Lately in the news there have been stories about hospital ships being brought into action to help ease the burden on regular hospitals; about distilleries making hand sanitizer especially for police and healthcare workers; and about automotive companies producing ventilators instead of car parts. There’s even been speculation that a certain high-end parka manufacturer might begin churning out hospital gowns.
Each time I hear these stories, as well as today’s announcement that the Canadian government will help businesses “re-tool” to produce the supplies we need, I am reminded of my WW1 research, both for The Cowkeeper’s Wish with Tracy, and for my new book, still in the early stages, about patients and staff at a military hospital here in Toronto in the First World War.
In those days, all sorts of factories had transformed to produce munitions, but there were countless other changes too. Fancy shoemakers made army boots, milliners made military caps, and tailors made uniforms instead of ordinary suits and overcoats. Passenger ships became troop carriers or floating hospitals. Car manufacturers made military vehicles, and rubber tire producers made gas masks and balloons for reconnaissance. Even cardboard box manufacturers were affected by war: boxes of all sizes were now needed for care parcels for soldiers and sailors, for the boots and shoes and hats that made up their uniforms, for the medals that got pinned to them and for the ammunition they used. Cardboard discs hung in windows, proudly announcing that the man who lived there was off fighting for king and country.
Though the Spanish flu pandemic that surged in this period differed from the current outbreak, I feel somewhat comforted to dip back in time and explore how an earlier generation coped with worry and fear, and what sorts of decisions were made to try to slow the spread. Their pandemic rushed in at the end of a horrific war, and ours comes in the midst of environmental despair. Many people seem to be feeling a weird clash of emotions. On one hand, we’re only just recognizing an obvious but beautiful fact as the virus drifts across borders: we really are all in the same boat. Italy seems close when you can sit at your computer in Canada and hear people singing from their balconies, in isolation together. At the same time we’re dismayed by what we’ve collectively done to the planet that holds us. A sense of despair was also there a century ago, as the war was ending: people likened influenza to a deadly wind blowing about the earth as a kind of punishment.
According to Howard Phillips, the author of Black October, “many people were convinced that [the flu pandemic] must somehow have been connected with the war. Thus, in Entente countries, tags coined included ‘war plague,’ ‘Flanders grippe,’ ‘Hun flu,’ ‘Turco-Germanic bacterial criminal enterprise’ and ‘German plague,’ as many believed that the war-epidemic link lay in the unburied corpses on the battlefields or the dastardly use of poison gas. ‘So many were killed in the great war of the white people’, explained indigenous healers in faraway Southern Rhodesia, ‘that the blood of the dead caused this great sickness,’ while in the memory of one elderly flu survivor sixty years later, the war ‘poisoned the air … all the bombs and things … travelled with the wind [around the world].’
There were three waves of the pandemic then, just as there are expected to be subsequent waves of Covid 19. In January 1920, two years after the original outbreak, the death of a young Toronto boy prompted the Star headline “Is flu back again?” Over the course of the month, both the Star and the Globe reported on large outbreaks south of the border with such increasing alarm that it soon seemed inevitable the epidemic would return, swirling over the city like frenzied snowflakes, and falling wherever it chose. In Chicago, California-bound trains were “crowded to the limit” with people fleeing to escape flu. And in Detroit, the coroner announced the county morgue was “filled to its capacity with bodies. … If bodies continue coming in as they have in the last two days extra arrangements for their care will have to be made.” Ads appeared in Toronto papers for cure-alls like Hamlin’s Wizard Oil: snuff it up the nose at the first sign of a cough or sore throat and you could stop the symptoms from turning into “dangerous influenza.” By the end of January, there were “more than 500 cases of flu at the border,” as one headline put it, characterizing the illness as a band of murderers poised to invade.
In all likelihood we are in for a long and difficult ride that will impact all of our lives in a variety of ways. Hopefully we manage to lean on each other, without touching, of course. A friend of mine — the writer Phil Dwyer — recently posted some wise words.
