from his voice alone.
The family consists of my father, brother and wife, a young man and servant girl, My brother came out. I told him to caution the family not to mention my name. I followed in a minute. My father sat before the fire, his arm resting on a table, and his cheek on the hand. “Is old Mr. Thorburn in the room?” I inquired. “I am here,” says he, “what’s your wish ?” “When did you hear from your sons in America ?” says I. “We had a letter frae Grant the other day; he is some way aboot Lunnun or Liverpool, he aye rites he’s comin doon, but he’s unco lang about it.” I found he did not recognise my voice. I continued, “Don’t you find a great loss in the want of your sight; you used to read and walk so much?” “To be sure it is a loss,” says he; “but how can an auld man ninety-ane expect to hae a his faculties. I may be very glad there is ony o’ them left. I can hear my freends speak to me; I can eat my bit meat; my health is gude, and I sleep weel at night; so I ought to be very thankful.” I made some other inquiry, when he says, (beginning to recollect my voice,) “but, am thinking you’re Grant himsell.” The rest may be described, but cannot be felt.
It was now within a few months of forty years since we first parted on that same spot. At that time our calculations were, that we would never meet until we met in eternity. But here we were, and in circumstances of peace, comfort, and plenty. A pleasure this, which few who have left their father’s house ever enjoyed in such perfection.
Thorburn ‘would not have exchanged my feelings at this moment, for all the pomp and pageantry of kings since the world began.’ But he had another parent to visit: the mother he had barely known.
In a lonely church-yard, remote from mortals dwelling on this gloomy winter’s day, I stood by the grave of my mother. Her image I could not recall, (as she left this world, before I knew my right hand from my left.) But, as I stooped over the sod, which covered that breast from whence I drew the first nourishment of life, I wondered with myself why I should still weep, though that sod has been wet with the snow of sixty winters – it was nature claiming her own. I was lost! The spot where I stood was consecrated ground, and my spirit was communing with hers, perhaps it was hovering around.
Friends departed, are angels sent from heaven. Are they not all ministering spirits? Then why may not a departed mother be sent to watch over her orphan child. In my childish days I used to devour a nursery story of a mother who died and left seven young children, and as the story went, her ghost was seen every night to enter the room, and straighten the bed clothes over her sleeping babes. We have all felt the influence of these nursery tales; this one made a strong impression on my mind. Oft when put to bed in my dark and solitary room, have I wished most fervently that my mother would appear in her white robes, that I might see her face – fear entered not into this feeling. I knew if she came it would be in love, and my soul longed to behold her countenance. I think this childish fancy has had a salutary influence on my after life. I remember, as I grew in years, (far up, I am not yet,) if my way at night lay through a church-yard, by a ghostly castle or on haunted ground, I had no fear. I thought if a ghost came, it would be my mother, and I rather wished for, than dreaded the sight. Since then I have had no trouble about the inhabitants of the invisible world.
19th Century travel writing can often seem impersonal, formal, even characterless by modern standards. The worst examples are comprised of little more than descriptions of landmarks, of little interest to posterity. The very best of them are written with honesty and humanity. Thorburn, for all the criticism and sarcasm his writing received, wrote in a way that is still capable of connecting with a reader on an emotional level nearly 200 years later. His final goodbye to his father was an extraordinary moment. Living in an age when it took at least three weeks to cross the Atlantic, and a holiday from America to Britain cost a fortune, there was no doubt that this was the last time he would ever see his father.
When I came to part with my father for the last time, I saw before me a living proof that the hope of the gospel can support nature in the most trying situations. He is now in his ninety-first year. His eyes are dim, so that he cannot discern objects around. I dreaded this day of parting. I knew it was for the last time, and put it off as long as possible; but time lingers not, the hour came, and the coach was at the door. I held his hand, it trembled not, neither did his voice falter. “Now,” says he, “we part, and except we meet at the right hand of Christ, it will be for ever. Go, and may he who has led and fed me all my life long, go with you.” At this moment he stood like Jacob, leaning upon the top of his staff. Thus we separated, on the same spot on which we had parted forty years before.
Returning to London to prepare for his voyage home, there was just time to do a bit of showing off. When Thorburn met a lady at a dinner party who expressed an interest in American ships, he offered to take her on a tour of the Montreal, on which he had booked his passage back to America. The lady arrived for the tour with her daughter, and both were impressed with the splendour, the ‘beautiful wood’ and the wine and American ham they were offered.
When we came on shore, she observed, “Your captain must be an Englishman.” – Says I, “Madam, what makes you think so?” “Because,” says she, “he is as polite and dresses as genteel as any gentleman.” Says I, “Madam, that man is a genuine bred Connecticut Yankee. But, madam, the American captains are all gentlemen; many of them have been to college. It is their learning makes them build such fine ships, sail them so swiftly across the Atlantic, and fight them so well when necessary. It was never heard, since the world began, that a British frigate struck to a frigate of any nation after only fifteen minutes fighting, till the ate war, when they struck to the Americans.” She smiled, and said, “They are a wonderful people.”
For comparison, Thorburn showed the ladies a ‘fine British ship’ and asked for a tour. The officer was happy to oblige, unaware of the American’s motives.
When we got to the foot of the stairs I walked first. She paused and looked in. I asked her to enter, “O, no,” says she, “it will soil my clothes.” When we got on shore – “Well, madam,” says I, “you see there is a difference between these cabins?” “As much,” says she, “as between my parlour and kitchen.” I felt a little American pride at this moment.
Thorburn boarded the Montreal on 8th March 1834. The return voyage took 26 days, and the arrival back in America was an occasion for excitement but also for worry.
It is at such a moment as this – the anchor drops, the sails are furled, the ship’s at rest; the passengers are gazing and straining their eye-balls to learn something of the soil that from henceforward is to give them support. You stand on the windlass. Your home is in view. In fancy you see the very roof that covers all you hold most dear on earth. I say it is at such a moment as this you would give the universe to know that all is well.
You hear nothing. You see nothing on the right hand or the left. Your eye is fixed on the object ahead; and your conversation is within. It is nine weeks since the date of my last letter. Are they alive? May not their habitation be a heap of ruins? etc. Then busy meddling fancy raises for herself phantoms most horrible. Your throat is dry. Your tongue is parched. Your words are only half uttered. This feeling of suspense, for the hour before meeting is more intensely keen than is the day of parting, and all the long months of separation.
However, in half an hour after coming to anchor, an acquaintance of my family came on board, and set my unworthy doubts at rest. He knew them all, and all were well.
His business was with the captain. So I lit my pipe and walked on deck, repeating in my mind the one hundred and third Psalm. It calmed the multitude of my thoughts within me.
Anticipating the inevitable criticism of his journal, Thorburn included some final thoughts for his critics.
A word to the critic and I have done. I hold them all (as Washington told the democrats) as a set of self-created, blockheads, meddling with other people’s affairs, and forgetting their own. If the public are fools enough to buy books full of nonsense, why that’s no concern of theirs.
Despite the preface to the English edition, Men and Manners in Britain is far from being a ‘book full of nonsense’. It is well worth purchasing an original copy if the opportunity arises. The first edition is now quite rare, although the American version is generally easier to find. We will start exploring another travel journal in a few days. In the meantime, you can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the follow button on the right of the screen. I have had some feedback that the emails received on some devices show the entries in a less readable format than viewing in a browser, and also that they are not necessarily received on time, in which case bookmarking/adding to favourites is the way to go. At the moment I am adding a new entry every two days at least, and intend to continue with that schedule for the foreseeable future. I welcome any comments or suggestions, and will consider guest posts.