This letter is the very first letter in the collection and in the past I have never included it in the story, but I think it is fascinating as it tells us about his life at home before he left for America.
At the time he was preparing to take his army exams at a private Military Crammer in Felixstowe. This was a common practice in those days as there was so much academic work to do: they had to take exams in maths, algebra, French, English history, chemistry, geometry, geography, freehand drawing, fortification, military administration and military history. It was an incredibly well-rounded education and if he passed, he would go to Sandhurst Military Academy.
And it is so full of details: that he had ferrets (and these might be susceptible to the rot), that the groom's name was Hayward, and Hugh rode two horses: Brit and Flirt, that shooting the coverts was a big thing, that he likes his Father to write (though why doesn't he mention his Mother?), that football was a common pastime in those days, that his room at home has had a new lick of paint and everything cleaned and the floor polished to look smart and welcoming for when he returned home.
I have learnt that all the siblings had nicknames: Hugh's older brother was Bryan was Bob, Hugh was Billie, his sister Helena was Jim (which says something about her character that she had a boy's nickname) and the youngest sister Gwendoline, who was just seven at the time, was affectionately called 'The Brat.'
Here is the letter:
Trinity Road, Folkestone
My dear Helen,
Thanks for your letter. I shall come home about 11 December soon after my exam which commences on Monday fortnight.
I suppose they are shooting the coverts. Write and tell me what they kill and all about it, and also ask Father to write to me again. I have not had a letter from anyone for an age and I don't get any news about things at home.
Bob has not written to me for an age though he has nothing on earth to do, has plenty of time to go out shooting and that sort of thing. I have only had one day to myself since I left home - not even Sunday. I am going to get a game of football today by way of exercise.
Tell Hayward to get Brit into good trim by the time I come home, and also Flirt, tell him to give her a good dose of medicine.
How are the ferrets? I hope they have not got the rot, write and tell me how they are.
I'm glad to hear my room has been done up. It wanted it very badly.
What sort of weather have you been having? It is awfully warm down here and no wind. I have no more time so I must end now, write again soon.
Best love to all
Your affectionate brother
W H Cooke
Here is Hugh's first letter written on board the RMS Brittanic to his father. It talks about his plans and there are various references to Morton and Close students. I will write about these things in my next post.
“RMS Britannic” April 1883
My dear Father,
I trust that you got my letter from Queenstown addressed to your club: We have had a capital voyage till a day out of Queenstown when it began to blow a bit, but nothing very much; People have told me that these steamers don’t roll but I doubt their word, this ship even in a moderate sea rolls and pitches like the dickens; the day before yesterday it rolled fearfully and it was difficult to get from one end of the saloon to the other, and my bags and boots in my cabin rolled about like anything; Some of the passengers have been most fearfully ill especially the women who look wretched: the man in my cabin has been fearfully ill and continues to be so and an infernal nuisance it is to me; he lies in the cabin nearly all the day, the consequence being that in the evening it is as hot and stuffy as possible, besides being one of the smallest on the ship. There is hardly room to turn around in it.
There are a lot of fellows on board in the cattle line and some coming from Wyoming, one of them named Boughton is a rattling good fellow, and I have got lots of information from him on all subjects of American farming and ranching. He does not advocate cattle raising for anyone without a large capital and says that there is a tremendous run on the trade: from all I can pick up from him and the others the rising business is buying cattle lean and feeding them; One of the Sykes who is on board is thinking of going in for it: Another thing is breeding heavy draught horses which they say are vary scarce and demand high prices in the States but of course it is no use thinking about anything yet, but I thought it best to get as much information on all subjects as possible from everybody. Sykes is a very good fellow and has given me lots of hints about the country and an invitation to go and see his farm which is said to be the best in Iowa:
There a lot of Yankees on board, some of them very good chaps and very amusing indeed: There is a good deal of card playing on board and some of the Yankees are making a pretty good thing out of some of the young Englishmen. Some of the passengers are the most unmitigated brutes I ever beheld and look capable of committing any crime on the face of the earth. As yet I have stood the voyage first rate and have not even had to knock off my baccy like a good many; One day at lunch I felt a little bit bad for about half an hour but had no catastrophe; We are fed first rate, plenty of everything, but the liquor is awfully dear.
I met Owen at Queenstown, he is a capital fellow and I think we shall get on first rate. He is rather ill, poor beggar, but is getting over it now. One drawback is he does not smoke at all, but after all that does not matter much; but I can always get on better with a fellow over a pipe of baccy, it seems to reconcile one. Some of the fellows on board have been out to Morton and Close at Le Mans and are all of the opinion there is nothing to be learnt there and no work to be done, Close and Morton feather their own nest well and that’s all. The advice I get from all is “the farther you keep away from them the better for you”. They have a lot of young fellows there who do nothing else but smoke, drink or gamble; They form a deck to themselves and are continually at war with the Americans around and hated by all: Morton may be a very good fellow, and everyone says he is, but as for having any power over his pupils, it is a farce; and just as it is at all crammers - whether they profess to keep control over their pupils or not - everyone does what they like. Wren’s got a bad name because he made no rules saying that they were no good; other crammers get good names because they make them, and print them on paper; but they are never kept.
