Happy Anniversary

We took a break from the blog in August and had hopes of an exciting return to business in September. Unfortunately, our hopes were once again dashed as we will be remaining closed for a while longer. This is doubly sad, as September 2020 was supposed to be our 10th anniversary.

McMaster map by local artist Matt Jelly

Running a hostel in a city that had not had one, and indeed doesn’t often seem to understand what they are, has been a challenge. Despite many conversations with local city staff and politicians over the years, the usual response is often something like “so it’s a rooming house?” Many can’t understand travel accommodations that are not a standard hotel.

A few people say things like “like the ones they have in Europe?” and our answer is – yes! Very much like that! Like the ones that they have all over the world. Back in the mists of history, hostels were often used by pilgrims on their way to holy sites, and were run by monks. In some places and times, hostel accommodation was free, and payment was given in labour rather than money. In the modern era, in Canada, payment must necessarily be in money and we’re not allowed to put guests to work, beyond cleaning up after themselves!

The “temporary” sign we put up in April

Unfortunately, a hostel is exactly the wrong sort of business to be running at present. The very essence of a hostel stay is the shared space – sitting with people from all over the world, trying their food, learning a few words of their language, finding out that snoring is a universal part of human experience. Over the last several months, we have considered ways that we might re-open – limited capacity, hand-sanitizing stations, compulsory masks.

We have opted to stay shut for several reasons. Two of them are the most important though – firstly, Canada has closed borders and is not issuing travel visas for non-essential travel. Simply, no one is coming here. Not even for school, as colleges have taken their lessons virtual for the 2020-21 year. Secondly, it’s not worth the risk. The money we might make, and the people we might host are not enough in the face of keeping ourselves, our family and our neighbours safe. We could do our best, but we cannot guarantee that COVID-19 would not spread through our hostel.

Our 5th anniversary cake

So, despite how much it hurts, we are staying closed for now. We really wanted to have a big party, even bigger than the one we had for our 5th anniversary! Local bakery Cake and Loaf made an amazing cake, and dozens of people came to celebrate with us. It’s no mean feat for a small business to last 10 years, and we are proud of what we have achieved. We have no plans to close down forever.

If we are lucky, by next September we will be able to throw a belated 10th anniversary party, a we ain’t dead celebration, with people from all over the world, and our friends, family and neighbours. We will be able to celebrate, also, that we have come through this awful time and, hopefully, we will all be stronger for it.

Posted in Blog

The Prings

William Pring, 1863

In the late 1850s, this house would have been full of people. The Pring family, after whom the building is named, did not live here for very long – in fact, HGH has occupied the building for longer now than they did. After they left here, some of them stayed nearby, and others traveled further afield. Of course, old records being what they are, it’s not always possible to get an accurate picture of how people lived. Sometimes, they just disappear from our records and we can only speculate what became of them.

Close-up of 1861 census, taken at 158 Mary Street, Hamilton.

Though it’s by no means perfect, one of the most complete pictures of the family is the 1861 Canadian census, taken in January of that year. In this census, we find William Pring is 53 years old and a collector of customs. His wife, Henrietta, is 45 and her younger sister, Flora, is 43 and lives with them. At the bottom of the census, the clerk has written that Mr Pring does not live here with his family, but rather lives in Port Colborne and was visiting his family at the time of the census. Two other family members are absent – the two eldest children, Emily and William, who are in Grantham, Ontario and New York, respectively. Also living with the family is a servant, Eliza Pritchard, who was 20 years old.

Family grave of Emily’s family, the Hamiltons.

There were nine Pring children, and this is the only census upon which they all appear. It is a somewhat untruthful snapshot in that respect, as by 1861 the eldest child, Emily, was already married to Joseph Hamilton and had two children of her own. There are several records of Emily’s life and family, and it seems to have been a comfortable one – her husband was a farmer, and they were wealthy enough to have a live-in servant as well. Together, Emily and Joseph had nine children, and lived their whole lives in this area. Emily is buried in the Hamilton cemetery.

Two of the Pring children are a mystery. We know from the 1861 census that the eldest son, William, was 23 and living in New York – but this is the last detail we can find about him. If he was already living in the US in January 1861, it is possible that he fought in the civil war, which began only a few months later. Whatever became of him, we can find no record of marriage, relocation, or death. The same is true of his younger brother, the Prings’ sixth child, Charles. He was born in around 1849, and that is the last detail we have of him.

