❤ 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.
“We all sympathize with you in your great affliction…”
In Part 1 of Hugh Russell’s story (see also Part 2), I recounted Hugh’s early years and his arrival in Canada with the Barnardo’s organization in 1906. I mentioned, too, that his sister Ethel followed with the same organization in 1908, and that his brother, Robert, came in 1912. What prompted parents Thomas and Sarah Russell, the coppersmith and weaver from Belfast, to send their young children away? I haven’t quite got to the bottom of this, but I have been able to find out a little more about Ethel and Robert.
In March 1908, when 10-year-old Ethel Baker Russell arrived on board the Dominion, the Montreal Gazette reported that of the ship’s 1,000 passengers, 250 of them were Barnardo’s children, and that “It is expected that fully 1,200 children will be brought to Canada during the coming season. The demand for these children far exceeds the supply.”
On the 1911 census, Ethel appears as a domestic helper in Mono Mills, Ontario, near Orangeville, with the farmer George Crozier and his family. It’s most certainly her, because the same address is given in 1916 on Hugh’s service record, stipulating that some of his pay go to “E. Russell.” And then in 1917, when he is visiting the Wrays while still receiving care at Cobourg, a tiny notice in a newspaper says that “Ethel Russell of Orangeville is visiting her brother, Pte. Hugh Russell, at Mr. Jas. Wray’s 6th conc.” So Ethel and Hugh were in touch, at least in those years. In 1921, a woman of more or less the right age and particulars appears, boarding at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in St. Catharine’s. But after that, I lose track of possibilities.
Brother Robert and the children’s parents, Sarah and Thomas, are even more elusive. In 1911, a boy of the right name and age appears in the care of a widow named Eliza James, living in Bedfordshire. This seemed a stretch at first, but I noticed that another boy was also living there as a boarder — nine-year-old Thomas Biddulph — and that both Thomas and Robert appear on a 1912 Barnardo’s passenger list to Canada. Furthermore, the 1901 census reveals that Eliza’s household included a five- and six-year-old boy whose birthplaces were unknown and who were “from Barnardo’s home.” So it makes sense that ten years later she would have two more such boarders.
Transcriptions of Barnardo’s Ups & Downs magazine show that Robert was employed by John Mitchell in Bolton, Ontario, but after that, just as with Ethel, I lose track of him, and so far there is no way of knowing whether Robert was ever reunited with his siblings. He was the youngest of the three — just seven when Hugh left — and may have had few memories of his older brother. Come to think of it, the family may well have been separated before Hugh emigrated. The last evidence of them living together is in 1901 in Birkenhead, when the census was taken.
Now, back to Hugh’s story.
On his first visit back to the Wray farm in 1917 when he was still a shell-shock patient at Cobourg, neighbours and friends held a party “to do honour to Private Hugh Russell.” He was presented with a watch, chain and locket, and one of the guests read out an address that was published in the local paper:
We, your neighbours and friends … bid you a cordial welcome back to the land of your adoption. We are proud of every loyal son but our hearts go out more particularly to you [whom] we have known and respected, and would therefore ask you to accept this watch and chain as a slight token of our esteem for you. While we are overjoyed to have you with us again, we all sympathize with you in your great affliction, but trust that An-all-wise-Providence will see fit to restore your speech to you. Although for lack of forethought we did not acknowledge your bravery when you enlisted alone and went to London to train yet we followed you with our prayers and best wishes and our fervent prayer now is that you may long be spared to enjoy the comforts of life . …
Not surprisingly, Hugh returned to the Wingham area. All evidence suggests he had a warm and supportive community there, and a great bond with Graham Wray, the only son of the couple who’d taken Hugh in back in 1906. Wray family stories and newspaper accounts say that Hugh carried a pencil and paper with him so that he could communicate with people. But soon there came a time when he didn’t need it any longer.
In September 1918, the Wingham Advance reported:
Hugh Russell, an Irish home boy, who has for several years worked with farmers in Turnberry and who has been unable to utter a word for the past two years, has regained his speech. On the 14th of September, 1916, Pte. Russell was shell shocked and for several days lay unconscious. When he finally came to, his speech was gone. He was for a time in English Hospitals but returned to Canada on June 30th, 1917. He spent the winter in Wingham and has for some time been employed with Mr. R. J. Breen, Turnberry. He was taking his horse to Toronto exhibition when she scared while in the car and Hugh very excitedly shouted “Whoa” much to his own delight and astonishment. Mr. Edgar Higgins saw him in Toronto and spoke to him when much to his surprise he answered by voice instead of by pencil.”
