“He had the impression of being in a strange country …”
Some of you will remember my recent series of posts about Hugh Russell, a WW1 soldier with shell shock, or what we now call PTSD. In my ongoing attempts to learn more about that affliction and the struggles veterans had reintegrating after the war, I’ve since been researching a man named John Armitage, who’d had a nervous breakdown of sorts after the first use of poison gas at Ypres. By 1916 he’d returned to Canada and was stationed at Aldershot Camp in Nova Scotia. The following year he married a woman named Emma at St. George’s Round Church in Halifax, the ceremony officiated by the minister Henry Ward Cunningham. Despite the union, John’s troubles continued. His pension record references “occasional emotional disturbances” in June of that year, and states that he “cries for hours about once in six weeks, following exceptionally hard work.” His complaints were like those of so many other men: nightmares, nervousness, insomnia. But though his story is a fascinating and tragic one, this post is not about him, and is a fine example of the twists and turns we encounter when we piece together the histories of ordinary people.
Although John was stationed at Aldershot during this period, and also in a sanatorium nearby for a time, his service record places Emma at a Halifax address. Judging by the dates scrawled on a form, it appears the couple was still in Nova Scotia in December 1917, when two ships collided in the Narrows, just north of Halifax Harbour. One of the ships had been loaded with munitions, and the collision caused a fire on board that soon saw the vessel engulfed in flames. Within 20 minutes, the ship exploded, spewing debris and toxic fumes over a wide area on both sides of the Narrows. The blast was so enormous that blocks of buildings were decimated, and windows shattered as much as 80 kilometres away. A tsunami washed the second ship ashore, and devastated a Mi’kmaw village situated along the Dartmouth waterfront, home to some 17 families. Rachel Cope, a child watching the scene from there, later recalled how the opposite shore had “seemed to shimmer like a reflection in a still pond and then everything went black.”
Nearly 2,000 people died, and 9,000 were wounded. For soldiers, it must have looked as though war had swept through the region as vehemently as at Passchendaele or the Somme, snapping trees and lamp posts and obliterating people’s homes. Almost immediately, soldiers were put to work gathering the dead and sorting through rubble for survivors. If John Armitage was among this band, it must have been gruelling work indeed, the kind that traumatized mentally healthy people let alone those who were already struggling. But everyone everywhere was helping — firefighters, police, railway workers, doctors, nurses, and ordinary civilians lucky enough to survive the blast. Afterwards, according to personal accounts collected for the Halifax Disaster Record Office, one officer recalled seeing “a trail of blood” as refugees streamed away from the hardest hit areas. As he directed soldiers in the work of removing bodies, he noticed in the distance “patches of white scattered all over” on Citadel Hill. The image puzzled him until someone explained that these were cloths laid over the faces of the dead.
Stories have a wonderful way of weaving into each other during this kind of research. So while looking for John Armitage, instead I discovered more and more about Reverend Cunningham, the man who’d married John and Emma at the Round Church months earlier. Born in Newfoundland, he was about 55 at the time of the Halifax Explosion, married, with several grown children and a son at war. Like the officer mentioned above, he shared his recollections of the terrifying event with the Halifax Disaster Record Office.
That morning, December 6, 1917, he had just finished his breakfast, and his wife was handing him a cup of coffee when a deep boom thundered, as if a bomb had burst on the church lawn. All at once, a “mighty rush of air” smashed the windows and blew in glass with the curtains, and he was thrown under the table, bleeding from a cut in his neck. He looked for his wife, who had run to the basement, and from outside he heard children at the local school screaming. For a couple of hours, until it was certain no further explosions would occur, he and his neighbours were crowded into the Halifax Common not far from the church, but as soon as he could, he went to check on parishioners. The devastation was everywhere. He saw homes reduced to nothing more than “a pile of bricks and a bath-tub,” bodies covered with burlap bags, fires blazing. One woman told him that when the vessels had first collided, she’d called to her children to “come out and see the beautiful sight of the burning ship,” and then was thrown 300 feet when the blast occurred, her clothing torn from her body.
I was curious to know more about this man who’d donned “old over-alls and old cap” and gone out looking for his parishioners that awful day. “There were fires along both sides of him on Union Street,” his interviewer wrote. “He had to pick his way over wires and debris. As he looked over the hill-side, he had the impression of being in a strange country – that he had never been there before. It was ‘terribly unfamiliar.’” To add to the monumental difficulties dealing with the explosion’s aftermath, a blizzard blew in the following day, stranding rescue teams coming from other places and cloaking the ruins in snow.
Reverend Cunningham’s work continued in the days and weeks after the explosion. “His house was deluged with hundreds of people,” and became a headquarters for food and clothing. The rectory had been built in 1841 and “stood the shock well,” and though the church had been damaged, it would recover. Soon after the blast, men of the parish set to putting things right again. He felt frustrated, though, by the relief committee’s efforts, and believed the distribution of goods should have been “more equitable.”
For the minister himself, faith — and perhaps experience — must have played a role in his own personal recovery, for he had seen disaster before. In April 1912, when the Titanic had sunk on its first voyage across the Atlantic, Cunningham had traveled out to the scene with an undertaker and an embalmer on board the Minia. More than 300 bodies had already been pulled from the sea by the first ship called on, and the Minia was brought in to assist in the grim, overwhelming mission.
As with the Halifax Explosion, bad weather interfered. At one point, the ship’s captain, William de Carteret, reported:
Returned to position last night during east gale and fog, and searched all day; found no bodies; omitted giving you following:
Joseph Finney, second class, rubber merchant, Brown Building, Liverpool.
Thomas Mullin, Badge 32, steward.
Have searched from latitude 49.25 eastward to 48 and north from 41.20 to 41.50. No doubt some single bodies remain; no groups. As they cannot be seen more than half a mile, you will understand how difficult it is to search every square mile for them. Regret must leave Friday night, but will make another search tomorrow. Passed one body during dense fog; unable to find it afterward.
A more intimate letter was written by Francis Dyke, an electrician on board, who confided to his mother back in England, “I honestly hope I will never have to come on another expedition like this as it is far from pleasant. The Dr. and I are sleeping in the middle of 14 coffins (for the time being) they are all stacked around our quarters aft. … When we passed over the spot where the Titanic sank [Reverend Cunningham] held a short service in the saloon which I thought was very nice of him. I expected to see the poor creatures very disfigured but they all looked calm as if they were asleep.”
In picturing the crew out searching, I’m reminded that this story connects to our own family history. Somewhere in the water, never recovered, were the bodies of Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter and his wife Lilian, who ran the church our grandmother’s family attended in Whitechapel. Two years earlier, our grandmother Doris Lilian had been named after Mrs. Carter, and baptized in the church.
After a week on board, the Minia’s crew had recovered only 17 bodies. They returned to Halifax Harbour, giving over the empty coffins to yet another rescue ship. The individual notes taken for each person found — clues to their identities — make for heartbreaking reading: Large prominent nose, silver cufflinks marked “E. K.” … Light brown hair, light eyebrows. … Short fingernails. (Looks as if he has been in the habit of biting them.) Letters, coins, buttons, handkerchiefs, keys, cigar cases, pocket watches — all were inspected and catalogued in the hope of identifying the dead.
Henry Ward Cunningham lived out the rest of his life in Halifax. One wonders what he thought when he recalled these two events, such enormous moments in history. A third event — more obscure but somehow a match for the others — occurred decades earlier, when he was just 18 and studying in England. The Frome Times reported:
Monday morning in last week, as a number of the S. Boniface College students were skating on Sheerwater, a sudden cry of alarm from one of their number, announced the startling fact that a portion of the ice had given way, and that a student named Mr. Laughlin had fallen into the water and disappeared beneath the ice. One of his fellow students, Mr. Cunningham, being an expert skater, soon arrived at the spot, and after trying in vain to reach him from the top of the ice, immediately dived into the water, but being unable to see him the first time, he was obliged to swim to the shore through the ice, which happened just there to be very thin, and then for the second time, without giving himself time to divest himself of any garment, he again pluckily went the rescue, plunging into the water and under the ice after his drowning fellow student. We are glad to be able to say that after some difficulty and severe bodily exertion on his part, he brought the fast drowning student to shore, who by this time had lost consciousness. The usual restoratives were applied by Mr. Wilcox, and we are glad to be able to say that neither the rescuer nor the rescued are now any the worse. We have no hesitation in saying that had it not been for the great bravery displayed by Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Laughlin would most certainly have been drowned.
Soon after, Cunningham was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s silver medallion, and that old memory may have come to mind years later when he was presented with a deck chair recovered from the Titanic. A haunting gift, I would think, for who had sat in that chair and what had become of them? Twenty-five of Cunningham’s parishioners died in the Halifax Explosion, but he remained at the church for many years. He and his wife both died in 1943, and were buried in St. John’s Cemetery, where many of the explosion victims were also interred.
“We all sympathize with you in your great affliction…”
In Part 1 of Hugh Russell’s story (see also Part 2), I recounted Hugh’s early years and his arrival in Canada with the Barnardo’s organization in 1906. I mentioned, too, that his sister Ethel followed with the same organization in 1908, and that his brother, Robert, came in 1912. What prompted parents Thomas and Sarah Russell, the coppersmith and weaver from Belfast, to send their young children away? I haven’t quite got to the bottom of this, but I have been able to find out a little more about Ethel and Robert.
