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‘Bride Ships’ came to BC before Seattle’s Mercer Girls

It’s one of Seattle’s longest treasured stories and most enduring chapters of local pioneer mythology — the story of the Mercer Girls.

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The Mercer Girls were two shiploads of eligible women and girls imported from the East Coast by plucky pioneer Asa Mercer, to address the shortage of brides for lonely bachelor lumberjacks in Seattle.

But might we actually owe our neighbors to the north for inspiring young Mercer to get into the business of importing “Calico Cargo?”

A new exhibit at the Vancouver Maritime Museum called “The Girls Are Coming!: A visual voyage of Bride Ship Tynemouth” tells the little-known story of one of four so-called “Bride Ships,” that brought women from England to British Columbia beginning in the early 1860s. This was two years before Asa Mercer brought his first shipload of women from the East Coast to Seattle.

The exhibit is curated by multi-disciplinary Canadian artist Tracy McMenemy.

Reached in Vancouver, BC by phone earlier this month, McMenemy said that in 1862, men outnumbered women 100-to-1 in what was a very rustic and wild Victoria, BC, only recently settled by Europeans, and still home to many natives.

Meanwhile, McMenemy says, there were 600,000 more women than men in Victorian England, and many of them were living in abject poverty.

Victoria in those days was part of the British Empire, and so Reverend Edward Bridge of Christ Church in Victoria, wrote a letter to London seeking women willing to travel halfway round the globe.

Through the efforts of a nascent feminist organization called the Female Middle Class Immigration Society and a religiously affiliated organization called the Columbian Immigration Society (which was founded by the Anglican Church), the S.S. Tynemouth, a steamship, set out from Dartmouth, England with 292 people aboard.

It was not only the first of the so-called “Bride Ships,” it was also the first ship, period, to go from England directly to British Columbia.

There were 60 “brides” aboard the ship, and Tracy McMenemy says that most were children by modern standards.

“They were as young as 12; I don’t know how old [the oldest] were, probably early 30s, but the majority of them were quite young,” McMenemy said. “They were working-class women who were very poor, and most of them were orphaned from their families because their families couldn’t help them.”

The trip from England to Victoria, by way of the Falkland Islands and San Francisco, took 99 days, which is also how long the exhibit will be on display.

Tracy McMenemy says that on that voyage, the women and girls lived in the very lowest section of the ship.

“There were no portholes or any fresh air,” McMenemy said. “There was no light, it was completely dark. There was lots of rats and cockroaches. There was no sanitation and it was a steamship, [so] obviously there was a lot of soot everywhere.”

“I think it was pretty awful,” McMenemy said. “And they never came up; they were locked down there for the duration of the trip.”

Once the S.S. Tynemouth arrived at Vancouver Island, it wasn’t as if conditions dramatically improved for many of the 60 brides. They went first to the Royal Navy barracks at Esquimalt, then they were put aboard a Royal Navy gunboat and taken into Victoria Harbor, where their appearance was quite the spectacle and drew a huge — for Victoria — crowd.

“There was one woman that was grabbed by one of the miners as soon as she walked off the ship and they left and got married three days later,” McMenemy said. “The rest were brought in front of the legislative building, and they washed their clothes and got themselves all cleaned up. And then they paraded them around the town, two by two.”

After that, it was back to the barracks at Esquimalt, where the women and girls remained for days or weeks, until each could be found a job. Many cried themselves to sleep each night.

McMenemy says that most of the women and girls eventually were placed in homes as domestic servants, though some had come specifically to be teachers — those recruited by the Female Middle Class Immigration Society — even though it turned out there weren’t really any schools.

Not all of the female passengers on the S.S. Tynemouth were orphans, or even impoverished.

“There were two sisters, Louisa and Charlotte Townsend, who were first-class passengers, and they brought over the first piano and sewing machine to Victoria,” McMenemy said.

Ultimately, several of the women were courted and did in fact marry local men, and also made their own marks on British Columbia.

“Mary McDonald married Peter Leech, who discovered the Leechtown Gold, and she was quite significant in her work with him,” McMenemy said. “Jane Saunders married Samuel Nesbit, who was a baker, and they had the first commercial bakery in Victoria, and he died shortly thereafter and she ran the bakery by herself.”

The sudden presence of the women also led to almost immediate obvious changes in such areas as newspaper advertising, McMenemy says.

“It changed the whole nature of advertising and the economy,” McMenemy said, with ads for tailored clothes and luxury goods like soap displacing ads for lumber, tobacco, and beer.

For some reason, the story itself came to be displaced over the years. While working on research for the exhibit, Tracy McMenemy says she’s found that the Bride Ships, and the brides, are just not very well known in British Columbia.

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“The majority of the population here in BC has never heard of the story, which is shocking,” McMenemy said. “It changed our entire province.”

However, since the exhibit first went on display in March, she’s been getting emails from people who are descended from women who arrived on the Bride Ships, and some of this new information is helping fill in the blanks.

Around Seattle, meanwhile, the legend of the Mercer Girls remains well known, and has had an enduring impact on popular culture.

The “girls” and their story have been part of Northwest mythology probably from the moment Asa Mercer had the audacity to first propose heading east. In the 1940s, there was a musical called “Calico Cargo” that was written and produced in Seattle and the show was revived in 1969 at the Kitsap Forest Theater.

Also in the late 1960s, the myth went national when the TV series “Here Come The Brides” debuted (and, incidentally, gave Seattle its undying theme song).

It’s difficult to verify whether or not Asa Mercer was directly inspired by the “Bride Ships.” Even in 1862, it’s hard to imagine the people of Seattle not hearing about what was going on up north, especially something involving 60 eligible “brides.”

Vessels of all shapes and sizes made regular trips between Victoria and Seattle in those years, and often it was news and gossip that was the most prized cargo.

Back in British Columbia, it’s also hard to judge whether the Bride Ships qualify as a charitable relief effort, human trafficking, or somewhere in between.

Tracy McMenemy says that as far as she can tell, none of the women or girls was coerced into boarding the S.S. Tynemouth in England. The Bride Ships, she says, are probably best understood as “social engineering” — church leaders and others working to address scarcity in one area and surplus in another, and to make Victoria look more like England, culturally speaking.

Was this social engineering successful?

“I think it worked to some degree,” McMenemy said. “I think it worked in that certainly the women changed the culture, they changed the focus of it just being gold, and lumber and beer to having some sense of culture.”

The women who came to be teachers made particular impact and particularly impress Tracy McMenemy, for taking it upon themselves to get schools built, and then bringing French, Latin, and music instruction to the interior of British Columbia.

“I think they did change the scene,” McMenemy said. “I think they were definitely pioneers.”

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