Often when we visit with writers’ and researchers’ groups, we talk about the importance of layering your resources when you build a big multi-generational story like The Cowkeeper’s Wish. If you want to tell a social history as well as a family saga, as we were keen to do, you need to dig for details in all kinds of different places — in the census, birth and death records, of course, but also in the newspaper archive and in war diaries and philanthropist’s notebooks and so on and so forth. When we first began this project, we never imagined how many resources we’d use to search for clues to our family’s past. It is a thrilling experience, I can happily report. You start to feel a little like a detective when you do this kind of work, and the more practiced you become, of course, the better you are at sleuthing. I’m working on a new book now — not family-based this time, but also non-fiction, and set at the end of WW1, so I am using many of the same resources and approaches we used for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, and also realizing that I am hooked on telling true stories pulled piece by piece from the past. There’s no better job for someone who loves crumbly rippled ledgers and curled photographs and maps with streetnames that no longer exist.
Tracy has this same pull to the past, and so we were both delighted to see the cover design for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, which is in its own way a layering of resources. The images were cleverly put together by Anna Comfort O’Keeffe at Douglas & McIntyre, and each one she selected has a meaningful connection to the story.
The frilled gold on the outer edge of the cover image, as you can see here, comes from our grandmother’s baptismal certificate. You can see it is signed by E. C. Carter — that’s the Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter, who died just two years later on the Titanic. The family story goes that he and his wife Lilian (who my grandmother was named for) were dear friends of the family — though that’s probably not really true, since they came from very different backgrounds at a time when background really mattered. More likely, they were enormously admired by our family members, who must have been devastated when they died. The connection gave us a fresh new way to weave the story of the Titanic into our own tale.
This next layer in from the outer edge is a letter written by our great uncle, Joe Deverill, in 1923, saying goodbye to his younger siblings as they leave England for Canada. He offers brotherly advice — “mind who you mix with on the boat” — and urges them to remember that “although the (Old Home) has broken up we are still Sisters and Brothers and I would like you to write and let me know how you get on.”
Next in from Joe’s letter is a portion of Charles Booth’s poverty maps, made as part of his Inquiry into Life and Labour in London. Social investigators colour-coded the city as to level of poverty: black streets were vicious and criminal, dark blue were very poor with chronic want, on up to light blue, purple, pink, red and finally yellow, reserved for the wealthy upper classes. Booth’s maps, and the notebooks his investigators used to record their findings as they prowled the city, were an excellent way for us to “see” the neighbourhoods we were writing about.
The cover also features an image of the Metagama, the ship our grandmother came to Canada on, in the care of a family friend. It was 1919, and the ship had only recently been used as a troop carrier.
Below the Metagama is a photograph of our grandmother as a girl (with bathing cap), playing at the beach with her new Canadian friend. Beside them floats the lucky penny our great uncle Joe had kept in his pocket the day the Mary Rose sank. This mix of personal and historical imagery is an excellent fit with the book itself, which is both an intimate family story and a social history.
After years of research, seeing all these pieces of the puzzle worked into the cover image for our book was a lovely surprise, and still serves as a reminder of the many places that hold clues to the past for those who love to go searching.
As difficult as it was to select the few threads that would become the focus of The Cowkeeper’s Wish, in the interest of brevity we cut our great grandfather’s twice married but never divorced sister Kate, and the brother-in-law who claimed to be the son of an Indian Commissioner and knight, but who worked as a porter. To ensure the book did not end up as a massive tome we erased a several times great uncle – a publican whose son threatened to burn down his hotel — and we did not share the tangent we traveled to learn about George Duckworth, the aristocrat who worked unpaid for a decade to help Charles Booth with his extensive study of London’s poor. Duckworth’s detailed notes were invaluable to us in recreating the streets and places in The Cowkeeper’s Wish, but, horribly, he was accused of molesting his half-sisters, writer Virginia Woolf and painter Vanessa Bell.
Brow-raisers aplenty we’ve stumbled across while writing and researching, and it seems there’s no single branch of our gnarled tree that does not contain a knot or two. Even the family ensconced in what Duckworth called “happy Plumstead,” with its grassy heaths and heady woodlands and the scent of flowers in the air, had its surprises.
Let me begin with Edwin Curtis, our great grandmother Emily’s forebear, and a cowkeeper like the Benjamin Jones in our book title, although in rather different circumstances. Edwin came to the dairy trade in a roundabout way. The second son of a butcher and grocer, he’d grown up in Salperton, Gloucestershire, in the heart of southwest England’s Cotswold Hills. He spent his unmarried years working as an agriculture labourer, but by the time he wed his wife Elizabeth Bryant in 1859, he and his father had swapped occupations – Edwin was the butcher and his father a farmer. But like Benjamin Jones and so many others before him, Edwin saw his future elsewhere. Instead of choosing the life of a city dweller for himself and his cows as Benjamin had done, Edwin’s path took him to High Grove Farm in Plumstead, where his cattle, eating sweet grass and drinking clean water, presumably enjoyed an existence more pleasant than Benjamin’s cows, housed in the muck and foul air of the Borough. Though just twelve miles from London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, George Duckworth noted, here “nightingales still sing, pheasants are still preserved, and bluebells carpet the woods.”
In this seemingly idyllic setting Edwin and Elizabeth raised a family of six children. When they died within a few years of each other soon after the turn of the century, the farm was passed down to two of their sons who, at age 48 and 37, had remained unmarried. While the elder of the brothers had a job at one of the many factories that had sprung up on the flats down by the Thames, and in his off hours tended the farm’s horses, the younger worked full time on the farm, following in his father’s footsteps as a cowkeeper. But there are no tales of filthy, diluted milk here, as there was with Benjamin Jones. Instead, the surprise that surfaced in this story was the teenage niece, Bea, who lived with them, helping out as a housekeeper, although it seems more was going on than the sweeping of floors and the washing of dishes.
Can you marry your uncle? According to the Table of Kindred and Affinity found at the back of the Anglican Book of Prayer “Wherein, Whosoever are related, are forbidden in Scripture, and our laws, to Marry together,” the answer is no, and has been since at least 1560, when the table was first established.
