Part 3: Mysteries and mystranscriptions, a genealogical case study

Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal in 1895, a few years before Walter and Maria Dunn arrived in the city as home children. © McCord Museum

A few posts ago, I started piecing together the back story of a WW1 veteran named Walter Dunn, whose daughter Elsie died in a tragic accident just after the war. In the first post, I tried to untangle Walter’s two wives, Blanche and Myrtle, and never really got to the bottom of it. I found out that Walter had married Myrtle in 1912, and that they’d had Elsie shortly thereafter. But by the time Walter enlisted in 1916, his wife’s name was Blanche, and I could never figure out what had happened to Myrtle. I’m happy to say that that mystery has now been solved, and that many other pieces have fallen into place for Walter’s story, including details about his life as a home child, which were still puzzling me in the second post.

For now, I want to travel back to 1912, when Walter married Myrtle Bishop in Montreal. The wedding took place in April, right after Myrtle had been baptized and converted to Catholicism. Then in May, little Elsie was born. When she died in 1920, her death record clearly stated that her mother’s name was Myrtle Bishop. But Myrtle had disappeared, and subsequent records consistently showed Walter’s wife’s name as Blanche. Try as I might, I could not find a death record for Myrtle or a marriage record for Walter and Blanche. But today I found both — simply because I took away detail from my search criteria.

I considered the possibility that Walter and Myrtle had simply parted ways, and that he and Blanche had never officially married. But I thought that pretty unlikely, so I kept on hunting. Having seen so many poor transcriptions on my travels through genealogical records, I figured it was most likely that the records weren’t turning up because the names had been twisted somewhere along the line. So today I searched Quebec death records between the years 1912 and 1914, and entered only the name Mirtle (I had seen it spelled that way on other records). Up popped a record for someone who’d died in 1912, and whose first name was apparently “Epse Dunn mirtle” and whose surname was “Pearl.” Right away I knew this was her. A closer look at the handwritten record shows her name scrawled in the ledger as “Mirtle Pearl epse Dunn” — epouse meaning her spouse’s name, but the transcriber must not have known that, and also made the strange error of inverting her given and surnames. The record doesn’t say how she died, but perhaps there were complications following Elsie’s birth. In any case, now I knew that Walter really was widowed, and that Elsie never knew her biological mother.

I was all the more determined, then, to find a marriage record for Walter and Blanche, and again I decided to remove details from my search criteria rather than adding everything I knew. I’d done this already, but I hadn’t gone far enough. I plunked in “Dunn” and searched Quebec marriage records between 1912 and 1916, and once again met with success. There they were, marrying in 1913 in an Anglican church, at a ceremony witnessed by Thomas and Sadie Woollands. So now I knew that Elsie was still a baby when Walter and Blanche married — and I had an aha moment when I saw the names of Thomas and Sadie.

I’ll backtrack a bit more: in my previous searches a few weeks ago, I had been frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find Walter’s wife-to-be, Blanche Poidevin, on the 1911 census, even though I knew that she’d come to Canada around 1908. You might remember from the first post about the trio that I used a roundabout way to discover Blanche’s background — the daughter of a French-from-France egg sorter who’d come from London, England, to find a job in Quebec as a domestic worker. It’s very common for uncommon surnames to get muddled, and I eventually found her passenger ship record by removing her surname and searching only for Blanches who’d sailed the seas from England to Canada at that particular time.

Since that had worked so well, I decided to try it again to find her on the 1911 census. I searched for Blanches, born in England, living in Quebec, and having immigrated at that time. Thankfully that’s one of the boxes that was requested on the 1911 census, so it really narrowed things down. The first person who came up was “Blanche Bidwin.” And yes, it was her, lost in a poor transcription. All the details fit — and on top of that, she was living with a couple named Thomas and Sadie Woollands.

St James Street, Montreal, 1910, a couple of years before Elsie was born to the newly married Walter Dunn and Myrtle Bishop. © McCord Museum

Transcription errors have actually eaten up much of my research time in the case of Walter Dunn. For weeks I couldn’t find him or his sister Maria on the 1901 or the 1911 census, and only when I loosened up birth dates and spellings to a ridiculous degree did any possibilities begin to appear. I’m pretty sure I’ve found Walter in both years now: in one, he’s been labeled “Walter Dum,” and it’s impossible to resist adding that that’s just dumb on the part of the transcriber — although I know myself how hard it can be to work out the loops and swirls of penmanship from days gone by.

