A little while ago I was scrolling the Facebook page for my hometown high school in Deep River, Ontario, where I often see great old pictures of the town where I grew up or catch up on news from people I knew long ago. This time, to my surprise, I noticed a post about “British Home Child Day.” After I read the story, I wrote to its author, Ron Baker, and asked if he’d allow me to publish it here. So thanks to Ron for this touching piece about his dad Edwin Matthew Baker, a home child who came to Canada in the 1920s.
For decades, I and my brothers and sister believed that our father Edwin was an American born in Boston, USA; in fact, in 1970, I actually wrote letters to the City of Boston archives and to the Boston State House seeking information on my father. They replied that they had no records of him or his mother, Rachel Rebecca. I chalked it up to possibly poor record keeping back in 1913, the year my father was born.
That all changed on August 15, 2008, when I came across an old torn envelope addressed to my late father at the Gibbs Home in Sherbrooke, Quebec, sent from India. I googled ‘Gibbs Home’ and a couple of emails later, I discovered a whole new chapter of my father’s life that was previously unknown to me and the rest of my family.
Yes, my father was born in Boston, but it was actually the Boston in Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England. What I discovered was the quintessential story of the British home child.
At the age of ten his mother Rachel Rebecca died in a workhouse, probably of tuberculosis, according to a file sent to me from the Church of England Children’s Society, formerly Waifs and Strays. My father was placed into care by his grandfather Charles, age 60. (See Leicester Home for Boys.)
Later, at almost 15, my father was given the choice of coming to Canada or going to Australia. He chose Canada because some of his friends were going there. After farming training at Stoneygate Farm School, he was sent to Canada on the SS DORIC along with 32 other boys. He arrived at Quebec City on July 7, 1928, and went from there to the Gibbs Home in Sherbrooke, under the watchful eye of Thomas Keeley. He worked at several Quebec farms in Bulwer, Eaton, Ayer’s Cliff, Bromptonville and Lennoxville.
My father was like many of the home children, who did everything they could to distance themselves from their past to eliminate the bullying. They disposed of their trunks and their English accents. My father’s trunk was found at the first farm he worked at, the Gallup Farm in Bulwer. The trunk was returned to me by Sarge and Pauline Bampton (Bampton Home Children Collection), original members of Home Children Canada, Quebec Branch.
After marrying and serving in the military, my father worked at a munitions factory in Valleyfield, Quebec, before moving to Deep River, Ontario, to work at the newly established Atomic Energy plant, where he worked in the Chemical Extraction Division.
He successfully shed his English accent and never spoke of his native country, even in spite of the fact that we had English neighbours in Deep River. It amazes me to this day that there were no slip-ups when speaking with the neighbours.
This discovery doesn’t really change anything about the relationship my siblings and I had with our father, but it does give us a whole new appreciation for his ability to keep a secret. I am sure that sometimes he probably really wanted to tell us his story.
The Church of England Children’s Society did send me details of my father’s stay with them, which included details of his mother’s struggles, where he was born and baptised, his level of education, the names of aunts and uncles, and the fact they maintained some contact with him at the Gibbs Home, however briefly. More recently, I have discovered one of my father’s first cousins and his family in and around Boston, England. We have exchanged messages and pictures and visited.
Our great aunt and uncle, Ethel and Ernie Deverill, came to London, Ontario, from London, England, in the 1920s, two young single people with relatives on either side of the ocean, none of whom could have afforded to help pay their way. Domestics and farm labourers were in demand in Canada at the time, and a variety of emigration schemes existed to match people to available jobs. Though it has never been determined with certainty that Ethel and Ernie came here under one of those programs, it’s likely, since Ethel’s entry documents claimed she would be working as a domestic with a job awaiting her, and Ernie’s showed that he had already been hired as a farm labourer, despite having little or no experience. Essentially, they came with scant possessions, and enthusiasm for a new start. Almost twenty years earlier, the fact they were from one of the have-not boroughs of London would have singled them out as undesirables, two among thousands of London poor broadly labeled “the degenerate ‘Cockney’.”