But in “happy Plumstead,” amongst the blooms of June 1913, Bea and her uncle did just that at the Woolwich Registry Office, where a Notice of Intention to Marry would have been posted for three weeks prior to the event. Presumably no one stepped forward to object, but it’s hard not to suppose there would have been whispers behind hands, elbows nudged, and glances exchanged, for surely within that relatively small community people knew of the close relationship, and that it was illegal, and, most would judge, immoral. And yet it occurred, and the official record remains to prove it, duly signed by the registrar and the deputy superintendent who performed the ceremony. Signing as witnesses to the ceremony were the older brother of the groom (another uncle to the bride), and someone with the same last name and first initial as the bride’s mother, although almost ten years earlier that same woman had disowned another daughter, our great grandmother Emily, for reasons that can only be speculation a century and more gone. And yet what can have been Emily’s crime, if the mother approved of such a match for her sister Bea?
Family historians are innately curious, as are writers, and when a tidbit such as the estrangement of a mother and her daughter is dangled before us, how can we help but try to figure out why such a thing might have happened? In this case, the obvious reason for the parting of ways seemed to be Emily’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, established by the date of her marriage and the birth date of her first child. But if this was the reason for the mother’s harsh treatment, it was sadly hypocritical, for records show the mother herself had been a pregnant bride. Perhaps the mother had simply disliked George, her daughter’s chosen husband. But this too seemed unlikely. George was by all accounts an amiable, capable, dependable fellow who loved Emily, and had been friendly with her family for years before he and Emily married.
Some things are simply unknowable, and it appeared we would never find out what had occurred to cause the rift between mother and daughter. Then, soon after The Cowkeeper’s Wish went to print, we came across an item in The Kentish Independent newspaper, dating from 1906. “Robbing Uncle,” was the headline, and there, in black and white, was a story that had not been passed down through the generations. Our great grandmother, employed to do housework at her uncle’s dairy farm, had stolen money from him – twice – and been caught. The uncle was the same man who would later marry her sister.
The article tells us that the uncle had noticed money missing from the locked box in his bedroom, and went to the police. They set a trap for the thief, placing twenty marked sovereigns in the box, and leaving the key in its usual location, the pocket of the uncle’s coat. When several of the marked coins immediately went missing, the police arrested Emily, hauling her off a tram and bringing her back to the scene of the crime. A dramatic encounter followed, with Emily pulling the coins from her stocking and pleading for leniency.
“Please don’t prosecute me, Steve,” the newspaper quoted, “I will give [the money] back. … I have only had the two lots. I took [it] because I was going to have a little one, and had not money.”
Detective Sergeant Webber, testifying at the hearing, told the magistrate that Emily “was a perfectly respectable woman, and her husband, who was in court, was willing to repay the [money] if he was given a few days.” In the end, though, the magistrate felt it best to continue with prosecution, and sent her for trial at the South London Sessions. No record has been found to give us details of that awful experience, but the judge must have decided to be lenient, perhaps at her uncle’s request, or maybe because Emily and her husband revealed plans to emigrate to Canada, which they did the following year.
But even this sorry tale does not tell the whole story of the estrangement. If the theft was the reason for the rift, why did the mother (according to family lore) refuse to attend Emily’s wedding, which had taken place before the incident? Sadly, the dispute between them remained unresolved, and they never again spoke or even wrote to one another.
Years later, after both women had died, one of Emily’s sons visited the town she’d left all that time ago, and found not only long lost aunts, uncles and cousins, but a warm welcome besides.
“Robbing Uncle”, The Kentish Independent, August 31, 1906
Since the very hefty middle part of The Cowkeeper’s Wish is set in WW1, we were especially intrigued by a branch of the family with German connections. Our grandmother’s aunt, Nellie Deverill, married a man named Percy Kraushaar in the early 1900s. Though Percy’s great-great grandparents had arrived in England from Germany a century or so earlier — long before our own Benjamin and Margaret walked from Wales to London with their cows — it seems it wasn’t until the WW1 era that some members of the Kraushaar family anglicized their name. A 1919 notice in the Gazette reported, “I, Albert Henry Crawshaw, a natural-born British subject … now serving in His Majesty’s Army, heretofore called and known by the name of Albert Augustus Henry Kraushaar, hereby give public notice … I absolutely renounced and abandoned the use of my former Christian name of Augustus and my former surname of Kraushaar, and then assumed and adopted and determined to use and subscribe the name of Albert Henry Crawshaw.”
There was plenty of hostility towards Germans in England in those years, and even people who had stronger ties to England than the country of their ancestry sometimes felt a need to distance themselves. The royal family’s own lineage was German through almost all of its branches, and in July 1917, King George V issued a proclamation “relinquishing the use of all German Titles and Dignities.”
Right around this time, papers reported riots in which angry groups smashed the windows of German bakers and butchers, throwing loaves of bread into the street and demolishing furniture. A shop owner with “a continental name” had his window cracked before he could convince the rioters that he was French rather than German. Another felt compelled to chalk in big block letters on the wall outside his store “WE ARE RUSSIANS,” but even when police managed to get in front of the crowds, stones were thrown over their heads and glass shattered.
Life must have been difficult for soldiers with German surnames. One man I came upon while researching Cane Hill Asylum, where our great grandmother was a patient in 1917, suffered delusions connected to his German ancestry. According to Charles Fray’s military record, “He began to imagine some months ago that people in the streets gesticulated at him and made disparaging remarks about him. Subsequently he imagined that the men at his regiment poisoned his food. Since admission he has … voices telling him that he is to be made away with because he is a spy…. The man is of German parentage, hence the nature of the delusions.”
Recently I was intrigued to learn of Mizpah Cousins, the work of a woman who has researched her family story, rooted in both England and Germany. Margaret Lossl‘s grandfather, Emil Heitmann, had come at age 19 from Germany to London in 1908 and found work at a first-class hotel as a waiter. The job came with a posh flat, and life got even better when he fell in love with Agnes Meyer, London-born but of German extraction. Soon she was pregnant, and shortly before baby Emma was born, they married.
Margaret thinks that when her grandparents decided to marry, Emil had to acquire his birth certificate from the German embassy, and it was this that alerted the government to the fact that he had not completed his obligatory military training. He was called home late in 1911, and his little family went with him. More children were born in Germany.
Had Emil Heitmann not returned to Germany, he probably would have been sent to the internment camp at Alexandra Palace for the duration of the war. This was the fate of other members of Margaret’s family. Many lost their jobs, she says, and everyone gave up speaking German. In 1914, the palace was used as a place of refuge for Belgians who had escaped their country when Germany invaded. But soon it became a sort of prison for “enemy aliens” — Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians living in England when the war began, many married to British women. Between 1915 and 1919, the palace received about 3,000 prisoners. As one man put it, “the breaking up and ruin of mostly English-raised families” was unbearable.
