The Autobiography of Sir William Topaz McGonagall – Part 4

My Trip to America

In my remembrance, that is about fourteen years ago, and on the 9th of March I left Dundee. But before I left it I went amongst all my best friends and bade them good-bye, but one particular good friend I must mention, the late Mr Alexander C. Lamb, proprietor of the Temperance Hotel, Dundee. Well, when I called to bid him good-bye, and after we had shaken hands warmly, he asked me if any of my pretended friends had promised to take me home again from America if I failed in my enterprise. So I told him not one amongst them had promised. “Well,” says he, “write to me and I will fetch you home.”

Then on the next day after bidding good-bye to my friends and relations in Dundee, I left Dundee with the train bound for Glasgow, and arrived safe about four o’clock in the afternoon. When I arrived I went to a good temperance hotel, near to the Broomielaw Bridge, and secured lodgings for the night, and before going to bed I prepared my supper– tea, of course, and bread and butter — and made a good meal of it. Then I went to bed, but I didn’t sleep very sound, because my mind was too much absorbed regarding the perilous adventure I was about to undertake. Well, at an early hour the next morning I got up and washed myself and prepared my breakfast, and made ready to embark on board the good steamship “Circassia,” bound for the city of New York. When I went on board all was confusion, and there was a continuous babel of voices amongst the passengers, each one running hither and thither in search of a berth. And I can assure ye, my friends, it was with a great deal of trouble I secured a berth, because there were so many passengers on board. Well, when all the passengers had got their berths secured for the voyage, and the anchor had been weighed, and the sails hoisted, the big steamer left the Clyde with upwards of 500 souls, bound for New York. Some of them were crying, and some were singing, and some were dancing to the stirring strains of the pibroch. Such is life I say, throughout the world every day, and it was on the 10th of March we sailed away bound for America. As the stout steamer entered the waters of the Atlantic Ocean some snow began to fall, and a piercing gale of wind sprang up, but the snow soon ceased, and the wind ceased also, and the vessel sped on rapidly through the beautiful blue sea, while the cooks on board were preparing the passengers’ tea. Yes, my dear readers, that’s the supper the passengers get every night– plenty of bread, butter, and tea; and coffee, bread, and butter for breakfast; and for dinner, broth or soup and bread and beef. This is the fare in general going and coming. Well, when a week at sea all of a sudden the vessel began to roll, and the sea got into a billowy swell. The vessel began to heave fearfully, and the big waves began to lash her sides and sweep across her deck, so that all the boxes and chests on deck and below had to be firmly secured to prevent them from getting tossed about, and to prevent them from making a roaring sound like thunder. Many of the passengers felt seasick, and were vomiting, but I didn’t feel sick at all. Well, the next day was a beautiful sunny day, and all the passengers felt gay, and after tea was over it was proposed amongst a few of them to get up a concert on board that night. I was invited by a few gentlemen, and selected as one of the performers for the evening, and was told to dress in Highland costume, and that I would receive a collection for the recitations I gave them. The concert was to begin at eight o’clock. Well, I consented to take part in the concert, and got a gentleman to dress me, and when dressed I went to the second cabin, where the concert was to be held, and when I entered the cabin saloon I received a hearty round of applause from the passengers gathered there. Among them were the chief steward of the vessel. He was elected as chairman for the evening, and addressed us as follows:– “Ladies and gentlemen,– I wish it to be understood that all collections of money taken on board this vessel at concerts go for the benefit of the Lifeboat Fund, and I also hope you will also enjoy yourselves in a decent way, and get through with the concert about ten o’clock, say. As Mr McGonagall, the great poet, is first on the programme, I will call on him to recite his own poem ‘Bruce at Bannockburn.'”

