Extract from Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge’s London Travel Diary

I began a journal at Sea which my severe sufferings made me lay aside. It comprised only the events of a few days, the rest of the time being lost by incessant sickness.—

I sailed, in company with Mr & Mrs Aspinwall of N. York from New York, Wednesday 20th June. My daughter remains at Staten Island under Aunt Hackley’s care, Randolph & Jefferson go to Edgehill, the Twins are with Mr Greene at Jamaica Plains. Twas with an aching heart I left my children, though I leave them in such good hands.

I sailed then in the packet ship Wellington, Capt. Chadwick, a good ship of 780 tons, with a good commander few persons in the cabin & none of them very disagreeable people. We had a good table and were well accommodated in all respects. We had fine weather, favorable winds, made a grand run, taking in our Pilot about eighty miles from Cowes on the afternoon of July 6th (Friday.) On the morning of the 7th I went on deck—my sufferings during the whole voyage or nearly the whole voyage had been terrible—but I felt better & got on deck in time to see the Needles. Coasting along the northern side of the Isle of Wight we had a fine view of the country as far as Ryde. On the other side of the strait the only object that attracted my attention was the gloomy old Penitentiary-looking place called Hurst Castle, where Charles 1st was for some time confined. The day was very fine, we saw every thing to the greatest advantage but it was not until we reached Cowes that I began to feel the charm of English landscape. Cowes is beautifully situated and I could not but remember that this was the only spot of British ground with which my dear mother was acquainted. She had lived several years in France, and on her return to her own country in September 1789, having sailed from Havre & passing near the Isle of Wight, her ship was becalmed & lay for several days at Cowes. She went on shore with my grandfather, was as much pleased as I have been with the rural & romantic scenery of Cowes, and very often spoke of it in after times to her children. With how much pleasure I should have written to her that I too had seen Cowes nearly half a century from the time of her visit! and two short years ago she I might thus have written. But now alas!—

Near Cowes is the Gothic castle, modern Gothic, called Norris Castle, where I believe Queen Victoria passed some portion of her young life. I know not how much. This was my first view of a Castle—and whether owing to this circumstance, or whether Norris Castle is really a fine specimen of Modern Gothic, I cannot tell, but I admired it very much, and continued to look at it as long as it was visible. There it stood with it’s round tower green with Ivy, it’s massive walls of grey stone, it’s lawns & woods bathed in the light of a July morning, and the waters of the Solent bathing washing the rising ground on which it stands. Gothic Castles are familiar objects to English eyes, but Anglo-Americans hear of them, read of them, receive the imperfect impressions which drawings and paintings convey, and when the realities come before them then only know how far the truth excels the imagining—And yet I have only seen Norris Castle—How will it be when I am an older traveller?—

At Ryde we looked at the long pier and then took leave of the Wellington & her worthy Captain. We took boat for Portsmouth where, after getting an excellent breakfast at the George, fresh butter, [. . .] good bread & the finest strawberries I ever ate. Mr Aspinwall secured seats in a fast coach and we proceaded to London.

Of Portsmouth we saw little or nothing. One general impression remains on my mind of extensive fortifications and a great military display of men and arms.We had no trouble at the Custom House where our luggage was barely glanced at. The Stewardess on board the Wellington had prepared me for this. “Dear me, Ma’am, said she, they do’nt trouble their heads about the United States. Nothing comes from there that they care about. If you were arriving from France now it would be another thing.” This was not particularly flattering to my national vanity, but there was something comfortable in the fact that we were, by our very insignificance, spared the annoyance of a regular over-hauling of trunks, carpet bags &c. One gentleman only, our Presbyterian minister, was more strictly dealt with in consequence of his having a greater number of books, newly printed & bound, than were thought necessary for his own edification. The obnoxious volumes were weighed in the scale and found not wanting but too heavy, and condemned accordingly. So many shillings duty—twelve & sixpence I believe—for twenty three pounds weight of American learning and literature—or it may be of divinity as the books were the property of a divine.—At Portsmouth too we were initiated into the mysteries of servants’ fees—the innumerable shillings and pence which form the privileges of place among English hirelings