Since at least the 1860s, charitable organizations operating in London’s East End, the Borough, and other impoverished areas of the city had been sending London’s poor to Canada in large numbers. The Salvation Army, the East End Emigration Fund, the Charity Organisation Society and a handful of other philanthropic agencies developed various schemes to facilitate the transportation and resettlement of prospective emigrants. And while Canada needed and wanted the influx, many of these new arrivals were not the choice candidates sought, and were often looked on with suspicion and even hostility, an attitude indicative in part of a class prejudice that assumed these immigrants were not only lazy, weak, ill and incapable, but included an intrinsic criminal element.
Until 1906, Canada’s immigration policy had been relatively open, and British people, given the historic, matriarchal relationship between the two countries, had been preferred. Reverend James Shaver Woodsworth,
a Methodist minister and politician who would become a major influence on Canadian social policy, summed up the view of many when he wrote: “We need more of our own blood to assist us in maintaining in Canada our British traditions and mold the incoming armies of foreigners into loyal British subjects.” But assisted immigrants, Woodsworth maintained, and particularly those from London’s poorest warrens – Whitechapel, the Borough, Shoreditch and the like – were not what he had in mind. In his book Strangers Within Our Gates, or Coming Canadians, Woodsworth gave the example of a young family from Whitechapel, the husband a dyer, the wife a lace-maker. Together with their children, they arrived in Canada thanks to a charitable organization program, ostensibly to farm on the prairies, but, as Woodsworth writes, “They never got beyond Winnipeg. The man was not strong enough physically to farm, and his eyesight was defective. Before many months the wife was in the courts accusing her husband of assault. The children were sickly; after about a year it was discovered that the little boy was weak-minded. The ‘home’ was a copy of the homes in the slums of East London.”
A correspondent for the Times of London, writing in 1908 from Toronto and quoting a Canadian newspaper proprietor, agreed.
One hears the same thing everywhere – the Englishman who succeeds [in Canada] is hardly ever a Londoner; the Englishman who fails completely is almost always a Londoner. … It is these people who are the curse of the Empire, who are the cause of the “No English Need Apply” advertisements, who are doomed to fail wherever they go, who are, and must remain, helpless, shiftless wrecks. For many years the philanthropists, the clergy, the students of sociology have been declaring that “something must be done” for these poor stunted victims of generations of city life, of heedlessness and misgovernment. Recently the “something” has taken the form of assisted emigration, under the pitifully mistaken idea that clearer skies and more generous space and unvitiated air will transform a man or woman who has attained full growth from a useless to a useful member of the community. It will not do. In the second generation, perhaps, there may be a change, for, after all, there is good stock in these “submerged” millions. In the meanwhile, however, they are a burden on communities that can ill afford it, and they are becoming a source of irritation on the part of the Colonies toward the Mother Country.
This “irritation” had translated into legislation in Canada, aimed at curbing what J.S. Woodsworth called “the “dumping” of these unfortunates into Canada. In 1906, the Canadian government had tightened its immigration laws to try to encourage the arrival of persons with qualifications more suited to the country’s needs – mainly farm labour – and the emigration agencies in London made at least a perfunctory effort at complying. But the observations of the correspondent from the Times in 1907 and letters such as the one sent by the Ontario Department of Agriculture in Toronto and published in the East London Observer in 1907 complaining about a group of recent arrivals from Poplar, illustrated their meagre success.
On Sunday night there arrived here thirty-one men, bringing cards of introduction from L. Leopold [the Official Labour Representative in Europe for the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association.] I interviewed some of [the men] yesterday morning, and, picking out the one that appeared least drunk of the lot, I learned that they had been engaged on some farm colony for some three or four months. They received an express order when they landed, which they cashed in Toronto, and immediately proceeded to get drunk. At the lodging-house last night they raised such a disturbance that they had to send for the patrol wagon and send several of them to the police station. We sent a few to Harrowsmith this morning, and they will probably work in some mine; but I do not think they are at all fit men to send to farms, although they are said by Leopold to be wanting farm work. They did not want to go on farms, and I do not think they would be the kind of men whom it would be safe to send into a farm house. They are, without exception, the toughest lot that I have seen for years.