Ferdinand Pring and Miss H Converse in 1866 – no idea who she was!

The fifth Pring child, Flora, seems to have had a fairly similar life to her elder sister. She married Thomas Bate, a brewer, in 1862 and the two of them lived in St Catherines. They had twelve children and had three live-in servants – in 1881, one of the servants listed on the census is Flora’s younger sister, Mary! As for Mary, after living with Flora’s family in St Catherines until after Flora’s death, she moved to the United States. She did not marry, and moved to Los Angeles, where she lived and worked as a nurse until 1929.

The third and fourth Pring children, Ferdinand and Benjamin, have somewhat similar lives as well. Both of them moved to the United States and married, Ferdinand to Elizabeth Church and Benjamin to Mary Kopman. Ferdinand and his family lived for many years in Chicago, Illinois before moving to Atlanta, Georgia; and Benjamin and his family lived in New Orleans, Louisiana for most of his life, before moving finally to Dallas, Texas.

Benjamin Pring in 1866. At this time he was a Private in the 3rd Battalion of the Victoria Rifles.

By 1871, Henrietta had relocated to St Catherines with the three youngest children, Henry James, Mary and Henrietta, and is listed on the census as a widow. Exactly when her husband died is yet to be determined. Here, she would be close to her two eldest daughters and their families. Henry James is a clerk and seems to be supporting them.

Some time in the end of the 1870s, Henry and the Henriettas (his mother and sister) moved to Montreal, and there both the Pring kids got married. By the time she died in 1887, their mother had returned to Hamilton, probably to live with her eldest daughter, Emily, and she died here. Henry and his wife Irene and three children moved to Lexington, Massachusetts; and Henrietta and her husband Charles MacCrae and two children moved to Buffalo, New York.

It’s almost impossible to imagine how different the world we know is from the one in which they lived, here in this house in the 1850s. And when they all went their separate ways, it would have meant never seeing each other again, in most cases. William and Henrietta came to Canada from England and Scotland respectively – we know at least two of Henrietta’s siblings came to Canada as well, but William might have left all of his family behind. We don’t know yet – but we’re still looking.

Henrietta, 1861. Her name before marriage was Henrietta Wharton McKenzie McCulloch.

** Please note: all historical photographs are by William Notman and are in the collection of the McCord Museum. Digital copies of prints can be purchased from the museum. https://www.musee-mccord.qc.ca/en/ 

Posted in Uncategorized

The Whole World

Guests spending New Years together in 2013

We like to joke that we don’t get to travel, so we travel vicariously through our guests. By that metric, we have “visited”  more than half the countries on earth, on every inhabited continent and a great many islands, too. When we first opened, the majority of our guests were from Europe and Asia, with a few Australians and Canadians. However, over the last 10 years, this has changed. But it isn’t only that North Americans have figured out hosteling. We are also seeing more and more guests from Africa and South America. And these guests come for every reason you can imagine – vacation, work, school, special events.

A recent world traveler

There are too many stories to recount them all, but I will try to give you a sense of the atmosphere we enjoy so much. A young man from Japan wrote to us to request a dormitory bed, in the hopes that staying with others would help him improve his English. Unfortunately for him, for the days he was staying there were no English-speaking guests in the dorm! However, we enjoyed chatting with him and, in any case, his command of English was already excellent.

I enjoy watching new friendships begin at the hostel. This often happens when we have a group of like-minded people all thrown together for a big event. An older man cheerfully gave tips to younger runners when they were all staying for the Around the Bay Race – and runners from Nigeria, Mexico, Indonesia and Canada all went out for dinner together to stock up on carbs the night before the race. When the K-pop band BTS had a series of concerts in Hamilton, the whole hostel became a fandom headquarters, with guests from all over North America – and some from even further off – bonding over their love for music.

Another time, a trio of young women all stayed together in our women’s dormitory. They didn’t know each other beforehand and each was in Hamilton for a separate reason. All three came from different continents and had different religions and life experiences – one Saudi Arabian, one German and one Chinese.  One a student, one a backpacker just travelling through, and one a medical intern. None spoke English as a first language, but they persevered and in the three days that they shared a room they discussed history, politics, sexuality, religion and more.

Sometimes, the evils of the world seem to be everywhere. Some years ago, I overheard a conversation between two guests, one from Ireland and one from India, commiserating about their historical colonial occupation. An Indigenous Canadian woman stayed with us while tracking down her missing cousin. And we have offered compassionate rates to refugees from war-torn parts of the globe, while they wait for permanent housing here in Canada. The world is not always a kind place, and it can be filled with danger. Bigotry and violence is an ever-present threat.