It’s interesting how often Hugh’s connection with horses weaves into his story. A family anecdote says that Hugh took a job looking after wild horses that were brought to Ontario from the west by train. The horses were loaded into train cars, shipped a certain distance, and then side-lined for a period of time to rest, since they were standing all the while. It was Hugh’s job to feed, water and walk the horses, and prepare them for the next part of a long and no doubt frightening trip. Hugh was out west doing this work when James Wray died in 1931. The family story goes that the Wrays were unable to reach him, and when he returned home, he learned the sad news, and that he’d missed the funeral.
This job of Hugh’s sent me down another rabbit hole as I tried to imagine him tending wild horses, and also why the horses were brought from the west and what became of them. A 1925 article in the Quesnel Cariboo Observer described them as beautiful creatures roaming “vast rangy land,” through sage and cactus hills, open, grassy plateaus, and rugged mountains. “Every conceivable colour is represented in their shining coats in summer, from the beautiful jet-blacks to the white-eyed, mouse-colored pintos.” Despite a hard life in the wild, facing starvation, cold winters, inbreeding, and men with guns, the wild-horse population had increased to such an extent that ranchers considered them pests, and a bounty system was introduced in British Columbia in 1924. According to Horse-Canada Magazine, some 10,000 horses were killed by bounty hunters in B.C. between the 1920s and 1940s.
The Quesnel Cariboo article describes the job of chasing wild horses as “dangerous, spectacular, thrilling,” and also “the poorest paid hard work on earth. … There have been for many years a number of white men who do practically nothing else the year round but chase wild horses. It is not very remunerative, but the love of the chase holds them. Next to ice hockey it is the most thrilling sport and hardest work that I know of; it seems to grip and hold one, and the love of it grows on a person worse than the drink habit.” One wonders what Hugh made of these horses as he cared them for them post-capture.
In 1937, 20 years after his shell shock diagnosis, he was living at another farm when he went missing one Sunday in July. He was described in the press as 42 years old, very thin, with jet black hair, horn-rimmed spectacles and a swarthy complexion. He’d acted strangely at dinner, said the farmer he worked for, and after finishing his meal, had walked in the direction of the nearby swamp. The farmer thought he was suffering from a bout of melancholia, but called the police when he didn’t turn up the next day, fearing Hugh was experiencing memory loss and “a recurrence of shell shock.”
The day after that, the Windsor Star reported that police had found evidence that “Former Barnardo Home Boy Had Bedded Down in Bog.” So as in his soldier days, he had slept outside, under the stars. Before long, he turned up at the Wray home. What happened after that only raises more questions, for when Mrs. Wray saw him, she called police, and he immediately disappeared again. When police finally caught up with him a day later, he claimed he wasn’t Hugh Russell, then “broke for a nearby bush and disappeared. The bush consists of more than 1,000 acres and will, it is believed, afford him a haven until he re-appears of his own accord.” I could find no more articles about the incident after that, and curiously none of the articles I found about the disappearance were published in the Wingham Advance, which had so often mentioned Hugh in earlier years.
One more puzzling detail comes from family members: apparently when people went out looking for Hugh during this time, a woman told them that someone had approached her with a pad and pencil, asking for directions to the Wray farm. So had Hugh lost his voice again? Or has the story become muddled over time? As Tracy and I often found when writing The Cowkeeper’s Wish, the more answers you have, the more questions you have.
What was Hugh running from? Was there some strange behaviour that prompted Mrs. Wray to call the police? Had he suffered from melancholia, memory loss and “recurrence of shell shock” at other times through the postwar years? What, if anything, brought relief? Wray family members recall that Graham — “a real gentleman” — always stayed in touch with “Hughie,” and thought of him as an older brother. When Graham’s three girls were young in the 1940s, he’d bring them to visit Hugh in London, Ontario, where he’d moved sometime after his mysterious disappearance. London street directories place him at various addresses from the early 1940s until 1970, living alone in a rented room. Early on he worked in a hosiery factory, then as a watchman, and eventually at the veterans’ hospital. Why did this horse-loving farm hand move to the city? I can’t help thinking that his 1937 disappearance holds the key — that perhaps he entered the veterans’ hospital for care, and afterwards stayed in the city. But I may well be wrong.
Though he died in London, he was brought back to Wingham for burial in the Wingham Cemetery, where Graham Wray and his parents lie. The London Free Press ran a spare obituary that makes no mention of his sister or brother, but holds one poignant detail: Survived by a close friend, Graham Wray.
Last time, I told you about the early years of Hugh Willis Russell, who came to Canada at age 11 with the Barnardo’s organization, and landed in Wingham, Ontario, only to cross the ocean again in 1915 as a soldier. In January 1916, in a letter to young Graham Wray, the son of the farmer Hugh worked for, Hugh claimed war was “a great life,” and that soon he’d be able to “kill a lot of Germans.” But his enthusiasm for war quickly diminished.
