It’s been a long time since I posted. In part, I’ve just been busily working on my new book, but to be honest I’ve also been a bit dejected — I haven’t been able to find out anything more about the mystery baby I was researching late last year, though I still haven’t given up that more information will surface. I often wonder what makes me so obsessed with the past, and finding clues to old mysteries that, for many people, just don’t matter anymore. But I’m overjoyed when I find kindred spirits (like my sister and co-author, and so many of the readers here) who share the same curiosity. I also love to learn about other approaches to investigating the past, and over the last many months I’ve had a close-up view, since my husband Jeff Winch has just finished his documentary Woodwriter: The Wordless Art of George A. Walker. It’s about a book artist and wood engraver who makes “wordless biographies” about such fascinating subjects as Tom Thomson, Pierre Trudeau, and Leonard Cohen. His latest chronicles the life of silent screen star Mary Pickford.
I think Jeff and I both fell a little bit in love with Mary via George, and she makes numerous appearances in Woodwriter, lighting up the screen each time with her funny facial expressions and her ability to say so much without talking. I guess that’s why she’s such a perfect subject for George’s books — a muse, in a way. Being behind the scenes during the making of Woodwriter has been like being in a little chain of creators inspired by creators: me watching Jeff film George make a book about Mary making films!
But the film is about more than Mary Pickford and George’s other subjects. In my mind, it’s really a film about creativity. It follows George through his process, starting with a blank wood block and ending with a gorgeous hand-made book. Throughout the film we see his craft close up: the old-fashioned tools he uses for engraving, and the hand-fed, Vandercook Press that dominates his charming back-yard studio. But we also hear George’s thoughts about his work — what moves him, why he chooses certain subjects, what he loves about the black-and-white form and about books and art and history. Living with the filmmaker, I had the added luxury of watching Jeff’s process as he captured George’s work, using “rotoscoping” to make footage of George look like his engravings; and through tricks of technology, sending George back in time to be a character in Mary Pickford’s films.
Though my own process is so different from Jeff’s and George’s, for me the film underscores the beauty of creating, and the power of reaching back in time to tell stories. As Jeff says in his description of the film, “the past and present never stop talking to each other – even if it’s without words.”
I’ll post again whenever there are screenings for the film. For now, you can visit the Woodwriter site and watch the trailer below:
Back in Part 1 of this tale, I posted a picture of the three eldest Cartwright sons with their parents, George and Emily, at the annual picnic for McCormick’s, the biscuit and candy company where George worked. An observant reader pointed out that the family appeared to be wearing mourning ribbons, and in Part 2, I explored that topic. I was hoping to find clues by establishing when the picture was taken and comparing that to events in the family. Who was the group mourning? I guessed at the date of the picture, thinking the youngest boy, our grandfather Bill, was either three or four years old, which meant that the year was either 1912 or 1913. If the picture had been taken in 1912, some time after baby Edna’s July death, then perhaps the ribbons were for her. If the picture was taken in 1913, why wasn’t baby Stuart, born that January, among his brothers? And who were the ribbons for?
I’ve made a couple of discoveries since then — as usual, somewhat by accident. I had already visited the London Advertiser at Canadiana Online to search for mentions of family members, but the search mechanism is a bit clunky, and if you get a “hit,” you have to read the whole page to find the word you searched for. “Cartwright” often proved disappointing, since there is a Cartwright Street in London that was frequently mentioned. Instead I decided to browse through the Monday, July 22, edition of the paper in the year baby Edna died, thinking it would be interesting to know what was happening in the city that day, and in the Cartwrights’ wider world. To my surprise, I stumbled on an article about the annual McCormick’s picnic, which had been held two days earlier.
Below the article was a list of winners in various races, with a “Mrs. Cartwright” included among three names for the “Married Ladies’ Race.” Was it Emily, flying along in her hat and long skirts, hoping to trounce Mrs. McCabe and Mrs. McInnes, George and her little boys cheering her on? Likely yes, since there weren’t that many Cartwrights in London at the time, let alone Cartwrights with a McCormick’s connection. The old family albums contain a number of pictures from games played at these annual outings over the years, so I think it’s safe, in this case, to surmise that the Cartwrights attended the picnic in 1912, just two days before Edna’s death, and that Emily, a few months pregnant with Stuart, took part in the festivities.
Curious to know if the paper would offer any more clues, I scrolled through the next day’s edition, and soon came upon a little notice:
So the Cartwrights must have attended the picnic on Saturday, and then shortly after that, baby Edna fell ill. The same edition that features her death notice carries a cheerful photograph of the winners of the baby show being held aloft by their parents and the judges, the picnic crowd behind them.