So I leapt to my feet and commenced, and before I was right begun I received a storm of applause, but that was all I received for it. Well, when I came to the thrusts and cuts with my sword my voice was drowned with applause, and when I had finished I bade them all good-night, and retired immediately to my berth in the steerage, and undressed myself quickly, and went to bed, resolving in my mind not to dress again if I was requested on the home-coming voyage. Well, my friends, the vessel made the voyage to New York in twelve days– of course night included as well– and when she arrived at the jetty or harbour of New York some of the passengers, when they saw it, felt glad, and others felt sad, especially those that had but little money with them. As for myself, I had but eight shillings, which made me feel very downcast, because all the passengers are examined at Castle Gardens by the officials there regarding the money they have with them, and other properties. Well, when I came to the little gate where all the passengers are questioned regarding their trades and names before they are allowed to pass, and if they want their British money changed for American money, I saw at once how I could manage. So after the man had entered my name and trade in his book as a weaver, I took from my purse the eight shillings, and laid it down fearlessly, and said– “Change that! It is all I require in the meantime.” So the man looked at me dubiously, but I got passed without any more trouble after receiving the American money, Then I passed on quickly until I saw a car passing along the way I was going. So I got into the car, and I asked the carman where was Forty-Nine Street. He said he was just going along that way, and he would let me off the car when he came to it. So he did, honestly. Then I went to an old acquaintance of mine while in Dundee, and rang the door bell, and it was answered by my friend. When he saw me he stood aghast in amazement, but he bade me come in, and when I entered the house his wife bade me sit down, and sit near to the fire, for nae doubt I would feel cold after being on the sea sae lang. So the mistress said I’ll mak’ ye a cup o’ tea, for ye’ll be hungry, nae doubt, and I said I was so. Tea was prepared immediately, and my friend and his wife sat down at the table together, and made a hearty meal, and seemingly they were very sociable until we had finished eating, and the table removed. Then my friend asked me why I had ventured to come to New York. So I told him it was in expectation of getting engagements in music halls in the city, and he said he was afraid I wouldn’t succeed in getting an engagement. As he said it came to pass, for when I went three days after being in New York to look for engagements at the music halls I was told by all the managers I saw that they couldn’t give me an engagement, because there was a combination on foot against all British artists and how I had come at a very bad time. When I couldn’t get an engagement I thought I would try and sell some of my poems I had fetched with me from Dundee. Well, the first day I tried to sell them it was a complete failure for this reason– When they saw the Royal coat of arms on the top of the poems they got angry, and said, “To the deuce with that. We won’t buy that here. You’ll better go home again to Scotland.” Well, of course, I felt a little angry, no doubt, and regretted very much that I had been so unlucky as to come to New York, and resolved in my mind to get home again as soon as possible. When I came back to my friend’s house, or my lodging-house in New York, I told him how I had been treated when I offered my poems for sale, and he said to me, ” I’ll tell you what to do. You’ll just cut off the Royal coat-of-arms, and then the people will buy them from you.” And when he told me to do so I was astonished to hear him say so, and told him “No!” I said, “I decline to do so. I am not ashamed of the Royal coat-of-arms yet, and I think you ought to be ashamed for telling me so, but you may think as you like, I will still adhere to my colours wherever I go.”

Wearying for Home

Well, after I had been three weeks in New York without earning a cent I thought I would write home to Dundee to Mr Alexander C. Lamb, proprietor of the Temperance Hotel, Dundee. Well, I remember when writing to my dear friend, the late Mr Lamb, I told him for God’s sake to take me home from out of this second Babylon, for I could get no one to help me, and when writing it the big tears were rolling down my cheeks, and at the end of the letter I told him to address it to the Anchor Line Steam Shipping Company’s office, to lie till called for. So, when the letter was finished I went out to the Post Office and posted it. Well, to be brief, I remember the next day was Sunday, and in the evening of the same day my friend invited the most of his neighbours to his house, as there was going to be a concert held amongst them, and, of course, I was invited to the concert and expected to recite, of course. And after the neighbours had been all seated and ready to begin my friend was elected by the neighbours to occupy the chair for the evening, and he said, “Ladies and gentlemen,– As we are all assembled here to-night to enjoy ourselves in a sociable manner, it is expected that all those that can sing a song will do so, and those that can recite will do the same, and as my friend here, the great Poet, McGonagall, can recite, I request him to open the concert by reciting his own poem,’Bruce at Bannockburn.'”