In March 1908, when 10-year-old Ethel Baker Russell arrived on board the Dominion, the Montreal Gazette reported that of the ship’s 1,000 passengers, 250 of them were Barnardo’s children, and that “It is expected that fully 1,200 children will be brought to Canada during the coming season. The demand for these children far exceeds the supply.”
On the 1911 census, Ethel appears as a domestic helper in Mono Mills, Ontario, near Orangeville, with the farmer George Crozier and his family. It’s most certainly her, because the same address is given in 1916 on Hugh’s service record, stipulating that some of his pay go to “E. Russell.” And then in 1917, when he is visiting the Wrays while still receiving care at Cobourg, a tiny notice in a newspaper says that “Ethel Russell of Orangeville is visiting her brother, Pte. Hugh Russell, at Mr. Jas. Wray’s 6th conc.” So Ethel and Hugh were in touch, at least in those years. In 1921, a woman of more or less the right age and particulars appears, boarding at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in St. Catharine’s. But after that, I lose track of possibilities.
Brother Robert and the children’s parents, Sarah and Thomas, are even more elusive. In 1911, a boy of the right name and age appears in the care of a widow named Eliza James, living in Bedfordshire. This seemed a stretch at first, but I noticed that another boy was also living there as a boarder — nine-year-old Thomas Biddulph — and that both Thomas and Robert appear on a 1912 Barnardo’s passenger list to Canada. Furthermore, the 1901 census reveals that Eliza’s household included a five- and six-year-old boy whose birthplaces were unknown and who were “from Barnardo’s home.” So it makes sense that ten years later she would have two more such boarders.
Transcriptions of Barnardo’s Ups & Downs magazine show that Robert was employed by John Mitchell in Bolton, Ontario, but after that, just as with Ethel, I lose track of him, and so far there is no way of knowing whether Robert was ever reunited with his siblings. He was the youngest of the three — just seven when Hugh left — and may have had few memories of his older brother. Come to think of it, the family may well have been separated before Hugh emigrated. The last evidence of them living together is in 1901 in Birkenhead, when the census was taken.
Now, back to Hugh’s story.
On his first visit back to the Wray farm in 1917 when he was still a shell-shock patient at Cobourg, neighbours and friends held a party “to do honour to Private Hugh Russell.” He was presented with a watch, chain and locket, and one of the guests read out an address that was published in the local paper:
We, your neighbours and friends … bid you a cordial welcome back to the land of your adoption. We are proud of every loyal son but our hearts go out more particularly to you [whom] we have known and respected, and would therefore ask you to accept this watch and chain as a slight token of our esteem for you. While we are overjoyed to have you with us again, we all sympathize with you in your great affliction, but trust that An-all-wise-Providence will see fit to restore your speech to you. Although for lack of forethought we did not acknowledge your bravery when you enlisted alone and went to London to train yet we followed you with our prayers and best wishes and our fervent prayer now is that you may long be spared to enjoy the comforts of life . …
Not surprisingly, Hugh returned to the Wingham area. All evidence suggests he had a warm and supportive community there, and a great bond with Graham Wray, the only son of the couple who’d taken Hugh in back in 1906. Wray family stories and newspaper accounts say that Hugh carried a pencil and paper with him so that he could communicate with people. But soon there came a time when he didn’t need it any longer.
In September 1918, the Wingham Advance reported:
Hugh Russell, an Irish home boy, who has for several years worked with farmers in Turnberry and who has been unable to utter a word for the past two years, has regained his speech. On the 14th of September, 1916, Pte. Russell was shell shocked and for several days lay unconscious. When he finally came to, his speech was gone. He was for a time in English Hospitals but returned to Canada on June 30th, 1917. He spent the winter in Wingham and has for some time been employed with Mr. R. J. Breen, Turnberry. He was taking his horse to Toronto exhibition when she scared while in the car and Hugh very excitedly shouted “Whoa” much to his own delight and astonishment. Mr. Edgar Higgins saw him in Toronto and spoke to him when much to his surprise he answered by voice instead of by pencil.”
It’s interesting how often Hugh’s connection with horses weaves into his story. A family anecdote says that Hugh took a job looking after wild horses that were brought to Ontario from the west by train. The horses were loaded into train cars, shipped a certain distance, and then side-lined for a period of time to rest, since they were standing all the while. It was Hugh’s job to feed, water and walk the horses, and prepare them for the next part of a long and no doubt frightening trip. Hugh was out west doing this work when James Wray died in 1931. The family story goes that the Wrays were unable to reach him, and when he returned home, he learned the sad news, and that he’d missed the funeral.
This job of Hugh’s sent me down another rabbit hole as I tried to imagine him tending wild horses, and also why the horses were brought from the west and what became of them. A 1925 article in the Quesnel Cariboo Observer described them as beautiful creatures roaming “vast rangy land,” through sage and cactus hills, open, grassy plateaus, and rugged mountains. “Every conceivable colour is represented in their shining coats in summer, from the beautiful jet-blacks to the white-eyed, mouse-colored pintos.” Despite a hard life in the wild, facing starvation, cold winters, inbreeding, and men with guns, the wild-horse population had increased to such an extent that ranchers considered them pests, and a bounty system was introduced in British Columbia in 1924. According to Horse-Canada Magazine, some 10,000 horses were killed by bounty hunters in B.C. between the 1920s and 1940s.
The Quesnel Cariboo article describes the job of chasing wild horses as “dangerous, spectacular, thrilling,” and also “the poorest paid hard work on earth. … There have been for many years a number of white men who do practically nothing else the year round but chase wild horses. It is not very remunerative, but the love of the chase holds them. Next to ice hockey it is the most thrilling sport and hardest work that I know of; it seems to grip and hold one, and the love of it grows on a person worse than the drink habit.” One wonders what Hugh made of these horses as he cared them for them post-capture.
In 1937, 20 years after his shell shock diagnosis, he was living at another farm when he went missing one Sunday in July. He was described in the press as 42 years old, very thin, with jet black hair, horn-rimmed spectacles and a swarthy complexion. He’d acted strangely at dinner, said the farmer he worked for, and after finishing his meal, had walked in the direction of the nearby swamp. The farmer thought he was suffering from a bout of melancholia, but called the police when he didn’t turn up the next day, fearing Hugh was experiencing memory loss and “a recurrence of shell shock.”
The day after that, the Windsor Star reported that police had found evidence that “Former Barnardo Home Boy Had Bedded Down in Bog.” So as in his soldier days, he had slept outside, under the stars. Before long, he turned up at the Wray home. What happened after that only raises more questions, for when Mrs. Wray saw him, she called police, and he immediately disappeared again. When police finally caught up with him a day later, he claimed he wasn’t Hugh Russell, then “broke for a nearby bush and disappeared. The bush consists of more than 1,000 acres and will, it is believed, afford him a haven until he re-appears of his own accord.” I could find no more articles about the incident after that, and curiously none of the articles I found about the disappearance were published in the Wingham Advance, which had so often mentioned Hugh in earlier years.
One more puzzling detail comes from family members: apparently when people went out looking for Hugh during this time, a woman told them that someone had approached her with a pad and pencil, asking for directions to the Wray farm. So had Hugh lost his voice again? Or has the story become muddled over time? As Tracy and I often found when writing The Cowkeeper’s Wish, the more answers you have, the more questions you have.
What was Hugh running from? Was there some strange behaviour that prompted Mrs. Wray to call the police? Had he suffered from melancholia, memory loss and “recurrence of shell shock” at other times through the postwar years? What, if anything, brought relief? Wray family members recall that Graham — “a real gentleman” — always stayed in touch with “Hughie,” and thought of him as an older brother. When Graham’s three girls were young in the 1940s, he’d bring them to visit Hugh in London, Ontario, where he’d moved sometime after his mysterious disappearance. London street directories place him at various addresses from the early 1940s until 1970, living alone in a rented room. Early on he worked in a hosiery factory, then as a watchman, and eventually at the veterans’ hospital. Why did this horse-loving farm hand move to the city? I can’t help thinking that his 1937 disappearance holds the key — that perhaps he entered the veterans’ hospital for care, and afterwards stayed in the city. But I may well be wrong.
Though he died in London, he was brought back to Wingham for burial in the Wingham Cemetery, where Graham Wray and his parents lie. The London Free Press ran a spare obituary that makes no mention of his sister or brother, but holds one poignant detail: Survived by a close friend, Graham Wray.
Last time, I told you about the early years of Hugh Willis Russell, who came to Canada at age 11 with the Barnardo’s organization, and landed in Wingham, Ontario, only to cross the ocean again in 1915 as a soldier. In January 1916, in a letter to young Graham Wray, the son of the farmer Hugh worked for, Hugh claimed war was “a great life,” and that soon he’d be able to “kill a lot of Germans.” But his enthusiasm for war quickly diminished.
It’s interesting to note that when Hugh first enlisted, he was described as having no distinguishing marks or tattoos, but at some point overseas, he had a horse’s head and a horseshoe tattooed on his forearm. His love of horses is evident in his letters home to Graham, some of which were published in the Wingham Advance. In February 1916, from “Somewhere in Belgium,” he writes:
I am longing for a pair of horses to drive. I think I will see my CO and ask him if I can transfer into some unit where I can get a horse to look after. I always had a great fancy for Judy, and I used to take a great interest in her, and paid the best attention to her care and comfort. You never knew how sorry I was the day your father took her out of the gate for the last time. If I ever see her again I will be tempted to buy her. I think she would know me. … Well, I had better quit, or else I will be thinking there is no war on, and I am back in Canada trading horses.