What a great sadness this death must have been for Emily, George and their three little boys. When the 1913 picnic rolled around, with pillow fights, three-legged races, and a tug of war between the biscuit and candy departments, surely the family was reminded of the previous year, of Emily taking part in the Married Ladies’ Race, and then Edna’s death soon after. Is this why they wore the previously discussed mourning ribbons? Or were they mourning ribbons at all?
Searching through the photographs we scanned years ago for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, I came upon a McCormick’s picnic image dated 1922. This one shows George and Emily with two of their younger children, Gordon and Mary, the great aunt who’d been the keeper of Stuart’s baptism certificate until her death earlier this year at age 100. If you look closely, you’ll see that George and Gordon are wearing ribbons; perhaps Mary and Emily are wearing them too, but it’s hard to see in the old photo. Clear enough, though, is the lettering “McCormick’s” on the other two. So more than likely, the darker ribbons in the photo taken a decade earlier were also to do with the picnic.
That same year, 1922, the London Advertiser carried a mention of “G. Cartwright” having the largest family in attendance — seven children in all. In the family tree as we knew it, that’s all the Cartwright kids accounted for: George, Jack, our grandfather Bill, Earl, Florence, Gordon, and Mary. Do, the youngest, was not yet born.
It’s very satisfying to solve these little mysteries, but of course the big one still lurks. What happened to baby Stuart, for whom we have a baptismal certificate but no birth or death record? Can we assume that, because baby Edna is not in the earlier picnic photo, it was taken in 1913, a year after her death? But if that is the case, Stuart was born in January of that year. Why is he not in the photo?
As we’ve seen, assuming can be problematic. When this whole tale first began, I assumed my great aunt Mary had tucked the certificate away in her bedside table, knowing it would be found after her death. Perhaps she knew something about baby Stuart that she’d never told anyone, and she didn’t want him to be forgotten. But there’s a danger in reading too much into the fragments that come our way in family research. And much can be learned by sharing information with other family members who might hold missing pieces. My mom’s cousin Susan Butlin, also an author and a lover of historical research (The Practice of Her Profession, McGill-Queen’s University Press), was the one who found Stuart’s baptism card after Mary’s death, and she describes the discovery this way:
“The Baptismal certificates, along with several Confirmation certificates, were found in the right top drawer of Aunt Mary and Dorraine’s long, low bureau of drawers in the bedroom, not the bedside table, I don’t know where that came from. They were neatly placed together in a small book, it might have been a New Testament, from which they stuck out. Also in the drawer were things like new gloves, small boxes with pieces of jewelry, small personal things that were valued. After I looked at them, I saw Stuart’s certificate and, according to my sister, I said ‘Oh my goodness, look at this!'”
Susan agrees that it’s highly likely that Jack, Bill, Stuart and Earl (Susan’s father, and the baby born after Stuart, in January 1914) were baptized at home, together, in September 1914. But why, and what became of Stuart after that, remains unknown. I still hope to find out that he was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where Emily and Edna lie, but Covid, quite understandably, means that cemetery staff is slower than usual in replying to these sorts of requests. The history section of the website shows pictures of the old burial registers, dating back to the 1870s, so if Stuart was buried there, the details will be hiding somewhere in those pages. Finding Stuart’s grave won’t tell us how he died, but it will be one more piece of the puzzle, and might lead to still more clues as to what happened to him.
Home baptisms for multiple children? The plot thickens…
In the last few days, another clue has come in from the relative who found the scrap of paper containing burial details for babies Emily/Sissy and Edna. It turns out two other baptism certificates were in Great Aunt Mary’s possession: one was her own (born 1921), and the other belonged to John Frank Cartwright, known as Jack, the middle son in the trio of photos of George and Emily’s eldest boys. Mother Emily was pregnant with Jack when she came to Canada in the summer of 1907, and he was born that October, after “Sissy” had already died. The document shows Jack was baptized seven years later, on the same day as Stuart: September 26, 1914. Again the word “church” has been crossed out so that the place name for the baptism reads “Parish of Church of the Redeemer.”
Those of you who’ve been following the story closely (see parts one, two and three) might remember that when we originally discovered the card bearing Stuart’s baptism details, we thought it was strange that he’d been baptized more than a year and a half after his birth. George and Emily were regular churchgoers, at least in later years, so we assumed they’d have had their children baptized quickly. Was it a clue that there was something wrong with Stuart, and were they prompted to get it done when he was close to dying or being sent away? Now we know Jack was baptized with Stuart, which makes me wonder what the situation was for the other children, for whom we have no cards.
Here’s a list of the first seven of George and Emily Cartwright’s offspring:
Eldest boy, George, born 1905 in England. We don’t know when/if he was baptized, but presumably not in England, since the baptisms for that area/era (Bexley, Kent) are available online and his is not among them.
Emily Louise, George’s “Sissy,” born 1906, England, died August 18, 1907, buried the next day at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, London, ON. As with George, we have no baptismal info.
