A Night at the Opera House

The following letters, taken from the 06 Mar 1984 Founders' Day Souvenir Issue of the The Port Hope Evening Guide, were written by Isabella Pringle on 28 June 1887.

28 June 1887

My Dearest Mother;

I hope and trust that this letter finds you in good health. I am presently on my way to Port Hope and attempting to write this epistle on my lapcase. Please forgive the occasional lurches in my script due to the movement of the train.

The countryside this side of Toronto is hilly and lush and many substantial new houses and farms are visible through the steamed-up window on my left. I am seized with an urge to open the window wide and breathe in great draughts of fresh country air - to cleanse my lungs of the city air from my stopover with Aunt Harriet and Uncle James last night - but I dare not for the soot and ashes flying past are fearsome in size and blackness.

Travelling at such speed from place to place is exhilarating, yet frightening also. It seems to make the world such a small place. Yet I think it is train travel that has made our Dominion the great country it is today, joining points east and west and opening up communication with our hardy settlers and pioneers in the Far West. It would be my dream that some day I could travel by locomotive across this great country, but I fear, as a single gentlewoman, I would be unable to do so. Alas, I admit also to a fear of the Indian raids and hold-ups by desperados that we so often read about in the Globe.

I am greatly looking forward to meeting my new employers, the Barretts, and making my acquaintance with their three children, whose education and upbringing will be my precious responsibility. I trust they will not look askance at my travelling alone but I have explained the circumstances of your being unable to attend me and my brothers being so busy on the farm.

I will close now. The train is slowing down and the conductor informs us that we may disembark and exercise our cramped limbs at the next station, which is, I believe, a town called Bowmanville. I have some penny stamps in my writing case so I shall post this poor excuse for a loving letter at the station. I trust my next communication shall be full of news of my new home and responsibilities in Port Hope.

Until then, dearest love from your only daughter,
Isabella Pringle

St. Lawrence Hotel
Port Hope
28th inst.

My Dearest Mother;

I am writing again sooner than I had anticipated. The train arrived in Port Hope only an hour behind schedule this afternoon and I wished to convey to you my first impressions of this lovely town while they were still fresh in my mind and tell you of the events that have transpired in the few short hours since I wrote last.

As we rounded the last bend of the railroad tracks, having followed the lakeshore for some miles, the town suddenly came into view. It is held in a bowl of steep treed hills with many impressive large houses on the peaks of the hills and the town proper laid out along the valley of a shallow but swift-moving stream called, I believe, the Ganaraska River - an Indian name. With the hills and the trees and the picturesque river, as well as a bustling harbour thronging with tall masts, flapping sails and busy men, this town is unlike any that I have passed through on my train trip from home. It appears to be a thriving and prosperous community additionally blessed with the natural beauty of its surroundings - a happy combination that filled me with a sense of well-being and exhilaration as I finally disembarked at a fine and solid stone station.

And now the news I am apprehensive about relaying but feel it is my duty to do so and I beg you to believe that all is well and you have nothing to fear for your only daughter. After disembarking, I was immediately approached by a hired cab driver, cap in hand, with a message from Mr. Barrett. Due to a sudden and serious illness in the family, he was unable to meet me at the station in person and had taken the liberty of finding me a room in a hotel until the fever of his wife had broken. I was, quite naturally, perturbed and apprehensive about staying alone in a hotel but Mr. Barrett's note assured me that the hotel proprietor was a close family friend and every effort would be made to ensure my comfort and peace of mind. My trunk and boxes were loaded most carefully and solicitously by the driver and I was handed into his hackney cab with the respect and attention due the finest of ladies. In consequence my spirits began to lighten and I looked upon the ensuing day or so as a perfectly safe but novel adventure I would not normally experience. I trust that your spirits shall lighten also when I assure you that I am perfectly safe and content and that nothing of the slightest untoward nature has occurred.

Our drive into town from the station was bumpy but not very lengthy. John Street is such a busy thoroughfare that our way was slowed by not only the usual large potholes to be found in town streets, but also by children and shoppers and carriages seeming to travel in all directions as once. The noise of the dogs barking, the whistle of the north-bound train, and the whoops and shrieks of the children made me realize how silent my last few days of solitary train travel have been. The Opera House

The hotel I am residing at is called the St. Lawrence and is built in the very latest of Italian style. It is very much a gentleperson's hotel and commands an important position on the main street, called Walton Street. It has an impressive portico with a doorman and is not at all the sort of hotel one would expect to find in a town of this size. But then, this town itself is not at all what I had expected!

Already I can see that it is very cosmopolitan and cultured and refined in tone. On my brief excursion to buy some smelling salts (my vial broke during my travels), I noticed an abundance of fine well-stocked shops showing the latest of fashions, bookstores and wallpaper shops, drugstores and emporiums, several substantial hotels and many eating places from modest oyster bars to the grandness of the St. Lawrence dining room. The main street is on a steep hill and I hear many a whoop and a yell from passengers in runaway carriages as I now sit at my desk gazing out at this busy, bustling town.

