As they once did off Vancouver Island a century and a half ago, sails appeared in Tracy McMenemy’s vision of an exhibition. Her research on the Bride Ship Tynemouth and the journey of its 60 young passengers inspired her own journey. Her departure point was a single bride’s dress. Its symbolism drew her deeply into a story of human struggle between freedom and containment, courage and futility, hope and disappointment.
In June 1862, the Bride Ship Tynemouth set sail from Dartmouth, England to Victoria, BC. It carried 60 girls, some as young as 12 years old. They endured 99 days on board through violent storms, subhuman living conditions and even mutinies. The “60 select bundles of crinoline” were imprisoned below deck in the dark, with dank, soot-filled air, rotten food, and the omnipresent lack of sanitation. These girls were considered cargo, tracked as an “invoice”. The “receivers” were an audience of drunken, gawking miners numbering in the hundreds.
Ultimately, the sails that propel the ship are symbolic of the girl’s motivation in life, whether in terms of faith, education, desire, curiosity or any beheld dream. This dream, locked from the wind and air in the ship’s lower quarters, is furled further into the tight fabric of the wedding dress, and the narrowing confinement it represented in their circumstances and time.
One imagines these young women yearning upon arrival, and through their years afterwards, for what first incited their journey – companionship, recognition, place – meaning to their stories. In casting light and air on these lives, from closed pages now as from closed cells then, McMenemy invites us to answer this yearning.