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Homestead Life in the 1880s

Manitoba Pageant, April 1963, Volume 8, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

As pictured by a young English immigrant, Fred Phillipps.

Some time ago the Provincial Archives of Manitoba received a unique contribution to their store of documents. The writer of these letters was a keen observer and a skilled artist. He illustrated his letters home with graphic sketches which he coloured in a most artistic fashion. These illustrations tell us as much of life in the West as it appeared to a young Englishman who was a rancher-homesteader in the Riding Mountain area of our province in the 1880s.

The young author-artist of the '80s was Mr. Fred Phillipps, and we are indebted to his son, Dr. Fred Phillips, of the Island of Jersey, who gave the letters to his father's cousin Mr. Hugh Phillipps, Q.C., late of this city. Mr. and Mrs. Phillipps, recognizing their historic interest and value, gave them to the Provincial Archives.

Fred Phillipps came to Manitoba in the mid-eighteen eighties, and was a rancher in the western part of the Province until 1893, when he moved to Portage la Prairie and went into the grain business. His young cousin Hugh came to the West to join him at that time. The business which he established prospered, and he moved to Winnipeg where he was a member of the Grain Exchange in the early years of this century. In 1908 he retired to the Channel Islands, where he died in the early 1930s.

We hope that the pages from his letters which we reproduce here, (the originals of which are most delicately water-coloured) will give you an idea of how Mr. Phillipps used his artistic skill to enhance his writing.

In addition to the pictured pages, some excerpts from the text of his letters are of interest:

From the Bell View Hotel, Portage la Prairie, 7th October, 1885.

... The sketch at the top represents "Freddy, my own" after three weeks land-seeking, only minus the dirt, which I can assure you was no small item. We left this place three weeks ago and started north west looking for a suitable lot of land for raising cattle, and really had splendid fun. We had a tent and provisions with us and lived like gipsies. Every night we were sleeping in our tent miles away from homes. The sketch at the top shows one night's camp. One fellow cooked, the other fetched wood for the fire, and the last took the things out of the trap and arranged the beds. This fell to my lot. We got along splendidly, but one morning whilst we were putting up some hay for our horses during the winter, the grass by the camp fire took light, and very soon our whole outfit, tent and everything else, was burnt to a cinder. We had only one piece of bacon, some flour, and some butter left, and were two days journey from any place where we could get anything. We had to sleep on hay made up between the two waggons ... It was freezing hard every night, so our lot, like a policeman's, was not a happy one ...

... This picture represents our arrival at Gladstone the third night after the fire. We had not been able to wash as we had no towels or soap, in fact nothing that we could dry ourselves on, and not having shaved for three weeks of course we did not look exactly like "Mashers". The "boss" of one hotel thought we had been working on the government ditch they are making near Gladstone, another thought we had been working on the railway. At all events we had the greatest difficulty in getting a room to ourselves. This landlord took us into one large bedroom where there were six large beds and said, "Two of yez can sleep in that middle bed, and one can have half the next one." The other beds were all taken and there would only be twelve in the room at night. We thanked him for his kind offer but thought we might be intruding, so left, and eventually found a place where, as a great favour, they let us have one room between the three of us. We arrived here the next clay, and on Tuesday we are going out again.

Written in January, 1888, at Riding Mountain Ranche, P.O. Orange Ridge, Manitoba.

... This letter will give you our Christmas illustrated. We did not have half a bad time of it taking one consideration with another. This is our sitting room. The door at the back of the stove leads to Alfred's bedroom. We are here waiting the arrival of our guests. The weather was pretty awful, blowing very hard and twelve below zero. In fact we had quite given up any expectation of seeing them, but just after we had finished lunch a sleigh arrived with a messenger . . . he told us the others would be along in about an hour. When he came into the house his nose was frozen, not badly, but just touched . . . Mrs. Loggin, her two sons and little girl arrived. One of the poor little thing's feet was frozen and had to be thawed out with cold water. We unfrose the old boy's nose with a glass of whiskey. We had quite a successful dinner and drank the health of absent friends in full bumpers. Next Christmas I mean to kick and struggle towards home and will spend it with you if I succeed in reaching England.

We were to have had a show, Cox & Box, after dinner, but a young fellow who was to have taken part the of Cox never turned up so all my hours of study were clean thrown away.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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