It’s interesting to note that when Hugh first enlisted, he was described as having no distinguishing marks or tattoos, but at some point overseas, he had a horse’s head and a horseshoe tattooed on his forearm. His love of horses is evident in his letters home to Graham, some of which were published in the Wingham Advance. In February 1916, from “Somewhere in Belgium,” he writes:
I am longing for a pair of horses to drive. I think I will see my CO and ask him if I can transfer into some unit where I can get a horse to look after. I always had a great fancy for Judy, and I used to take a great interest in her, and paid the best attention to her care and comfort. You never knew how sorry I was the day your father took her out of the gate for the last time. If I ever see her again I will be tempted to buy her. I think she would know me. … Well, I had better quit, or else I will be thinking there is no war on, and I am back in Canada trading horses.
From your old friend, Hugh
PS — Here is a song we sing in the trenches: Sing me to sleep where the bullets fall; let me forget the war and all. Damp is my dug-out, cold are my feet, waiting for someone to sing me to sleep.
For a horse-lover especially, it must have been dismaying to see up close what war did to these animals. Millions of horses were requisitioned for war work. They were lifted by cranes onto ships that carried them across the ocean. Sometimes they didn’t survive that terrifying journey. Those that made it were used in cavalry charges, or to transport messengers, supplies or equipment, or pull heavy artillery and loads of wounded. Large and vulnerable, truly beasts of burden, they perished in mind-boggling numbers – some sources say eight million died in battle, at sea, or of illness, disease, exhaustion, or poison gas. One soldier wrote that horses, too, suffered trauma, and would sometimes “shiver, tremble all over, and break out in a sweat” when the shelling started. Seeing horses injured was “worse than seeing men cut up. The men have an idea what it is all about but the horses have to take it as it comes and say nothing.”
In March, Hugh wrote to Graham:
Well that was quite an accident you had while you were on your way to bid farewell to your old neighbours, I am glad to hear you both got off safely. It was certainly a good thing that you didn’t have [the horse] Pete, or I am afraid it would have been the worst for you. It seems a person is in danger wherever he is. You make me homesick when you speak of dealing horses and cattle and of someone getting married. I often dream I am back there working at one thing or other, and it all seems real, and I forget there ever was a war until a big gun firing or mine blowing up awakens me, and I remember I am still here in Flanders and the enemy is still there. … Well I guess this is all I can say this time, hoping to see you all soon. I will say good-bye.
Your loving friend, Hugh
In August, another letter arrived, saying “we have been up against it pretty hard this last three months,” but “I am getting used to these Belgian horrors now.” Even the time out of the trenches was gruelling, he told Graham, “for they keep drilling us all the time.” But he got great joy out of a horse show put on for the men a few days before writing. “Just think,” he wrote with wonder, “a real horse show within range of the German guns,” and went on to describe the events and the prizes in detail. There was “a Charlie Chaplin” in the ring too — presumably someone impersonating the popular star, and who brought some much-needed comic relief. He closed the letter with his regular refrain, “so hoping to see you all some day soon,” and included a drawing from the trenches, which unfortunately was not reproduced for readers of the Wingham Advance.
Together the letters from Hugh to Graham form a picture of a bright, thoughtful, articulate young man who’d developed close attachments not just to the family who’d taken him in, but to his wider community of Turnberry and Wingham in Huron County. So it’s no surprise that in September, during the Battle of the Somme, the paper reported “Turnberry Boy Falls,” as though Hugh was one of their own.
Word was received here that Pte. Hugh W. Russell 54180 had been admitted to 2nd Western General Hospital, Bristol, England, suffering from severe shell shock. Hugh had made his home for some time with Mr. and Mrs. Jas. Wray, 6th con. of Turnberry and no parents could be kinder or think more of him. He went to London from Wingham on Feb. 1st, 1915, and enlisted with the 18th Batt. … At the time he was wounded he had served over a year in the trenches. … Hugh was well liked by a wide circle of friends who hope he may recover and come back to old Huron again.
Hugh’s case was indeed severe. His record shows that he was unconscious for three days, and when he woke, he couldn’t speak or walk. He was invalided to England, where the doctors had a low opinion of his overall intelligence, which seems at odds with his letters and must have been due to his trauma. He received various forms of treatment to help him regain his speech, but the words didn’t come.
According to the British psychiatrist Frederick Mott, the treatment for mutism from shell shock was often quick and simple. “The patient, after a careful and thorough examination, is assured that he will be cured of his disability. … he is asked to produce sounds, to cough, to whistle, to say the vowel sounds, which he will probably not be able to do. The voice may return by suggestion only. But a more rapid method is to reinforce suggestion by the application of the faradic current to the neck by means of a roller electrode or brush. The current is increased in strength and very often the patient immediately recovers his voice and speaks.”