John Frank aka Jack, born October 1907, baptized in the parish of Church of the Redeemer, September 1914.
Edna May, born July 1911, died July 22, 1912, and buried two days later at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. We have no baptismal info.
William Charles, our grandfather Bill, born May 1909. We have no baptismal information for Bill.
Stuart Ingram, born January 1913, baptized in the parish of Church of the Redeemer, September 1914.
Earl Richard/Richardson Ingram, born January 1914. We have no baptismal information for Earl.
The new information, and the gap in age between Stuart and Jack, makes me suspect that several baptisms happened at once. If Jack and Stuart were baptized that day, surely Bill was as well, being between them in age. And since no baptismal record for their older brother, George, has turned up among similar records in Erith, perhaps he was also baptized that day, though by now he was nine years old. The daughters, of course, had died already, but the youngest of this group, Earl, may also have been included, since he was nine months old in September 1914. Come to think of it, if there ever had been baptism records for babies Emily and Edna, surely they would have ended up among Mary’s belongings as well, since Mary inherited the family papers etc., and the ill-fated girls never grew up to take their certificates off with them.
Of course, it isn’t unusual to find groups of siblings in baptism registers. In fact, when I went hunting for the English-born children George and Sissy in the register for Bexley, instead I found their mother Emily and her three younger sisters being baptized in June 1907, just before her departure for Canada, and after her husband had left to get settled there. Emily’s sisters were 16, 18 and 19, and she was 21 years old and already, according to family lore, estranged from her parents. So what prompted this group trip to the church? Why weren’t they baptized earlier? Were they something other than Church of England before this time, or were they simply not a religious family? Did the baptism provide Emily with a sense of security for her forthcoming trip across the ocean? If so, why didn’t she have her babies baptized at the same time? Whatever the reasons, the information is intriguing. George Cartwright — Emily’s husband and the father to the brood of 11 (if we count Stuart) — was baptized as a young child, as were his siblings.
One thing the new information tells us is to avoid assumptions. Speculation can be a great exercise, but it’s important to stay open to all the possibilities, because you never know where you might go wrong in closing a door. The other thing that comes to mind is that, if the siblings were baptized along with Stuart that September day at the beginning of WW1, they were gathered together, wherever the baptisms were performed. Bill was five, Jack was almost seven, and George was nine. So they were old enough to remember the occasion and the brother, too. Why did no one speak of him in years to come?
And what does it mean that the word “church” is crossed out on the cards? Were the children baptized at home? And if so, why? From what I can glean online, home baptisms in those days usually happened because a child was ill and not expected to survive, and couldn’t be brought to the church. If this was the case with Stuart, did the minister come to their home to baptize him, and perform the ritual for the other children as well, since he was already there? Or perhaps they had all come down with a some sort of illness, and only Stuart didn’t survive? It occurs to me that even if we do find out where Stuart was buried, we will still not know how he died, or why there is seemingly no birth or death registration.
It’s been a privilege and an incredible learning experience to research and write about our family’s lives in both the First and the Second World War. Our opa, Gerrit den Hartog, was a gardener-turned-soldier when the Netherlands was invaded in 1940; his story and that of his family is told in The Occupied Garden. Our great uncle, Joe Deverill, was a teenage sailor in the First World War, one of just ten to survive his ship’s sinking in 1917; his story, and that of the wider family, is told in The Cowkeeper’s Wish. My husband’s grandfather, Stanley Pringle, served in both wars. When my husband was little, and eager to hear war stories, he told him simply, “It’s an awful thing to have to kill another human being.”
Children’s graves, jotted notes, and an old nickname…
Curiously, the search for Stuart Ingram Cartwright, begun in Part 1, keeps leading us back to his sisters, Emily and Edna, who died young but unlike Stuart were always remembered by the Cartwright family.
In Part 2, I mentioned that we had birth and death records for Emily and Edna, but we didn’t know where they were buried. I thought if we could find their graves, we might also find a grave for Stuart, since all we have for that elusive child is a baptism certificate.
I wasn’t sure how to go about finding burial records, but I started at the Ontario Ancestors’ London Middlesex branch, where I found links to the Ontario Cemetery Index, the Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid, and The Ontario Name Index. None of these avenues turned up anything I didn’t already know, so I wrote to the London Public Library, and a helpful librarian looked through newspapers and cemetery listing for me, but nothing came up. Following the librarian’s suggestion, I wrote to the Diocese of Huron archives, and am awaiting their reply.
In the meantime, though, my recently deceased 100-year-old Auntie Mary has surprisingly revisited this story. As news of the Mystery Baby blog posts made its way to extended family members, another descendant of George and Emily wrote to say that several years ago she had helped clear out Do and Mary’s apartment so they could move into one better suited to their old age.
