This is the fifth installment of the We Did Our Bit WWI exhibit-closing series.
This post was contributed by Adrian Petry, Visitor Services Coordinator at the St. Catharines Museum.
Olive Weller’s Travel Diary
The pages of Olive Weller’s travel diary reveal an exciting summer abroad.
While the diary wasn’t featured in the Doing Our Bit exhibition, the Olive’s trip was featured in a few different programs including our annual Guided Spirit Walks and in the dramatic Stories from the Front program.
When I first discovered Olive’s story for myself, I instantly formed a personal connection with Olive and her diary, and the book inspired me to write my own travel diary, just in case one of my trips turns out to be history.
Along with her chaperone Catharine Welland Merritt (granddaughter to William Hamilton Merritt) and her friend Jessie Dennison, Olive brought her diary along on a trip to Europe in the summer of 1914. She was in her mid-twenties at the time, and as the daughter of J.L. Weller, the Superintending Engineer of the Welland Ship Canal (whom also happened to be pretty well-off), she had access to such luxury (and fun!).
The diary has a lot of layers of history to it, yet looking at it, it’s quite plain. There really isn’t anything fancy about it, and it’s actually in quite a delicate condition. The cover is bland brown and the label reads “My Second Trip Abroad O.E.W. 1914” in black ink. But the layers go deeper beginning with the blue ink, likely written later, that reads “Turned out to beHistory.” History indeed.
While overseas, Olive and her friends found themselves in the midst of the outbreak of the First World War. Yet, at the time of writing, Olive was unaware of her role as a Canadian witness to the sparks of war. Writings of daily life like the business of exchanging travellers cheques, going to church, seating plans for dinner, waiting for a taxi, or ordering a pair of glasses while in Munich often overshadowed the posturing and eventual declarations of war, showing that uncertainty dominated the early days of the war.
The travelling companions also seemed to be on the exact right path as they had arrived in Budapest at the time Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated. They were killed in Sarajevo on June 28 and Olive, Jessie, and ‘Miss Merritt’ joined the crowded streets of Budapest on July 2 for the funeral. Only hindsight would reveal the significance of what they experienced.
From there, they travelled to Munich where they spent most of July and early August until England had officially declared war on Germany. While still in need of new glasses (a great annoyance to Olive) the group made for Lindau, Switzerland in a 3rd class (also to great annoyance) compartment, then on to Paris, and finally to England in September where they planned to stay but a cable from J.L. Weller instructed them to come home and they finally returned to Canada in mid-October.
While the diary is filled with interesting insights into the early days of the war and the travel habits and logistics of the late-Edwardians, the diary is personal and meant to be a keepsake of her trip. She did not write for an audience. In reading the diary one gets to know Olive and her account becomes more poignant because she shares her interests, dislikes, and thoughts, alongside reports of pre-war politics. I feel a connection with this piece because of its many layers: its exciting stories, its unique Canadian perspective into the important events of 1914, my obsession with the Edwardians, and of course, because Olive was such a great writer.
We are incredibly lucky to have this piece (and its many layers) in our collection here at the Museum, and I’m really happy that we were able to share it with so many people.
We encourage you to visit the St. Catharines Museum to discover this story and more from the First World War. Doing our Bit: WWI from St. Catharines to the Western Front officially closes on Friday, November 30.
Please join us as we close out this exhibition with a 1918 Victory Party celebrating the end of the First World War. Enjoy live jazz music, swing dance lessons, food, and drink throughout the evening.
Friday, November 30, 8pm-midnight | $10 per person | Tickets online or by calling the Museum at 905-984-8880| Visit our website for more details