Early notes from Hugh’s time at a hospital in Bristol suggest that these methods were attempted, and eventually he could walk again, and whistle “a trifle,” and place his lips into the shapes necessary to form sounds. But though he understood all that was said to him, he shook his head when asked to speak. “Lies half asleep most of the time – is not anxious to communicate with anyone.” He had ferocious headaches and insomnia, and then nightmares when he did manage to sleep. Notes in his file show that treatment included anaesthesia, hypnotism, and electric shock therapy, but that there was “no effect except to terrify him.”
Theories varied as to what was at the root of these men’s troubles, and changed over time. Were their symptoms a result of a physical shock to the system brought on by heavy bombardment – a “sudden jarring of the mental machinery,” as the nurse Dora Vine put it? Or were these men of cowardly, weak stock to begin with, and so made poor soldiers? Or were they suffering mental trauma from prolonged exposure to stressful conditions? Approaches to curing them ranged from gentle and nurturing to shockingly harsh, and doctors often disagreed with each other about what patients needed. Canadian psychiatrist Lewis Yealland, working in England during the war, described electricity as “the great sheet anchor” in cases of mutism, and claimed a 100-percent success rate. In his 1918 book Hysterical Disorders of Warfare, he laid out the case of a 24-year-old patient who’d been mute for nine months.
Many attempts had been made to cure him. He had been strapped down in a chair for twenty minutes at a time, then strong electricity was applied to his neck and throat; lighted cigarette ends had been applied to the tip of his tongue and ‘hot plates’ had been placed at the back of his mouth. Hypnotism had been tried. But all these methods proved to be unsuccessful in restoring his voice. When I asked him if he wished to be cured he smiled indifferently. I said to him: ‘… You appear to me to be very indifferent, but that will not do in times such as these.’ … In the evening he was taken to the electrical room, the blinds drawn, the lights turned out, and the doors leading into the room were locked and the keys removed. The only light perceptible was that from the resistance bulbs of the battery. Placing the pad electrode on the lumbar spines and attaching the long pharyngeal electrode, I said to him, ‘You will not leave this room until you are talking as well as you ever did; no, not before.’ The mouth was kept open by means of a tongue depressor; a strong faradic current was applied to the posterior wall of the pharynx, and with this stimulus he jumped backwards, detaching the wires from the battery. ‘Remember, you must behave as becomes the hero I expect you to be,’ I said. ‘A man who has gone through so many battles should have better control of himself.’ Then I placed him in a position from which he could not release himself and repeated, ‘You must talk before you leave me.’ A weaker faradic current was then applied more or less continuously, during which time I kept repeating, ‘Nod to me when you are ready to attempt to speak.’ This current was persevered with for one hour with as few intervals as were necessary, and at the end of that time he could whisper ‘ah.’ With this return of speech I said: ‘Do you realise that there is already an improvement? … You will believe me when I tell you that you will be talking before long.’ I continued with the use of electricity for half an hour longer, and during that time I constantly persuaded him to say ‘ah, bah, cah,’ but ‘ah’ was only repeated. It was difficult for me to keep his attention, as he was becoming tired; and unless I was constantly commanding him his head would nod and his eyes close. To overcome this I ordered him to walk up and down the room, and as I walked with him urged him to repeat the vowel sounds. At one time when he became sulky and discouraged he made an attempt to leave the room, but his hopes were frustrated by my saying to him, ‘Such an idea as leaving me now is most ridiculous; you cannot leave the room, the doors are locked and the keys are in my pocket. You will leave when you are cured, remember, not before.’
As the treatment went on, the patient wept and finally whispered for water, which was denied until a louder sound could be made, brought about by the use of a stronger current. “I don’t want to hurt you,” Yealland’s recounting goes, “but, if necessary, I must.” After four hours’ continuous treatment, the man was deemed cured.
It’s impossible to know the specifics of Hugh Russell’s treatment now, and one can only hope he endured nothing as horrible as the case above. By the time he was moved to another hospital in February 1917, he was still not speaking, but gradually he began to improve in other ways. He slept and ate well, and began “regaining confidence,” though he still had headaches and nightmares. “Is now employed about the stables,” a doctor wrote in April. “General condition is good. His general nervousness and fear of MO’s is disappearing.” As an aside, presumably to explain the fear of medical officers, the doctor added, “(He was frightened of former methods to) …” but the sentence is unfinished, and the following page, if there was one, is missing from Hugh’s file. “Has been to several horse races,” the doctor wrote a month later. “Did not speak even under excitement.”