“There was one room that was FULL of furniture, magazines, etc.,” she wrote, “and we had to go through it and save anything valuable like family papers, photos.” Among the items, she found a wooden box of letters and telegrams and some handwritten notes, just jottings on scraps of paper, written at a much later date for the purposes of genealogy. One of these included a note about babies Emily and Edna May, and said simply:
Emily L. (Sissy) Born England. Died 14 mths. 1907
Edna May Born 1911. Died 1912.
Plot QB 583
I was surprised to see the nickname “Sissy,” which underscored what a loss her death must have been, not just to the parents, but to brother George, too, who’d crossed the ocean with his new little sister weeks earlier. I wondered, did the family attend these burials? Were there funerals for the girls too? My relative thought this might be the area in the cemetery where many children and babies were buried. Coincidentally, just the day before, I had been walking with my friend Anne, and telling her about Stuart. Back in the 1990s when she was in university, Anne had worked at a different Mount Pleasant Cemetery here in Toronto, and she remembered that there’d been a section for babies, and that it always got special attention from the groundskeepers.
After a bit of sleuthing, I discovered that the Children’s Garden, as it’s now known, has a heartbreaking back story that was detailed by Toronto Star writer Michele Landsberg in 1992. In the 1960s, the son of a woman named Mary Smith died at just five days old. He’d been born prematurely, and before that single tragedy, Mary had suffered five miscarriages in a row. The doctor advised the woman’s husband he didn’t think she could handle this new loss, and arranged for the child’s burial without her knowledge. Later, when she fretted the child hadn’t had a proper funeral, she was told his body had been put in a coffin with a woman who was being buried, to ensure he had a Christian burial, but that there was no way to know where the child lay. “The worst,” she told Landsberg, “was that I didn’t know where he was. I couldn’t go stand on the spot.” She grieved for this baby for years, and felt “perpetual anxiety” that something terrible would happen to her other children. She followed them to school to be sure they made it there okay, and she had nightmares that they’d been taken away from her.
Many years had passed when she told the story to some friends, who were shocked by the preposterous idea of the child being buried in a stranger’s coffin. Within days, they had clarified this detail was not true, and traced the baby’s grave to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, in an area reserved for stillborn babies and children with no known parents or otherwise difficult family situations, like poverty. The discovery made an enormous change in Mary’s life, and eventually, with the help of others, she began to plan a commemorative garden for the area, full of native plants like sweet woodruff, highbush cranberry, and serviceberry. These she planted with her own hands, a cathartic experience that enabled her to tell Landsberg, “I don’t cry anymore. The bitterness is gone.” The garden was planted with each season in mind, so that, “like children, it [would] always be growing and changing.” Surely today it remains a special place for families of children gone too soon.
Having discovered Michele Landsberg’s article about Mary Smith, I’m touched to realize this is the same garden my friend Anne tended in her university years. It was fairly new then, and she didn’t know its history, but she went on to become a midwife, and has an intricate understanding of the griefs and joys associated with childbirth — the sweep of emotions George and Emily Cartwright experienced with the arrivals and departures of babies Emily, Edna, and perhaps Stuart, though we still know so little about him. This side trip into Mary Smith’s story, prompted by my walk with Anne, takes us a long way from those century-old tragedies, but history is a winding road, and we will make our way back using a different route, hoping for more clues to the mystery.
I have written to Mount Pleasant, London, to see what more can be learned about the girls’ burials, and to see if their brother — presuming he existed! — is there too. I would also like to know why the girls’ names don’t turn up on a search of people interred there. Are they in a children’s section like the one the Smith baby went to, and if so, how many other children lie there? Are their graves marked in any way? What led Emily and George to choose this place? Or did they have a choice?
Mourning ribbons, picnics and a gap in the family tree…
After posting Part 1 of the recently discovered mystery baby’s story, a number of comments came in, both here on the website and also on social media. We’re very grateful when people share their thoughts, especially in a case like this, because it helps us see things we may not have noticed on our own. For instance, I included a picture at the end of the last post — just on a whim, really, because I thought it was a nice photo and it was of the era I was writing about. It shows our great grandparents, George and Emily, with their three eldest sons, George, Jack and Bill.
Someone wrote in to say that she noticed the family members were all wearing mourning ribbons, and wondered if the picture had been taken after baby Stuart’s death. Tracy and I were stunned to realize we hadn’t noticed the ribbons before. Or perhaps we had just assumed they had something to do with the McCormick Biscuit Company’s annual picnic, from which there are many family pictures over the years. If you’ve read The Cowkeeper’s Wish, you’ll know that we are lovers of detail, and that we’ve gone down many rabbit holes in search of even the tiniest fragment of rich content for our story. I guess sometimes it’s true: you can’t see for looking.
Needless to say, I’ve spent the last while looking up mourning ribbons!
