A Letter from America

For the first 40 years of St Mary’s existence there were barely more than 30 pupils in the school at a time. It was a local school and many, on leaving, stayed within the community. However, some scattered across the globe and magazines from the early years of the 20th century have reports from Wiesbaden and Gibraltar, South Africa and British Columbia, China and Switzerland. Among the archives of St Mary’s, are nine hand-written school magazines from the years 1909 to 1911. Within one of these the editor has transcribed a letter from one of those travellers.

On the 15th February 1911, the Oceanic, a ship of the White Star Line, set sail from Southampton to New York. On board was R Tucker. We don’t know who she was but she was travelling back to The States with her father, having spent some time at St Mary’s. On the High Street in Calne there lived a master tailor and his family with the name Tucker, so perhaps these two were relatives. We know that an Honor May Tucker was a new pupil at St Mary’s in 1907.

The account of the trip is told with excitement and with detail. She describes the layout of the ship and its furnishings, the routines and the activities, including concerts by the ship’s orchestra. She tells of how to cope with sea-sickness by walking. There is a vivid description of a stop in Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland, where fishermen came out to meet them in boats laden with items for sale including Irish lace and oranges. These were thrown up to the passengers while money was exchanged, embedded in damaged fruit. She also comments on those dining with them. ‘Ours was a very nice table at which were seated a very pleasant lady and her husband, a most curious young French girl, two very shy young men, an old gentleman who had made three fortunes and lost them all, travelled a great deal and who was very interesting, the purser, and father and I.’

Possibly getting her terminology confused, this young traveller goes on, ‘Under the bow, one on each side, were two fan-shaped propellers joined in the centre by a large screw which drove the vessel along. These turn round and round, churning up the water until it looks like pure white shining foam under which is very dark water, blue or green and in very deep places even black. This is very pretty indeed, especially when the sun is shining, for then a perfect rainbow may be seen.’ She includes a drawing of the propeller.

Waking on the 21st February to find the ship in the entrance to New York harbour, she sees the landscape covered in snow, and ‘the river full of large cakes of ice‘. The Oceanic made slow progress through the ice, past warehouses, other ships, and the Statue of Liberty, arriving four hours later in the dock where the streets were under two feet of snow. Looking back on her time in Calne, Miss Tucker comments on her affection for the friends she had made at St Mary’s.

In the year following this journey, the sister ship of the Oceanic, the Titanic, left Britain for The States on her maiden voyage. The Oceanic was requisitioned for naval service in 1914. She had spent just two weeks in the role when she was wrecked near Scapa Flow on her way to the Shetlands. A salvage operation in 1973 managed to retrieve the propellers, the very ones watched and sketched by R Tucker in 1911 on her Atlantic crossing.

HMS Oceanic