What we have to offer is not much, not enough to fix a broken world. A home away from home for all races, all religions, all sexualities and all identities. A place to share each other’s food and laugh at each other’s jokes. We like to believe that we have a welcoming place of calm and peace, where people can leave the cruelty of the world outside.

Posted in Uncategorized

This Old House

The William Pring House, home of the Hamilton Guesthouse, was built in 1855. There have been plenty of interesting characters living here, plenty of fascinating stories, from the macabre to the beautiful. We have done our best in the past 8 years to learn as much as we can about the building and its history, from previous owners and residents, from neighbours and local historians, from archives and old records. Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to share some of the stories we’ve uncovered.

Maybe the original “below stairs” kitchen?

Many people who live in old houses find interesting things when they poke around in the attic or the basement, or when they take down a wall or remodel a bathroom. Unfortunately, this house has had very little continuity of ownership over the last 165 years and previous owners have not always been respectful in their renovations. Working with knowledgeable friends, we’ve tried to piece together which features of the house are original, which are simply old, and which are modern.

For example, when renovating the basement shower in 2017, we discovered a huge fireplace, which had been long ago bricked up. The span (at least twice as wide as the existing fireplaces on the upper floors), seemed to have been bricked up into a smaller opening, and then later bricked up entirely. It wasn’t at all ornate, but just simple red bricks. Could it possibly show us the location of the original kitchen?

At some point, the heating in the house moved from wood or coal

Decades old damage being restored.

fireplaces to a central furnace. We don’t know exactly when. But in 2018 we undertook some extensive restoration work of the exterior stone, a project that was triggered when we noticed that the south-east chimney was starting to bulge and lean out into Cannon Street. While the stone masons meticulously deconstructed and re-built the chimney, they discovered the source of the damage – when the chimney was lined to allow a furnace to vent through it, the work was done quite poorly, and the stones were pushed out of alignment, allowing water to seep in and the freeze-thaw cycle to gradually damage the house.

Between regular aging and the leaning chimney, our roof started to leak. No one likes a leaking roof, but while we were up there putting buckets under the drips, we discovered some cast off remnants of the past. At one time, the house was lit with gas – we’re not sure if it was that way originally, or if it was introduced some time later. However, when the

An old, damaged gas light fixture.

gas lines were removed to upgrade to electric lighting, some of the long pipes were left in the attic. Among them, we found a single hall sconce, which had clearly been damaged and was left in the attic. Maybe a former owner had intended to fix it and keep it, or they simply didn’t throw it away at the time.

In late 2019, we did some upgrades to our kitchen and the ground floor bathroom, moved things around and changed the staircase to the basement. While the ceiling in the kitchen was open in order for the electricians and plumbers to work, we noticed the place where the old basement stairs used to be and, at the top of them, a door. Upstairs, our contractor pulled away the drywall and plaster layers to reveal the old basement door. It would have opened up under the existing spiral staircase, in an out-of-the-way corner. Rather than remove it, we opted

The walled-up old door.

to display it – even if it’s just in a bathroom.

Hopefully we’ll have the chance to share more stories of the Pring – of the building, of its former residents, of the good, the bad and the fascinating. We lack a great many records, and we can only guess from what we find in the house itself. But we’ll do our best to unearth as much as we can of the last 165 years in our little piece of Hamilton.

Posted in Uncategorized

In the Snail Zone

We have a sign on our front gate which says “snail zone.” This is because our kid loves snails (and all sorts of garden mini-beasts) and the garden is a no-kill zone for critters, especially her beloved slimy friends. It has certainly raised some questions among our guests, but generally gets a laugh, or at least a bemused smile.

It seems like we are definitely in the snail zone now. Hamilton Guesthouse at the Pring is one of countless small businesses around the country – and the world – which has closed down to help slow the spread of COVID-19. While some hotels are able to stay open, using additional cleaning and sanitizing to keep their guests safe, our shared spaces make us particularly unsafe for guests. We made the decision to close on March 23rd – we allowed existing guests to stay until the end of their reservation, but accepted no more guests, and cancelled all reservations until the end of April.

At this point, it looks like we (and everyone else) will be closed down longer than that. And, like everyone else, all we can do is follow the rules and best practices given by medical experts, stay home, and wait. We are hoping that maybe our space might be useable by medical workers who need a place to crash – but as yet nothing is organized.