Among the well-to-do, mourning attire could be quite elaborate through the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Following Queen Victoria’s lead during her decades of mourning for her beloved Prince Albert, widows draped themselves in black frills and flounces and ruffles. There were lacy mourning parasols, long delicate veils, fur-trimmed capes, and hats laden with velvet and feathers.
But there were subtler expressions of grief as well: brooches with braided hair inside; lockets that held an image of the lost loved one. Perhaps the simplest and most affordable form of mourning attire was a black ribbon pinned to the clothing, just as our Cartwrights are wearing. This post about mourning ribbons says they were also known as “love ribbons,” and were frequently worn by children and the less-well-to-do, who could not afford head-to-toe black garb for the family. But even these could be fancied up. A 1901 British columnist writing as “The Bohemian Girl” reported that “Some of the new mourning ribbons are exceedingly pretty–white edged with black, and black edged with silver, or white with black chenille spots.”
From all the descriptions I’ve read, it makes sense to me that the Cartwrights are wearing mourning ribbons in the Springbank Park photo. But who are they mourning? A little timeline will help put the players in context:
On December 31, 1904, George Cartwright and Emily Ingram married in England.
Their eldest son George was born in June 1905.
The next child was Emily, born about a year after her brother, in the summer of 1906.
On June 22, 1906, Emily was caught stealing from her uncle. Newspaper accounts say she was “approaching her confinement,” and took the money out of desperation. She appeared in court at the end of August, carrying “an infant a few months old,” so baby Emily must have been born very soon after the theft.
In March 1907, George sailed for Canada, and in July, Emily and the children followed. By this time, Emily was pregnant with the couple’s third child, John, who’d be known as Jack.
In August 1907, at 14 months old, baby Emily died of pneumonia in London. The family residence was on Pall Mall Street. The death registration doesn’t tell us where she was buried.
In October 1907, baby Jack was born at the home on Pall Mall Street.
In May 1909, a third son, Bill (our grandfather), was born. By now the family had moved to Horton Street.
On July 22, 1911, at 3:30 in the morning, Emily gave birth to Edna, who died on her birthday, at Horton Street, in 1912. Like her sister Emily, she had pneumonia.
On January 4, 1913, Stuart was born, according to the baptism certificate tucked away by Auntie Mary. Given the birthdate, Emily must have been pregnant with Stuart when Edna died, just as she’d been pregnant with Jack when her first daughter died. What is it like to lose a child while another one is growing inside you?
On January 4, 1914, exactly a year later, Emily gave birth to another son, Earl Richard Ingram Cartwright. And in September, Stuart was baptized.
There were more children to come, but I’ll stop there for now so we can return to the photo with the ribbons. My guess is that the youngest child, our grandfather Bill, is three or four years old in this picture. If he’s three, it’s the summer of 1912. And if they are indeed wearing mourning ribbons, they must be mourning baby Edna, who died on July 22. So if the photo was taken later that same summer, Emily would have been at least four months pregnant with Stuart. Emily’s father also died in March 1912, so I suppose it’s possible they were mourning him — but you’d think Edna would be in the picture if it was taken before she died. If Bill is four in the photo, it’s the summer of 1913, and Emily is pregnant with Earl. But there is nobody to mourn in this scenario, since Edna and Emily’s father are long gone and Stuart is born but yet to be baptized. I’ve tried to find out what month McCormick’s annual picnics happened, but so far I have not succeeded.
The other thing I’ve considered is the possibility of Earl and Stuart being the same person. They were both born on January 4th. They were both given the middle name Ingram. But why would George and Emily register Earl’s birth under the name Earl Richard Ingram Cartwright just days after he was born, and then baptize him as Stuart Ingram Cartwright months later, only to go on calling him Earl? So I’ve discounted that possibility, and chalked up the January 4 birthdates as coincidence, just like Edna coming and going from this world on July 22.
The fact that Ingram was given as a middle name to two sons, one after the other, is an intriguing detail. Emily had fallen out with her family, as I mentioned before, probably because she got pregnant before marrying George. The theft may have caused a further rift. No one knows for sure what the real story was, but the break may have added appeal to the move to Canada, and it appears it was never mended. Whatever caused it, it must have been painful for Emily. Perhaps the death of her father in 1912 spurred her to use Ingram as Stuart’s middle name in 1913. But why also use it for Earl in 1914? Stuart was obviously still alive at that point, because he wasn’t baptized for another nine months. And why was Earl given two middle names? (The birth record clearly says Earl Richardson Ingram Cartwright, though my understanding is that he was always known in the family as Earl Richard Ingram Cartwright.) The only other Cartwright child who had more than one middle name was the very last daughter, Do, and this was only because Emily (perhaps weary of the task!) let her kids choose the names. So why did the pattern break with Earl? Was there some reason that Stuart might not be able to carry the Ingram name forward, so it was given to Earl, too, just in case?
