Highlights from the Sir Sandford Fleming Diaries

By Andrew Elliott

As I have noted in a previous post, Sir Sandford Fleming—inventor of International Standard time, creator of Canada’s first postage stamp, surveyor and mapmaker—was a productive individual in 19th-century Canada. He seemed to have time for many things, including recording his activities in various diaries. And Fleming was a voracious writer. While he didn’t write novels, he did record everything he saw and experienced in his world. He combined his written observations with the occasional pencil sketch from landscapes, to people, to every day implements, to engineering works.

Remarkably, these diaries were kept for most of his long life, dating from 1843 when he was 15, until his death in 1914. Being a man who also thought of how he would be perceived in posterity, in later life Fleming transcribed the most important parts of his diaries into three condensed diaries. Additionally, Fleming kept various journals that recorded many special trips across Canada, England and the United States. All these are here within the Sir Sandford Fleming fonds at Library and Archives Canada. See specifically the diaries, journals of trips and miscellaneous journals and notebooks.

There are many things of interest to read in these diaries. A couple of diaries from Fleming’s early life are of particular interest. One dating from 1843 records his thoughts and observations about school life in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. Here there are numerous sketches from drawings of ships, a church, and a diagram of early roller skates.

Another two diaries from 1845 record Fleming’s voyage—mostly by ship—from Kirkcaldy, Scotland to the town of Peterborough, Upper Canada. The first diary has handwritten entries for late April to early June 1845, while the second diary documents the remaining portion of the journey from June to August 1845. The second diary contains his visual documentation of the trip, a graphic record of a journey before photography. There are views of Scotland from on board the ship, sketches of ships passing by, sketches of his cabin and other people on board, views of the first sighting of landfall in North America, a view of Québec City, a sketch of the locks at Bytown (now Ottawa), a view of Niagara Falls, and several sketches of Peterborough buildings.

A pencil sketch showing a person reading on the deck of a ship, with another ship in the background.

Sketch of part of a ship, 1845. (MIKAN 4938907)

Fleming arrived in Canada with valuable skills—drawing, drafting, surveying, engraving—and he used these to make a living. For Fleming, the diary was a way to record his movements, key events, and family events especially; he often made no entries if his day had been a routine one. The diaries contain irregular and brief entries noting board meetings, social engagements, arrivals and departures of prominent persons, health and fortune of family and friends, and travel in Canada and abroad. This last point about travel is particularly striking. While he was based first in Toronto, his work meant that he had to travel extensively. In the 1840s and 1850s, for example, despite having to travel by stagecoach, sleigh, and steamer, he would cover an area almost as extensive as the Greater Toronto Area. Later, while based in Halifax and Ottawa, numerous rail trips would see him frequenting remote parts of Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and Western Canada.

Two pages from a journal. The first page shows a sketch of a campsite in a river valley with woods and mountains in the background with some handwritten text underneath. On the second page is a sketch of a tent with someone sitting in front of it, tending a fire.

Excerpt from the journal about his Intercolonial Railway survey, dated 1864. (MIKAN 107736)

In the early 1870s, Fleming travelled with others on a surveying expedition. A digitized record of this expedition can be found in Master-Works of Canadian Authors: Ocean to Ocean.

An 1885 diary has a pocket containing a six-page handwritten account of a train trip across Canada in November. Included in this account are his impressions of the November 7 ceremony at Craigellachie, British Columbia of the driving of the “last spike” to complete the Canadian Pacific Railway.

He also kept a list of all the trips he made by ship across the Atlantic Ocean. Here’s a sampling for the period from the 1840s to the 1880s, such as a May 17, 1863 voyage to England on the S.S. United Kingdom.

A handwritten list of dates, destinations and names of ships, which has been attached to some ruled paper.

A list of Fleming’s trips made between 1845 and 1883, which includes the destinations and names of ships. (MIKAN 107736)

Fleming also wrote about his personal and family life. Here are a few examples of diary entries from the 1850s and 1860s (spelling is his own):

  • December 31, 185 9: “Another year on the eve of closing and here I am sitting in Mr. Halls family, Peterboro, with my good wife close by, two dear little boys, and little girl sound asleep in bed…”
  • June 6, 1861: He writes that his wife “gave me my second little daughter about 12 o’clock (noon) today at Davenport. She did not feel very well at breakfast and thought I had better go for the nurse and doctor.”
  • September 9, 1863: “Messrs Tilly and Tupper informed me that they had decided, subject to approval of their government) to appoint me to act on behalf of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick…to proceed at once with survey.” Here’s a scanned image of an entry he made about the Intercolonial Railway survey:
Handwritten entries in pencil for two days.

Excerpt of two diary entries dated December 14 and 15, 1863, describing activities during the Intercolonial Railway survey. (MIKAN 107736)

  • January 1, 1864: “Morning train to Collingwood, Stage to Craigleith—Father and Mother had all their children around them…they thought I was in New Brunswick and were astonished and glad to see me…very cold and stormy.”
  • February 28, 1866: Fleming writes about the death of his 3-month old son, “This morning about 4 o’clock after rallying a little…our dear child at last passed quietly away…This is the first death that has really come home to me—part of us is now really in another world.”
  • June 29, 1867: “Preparing for Celebration of Confederation of the Provinces next Monday.”
  • July 1, 1867 (Dominion Day): “Up at 5 o’clock, very cloudy and rainy…putting up flags etc. Clouds cleared away. Halifax very gay, a perfect sea of flags. Beautiful day. The demonstration went off splendidly.”

Although Fleming was at the centre of the modernization of Canada, the hundreds of mundane details Fleming recorded also reveal something of the world he inhabited. There is a wealth of information here, if one is willing to take the time to read them and decipher his handwriting.


Andrew Elliott is an archivist with the Science, Governance and Political Division of Library and Archives Canada.

One thought on “Highlights from the Sir Sandford Fleming Diaries

  1. An engrossing account of a most interesting person. All those diaries must be a wonderful source of information about both Fleming and 19th century history about Canada.

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