Still, the agencies in London soldiered on, and reported their own statistics to demonstrate the success of their ventures. The Daily Telegraph Shilling Fund and its associated charities suggested that “a better, fitter set of emigrants had never been selected to leave our shores,” while other reports stated that a full 90 per cent of Salvation Army emigrants had found success in agricultural jobs in Canada.
The key, they believed, was in “raising the standard” of the emigrants, and providing prior training on farm colonies. But Canada saw the issue differently. Of the 6,096 emigrants sent by the East End Emigration Fund in 1906/7, almost 250 were denied entry to Canada upon arrival, and returned to England immediately. The following year, 70 per cent of all deportations from Canada were British.
The First World War put a halt to most emigration, but when the war ended there were new challenges. With so many unemployed, the British government began to take an interest in emigration, an area previously left, for the most part, to faith-based and philanthropic organizations like the Salvation Army and Girls’ Friendly Society. The government held a conference on Empire settlement, and invited Canada, Australia and New Zealand to the table, coming away with an understanding of their intersecting goals: in Britain, to facilitate the assisted emigration of their unemployed and strengthen allegiances within the Empire, and in the Dominions, to attract preferred immigrants – men with employable skills or those who would farm the land, and healthy women with domestic skills, all preferably British and white, so as not to dilute their culture.
The outcome was the Empire Settlement Act of 1922, a compromise meant to address the fact that Britain did not want to give up her skilled workers, and the Dominions did not want paupers. Training programs for farm work were set up, and although they’d existed prior to this – the Salvation Army, for example, ran Hadleigh Farm; the Waifs and Strays Society had a colony in Staffordshire – the government hadn’t contributed funding. The result was a sort of partnership between the government and the already existing agencies, and although it’s not clear if any of them facilitated Ernie and Ethel Deverill’s move to Canada a few years later, he as a farm labourer and she as a domestic, however their immigration came about, it was a different experience from that of our great grandfather, George Cartwright, who’d emigrated from London, England in 1907.
Family lore recounts George’s struggle to find employment once in Canada, recalling the window signs warning that “Englishmen Need Not Apply.” After traipsing over much of southern Ontario in his search for employment he eventually found maintenance work in London at McCormick’s Biscuit Factory, the so-called “Sunshine Palace,” with its hundreds of sparkling windows and its pristine white walls. Ernie Deverill, perched on a different limb of the family tree and arriving in Canada nearly twenty years after George, was almost certainly unsuited for the farm job he’d come to do, but he too soon found work that was a better fit, mopping and scrubbing his way from the offices and hallways of that same factory to the homes of the company’s managers.
Though neither George nor Ernie were ever going to make it as farmers, and Ethel did not labour long as a paid domestic, neither were they “degenerate ‘Cockney[s]’”. George was by all accounts an honest and loyal man, and a hard worker. A photograph of him at work bears the caption “Who keeps Mc’s going? Pa!” Ethel married within months of her arrival and became a domestic of a different sort, running a household and raising a family of Canadians. Ernie, small and humble, might not have been shocked to know that the poorest Londoners hadn’t been welcome in the country he’d come to. After all, he’d grown up as one of them and had seen the ways of the drunk and the destitute. But he’d been given a chance and he’d taken it, and though he never aspired beyond his brooms and buckets, he worked at the same factory his whole adult life, a Londoner who succeeded where many had expected him to fail.
“The Out of Work Englishman in Canada – An Indictment of the Londoner.” Yorkshire Post, December 7, 1908.
“Exporting “people of British stock”: training and immigration policy in inter-war Britain.” Field, John, University of Stirling, Scotland, 2010.
Strangers Within our Gates, Woodsworth, J.S., The Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, 1909.
“Emigration.” East London Observer, June 1, 1907.