Emil served with the German army, and Agnes remained with their children in Hamburg, separated from the rest of her family. It’s hard to imagine what such a situation must have been like. War was difficult for the average person on each side, but having ties to both sides must have been at times excruciating. Having inherited the postcards and letters Emil sent to Agnes over the course of the war, Margaret was able to research her grandparents’ war experience in Germany, and to weave this with the story of the relatives Agnes left behind in London’s East End. The “perilous predicaments,” as Margaret puts it, sound fascinating.
Sources and further reading
“Anti-German Riots in London.” Leeds Mercury, 9 July, 1917.
Tracy and I are heading off to London, Ontario, this weekend to talk about The Cowkeeper’s Wish, so we are naturally thinking about our grandmother, Doris Deverill, whose story first inspired us to write the book. We used a wealth of resources to piece together the century-long tale, but the most treasured ones came from our own family archive.
The following article tells a little about that collection, and some of our mishaps along the way. The story first appeared earlier this year in the Alberta Genealogical Society’s journal, Relatively Speaking.
Several years ago my sister and I set out to tell the story of the British side of our family, from our Welsh 3xgreat grandfather, who walked to London, England, with his wife and his cows in the 1840s, right on down to our grandmother’s marriage nearly a century later in London, Ontario. We aren’t professional genealogists by any stretch, but rather writers who share a passion for family history and great stories. Armed with an abundance of curiosity, we scrutinized all the essential documents: census, birth, marriage and death records, and also workhouse and asylum ledgers, old newspapers, passenger lists and immigration papers. We looked everywhere for our people, and got chills whenever we found them. Some of the loveliest material had been passed down from the very people we were writing about: letters and postcards with strings of x’s, embossed funeral cards, a lucky penny that went through the war with a sailor-great-uncle, and an array of photographs. Treasured possessions, all, and a gold mine for researchers who like to read between the layers of everything they encounter.
Our grandmother, Doris Deverill, was born in Whitechapel in 1910, and emigrated to Canada in 1919. Her childhood had been infused by war, and both her parents were dead. She was now under the care of a family friend named Martha, a woman she loved dearly, but it must have been devastating to leave her siblings, her friends, and everything she’d known to cross the ocean and start somewhere new. Maybe it was this monumental loss that caused her to paste the postcards she received, for years afterwards, into a scrapbook. Or maybe it was just a young girl’s admiration for pretty pictures. The cards featured sweet little girls holding kittens or puppies, the images often tinted to give them an even more tender look than they’d have in sepia. And the text usually matched the pictures’ sentimental themes:
But when I say the postcards were pasted into the scrapbook, they really were pasted. It’s impossible to know, now, what she used to adhere them to the pages; though many of the cards date from the 1910s and 20s, she may have re-glued them later, or even started the project later in her life, gathering the loose pieces she’d collected over the years. Regardless, it was obviously the cards themselves our grandmother had been preserving rather than the messages on the backs. She would never have imagined that, long after her death, anyone would want to know what the postcards said or who they were from.
We, of course, were itching to know. As we flipped carefully through the book, turning the thick pages, we pried at the corners of the cards just gently to test how easily they might be released, curious to know what secrets would spill forth once we saw them. For though so much can be gleaned from historical records, these personal artefacts had been held by the very people we were searching for. A postcard had been chosen just for Doris in some little English shop by an auntie, a sister, a cousin; had been written on and stamped and mailed, had traveled all that distance by ship, just like Doris herself, and then been brought to the door by the postman, and she had happily received it and devoured the message with her fingers carefully placed at the card’s edges, no doubt, so as not to muss the pretty picture.
Over the years of our research, we often longed for more of these kinds of resources to help us unravel the family story. We’d sometimes joke with each other by email as we slogged through the many dry spells of our research periods: “You’ll never guess! I found the cowkeeper’s wife’s diary from 1842! She recounts their travels from Wales; how long it took them and all the strange things they encountered, and their first impressions of London when they landed there, the cows weak and weary and their own feet blistered and sore! There are delicate pressed wildflowers inside, and little drawings in the margins!”
Of course, there was no such diary; and on actual records, the cowkeeper’s wife had signed her name with an x, so likely she could not have written one anyway, even if she’d cared to. But we did have Doris’s scrapbook – and with a variety of approaches we had some success in releasing the postcards from an almost century-old grip. Some were sawed free with dental floss; some were steamed or blow dried; some soaked in tiny baths. It was a bit like taking the scrapbook to the spa, and pampering it to give over its secrets. And it was beyond exciting, even though, to be honest, most of the postcards had fairly mundane messages, such as:
Another featured a hand-drawn rose on its front, meticulously painted, and signed Ernest Biss. We didn’t want to soak this one for fear that the rose would disappear, so we carefully steamed it loose and watched it curl at the edges. The rose suffered a little from our efforts, and we lost some of the message on the back – but once again, it seemed disappointingly spare anyway. But we had a name, at least, and with a bit of sleuthing we discovered that Ernest was about 19 the year Doris left for Canada; he was her neighbour in College Buildings in Whitechapel, and his father was the verger at nearby St. Jude’s church, where she was baptized. Their families would have shared the same dismay when the Titanic went down, taking with it the church’s beloved minister Ernest Courtenay Carter and his wife Lilian. Doris was given the middle name Lilian for Lilian Carter; was Ernest likewise named for Ernest?
What became of Ernest Biss and his drawing abilities? We can follow him in various documents through the years, but his link with Doris remains a mystery. Did they correspond after Doris and Martha left for Canada? If so, there is no trace of an exchange, and only the rose remains.
The wordiest postcard in Doris’s scrapbook depicted the ship Metagama, which brought Doris to Canada. Metagama was a passenger ship launched in spring 1914, but soon pressed into service as a troop carrier during WW1. In 1919, when Doris was on board, there were still plenty of soldier-passengers making their way home. Doris and Martha were just two of 1,300 souls on board, arriving in Montreal after a nine-day journey. From there, before boarding a train to London, Martha sent the card to Doris’s brother Joe. Doris wouldn’t see Joe again for about 40 years, which means he either sent the postcard back to her as a keepsake, or held onto it all that time and offered it in person, when she returned to her birthplace as middle-aged woman.
We tried all the methods to free the postcard from the album, but when it came loose the writing was still covered by a fuzzed layer of the album’s paper. So we kept steaming, peeling, stopping, discussing. Then we’d peel, stop, discuss some more. The postcard was like a scab that shouldn’t be picked – but imagine what it might tell us, having been written on the very journey that opened the door for our own existence. Surely it was a little diary of sorts, but real this time, and in our possession!