I leapt to my feet and said, ” Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen,– I refuse to submit to such a request, because I believe in God, and He has told us to remember the sabbath day to keep it holy, and I consider it is an act of desecration to hold a concert on the Sabbath. Therefore, I refuse to recite or sing.”

“Oh, but.” the Chairman said. “it is all right here in New York. quite common here.”

Then there chanced to be a Jew in the company, and he said to me, “What you know about God? Did ever He pay your rint?” And I said, “Perhaps He did. If He didn’t come down from Heaven and pay it Himself, He put it in the minds of some other persons to do it for Him.” Then the Jew said, “You’ll petter go home again to Scotland. That won’t do here.” Then the lady of the house said– “If ya dinna recite to obleege the company ye’ll juist need tae gang oot. Ye ought to be ashamed o’ yersel, for look how ya have affronted me before my neighbours.”

Then I said– “But I haven’t affronted God.” Then the Jew said– “What you know about God? Did you ever see Him?” ” Not in this company at least,” I replied. And then I arose and left the company, considering it to be very bad, and retired to my bed for the night, thinking before I fell asleep that I was in dangerous company, because, from my own experience, the people in New York in general have little or no respect for the Sabbath. The theatres are open, also the music halls, and all of them are well patronised. My dear readers, I will now insert in this autobiography of mine a poem, “Jottings of New York,” which will give you a little information regarding the ongoings of the people, which runs as follows:–


Oh, mighty city of New York, you are wonderful to behold–
Your buildings are magnificent– the truth be it told–
They were the only thing that seemed to arrest my eye,
Because many of them are thirteen storeys high;
And as for Central Park, it is lovely to be seen–
Especially in the summer season when its shrubberies are green
And the Burns Statue is there to be seen,
Surrounded by trees on the beautiful sward so green;
Also Shakespeare and the immortal Sir Walter Scott,
Which by Scotchmen and Englishmen will never be forgot.

There are people on the Sabbath day in thousands resort–
All lov’d, in conversation, and eager for sport;
And some of them viewing the wild beasts there,
While the joyous shouts of children does rend the air–
And also beautiful black swans, I do declare.

And there’s beautiful boats to be seen there,
And joyous shouts of children does rend the air,
While the boats sail along with them o’er Lohengrin Lake,
And fare is 5 cents for children, and adults ten is all they take.

And there’s also summer-house shades, and merry-go-rounds
And with the merry laughter of the children the Park resounds,
During the live-long Sabbath day
Enjoying themselves at the merry-go-round play.

Then there’s the elevated railroads about five storeys high,
Which the inhabitants can hear night and day passing by;
Of, such a mass of people there daily do throng–
No less than five 100,000 daily pass along;
And all along the city you can get for five cents–
And, believe me, among the passengers there’s few discontent.

And the top of the houses are mostly all flat,
And in the warm weather the people gather to chat;
Besides, on the housetops they dry their clothes;
And, also, many people all night on the housetops repose.

And numerous ships end steamboats are there to be seen,
Sailing along the East River water, which is very green–
Which is certainly a most beautiful sight
To see them sailing o’er the smooth water day and night.

And as for Brooklyn Bridge, it’s a very great height,
And fills the stranger’s heart with wonder at first sight;
And with all its loftiness I venture to say
It cannot surpass the new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay.

And there’s also ten thousand rumsellers there–
Oh, wonderful to think of, I do declare!
To accommodate the people of New York therein,
And to encourage them to commit all sorts of sin

And on the Sabbath day ye will see many a man
Going for beer with a big tin can,
And seems proud to be seen carrying home the beer
To treat his neighbours and his family dear.

Then at night numbers of the people dance and sing,
Making the walls of their houses to ring
With their songs and dancing on Sabbath night,
Which I witnessed with disgust, and fled from the sight.

And with regard to New York and the sights I did see–
Believe me, I never saw such sights in Dundee;
And the morning I sailed from the city of New York
My heart it felt as light as a cork.