From your old friend, Hugh
PS — Here is a song we sing in the trenches: Sing me to sleep where the bullets fall; let me forget the war and all. Damp is my dug-out, cold are my feet, waiting for someone to sing me to sleep.
For a horse-lover especially, it must have been dismaying to see up close what war did to these animals. Millions of horses were requisitioned for war work. They were lifted by cranes onto ships that carried them across the ocean. Sometimes they didn’t survive that terrifying journey. Those that made it were used in cavalry charges, or to transport messengers, supplies or equipment, or pull heavy artillery and loads of wounded. Large and vulnerable, truly beasts of burden, they perished in mind-boggling numbers – some sources say eight million died in battle, at sea, or of illness, disease, exhaustion, or poison gas. One soldier wrote that horses, too, suffered trauma, and would sometimes “shiver, tremble all over, and break out in a sweat” when the shelling started. Seeing horses injured was “worse than seeing men cut up. The men have an idea what it is all about but the horses have to take it as it comes and say nothing.”
In March, Hugh wrote to Graham:
Well that was quite an accident you had while you were on your way to bid farewell to your old neighbours, I am glad to hear you both got off safely. It was certainly a good thing that you didn’t have [the horse] Pete, or I am afraid it would have been the worst for you. It seems a person is in danger wherever he is. You make me homesick when you speak of dealing horses and cattle and of someone getting married. I often dream I am back there working at one thing or other, and it all seems real, and I forget there ever was a war until a big gun firing or mine blowing up awakens me, and I remember I am still here in Flanders and the enemy is still there. … Well I guess this is all I can say this time, hoping to see you all soon. I will say good-bye.
Your loving friend, Hugh
In August, another letter arrived, saying “we have been up against it pretty hard this last three months,” but “I am getting used to these Belgian horrors now.” Even the time out of the trenches was gruelling, he told Graham, “for they keep drilling us all the time.” But he got great joy out of a horse show put on for the men a few days before writing. “Just think,” he wrote with wonder, “a real horse show within range of the German guns,” and went on to describe the events and the prizes in detail. There was “a Charlie Chaplin” in the ring too — presumably someone impersonating the popular star, and who brought some much-needed comic relief. He closed the letter with his regular refrain, “so hoping to see you all some day soon,” and included a drawing from the trenches, which unfortunately was not reproduced for readers of the Wingham Advance.
Together the letters from Hugh to Graham form a picture of a bright, thoughtful, articulate young man who’d developed close attachments not just to the family who’d taken him in, but to his wider community of Turnberry and Wingham in Huron County. So it’s no surprise that in September, during the Battle of the Somme, the paper reported “Turnberry Boy Falls,” as though Hugh was one of their own.
Word was received here that Pte. Hugh W. Russell 54180 had been admitted to 2nd Western General Hospital, Bristol, England, suffering from severe shell shock. Hugh had made his home for some time with Mr. and Mrs. Jas. Wray, 6th con. of Turnberry and no parents could be kinder or think more of him. He went to London from Wingham on Feb. 1st, 1915, and enlisted with the 18th Batt. … At the time he was wounded he had served over a year in the trenches. … Hugh was well liked by a wide circle of friends who hope he may recover and come back to old Huron again.
Hugh’s case was indeed severe. His record shows that he was unconscious for three days, and when he woke, he couldn’t speak or walk. He was invalided to England, where the doctors had a low opinion of his overall intelligence, which seems at odds with his letters and must have been due to his trauma. He received various forms of treatment to help him regain his speech, but the words didn’t come.
According to the British psychiatrist Frederick Mott, the treatment for mutism from shell shock was often quick and simple. “The patient, after a careful and thorough examination, is assured that he will be cured of his disability. … he is asked to produce sounds, to cough, to whistle, to say the vowel sounds, which he will probably not be able to do. The voice may return by suggestion only. But a more rapid method is to reinforce suggestion by the application of the faradic current to the neck by means of a roller electrode or brush. The current is increased in strength and very often the patient immediately recovers his voice and speaks.”
Early notes from Hugh’s time at a hospital in Bristol suggest that these methods were attempted, and eventually he could walk again, and whistle “a trifle,” and place his lips into the shapes necessary to form sounds. But though he understood all that was said to him, he shook his head when asked to speak. “Lies half asleep most of the time – is not anxious to communicate with anyone.” He had ferocious headaches and insomnia, and then nightmares when he did manage to sleep. Notes in his file show that treatment included anaesthesia, hypnotism, and electric shock therapy, but that there was “no effect except to terrify him.”
Theories varied as to what was at the root of these men’s troubles, and changed over time. Were their symptoms a result of a physical shock to the system brought on by heavy bombardment – a “sudden jarring of the mental machinery,” as the nurse Dora Vine put it? Or were these men of cowardly, weak stock to begin with, and so made poor soldiers? Or were they suffering mental trauma from prolonged exposure to stressful conditions? Approaches to curing them ranged from gentle and nurturing to shockingly harsh, and doctors often disagreed with each other about what patients needed. Canadian psychiatrist Lewis Yealland, working in England during the war, described electricity as “the great sheet anchor” in cases of mutism, and claimed a 100-percent success rate. In his 1918 book Hysterical Disorders of Warfare, he laid out the case of a 24-year-old patient who’d been mute for nine months.
Many attempts had been made to cure him. He had been strapped down in a chair for twenty minutes at a time, then strong electricity was applied to his neck and throat; lighted cigarette ends had been applied to the tip of his tongue and ‘hot plates’ had been placed at the back of his mouth. Hypnotism had been tried. But all these methods proved to be unsuccessful in restoring his voice. When I asked him if he wished to be cured he smiled indifferently. I said to him: ‘… You appear to me to be very indifferent, but that will not do in times such as these.’ … In the evening he was taken to the electrical room, the blinds drawn, the lights turned out, and the doors leading into the room were locked and the keys removed. The only light perceptible was that from the resistance bulbs of the battery. Placing the pad electrode on the lumbar spines and attaching the long pharyngeal electrode, I said to him, ‘You will not leave this room until you are talking as well as you ever did; no, not before.’ The mouth was kept open by means of a tongue depressor; a strong faradic current was applied to the posterior wall of the pharynx, and with this stimulus he jumped backwards, detaching the wires from the battery. ‘Remember, you must behave as becomes the hero I expect you to be,’ I said. ‘A man who has gone through so many battles should have better control of himself.’ Then I placed him in a position from which he could not release himself and repeated, ‘You must talk before you leave me.’ A weaker faradic current was then applied more or less continuously, during which time I kept repeating, ‘Nod to me when you are ready to attempt to speak.’ This current was persevered with for one hour with as few intervals as were necessary, and at the end of that time he could whisper ‘ah.’ With this return of speech I said: ‘Do you realise that there is already an improvement? … You will believe me when I tell you that you will be talking before long.’ I continued with the use of electricity for half an hour longer, and during that time I constantly persuaded him to say ‘ah, bah, cah,’ but ‘ah’ was only repeated. It was difficult for me to keep his attention, as he was becoming tired; and unless I was constantly commanding him his head would nod and his eyes close. To overcome this I ordered him to walk up and down the room, and as I walked with him urged him to repeat the vowel sounds. At one time when he became sulky and discouraged he made an attempt to leave the room, but his hopes were frustrated by my saying to him, ‘Such an idea as leaving me now is most ridiculous; you cannot leave the room, the doors are locked and the keys are in my pocket. You will leave when you are cured, remember, not before.’
As the treatment went on, the patient wept and finally whispered for water, which was denied until a louder sound could be made, brought about by the use of a stronger current. “I don’t want to hurt you,” Yealland’s recounting goes, “but, if necessary, I must.” After four hours’ continuous treatment, the man was deemed cured.
It’s impossible to know the specifics of Hugh Russell’s treatment now, and one can only hope he endured nothing as horrible as the case above. By the time he was moved to another hospital in February 1917, he was still not speaking, but gradually he began to improve in other ways. He slept and ate well, and began “regaining confidence,” though he still had headaches and nightmares. “Is now employed about the stables,” a doctor wrote in April. “General condition is good. His general nervousness and fear of MO’s is disappearing.” As an aside, presumably to explain the fear of medical officers, the doctor added, “(He was frightened of former methods to) …” but the sentence is unfinished, and the following page, if there was one, is missing from Hugh’s file. “Has been to several horse races,” the doctor wrote a month later. “Did not speak even under excitement.”
Whatever happened to Hugh with the aim of curing him, he wanted no more of it. When he arrived back in Canada in the summer of 1917 and entered the mental hospital in Cobourg – an asylum taken over for military purposes – his picture appeared in the Wingham Advance, surely submitted by the Wrays. “As soon as was possible,” the paper reported, “he received a week’s leave in order to visit with Mr. and Mrs. Jas. Wray …, with whom he made his home before enlisting. They have been all to him that parents could be to any boy.” He stayed at Cobourg until December, silent all the while. “At present his only trouble is complete loss of voice,” the doctor there wrote, “and he refuses any treatment for this, says he was tortured enough in England by treatment. … This man is anxious for his discharge. … He should pass under his own control.”