Whatever happened to Hugh with the aim of curing him, he wanted no more of it. When he arrived back in Canada in the summer of 1917 and entered the mental hospital in Cobourg – an asylum taken over for military purposes – his picture appeared in the Wingham Advance, surely submitted by the Wrays. “As soon as was possible,” the paper reported, “he received a week’s leave in order to visit with Mr. and Mrs. Jas. Wray …, with whom he made his home before enlisting. They have been all to him that parents could be to any boy.” He stayed at Cobourg until December, silent all the while. “At present his only trouble is complete loss of voice,” the doctor there wrote, “and he refuses any treatment for this, says he was tortured enough in England by treatment. … This man is anxious for his discharge. … He should pass under his own control.”
And so Hugh was discharged from the army and left to pick up the pieces of his life. In the next post, I’ll try to put together what happened to him in the ensuing years, leading up the 1930s when he disappeared from the farm he was working on. I’ll also touch a little more on his brother and sister, Barnardo’s kids too, and whether the siblings stayed in touch with one another over the years.
Tuesday, November 24, 2020: Via Zoom, Kristen will be delivering the presentation Digging Up Stories for the Wellington County Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. Start time 7 p.m. From the branch’s website:
“Join us as Kristen den Hartog explores the fascinating resources she and her sister/co-author Tracy Kasaboski used to create The Cowkeeper’s Wish: A Genealogical Journey. The book begins in the slums of Victorian London and follows the authors’ family for nearly a century, ending in London, Ontario, in the 1930s. Kristen will give specific examples of where they found ancestors ‘wandering insane,’ charged with crimes, dying in workhouses, and fighting in the First World War. She’ll also discuss the family archive, and talk about how personal resources were useful for building both The Cowkeeper’s Wish and the sisters’ first collaboration, The Occupied Garden, which chronicles the lives of their father’s family in the Netherlands in WW2.”
The meeting is open to the public but guests will need to register ahead of time. Please see the link above for more details.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m currently working on a new book about WW1 soldiers and medical staff returning to Canada after the war. The book is non-fiction, though not family-related this time, however the research chops Tracy and I acquired writing The Cowkeeper’s Wish have come in extremely handy for this new project. Sometimes the stories are so fascinating I go down rabbit holes and disappear for great lengths of time.
So it went when I came across an article about a man named Hugh Russell. I was on a mission to find out more about shell shock — what we would now call PTSD — and how men grappled with it for years after the war was over. In a newspaper archive, I found a 1937 article about a veteran having gone missing from the farm he was working on near Wingham, Ontario. The Windsor Star reported:
Fear that Hugh Russell, 42-year-old farmhand and returned soldier, is lost in a treacherous swamp in what is known here as the Alps, is being entertained here today. Russell was said to have been acting strangely when he disappeared from the home of his employer, Nelson Pickells, Sunday night, and when he did not return to his work yesterday morning, a search of the swamp in the vicinity of the Pickells farm showed he had slept in the swamp overnight. It is feared he may be suffering a recurrence of shell shock. The farm is on the Alps in the Township of Culross, in a district where there is particularly treacherous land with many morasses and bog holes. Russell, a former Barnardo Home boy, and said to have suffered shell shock during the war, came to work for Nelson Pickells last Christmas. He ate his dinner on Sunday night but, it is reported, acted in a strange manner and without any comment left after the meal for the swamp. The Pickells believed he was suffering melancholia, and did not worry until he failed to return. He is about five feet six inches tall, has jet black hair, a swarthy complexion, and is very thin. When he disappeared he was wearing a white helmet, dark overalls, a dark blue shirt and horn-rimmed spectacles.
The article made me curious to know more about Hugh Russell — his childhood as a “Barnardo boy,” his war experience, what treatment he might have had for shell shock, and how he’d reintegrated into society after the war. Of course I also wanted to know if he made it out of the swamp! So I started digging, and was quite amazed by the amount and the variety of material I found, sometimes with the help of strangers with a shared curiosity, sometimes from creative and persistent searching. Each piece fitted into another piece and added context to what was already there. I could write a whole series of posts explaining how these pieces emerged in a non-linear way, and how the genealogical sleuthing unfolded. But Hugh’s story is so touching that I think I’ll just tell it as I know it now, in chronological order.
Though his service record says he was born in March of 1895, Hugh Willis (elsewhere William) Russell was actually born on September 27, 1894, in Belfast, so perhaps he didn’t know his birthday. He was the eldest child of Thomas John Russell, a coppersmith, and Sarah Neeson, a weaver, who’d been married a year earlier. A few years later, they had a daughter, Ethel Baker Russell. The family lived at various addresses in Belfast in the 1890s, but by 1899, they’d moved to Birkenhead, Cheshire, a seaport town that looks across the River Mersey to Liverpool. There, a son named Robert George was born. The baptism record shows that Thomas was still a copper/tinsmith, as does the 1901 census record, which puts the family on Back St. Anne Street.