I’ve found Maria too. The 1911 census shows her living as the “adoptive daughter” of a “voyageur” for a shoe factory. Yet another poor transcription had aged her by ten years, so she hadn’t turned up on my previous searches. In another aha moment, one of the men listed at the address — the voyageur’s wife’s brother — turned out to be the man Maria marries in 1917.

The stories of home children are often heartbreaking — Walter’s certainly is, having left home at 11, and later lost a wife and a child and gone to war, where he was gravely wounded. His sister Maria seems to have fared better. She lived to be 104 years old, and her 1994 obituary remembers her as “a very good and caring mother who had a generosity of spirit and certain joie de vivre.” The notice lists her loved ones, including brother Walter and various members of her husband’s family — and also two younger sisters in England, the girls born in the years before Walter and Maria were sent away. I’ve since found a 1959 obituary for Walter, too, and his also mentions the sisters. I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of it yet, and I might be wrong, but I believe these sisters may also have left the family home and lived in institutions within England. I wonder — Walter’s service record in 1916 states he doesn’t know if his parents are dead or alive, but his wounds brought him to a Liverpool hospital. Did he find his sisters then? Did he ever find his parents? Did he want to?

There will always be lingering questions with this type of work, but it’s amazing how one little find can uncover another, and before you know it, a story has formed.

Perth Avenue, Toronto, in WW1

1913 Fire Insurance Plan, Toronto
A 1913 image showing Perth and surrounding streets, from Goad’s Fire Insurance Plan. Click here for a larger view of the neighbourhood.

Over our years of work on The Cowkeeper’s Wish, much of our research was focused on the WW1 period, and through that time we made many connections with people engaged in their own projects. One of these was A Street Near You, a digital mapping project begun by James Morley, whose intention was to demonstrate the phenomenal possibilities of linking First World War data sources.

He began by bringing together data from three main places – Commonwealth War Graves CommissionImperial War Museums Collections, and the IWM’s Lives of the First World War project – and plotting the information on a map, so that searchers can zoom into a point of interest and start seeing connections and making more of their own. James explains the origins of his idea here, and continues to grow the project in new, intriguing ways.

Since it’s Remembrance Day, I thought it fitting to zoom into a place on the map that is special to me, and to see who turns up thanks to James’s magic. At the time of WW1, Perth Avenue in Toronto’s west end, between Lansdowne and Dundas Street West, was part of a working-class neighbourhood humming with industry and surrounded by railroad tracks. (For an excellent, quick read through the neighbourhood’s history, visit One Gal’s Toronto and her piece on Perth Avenue.)

The City of Toronto Archives has some great old photos of the area in this period, showing baseball games in the local park, little children at school, rail lines criss-crossing the neighbourhood, and old cars parked on somewhat bleak looking streets. Of course the cars weren’t old then, and neither were the houses. Many of the houses on Perth were built in the 1910s — new at the time of WW1.

Bloor Perth 1914Perth ave, 1916Perth Avenue Playground — Senior Baseball, OpeningPerth Avenue Square — Opening Baseball Game Osler Beavers vs. Elizabeth

The area had fewer residents than it does now, so people up and down the street surely knew each other. (Today this is still true, which is a rather lovely and unusual thing in a big and bustling city.) When someone’s son or husband died, it was likely a loss for larger area too. James’s map links eight war deaths to Perth Avenue in Toronto — there may well have been others, of course, and a quick zoom out shows a lot more deaths in the larger area. As you’ll see, a closer examination of the Perth Avenue addresses also yields links to other streets nearby.

Screen Shot 2019-11-10 at 1.34.10 PM
Perth is a north-south street in Toronto’s west end, between Lansdowne and Dundas. Image courtesy A Street Near You

So who were the eight with ties to Perth?

John William Lawrence was working as a clerk when he enlisted in April 1915, but barely saw service. According to his service record, he was underweight and sickly, and hospitalized upon arriving in England in 1916. Thereafter he was diagnosed with bronchitis, influenza and tonsillitis, and he was eventually discharged as physically unfit — he probably shouldn’t have passed the medical examination in the first place. Age 37, he died of cancer in February 1920 and was buried here in Toronto, in Prospect Cemetery. He and his wife Nellie lived on Weston Road and then on St Clair, and his mother, Elizabeth Todd, lived at 49 Perth Avenue.