And so Hugh was discharged from the army and left to pick up the pieces of his life. In the next post, I’ll try to put together what happened to him in the ensuing years, leading up the 1930s when he disappeared from the farm he was working on. I’ll also touch a little more on his brother and sister, Barnardo’s kids too, and whether the siblings stayed in touch with one another over the years.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m currently working on a new book about WW1 soldiers and medical staff returning to Canada after the war. The book is non-fiction, though not family-related this time, however the research chops Tracy and I acquired writing The Cowkeeper’s Wish have come in extremely handy for this new project. Sometimes the stories are so fascinating I go down rabbit holes and disappear for great lengths of time.
So it went when I came across an article about a man named Hugh Russell. I was on a mission to find out more about shell shock — what we would now call PTSD — and how men grappled with it for years after the war was over. In a newspaper archive, I found a 1937 article about a veteran having gone missing from the farm he was working on near Wingham, Ontario. The Windsor Star reported:
Fear that Hugh Russell, 42-year-old farmhand and returned soldier, is lost in a treacherous swamp in what is known here as the Alps, is being entertained here today. Russell was said to have been acting strangely when he disappeared from the home of his employer, Nelson Pickells, Sunday night, and when he did not return to his work yesterday morning, a search of the swamp in the vicinity of the Pickells farm showed he had slept in the swamp overnight. It is feared he may be suffering a recurrence of shell shock. The farm is on the Alps in the Township of Culross, in a district where there is particularly treacherous land with many morasses and bog holes. Russell, a former Barnardo Home boy, and said to have suffered shell shock during the war, came to work for Nelson Pickells last Christmas. He ate his dinner on Sunday night but, it is reported, acted in a strange manner and without any comment left after the meal for the swamp. The Pickells believed he was suffering melancholia, and did not worry until he failed to return. He is about five feet six inches tall, has jet black hair, a swarthy complexion, and is very thin. When he disappeared he was wearing a white helmet, dark overalls, a dark blue shirt and horn-rimmed spectacles.
The article made me curious to know more about Hugh Russell — his childhood as a “Barnardo boy,” his war experience, what treatment he might have had for shell shock, and how he’d reintegrated into society after the war. Of course I also wanted to know if he made it out of the swamp! So I started digging, and was quite amazed by the amount and the variety of material I found, sometimes with the help of strangers with a shared curiosity, sometimes from creative and persistent searching. Each piece fitted into another piece and added context to what was already there. I could write a whole series of posts explaining how these pieces emerged in a non-linear way, and how the genealogical sleuthing unfolded. But Hugh’s story is so touching that I think I’ll just tell it as I know it now, in chronological order.
Though his service record says he was born in March of 1895, Hugh Willis (elsewhere William) Russell was actually born on September 27, 1894, in Belfast, so perhaps he didn’t know his birthday. He was the eldest child of Thomas John Russell, a coppersmith, and Sarah Neeson, a weaver, who’d been married a year earlier. A few years later, they had a daughter, Ethel Baker Russell. The family lived at various addresses in Belfast in the 1890s, but by 1899, they’d moved to Birkenhead, Cheshire, a seaport town that looks across the River Mersey to Liverpool. There, a son named Robert George was born. The baptism record shows that Thomas was still a copper/tinsmith, as does the 1901 census record, which puts the family on Back St. Anne Street.
I’m still not certain what happened to Thomas and Sarah (though I have plenty of hunches!), but by 1906, Hugh was on his way to Canada in the care of Barnardo’s. Thomas John Barnardo was the founder and director of homes that took in poor children, beginning in the 1860s. For a glimpse of his philosophy, see his own book, Something Attempted, Something Done!
For those unfamiliar with the home child scheme in general, Library and Archives Canada puts it this way:
Between 1869 and the late 1930s, over 100,000 juvenile migrants were sent to Canada from the British Isles during the child emigration movement. Motivated by social and economic forces, churches and philanthropic organizations sent orphaned, abandoned and pauper children to Canada. Many believed that these children would have a better chance for a healthy, moral life in rural Canada, where families welcomed them as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help.
After arriving by ship, the children were sent to distributing and receiving homes, such as Fairknowe in Brockville, and then sent on to farmers in the area. Although many of the children were poorly treated and abused, others experienced a better life and job opportunities here than if they had remained in the urban slums of England. Many served with the Canadian and British Forces during both World Wars.
In the LAC’s Home Children database, I found Hugh, age 11, arriving on board the Dominion with 240 other children heading to uncertain futures in a foreign land. Many home children had horrible experiences. Even those who weren’t mistreated must have been devastated to leave their families at such a young age. As I mentioned in another post about a home child, many of these young men were among the first to enlist in WW1, in the hopes that they could get back to England to see their families again. (In 1908, Hugh’s sister Ethel arrived and was placed with a family in Orangeville; and in 1912, Robert came too, and went to Bolton. Like their brother, they’d come with the Barnardo’s organization. Why, and whether there were other children, I’m still not sure.)
Hugh was placed in Wingham, Ontario, with farmer James Wray and his wife, Martha, who had a little boy named Graham. James Wray kept horses, and it seems that Hugh developed a great love for them over the years. In various places, his service record labels him a horse trainer, trader and jockey. When he enlisted with the 18th Battalion in London in February 1915, he was still living with the Wrays. Graham would have been about 12 by then, and would not have remembered a time when Hugh wasn’t part of the household. Hugh’s service record describes him as 5’3″, fair-skinned, with blue eyes and dark brown hair. He had no distinctive marks or tattoos, and described his trade as “farmer.”
By April of 1915 he was on board the SS Grampian, heading back across the ocean, nine years after his arrival with Barnardo’s. He would have heard news, around this time, of the Battle of Ypres, and the Germans’ first use of poison gas to attack the enemy. Soon, gas masks were part of a soldier’s essential equipment, and a horse’s too.
A little of what Hugh experienced on the Western Front comes through in his letters home to Graham, which were occasionally published in the Wingham Advance. On January 2, 1916, from “Somewhere in Belgium,” he wrote:
Dear Graham … Well, it is still raining and the mud is getting deeper, I would much rather have the snow. It is certainly miserable with your feet wet all the time and we are all the time scraping off mud. But there is a good time coming and so we are trying to be cheerful until it comes. I don’t believe we will have another winter out here, I think there will be something doing in the spring. You see we can’t do much as there is so much mud and water. I am in the machine gun section now so I will likely have a chance to kill lots of Germans.
I suppose you had as merry a Christmas as ever, we were in the trenches that day, there was no firing and everything was quiet. We invited the Germans over to dinner, some of them started out but got scared before they got far and beat it back. We can [call out] to them and hear them answer but we can’t understand them. I think they are Prussians in front of us. They pump the water out of their trenches and it runs down into ours, so we have to keep pumping all the time. We have a bit time with the rats in this country they seem to be here in millions. They are all sizes and colours, sometimes when they jump up on the parapet they startle us for they look like a man coming over. They are very tame and we have to kick them out of the way, they often eat our rations and keep scratching and running about when we are trying to get to sleep and I guess they bother the Germans just the same.
This is a great life. After this I will be able to live back in the bush in a hole in the ground, I’ll hardly feel comfortable in a feather bed. I just get my clothes off every eighteen days that is to get a bath. Still we don’t mind it much and we have many a good laugh, you would think if you heard us sometimes that there was no war on at all. I don’t believe I could stay away from the boys very long now, we are so attached to each other although the old battalion is gradually changing into a different lot of faces. The half of them seem to be strangers to me now.
Well I guess when this is all this time. When you write again send my letter to machine gun section instead of B company. Hoping this year will see us all together again, I remain your old friend.
The tone of Hugh’s letters changed as the months went on, and by September 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, Hugh was in no condition to write. But I’ll save that part of the story for next time, exploring Hugh’s war experience in more detail, as well as his love for horses, and his treatment in England for shell shock.
With thanks to the London & Middlesex Branch of Ontario Ancestors’ facebook group, and in particular the tenacity of Cookie Foster. Appreciation also for the Huron County Museum’s wonderful collection of digitized newspapers, and Eric Edwards’ tireless 18th Battalion research. And with special thanks to Wray family descendants.
If you’ve gone down rabbit holes in search of elusive ancestors and found yourself in a maze-like world of tunnels and loops and switchbacks, you’ll understand the tale I’m about to share. Those of you who’ve read The Cowkeeper’s Wish will know who Jennie (Jane) is: one of the cowkeeper’s granddaughters, married in 1890 to a shoemaker named Richard Vanson, and our great-great aunt. Some of the Vanson story we’ve told in the book, and some in a previous post. They’re an interesting bunch. From a brush with the law to their connection with one of Jack the Ripper’s victims, this part of our family tree has skeletons aplenty in its closet, and I stumbled across a few more while trying to puzzle out what had become of Jennie and her daughters after Jennie’s husband Richard died of tuberculosis in 1911.