“Trying times test us. In our responses, we show who we really are.”
This pretty card is among Nettie’s pictures and letters at CLIP. Strange how an image of grasped hands reads differently right now.
One of my favourite resources for first-person material from the First World War is The Canadian Letters & Images Project, which features scanned images of letters, diaries, photographs and ephemera, and defines itself as “an online archive of the Canadian war experience.” It was an obvious place to look to further our series of posts on the influenza pandemic that happened more than a century ago. Featured below, with thanks to CLIP, is a letter from Jeanette “Nettie” Bridges to her mother back home in New Brunswick. Nettie was a VAD stationed at a hospital in Reading, Berkshire, when she contracted influenza in October 1918. She had only recently married a Canadian soldier.
The story has a happy ending: Nettie and her husband survived both the pandemic and the war, and returned home to raise a family in Canada. But reading Nettie’s words reminds me how grateful we must be to the healthcare workers looking after our most vulnerable just now, all across the globe. A dear old friend of mine works in public health in Ottawa; my niece is working in a hospital as part of her nursing studies; and another good friend and neighbour works in the emergency room of a busy Toronto hospital. This post goes out to them and their ilk as a small way of saying thank you.
Now wasn’t it just like me to be one of the influenza victims, but when I tell you that one third of the staff on night duty & a great many on day duty are down with it you would probably have been more surprised if I had escaped.
I never felt better in my life than I did last Thursday just a week to-morrow. We went for a long ride on the top of a tram that morning before we went to bed and the air was beautiful. I was so well wrapped up too. had a sweater under my great coat & the latter has a nice big opossum collar on it now. Went on duty that night feeling fine Friday morning about 5 o’clock my throat began to feel raw, but I didn’t think much of it. At 7:30 just when we come off duty I felt a bit shivery so took a dose of quinine as we had been told to do if we felt that way as a precaution (two of our staff at least of no.3 where Mary is had died of influenza and pneumonia a week before and everyone was being very careful).
After breakfast I told Mary I thought I would go right to bed as I didn’t feel extra well, I kept getting hotter and hotter and by 10.30 my temperature was 101 so by 1.30 I was in a bed down here (they send one of the hospital ambulances for me).
The Sisters Sick Quarters or Sick Hut is down at No.1 and consists of 2 little hut wards of 5 beds each very cosy with a nice bright fire burning in the grate day and night. Pretty chinez sheets and little rose puffs on the bed, so it is very comfortable would be very lonely to be in a ward alone as no one is allowed in to see us but as the other beds are occuppied by 2 V.A.D’s & 2 Sisters we keep each other company.
Mary and Marion send me flowers & grapes or something each morning and bring my letters down to me but I’m not allowed to see them, so far they have both escaped. …
I was glad everyone was pleased with the wedding especially Mr & Mrs Mackay & you and father. you are really the only ones that count.
We are very well looked after here – a day nurse and a night nurse both from the London hospital Whitechapel where Stanley was. They had to send to London for help as none of our staff could be spared to nurse us. The medical officer (same one that looks after the offices) comes in to see us morning and evening and we have every attention. The pain in my head legs and back was something desperate and you have a cough. On Sunday I developed bronchitis which was quite natural knowing me tendency in that direction. I have an inhaler every four hours of eucalyptis and benzoine am really all better now and if I was home would be up, but in the army you have to do as you re told. Have been on chicken diet and actually get it for my lunch each day. I will probably be allowed to sit up by the fire tomorrow afternoon.
The Influenza epidemic has been dreadful all over England. So many of the officers in our hospital here have had it and lots of the Tommies down where I was that’s when I caught it, as I was looking after dozens who had it.
By the time you get this I will be up and as fit as ever so don’t worry about me. The rest in bed is great.
I don’t think I will get many wedding presents till I get home. The chest of silver will be perfect but I think will wait till I get back.
Tea has come in so I must stop. We have lovely thin bread and butter and jam and tea at 4.30. …
A great deal of love to you and father and I do hope you have a good maid by now.