The road from Portsmouth to London is called dull, but to my unpractised eyes the first twenty or thirty miles is through a country of surpassing loveliness. England, beautiful England must be rich indeed in lawn and grove and wood and hill if all that I saw yesterday can be slighted & lightly spoken of. There were cottages with thatched roofs and latticed windows, which like Castles I had read of & never seen. There were the green green commons dotted with sheep; wild flowers of all hues embroidering the fields—the beautiful scarlet poppy a weed, the purple heath, that poetic flower, trampled under foot of man and beast, every breath of summer air redolent of the fragrance which roses innumerable & woodbine, from every cottage door and window, sent forth to greet us as we whirled too rapidly by. I wish I could describe one particular scene of beauty to shew that it is sober reality and not poetry which I am trying to write, but we journied on with all the speed of English horses over English roads, and the moving picture in it’s varieties of loveliness could only produce the general impression I now retain.

One thing charms me greatly already in England. It is the mingling of the old & the new—all that is delightful to the imagination in the ancient and the time-hallowed, with all that is gratifying to reason and a sense of usefulness in modern improvements and inventions. Here are a people not only in the highest state of civilization now, but who have been civilized for ages—not only great in the present, but great in the past, and I hope to be great in the future.

The whole road from Portsmouth to London was full of interest to me. At one time it wound round the edge of a deep black valley (black I believe with furze killed in the severe frost of last winter) where a murder had been committed and commemorated by an inscription. The spot indeed looked wild and melancholy enough. In Guildford where we stopped to dine, I saw from the window of the inn a very old and venerable church, and we had, before arriving, passed the ruins of a chapel perched high above the road. Ruins and old buildings are the greatest novelties to me. I looked with wondering admiration, in the towns through which we passed, at houses many of them probably as old as the discoveries of Columbus!

The approach to London disappointed me. The weather which had been exhibiting all the capricious beauty of an April day, now bright sunshine, now overcast, so that we had the charm of alternate lights and shadows on the landscape, settled into rain, and it was a damp and gloomy evening which brought us to Hyde Park Corner. The smell of smoke and the closeness and crowd of an immense city were a bad exchange for sweet odours and fresh airs—But I reached Fenton’s Hotel, in St James’ Street, where Mr Coolidge was waiting for me, and was glad to rest after all the various emotions of the day. Twenty four hours before I had been in the cabin of a packet ship, and in these last twenty four hours how much I had seemed to see, how much I had really felt! This is my first visit to England. My first experience of abroad.

My passage by sea & land from the Needles to London was too rapid for any thing like minute observation. I am but at the threshold of my travels. It remains to be seen whether I am capable of recording any thing but general observations. I mean if I can, to satisfy myself in this particular, and will keep a journal if I can. It is a habit of mine and not a good one perhaps, to trust very much to impressions. I am usually less struck with particulars than generals. My impressions are lively and have, for myself, the force of convictions, but I cannot always justify them to others who require the details on which they are or should be founded. The mind is so dependent on the body that perhaps a habit another way I have of selecting a few prominent points & from them drawing general conclusions, may have originated in defective sight. I am very short-sighted, use glasses which are fatiguing to the eyes, & which I lay aside whenever I can. I dwell therefore only on those objects which most attract my attention. I see things in masses. Nature is for me, a painter who produces great effects with a few masterly strokes, broad and deep, mellow or bright, lights & shadows, darkness and day. Even the countenances of my friends are portraits done in the same style. I can seldom in remembering or describing them, go into any nice detail of form or colour, though I have a vivid impression of how they look. My standard of beauty is affected by this way of seeing or not seeing things—Other persons are often shocked by defects which I do not perceive and alive to beauties which I am sorry to lose. My tastes and pursuits are influenced by the same causes. I love flowers for their colours & their fragrance—I enjoy without knowing them—I can tell if they are beautiful and sweet, but I can neither class nor describe them nor remember their names—I could never be a florist even, to say nothing of botany. I am very much afraid that if called on, on my return home, to give an account of my travels it I shall acquit myself very [. . .] as ill as did the three wise men who were permitted by Jupiter to visit the Moon.—

MS (MHi: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Diary, Ms N-1027); in Coolidge’s hand. Published in Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838–1839, Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla, eds. (2011), 11–20.