For people of our family’s social standing, it wasn’t easy to be a widow in the early days of the 20th century, before pensions and social safety nets, and it was even harder if you had children to worry about. Two months after her husband’s death, forty-year-old Jennie wrote on the census form in a messy scrawl that she lived at 30 Burdett Chambers in Lambeth (the same address she’d shared with her shoemaker husband), along with two of her daughters: eighteen-year-old Florence, a tailoress, and the youngest, Ada, who was four. Jennie reported working as an office cleaner, and although she also wrote answers to the questions regarding her years of marriage and children, someone, presumably the enumerator, stroked through the numbers with a heavy pen, since as a widow she need not have recorded them. But the information she’d penned remained legible, and what I read offered no surprises: she’d been married for twenty years, and had borne six children, of whom four were living and two were dead. A further census search revealed that her other surviving daughters, Nellie Jane and Alice, resided nearby. The eldest, nineteen-year-old Nellie Jane, lived at 45 Trinity Square in the neighbouring Borough, in the home of John Alexander, a surgeon and clinical assistant at the Evelina Hospital for Children. Dr. Alexander had taken over the practice operated at the Trinity Square address by his father, Charles Linton Alexander, who had died in 1887. Nellie Jane was John Alexander’s “general servant, domestic”, so her day was spent sweeping, dusting, scrubbing, laying fires and serving at mealtimes.
I found Jennie’s other daughter Alice, also nearby, living with her uncle George Vanson, his wife Edith and their daughter Isabel a few blocks east along Waterloo Road from Burdett Street. Despite her young age, fourteen-year-old Alice had a more unusual job than her sisters or her mother, employed as an apprentice perruquier (wig-maker) for H&M Rayne, a company that made costumes for the theatre industry.
Cousin Isabel, a couple of years older, also worked for Rayne, learning the skill of costume-making. H&M Rayne was headquartered just steps from Uncle George’s Webber Row address in Lambeth, so given the close proximity of the costumier, living with her Uncle George was a sensible choice for Alice.
If Alice and Isabel’s jobs sound interesting, Uncle George and Aunt Edith’s were more mundane. George was a dock worker, one of thousands of casual, unskilled labourers whose livelihood depended on what work was available when he showed up at the docks each morning hoping to be selected for a crew. A docker’s work was hard, dirty, and poorly paid, and a shift might last an hour or two, or stretch into the night, and depending on the cargo – lead, asbestos, fertilizers – could be dangerous. Edith toiled as a charwoman, an occupation not unlike George’s in that it was hard work and the pay meagre. To be a char was to be at the bottom of the domestic service hierarchy, and for most women, charing was a last resort before knocking on the workhouse door. George and Edith were barely getting by, so Alice and Isabel’s income was surely welcome.
Edith was about thirteen years older than George, and he was her second husband. Her first, Frank Pitcher, had been an inmate at Cane Hill Asylum, a place that readers of The Cowkeeper’s Wish will be familiar with. Admitted in 1888 when Frank and Edith had been married eighteen years, his admittance documents say he’d been “getting gradually worse for four years” and that he’d been “living apart” from Edith for some time. Poor Law records describe him as a “lunatic” who refused medicine, and occasionally food, believing them to be poisoned. He wandered aimlessly, his case notes state, required constant supervision and was “very wet and dirty night and day.” The casebook also revealed that his next-of-kin was his stepmother, as his wife’s whereabouts were unknown.
But in fact, Edith hadn’t gone far. I found her in 1891, living with her children in St Margaret’s Court, a street described by social investigators as “a bad quarter,” and yet also “a little village by itself” with a “brave show of flowers at west end.” St. Margaret’s Court was one of many narrow passages that led off Red Cross Street in Southwark where Jennie Vanson resided, newly wed to Richard, and was presumably where Edith was still living when she met Richard’s brother, George. Frank Pitcher remained a lunatic asylum inmate until his death in 1893, and three years after he died, in 1896, Edith married George Vanson. In my search for the trail of Jennie and her daughters, the coincidence of Cane Hill was interesting, but other than that, I dismissed George and Edith as just another of many poor couples that connected tangentially to The Cowkeeper’s Wish. But in fact the lives of George and Edith and Jennie and her daughters would be inextricably linked, and as I traced the path of the Vanson women, George would insistently appear, and eventually take on a new importance.
After finding Jennie and her girls on the 1911 census, and relegating the story of George and Edith to a sidebar, things got complicated. I looked for anything that would move the Vanson women forward in time, and discovered that Alice, our young perruquier, married in 1918 to an older man named Arthur Polley and moved to northeast London, where Arthur had his own business as a retail grocer. Ada, just four years old in 1911, married Edward McCarthy in 1932, and Florence, the tailoress, wed Fred Thomas, a carman, in 1914, and had at least two children, both born during the war years.
All of Jennie’s daughters, then, except the oldest, Nellie Jane, who’d worked for the doctor in Trinity Square, were so far accounted for. Nellie Jane proved somewhat trickier. In my hunt for her I came across a 1936 marriage index entry for a 45-year-old Nellie Jane Vanson and a 36-year-old Reginald Thomas Sanson in Eastbourne, Sussex. At first it seemed silly given the rhyme of the last names and Nellie’s age, and what on earth would a Vanson girl, come from generations of working class Londoners, be doing in a resort town on England’s south coast? Surely it wasn’t Jennie’s daughter. But then I found a death index entry in Eastbourne for a Jane Vanson, age 84 in 1955 (so born in 1871 as was our Jennie), and I reconsidered the Vanson-Sansons.
Eastbourne in the 1930s wasn’t a very big place, and I reasoned that if Jennie had died there in 1955 there might have been an obituary placed in the local paper, and it might tell me if I had the right woman. I wrote to the cemetery board in Eastbourne to ask about Jane Vanson’s burial record, and I wrote to the Eastbourne Library (which holds the Eastbourne Herald newspaper archives) to see if they could find an obituary. Both replied, and from the cemetery board I learned the exact date of death and an address on Cavendish Avenue, Eastbourne, and from the library I received an obituary for Nellie Jane that gave the same address. Things were falling into place, and it certainly seemed that this was our Jennie and her oldest daughter Nellie Jane. But how had they come to be in Eastbourne, and when, and had they come together? Was it just Nellie Jane and Jennie or was other family in Eastbourne too?
I went back to the Electoral Rolls for London and continued to fill in the missing years, first coming across Flo and Fred in 1919 (with Fred’s rank, regiment and serial number, so he’d been in the Great War) at #2 Brigade House, Southwark Bridge Road. Brigade House was part of the London Fire Brigade’s Southwark headquarters, so perhaps Fred’s job as a carman meant he drove one of the horse and wagon fire engines. In 1929, Flo’s Uncle George, the dockworker, husband of Edith, suddenly popped up at their Brigade House address. But by 1933, Fred was alone at #2. No Flo, no George. Within two years, Fred had a new partner at #2, so maybe Flo died, although I’ve found no death record that matched. George, too, was gone, but he turned up at Rowton House, a hostel for down and out men on Churchyard Row, behind St Gabriel Street in Newington.
That George’s circumstances were so reduced was a sad turn of events, and yet things might have been much worse. The Rowton House lodging houses were the best of what was available in terms of shelter for vagrants and poor single men according to the author George Orwell, who’d written from personal experience of homelessness in London in 1933. The facility where George lived had been built in 1897, the third such structure of its kind erected by Montagu Corry, 1st Baron Rowton. Lord Rowton had sought to improve the lot of poor single working men whose choices, if they had no home of their own, had ranged from filthy, bug-infested dosshouses and spartan hostels to penny sit-ups, where a penny bought a man a spot on a bench in a warm building, but did not allow him to lie down, to a park bench with the likelihood of a constable prodding him to move along.
When Rowton House in Newington Butts opened on Christmas Eve in 1897, there were 805 private sleeping cubicles with sheets, blankets, a quilt and a chamber pot, and pegs on which a fellow could hang his trousers. There were bathing facilities and lavatories in the basement, and a dining room on the ground floor that seated 400. A hot meal could be had for pennies, or a man could cook his own. There was a reading and smoking room, a barber and a tailor and a shoemaker. A man could pay for his room a week at a time in advance, and guarantee his spot, or he could take his chances and hope for a room, paying nightly. The newspapers of the day were impressed with Rowton House, and soon after the Newington location opened its doors, the South London Chronicle wrote that “the utmost good fellowship prevailed” among the inmates, and “the bill of fare [on Christmas Day] would not have shamed a high-class restaurant.”
By the time George became a resident in 1932, a wing had been added, increasing Rowton’s capacity by several hundred beds. On a night with a full house, George’s snores would have joined in a chorus with more than 1,000 other souls tucked into tiny cubicles over six floors. An account written in 1935 for The Sunderland Echo gives an idea of what life was like in Rowton House for George and men like him, past seventy and likely living on the pittance of a government Old Age Pension. He’d have kept the same room at the hostel by paying the weekly amount, and for a few more shillings he had the option of renting a locker where he could store his few possessions. In the morning, a bell-ringer travelled the hallways rousing George and the rest of the residents from their cubicles, and after a wash at the basins in the basement he and some of the other Rowton men gathered in the dining hall, making tea if they had a bit of leaf and a pot and a cup stowed in their locker, or purchasing porridge, a boiled egg and toast for a penny from the canteen. After breakfast, George might have spent some of the day in the smoking room – being illiterate he’d have had no use for the books in the reading room, and all Rowton Houses had strict rules against card playing. If the weather was fair, perhaps he’d have taken a stroll and sat for an hour on a bench in the sun before returning to Rowton in time for the evening meal. Afterwards, those with a few extra coins in their pocket would sally forth to the pubs for a pint. Those without money to spare had an early night in their cubicles. The Sunderland Echo reporter, when he’d arrived at the hostel to research his article, had received a warning from one of the officials at the house: “Keep to yourself, chum; there’s some queer men in here.” And yet the writer found the Rowton House inmates to be mostly “respectable working men, quietly dressed,” even if one or two “showed their toes sticking through the ends of their boots.”
