Monday, August 6, 2012

The British Remittance Man, by Guest Author Andrea Downing

Today, please welcome historical author Andrea Downing. Andrea has spent most of her life in the UK where she developed a penchant for tea-drinking, a tolerance for rainy days, and a deep knowledge of the London Underground system.  She received an M.A. from the University of Keele in Staffordshire and stayed on to teach and write, living in the Derbyshire Peak District, the English Lake District and the Chiltern Hills before finally moving into London. During this time, family vacations were often on guest ranches in the American West, where she and her daughter have clocked up some 17 ranches to date. In addition, she has traveled widely throughout Europe, South America, and Africa, living briefly in Nigeria.
In 2008 she returned to the city of her birth, New York City, but frequently exchanges the canyons of city streets for the wide open spaces of the West.  Her love of horses, ranches, rodeo and just about anything else western is reflected in her writing.
Loveland, a western historical romance published by The Wild Rose Press, is her first book.  She is a member of Romance Writers of America and Women Writing the West. You can find out more about Andrea, her books, and her writing at

…So send me far from Lombard Street, and write me down a failure;

Put a little in my purse and leave me free…

from 'The Rhyme of the Remittance Man' by Robert Service, 1907

The so-called remittance man seems to have been inspiring writers ever since the west became the favoured destination for pioneer adventurers and scoundrels alike. From Service’s poem on to Izola Forrester in 1912 through references in Mark Twain's writing and a 1995 song by Jimmy Buffett, the lives of remittance men have captured the American imagination in ways that were more often pejorative than complimentary, and frequently inventive rather than truthful. 

To Americans, born of a democratic nature that esteemed free enterprise, the concept of a grown man being even partially supported by a father or brother could only reflect harshly on the man's character. Surely he must be a black sheep, sent to the United States due to a scandal or some embarrassing behavior such as drunkenness or gambling debts back home. Yet the truth was that having some remittance, some allowance, from a father or older titled brother was the norm for most of these men who still sought to make their own money.

American fathers of wealth and position viewed their offspring with a balanced eye and generally divided their estate between them, assuming that each individual would then go forth and hopefully multiply that wealth and make his own name. The British, however, thought otherwise. With titles and estates that went back to the Norman Conquest in many cases, primogeniture ruled the aristocracy. Money—often incredibly large sums—was entailed on the estate, which in turn belonged to the title and he who inherited it, the next in line, the oldest living male relative in direct descent. The feeling was that to divide the money would dissipate the inheritance and leave the estate, often very grand stately homes or castles, without the funds to keep them going.

Furthermore, while work was the American ethic and a man was free to make his money just about any way he could, it was far from the British aristocrat's consciousness to dirty one's hands with work other than overseeing the estate and being a gentleman. Even for second sons or spare heirs the idea of doing anything relative to the merchant class was repugnant. There were three areas of profession where a gentleman might safely provide for himself while remaining in Britain: the church, the armed forces, or government. None of them provided well and not all of them were to every man's liking.

In my own book, Loveland, the uncle of my heroine is a remittance man and, while he is something of a scoundrel, his reasons for being so made him fairly typical of the remittance men who came to the west.  One must remember that even second sons had been brought up in the same manner as the heir apparent, in the same sumptuous homes with the same numerous servants to cater to their every need, the same plentiful food and other luxuries of the day. Then, suddenly, when they reached their majority, the second sons were cast out to make their own way in the world. Obviously, in some characters, trouble brewed. Jealousies ensued. Gambling debts mounted.

The men who came west, like my character Oliver Calthorpe, often came to manage the large cattle companies being formed by contingents of wealthy men, usually aristocrats. They were granted stock in the company for their trouble and had salaries in addition to their remittance from their father or older brother. They could live like gentlemen, but their expectations of how they would live often, unfortunately, exceeded their incomes.

Homes were built that were frequently exorbitant in cost and bore no relation to their surroundings. One such residence built on the Big Sioux River had fifteen rooms, a six-foot wide staircase, a library and central hall with huge fireplace of imported tiles. While local Americans might be living in log cabins or simple wood homes with few conveniences, windmill pumps for water or wells were dug for the British who also had attic-mounted tanks for their running water. Telephones were installed, walls were papered and carved wooden stairways were highlighted by chandeliers. One family arrived in 1880s Iowa with no less than 81 trunks!  Servants were frequently imported or accompanied the men with families, though more often than not the turnover was great. Once the nannies, cooks and maids became known on the local, American marriage market in areas where females were scarce, it was sooner rather than later that they were homesteading with their own families to look after.

For most remittance men, however, the idea was definitely not to stay in America. Most sought to make their money within five years or so and return home to marry and set up home on the wealth accrued in the west. Others moved on to British colonies like South Africa or India for some further adventure. And for yet others like Oliver Calthorpe, the end of their American adventure might have been more violent, more final. But for some lucky few, the vagaries of life and death might have meant that they now inherited the estate and could call some other relative a remittance man.   


Eunice Boeve said...

Very interesting, Andrea. I'd never heard the full story of the remittance man before. In fact it was a term only slightly on the edge of my brain waves, even after I read Loveland. Thanks!

Andrea Downing said...

Well, you know what they say, Eunice--learn something new every day! Glad you found it informative. Thanks for stopping by.

Ann Parker said...

I love your post, Andrea. I think the remittance men info is fascinating. Bought your book the other day, hot off the press. Anxiously awaiting its arrival! :-)

Andrea Downing said...

Hi Ann, I must thank you once again for having me here--and for suggesting I write about the remittance men. It was fascinating to research a bit more, especially discovering the amount and variety of media which mention the subject. Who'da thought Jimmy Buffett?? Hope you enjoy the book and thanks again.

Arletta Dawdy said...

Andi and Ann,
A very well written essay on a topic alien to contemporary Americans. Thanks for expanding my interest.

Andrea Downing said...

You're very welcome Arletta, and thanks for stopping by.

Ann Parker said...

Who'da thought Jimmy Buffett indeed! :-)
I'm wondering... have there been any movies/TV shows featuring remittance men? I can't think of any right now.
Thanks for the fascinating article!

Andrea Downing said...

No can't think of either and my research didn't bring any up, though I have a sneaking suspicion there was an ancient film that had something...
Thanks again for having me, Ann!

Ann Parker said...

You are so welcome, Andi! And good luck with LOVELAND. My copy arrived yesterday...