I’m still not certain what happened to Thomas and Sarah (though I have plenty of hunches!), but by 1906, Hugh was on his way to Canada in the care of Barnardo’s. Thomas John Barnardo was the founder and director of homes that took in poor children, beginning in the 1860s. For a glimpse of his philosophy, see his own book, Something Attempted, Something Done!
For those unfamiliar with the home child scheme in general, Library and Archives Canada puts it this way:
Between 1869 and the late 1930s, over 100,000 juvenile migrants were sent to Canada from the British Isles during the child emigration movement. Motivated by social and economic forces, churches and philanthropic organizations sent orphaned, abandoned and pauper children to Canada. Many believed that these children would have a better chance for a healthy, moral life in rural Canada, where families welcomed them as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help.
After arriving by ship, the children were sent to distributing and receiving homes, such as Fairknowe in Brockville, and then sent on to farmers in the area. Although many of the children were poorly treated and abused, others experienced a better life and job opportunities here than if they had remained in the urban slums of England. Many served with the Canadian and British Forces during both World Wars.
In the LAC’s Home Children database, I found Hugh, age 11, arriving on board the Dominion with 240 other children heading to uncertain futures in a foreign land. Many home children had horrible experiences. Even those who weren’t mistreated must have been devastated to leave their families at such a young age. As I mentioned in another post about a home child, many of these young men were among the first to enlist in WW1, in the hopes that they could get back to England to see their families again. (In 1908, Hugh’s sister Ethel arrived and was placed with a family in Orangeville; and in 1912, Robert came too, and went to Bolton. Like their brother, they’d come with the Barnardo’s organization. Why, and whether there were other children, I’m still not sure.)
Hugh was placed in Wingham, Ontario, with farmer James Wray and his wife, Martha, who had a little boy named Graham. James Wray kept horses, and it seems that Hugh developed a great love for them over the years. In various places, his service record labels him a horse trainer, trader and jockey. When he enlisted with the 18th Battalion in London in February 1915, he was still living with the Wrays. Graham would have been about 12 by then, and would not have remembered a time when Hugh wasn’t part of the household. Hugh’s service record describes him as 5’3″, fair-skinned, with blue eyes and dark brown hair. He had no distinctive marks or tattoos, and described his trade as “farmer.”
By April of 1915 he was on board the SS Grampian, heading back across the ocean, nine years after his arrival with Barnardo’s. He would have heard news, around this time, of the Battle of Ypres, and the Germans’ first use of poison gas to attack the enemy. Soon, gas masks were part of a soldier’s essential equipment, and a horse’s too.
A little of what Hugh experienced on the Western Front comes through in his letters home to Graham, which were occasionally published in the Wingham Advance. On January 2, 1916, from “Somewhere in Belgium,” he wrote:
Dear Graham … Well, it is still raining and the mud is getting deeper, I would much rather have the snow. It is certainly miserable with your feet wet all the time and we are all the time scraping off mud. But there is a good time coming and so we are trying to be cheerful until it comes. I don’t believe we will have another winter out here, I think there will be something doing in the spring. You see we can’t do much as there is so much mud and water. I am in the machine gun section now so I will likely have a chance to kill lots of Germans.
I suppose you had as merry a Christmas as ever, we were in the trenches that day, there was no firing and everything was quiet. We invited the Germans over to dinner, some of them started out but got scared before they got far and beat it back. We can [call out] to them and hear them answer but we can’t understand them. I think they are Prussians in front of us. They pump the water out of their trenches and it runs down into ours, so we have to keep pumping all the time. We have a bit time with the rats in this country they seem to be here in millions. They are all sizes and colours, sometimes when they jump up on the parapet they startle us for they look like a man coming over. They are very tame and we have to kick them out of the way, they often eat our rations and keep scratching and running about when we are trying to get to sleep and I guess they bother the Germans just the same.
This is a great life. After this I will be able to live back in the bush in a hole in the ground, I’ll hardly feel comfortable in a feather bed. I just get my clothes off every eighteen days that is to get a bath. Still we don’t mind it much and we have many a good laugh, you would think if you heard us sometimes that there was no war on at all. I don’t believe I could stay away from the boys very long now, we are so attached to each other although the old battalion is gradually changing into a different lot of faces. The half of them seem to be strangers to me now.
Well I guess when this is all this time. When you write again send my letter to machine gun section instead of B company. Hoping this year will see us all together again, I remain your old friend.