It might be crazy to speculate about all this, and perhaps many of the questions are unanswerable. Some, on the other hand, might be easier to unlock. For instance, when were the annual McCormick’s picnics held? Where were baby Emily and baby Edna buried? Is Stuart there too? When were the other Cartwright children baptized in relation to their births? Where have those certificates gone?
The biggest question, of course, is: What happened to baby Stuart?
Tracy and I spent years researching The Cowkeeper’s Wish, and while we never expected we’d filled in all the blanks of our family history, we thought we’d done a pretty thorough job, and any mysteries that lurked unsolved were far away in the tree, and not terribly integral to our story. And then our great aunt Mary died, at the impressive age of 100. The birth certificate for her baby brother Stuart sat in the drawer of her bedside table, as if she’d purposely placed it there so it wouldn’t be missed among the remnants of her long life. As far as we can tell, no one now living ever knew about Stuart’s existence.
We interviewed Mary and her sister Dorraine for our book several years ago when we first began our research. Unmarried sisters who’d lived together all their lives, they were a wonderful resource for us, and their recent deaths, one after another, marked the end of that generation of our family. As the last children to live at home with their parents, Do and Mary were keepers of the family archive, a treasure trove of photographs and old documents, and even the family furniture. To our delight, they recounted all sorts of stories about our grandfather (their brother Bill) and the wider family. Of special interest was anything they could tell us about their parents, Emily Ingram and George Cartwright, who’d come to Canada from England in the early 1900s and raised a large family in London, Ontario.
It was our understanding that there were 10 children in total. The eldest two, named Emily and George for their parents, had been born in England. Their father sailed for Canada in 1907, got himself somewhat settled, and then sent for his wife and kids. Baby Emily was nearly blown out of her mother’s arms while they were at sea one blustery day, and one can only imagine how tightly she was held for the rest of the voyage. And yet, the little girl died anyway, of bronchial pneumonia, not long after their arrival in Canada.
George found steady work at McCormick’s Biscuit Factory, and Emily proceeded to have more babies: two boys and then another ill-fated girl, who died on her first birthday. These daughters – Emily and Edna – were not a secret. Their many later siblings knew they had existed, and the girls were diligently placed in family trees created by subsequent generations.
Which makes it hard to explain Stuart. Why had no one heard of him? Mary, known for her phenomenal memory, obviously knew something about him, because she tucked his baptismal certificate into the drawer of her bedside table before she died. She’d been asked oodles of questions about family over the years, not just by us but by others interested in history and genealogy. But she never presented this intriguing piece of paper.
The document itself raises more questions. It says that Stuart Ingram Cartwright was baptized in September 1914, but gives a birth date of January 1913. George and Emily were regular church-goers, so it seems odd that they waited so long to have Stuart baptized. And it would seem the ceremony wasn’t performed in a church, since the word “church” is struck through and replaced by the word “parish.” The baby was baptized in the parish of Church of the Redeemer. Even more puzzling is the fact that no official birth or death records have surfaced. What became of Stuart? Was he sent away from the family? Or did he die young? Why did no one ever speak of him?
Even the most ordinary family has secrets, and a few had already been revealed about this particular branch: Emily had been pregnant before she married George, and had become estranged from her family; she’d been arrested for stealing from her uncle not long before leaving England for Canada; and her sister married that same uncle, even though nieces and uncles are not permitted to be husband and wife. Each of these discoveries was fascinating and surprising. Our mother, who knew her grandmother as a strict, somewhat intimidating, and morally rigorous lady, was shocked to imagine her as a thief. And while we couldn’t ask Emily for her own perspective of the story, we had newspaper accounts and wider family information that helped us put this new information into context. With Stuart, though, we’ve hit a brick wall — which only makes us more determined to find him.
❤ Many of you know that for the past several years I’ve been working on a book about WW1 patients and staff of a military hospital here in Toronto. The research is incredibly time-consuming but fascinating too, and I have had some wonderful encounters with the descendants of my “characters.” I wrote about one of the most moving exchanges for Geist magazine recently, and the article, titled “Solace,” is now viewable online.
Below, a photo of Bud Colquhoun and one of his father Stewart, sent to me from his friends in Northern Ontario.
“He had the impression of being in a strange country …”
Some of you will remember my recent series of posts about Hugh Russell, a WW1 soldier with shell shock, or what we now call PTSD. In my ongoing attempts to learn more about that affliction and the struggles veterans had reintegrating after the war, I’ve since been researching a man named John Armitage, who’d had a nervous breakdown of sorts after the first use of poison gas at Ypres. By 1916 he’d returned to Canada and was stationed at Aldershot Camp in Nova Scotia. The following year he married a woman named Emma at St. George’s Round Church in Halifax, the ceremony officiated by the minister Henry Ward Cunningham. Despite the union, John’s troubles continued. His pension record references “occasional emotional disturbances” in June of that year, and states that he “cries for hours about once in six weeks, following exceptionally hard work.” His complaints were like those of so many other men: nightmares, nervousness, insomnia. But though his story is a fascinating and tragic one, this post is not about him, and is a fine example of the twists and turns we encounter when we piece together the histories of ordinary people.