In the end, we got the layer of album paper off of the post card, but most of the words came away with it. We held the bits of paper up to the light, and we peered at all the remnants with a magnifying glass, but much of the message had been lost to us. We were left with:
Arrived quite safe this morning at 6 o’clock. We had a very … Write you later on.
Had a very what? Difficult journey? Wonderful journey? Big breakfast? Bad fight? Tearful goodbye with fellow passengers? Though the family correspondence had never been terribly revelatory, the loss still felt awful, since first-person accounts in the histories of ordinary people are rare wonders, no matter how mundane. And yet, our story got told anyway; built bit by bit like an intricate collage. When I think back to our wrong turns, and to the brick walls we encountered while searching for clues, I realize that it isn’t important for me to have all the answers, and that part of the beauty of this kind of research is in the very mysteries that can never be solved. For after all, each time a new person is added to a tree, more blank spaces inevitably open. Every “answer” prompts new questions, and keeps the journey, rather than the destination, in focus.
I was in London, Ontario, recently, giving a workshop about the many wonderful resources we used to research The Cowkeeper’s Wish, and afterwards I was approached by Gord Wainman, one of the participants, who told me a bit about his father, “a very troubled soul” who’d served in the First World War.
I was moved by the story and asked Gord to share it here, and am posting it the day after Remembrance Day to underscore the idea that war wounds, both mental and physical, continue long after war has ended. Here, in Gord’s words, is the story of Stanley Holmes Wainman and his family.
A year before he died, my father made a final request. He wanted to be buried in a simple pine coffin with his body wrapped in an old wool army blanket. He made me promise I would respect this wish. His reason for this spartan request — to honour the many friends and comrades who had died on the World War 1 battlefield.
He fought at Vimy Ridge and was part of the final advance to Passchendaele only to become a casualty two weeks before the war ended. He was a bombardier, overseeing the firing of artillery and accompanying the horses and Limber wagons into battle. At least twice, he was sent to “gas” school where soldiers were trained on how to respond to mustard gas attacks. Not the best military “occupation” for such a gentle man who worked as an accountant before joining the army.
My father was 21 when he joined the 40th Battery, CFA in Hamilton on Sept. 17, 1915. Six months later he was in England but was hospitalized shortly after he arrived because he had German measles. He landed in France on July 14, 1916, and except for an 18-day leave and a brief hospital stay for impetigo, he was in the field for over two years.
He never spoke of his war experiences. Until I found his records, I did not know he was a bombardier. I did not know about the “gas” schools. I did not know that his right foot was partially crushed by a Limber wagon near Valenciennes 20 days before the war ended. He was evacuated but his return to Canada was delayed by several months until he could walk again.
If the luggage he brought home was sparse, his emotional baggage was huge and its weight affected us all – my mother, my brother and myself. We lived with his depression. We all bore his pain.
Several family friends described my father as someone who always seemed to have a “permanent cloud” over his head. In the 32 years I knew him, I never remember hearing him laugh. Even his smiles were forced.
After the war, he spent most of his life devising a financial solution to the world’s ills which he believed would end all wars. He wrote a book, convinced it would change the world. He expected my brother and I to continue his mission.
While he never talked about his war experiences, he did say that he and his fallen friends had been “duped”. A genius with figures and a self-taught thinker, he was going to correct that. He was obsessed, spending little time with wife or sons.
He and my mother were what I’d call “progressives” today, meeting during the founding convention of the United Church of Canada. He was a Methodist, my mother an Anglican. They paid a price as they were initially shunned by both families.
In 1929, ten years after he returned to Canada, my father lost his job when the Depression hit. He rode the rails to harvest in the West and tried to make money painting barns in Northern Ontario. My mom and brother suffered. Several years ago, I read a heartbreaking letter my father wrote to my mother while he was up north begging her to help their son David understand why they lived in such desperate conditions, above a store on St. Clair West in Toronto.
By the mid 1930s, my father ended up in Windsor, Ontario, where he stayed. That’s when his obsession about ending war and human misery became all-consuming. He developed a financial system he called “The Golden Rule Exchange.”
Living with constant supper-time lectures on the evils of greed and the golden rule solution, my brother Dave fled home at the age of 17. I was two and idolized my big brother.
A few years before Dave died in 1997 at age 69, he told my wife, in tears, that he was racked with guilt for leaving “that poor little fucker” — me — to fend for myself in that toxic environment. “There was no laughter or joy in that house”, he said.
Considering all the conversations involving PTSD, we now know that’s what my father suffered from. Back then, if there were physical signs, it was called “shell shock”. But he showed no outward signs.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America outlines seven symptoms. If a person has two or more, they likely suffer PTSD. My father scored on six of the seven: exaggerated expectations of self, other or the world; persistent anger; diminished interest in participation; detachment from others; inability to experience positive emotions; nightmares.
When I was eight or so, Canada entered the Korean War. To make his point about the horrors of war, my father took me to see the silent 1930 movie All Quiet on the Western Front, based on a book by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. Looking back, I know my father wanted the movie to speak for him.
The impact on me has been periods of depression. My wife sometimes says… “It’s time to leave now Stanley”, not out of disrespect for my father, but to shake me out of my mood.
Stanley Holmes Wainman died in 1974 in the old “Parkwood” military wing of Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario. My brother and I knew it was the end of a long painful life. My mother Leota May died 14 years earlier when I was 17. I was a late comer. My father was nearly 50 when I was born in 1942. I was named after Major Gordon H. Southam, a unit commander with the 40th who was killed in action in 1916.
Laid to rest in a pine coffin and wrapped in the wool army blanket he requested, Stanley Holmes Wainman was buried beside his wife Leota May. A small family group attended, my brother Dave and his family and me with my wife and daughter.
Before he died, I told my father I found a blanket and that seemed to comfort him. Then he said something that stunned me considering he lived his life convinced he could solve the world’s problems.
“I always thought I knew the answers, but now I’m not so sure.”
I didn’t cry at his funeral. Four years later, out of the blue, I began to sob uncontrollably, with no idea what triggered it.
Despite our bad times, he was always there for me when I got in trouble. Despite it all, I still miss him.
There’s a 1916 photograph in our family collection that shows three young boys sitting cross-legged on the grass, wearing buttoned-up suit coats with wide lapels, neckties and knee-length knickerbocker pants. Freckled faces peer out from beneath straw boater hats, and one of the boys squints slightly, as if the sun over the shoulder of the photographer beams down on them. The boy on the right is our grandfather, Bill Cartwright, and alongside him are his brothers, George and Jack. Forming the background are the long skirts and folded hands of seated ladies, and along the bottom of the picture someone has written “McCormick’s Picknic 1916.”