The tone of Hugh’s letters changed as the months went on, and by September 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, Hugh was in no condition to write. But I’ll save that part of the story for next time, exploring Hugh’s war experience in more detail, as well as his love for horses, and his treatment in England for shell shock.
With thanks to the London & Middlesex Branch of Ontario Ancestors’ facebook group, and in particular the tenacity of Cookie Foster. Appreciation also for the Huron County Museum’s wonderful collection of digitized newspapers, and Eric Edwards’ tireless 18th Battalion research. And with special thanks to Wray family descendants.
Last year at this time, I posted about James Morley’s wonderful mapping project, A Street Near You, and how I used the map to find out about men with connections to my own street, Perth Avenue in Toronto, who’d died in the First World War. Remembrance Day has rolled around again, but what a different world we find ourselves in. COVID-19 means that my house is busy during the day, whereas before I had it gloriously to myself to work away on my writing. But it also means that my friends work from home, and I’ve developed a nice routine with one of them, walking most lunchtimes.
My friend and I thought we might extend our walk for Remembrance Day, and visit Prospect Cemetery, but because of COVID, the cemetery has asked that the public stay away, so instead we’ve turned to A Street Near You, and will walk by a few of these addresses to acknowledge the people who once lived there.
A little icon on the map tells me that Stanley Arthur Price lived at 346 Wallace Avenue, between Perth Avenue and the West Toronto Railpath, and died on November 10, 1917. A quick google of his name shows that the map should actually hold two icons at that same address: Stanley’s brother, Jack, was killed in action in May of the same year.
When Jack died, the Toronto Star ran a picture of him, and an article that said, “He was 27 years old, and employed with the Canadian Kodak Co. He enlisted with his brother, Pte. Stanley Price, who went overseas with the same battalion, and is now on the reserve in England after getting trench fever in France. Pte. Jack Price was at one time a conductor on the Toronto Street Railway Co. Besides his father and mother, he leaves a 16-year-old brother, Charles, and an older brother, William, who has been rejected several times as unfit for service in the ranks. The family came from London, England, ten years ago.”
According to Stanley’s record, he too worked for Kodak, and was a tinsmith by trade. He recovered from his bout of trench fever, and returned to fighting shortly after Jack died. By November, he was engaged in the Battle of Passchendaele. His death must have been a horrible blow for the family, having already lost one son — and his service record suggests additional anguish: Stanley was reported “wounded and missing” in November, and the amended status “killed in action” came almost a year later. Many families held out hope that a man labeled “missing” would eventually return.
A Street Near You says that Frank Hamilton Fish lived a few doors west of Stanley and Jack Price, at 358 Wallace, and that he died in France in April 1918, just 19 years old. But once again, a bit of snooping reveals even greater losses. On May 10, 1918, an article headed “Second Son Killed” appeared in the Toronto Evening Telegram:
“Word has reached his mother … that her son, Pte. Frank Fish, 709466, died of wounds April 24, in No. 6 Field Ambulance Depot. He was nineteen years of age and enlisted in St. John three years ago with his two brothers. Sergt. Fred Fish was killed July 23, 1917. The third, Pte. Harry Fish, served twenty-six months and was invalided home.” The article goes on to say that the boys’ father had died a year earlier, and their sister’s husband was wounded the day Frank was killed.
Did the Fish and Price families know each other? What was it like for communities like ours to deal with such horrible losses?
A map icon for John William Smith sits at 31 Macaulay Avenue, a block north of Wallace. Smith was older than the Price and Fish sons — a 42-year-old husband and father, listed as a decorator in his record. At the time of his death, four brothers were serving in the army, as well as a son. He had a baby daughter who he’d never met, and a bit of genealogical sleuthing turns up a photograph of her that was apparently in the pocket of his uniform when he was killed in action in November 1917.
James Edward Webster was a “press operator in can factory” when he enlisted in 1916. He was married and had two little boys at that time. The family was living on King Street and only later moved to 71 Edwin Avenue. He first fell sick at Vimy Ridge, where doctors decided he had pneumonia caused by exposure to cold and dampness. “Took cold in the head in December 1916,” his record reports, “with slight hacking cough and pain in the chest. Stayed in the trenches two weeks before reporting sick.” Later it became clear he had pulmonary tuberculosis, and he was invalided home. A 1918 letter from the Mountain Sanatorium in Hamilton is included in his file, and after almost nine months of treatment there tells us that, “His condition has assumed a chronic, stationary type, with temperature normal, moist sounds and sputum cleared up, probably as much as they will ever be. He will get along as well at home, living carefully, as in a Sanatorium. … His lung tissue is so much impaired that he will always be totally disabled from earning a living in the general labour market.” He died in Aurora in January 1920.
