- From the Journal of William Shirley Day: His Journey from the United Kingdom to Texas in 1881
I may perhaps as well say here, that this log is a record of my thoughts, feelings and experiences, so, if the reader comes across anything he or she doesn’t like, he (or she) can skip and ‘take it as read.”—William Shirley Day, Wednesday, October 5, 1881.
The journal lay discarded, forgotten and almost anonymous amongst the paperbacks in a charity bookshop. It was discovered—rescued for £1.50—and reverently passed to me.1 The writer, now seemingly consigned to obscurity, perhaps only a vague recollection to the older members of his family that he had “traveled the world, you know”2 in the sometimes exaggerated way that the “Chinese whispers”3 of lives are pulsed through the generations but, nevertheless, often embedding a hush of a truth. The journal could not have found a more receptive custodian.
From the first delicate copperplate page, I was well and truly hooked. Just who was the writer, William Shirley Day? Why did he travel to Texas? In 1881, it was surely the journey of a lifetime. The amazing itinerary of an expedition that lasted seven months, with Day leaving Water Orton, near Birmingham, England, on Friday, September 30, 1881, for Uvalde, [End Page 173] Texas, and returning to Water Orton at exactly 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 29, 1882. A journey undertaken at a time when even boarding a train in the United Kingdom was risking life and limb. When crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a steam and sail merchant ship was an exercise in self-control and determination. When relaxation on the newly laid American railroads was a long time comin’. When traveling at the incredible speed of thirty miles per hour was surely as exhilarating as it sounds. And, when the tracks ended and the line abruptly came to a halt, a two horse wagon simply, securely although perhaps uncomfortably, deposited the traveler at his destination, one mile southwest of Camp Wood, Texas, near Uvalde.
William Shirley Day was born on July 15, 1858, in Birmingham on Cherry Street. Cherry Street was the nucleus of Birmingham’s central business district, filled with banks, solicitor’s offices and the law courts. Indeed, William’s father, William Sr., was a writing clerk for the firm of Smith & Britton and eventually became an estate agent and auctioneer. William Shirley’s mother, Lavinia (née Price), was born in Plymouth, Devon, in southwestern England. Her father received a Greenwich pension, indicating that he served in the Royal Navy. His love of the sea appears to have diffused through his daughter into four grandsons who all took to “the pond” and coped admirably at some point in their lives.
By 1871, when his eldest son and namesake was twelve or thirteen years old, William Sr. changed careers, becoming a hotelkeeper and farmer. He acquired the Swan Hotel on the High Street in the Coleshill area of Birmingham. It was here that William Jr. probably befriended James Lafarelle, the son of a Coleshill doctor and surgeon, who lived close by on the High Street. James moved to Texas in 1880, where he eventually became a mercury miner residing in the far west Texas town of Alpine. Quite possibly, James is the” Jim” in Day’s journal and had invited his old school friend to Texas. Could a personal connection have been William Shirley Day’s reason for traveling so far from home to the South Texas frontier?
Around the time that Jim was moving to Texas, William Jr. now aged twenty-two, was living in Water Orton, his father’s birthplace. He was an auctioneer in training, a freemason, and a chap fond of the finer aspects of life: good cigars, excellent port, champagne, and waltzing to Strauss at the Masonic Balls; yet, perhaps paradoxically, he had a strong Christian faith. He was engaged to Emily List, his own “lone star” as he described her throughout the journal, whom he would marry upon his return from the United States in August 1883. Later they moved with their four children to Bournemouth...