Today, I met a man who had risen to the rank of Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. Currently, he leads walking tours of the historic districts of Kingston, Ontario, attired in the top hat and dress clothing of a well to do Upper Canada bourgeois. The people of the 19th century, especially the best dressed, must have smelt tremendously. The movies that form our main mass cultural consumption of the past generally never deal with the stink and the sweat. And they sweated. A lot. Their clothes must have been deeply stained and yellowed especially if you, like most people a hundred years ago, couldn’t afford the labour to keep it clean, or new. This man was constantly wiping heavy dew from his smooth pate, and I was gently smouldering in three layers of canvas and cheap linen, jacket, vest and collared shirt, with a much appreciated straw hat for shade. His beaver fur was an oven.
Our attire displayed, quite by accident, the dramatic class divisions of the time, though it seems unlikely our dichotomy made anyone think hard about themselves. Besides this man, I looked a dreg, in the one-size-fits all, standard issue uniform of a United Canadas convict: number 7041, Alfred Albion Welch, a 17-year-old highwayman sentenced for seven years to Portsmouth Penitentiary for highway robbery, north of what is now London, Ontario, in Middlesex County. Welch was the antithesis of the anonymous (indeed, phantom, for he never existed) elite inhabited by the British tour guide. A butcher’s son, foul-mouthed, cocksure, who took by violence the wealth of the rich of our colonial state, Welch was a troublemaker of a familiar sort: he delighted in breaking the strict code of silence used as part of the penitentiary disciplinary regime, singing, whistling, skipping church to spend time with friends, and unbroken by dark cells and bread and water diets. Today, a simulacrum, hobbled, play-acting being humbled and beaten, was paraded in chains, themselves replicas of 1850’s screw handcuffs and leg irons. I shrunk and disappeared into my overlarge collar. 7041, Welch, was a very real human, a man whose life was ever so briefly rendered legible by the Canadian state: through his arrest, punishments and release he was given a biography preserved to the present in archives and on microfilm. His crimes and his incarceration are the only reason why Welch is even remembered to us today, a number picked at random from a hat. If he had lived a less desperate life, he probably would have lived and died without ever being noticed, certainly not by the historical ancestor of that sweating phantom bourgeois. The tour guide, whose historical personality is a fiction imparted and animated by clothes and books, appropriate, respected and admired even in 2010 for his impeccable clothing and English accent: Welch, who was born in England in 1850, a source of laughter and amusement to comatose tourists.