Our grandmother’s scrapbook

Doris passport, 1918
Doris Deverill’s passport photo, 1919

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.

Chapter 15 - Bebbie and Doris, 1920s
Doris with Martha Bedford, whom she called Bebbie, in London, Ontario in the 1920s

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:

Chapter 15 - Post card from Ethel, circa 1920.jpg

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:

Chapter 15 - Reverse of post card from Ethel

Ernest Biss postcardAnother 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.

rms metagama

Picnic Hill

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.”

Chapter 14 - George, Jack and Bill Cartwright, McCormick's picnic, 1916
Bill Cartwright, right, and his brothers sporting straw boaters and knickerbockers at a 1916 picnic

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 picnic 1, circa 1929

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.

L&PS Railway at the foot of Picnic Hill
The L&PS Railway trains dropped passengers at the foot of Picnic Hill where they could queue for the incline railway that would take them to the top. (Photo courtesy of Elgin County Archives)

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.

port stanley beach casino
Beachfront casino, ferris wheel and ladies bathing rooms at Port Stanley, circa 1913. Photo courtesy of Elgin County Archive collection.

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.

Incline Railway courtesy Elgin County Railway museum
The incline railway ferried picnickers to the top of Picnic Hill, and back down again at the end of the day. (Photo courtesy of Elgin County Historical Museum.)

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.

McCormick's picnic potato sack race
Potato sack race at a McCormick’s company picnic on Picnic Hill. The man on the left, in tough for the win, is George Cartwright, our great grandfather.

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!

Sources

Elgin County Archives and Elgin County Historical Museum

A Spot on the Lake: A History of Port Stanley, by Len Hendershott

Closed Canadian Parks: Port Stanley

Imagining the Radio Hour

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.

doris 18 (1)
Doris Deverill around 1928

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.

BA Rolfe Master Mystery 1919
B.A Rolfe produced more than 50 silent films, including this one starring Harry Houdini.

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. The Merry 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.

douglas fairbanks lucky strikeThe 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.”

Pom-pom_(1916)_1
An ad for the 1916 musical Pom-Pom starring Hungarian singer and actress Mitzi Hajos. Despite her early success, mid-life brought work as a secretary at the Shubert Theatre in Brooklyn, NY.

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.

20141228204601!Amelia_Earhart_awaits_transatlantic_flight_1928
Pioneer female aviator Amelia Earhart in a photo taken just before the 1928 flight destined for “any port in England.”

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.

Sources

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.

http://www.biography.com

Douglas Fairbanks: The Extraordinary Life of Hollywood Founding Father, The Guardian online.