In the meantime, we non-essential workers can only keep ourselves and our kids occupied. Local schools will be rolling out remote learning, and that will keep the kids busy for a little while. There are games, and crafts, and chatting with friends on the phone or online – staying connected with those we love. There will be a lot of gardening. There will be experimental cooking. There will be a huge amount of cleaning, sadly.

Superpiggies – Zelda, Impa and Louna!

One unfortunate side-effect of this virus is that people cannot always afford to take care of their pets, and therefore shelters and rescues are getting some new arrivals. This week, we took in three new foster guinea pigs – Zelda, Impa and Louna. They are in quarantine for two weeks, and then they and our three girls can make friends. Well, we hope they will make friends! And after that, we hope they will find a wonderful forever-home. Watching guinea pigs eat can be incredibly relaxing.

With the hostel closed down, money will be a concern. However, we are hopeful that we will get by and we will continue to support Hamilton’s people and businesses. We are looking forward to getting delivery from as many restaurants as we can, for as long as they can safely stay open. We are looking every day for ways we can help our community through this difficult and truly weird time.

Hopefully, by next month, we will be able to report that we will soon be welcoming the world back to Hamilton. Until then, we live in the snail zone – taking everything very slowly, and not leaving our home. Stay strong everyone – and stay healthy.

Spring is here and the bees are back.

Posted in Blog

Weather Permitting

It’s March, and the world is starting to thaw and look alive again. Since December, Hamilton (and all of Canada) has been braced for the cold, for snow, and for the multitude of challenges that winter brings. It sometimes seems like spring will never come.

Knowing that winter can feel so long, Canadians are generally pretty adept at finding plenty to keep them entertained during the cold, dark part of the year. Skiing, skating, and other winter sports are obviously popular. Here in Hamilton, there are regular reports about how thick the ice is on the lake, and whether it is safe for people to go out on it. Cafes and restaurants do a brisk trade in warm drinks and comfort food.

“Rafaga – Unleashed” abstract sculpture in bronze.

During the holiday season there are parades, giveaways, and of course plenty of shopping. In February, Hamilton is host to Winterfest, which comprises of dozens of events like concerts, contests and arts displays. And all winter, if the wind isn’t too cold, you can enjoy a stroll around the town, taking in the sights as they lie blanketed in snow.

A few weeks ago, during an unseasonably mild and melted February day, we had the opportunity to be tourists in our own city and we chose to take a stroll down to the waterfront. The land referred to by locals as the “waterfront” consists of several different recreation areas – Pier 8, Pier 4 and Bayfront Park in central Hamilton; Cootes Paradise and the Royal Botanical Gardens in the west; and Skyway Park and Confederation Park in the east end. And many more, too, of course.

Looking towards Pier 4, with swans

All of these different areas have their own separate appeal, depending on what you enjoy doing. Open spaces to run and play sports, fly a kite, or throw down a picnic rug. Play equipment (including a really cool boat at Pier 4) for the kids, a splash pad for the hot weather. For those inclined, there are boat rentals at the boat club – for those happier to be passengers, there are boat tours. There are also geese, swans and other waterfowl – and adorable young ones if you come at the right time of year.

Cootes Paradise and the trails and outdoor spaces of the Royal Botanical Gardens are wonderful for hiking and watching birds and other wildlife. When the weather is still too cold to go outside, the RBG has wonderful indoor gardens with plants from around the world, and often fascinating exhibits. To get from one part of the waterfront to another, there is the hop-on-hop-off Trolley, an adorable little red buggy that trundles from Pier 8 to Cootes and back again. There are a lot of hidden treasures along the way. Ever heard of the Hamilton Fishway? A fascinating project to keep invasive species out of the Cootes Paradise conservation area.

Mooring spaces for watercraft, looking towards Cootes Paradise and the high level bridge

We chose to stroll around Pier 8. This area is the subject of a lot of talk at present, and there are plans for further development. Currently there are a few buildings and a large flattened rink that is used for ice skating in winter, and roller skating for the rest of the year. There’s a lovely view across the lake (in warmer months, it will be dotted with boats large and small) in all directions from this jut of land. A little further east (where we unfortunately couldn’t go due to construction on this particular day) along the waterfront trail is the HMCS Haida, a retired warship which is permanently anchored in Hamilton’s harbour, and is a National Historic Site.