Men wearing masks during the Spanish flu epidemic. Alberta, Canada, 1918. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada.
Given the bizarre situation the world finds itself in of late, Tracy and I thought it might be interesting to do a series of posts about the influenza pandemic that swept through the world a century or so ago, right at the end of the First World War. We’ll search out old photographs, diary entries and letters, as well as newspaper accounts and advertisements, to see how people responded to the outbreak in a time vastly different than our own. Since the middle part of The Cowkeeper’s Wishdelves deeply into the First World War period, the flu came up time and again in our research. So to start off our series of posts, here’s an excerpt from the story. It begins in 1918, when our great uncle Ernie, then 13, was sent from London to stay with family on a farm in Laindon.
Small Ernie was a fish out of water in Laindon, a green place dotted with farms and hedgerows, and where the fields were covered in pale pink cuckoo flowers and dancing dog-daisies. Instead of the familiar city noises of traffic and too many people, there were the barnyard grunts and snuffles of livestock, and the solitary sound of your own footsteps on gravel paths. At night, there was absolute quiet except for the chirp of crickets in the long grass outside the house, or the thrum of rain on the roof’s wooden shingles. Ernie slept in an unheated room in the attic where silverfish clung to the damp rafters, and although he shared the chores with cousin Percy, … to Ernie fell the worst jobs, like mucking out the pigpen. In the eyes of a 13-year-old as fastidious as Ernie, farm life surely seemed a lot like a punishment.
Ernie wasn’t the only Londoner discovering the charms of rural life. With three million men away fighting, and women filling the jobs they’d previously held, it seemed only sensible to the men at the Board of Agriculture that women could also be encouraged to undertake agricultural work. Those farmers still on the land, though, were reluctant to accept female workers, expecting that they would not be capable of performing the physically demanding work, while women themselves, particularly rural women, saw farm labour as a step below even domestic service. Recruiters decided to target the urban middle class, and organizations such as the Women’s Defense Relief Corps had some early success, advertising the work as a holiday for women to try their hand at haymaking, fruit picking, and harvesting, while the Women’s Farm and Garden Union offered free training on gardening and farming techniques.
By 1916, with food shortages an increasing problem, it became apparent that a more concerted effort would have to be put into recruiting female labour. Under the auspices of the newly created Department for Food Production, the Women’s Land Army was formed, and advertisements began to appear nudging women to their agricultural duty. “God Speed the Plough and the Woman Who Drives It,” read the caption below one poster. It depicted a woman guiding a horse-drawn plough against a golden sunrise, as if the call were not just patriotic but divine. At a rally in London, crowds turned out to watch the spectacle of a parade of tractors driven by ladies. At another, women carried rakes, hoes and other farm implements, and banners fluttered, declaring “We Are All Fit,” and “The Lasses are Massing for the Spring Offensive.” The women who volunteered for the Land Army were outfitted by the Department with high boots, a knee-length tunic, a felt hat with a round brim to keep the sun off of fair skin, and breeches. The Land Army Handbook, issued to all members, felt it prudent to make this cautionary statement: “You are doing a man’s work and so you’re dressed rather like a man, but remember just because you wear a smock and breeches you should take care to behave like a British girl who expects chivalry and respect from everyone she meets.” Although the papers claimed they looked “particularly well” in their mannish garb, not everyone was so admiring. In one village, locals threw stones at the arriving Land Army recruits, because they disapproved of women wearing pants.
Laindon, too, had its Land Army girls. One girl assigned to milk and care for the cows at a dairy farm later recalled the early morning walk through the dark fields from the house where she was billeted. She munched bread and jam as she went, and eyed the bobbing glow of hurricane lamps as others also picked their way between shrubs and along mud paths to work. A day off was unheard of, but she and the rest of the Land Army girls were allowed to attend the Sunday service at St. Nicholas, the little church on the hill at the centre of the village. Tired from her early starts and the hard work, she often “simply could not keep awake,” and was caught napping on several occasions. …
Like Ernie, the Land Army girls had been displaced by circumstances beyond their control. Although they were here in Laindon to do their bit for the war, they were likely no less lonely than Ernie, and could attest to the truthfulness of the words spoken by the Minister of Agriculture, Rowland Prothero, in a speech in London: “It is hard work – fatiguing, back-aching, monotonous, dirty work in all sorts of weather.… The accommodation is rough, and those who undertake it have to face physical discomforts.… There is no romance in it; it is prose.”