A little north and east of the Edwin address is a short street called Hugo Avenue. When my daughter was little, it always seemed that Hugo had extra spirit, and was splendidly decorated at Christmas and Halloween. What it was like 100 years ago, I don’t know, but the map suggests George Gladman had some connection to 2 Hugo, and that he died in France in September 1918. His record says that when he enlisted in 1916, he was a 29-year-old munition worker with young children and a wife named Kate. Like John William Smith, at the time of his death he had a child he’d never seen. When George died, Kate was on her own with four young children. But by 1921, the census shows her at Hugo, remarried and with a fifth child. The words “deaf mute” are scrawled beside her name. Kate’s new husband Ernest Buxton also served in the war. He suffered severe burns from mustard gas in 1917. When he died in the 1940s, the family was still living on Hugo.
These are just a few WW1 stories from addresses between my house and my friend’s, and a tiny selection of the families who lived in our community a century ago.
Early in the pandemic, my husband and I bought a car. We live in Toronto, close to all forms of transit, and have never felt the need to have one. For reasons unrelated to COVID-19, we finally purchased. We wanted to get out to the country more often and explore the possibility of living there, and our daughter has reached driving age, so it all seemed to make good sense.
The man we purchased from told us business had been booming. He said people were buying simply because they didn’t want to take transit anymore. We were stunned. It seems the trend has continued to grow. Months later, my husband was recently at the dealership again and there were no cars on view. He asked the fellow there why that was, and he answered that they couldn’t keep them in stock. So when I stumbled on this little ad from a 1918 newspaper, it struck me as yet another parallel between COVID-19 and the Spanish flu.
One thing always leads to another when snooping around in a newspaper archive. This article from around the same time reports on “Washington Society Women Working Day and Night as Emergency Chauffeurs.”
If the worst comes to the worst and they need a job in a hurry, more than a hundred of Washington’s most prominent women can qualify as first-class chauffeurs.
Volunteering their cars and their own services as drivers at the beginning of the Spanish influenza epidemic, they have been on duty both night and day driving doctors and nurses to the homes of influenza sufferers, carrying hot food from relief stations and performing all sorts of errands to speed up the work of all the various organizations engaged in fighting influenza.
So far their batting average is somewhere around 1,000. They have demonstrated that they are afraid of nothing, from influenza germs to flat tires, and after more than two weeks of “chauffing” experience, they can drive to any city address … without ever deigning to consult a city street directory.
These women … report each day at the Webster School, Tenth and H streets northwest. Some work all day, some several hours, others work in emergency.
At the school they wait for a job in much the same fashion as a taxi driver reports to his headquarters. One assignment may be to rush a doctor to a dying patient, another to take a nurse to a “case.”
Some drivers are exclusively for taking food to patients. They report to the school fill up their car with thermos bottles containing bouillon, milk or liquid nourishment, and proceed to distribute the bottles to a list of addresses with which they are furnished. This work necessitates going into the homes of influenza sufferers. Many war workers living in boarding and rooming houses with no one to care for them, not sufficiently ill to be removed to a hospital, are fed three times a day in this manner. …
And finally here’s another transit-related find from Toronto around the same time:
(By the way, we still take transit! We wear our masks and use our sanitizer and keep our distance.)
It’s been too long since we’ve posted, so here’s a tiny update in keeping with our current thread on COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu. These ads and articles come from 1918 newspapers that show a trend of wearing “flu veils” and masks to stave off influenza. It’s interesting to see the different takes on beauty! One piece notes, “It’s better to be safe than good-looking,” and another finds the flu veils “bewitching” and “delightful.”
Judging from the following poem, which appeared in the Ogden Standard in December 1918, it would seem the anti-mask movement rankled in much the same way it does today:
“If you think you have the Flu—wear a mask; though some fuss it puts you to—wear a mask; YOU may not believe it’s right—cuss about it day and night—keep your faith and conscience bright—wear a mask! If you think that you’re quite well—wear a mask; wiser heads than yours can’t tell—wear a mask; snare that ‘bug’ before he bites, interrupt his fatal flights, thus you’re spared some awful nights—wear a mask! If you think you know it all—wear a mask; if you think your thinks are small—wear a mask; You would fight for Uncle Sam? Then for him give Flu a lam. If you’re worth a tinker’s damn—wear a mask! Though you swear and sweat and rave—wear a mask; some dear neighbor you may save by that task; doctors say—and they should know—that masks will make this fluzzy go, then do your part or shame will show through your mask! This ONE lesson you should learn—WEAR A MASK; though your mouth and nostrils burn—wear a mask; it’s a shame when you or I let this SIMPLE thing go by, then weep and wail when loved ones die—wear a mask!” –Mace Walton
Kansas City Star, Los Angeles Record, Leader-Post, Daily Province, Ogden Standard