McCormick’s was the London, Ontario, biscuit and candy company that employed Bill’s dad, George Cartwight, and, coincidentally, Ernie Deverill, our great uncle from the other side of the family. But in 1916, Ernie and George hadn’t met, and in fact Ernie was still a teenager, living in England and scanning the skies for Zeppelins. There was no hint yet that Ernie’s fortunes would bring him to Canada, or that his future would become so intrinsically linked with George’s son Bill, and that one day they’d attend the same McCormick’s picnics, two in a sea of faces turned towards the camera.
McCormick’s, like many other London companies and groups, often hosted employee picnics at Port Stanley on the shores of Lake Erie. Just 25 miles from London, the village had been drawing thousands to its beaches and magnificent hilltop park since at least the 1860s, described even in its early incarnation as “Canada’s Saratoga,” where “the air is always cool, and night delightful.” Despite a fairly constant population of fewer than 1,000 souls throughout the second half of the 19th century, Port Stanley boasted some five grand hotels, among them Fraser House, with a panoramic view of the lake. The hotel’s owner, William Fraser, was connected by marriage to Hollywood glamour, and the internationally renowned actress Annie Pixley made regular prolonged visits, contributing to the village’s cachet. A later advertisement for a competing hotel assured readers “if you are particular we want your patronage.”
Day trippers, though, along with company picnickers and school groups, made up the bulk of visitors to Port Stanley. One of the earliest large outings was made in 1859 by 400 school children from St. Thomas who were escorted on a day long picnic in honour of Queen Victoria’s birthday. Newspaper accounts made much of the outing, recording that the children departed at an early hour, each with a basket in hand, and serenaded by the music of the St. Thomas Brass Band. Such excursions would not have been possible without some reliable means of transportation, and for those traveling from St. Thomas, and from London further north, the London and Port Stanley Railway, built in 1856, served that purpose. One of the first railways in Ontario, the L&PS had been built to ease congestion on the plank road between St. Thomas and Port Stanley, and carried freight to and from the Lake Erie port, where cargo steamers loaded and unloaded shipments of coal, lumber and other goods. Responsibility for the railway changed hands several times over the years, and passenger service wasn’t always reliable, earning the trains a few nicknames – the Late and Poor Service, the Lost and Presumed Sunk – but by 1913 the City of London had become the owner of the line and converted it to electricity, improving its performance.
Electric trains, expansion of the village’s attractions and a concerted effort by Port Stanley’s Chamber of Commerce enticed people to visit “Canada’s Coney Island,” and the public came in droves, delivered by the L&PS coaches right to the foot of Invererie Heights – better known as Picnic Hill – where the visitors dispersed to stroll the boardwalk that boasted “every manner of booth,” or headed to the beachside pavilion to rent a bathing suit for a dip in the lake. For those inclined to a different sort of bathing, rows of benches lined the beach, inviting people to “take the sun bath cure,” and in the evening, lakeside dance pavilions opened their windows to let the strains of dance music echo over the water.
Our grandfather Bill and his family visited Port Stanley many times over the years, but the earliest photos are picnic shots like the one of Bill and his brothers dressed in their picnic best. On those days they’d have arrived at the foot of Picnic Hill with hundreds of others, carting picnic baskets and blankets to spread on the grass and forming long queues for the incline railway that would lift them the several hundred feet to the top.
There, as the Chamber’s pamphlet tells us, they’d find a “handsome, natural park … delightfully shaded by trees … with plenty of seats on the brow of the hill overlooking the lake and village, and swings and other entertainment for the youngsters. … In the evening, [the park] affords a picturesque view of the boardwalk with its many lights and promenading crowds.”
Bill and the picnicking crowd likely didn’t stay to watch the twinkle of lights in the evening. Following an afternoon of potato sack and three-legged races, bean bag toss competitions and tug-of-war, they’d have sat at the long rows of picnic tables spread with checkered cloths and eaten sandwiches and cold chicken and cakes and laughed over the day’s antics. Someone from the company probably made a speech, and a few employees might have been singled out for special mention – a recent marriage, a new baby – and the day would come to an end. The jostle of the coach on the way back to London surely lulled many to sleep, and stirred dreams of next year’s company trip, and another outing to Port Stanley’s Picnic Hill.
A postscript here that we’ll be in London, visiting The Book Store at Western, on November 17th, 2 to 4 p.m. Please join us!
One hundred and one years ago today, Joe Deverill’s ship went down in the North Sea. He was on board HMS Mary Rose, with 100 or so other men, when they were attacked by two German light cruisers in the early hours of the morning. Mary Rose and her sister ship Strongbow were destroyers charged with accompanying a convoy of merchant ships back and forth between Scotland and Norway — the job was usually boring, according to one of the sailors who survived, and who called the trips “mail runs.” But October 17, 1917, was the opposite of boring. The convoy was sunk, and some 250 men lost their lives.
Joe’s story was only a tiny footnote in our larger story when my sister Tracy and I began the research for The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Little did we know that we would end up in the National Archives in London, meeting with other descendants of Mary Rose men, and scouring court documents, reading the actual testimony of the men who survived this terrifying ordeal. On the Mary Rose, those men were few in number. Only 10 made it safely to Norway, having witnessed the horrible deaths of their shipmates.
It was fascinating work finding out about these men — those who perished and those who survived — and gathering them into a “community” on the Imperial War Museum’s wonderful site, Lives of the First World War. That’s where our research began, and it grew massively from there. Service records, newspaper accounts, family lore, photographs, letters, and testimonies from the survivors all combined to give us stunning details, some tiny, some rich, that helped us revive the men’s stories: one sailor had a “True Love for Maggie” tattoo, and another had webbed toes; a survivor confessed in a letter to another man’s widow that he would “go sick” if he were sent to sea again after “that horrible massacre”; another widow had a baby not long after her husband was killed, and named the child Mary Rose; a 17-year-old midshipman had only just been temporarily transferred to the Mary Rose, and was meant to go back to his own ship in a week’s time; yet another man — a survivor whose identity we haven’t uncovered — brought a piece of Mary Rose wreckage to a deceased man’s family when he came to offer his condolences and tell them what had happened. How difficult and necessary such visits must have been, not just after this event, but after so many of the tragedies of war.
It could have been Joe who made the offering, for a family story exists that he did visit a friend’s mother to offer what news he could about her dead son. He himself had survived — but the joy of being alive was surely muted by loss. Just 19 when the attack occurred, Joe was carrying a lucky penny that exists to this day, and features on the cover of The Cowkeeper’s Wish.
