Sunday, 16 March 2014

Work | The provost sergeant and his pig

'The Pig is well, but strongly objects to the cold.' My eyes stumbled across this gem a few months ago as I was searching letters for phonetic spellings. This was written by an Ernest Cochrane in 1897 to, I believe, his niece Kate Finly. 

Ernest Cochrane

The first letter to Kate in the corpus dates from 15 May 1882 (the link takes you to the Irish Emigrant Database where you can find each letter quoted from - well worth a read!) and paints the picture of a man down on his luck, about to start a new chapter in life:

But one thing I want to say - any wrong I have done was single handed. No companions could lead me. And if any blame is going "freeze" it on to me. [...] It is a fact I am leaving town. My office is closed, and my things sold; so I will do a "shunt" some of these days. Its better for everybody, as one of my old rambling fits is on me. Where it will lead me to I dont know yet, but I think I will light on my feet!! [...] I feel very lonely.  Not a day of my life but I think of the high old times we had at Ballintoy. They will never come to me again, but they will live in my memory.

The above was sent from Belfast and Christmas of the same year Cochrane (now a policeman?) still hasn't left the city, although the cryptic references to a need to leave continue:

Life's a mixture - here I am, a Policeman writing to you. Well I have played the last card in my hand, and I am going to abide by the throw.

Another five letters from him exist, written to Kate over the next year where he describes his daily life in the policeman's barracks; the mending of uniforms, complaining that 'Katie' is not married yet, slaughtering diseased animals, a birthday gift sent by Kate, and another pointer to someting in his past: 'I can never have a gentlemans position again.'

Then, in December 1884, a short, sudden note that he is about to leave for South America aboard the SS Neva (interesting fact: apparently sunk by a U-boat in 1918 (the things you find when researching (I have a thing for parentheses (stop it)))). 

Provost sergeant in Canada

The next letter in the corpus was written eleven years later, in 1895. There is nothing in it to indicate that there was no contact in the meantime, however. Ernest Cochrane is now stationed in Canada, first in Regina, later in Calgary, as a provost sergeant. It seems he deals a lot with prisoners and is apparently found to be a 'crank,' meticulous, and reliable. The letters also occasionally reveal evidence of a dry sense of humour: 

as for appearance - with a hatchet & a piece of mahogany you could make a more pleasing face.

There are fifteen letters written by Cochrane to Kate while he lived in Canada. But I have already veered off on an enormous digression. All I wanted to share, really, were the bits about his pig.


Well, since I found the quote that starts this blog post I've searched the letter collections for more accounts of this 'pig,' finding a small mention of it in every one of the last eleven letters. But to my slight disappointment the passage where the animal is first mentioned is:

My Constant Companion is a little brown Retriever dog. named "the Pig". Dont judge him by this name. He is a very sedate little beggar & I only am all the world to him. I cant stir but he is at my heels.

Yes, it's a small dog and not a pet pig. I had pictured this old, weathered, Sam Vimes-like man sitting in a dimly lit barracks scribbling a letter to Kate while a small pig (perhaps not unlike the Simpsons' Spider-pig) affectionately, yet slightly disturbingly, stared at him from beneath the desk.

Oh well, the pig-bits are still enjoyable: 

The Pig is well & just as faithful as ever. never leaves me night of day. when we are in my room together he never takes his eyes off my movements. I have never beaten him yet. not even a slap. and he knows this & imposes upon me quite a lot. (05.09.1897)

The "Pig" is as usual staring me out of countenance as I write. He sends his love to you! Poor little chap I got out of Hospital the other day, where I was a week, & he stays with me all the time & could scarcely be got out for his meals. (08.12.1897)

The "Pig" is just at present staring me out of countenance, as he generally does when I am indoors. He is just the same. I am his all. Honestly I think you & he have got between you all my affection. And I leave you to guess who has the biggest share (24.01.1898)

The Pig is well, but strongly objects to the cold. (22.02.1898)

The Pig is at my feet as I write & staring at me in a very embarrassing manner (02.06.1898)

"The Pig" sends his regards. He is just as faithful (04.08.1898)

The pig is staring me out of countenance. I presume he wants to be remembered. (03.12.1898)

I would like you to see the "pig". And yet I fear he would not take to youk as he has an antipathy to your sex. (04.02.1899)

The "Pig" is in great form. I have got him a ball which I throw for him, when he wants it, which is very often. (29.04.1899)

And here the letters end. I never found out what the life-altering event hinted at in the earlier letters was. And silly as these quotes are, the letters do reveal a colourful, kind, and thoughtful man who had probably never intended to end up as an enlisted man in Canada - which the frequent nostalgic references to Ireland bear witness to. Lucky, then, that Pig was there too.


  1. Dette var so fint, Persijn! Tenk alle lagnadane du får små innblikk i medan du leitar etter hint om irsk fonologi. Kanskje lingvistikk ikkje er så verst - når det liknar på litteratur :)

    1. Takk for kommentaren, Mari! Det er veldig mange godbiter jeg kommer over :) En stor grunn til at jeg begynte denne bloggen. Så det kommer nok mer av den slags!