Although John was stationed at Aldershot during this period, and also in a sanatorium nearby for a time, his service record places Emma at a Halifax address. Judging by the dates scrawled on a form, it appears the couple was still in Nova Scotia in December 1917, when two ships collided in the Narrows, just north of Halifax Harbour. One of the ships had been loaded with munitions, and the collision caused a fire on board that soon saw the vessel engulfed in flames. Within 20 minutes, the ship exploded, spewing debris and toxic fumes over a wide area on both sides of the Narrows. The blast was so enormous that blocks of buildings were decimated, and windows shattered as much as 80 kilometres away. A tsunami washed the second ship ashore, and devastated a Mi’kmaw village situated along the Dartmouth waterfront, home to some 17 families. Rachel Cope, a child watching the scene from there, later recalled how the opposite shore had “seemed to shimmer like a reflection in a still pond and then everything went black.”
Nearly 2,000 people died, and 9,000 were wounded. For soldiers, it must have looked as though war had swept through the region as vehemently as at Passchendaele or the Somme, snapping trees and lamp posts and obliterating people’s homes. Almost immediately, soldiers were put to work gathering the dead and sorting through rubble for survivors. If John Armitage was among this band, it must have been gruelling work indeed, the kind that traumatized mentally healthy people let alone those who were already struggling. But everyone everywhere was helping — firefighters, police, railway workers, doctors, nurses, and ordinary civilians lucky enough to survive the blast. Afterwards, according to personal accounts collected for the Halifax Disaster Record Office, one officer recalled seeing “a trail of blood” as refugees streamed away from the hardest hit areas. As he directed soldiers in the work of removing bodies, he noticed in the distance “patches of white scattered all over” on Citadel Hill. The image puzzled him until someone explained that these were cloths laid over the faces of the dead.
Stories have a wonderful way of weaving into each other during this kind of research. So while looking for John Armitage, instead I discovered more and more about Reverend Cunningham, the man who’d married John and Emma at the Round Church months earlier. Born in Newfoundland, he was about 55 at the time of the Halifax Explosion, married, with several grown children and a son at war. Like the officer mentioned above, he shared his recollections of the terrifying event with the Halifax Disaster Record Office.
That morning, December 6, 1917, he had just finished his breakfast, and his wife was handing him a cup of coffee when a deep boom thundered, as if a bomb had burst on the church lawn. All at once, a “mighty rush of air” smashed the windows and blew in glass with the curtains, and he was thrown under the table, bleeding from a cut in his neck. He looked for his wife, who had run to the basement, and from outside he heard children at the local school screaming. For a couple of hours, until it was certain no further explosions would occur, he and his neighbours were crowded into the Halifax Common not far from the church, but as soon as he could, he went to check on parishioners. The devastation was everywhere. He saw homes reduced to nothing more than “a pile of bricks and a bath-tub,” bodies covered with burlap bags, fires blazing. One woman told him that when the vessels had first collided, she’d called to her children to “come out and see the beautiful sight of the burning ship,” and then was thrown 300 feet when the blast occurred, her clothing torn from her body.
I was curious to know more about this man who’d donned “old over-alls and old cap” and gone out looking for his parishioners that awful day. “There were fires along both sides of him on Union Street,” his interviewer wrote. “He had to pick his way over wires and debris. As he looked over the hill-side, he had the impression of being in a strange country – that he had never been there before. It was ‘terribly unfamiliar.’” To add to the monumental difficulties dealing with the explosion’s aftermath, a blizzard blew in the following day, stranding rescue teams coming from other places and cloaking the ruins in snow.
Reverend Cunningham’s work continued in the days and weeks after the explosion. “His house was deluged with hundreds of people,” and became a headquarters for food and clothing. The rectory had been built in 1841 and “stood the shock well,” and though the church had been damaged, it would recover. Soon after the blast, men of the parish set to putting things right again. He felt frustrated, though, by the relief committee’s efforts, and believed the distribution of goods should have been “more equitable.”
For the minister himself, faith — and perhaps experience — must have played a role in his own personal recovery, for he had seen disaster before. In April 1912, when the Titanic had sunk on its first voyage across the Atlantic, Cunningham had traveled out to the scene with an undertaker and an embalmer on board the Minia. More than 300 bodies had already been pulled from the sea by the first ship called on, and the Minia was brought in to assist in the grim, overwhelming mission.
