Memories of Fort Churchill, 1885-1893

by Anne Ellen Inkster
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Manitoba Pageant, Winter 1975, Volume 20, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The author, wife of Rupert F. Inkster, was the daughter of John Spencer of the Hudson’s Bay Company and his wife Anne Jane Phair. The following are excerpts from an unpublished essay recalling Mrs. Inkster’s childhood years.

In the late summer of 1885 the Hudson’s Bay people at Churchill were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the ship, already six weeks overdue. Every day my father, who was officer in charge, climbed the rocks, and with his field glasses scanned the vast waters of the Bay looking for the small speck on the horizon which heralded its arrival. Anxiously, I say, for its non-arrival meant great hardships to the few souls living at Churchill who depended on the ship for their yearly supplies. The event of the year was the arrival of the ship, bringing not only provisions and clothing, but news, parcels and papers from relatives and friends in the old land. Long, long ago as it is, I can still remember the thrill of excitement seeping through the community when word came that the ship was sighted. The first person to see the ship was rewarded, usually, as far as I can remember, with some flour, tea and sugar ...

This summer of 1885 meant more to us all than just the annual coming of the ship, for on her return trip my sister, Edith, and I, aged 10 and 8, were to be passengers to attend school in England. For the past year my mother and Mrs. Lindsay, our housekeeper, had been busily preparing our clothes. Our dresses, hats, coats, shoes etc. had been bought in the States two years before when my mother visited her sister, in Philadelphia after placing my brother in school. Our home made trunks, painted green, were all packed and ready, the neatly folded garments making a downy bed for our treasured dolls and work baskets, gifts from explorers who had partaken of our hospitality. In summer our favourite pastime was sliding down the smooth rock behind our house, which must have been hard on our clothes, or the chasing of butterflies as they flitted amongst the sweet smelling purple flowers growing among the willows ...

... The unutterable quiet was most impressive. Today, of course, things are different. The new port and town site established there have changed all this. But in the year 1885 there were only a few company houses and the small iron church where my father held the weekly services, the usual store, offices and other buildings usually found at a Hudson’s Bay post. Regularly every Sunday we were lined up and each given a few sweets, as we called them, to put in our pockets as a bribe to keep us quiet while father took the service and mother presided at the small harmonium. I recall the high old fashioned book case, with the cupboards at the bottom where the tall glass jars were kept, each containing a different brand of sweet—peppermints, sugar coated almonds, acid drops, a small candy with a clove in the centre, and of course barley sugar. How often have I wished for that dear old cupboard with the claw feet. It was originally the case of a very beautiful piano sent from England which, alas, could not stand the rigors of our northern climate, and father in despair of preserving its original state, turned it into the attractive piece of furniture already mentioned.

At this time besides our parents our family consisted of my only brother, who was attending St. John’s College in Winnipeg, we two older girls, who were just leaving for school, and three younger sisters, aged 6, 4, and 2. There were no white people in the Fort besides ourselves, the Hudson’s Bay Clerks and our housekeeper. The other residents were all Scotch half breeds. My parents tried to teach them cleanliness and to read and write, and mother held a bible class on Sunday afternoons, with the result that we were able to get girls to work for us who were quite efficient and capable ...

[Material describing the author’s journey to England and her experiences there (1885-1893) is deleted.]

... [On our return from England] we were sure that Churchill had more pretentious looking buildings, and oh! the disillusionment. Our houses looked dwarfed, and even our rocks had shrunk. As we entered the harbour on August 20th the captain said to me “this is one of the best natural harbours in the world.” Some men walking along the shore waved to us, which we thought rather nervy; however, when they boarded the ship, and we were embraced by one of them my sister said to me “this is father,” so of course I was very willing to give him a big hug. He couldn’t get over his surprise at having two such daughters. He said he felt we were two young ladies he had never seen before. We were eager to go ashore and meet the members of the family who were there. So we got into the boat, father steering, and among the crew one Esquimo, who talked incessantly asking, as we learnt later, whether we were two new wives for the master.

It is two miles from the harbour to the post, and in a very short time we turned the point and came in view of the jetty. A girl of about 10 years of age was standing at the end looking down the river. We were told that it was our youngest sister (the only one at home). We could see several figures walking down to the river. The Anglican clergyman, his wife and her companion, all dressed up for the occasion, and of course our mother. They wore dresses with big bustles and hats with high crowns, and all wore gloves. Our hats were very flat in the latest style, and of course bustles were out of fashion, so they presented a grotesque group, and gloves looked so out of place in what looked to us like the last place on earth.

H.B.C. Post Fort Churchill as it was in 1910

H.B.C. Post Fort Churchill as it was in 1910

The evening of our arrival our parents entertained the ship’s officers at dinner. The next day being Sunday, the new church, recently finished, was to be formally opened, the occasion being postponed until our arrival. Every one from the ship attended the service. We felt very lost when the ship sailed, but being young and healthy we set about to amuse ourselves. We started first with refashioning our mother and sister. We changed mother’s way of doing her hair to the modern style. She still wore it in curls and her cupboard was filled with crinoline dresses and bustle affairs. These we tried to remake, not very successfully, I’m afraid, never having made a dress before. We had more success with dancing class. We gathered all the young boys and girls together and taught them the waltz, polka etc. We found most of them very stiff and awkward. For the music we used the old harmonium which we found very hard to manipulate, so one of father’s clerks was called in to help. He had an accordion which he played for dancing.

We taught in the Sunday school and played the organ for services when Mrs. L. was indisposed and together with Mr. L. got up some concerts during the winter.

We were looking forward to father’s retirement which was to take place as soon as navigation on the rivers opened. He was not in the best of health, and we were anxious to get to civilization and a doctor so on July 26th the following year, we left Churchill. Gathered on the shore were all the inhabitants, many weeping copiously. The esquimo who were in trading at the time simply howled, declaring they would do business with no other master. To comfort them my father told them of the railroad which was, even then, being talked of. He described the engines and how fast he could travel to see them again, and immediately the howling ceased and they listened attentively, their mouths wide open. To me the sight was both pathetic and amusing. I can see them still. How they loved him, and how strict he was with them, scolding them when they did wrong. They addressed him as Pe-lu-ki, inflection on the last syllable, which means “run about man.” He was very active.

We travelled from Churchill to York—150 miles—in a York boat, camping every night. It took us 7 days, the weather being rough and stormy. Our party consisted of my father, mother, we three girls, two servants and our crew of about one dozen men. We had two boats, one for our luggage. From York to Oxford House took one month. The rivers were low and the men had to walk along the bank towing the boat. We walked too, mother alone staying in the boat. We were so long on this lap of our journey that we ran out of food and there were no fish to be had, and wild fowl was very scarce. Father snared a few chicken, so we sent a couple of men ahead to bring us food from Norway House. From Norway House we went to Warrens Landing where we took the boat for Selkirk. It was a small incommodious old tub, and we had a terrible storm. We spent the night sitting in the small dining saloon, and were more than thankful when we landed on September 20th in Selkirk, from where we took the train to Winnipeg.

Page revised: 11 November 2020