He might have been speaking of Ernie’s reality too. Ernie wasn’t a shirker, but he was physically small, and preferred wielding a paint brush to lugging a slop bucket. He’d never known animals, and pigs were much larger and stronger close up than one would expect them to be. There are hints that his relatives had little confidence in his abilities. And perhaps, with all he’d been through since the day he’d watched his father keel over while polishing his shoes, Ernie hadn’t quite come into his own. Despite growing up in some of the dirtiest areas of London, he’d always been meticulous, careful to wash his hands and keep his shoes polished, and a future among the pigpens of Aunt Ada’s farm must have been hard to accept. Whether he, like the Land Army girls, found encouragement in the words of the appeal posters tacked to the walls behind postmasters’ counters countrywide – “Make your motto ‘Forward!’ and stick to it like glue” – at the end of the day, curled in a blanket in his attic room, Ernie was miserable.
Yet Laindon was a safer place to be than London when the Spanish Lady came to call. A particularly virulent and deadly strain of influenza, the illness was labeled Spanish simply because neutral Spain reported her cases freely, while those countries still at war at first gave it little press. The outbreak almost certainly did not originate in Spain, but the name – Spanish flu or Spanish lady – stuck, and the illness gained yet more monikers. The Purple Death was one, on account of its victims developing heliotrope cyanosis and turning the shade of amethyst as the person suffocated, choking on thick scarlet jelly that filled the lungs. Death came quickly. Dr. Roy Grist, a Glasgow physician, described the course of the flu in a letter to a colleague, saying that it started almost benignly, with what appeared to be an ordinary case of “la grippe” – sore throat, headache and fever. But within hours, patients “very rapidly develop the most vicious type of pneumonia that has ever been seen…. A few hours later you can begin to see cyanosis extending from their ears and spreading all over the face…. It is only a matter of a few hours then until death comes. It is horrible.”
In Britain, the illness first appeared in Glasgow in May 1918, and traveled south by June. Crowded London was hit hard. Its citizens and myriad wartime visitors were pressed together on trams, in movie theatres, in workplaces, in overfull, substandard housing, and moved cheek by jowl through the streets, so it was inevitable that London and the bigger towns and cities would bear the brunt. Hospitals were already overflowing with war casualties, nurses and doctors were overworked, and incredibly, this particular virus preferred those in the prime of life to the very young or the very old, so soldiers and sailors were easy targets, especially since they lived and worked in such close quarters. At first, there was uncertainty about what the illness actually was, with some newspapers attributing it to “trench fever” brought back from the front, since it had similar characteristics such as sudden fever, headache and sore muscles. Others referred to it as a “mystery disease,” labeling it a plague, or a form of malaria. One London newspaper went so far as to suggest that the disease was “directly traceable to the German use of poison gas, the after effects of which have induced growth of a new type of streptococcus,” while American rumours said it was some kind of germ warfare started by German agents put ashore in U-boats. Yet another paper took an oddly humourous angle, dubbing London “the city of sneezes,” and reporting that everyone seemed to be “carrying on a kind of sneezing competition as to the number of times he or she can ‘T-s-c-h’ in the course of a day…. There is one strange coincidence, however, about this sneezing epidemic,” the article continued with its tongue firmly in cheek. “It synchronizes with the outbreak of [ready-made] suits. Troubles never come singly.”