George lived at Rowton House for thirteen years, a spartan existence toward the end of a life that had held few comforts. I wanted to know more about how he got there. In 1911 he’d been working the docks and sharing his roof with wife Edith, daughter Isabel, and niece Alice, the apprentice perruquier. In 1929 he was presumably a boarder with another niece, Alice’s sister Flo and her husband Fred. Where had George been in the years in between?
A further search located George on the Land Tax register for 1916, renting a house in St Gabriel Street, Newington Butts, a short stroll from Rowton House. The 1918 Electoral Rolls confirmed the address, and also offered the surprise of his sister-in-law, our Jennie, the mother of Flo and Alice, living with him. I was intrigued. Had George’s wife Edith died? If so, I could find no recent record. I checked for a marriage record for George and his brother’s widow, but found nothing there either. George would have been 55 and Jennie 42 in 1918, and I supposed their co-habitation could have simply been a platonic arrangement of convenience, two middle-aged relatives with next to no money supporting one another in shared lodgings. The Electoral Rolls confirmed that this relationship, whatever it was, continued until 1929, when 66-year-old George turned up at Flo and Fred’s. Did Jennie kick him out? Or did George leave on his own? And after all that time, why?
Those kinds of questions are likely never to be answered one hundred years on, and yet, it’s difficult to stop looking. I turned my focus back to Eastbourne and discovered that another of Jennie’s children, Alice, the one-time perruquier who’d married the greengrocer Arthur Polley, had also moved to Eastbourne. In 1939, the couple had still been running their grocery in northeast London, but the 1948 Kelly’s Street Directory for Eastbourne yielded an address for Arthur and Alice just a few doors down from Nellie Jane and Reginald Sanson’s Cavendish Avenue address in Eastbourne. When he died in 1951, Arthur was relatively young at just 63. Perhaps he’d been unwell, and he and Alice had moved to the seaside for his health. That left Jennie and Ada in London.
Ada, Jennie’s youngest, had been not quite five years old when her father Richard died of tuberculosis. Most likely she barely remembered him. The man to feature more prominently in her life as a father figure had been her uncle George, with whom she and her mother lived for so many years. But in 1929, George moved to Flo’s, and Ada too left when she married Edward McCarthy, a loader for the London and North Eastern Railway working out of the Farringdon Street Goods Station.
Mother and daughter remained in close proximity, though, living in different blocks of the Guinness Buildings on Brandon Street in Walworth, tenement housing erected for the urban poor that consisted of spare, two room flats with no running water or electricity, a shared toilet and sink on the landing, and pay access to bathing facilities two days of the week. They resided separately at Guinness Buildings until Jennie moved in 1954 to Eastbourne, where Nellie Jane, her husband Reginald, and the widowed Alice lived.
This might have been the end of the story, minus the unknowable details, but for a random search I did on the British Newspaper Archive website, completely apart from my Vanson research. I forget the exact parameters I searched on, but a March, 1934 headline I came across was provocative and sensationalist: “Girl Enveloped in Flames from Head to Feet. Young Hotel Servant’s Terrible End After Clothes Caught Fire.” The article appeared on the front page of the Eastbourne Gazette, and told of a young woman employed by the South Cliff Hotel in Eastbourne as a live-in chambermaid and waitress. Just off duty, the girl had been alone in her bedroom making notes in the laundry logbook when the skirt of her uniform caught fire on the gas flame of room’s heater. She was immediately engulfed in flames, and ran screaming into the nearby hotel kitchen where a porter had the presence of mind to fetch an eiderdown quilt and smother the flames. Her clothing was burnt completely away, and the porter, with the help of other staff who’d come running, laid her on her bed and covered her with blankets. She was admitted to the Princess Alice Hospital “suffering from extensive burns on her arms, legs, abdomen, chest and all over her back up to her neck,” and died the next day “due to shock following severe burning.” The inquest reported that there’d been no guard on the gas fireplace, but acknowledged that “most of us do use [gas fires] in this way.” The hotel was never considered to be culpable, although the Coroner made a point of saying that guards could be had “at very little extra cost, and they are well worth it, because they are just the thing to prevent clothes from igniting.” It was a sad tale indeed, but most interesting for me was that the young chambermaid’s name was Grace Vanson.
In all my efforts to discover the story of Jennie (Jane) Vanson and her daughters, I’d never come across anyone named Grace, but I was suddenly certain, in the way one can be with a hunch, that this was another of Jennie’s girls. The newspaper articles referring to the tragedy of Grace’s death quoted a sister, Miss Mary Jane Vanson, thanking the South Cliff Hotel’s management and staff “who had done everything that was possible for her sister” and I wondered, might the reporter have gotten it wrong, and Mary Jane was actually Nellie Jane? Elsewhere in the paper was an item of thanks “to all friends for the beautiful floral tributes and letters of sympathy” posted by Mrs. Jane Vanson and family. The Vanson story, I felt sure, had not yet revealed its final chapter.
Grace was 20 years old when she died in March of 1934, which meant she’d been born around 1914. I searched for, and found, an entry in the indexes for a birth registration that fit only too well – a Grace Vanson born in Lambeth in 1913 to a mother with the maiden name of Evans. Our Jennie had been born Jane Evans, but her husband Richard had been dead two years by the time of this Grace’s birth. If Grace was indeed Jennie’s daughter, who was the father? The only way to find out was to send for the birth registration, and when it arrived, it confirmed what I had suspected: Grace’s parents were Jane Vanson “formerly Evans” and her brother-in-law, George Vanson, a “waterside labourer”.
So how had the relationship that produced a daughter come about? Had George been a stalwart presence, supporting Jennie during Richard’s awful illness? Had he been a comfort she couldn’t do without after Richard’s death? Or had she been the one to offer George care in his time of need, when his marriage to Edith fell apart? Or was the real story something less noble, a matter of acting on impulses and giving in to attractions? One thing is certain: George’s wife Edith and their daughter Isabel were alive and living in a house on Inglemere Road in Mitcham, Surrey by 1918, and where they remained until Edith’s death, oddly enough in the same month and year as Grace’s – March, 1934. In contrast to Grace’s demise, fraught with tragedy and pathos, Edith’s, at the ripe age of 84, while surely sad for her unmarried daughter and companion Isabel and her Pitcher offspring, was in comparison, unremarkable and ordinary. Did Isabel send a note to her father at Rowton House, sharing the news of his wife’s death? Did George ever hear about his daughter Grace’s tragic end in the seaside resort town of Eastbourne?
George died of heart failure and a stroke on the 21st of January, 1945. The record states that he was 79, but counting from his birth in 1863 he was actually 82. The record also indicates that George’s regular place of residence was still the tiny cubicle at Rowton House in London, yet his death occurred at an address in Worthing, a coastal town only a few miles from Eastbourne. It’s tempting to think that this means something, that perhaps George was reconciled with Jennie and the remainder of her family in the end, but I’ve found nothing to substantiate the idea, and in 1945 Jennie still lived in London at Guinness Buildings. Sometime in 1954, she left London and moved in with Nellie Jane and her husband, sharing their tidy two storey rowhouse just a few blocks from the seafront. It must have seemed like a different world to her. Instead of the traffic and people noises she’d heard all her life, she’d have heard the cry of gulls and the crash of the surf. In place of the familiar smells of vehicle exhaust and sewers and other people’s cooking were the odours of fish and tangy salt water. On warm days she and Nellie Jane and Alice might have strolled the beachfront promenade, or walked out on the pier, and turned their faces to the sun. She didn’t live long after her move to Eastbourne, but it’s nice to think of her in that tranquil setting, spending her last days in the company of her daughters. Jennie died on the 19th of March, 1955, and was buried at the Ocklynge Cemetery in Eastbourne.
Eastbourne Gazette, Wednesday, March 21, 1934
Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette, Friday, July 19, 1935
South London Chronicle, January 1, 1898
Rogues and Vagabonds: Vagrant Underworld in Britain 1815-1985, by Lionel Rose, Routledge, Oxon, 1988
A few posts ago, I started piecing together the back story of a WW1 veteran named Walter Dunn, whose daughter Elsie died in a tragic accident just after the war. In the first post, I tried to untangle Walter’s two wives, Blanche and Myrtle, and never really got to the bottom of it. I found out that Walter had married Myrtle in 1912, and that they’d had Elsie shortly thereafter. But by the time Walter enlisted in 1916, his wife’s name was Blanche, and I could never figure out what had happened to Myrtle. I’m happy to say that that mystery has now been solved, and that many other pieces have fallen into place for Walter’s story, including details about his life as a home child, which were still puzzling me in the second post.
For now, I want to travel back to 1912, when Walter married Myrtle Bishop in Montreal. The wedding took place in April, right after Myrtle had been baptized and converted to Catholicism. Then in May, little Elsie was born. When she died in 1920, her death record clearly stated that her mother’s name was Myrtle Bishop. But Myrtle had disappeared, and subsequent records consistently showed Walter’s wife’s name as Blanche. Try as I might, I could not find a death record for Myrtle or a marriage record for Walter and Blanche. But today I found both — simply because I took away detail from my search criteria.