I don’t know how I am going to manage to go up to the North West Territory and see all those ranches to which you have got me introductions. I don’t see how I am to afford it! Everyone tells me that travelling in America is very expensive, and I want to have sufficient money left in the autumn to take me down to St Simon’s Island. I don’t want to stop in the North for the Winter, not wanting to loose toes, fingers, etc.; my best plan I think is to get employed on some farm or ranch for 25 dollars a month - which is easily got - then by the Autumn I shall have made a little cash instead of spending it; I don’t care a fig about missing the shooting etc. if I can only pay my own way, and so not have to ask Mother for any money, as you have quite enough expenses at home without me, and I feel confident, from what I hear from other young fellows on board, that I can fight my own way as they do.
I have written to Mr Chapman to tell him of my intention of coming down to see his Island, and asked him to write and tell me all about the class of farming, climate and other particulars; if I find anything in the North that I like better I shall not go down there; I hope Mother has written to Mrs Chapman as she promised. If she has not, please ask her to do so at once;
I shall stop as short a time as possible in New York, perhaps a day, then go via Niagara to Chicago where I shall stop another day and see Mrs Sterling; Altogether I shall have 5 or 6 days on the train and no doubt shall be heartily sick of it when the journey is at an end.
I am anxious to hear the result of the Water Bill. I have a sort of inward feeling that you have been beaten and Bateman won the day, but still I hope that I am wrong; Mind you look well after Jack and when I write for him, send him.
Only about three vessels have been seen as yet, there is always great excitement when one is sighted, everyone rushes on deck to have a look; Today (Friday) the sea is beautifully calm and the weather lovely. We are expected to arrive at New York on Sunday morning; I am told I shall be charged 60 p.c. on my saddle so I am mighty glad the pack saddle did not come; but trust that you blessed the A & N well and made them take the things back; I will write to you from Earnest’s and perhaps from Chicago; send as many papers as you can, as I should like to see the account of Joe Brady and his pals;
Tell Trubby I have got through all the cigars but two, and it won’t be many hours before they have gone also. They were very good one’s and I enjoyed them immensely: Charles Ashton kindly gave me ½ lb. of baccy and that has a pretty good hole in it too: Owen is of the same opinion as myself that it will be too expensive to travel about much.
Love to all; don’t trouble yourselves about me. I am as happy as a king and fit as a flee and am sure to jog along somehow:
Yr. affec Son
W Hugh Cooke
My address will not be in Rawlins but
c/o Frank Earnest,
Fort Fred Steele,
One of my questions in telling this story is 'How do I incorporate all my research material with Hugh's letters in a way that feels natural and unforced?'
I have been thinking about writing a 'secret diary'. The idea being that Hugh wrote this diary while in America. But this just felt fake and, as one of my friends said to me, this story has to be authentic.
Then last week I had a better idea. I have been talking with a few American writers and they picked up on descriptions of my grandmother and it occurred to me that Granny was as much a part of this story as was my great-grandfather. She introduced me to the story. She shared the letters. She told me the stories. And ultimately she gave me the letters.
And I remembered an interview I filmed with her in 1991 when she talked about her father and life as a child before the 1st World War. I went through my tapes and found the footage: there was an hour and a half of unedited reminiscences.
So yesterday I edited this down to seven minutes. How strange to hear her voice again after so many years. It was bittersweet.
I have finished the video with the comment about Hugh's parents attitude - that they felt he was letting them down by not joining the army and going to America. This is a good starting point for the story.
The Wild West in the 1880s was a time of extreme hardships. Life was tough and cheap.
The ranges had just been opened up by the railways to vast cattle-raising operations and refrigeration was the latest technology, allowing cattle to be butchered in Chicago and shipped around the world to an hungry market. Many British cattle companies were making yearly profits from between 20 to 50 per cent.
My great-grandfather's story is unique in that we still have a hundred of his letters, graphically illustrating his life as a cowboy. Beginning in 1883 a young and optimistic Hugh goes west only to return to his family in 1893 without a penny to his name. Was he bitter? No. This experience gave him the backbone to live a long and fruitful life. He would always refer to his time out West as the best years of his life.
This year I will share his unique insights here on the Tenderfoot website as I attempt to bring Hugh alive to a new audience.
I hope you will join me as we travel across time to the Great Plains of America.