Well, my dear readers, to resume my autobiography, I’ve told ye I sent a letter to Mr Alexander C. Lamb in Dundee requesting him to fetch me to Dundee as he had promised, and when about three weeks had expired I called at the Anchor Line Steam Shipping Company’s office on a Monday morning, I remember, to see if a letter had come from Dundee. Well, when I asked Mr Stewart if there was any news from Dundee, he said, “Yes,” smiling at me, and, continuing– “Yes, I received a cablegram from Dundee on Saturday night telling me to give you a passage home again– a second class cabin, not the steerage this time.” And he asked me how much money I would require, and I told him about three pounds. “But,” he said, “I’ve been told to give you six,” and when he told me so I felt overjoyed, and thanked him and my dear friend, Mr Alexander C. Lamb. Then he asked me if I would take British money or American, and I said I would take American one half and British the other, and along with it he gave me a certificate for my passage on board the “Circassia,” which would sail from New York harbour in about a fortnight or so, telling me to be sure and not forget the time the steamer would leave New York for Glasgow, and bidding me to be watchful regarding my money, for there were many bad characters in New York.

Well, my dear friends, I bade him good-bye, telling him I would take his good advice, and, if alive and well, I would be on the lookout for the steamer that was to take me to Bonnie Scotland, and left him with my heart full of glee.

Well, my dear friends, at last the longed-for day arrived that I was to leave New York, and everything I required being ready, I bade farewell to my old Dundee friend and his mistress, and made my way down to the jetty or harbour of New York, where the beautiful steamer “Circassia” lay that I was to embark in, which would carry me safe to Glasgow and the rest of the passengers, God willing. And when I arrived at the jetty there were a great number of intending passengers gathered ready to go on board, and there was a great deal of hand-shaking amongst them, bidding each other good-bye. Some of them were crying bitterly, noticed, end others were seemingly quite happy. Such is life.

Some do weep, and some feel gay,
Thus runs the world away.

Well, when the hand-shakings were over, the intending passengers went on board, and I amongst the rest. The first thing that arrested my attention was the skirling of the pibroch, playing “Will Ye No Come Back Again?” and other old familiar Scottish airs, and the babbling of voices, mingling together with rather discordant music ringing in my ears. The sails were hoisted, and steam got up, and the anchor was weighed, and the bell was rung. Then the vessel steamed out of New York Harbour, bound for Glasgow. The stout vessel sailed o’er the mighty deep, and the passengers felt delighted, especially when an iceberg was sighted. I remember I saw two large ones while going to America. Now, on the return voyage one has been sighted, and a very big one, about ten feet high, which in the distance has a very ghostly appearance, standing there so white, which seemed most fearful to the passengers’ sight. And some of the passengers were afraid that it might come towards the vessel, but it remained immovable, which the passengers and captain were very thankful for. Well, on sped the vessel for a week without anything dangerous happening until the sea began all of a sudden to swell, and the waves rose up like mountains high; then the vessel began to roll from side to side in the trough of the sea, and the women began to scream and the children also. The big waves swept o’er her deck, so much so that the hatches had to be nailed down, and we all expected to be drowned in that mighty ocean of waters. Some parts, the steward told me, were five miles deep. When he told me so I said to him, “Is that a fact?” and he said it was really true. And I said to him how wonderful it was and how beautiful and dark blue the sea was, and how I had often heard of the dark blue sea but now I was sailing o’er it at last. The vessel all at once gave a lurch and slackened her speed, and the cause thereof was owing to the piston of one of the engines breaking in the centre, which rendered it unworkable, and it couldn’t be repaired until the vessel arrived in Glasgow. By that break in the engine we were delayed three days longer at sea, and, strange to say as I remarked to some of the passengers, “Isn’t it wonderful to think that the sea calmed down all at once as soon as the piston broke?” And some said it was and others said it wasn’t, and I said in my opinion it was God that calmed the sea– that it was a Providential interference, for, if the sea hadn’t calmed down, the vessel would have been useless amongst the big waves owing to the engine giving way, and would have sunk with us all to the bottom of the briny deep, and not one of us would have been saved. Well, my friends, after that I was looked upon as a prophet and a God-fearing man, and very much respected by the passengers and the chief steward. So on the next evening there was to he a concert held amongst the passengers, and they all felt happy that they were spared from a watery grave, and many of them thanked God for saving them from being drowned. So the next day the sea was as calm as a mirror, and the vessel skimmed o’er the smooth waters like a bird on the wing, and the passengers felt so delighted that some of them began to sing. When evening set in, and the passengers had got their tea, arrangements were made to hold the concert in the cabin saloon, as formerly, and, of course, I was invited, as before, to give my services. This is generally expected on board of all emigrant vessels. Any one known to be a singer or a reciter will join in the entertainment for the evening, because emigrants either going or returning from a foreign country are all like one family. There seems to be a brotherly and a sisterly feeling amongst them, more so at sea than on land. No doubt the reason is that they are more afraid of losing their lives at sea than on land.