One hundred and one years later, we can’t know all that happened that day, and what it did to the men and their loved ones. But the book contains as full an account as we could manage of this small episode of WW1. Here is the opening of the chapter “Down-Hearted and Shivery,” which recounts the attack and its aftermath:
As the news of Mary Anne’s death travelled toward him that October in 1917, Joe unwittingly moved farther away from it. On the morning of the 15th, Mary Rose and her sister destroyer Strongbow left Lerwick, accompanying a convoy of merchant ships to Norway with the help of two British fishing trawlers fitted out for escort purposes. The trips were sometimes boring, as Joe’s crewmate John Bailey had noted, but also potentially dangerous. The convoy system hadn’t been perfected yet, and many of the merchant ships, or “packets” as they were known, had little experience travelling in such a regimented way. Sometimes the fast ships pushed too far ahead, and the slower ships lagged behind, making the destroyers’ job to guard the whole group not just challenging but maddening because of all that could go wrong while the gaps in the convoy widened. Sometimes, too, the destroyers were purposely sent in different directions. By the morning of the 16th, after an uneventful sail, Mary Rose and Strongbow were approaching Norway with their group. As per their instructions on leaving Scotland the day before, they parted ways when they encountered a second westbound convoy. Mary Rose took up this new convoy of twelve ships, and with the trawler P. Fannon started back toward Lerwick. Strongbow, with the trawler Elise, carried on with her original charges. Once she’d seen them to shore at Bergen, Norway, she would turn back and rejoin the westbound group.
Evening had come by the time Strongbow and Elise drew close to the others again. Several times through the night, Strongbow’s Lieutenant-Commander Edward Brooke attempted to reach Charles Fox on Mary Rose but was unable to make contact. Fox, for his part, did not know that Strongbow had returned, but he zigzagged ahead anyway, staying close to a couple of the faster ships in the convoy and drawing farther away from the bulk of the packets lagging behind. With Lerwick in reach, the convoy grew uneven. By dawn the two destroyers were close to ten miles apart with most of the merchant ships between them. The sky was lightening but cloudy, and the sea was rough. Just before six, Strongbow’s officer of the watch sighted two ships coming closer. He assumed, from their dark grey colour, that they were British light cruisers. But when Strongbow flashed its recognition signals, the ships answered by opening fire.
With thanks to Sue Church for her diligence and enthusiasm researching the Mary Rose, and for bringing so many of the crew’s descendants together.
The woman in this lovely portrait, Mary Jamieson, came to my attention when I corresponded with her granddaughter Alison following my earlier post about finding women hidden behind their husband’s names. Just like Tracy and me, Alison Botterill and her sister Fiona Duxbury have been on a lengthy quest to solve some mysteries in their family’s past. Alison told me the following story:
During the First World War, Mary Jamieson was a young Scottish woman living far from family in London. She was involved in the suffragette cause, and family lore says she spoke at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, a popular place for speeches and demonstrations. She didn’t believe in marriage, unusually enough, and had a son out of wedlock in January 1916. Then in 1917, she was among the first to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, attached to the 2nd Artists Rifles, and a photo of her exists with some of her co-workers, taken outside Hare Hall in Romford. Though her record doesn’t survive, Alison and Fiona were told by family that she held the rank of forewoman and spent some time in France, near Lille. They think she may have worked as a cook. The photograph is one of a series taken in the same place, and experts have suggested that the number in the lower right-hand corner dates it to approximately October 1918.
War work at this point in Mary’s life would have been a challenge, given the fact she was on her own with a little boy, John, and then a daughter, Mary Joan, born in June 1918. Both children were born in London workhouse hospitals, near to where Mary was living and working at the time, and are listed in the ledgers with their mother, bearing the surname Jamieson. In Joan’s case, the specification “Illegt” is scribbled in as well. A fragment of a story has been passed down that she was named for a “Lady Joan someone” — maybe a connection of Mary’s from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
Whether the children shared the same father or not is uncertain, but they didn’t spend long living as siblings. At some point John was given to friends to raise — perhaps soon after Joan was born, for Mary’s workhouse record gives no clues as to his whereabouts at this time. It must have been painful to give up the joy of seeing her little boy grow up, although there appears to have been some contact between mother and son during his early years. Joan stayed with Mary, and became part of her mother’s second family when Mary met her husband-to-be a couple of years later. Mary Jamieson and George Couper Reid had several children together, but they didn’t wed until 1948, shortly before Mary died.
With this second family, more clues emerge. Mary and George had a son in 1920, and though they weren’t married, Mary’s name on the birth record appears as Reid formerly Cameron nee Jamieson. So was Cameron the name of the other babies’ father?
Alison and Fiona hung on to that clue when Joan died, and a photograph of a handsome young soldier surfaced among her possessions. The writing on the back gave no name, but stated, in Joan’s hand, “This is my father who died of WW1 wounds in 1918. He was the eldest son of one of England’s old Catholic families.”
So it seems that Joan’s father died the year she was born — which might explain why Mary felt she couldn’t manage alone with both children. When looking at an enhanced version of the soldier’s portrait, military experts have suggested he belonged to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and pointed out that he’s wearing a Military Medal ribbon. Putting all these pieces together, the sisters settled on a soldier named Archibald Borland Cameron as a good possibility for Mary’s man. He served with the KOSB (and later with the Border Regiment); he was awarded the Military Medal for heroic action in 1916; and he died in April 1918, just a couple of months before Joan was born. Other parts of his story don’t fit, however: Archie, as he was known, was Scottish, not English; and he was the youngest son, not the oldest. But his service record does offer a tempting detail: in January 1916, the very month John was born, Archie Cameron “illegally absented himself without leave.” Is this just a coincidence, or was it the case of a young father anxious to meet his baby son?
Does some distant relative of Archie’s have a photograph that matches the picture above, of Joan’s father? It’s hard to imagine what evidence might surface now, after a century has passed, to clear up the mystery of Mary Jamieson and her children. But I can relate to Alison and Fiona’s determination to find the answers. And to the fact that, even when you don’t find answers, the search is fascinating.
When you sit down to write a book like The Cowkeeper’s Wish that spans generations and decades, it’s inevitable that some details and characters will have to go by the wayside. As difficult as that culling is for those of us who love a big story, and as tantalizing the detail or interesting the character being omitted, in the end the edit usually makes the narrative tighter and tidier and more enjoyable for the reader. One of the characters left out of our story was our great grandfather’s sister, Kate Sarah Deverill. It’s never nice to exclude a sister, so this post is meant to remedy that.
