I was born in the city of Bath in the county of Somerset in the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and ninety. My loving parents were of humble means but worked hard to provide the necessities of life for us all. We lived in Milk Street close by the Kingsmead Fields, which had become notorious for the duels fought there. My mother took in washing from the houses of the gentry while my father worked for a timber merchant and often sailed up the River Avon with new deliveries of Mahogany from the port of Bristol, where it had but recently arrived from the Americas. The furniture makers highly prized this valuable timber which could be made into fine furniture for the wealthy citizens of the city.
In the course of his work my father became acquainted with Mr Howell, senior, who was the first person to open a regular establishment for the sale of musical instruments and music at Bristol. He offered to take me on as an apprentice, just as he had done with his own son, Thomas. At eleven years of age I left the bosom of my family and moved, with my best clothes and few books neatly wrapped in a small trunk, to Bristol and took up residence in the attic of number 12 Clare Street, just next to the Broad Quay.
Under the tutelage of both Mr Howell senior and young Master Thomas I became proficient at making and repairing all sorts of stringed instruments. Being so close to the incoming ships with their valuable cargoes of timber and with the knowledge imparted to me by my father I learned to do fast and accurate work and though I say it myself became very much appreciated by my employers.
After Mr Howell senior passed away when I was just out of my apprenticeship I stayed with young Master Thomas as his business prospered. He moved the business to number 13 Clare Street in 1818. By that time many soldiers who had been maimed in the war with Napoleon became a common sight in the streets of Bristol. I was very glad to have a job that I loved and had begun to gradually save some money.
About 1825 Mr Howell became friends with an Italian gentleman called Signor Anelli. He played and taught the guitar and gave recitals at the Clifton Assembly Rooms. Very soon they were giving recitals for violin and guitar duets that were said were the very first to be given for this medium by an English composer. To have his name on the printed music was a proud moment for Mr Thomas Howell.
As a result of their friendship Thomas began to look at the construction of both the guitar and the violin family. It later led to Mr Howell’s taking out patents for his design of guitars and the violin family that he took out in 1836. I will tell you about that at another time as some momentous events took place that changed my life forever. In 1830 the streets around Queen Square and Bristol Bridge were filled with riot and confusion. The smoke from the burning of the buildings in Queen Square was terrible.
Who can ever forget those nights filled with smoke and fire and riot? Read “Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal” and weep. However a far more lethal air pervaded the streets around the Quay. Cholera! Not only were the streets of Bristol filled with mourning, but in the poorer areas of my home city not twelve miles away my parents very soon were carried away. Mr Howell very kindly allowed me to take time off to arrange their funerals. My hard-earned savings were very soon swallowed up as I was determined to not have them interred in pauper’s graves and to give them a proper Christian burial.
Having returned to Bristol I tried my best to work hard for my employer but my heart was not in it. Mr Howell and Signor Anelli tried their best to give me heart. They even managed to obtain some tickets for us to go and see the famous Italian violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini when he played his concert. His performance was truly amazing but my feelings chimed with the newspapers who decried the timing of his concert at such a desperate period.
Eventually I decided that change would be needed to try to lift myself out of the slough of despair that I was in. Being in the trade with my contacts at the Quay I decided to try my hand in America. Given my long-time position Mr Howell very kindly paid the cost of my berth to Boston. He was sad to let me go but I was determined to make a fresh start despite being forty years of age.
Over the ensuing years, after drifting ever westwards, I found a place with the Hudson’s Bay company at Fort Hall on the Snake River. I had met Nathaniel Wyeth briefly in Boston before he started his Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company and he gave me an introduction to Captain McKay when the Hudson’s Bay Company bought Fort Hall. I worked as a clerk, recording all the transactions at the trading post. I learned how to make friends with the Indians and have their trust when buying beaver pelts. Members of the Snake, Nez Perce and Flathead tribes all traded at Fort Hall. I was clean-shaven then as I realised that the local tribes would not do business with anyone with a beard - they called men who wore them “bear faced” because they couldn’t see facial expressions clearly. Bear-faced liars was what some traders were, but the company prospered as long as the fur trade lasted.
Some famous trappers came through Fort Hall: Christopher (Kit) Carson, Osborne Russell and Sir William Drummond Stewart all bought supplies over the years. Even the founders of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, John Batiste Gervais and Henry Fraeb bought supplies. I remember Kit Carson’s order to this day: he traded a mule and six beaver traps for two gingham shirts at three dollars each, a check shirt for the same price, three flannel shirts for $12.00, one pair of satinet trowsers for $8.00, one cotton handkerchief at $1.50 and one fancy silk handkerchief at $2.50. He wore out clothes pretty quickly in the mountains, I can tell you.
As you have probably heard things changed three years ago when gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in California and I too became one of the Argonauts who went down the river in search of a fortune. Panning for gold is hard work and life in the camps is dangerous. Men would not scruple to kill for a claim and the chance of riches. I moved around the camps: Mathenas Creek, Grizzly Flat and Boston Flat in Calaveras County all saw my vain search for the elusive mineral. Very soon I realised that the way to live in California was to let others do the prospecting and to provide some service that others would pay for.
In time I fell in with the Studebaker brothers from New York who made hand barrows and carts for the miners. My fine woodworking training stood me in good stead. After working with the Studebaker boys for a year I again managed to save some money. At night I even started my own business in a small way repairing musical instruments. I bought a small guitar shaped instrument from a Portuguese miner who was down on his luck after failing at the diggings. He called it a ’machete,’ not the big cutting knife, but pronounced ’mah-shet.’ I am still learning how strum a few chords to some of the tunes that are popular in the gold fields. If you aren’t careful I might sing you a tune or two. My voice isn’t great but they say I can imitate a turkey pretty well.
Eventually, tiring of the daily grind in San Francisco I had a yearning to return to my own country. I have had my fill of violence and vigilantes in the land of gold. I am still not rich, except by name, and keep a small piece of iron pyrites (they call it ’Fools gold’) in my vest pocket to remind me that happiness does not come from a handful of yellow gold. I found a place on a brig that was in need of a crew in the harbour of San Francisco. The port was full of perhaps as many as a hundred vessels with no crews as the sailors jumped ship and went to the diggings in search of their fortune. I joined as cook and deck hand as the Captain, who is a Bristol man, would not trust me in the rigging in view of my age. After a terrifying trip around Cape Horn, when I thought I would never see land again, I have lately come home to Bristol where my life has entered a new chapter.
Life is not easy and I am presently having to visit the ale houses and entertain the locals with my singing with my little four string machete. I have had to pawn my best clothes to make ends meet but am ever hopeful that before long I will rise again. As I enter my sixty-first year I am glad that I have seen the world in all its varied forms and continue to enjoy music and good company. If I meet you in the “Goat” on the Quay perhaps you might buy me a pint of ale and I will regale you with tales of El Dorado.