“Prosperity follows settlement in any part of Canada: Letters from satisfied settlers.” Minister of the Interior, 1909.
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.
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.
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!
Close your eyes and imagine that it’s 10 o’clock on a Saturday evening in London, Ontario. The year is 1928. This is our grandmother Doris Deverill’s world. She is 18, and is somewhere in the same city, perhaps, like you, sitting in a flocked, over-stuffed armchair with her feet curled beneath her.
In your room, the heavy drapes are drawn and a small lamp with a thin silk shade is colouring the room a dusky orange. You’ve just turned the knob on the front of the polished wooden radio set that has pride of place on the floor of your small living room, and it hums and then crackles to life. Strains of a theme song fill the space – This is My Lucky Day – and it’s not lost on you that the song has been chosen with a purpose; first, the word ‘lucky’ provides a little indirect advertising for the show’s sponsor, Lucky Strike Cigarettes, as well as a link to the show’s title, The Lucky Strike Radio Hour, and second, it’s a popular song, having been part of a string of Broadway revues called the George White Scandals, similar to the Ziegfeld Follies.
Immediately following the last notes of the song the voice of the unnamed announcer comes on, his speech clipped and crisp and slightly nasal. “And so begins this hour of dance music, presented for your pleasure by the manufacturers of Lucky Strike Cigarettes. The Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra will be heard in the tunes that made Broadway, Broadway.”
And on cue, the Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra’s bandleader, Benjamin Albert Rolfe, the so-called Boy Trumpet Wonder, introduces the first numbers of the evening, “a real dancing combination.” One of the songs – Bambalina – he calls an “old friend.”
You smile and listen as Rolfe and his orchestra play. His concept of dance music during this time of the late 1920s was that it should “throb and laugh with happiness; it should have the rhythm of a rubber ball, bouncing back, only to fall again, going on and on.” Those words were a fair description of what Rolfe himself had been doing for his entire career up to this point. Raised in Brasher Falls, New York, he’d played piccolo and cornet in his father’s band, performing throughout the eastern United States and Europe. After high school he picked up work as a musical clown in a traveling circus, then joined the Majestic Theatre Orchestra before finally heading the brass instruments department at the Utica Conservatory of Music. But show business was in his blood, and after a run as a bandleader and only marginal success as a vaudeville producer he eventually turned his efforts to movies, forming a production company and turning out more than 50 silent films.
Financial difficulties forced Rolfe out of that business and he took up his trumpet again and began performing as a solo artist. Eventually, inspired by the likes of Paul Whiteman and his “symphonic jazz”, Rolfe put together his own dance orchestra, and found a measure of success on the airwaves as master of ceremonies for the Lucky Strike Dance Hour.
The last strains of Bambalina fade, and Rolfe introduces another number, and after that, a waltz from the operetta The Merry Widow. TheMerry Widow Waltz is already a “famous classic”, but in 1934 French actor and cabaret performer Maurice Chevalier will lend his charm to the film version of the operetta, and an Academy Award win for Best Art Direction will make the music just that much more popular. But for now, Rolfe’s Lucky Strike Dance Orchestra is doing justice to the notes, and you in your comfortable chair sway ever so slightly, dreaming up the feel of a hand at your back, leading you through the imaginary steps.
Then the music ends, and without a pause the never-named announcer brings listeners back to the real world, and makes the requisite pitch for the show’s sponsor. Tonight, the script-writers lead with Douglas Fairbanks, a founding member of the fledgling Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But you have never heard of an Oscar. The first of those diminutive gold statues won’t be handed out by the Academy for another year, although when they are, it will be Fairbanks hosting the show and shaking hands with his peers when they take their bows. Despite his many and varied contributions to the world of film (he helped start the School of Cinematic Arts in California, and was one of the founders of the United Artists studio), Fairbanks would never win an Oscar himself.
The radio announcer reads his text: “Douglas Fairbanks, America’s motion picture favourite, will soon appear in his new production of ‘The Iron Mask.’ This is a sequel to ‘The Three Musketeers’ with Mr. Fairbanks again playing the part of D’Artagnan.