The third child of William Henry Deverill and Mary Margaret Taylor, Kate was born in Uxbridge on February 3rd, 1872. Her sister Ada was three years older, and her brother Harry, our great grandfather, two. All three children had been baptized in the so-called non-conformist (meaning not Church of England) Providence Chapel, the same church where their parents had wed in 1867. How William Henry and Mary Margaret came to meet is an interesting tale, full of speculation, but for now suffice to say that William was in the grocer’s trade, and Mary, daughter of the resourceful Mary Anna Bell-Taylor, had inherited her mother’s entrepreneurial spirit and ran a toy shop.
William grew up in Uxbridge, a small community 25 kilometres from the centre of London, located on the main road between that city and Oxford. Throughout the 18th century, travel along the route was steady with some 40 stage coaches a day stopping to change horses and rest passengers, and dozens of inns, alehouses and breweries did a brisk trade. Because of the traffic, the area was rife with highwaymen, and several were said to have lived openly in Uxbridge, lending the village a reputation for dishonesty. Apart from the coaching trade, an agricultural industry existed in Uxbridge, centred on corn and flour, market gardens and greenhouses. In the 1830s, brick-earth, a kind of loam that only needs baking to form usable building bricks, was uncovered nearby, and became a major source of local employment. When the main railway line from London was laid through another community and Uxbridge received only a branch line, its industries quickly declined, and throughout much of the 19th century, when our William Deverill lived there, first as a lad, then as a young husband and father, Uxbridge remained a sleepy market town.
Kate lived there with her parents and siblings until she was six or seven years old, old enough to be aware of the most likely reason for the family’s move, her father’s bankruptcy. A notice in the London Gazette recorded William’s misfortune, directing that “at three o’clock in the afternoon precisely” on January 20, 1876, he appear at the offices of Messers. Woodbridge and Sons, Solicitors, for a meeting with his creditors. His days as a grocer weren’t over, but he’d no longer be a business owner, and by 1878 he’d moved his young family to Greenwich, settling near a snarl of railway lines and close to his wife’s relatives.
There are no known photographs of Kate, either as a child or an adult, so we don’t know if she shared her brother Harry’s dark eyes or sister Ada’s round smile.
Presumably she learned sewing skills from her dressmaker mother, since on the 1891 census she and her sister Ada, then 19 and 22, still lived at home sewing shirts for a living. At some point between 1891 and 1897 Kate moved out on her own, and from this point on, her story, like that of so many women, meshes with that of the men in her life, and Kate fades into the background. We do know that she took a flat on the north side of the Thames in the Covent Garden area near Buckingham Palace. Despite its proximity to the royal palace, the inhabitants, according to Charles Booth’s London poverty maps and notebooks, were “mixed. Some poor living … but not rough.” Part of a street improvement plan implemented in 1880, Kate’s address, 7D Block, Bedfordbury, was most likely the Peabody Buildings, tenement structures with “luxury” features like outdoor recreation space and laundry facilities, although the flats did not have running water. Presumably, these were happy days for Kate, given the presence at 10B Block of a young man with the unusual name of Frederick Gaughan Burnett. If we were to try to characterize Fred based on the few details we know about him, it would be tempting to imagine him as a carefree charmer with an easy laugh, happily fabricating the facts of his past. Certainly he is an enigma for us, more than a century on, trying to make sense of the few perplexing clues left behind. On one record, his father was called Frederick, an Indian Commissioner; on another, William, a knight; on a third, Sir William Gaugan Burnett, I.C.S. (either Indian or Imperial Civil Service). Yet Fred himself worked as a railway porter, and later a commercial salesman, neither job plausible for the only son of a man with a knighthood. These oddities didn’t matter to Kate, or perhaps she knew the true story we’ve been unable to find. Whatever the case, she married Fred in July, 1897, a few weeks after the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The register shared a few more surprises: the wedding occurred at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square, a grand and historic Church of England place of worship, though Kate had been baptized as a Methodist, and Fred’s “Rank or Profession” was reported as Soldier, R.H.A., or Royal Horse Artillery.
It’s possible that all this is fact. Perhaps the initial recording of Fred’s father as another Frederick instead of William was a clerk’s error; perhaps Fred’s father had indeed been knighted for his service to the crown as a member of the civil service in India, and any record of him has simply not survived. Perhaps Fred was the illegitimate son of this knighted man, which would explain the difference in their stations – the father a person of some means and accomplishment, the son carting other people’s luggage for a living, and taking in boarders to help pay the rent. It’s even conceivable that Fred was indeed a soldier in the Royal Horse Artillery, and that as a very young man he’d worn the crisp blue uniform with its rows and rows of gold braid adorning the chest and cuffs, although any accounts to prove this remain elusive, as do any records at all of Fred before he married Kate.
So Fred is one of those frustrating and fascinating genealogical brick walls, although once his story joins Kate’s, it is not so obscure, but no less interesting. The couple settled at first in the Waldeck Buildings on Windmill Street in Lambeth, a “superior, improved dwelling” where the flats boasted their own sink with running water and “plenty of shelves and good cupboards.” The buildings were situated close by Waterloo Station, a likely place of employment for Fred given his work as a railway porter. Waterloo had become quite ramshackle, with platforms added willy nilly since its opening in 1848, and by the time Fred worked there it was considered the most perplexing station in the city, and was the butt of jokes and music hall gags.
In addition to being a snaggle of disorganization, Waterloo also had a spur line to the dedicated station of the London Necropolis Company, which ran funeral trains daily to Brookwood Cemetery. These trains carried not only the coffins of the dead, but the mourning parties as well. Different classes were available on the trains for both the living and the dead, so an upper class corpse did not have to travel with a poor man’s corpse, or put up with his relatives.
The Waldeck Buildings where Kate and Fred lived was chock full of police constables, the lowest rank on the force, and who were paid a relatively low wage. Why so many police in one place? One explanation may be the floating police station constructed in 1900 at the Waterloo Pier, home to the Thames River Division of the Metropolitan Police Force. The River Police, as they were known, had a long history of patrolling the Thames, and in fact had existed well before London’s Metropolitan force was formed, and with which they’d amalgamated. Once, smugglers and cargo thieves had been the division’s main focus. Now, at the end of the 19th century, their floating station was as well known for its pots of geraniums outside as it was for missions of recovery. The Waterloo Bridge where the division floated was the most popular spot on the Thames for suicides, and during patrol while the men watched for cargo thieves they scanned the water for bodies too.