I considered the possibility that Walter and Myrtle had simply parted ways, and that he and Blanche had never officially married. But I thought that pretty unlikely, so I kept on hunting. Having seen so many poor transcriptions on my travels through genealogical records, I figured it was most likely that the records weren’t turning up because the names had been twisted somewhere along the line. So today I searched Quebec death records between the years 1912 and 1914, and entered only the name Mirtle (I had seen it spelled that way on other records). Up popped a record for someone who’d died in 1912, and whose first name was apparently “Epse Dunn mirtle” and whose surname was “Pearl.” Right away I knew this was her. A closer look at the handwritten record shows her name scrawled in the ledger as “Mirtle Pearl epse Dunn” — epouse meaning her spouse’s name, but the transcriber must not have known that, and also made the strange error of inverting her given and surnames. The record doesn’t say how she died, but perhaps there were complications following Elsie’s birth. In any case, now I knew that Walter really was widowed, and that Elsie never knew her biological mother.
I was all the more determined, then, to find a marriage record for Walter and Blanche, and again I decided to remove details from my search criteria rather than adding everything I knew. I’d done this already, but I hadn’t gone far enough. I plunked in “Dunn” and searched Quebec marriage records between 1912 and 1916, and once again met with success. There they were, marrying in 1913 in an Anglican church, at a ceremony witnessed by Thomas and Sadie Woollands. So now I knew that Elsie was still a baby when Walter and Blanche married — and I had an aha moment when I saw the names of Thomas and Sadie.
I’ll backtrack a bit more: in my previous searches a few weeks ago, I had been frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find Walter’s wife-to-be, Blanche Poidevin, on the 1911 census, even though I knew that she’d come to Canada around 1908. You might remember from the first post about the trio that I used a roundabout way to discover Blanche’s background — the daughter of a French-from-France egg sorter who’d come from London, England, to find a job in Quebec as a domestic worker. It’s very common for uncommon surnames to get muddled, and I eventually found her passenger ship record by removing her surname and searching only for Blanches who’d sailed the seas from England to Canada at that particular time.
Since that had worked so well, I decided to try it again to find her on the 1911 census. I searched for Blanches, born in England, living in Quebec, and having immigrated at that time. Thankfully that’s one of the boxes that was requested on the 1911 census, so it really narrowed things down. The first person who came up was “Blanche Bidwin.” And yes, it was her, lost in a poor transcription. All the details fit — and on top of that, she was living with a couple named Thomas and Sadie Woollands.
Transcription errors have actually eaten up much of my research time in the case of Walter Dunn. For weeks I couldn’t find him or his sister Maria on the 1901 or the 1911 census, and only when I loosened up birth dates and spellings to a ridiculous degree did any possibilities begin to appear. I’m pretty sure I’ve found Walter in both years now: in one, he’s been labeled “Walter Dum,” and it’s impossible to resist adding that that’s just dumb on the part of the transcriber — although I know myself how hard it can be to work out the loops and swirls of penmanship from days gone by.
I’ve found Maria too. The 1911 census shows her living as the “adoptive daughter” of a “voyageur” for a shoe factory. Yet another poor transcription had aged her by ten years, so she hadn’t turned up on my previous searches. In another aha moment, one of the men listed at the address — the voyageur’s wife’s brother — turned out to be the man Maria marries in 1917.
The stories of home children are often heartbreaking — Walter’s certainly is, having left home at 11, and later lost a wife and a child and gone to war, where he was gravely wounded. His sister Maria seems to have fared better. She lived to be 104 years old, and her 1994 obituary remembers her as “a very good and caring mother who had a generosity of spirit and certain joie de vivre.” The notice lists her loved ones, including brother Walter and various members of her husband’s family — and also two younger sisters in England, the girls born in the years before Walter and Maria were sent away. I’ve since found a 1959 obituary for Walter, too, and his also mentions the sisters. I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of it yet, and I might be wrong, but I believe these sisters may also have left the family home and lived in institutions within England. I wonder — Walter’s service record in 1916 states he doesn’t know if his parents are dead or alive, but his wounds brought him to a Liverpool hospital. Did he find his sisters then? Did he ever find his parents? Did he want to?
There will always be lingering questions with this type of work, but it’s amazing how one little find can uncover another, and before you know it, a story has formed.
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.
In my last post I told you about a man I was researching, who was wounded in WW1 and whose daughter was accidentally killed not long after his return to Canada. That post focused on unraveling the two wives of Walter Dunn (Myrtle Bishop and Blanche Poidevin) and sorting out who was the daughter’s mother. In this post, I’ll dip further back into Walter’s story — but don’t worry, I will eventually come forward again, and investigate his daughter’s death in 1920.
As I mentioned last time, the 1921 census record for Walter and wife Blanche showed that he arrived in Canada in 1898. When I saw that, I immediately wondered if he was a “home child.” Library and Archives Canada describes the home child scheme this way:
Between 1869 and the late 1930s, over 100,000 juvenile migrants were sent to Canada from the British Isles during the child emigration movement. Motivated by social and economic forces, churches and philanthropic organizations sent orphaned, abandoned and pauper children to Canada. Many believed that these children would have a better chance for a healthy, moral life in rural Canada, where families welcomed them as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help.
After arriving by ship, the children were sent to distributing and receiving homes, such as Fairknowe in Brockville, and then sent on to farmers in the area. Although many of the children were poorly treated and abused, others experienced a better life and job opportunities here than if they had remained in the urban slums of England. Many served with the Canadian and British Forces during both World Wars.
I found Walter’s name in the LAC Home Children database, and for several reasons I knew I had the right Walter Dunn. The year of his arrival, 1898, matched the 1921 census; among the other children he was traveling with was a girl named Maria, whose age was correct for the sister I’d already found out about by matching Walter’s Quebec marriage record (which named his parents) with English census records. So it was clear that Walter came to Canada as a home child along with his little sister Maria. They were listed as 9 and 11 years old, and they were traveling on the Numidian with the Liverpool Catholic Children’s Protection Society. Along with Walter and Maria, the Society was transporting 22 other children ranging in age from 3 to 18. A Miss Yates was in charge of the group, and Miss E Cawley was listed as the matron. There were other groups of home children on board too, and many from a number of English workhouses. Three boys between 8 and 11 were rejected as unfit upon arrival, and were sent back across the ocean. One can only imagine how that must have felt, and what became of these boys after their journeys, but that’s a story for another day.
As far as I can tell, Walter and Maria were the two oldest children of Walter Dunn, a dock labourer, and Margaret Shearon, a hawker. Walter’s occupation alone suggests the family lived in poverty. Dock labourers loaded and unloaded ships, and transported the goods between ship and shed. Though they could sometimes earn a decent wage, relatively speaking, the social investigator Beatrice Potter, writing in the 1890s, describes this type of work as casual and uncertain, and says “The most they can do in their forlorn helplessness is to make the pawnbroker their banker, and the publican their friend. … If married, they must submit to the dreariness of a one-roomed home which, even in its insufficiency, [depletes] their scanty earning. … And the fact that the wife can and frequently does work weakens the already disheartened energies of the husband, and with the inevitable neglect of children and home tends to drag the whole family down into the lower ranks of casuals.”
Margaret’s job as a hawker — selling her wares in the street — does indeed suggest a deep level of poverty. But she must have been accustomed to a hard-scrabble existence; before marrying Walter, she was already a “basket hawker” living with her widowed father, a dock labourer just like her husband-to-be.
According to Potter, a dock labourer’s income was effected by “the vicissitudes of dock trade” but also by competition. A man might show up for work punctually day after day, and prove that he was competent and dependable, but it didn’t give him job stability. “A strong man presents himself at the gate. He may be straight from one of her Majesty’s jails, but if he be remarkable for sinew he strikes the quick eye of contractor or foreman. The professional dock labourer is turned way and the newcomer is taken on. … The professional dock labourer retires disgusted; why exert himself to rise early and apply regularly if he is to be unofficially dismissed, not for any lack of duty or any special failure of strength, but simply because another has sunk from a higher plane of physical existence and is superior to him in brute force? And the widely know fact that a man without a character can live by dock labour becomes the turning point in many lives.”
In 1891, the couple were living on Circus Street in Liverpool with little Walter and Maria. The street no longer exists, but was just a short walk from the docks where Walter Sr worked, and where the Numidian would set sail from when the children left for Canada. What caused this to come about is unclear, but can be guessed at. The children weren’t orphaned, and they were probably not abandoned, since baptism records show that two more daughters were born to the couple in 1892 and 1894, four years before Walter and Maria moved away. So it was likely just dire poverty that led to the elder children leaving their parents and their two little sisters, hopefully for a better life.
The ship’s ledger states that the children’s ultimate destination was to Miss Brennan’s Home on St. Thomas Street in Montreal. An 1894 article in the True Witness and Catholic Chronicle described the home as a large, plain brick building, with “an appearance of neatness and scrupulous cleanliness which would do credit to a Dutch housewife.” It was newly opened then, and had space for more than 50 children. As for Miss Brennan herself, there was apparently “no more suitable lady … to fill the position of superintendent.”
How long the Maria and Walter were there is still a mystery to me, and where they went afterwards is uncertain too. I haven’t been able to find either of them in the 1901 or 1911 census records. But it seems they stayed close. When Walter’s ill-fated child, Elsie/Juanita, was born in 1913, one of the witnesses was Mary Dunn, who must be Maria. Maria married a man named Louis Bourdon in 1917, and Walter and his wife listed Maria Bourdon as a family contact when they crossed the border in 1935. So 37 years after they left their home in Liverpool, brother and sister were still connected.