The townspeople all seem most friendly - I have not come across a surly or rude person yet and the hotel staff have been trained in the best of European fashion. My room is spacious and comfortable with a large cherrywood bed, impeccable linen and a thick eiderdown. I have a large walnut wardrobe and, as I have mentioned, in the window a pretty lady's desk equipped with writing paper and quills at which I am now sitting.

Another note awaited me here informing me that Mr. Barrett's sister will accompany me to dinner tonight at the hotel. I shall amuse myself while I wait for her by unpacking and airing some of my dresses and looking out of my window onto the street below. My next letter, I assure you, shall be addressed from the Barrett's house.

Until then, I remain your dutiful daughter,
Isabella Pringle.

St. Lawrence Hotel
Port Hope, Ontario
28th day of June 1887

My dear Juliana,

It is so late I can hardly keep my eyes open, but I had to write to you to tell you of my adventures since I bid you adieu so short a time ago. I am staying in a hotel due to sudden illness in my employer's family, but I plan to remove to their house the day after the morrow, and all who meet me tell me the house is a marvel of architecture and the new building methods - it has eight sides! I wonder if my wards, the little Barretts will have eight sides to their characters also!

I have discovered that the Barretts are a highly esteemed, respected and successful family - much more worldly than their modest and charming letter to me had indicated. I am sure that I shall enjoy being governess to their children and I feel fortunate indeed that they chose me from all their applicants. I hope that my accomplishments shall suffice and that I shall please them as much as I wish to. I am becoming a little nervous about my new job now that its commencement has been postponed by this unplanned and unexpected holiday.

But I am straying from my point. You must promise me now with all your heart that you will not tell my mother or brothers what I tell you now - but I went to the theatre tonight and accompanied only by another lady! But I hasten to assure you she is a most respectable lady; the sister of my employer, Mr. Barrett. She did not seem to give a tuppence about our sallying forth "on the town" alone and after a while, I admit, I found myself shedding my fears and apprehension and committing myself totally to the pleasures of the evening.

We had a most tasteful and elegant meal together in the hotel dining room surrounded by heavy velvet draperies and crystal chandeliers. I feared I would have nothing to say, but I need not have felt so for Mrs. Beeton, that is her name, is a most friendly and talkative being - in fact, the most interesting person I have ever met. She holds the most progressive ideas I have ever heard by a woman - about the franchise and further education for women - in fact, I think she may be what is called a 'bluestocking"! She has been widowed for some time but appears to have been left in comfortable straits for she dresses in the latest of Parisian style and has been on tour of the continent twice. She speaks knowledgeably on subjects I have only read about, and furtively at that for they seem somehow forbidden at home but seem to spring so naturally from her lips. I look forward to more of her company but I fear she may have found me a timid country mouse by comparison to her friends.

But our dinner conversation was just a prelude to our evening's entertainment. We went, after dinner, a few steps next door to the most elegant and worldly of Opera Houses. All of Port Hope's residents must have turned out tonight - carriages thronged the streets and the hustle and bustle of theatre goers dressed in their finery was most impressive and exciting. I think I have come to the New York of Ontario! And no one looked twice at us being there unaccompanied by a gentleman. The revue we saw was a thrilling and entertaining combination of singing duos, musical interludes, solos, and short humorous skits - all performed by a troupe of professional actors and actresses just arrived, I discovered, on the same train as I did from an engagement in Toronto. The Opera House, I learned, is a busy and popular place with the townspeople and attracts artistes of great reputation.

We returned to the hotel after eleven o'clock after Mrs. Beeton had greeted scores of friends and acquaintances, introducing me in a manner most flattering to me, as if I were a friend of equal social standing and not her brother's employee.

I fear I cannot sleep tonight - my head is overflowing with music and ideas and new faces - experiences so new to me I feel that I surely cannot be the same Isabella Pringle of Dundas County that I was a few days ago. Think of me, dear Juliana, and wish me well in my new life here in Port Hope. I feel that I am on the brink of new and important experiences and adventures. I beg forgivemess for writing at such length about myself and neglecting to wish you every happiness in your new life as a bride to my dear brother John.

I remain your devoted friend and now sister,


An editor's note (by Jane Staunton) followed the last letter.

Isabella Pringle did indeed find herself on the brink of a new life and, sooner than she thought, she began it.

Her first post as governess was never taken up as Mrs. Barrett's illness spread to other family members and thoughts of lessons for the children were postponed indefinitely until good health could return to the household. Mrs. Beeton embarked shortly on another European tour, taking Isabella along as companion. Soon Isabella's natural intelligence and unschooled artistic and social talents blossomed, and she and Mrs. Beeton became the toast of social circles in all the European capitals. Isabella learned to speak French and German, easily assimilated Mrs. Beeton's progressive ideas, became an accomplished watercolorist and eventually met and married a wealthy Berlin industrialist.

Mrs. Pringle, back in Dundas County, could never decide whether to be proud or ashamed of her only daughter whose innocent trip to Port Hope launched her so completely and irrevocably into the world!

Peter and Barbara Bolton - Port Hope, Ontario