The characters however are more romantic and adventurous and Mr. Fairbanks considers the picture as a whole to be faster moving than any story he has ever brought to the screen. The manufacturers of Lucky Strikes have requested me to read what Douglas Fairbanks has to say regarding the Lucky Strike Cigarette. Mr. Fairbanks says – ‘I get more kick from the Lucky Strike flavour than from any other cigarette. They are easier on my throat and wind. That’s why I smoke nothing but Luckies. Toasting really means a lot to me. My own experience has proven that toasting not only takes out the bad things but doubles the flavour.’”
You sigh and shift position. The hour grows late, and you want less talk and more music, and don’t care if Mr. Fairbanks smokes Luckies or Camels or even British Consols, which is unlikely, since they are a Canadian brand manufactured in Montreal, and Mr. Fairbanks, of course, is a Hollywood star.
Bandleader Rolfe announces the next couple of numbers, Crazy Rhythm, “a musical impediment of speech,” and Oh Evelyn, Stop Your Devilin, a song from the musical comedy Pom-Pom, and Mitzi’s favourite, according to Rolfe. He doesn’t share more details than that, but you know that Pom-Pom was released 12 years ago in 1916, and starred the “tiny prima donna from Hungary” Mitzi Hajos, whose name, the New York Times advised most helpfully, is pronounced “High-yuss.”
Despite the aids to pronunciation, the “golden haired darling” eventually became convinced that her Hungarian surname would never “roll readily from the American tongue,” and she legally dropped Hajos to become plain Mitzi. But as the Reading Times of Pennsylvania declared, “plain…she could never be, as witness her dressed as a boy in Pom-Pom.”
Two more songs follow, and then the announcer speaks again, this time sharing the endorsement of Lucky Strike cigarettes by yet another famous person, the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. The script goes like this: “A short time ago the world was thrilled by the daring Amelia Earhart, the first woman ever to cross the Atlantic Ocean by airplane. Of Lucky Strike cigarettes Miss Earhart said ‘Lucky Strikes were the cigarettes carried on the Friendship when she crossed the Atlantic. We bought a carton in Newfoundland before we took off, because Luckies are best. On a long hard grind of this kind they were real life-savers, and were smoked continuously from Trepassey to Wales. I think nothing else helped so much to lessen the strain for all of us.'” You think about that, and picture the intrepid Miss Earhart earnestly puffing her way through her share of the carton of Luckies, clad in her aviator coveralls, leather cap with earflaps snugged beneath her chin, and wearing clumsy gloves to protect against the cold of the 20 hour flight. Presumably pilot Wilmer Stultz and flight mechanic Louis Gordon had found time to inhale the other two-thirds of the smokes despite fighting bad weather they’d thought had blown them off course, and almost running out of gas. Amelia drew the world’s attention with that trip, although by her own words she was “just baggage” and wouldn’t pilot her solo voyage across the Atlantic until 1932.
Mr. Rolfe is back at the microphone, introducing five more numbers that float across the airwaves. You are yawning now, but the music is lively and keeps you in your chair, enjoying the beat of the “optimistic little melody, Old Man Sunshine,” and then the even spunkier Tiger Rag. But by the time the theme song plays to signal the end of the show, your eyelids are drooping and your hand props your chin. The announcer bids his listeners good night, and makes one last plug for the show’s sponsor. “This closes the program of one hour’s dance music presented for your pleasure by the manufacturers of Lucky Strike Cigarettes. The tunes that made Broadway, Broadway. Thank you.” But you do not hear those last sentences. You’re asleep, your breath coming evenly, your head tilted back on the cushion of that over-stuffed chair.
Lucky Strike Radio Hour transcript
Thurlow O. Cannon, “B.A. Rolfe – From Brasher Falls to Broadway to Broadcasting,” in The Quarterly, St. Lawrence County Historical Association, January 1981.
Pom-Pom Coming to the Academy, Reading Times, 8 February 1917.