Living amongst so many police officers meant Kate and Fred surely knew several personally, and it may be why, in 1911, having moved back north of the Thames to St. Pancras in the area of Gray’s Inn, they took in Arthur Steggals as a boarder. Arthur was a member of Central Investigations Division of the London Metropolitan Police, described as having brown hair, blue eyes and a fresh complexion. He’d joined the force in 1900, and had progressed through the ranks, becoming a detective with some experience, and a sergeant. Searches of newspapers and police court records return Arthur’s name repeatedly, and give us a flavour of the kind of work an Edwardian-era policeman did, and some insight into Arthur’s character. An article from 1908 recounts the arrest of a man who stole several pairs of boots, including Arthur’s, from the police station. Encountering the man on the street, Arthur recognized his own boots, and took the fellow into custody. At his court hearing it was reported that the man was a workhouse inmate but that he sometimes worked at the police station doing odd jobs. In the past Arthur had helped him out by giving him a jacket and waistcoat. The magistrate was lenient by Edwardian standards, and told the accused he would not send him to prison this time, but placed him under probation for a month. Another newspaper item tells a rougher story, of Arthur and a second officer in a “desperate fight” with two men caught burgling a warehouse. One of the perpetrators escaped, and the other was arrested, but not before injuring Arthur and his fellow officer so badly that they were unable to appear in court to testify.
What Kate and Fred thought of these kinds of stories, if Arthur shared them, is unknown. Nor is it apparent the circumstances that led to the break-up of Fred and Kate’s marriage, but some time after the 1911 census, when the three were recorded as living together – man, wife and boarder – Fred left the flat in St. Pancras, and in 1914, without a divorce from Kate, married Kathleen (Queenie) Bell from Leicester, at St. Stephen’s, Putney, south of the Thames. Their daughter was born in 1918.
At what point in this tale did Kate and Arthur progress from landlady and boarder to something more? Arthur’s 1915 pension record when he retired from the force at age 36 shows that he was single, and living at an address in West Kilburn. Of Kate there is no trace until, disregarding the law and chancing a charge of bigamy but perhaps encouraged by word of Fred and Queenie’s bigamist union, she and Arthur married in 1920 at Kingston, Surrey. Unlike Fred, Kate remained childless, but she and Arthur lived close by Kate’s sisters and their families, sharing happy, sad and ordinary days. Arthur died first, likely of heart or kidney problems, just before Christmas, 1940 at the age of 64, and Kate four years after, when she was 72. But for the curiosity of searchers like us, coming to the story decades later, Kate’s existence might have passed into obscurity, gone and forgotten. And while there is so much we do not and cannot know about this other Deverill sister, at least part of her story is now resurrected.
I recently watched a news piece about a quilt that had been made by wounded soldiers in 1917. The men were convalescing at the Royal Staffordshire Infirmary, and each had been given the task of embroidering his name, his regiment, and some decorative swirls on a small square of fabric. The 60 squares, all rendered in shades of pink and blue, were then stitched together into a single sheet. A picture exists of two men standing on each side of the finished piece, wearing their “hospital blues,” and looking out at the camera with war-weary expressions.
The stitching of the squares can be seen as a form of occupational therapy, which was quickly gaining recognition from the medical field because so many men had physical or mental injuries, or both. Working on some form of craft could potentially help patients in a variety of ways: it might encourage movement of specific muscles; it might distract the person from the pain he felt; it might give him a sense of purpose and accomplishment; and if done in a group, as with the embroidery sheet, it may foster a sense of community.
The same year the quilt was made, our great uncle, Joe Deverill, was a 19-year-old Able Seaman on board the Mary Rose, a destroyer that escorted ships from Scotland to Norway and back across the North Sea. It was routine work, and the trips were rather dull until one day in October, when the entire convoy was attacked by German light cruisers. Almost everyone on board the Mary Rose perished, as well as many from other ships traveling with her, a tragedy recounted in detail in The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Amazingly, Joe survived, despite his youth and inexperience.
Family lore says that afterwards he took up rug-hooking, and that it soothed his nerves to pull the wool strands through the heavy fabric and watch a pattern emerge. It seems likely that someone gave him this task, and showed him what to do, just as someone showed the men embroidering their squares at the Staffordshire infirmary.
That someone was likely a woman who worked as a “ward aide.” Canadian women did groundbreaking work in this field, and according to Judith Friedland, author of Restoring the Spirit: the Beginnings of Occupational Therapy in Canada, many were either artists or teachers, well suited to helping the men learn simple craftwork that would build their self esteem and keep their minds and hands busy. The tasks turned out to be a crucial part of their recovery. A 1921 New York Herald article raves about the ingenious work going on at Fox Hills Base Hospital, lead by “a competent woman instructor.” The author describes walking through the wards and coming upon “men with powerful big frames except for a missing leg or a twisted arm or a hole in the neck. Each one has his head bent over the bed picking up little beads and stringing them out endlessly into something that looks as though it was going to be a shopper’s purse.” He asked one of the men if the work was hard on the eyes, and the man answered, “It’s only hard on one of them. … The other’s glass.”
England’s Imperial War Museum holds some lovely examples of work made by soldiers as a form of therapy. There are hand-painted fretwork figures of politicians and nurses and soldiers; embroidery samplers; and decorative envelopes pieced together from newspaper. There are haunting pieces in the collection as well. The rings below were considered “trench art” and incorporate a fragment from a German aluminum nose cone and an eagle cut from a German button. They were collected by Alice Rapley Wood, who served as a nurse in France from 1914 to 1916 and later worked at Summerdown Convalescent Camp at Eastbourne, which treated occupational therapy cases. It was here that the rings were made. So far I haven’t unearthed much about Alice herself, but she seems like a woman ahead of her time. She had artistic leanings and painted miniature portraits. On the 1911 census, she is listed with her second husband (having divorced the first), who was a piano manufacturer’s manager several years her junior. She makes a point of noting her own occupation as “artist.” In the decades following WW1, she appears in the Physiotherapy and Masseuse Registers, so she definitely continued with her work long after the war was over. The war had brought an incredible amount of suffering, but also profound and wonderful changes in the lives of women like Alice.
Among the most beautiful examples of occupational therapy in the IWM collection are the intricately beaded necklaces made by Walter John Cressey, a private with the Middlesex Regiment who convalesced at Queen Alexandra’s Military Hospital in London. Cressey was blind and had lost four fingers as the result of gassing. What painstaking work it must have been to make these necklaces, with their tiny beads strung into a long waving pattern, and how sad to never be able to see them. And yet: how brilliant to construct something as a means of healing from so much destruction — to stitch, string, mould, weave, paint, paste, and knit in order to put things together again after such a painful time in history.