The flu carried its victims off almost haphazardly, taking a half-dozen or more from a school, twice that from the workhouse, an entire family elsewhere. Cinemas and pubs closed their doors, and few shops other than the druggists’ had a line-up. City streets were sprayed with disinfectant, and people tied handkerchiefs over mouths and noses to keep the flu at bay. Advertisers, seeing an opportunity to sell their products to a public hoping to avoid contracting the illness, climbed aboard the influenza cart. Everything from mints to beef teas was touted by their makers as having curative or preventative properties. Consuming Oxo Beef Cubes would “fortif[y] the system against influenza infection,” while gargling a single tablespoon of Condy’s Remedial Fluid mixed with water was billed as both a “prevention and cure.” The Dunlop Rubber Tyre Company placed ads that showed a man on a bicycle, and stretched rather far to make a link: “If the influenza fiend has had its grip on you, let your bicycle help you to throw it off. Get out into the fresh air whenever you can and ride gently along…. Dunlop tyres … mean no troublesome tyre worries to interfere with your bicycle cure.”
Despite the dubious link, Ernie would have enjoyed the Dunlop tyre claim, and in Laindon he probably took every chance to follow the company’s advice to ride. Ernie had been an avid roller-skater back in his old Marshalsea Road neighbourhood, so the move to a bicycle was a natural progression, and all his life he would love to cycle. A photo taken several years later attests to his comfort on two wheels. He slumps casually on the seat of a sturdy bicycle, one hand dangling at his side, the other resting on the handlebar. His right foot sits on the raised pedal, his pant leg is tucked into a sock so as not to get caught in the chain; the other foot is planted on the ground, holding his balance. Dressed in a wool jacket, vest and tie and with a flat cap shading his eyes from the slanting sun, he gazes steadily at the camera. In most other early photos of Ernie, there is a Chaplin-esque look about him – a thin-shouldered vulnerability that lifts off the paper – but in this single shot, that quality is absent, replaced by a confident, relaxed demeanor.
Over our years of work on The Cowkeeper’s Wish, much of our research was focused on the WW1 period, and through that time we made many connections with people engaged in their own projects. One of these was A Street Near You, a digital mapping project begun by James Morley, whose intention was to demonstrate the phenomenal possibilities of linking First World War data sources.
Since it’s Remembrance Day, I thought it fitting to zoom into a place on the map that is special to me, and to see who turns up thanks to James’s magic. At the time of WW1, Perth Avenue in Toronto’s west end, between Lansdowne and Dundas Street West, was part of a working-class neighbourhood humming with industry and surrounded by railroad tracks. (For an excellent, quick read through the neighbourhood’s history, visit One Gal’s Toronto and her piece on Perth Avenue.)
The City of Toronto Archives has some great old photos of the area in this period, showing baseball games in the local park, little children at school, rail lines criss-crossing the neighbourhood, and old cars parked on somewhat bleak looking streets. Of course the cars weren’t old then, and neither were the houses. Many of the houses on Perth were built in the 1910s — new at the time of WW1.
The area had fewer residents than it does now, so people up and down the street surely knew each other. (Today this is still true, which is a rather lovely and unusual thing in a big and bustling city.) When someone’s son or husband died, it was likely a loss for larger area too. James’s map links eight war deaths to Perth Avenue in Toronto — there may well have been others, of course, and a quick zoom out shows a lot more deaths in the larger area. As you’ll see, a closer examination of the Perth Avenue addresses also yields links to other streets nearby.
So who were the eight with ties to Perth?
John William Lawrence was working as a clerk when he enlisted in April 1915, but barely saw service. According to his service record, he was underweight and sickly, and hospitalized upon arriving in England in 1916. Thereafter he was diagnosed with bronchitis, influenza and tonsillitis, and he was eventually discharged as physically unfit — he probably shouldn’t have passed the medical examination in the first place. Age 37, he died of cancer in February 1920 and was buried here in Toronto, in Prospect Cemetery. He and his wife Nellie lived on Weston Road and then on St Clair, and his mother, Elizabeth Todd, lived at 49 Perth Avenue.