Back in England, the Dunn family had carried on. In 1901 and 1905, Walter and Maria’s parents had two more daughters, and named one of them Maria, as if replacing the girl who’d gone. Unlike the sisters born in the 1890s, Walter and Maria probably never knew these two girls. Some home children were reunited with family, but the evidence doesn’t lean that way in this case. In 1911, parents Walter and Margaret were still living in Liverpool, with just the youngest daughter. In the column for “number of children born to this marriage,” they’ve answered four — discounting, it seems, the two who went away.
This detail is a sad fit for a note in Walter’s WW1 service record years later: asked if his mother and father were alive, the answer was: “does not know.” And yet — the wound he received in France eventually landed him in a Liverpool hospital. Did he retrace his steps when he returned there? For many home children sent far from loved ones, WW1 presented an unexpected opportunity to find family again.
I mentioned in my last post that Tracy and I have been busy lately, each with new projects. Mine, very happily, has me visiting many of the same resources we used to create The Cowkeeper’s Wish — but the new story is set here in Toronto, and is not family-related. Still, I find I am coming up against many of the same conundrums and genealogical brick walls, and I thought I would write about one of them, partly to sort it out in my own mind, and partly because it will probably be of interest to anyone engaged in similar research, whether they are curious about family or general history.
This new book in the works, also non-fiction, explores patients and staff at a military hospital just after WW1. One day I was scouring the Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive available through our public library system. I was searching specifically for the term “lost an arm,” for reasons I won’t go into now, and I came upon a tragic 1920 article about a veteran who had indeed lost an arm during the war, and whose young daughter was killed accidentally by a boy playing with a gun.
I was intrigued to find out the back story of this family. The little girl’s name was Elsie Dunn, and her father was Walter, a returned soldier who had just taken a job as an elevator operator in the Dominion Bank Building at Yonge and King. The mother/wife (as so often happens) was mentioned in the article, but not by name. Still, I had dates and details, and the article even included photographs of Walter, Elsie, and Elsie’s “mother.” (Read on to see why I use quotes here!)
I quickly found Walter’s service record at Library and Archives Canada, and was able to corroborate details in the article: the wound matched, the home address matched, and he had one child named Elsie. So now I also knew that Walter had been born in Liverpool in 1888, that he’d enlisted in Montreal in 1916, that he’d been wounded in the Battle of Arras, and that his wife’s name was Blanche. Some time during the war, or slightly after, the family moved from Montreal to Toronto.
When I looked for the death record of Elsie Dunn, however, nothing came up. Since I knew her age, and figured it was fairly unusual to die at eight years old, I removed her first name from the search field, and searched instead for a girl named Dunn who’d died in Toronto in March 1920. The record turned up, with her name recorded as Juanita Odesse Dunn. Almost everything else fit: her age; her father’s name, address, and birthplace; the cause of her death. Her mother, however, was listed as Mirtle B. Bishop, born Nova Scotia. I assumed the “B” stood for Blanche, and carried on gathering information.
I found the now childless Walter and Blanche still living on Gamble Avenue, in an area called Todmorden, just east of the Don River in Toronto in 1921. That particular census included a column for the year a person arrived in Canada, and told me that Walter had come in 1898, and Blanche, also born in England, in 1908. I immediately wondered if Walter had been a home child, having arrived here at age 10, and I quickly found his name, along with a sister Maria’s, in the Home Children Records at Library and Archives Canada. The back story to this is rather fascinating, but I will save it for a subsequent post, and stick with my investigations about Blanche and Myrtle for now.
Now I knew that Blanche, married name Dunn, was born in England in 1888 and had come to Canada in 1908. That went against the details in Elsie’s death record, which said the Myrtle/Mirtle had been born in Nova Scotia. I searched for a marriage record and found one for Walter James Dunn marrying Myrtle Pearl Bishop in Montreal in 1912. Immediately preceding that record was a Catholic baptism for Myrtle. The discovery also revealed Myrtle’s and Walter’s parents’ names — but again I’ll stick with Myrtle for now.
Myrtle’s parents were Allen Bishop and Amy Hindon — clear, not-too-ordinary and not-too-odd names that I knew would be easy to find. And indeed, there they were with baby Myrtle on the 1891 census living in Nova Scotia. A later census showed the parents without Myrtle, but with a sister named Juanita Maxime. Hunting further back, the name Odessa also turned up in Amy’s ancestry. It was obvious I’d found the right family, and that Myrtle had named her baby after her own relatives.
And yet — the 1891 information challenged the idea that Myrtle, if she was Blanche, had come to Canada in 1908, and that she’d been born in England. It corroborated the information in Elsie’s death record: that mother Myrtle had been born in Nova Scotia. So all the records thus far very clearly showed two different names, two different birth dates, and two different birth places. If Elsie could be Juanita, then surely Myrtle could be Blanche, and I knew from the work Tracy and I had done on The Cowkeeper’s Wish that Eleanors could be Margarets, Olives could be Isabels, and so on. But now I had too many details that didn’t add up, and I knew there had to be a different story.
Next I searched for a birth record for Juanita Odesse Dunn, aka Elsie, and found that she had been baptized Juanita Maxime, like Myrtle’s sister, in Montreal in May 1912, a month after her parents had married. Once again the parents’ names were Walter James Dunn and Myrtle Pearl Bishop, with no mention of a Blanche. I began to wonder if Myrtle had died and Walter had remarried, but I could find no death record for Myrtle, and no remarriage for Walter. I wasn’t sure how to proceed to determine who Blanche was, but the little 1908 notation from the census kept niggling.
Finally I did a broad search of passenger lists for all Blanches, without a surname, born in England in 1888, who came to Canada in 1908. There was a handful of possibilities, but I was especially drawn to one record that showed a French surname: Poidevin. This Blanche was the daughter of an egg sorter born in France. The family lived in London, and Blanche’s siblings had working-class occupations like feather curler and perfumer’s assistant — not as glamorous as it sounds, and familiar territory from when Tracy and I researched our own ancestors in the poor areas of London. Like so many young English women of her era, Blanche Poidevin came to Canada with a party of domestic workers, and found employment in Montreal. Her English baptism record also gives her birth date — February 11, 1888 — and it was this detail that eventually linked her with more certainty to Walter Dunn.
In 1935, 15 years after Elsie/Juanita’s awful death, Blanche and Walter Dunn traveled across the US border, heading to London, England, via New York. The cards filled out confirm various details: Walter’s sister Maria is given as a contact; the couple’s address is still Gamble Avenue, Toronto; and finally Blanche’s birthdate, February 11, 1888, matches the baptism record for Blanche Poidevin, daughter of the egg sorter.
Sometimes less is more with this type of research — the best way to find Elsie Dunn was to remove her first name; and the best way to find Blanche was to remove her surname. So now we know that Walter and Myrtle had a baby named Juanita; that something happened to Myrtle, or to her relationship with Walter, between the time Juanita was baptized in 1912 and the time Walter enlisted in 1916; that Walter married or took up with Blanche Poidevin; and that Blanche and Walter were living as husband and wife when Juanita died. Was it Blanche who decided to call Juanita Elsie, once Myrtle was longer around?
The mystery as to what happened to Myrtle is far from solved, but there is plenty to say about Walter, home child turned war veteran, in the next post; and about Elsie and the boy who caused her death.
For the final instalment of this genealogical case study of a somewhat randomly chosen woman named Ellen Shelley, I must sheepishly reveal that I broke down and ordered her daughter’s birth certificate from the General Register Office. Within four days, I had received a pdf, and while it did confirm the girl’s name and birth date, the box for father’s name was unfortunately empty, with nothing but a line drawn through.
Disappointing, but not surprising. And when I look back to the first post, I realize I’ve found a fair bit of interesting information. In this last post in the series, I’d like to share a bit more detail about the resources used. They are just a sampling of what’s available out there, and all of them offer enormous possibilities for keen researchers, whether you are writing non-fiction, historical fiction, or doing genealogical work.
Those who have been following along from parts one through five in this case study will remember that I selected Ellen’s name from a page from a ledger for the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, where our great-great aunt, Jennie Vanson, gave birth to her daughter Ada in 1906. At the beginning of this venture, all we knew was Ellen’s name and address, and the fact that she was single.
Birth, death, marriage, census, and WW1 records from Ancestry helped us fill in her family information. On the Midwives Roll, also at Ancestry, we found Margaret Ann Le Mercier, who was likely the midwife listed on the hospital’s ledger when Ellen’s baby was born.
Digitized maps and notebooks from Charles Booth’s London helped us learn more about the area where she spent her life.
Lost Hospitals of London gave us a bit of background about the General Lying-In Hospital in Lambeth, and the Wellcome Collection “for the incurably curious” offered some wonderful photographs from a doctor who was on staff there, as well as a clinical report of the hospital from 1912.
A London Metropolitan Archives catalogue search told us more about the records held regarding the Lying-In Hospital, and the British Newspaper Archive gave us clues about the hospital’s need for funds. We also found articles about undertakers (like Ellen’s father and brothers) and unwed mothers.
And just to take Ellen Shelley’s story through to its natural conclusion: I can’t be certain when her husband George died, but the records for Ellen and Priscilla are clear, since they include their birth dates, which match the birth dates given on the 1939 census. Ellen lived to be 89 years old, and died in Lambeth in 1972. Priscilla never married. She also died in Lambeth, age 81, not far from where she was born at the Lying-In Hospital, where our investigation began.