Wild Times in Reykjavik, 1862

I found Faroe and Iceland in a second hand bookshop, unwanted, unloved, unread. I scooped it up. It was owned originally by a Mr. Edmund Wilford Bulkley, 1880. It has some fine sketches in it. I think I paid $5.00 for it. The author is Andrew James Symington and the book was published in London, in 1862.

Symington wants to go to Iceland, that no longer so distant but still fabled place. He thinks that he might try getting to Iceland on a private yacht (if he can find one that is going), to rent a sloop or to get a passage on a mail ship from Copenhagen. The first two are highly uncertain. The third possibility is important. This is 1862, steam ships have appeared and changed everything. They can travel in any weather, they can keep to a schedule, and they are relatively cheap. These are the reasons ten years later that our ancestors were able to leave Iceland in large numbers. It was actually possible to plan.

He sees an ad in the Times for the Danish mail-steamer “Arcturus” It will stop at Leith on its way north. It’s schedule will give passengers a week to visit the interior and it’ll be back in Leith in a month. He checked and discovered that the ship would stop at the Faroes and the Westmanna Isles, and it would go from Reykjavik to Seydisfiord. He looks forward to seeing the “magnificent range of jokuls and numerous glaciers along the south coast.”

He buys himself a long “waterproof overcoat, boots, preserved meats, soups, &c in tin cans, a mariner’s compass, thermometer, one of De La Rue’s solid sketch-books, files of newspaper, a few articles for presents, and other needful things.

On the 20th of July he goes on board.

The “Arcturus” is a screw-steamer, 400 tons. The captain is a Dane. The crew, except for a Scots engineer, are foreigners. There were eight men in the cabin.

If you had been aboard the “Arcturus” with Symington you would have been served three meals a day by a Danish stewardess. Among the meals you would have had red-smoked salmon, Danish sweet soups, with raisins, black stale rye-bread, and beef fried with onions or garlic.

On 26th July the “Arcturus” reaches Iceland and Symington and fellow passengers go to Reykjavik’s only hotel. What would you think Reykjavik’s only hotel would be like? Who would be there? What would they be doing? Remember, it is 1862, ten years before our ancestors start gathering at the Icelandic harbours so they can leave Iceland.

You would have been rowed to shore. You’d have walked from the harbour up to the hotel. “The hotel,” Symington tells us, “at Reykjavik is merely a kind of tavern, with a billiard room for the French sailors to play, lounge, and smoke in; a large adjoining room, seated round, for the Reykjavik fashionable assemblies; a smaller room upstairs, and some two or three bedrooms. On reaching it we were received by the landlord and shewn up stairs, where we found Mr. Bushby, who gave us a most courteous English welcome, notwithstanding our unintentional intrusion. He had, that morning, when the steamer came in sight, set out and ridden along the coast from the sulphur mines at Krisuvik—perhaps one of the wildest continuous rides in the world—to meet Captain Forbes.

“Knowing the scant accommodation at the landlord’s disposal, he at once placed the suite of rooms he had engaged at our service, to dress and dine in, thus proving himself a friend in need. A good substantial dinner was soon under weigh, and rendered quite a success by the many good things with which Mr. Bushby kindly supplemented it, contributing them from his own private stores.

“Mr. Gisli Brynjulfsson, the young Icelandic poet—employed in antiquarian researches by the Danish Government chiefly at Copenhagen, but at present here because he is a member of the Althing or Parliament now sitting—joined us at table, having been invited by Dr. Mackinlay. He speaks English fluently…He kindly presented me with a volume “Nordurfari,”.

So, there you have it, an evening in Reykjavik in 1862. Not, perhaps, as exciting or wild as Reyjavik 101 but a pleasant evening nevertheless. It would have been nice if the author had provided more specific details, descriptions so we could share the dinner party, the rooms, could hear, taste, smell, see, those rooms with the French sailors playing billiards. Did you know that French sailors played billiards in the hotel in Reykjavik in 1862? I certainly did not. So thank you for that Mr. Symington.

(Information and quotes from Faroe and Iceland by Andrew James Symington. I searched the web for a picture of AJS but, alas, found none that might be him. I found an AJS on a family web page but the pictures were not labled clearly. If it was our AJS, it was him in old age. However, rather than muddy the waters by risking the wrong picture, I leave the article un-pictured. If a member of AJS’s family, I gather descendants still exist, stumble over this post, then I would consider it a favour if they’d send me a picture of him, a portrait will do, but I’d love some pictures of him in Iceland if such things exist. If not, then elsewhere.”

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