Saturday, 2 March 2013

Crewe Alexandr(i)a: Part 1

Kate Jones was a 22-year-old sewing maid from Crewe who had worked for several families in Cheshire before joining the wealthy  Peel family in 1896. Mr Peel was in the cotton trade and spent several months of the year in Alexandria. The family had a large house there, and Kate made the journey with Mrs Peel and the three eldest girls – Winifred, May and Grace – in October 1897, the first time she had ever left England. Every day, she wrote a diary in the form of a letter to her sweetheart, Frederick Price, whom she later married.  As you can imagine, the diary makes fascinating reading – although keen on a laugh, Kate was a deeply religious girl (a member of the Crewe Baptist Church), who was often shocked at the antics of the rich family for whom she worked, as well as her fellow maids, Jane and the irrepressible Polly. Her days seems to have been long and very hard work; and she does much more than just sew.

The diary starts on board S.S. Laconia on the journey out to Egypt, as Kate discovers she is not a good sailor:


Oct. 5th 1897

At last I am able to put pencil to paper to tell you how we are going on. Well, I wish we were either landed at Egypt or else back in England again. We sailed out on Tuesday evening  with the 6 o clock tide. … I went up on deck till supper time & then we came down to the saloon for supper.  I did not want much supper for I felt too bad to eat. I went to bed at 8 oclock. Polly came shortly after.  I was not sick that night nor next day for we both stayed in bed all day Wednesday & Polly got up first on Thursday. The greatest effort is dressing for it rocks you about so while you are dressing. I went up on deck after I dressed but I did not stay long for it was so cold & it made me feel so ill I came down to my cabin & had a lay down. …  I went on deck again but I could not stand it, it was too much for me, I did not go out of my cabin again that day.  … It is my first voyage & my last if god spares me to see England again & my friends & you dear, I will never venture a sea voyage again. 
At this point they are still in the Bay of Biscay!  And things do not improve:

 The stewardess brought my breakfast to me in bed & I had only just started of it when the ship began rolling something too dreadful. It sent my tin box down bang on the floor just like a ball of worsted going down & then the breakfast things in the saloon are all gone smash …  so of course I did not want my breakfast after that lot. …

We had not been in bed long [that night] when the ship came to a sudden standstill & we wondered whatever was the matter. Some of the pipes in the engine house had broke so they had to set to work to mend them at once. You should have heard our people shouting stewardess to know what had happened.  Polly nor I had very little sleep last night for when she started again she rolled about so that she nearly threw us out of our own beds several times.

It is Saturday morning and Polly is out on deck & stewardess has just been for my breakfast things. She says Polly has had a wave dashed right over her & wet her finely what she was not expecting. I suppose she has been too near the side of the ship. Well dear, I sometimes wish you were here but let me tell you the truth I don’t envy anyone on board ship for it is an awful life to live. I only wish we were near landing, instead of that we have about 10 more days yet on sea before we land. I shall be so glad for I feel so ill I cant do anything & when I get out on deck I am as weak as a child. I cant walk along deck myself without Polly has hold of my arm & then I can go pretty well.

The ship finally gets into the Atlantic, where things improve a little:

I am beginning to write again …  it is Tuesday morning Oct 12th ’97 & we arrived in Tangiers at 2 oclock this morning. It is so nice to be quiet & still. Polly & I got out of bed at 4-30am & looked through our port holes  - it was so nice to see land. … We both got up about 7 oclock & went on deck till the breakfast bell rang & then we went down to the saloon to breakfast. While we were down our people went out in a small boat across to land to see Tangiers.  …. We started out again at 4 oclock this afternoon, & now we have passed the north coast of Africa & are on our way for Algiers. We have a fine set of people with us now, Maltese & Pilgrims both men & women …  the ship has gone very nice since she started again. We passed Gibraltar at 6-30pm tonight just before we went to dinner & then we came on deck again after dinner & our young ladies were playing their banjos & mandolines & singing on deck. …  We have had man o war ships & Spanish ships & French ships & sailing boats & all sorts today, could see the donkeys on shore quite plain through the glasses & the New York Hotel at Tangiers as well. The view was really beautiful through the glasses.


They arrive in Algiers, but one passenger nearly doesn’t make it back on board…


Thursday October 14th 1897 
Thursday morning.  I am just waiting for the breakfast bell to ring. It is a splendid morning, the sun is shining brightly & it is enough to roast you in these cabins. I shant be long before I am out on deck. I have got the Port Hole open while I am dressing & I can see land for miles round. We arrived in Algiers this afternoon at 4-30pm as near as I can say & the scenery is really magnificent . We are as near shore as our ship can go & you have to take a small boat to take you on shore. Our people went on shore about 5 oclock & came back at about 6-30pm. A gentleman passenger & two ladies went in another boat to shore & when they came back the man on the boat would not let the gentleman come on the ship. He took him out farther to sea because he wanted him to pay more money. He paid him the proper fare but he would not let him off because he wanted more & he had to pay more. They kept him out about a couple of hours & our captain had gone ashore so they knew what they were doing -  our men daren’t get a boat out without the captains orders & he was afraid to bring him back; in the finish he made another man bring him. The young gentleman was quite hysterical when he got on the ship. He upset us all. None of us wanted any dinner untill we knew he was safe back with us & then he went to bed as soon as he could controll himself a little & then we had our dinner. Our people went to bed about 9 oclock & we went down to the further end of the deck listening to the mess-room boy playing & singing on his banjo - while the cat’s away the mice will play. We got to bed about 1 oclock & were tired too so good night for present.


 and a few days later the end is in sight:

Friday October 22nd 1897 

It is a beautiful day & we are in sight of Alexandria. We landed there about 11 oclock as near as I can say & oh the noise & fuss of people there, you could not hear your own ears. Master met us at the docks & then we drove in two open conveyances to here [the Peels’ house]. It  is over an hours ride to here from the dock & we brought some of the small luggage with us & the other followed after. The house here is splendidly situated … we can see the harbour one side & the station & trains passing by, so it does not make it feel so lonely, it makes me think of those that are on the railway [Fred Price was a railway worker in Crewe]. It was a splendid ride here only so hot & the scenery was really delightful as we came along. It looks such a queer country, there is nowhere green like in England, it is just like as if the sun has withered the grass all up.  … I have just finished unpacking & are very glad for I do feel so tired. I hope I shall sleep well tonight for I have not slept on board ship very much all the time we were on it. I was very glad to get off & to feel my feet on dry land again.

It was straight to work the next day though:

Saturday October 23rd 1897 

It is a nice morning. I was up just after 7 oclock. Master had his breakfast at ¼ to eight oclock & we had ours as soon as he was gone to his office … the rest had theirs at 9 oclock am. Jane came down about 10 oclock & then we all sat down & started making curtains, some stitching rings on, others turning hems on theirs & me machining for them. Then we were busy at something or other all day long. [I] retired to rest about 10-30pm & was glad to get there for I ached so with running about.


Next time, we’ll see what Kate gets up to in Alexandria.


  1. Welcome to the GeneaBloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

    May you keep sharing your ancestor stories!

    Dr. Bill ;-)
    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories" and family saga novels:
    "Back to the Homeplace" and "The Homeplace Revisited"
    The Heritage Tourist at In-Depth Genealogist:

  2. I got sea sick just reading her entries! :-) It is a horrible feeling.
    Interest reading. Thank you for sharing.
    Theresa (Tangled Trees)

  3. What an adventure! I imagine those are not experiences common among her peers...

    Thanks for sharing what you've found here. I just discovered your blog owing to a mention in the GeneaBloggers blog last Saturday. Best wishes as you continue your fascinating saga.