Friday, January 14, 2011

Episode 1 - In the beginning

The Old White Horse Cellars, Piccadilly, by James Pollard

The story of Children of Eden opens a long way from Tahiti – in the London of Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers. This is where Alexander Salmon was born in November 1819 at 86 Piccadilly in rooms above his father’s fruit shop. It must have been quite a crush because Alexander was the Salmons’ sixth child and he was to be followed by six more. His father John Salmon was descended from a French family whose family banking business had collapsed during the Napoleonic Wars. Alexander’s mother Catherine was the daughter of the well-known Jewish miniaturist painter, Solomon Polack, a friend of William Makepeace Thackeray.
There were around 20,000 Jews in Britain in the early 1800s. They were banned from serving in the military, entering the law or attending universities. Nor could they enter the professions or become a commissioned officer in the Army without taking the Christian oath. So they tended to become either money brokers or merchants of some kind, like John Salmon. Most were not religiously observant, but this was not true of the Salmons. Alexander’s parents were deeply involved in the administration of the Western Synagogue and in the founding and administration of schools for indigent Jewish boys and girls.
In those days, London was still compact and surrounded by fields. Cows grazed in Hyde Park, and milkmaids roamed the streets with their yokes and open cans of milk. On the other hand, industrialization and urban blight caused stifling, sulphurous fogs to blanket the city, and the Thames River was full of toxic sludge from the slaughterhouses, tanneries, and tar-houses on its banks, and cholera frequently ran rampant through the city.
On Piccadilly, some of the grandest houses in London stood cheek by jowl with humble retail establishments like John Salmon’s fruit shop. Young Alexander grew up looking out onto the thoroughfare of Piccadilly, watching the great Duke of Wellington riding by on his way to his mansion, Apsley House, at Hyde Park Corner. Several times a day, the children rushed to the windows as stage coaches left the Old White Horse Cellars and the Black Bear Inn for the south coast and the West Country, clattering over the cobbles with the coachman blowing his horn.
This was the narrow world in which Alexander Salmon grew up, but his horizons were suddenly broadened in 1838 when his mother’s brother came to stay with the family for a year. This uncle, Joel Samuel Polack, had been an early settler in New Zealand and had come home just long enough to write a book about his adventures. He had established a grocery store in Kororareka in the Bay of Islands and built New Zealand’s first brewery. He was also famous for fighting a duel with a local innkeeper.
His stories of life among the “maoris” in the wild land south of the Equator fired the imaginations of both Alexander and his closest brother Julius William. The boys knew they would have to make their own way in life, and in England, they faced the double disadvantage of being neither gentlemen nor gentiles. Taking inspiration from his uncle’s example, Alexander resolved, that if England did not have enough opportunities for young men like himself, he would find those opportunities elsewhere. He and Julius decided to head for Australia, where another uncle was established as an auctioneer and landowner, to seek their fortunes.
So in 1839, the two young men – aged only 21 and 19 – left 86 Piccadilly and set sail on the first leg of their journey to California. In the days before the existence of the Panama Canal or the Transcontinental Railroad, the journey took as long as seven months. When the brothers arrived in the small Mexican port of Yerba Buena (later San Francisco), they met a young dynamic ship’s captain who was doing a thriving business exporting oranges from Tahiti to the west coast of the American continent. Captain Dunnett’s descriptions of that beautiful island with its steep green mountains and its palm-fringed black sand beaches were enough to persuade Alexander that this was a place he needed to see. While Julius, who had fallen in love with the captain’s sister, decided to stay on in Yerba Buena, Alexander signed on as a seaman on Dunnett’s next voyage to Tahiti.  
The author Herman Melville, then a sailor on a whaling ship in the south Pacific, has left this description the view that greeted Alexander in January 1840 as he first set eyes on the island where he was to spend the rest of his life.
“At early dawn of the following morning, we saw the Peaks of Tahiti. In clear weather they can be seen at the distance of ninety miles ....Seen from the sea, the prospect is magnificent. It is one mass of shaded tints of green, from beach to mountain top; endlessly diversified with valleys, ridges, glens, and cascades. Over the ridges, here and there, the loftier peaks fling their shadows, and far down the valleys. At the head of these, the water-falls flash out into the sunlight as if pouring through vertical bowers of verdure. Such enchantment, too, breathes over the whole, that it seems like a fairy world, all fresh and blooming from the hand of the Creator.”


  1. 7 months to get to California!! They had to be motivated! Remind me : how did you decide to write a book about this family?

  2. The oldest daughter - Titaua - of this couple ended up in my home town of Anstruther in Scotland. Her grave stone always intrigued me when I was growing up, and 10 years ago I started researching her story... and here it is (the brief version anyway)!

  3. that's incredible, to see how our ancestors trying to say something .....
    sorry i'm still in french is better for me.
    A travers un voyage en pirogue traditionnelle de Tahiti à Hawaii je rencontre Anna qui à des photos de mes ancêtres, (je suis descendante de Titaua Brander).
    et maintenant je vous rencontre vous Fiona à qui je suis certaine que mes "Tupuna" ancêtres ont confié quelque chose.
    Et pourquoi tout au long de mon voyage j'ai ressentie des présences féminines ???
    Je suis tellement heureuse de vous rencontrées toutes.

  4. Merci mille fois! I am happy to meet you here too though you did not give your name. I have "met" so many wonderful descendants of Titaua in cyberspace since I began this blog. And I too feel that your ancestors have done me the honor of choosing me to tell their stories. I will do my very best to do them justice. Please feel free to contact me any time at All the best, Fiona