William Horace Taylor was born in Toronto, but served with the British army. He died in Belgium in October 1917. So far I haven’t found a link to Perth Avenue, but I’ll keep looking.

George Henry Joseph Jordan enlisted in 1915, and was working as a labourer. According to George’s service record, his family moved from nearby St Helen’s Avenue to 103 Perth, where they remained, minus George, on the 1921 census. His father, also George, worked as a painter. Just 19 when he died in July 1916, George Jr’s casualty record states: “Previously reported Missing, now Killed in Action. He was one of a party detailed from his Battalion and attached for duty with a wiring party … and while putting out wire at the Bluff, Ypres … an enemy mine exploded and Private Jordan with many of his comrades was killed.”

Frank Sanderson Batty enlisted in 1915. At that time, he’d been living with his parents on Margueretta, just east of Perth, and working as an electrician. The family had come to Canada from Scotland in 1907. Frank’s service record shows that he died on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and puts his parents, Herbert and Mary Ann, at 189 Perth Avenue. A nephew, born the year he died, was named after him, and went on to serve in the next war.

Edward Charles Largen lived in the UK and served with the British Army, but his parents lived at 215 Perth Avenue. His father was a chef who at some point had worked at the Ontario College of Agriculture in Guelph. Edward died at the Somme in July 1916, but a letter exists, written to his parents from Belgium the year before, and reads, in part, “At present we are having a very pleasant time camping out in a field almost out of the sound of the guns. The weather is beautifully warm and life’s worth living. … There is still plenty of fighting before us, however, and I hope I have the luck to see it to the finish.”

George Robert Williams was living with his wife Rena on Campbell Avenue, a couple of streets east of Perth, when he enlisted in 1916. At that time, he was 22 years old and employed as a shipper. He had come to Canada from England in 1910, and he and Rena had married in September 1914, in the early days of the war. At some point during George’s time overseas, Rena moved to 271 Perth. His service record states that on Nov. 8, 1918, just a few days before the war ended, he was hospitalized in France with influenza. The outbreak was deadly and widespread, and claiming lives here at home in Toronto too. George Williams was pronounced dangerously ill on the 14th, and died the next day.

james oakley
James Oakley, a bricklayer who lived across from Perth Square Park

James Oakley was a bricklayer at the time of his enlistment in 1916. He was living with his mother Ann at 357 Perth Avenue, just across from the park where the baseball photos were taken in those days. Unlike most of the men above, James had been born in Toronto. His 1888 birth record says his father Thomas was also a bricklayer, and the family was then living on Manning. James’s service record tells us he was wounded in the back and arm in September 1918, and died soon after of shock from those wounds. I came across this photograph of him by contacting a woman who has him in her online family tree. She told me that the photo came to her all the way from Florida, via a stranger who’d acquired the image, and wanted to see it returned to family.

James Martin was born in Belfast and living with his wife Elizabeth at 479 Perth when he joined the army. His service record tells us he was working as a labourer, and had a tattoo of “an English dancing girl” on his right forearm. He was on the old side for soldiering — 38 when he enlisted in 1914 — and had served with the British Army in the Boer War. In 1916, he was working as a transport driver for the service corps when he fell from a wagon and injured his head. His application for a pension was complicated by the fact that he tested positive for syphilis. The board wrote, “We found this one of the most difficult cases to decide upon.” Though his disability was considered total and permanent, the pension was denied. Lengthy notes in his file discuss paralysis, speech difficulties, and impaired memory: “Speech is thick. Has difficulty in pronouncing common words. … Mentally stupid. Says he lived on Perth St Toronto but cannot tell what Province Toronto is in. Nor whether it is in North or South America. Knows it is in Canada. Understands and carries out all commands fairly when not too complicated.” Unusually, James Martin’s record contains a letter handwritten by him on stationary from Granville Special Canadian Hospital in Ramsgate, Kent, expressing his eagerness to get home. “I may also mention that I have a wife and child in Toronto, my wife who is at present time, in a delicate state of health, which I am afraid is partly due to anxiety on my account, and would I am sure improve on my return to her.” James Martin was invalided to Canada and died in October 1918.

Letter from Ramsgate

Three more men appear on Perth at this Canadian mapping project: Henry James Cox of 97 Perth Avenue; Thomas Henry Cox of 101 Perth Avenue; and Henry Jack Powrie of 121 Perth Avenue. I’ll explore those stories in the near future.