William Horace Taylor was born in Toronto, but served with the British army. He died in Belgium in October 1917. So far I haven’t found a link to Perth Avenue, but I’ll keep looking.
George Henry Joseph Jordan enlisted in 1915, and was working as a labourer. According to George’s service record, his family moved from nearby St Helen’s Avenue to 103 Perth, where they remained, minus George, on the 1921 census. His father, also George, worked as a painter. Just 19 when he died in July 1916, George Jr’s casualty record states: “Previously reported Missing, now Killed in Action. He was one of a party detailed from his Battalion and attached for duty with a wiring party … and while putting out wire at the Bluff, Ypres … an enemy mine exploded and Private Jordan with many of his comrades was killed.”
Frank Sanderson Batty enlisted in 1915. At that time, he’d been living with his parents on Margueretta, just east of Perth, and working as an electrician. The family had come to Canada from Scotland in 1907. Frank’s service record shows that he died on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and puts his parents, Herbert and Mary Ann, at 189 Perth Avenue. A nephew, born the year he died, was named after him, and went on to serve in the next war.
Edward Charles Largen lived in the UK and served with the British Army, but his parents lived at 215 Perth Avenue. His father was a chef who at some point had worked at the Ontario College of Agriculture in Guelph. Edward died at the Somme in July 1916, but a letter exists, written to his parents from Belgium the year before, and reads, in part, “At present we are having a very pleasant time camping out in a field almost out of the sound of the guns. The weather is beautifully warm and life’s worth living. … There is still plenty of fighting before us, however, and I hope I have the luck to see it to the finish.”
George Robert Williams was living with his wife Rena on Campbell Avenue, a couple of streets east of Perth, when he enlisted in 1916. At that time, he was 22 years old and employed as a shipper. He had come to Canada from England in 1910, and he and Rena had married in September 1914, in the early days of the war. At some point during George’s time overseas, Rena moved to 271 Perth. His service record states that on Nov. 8, 1918, just a few days before the war ended, he was hospitalized in France with influenza. The outbreak was deadly and widespread, and claiming lives here at home in Toronto too. George Williams was pronounced dangerously ill on the 14th, and died the next day.
James Oakley was a bricklayer at the time of his enlistment in 1916. He was living with his mother Ann at 357 Perth Avenue, just across from the park where the baseball photos were taken in those days. Unlike most of the men above, James had been born in Toronto. His 1888 birth record says his father Thomas was also a bricklayer, and the family was then living on Manning. James’s service record tells us he was wounded in the back and arm in September 1918, and died soon after of shock from those wounds. I came across this photograph of him by contacting a woman who has him in her online family tree. She told me that the photo came to her all the way from Florida, via a stranger who’d acquired the image, and wanted to see it returned to family.
James Martin was born in Belfast and living with his wife Elizabeth at 479 Perth when he joined the army. His service record tells us he was working as a labourer, and had a tattoo of “an English dancing girl” on his right forearm. He was on the old side for soldiering — 38 when he enlisted in 1914 — and had served with the British Army in the Boer War. In 1916, he was working as a transport driver for the service corps when he fell from a wagon and injured his head. His application for a pension was complicated by the fact that he tested positive for syphilis. The board wrote, “We found this one of the most difficult cases to decide upon.” Though his disability was considered total and permanent, the pension was denied. Lengthy notes in his file discuss paralysis, speech difficulties, and impaired memory: “Speech is thick. Has difficulty in pronouncing common words. … Mentally stupid. Says he lived on Perth St Toronto but cannot tell what Province Toronto is in. Nor whether it is in North or South America. Knows it is in Canada. Understands and carries out all commands fairly when not too complicated.” Unusually, James Martin’s record contains a letter handwritten by him on stationary from Granville Special Canadian Hospital in Ramsgate, Kent, expressing his eagerness to get home. “I may also mention that I have a wife and child in Toronto, my wife who is at present time, in a delicate state of health, which I am afraid is partly due to anxiety on my account, and would I am sure improve on my return to her.” James Martin was invalided to Canada and died in October 1918.
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!