As with the Halifax Explosion, bad weather interfered. At one point, the ship’s captain, William de Carteret, reported:
Returned to position last night during east gale and fog, and searched all day; found no bodies; omitted giving you following:
Joseph Finney, second class, rubber merchant, Brown Building, Liverpool.
Thomas Mullin, Badge 32, steward.
Have searched from latitude 49.25 eastward to 48 and north from 41.20 to 41.50. No doubt some single bodies remain; no groups. As they cannot be seen more than half a mile, you will understand how difficult it is to search every square mile for them. Regret must leave Friday night, but will make another search tomorrow. Passed one body during dense fog; unable to find it afterward.
A more intimate letter was written by Francis Dyke, an electrician on board, who confided to his mother back in England, “I honestly hope I will never have to come on another expedition like this as it is far from pleasant. The Dr. and I are sleeping in the middle of 14 coffins (for the time being) they are all stacked around our quarters aft. … When we passed over the spot where the Titanic sank [Reverend Cunningham] held a short service in the saloon which I thought was very nice of him. I expected to see the poor creatures very disfigured but they all looked calm as if they were asleep.”
In picturing the crew out searching, I’m reminded that this story connects to our own family history. Somewhere in the water, never recovered, were the bodies of Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter and his wife Lilian, who ran the church our grandmother’s family attended in Whitechapel. Two years earlier, our grandmother Doris Lilian had been named after Mrs. Carter, and baptized in the church.
After a week on board, the Minia’s crew had recovered only 17 bodies. They returned to Halifax Harbour, giving over the empty coffins to yet another rescue ship. The individual notes taken for each person found — clues to their identities — make for heartbreaking reading: Large prominent nose, silver cufflinks marked “E. K.” … Light brown hair, light eyebrows. … Short fingernails. (Looks as if he has been in the habit of biting them.) Letters, coins, buttons, handkerchiefs, keys, cigar cases, pocket watches — all were inspected and catalogued in the hope of identifying the dead.
Henry Ward Cunningham lived out the rest of his life in Halifax. One wonders what he thought when he recalled these two events, such enormous moments in history. A third event — more obscure but somehow a match for the others — occurred decades earlier, when he was just 18 and studying in England. The Frome Times reported:
Monday morning in last week, as a number of the S. Boniface College students were skating on Sheerwater, a sudden cry of alarm from one of their number, announced the startling fact that a portion of the ice had given way, and that a student named Mr. Laughlin had fallen into the water and disappeared beneath the ice. One of his fellow students, Mr. Cunningham, being an expert skater, soon arrived at the spot, and after trying in vain to reach him from the top of the ice, immediately dived into the water, but being unable to see him the first time, he was obliged to swim to the shore through the ice, which happened just there to be very thin, and then for the second time, without giving himself time to divest himself of any garment, he again pluckily went the rescue, plunging into the water and under the ice after his drowning fellow student. We are glad to be able to say that after some difficulty and severe bodily exertion on his part, he brought the fast drowning student to shore, who by this time had lost consciousness. The usual restoratives were applied by Mr. Wilcox, and we are glad to be able to say that neither the rescuer nor the rescued are now any the worse. We have no hesitation in saying that had it not been for the great bravery displayed by Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Laughlin would most certainly have been drowned.
Soon after, Cunningham was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s silver medallion, and that old memory may have come to mind years later when he was presented with a deck chair recovered from the Titanic. A haunting gift, I would think, for who had sat in that chair and what had become of them? Twenty-five of Cunningham’s parishioners died in the Halifax Explosion, but he remained at the church for many years. He and his wife both died in 1943, and were buried in St. John’s Cemetery, where many of the explosion victims were also interred.
Here in Toronto, we’ve gone into lockdown again, and may or may not emerge before Christmas. The news of so many small businesses being hit hard is worrisome, to say the least. But it’s a necessary thing that we stay home to slow the spread of this awful virus.
If you’re thinking of giving books for Christmas, many small independent bookstores have done an amazing job getting set up for online sales or curbside pick-up. We hope you’ll support them, and think of our books too, for those lovers of history and family history who might be on your list.
In keeping the snowfall we received yesterday, here is a little gallery of wintry family photos featuring “characters” from our first book, The Occupied Garden. These images show our dad’s family in 1951, the year they first came to Canada from the Netherlands to start again after the Second World War. To me they capture the excitement the children felt about their new world — well, the boys, anyway — and how different it all was for them compared to where they’d come from. I wish the pictures were in colour, for Opa looks particularly stylish, and Oma’s “swing coat” was apparently bright green, sewn by a family friend. I think now how brave they were to have left everything they knew, and all of their family and friends. Their first stay with a cruel dairy farmer near Aylmer, Ontario, was disastrous, but they got themselves out of that horrible situation and persevered — something they’d become quite good at during war, and for which my sisters and I will always be grateful.