On our day out we saw boats moored, people walking and jogging and skating at the rink, kids playing and lots of people enjoying some good food. The world wasn’t ready to turn to spring yet, but for one warm February day, we had a glimpse of how much fun there will be in a few short weeks. Hopefully we will have a chance to write about other amazing places to visit later in the year. But even in the depths of winter, weather permitting, Hamilton has a lot of sights to see and adventures to be had.

The Harbour Queen

Posted in Blog

Stacey, Hamilton Guesthouse, and the Pring

Long ago, way back in 2004, Tanya’s little sister visited Hamilton. Her name was Stacey and she had been having a hard time at university and a relationship had ended. Before visiting Hamilton, she did what many young people do when facing a rough patch in their life – she put on a backpack and did some low-budget travel.

Stacey went single-female-backpacking through Europe and Asia for several months and, when her school vacation and money had run out, she stopped in to visit her family in Hamilton, before heading home to Australia. Her mind was full of the stress of her life and the excitement of her travels. The few weeks she spent with us, in our little house on Cannon Street, she called “the Ritchie retreat.” She was able to unwind, relax and refocus.

In Montreal, 2007


She also asked a very pertinent question. It is the question that started this whole thing rolling, and has brought us to where we are now.

Why are there no backpacker hostels in Hamilton?

We spent the next several years, on and off, investigating why that would be the case. It’s a story for another time. When Stacey visited us again in 2007, she pushed us again on the hostel issue and we went to Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa. After exploring those cities and staying in some amazing hostels, we were pretty much sold on the idea. But would it work in Hamilton? We were pretty cautious and spent a few more years working on the kinks, talking to local friends and a few politicians who knew what was what.

It wasn’t until Stacey’s next visit, in 2010, that we finally got things underway. We had bought a house in May on Victoria Avenue – a skinny little place that was big enough to have a ground floor kitchen and common area, a second floor dorm (six beds) and one private room, plus bathroom, and live-in staff on the third floor. Stacey and her boyfriend agreed to live there while we got the hostel going. We figured that if we had no guests, we could find tenants and close the whole hostel idea down.

We opened in September 2010. Our first guest was a young woman from Japan. She checked in, freshened up, picked up some maps and then went to explore the city. We were elated. Slowly but surely, more guests came. By March 2011, we were regularly sold out. It was pretty clear that a backpackers’ hostel was, indeed, something that could work in Hamilton.

Stacey, always the traveler, this time in Los Angeles

Now, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Stacey and her boyfriend headed back to Australia at the end of 2011 and we ran the hostel ourselves, with the help of occasional longer-term guests looking to help in lieu of payment. There were difficulties, but those are stories for another time. It was pretty clear by the end of 2011 that we needed a bigger venue, preferably closer to downtown. So the hunt began for our new home.

In January 2012, a house that we had always admired was listed for sale. It was huge. It was beautiful.

It was the William Pring House.

We couldn’t really afford it. But we put an offer on it. Our offer was accepted. We panicked. Fortunately, the seller didn’t want to move out until June, which gave us six months to raise the money we needed to close. On June 18th, 2012, we took possession of the Pring, and the work began in earnest.

With the invaluable help of our long-term guest, turned friend and co-worker, Tom, we bought and set up bunks and beds and couches and tables. The hostel continued to run in the old location until August, when we officially switched over. Our very first guests were a troupe of dancers from Italy, come to study and perform. Just as with our first opening two years earlier, we were elated and had hurdles to clear.

Every month and every year since we first opened has brought us new challenges and new joys. We have welcomed guests to Hamilton from every continent on Earth (except Antarctica!), from 112 countries (to date). It’s always a point of excitement when a guest arrives from a country that’s new to us – and it’s always wonderful when our guests return for another stay. Return guests from Cuba, Romania and Nigeria – among other places – call the Pring their home away from home.

We were struck suddenly and tragically by Stacey’s death in December 2018. She was 35 years old. There are simply no words to describe our grief.

The vision Stacey inspired lives on, among her many legacies. We will be forever grateful for the pushes she gave us, which started us down this path. Running the Hamilton Guesthouse has been a constant adventure and a great privilege and we are enormously proud to share it.

This September, 2020, will be our 10th anniversary. We have great plans for this year, and many years to come. We hope you’ll join us, as we continue to welcome the world to Hamilton.

One of Stacey’s favourite pairs of shoes, bought on James Street in Hamilton, which she took around the world with her several times.

Posted in Uncategorized