A Concert at Sea

When it drew nigh to eight o’clock all those who intended to be present at the concert began to assemble in the cabin saloon, and by eight o’clock the saloon was well filled with a very select gathering of passengers. Of course, amongst them was the chief steward and myself as formerly. Of course he was elected as chairman, and as formerly he announced that all collections of money on board at concerts went for the benefit of the Lifeboat Fund. Now there was amongst the passengers an actor, who had been to New York in expectation of getting engagements there, and had failed, and was well known to the chief steward, and had consented to give a recital along with a lady from the play of “The Lady of Lyons.” She was to read her part from the book, and he was to recite his part from memory, he taking the part of Claude Mellnotte, and she “the Lady of Lyons.” So such being the case the audience thought they were going to get a treat, so the chairman announced them as first on the programme to give a recital, which was received with applause when announced. But that was all the applause they received during their recital, for she stammered all along in the reading of her part, and as for the actor he wasn’t much better. All the difference was he remembered his part, but his voice was bad. Then when they had finished their recital I was requested to give a recital, and I recited Othello’s Apology, which was received with great applause. Then I was encored, and for an encore I sang “The Rattling Boy from Dublin,” and received thunders of applause. When I had finished several of the passengers shook hands with me warmly, telling me I had done well. Then other songs followed from ladies and gentlemen. And the chairman sang a song, and we all felt quite jolly, and free from melancholy, while the vessel sped on steadily as a rock. By this time it was near ten o’clock, and us it was near time to finish up with the concert, I was requested by the chairman to give another recital, which would conclude the evening’s entertainment. So I consented, and recited “The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir,” and received the general applause of the audience. This finished the evening’s entertainment. Then there was shaking of hands amongst the passengers, and high compliments were paid to those that joined in the concert, myself included. So we all retired to rest, highly pleased with the evening’s entertainment, and I slept fairly well that night. In the morning I was awakened from my sleep by someone knocking at the door of my berth, gently, and I asked who was there. A voice replied, “A friend.” I arose at once to see who had knocked, and there was one of the gentlemen who had heard me recite at the concert, and he asked me if I was open to receive from him a few shillings as a token of reward and his appreciation of my abilities as a reciter, telling me he considered it a great shame for passengers to allow me to give them so much for nothing. so I thanked him for his kindness, and he said– “Don’t mention it,” and bade me good morning, saying he was going to have breakfast, and that he would see me again. So in a short time the bell rang for breakfast, and I was served, as well as others, with a small loaf of bread and butter and a large tin of hot coffee, which in general is the morning fare– quite enough, in my opinion, for any ordinary man.Well, my friends, I have nothing more of any importance to relate concerning my return from New York, any more than that we arrived safe and well at Glasgow, after being fourteen days at sea on the home-coming voyage. The next morning I took an early train bound for Dundee, and arrived there shortly after one o’clock noon. When I arrived at home my family were very glad to see me; and also some of my old friends; and as I had written a diary regarding my trip to New York I sold it to a newspaper reporter, who gave me 7s. 6d. for it.

Farewell to Dundee

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