Lloyd’s “Long Lost Relatives” and the children of workhouse schools

Chapter 4 - Mary Anne Evans Deverill seated, with Jennie Evans Vanson
Our great grandmother, Mary Anne Deverill, seated, and her sister Jennie Vanson, likely taken in the early 1900s

Some of the ancestors we wrote about in The Cowkeeper’s Wish spent time in the workhouse, and if they had children when they entered, they were sent to pauper schools, as was the case with the Vanson branch of our story. Richard Vanson, born in the 1860s, grew up to marry our great grandmother’s sister Jennie, but long before that, he was the child of parents mired in poverty, who frequently moved from place to place. His father had done time for burglary before Richard was born, and was listed as a hawker on the 1861 and 1871 census. In 1872, he died of tuberculosis, at just 42 years old, leaving Richard’s mother to care for Richard and his six siblings. By 1875, she too fell ill, with the same “lingering malady,” and died in Newington Workhouse. Richard was nine then, and sent to the Central London District School at Hanwell, nicknamed Cuckoo Schools since it was built on Cuckoo Hill, on farmland outside the city. For several decades, the school housed the parish’s orphans and so-called destitute children. Charlie Chaplin and his brother attended when their mother Hannah entered the workhouse. Despite the beautiful country setting — a breath of fresh air for “pauper” children from London — Chaplin later wrote that his time there was “a forlorn existence” and that “Sadness was in the air.”

Charlie Chaplin’s mother Hannah, a music hall star whose sons were sent to Cuckoo Schools

Richard Vanson’s three younger siblings — a brother and two sisters — went with him to Hanwell, and the three older ones fended for themselves; from that point on, the siblings never lived as a family again. While conducting our research of the place, trying to find out what it must have been like for children living out their childhoods there, as the Vansons did, we scoured the newspaper archive for mentions of Hanwell, and among our finds were notices placed in a “Long Lost Relatives” column in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper.

From 1886: “Alice Hutchinson has not been heard of by her brother since she left him at Hanwell school about 15 years ago.”

From 1889: “James Boneer, who 22 years ago left St Pancras workhouse for Hanwell school, wishes to hear of his relatives.”

From 1893: “Vincent (Frederick) left Hanwell Schools, Middlesex, in July 1879; when last heard of was AB on HMS Victory at Portsmouth. Sister Kate inquires.”

From 1895: “George William Rapley would like to trace his parents, whom he has never seen or heard of. He was put in a school at Hanwell called the Cuckoo School.”

Curious about the history of the column itself, I did a bit more digging, and found that sometimes there were so many entries of people searching for loved ones that they were divided by category: Parents and Children, Brothers Seeking Sisters, Sisters Seeking Sisters, and so on. The columns make for heart-breaking reading, but often contain good news too, such as at Christmas in 1886, when a reader wrote to say “I beg to tender my heartfelt thanks for helping me, through your valuable paper, to find the whereabouts of my mother, whom for about 11 years I had heard nothing whatever of, but from whom I received a letter by last mail.”

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From one of Lloyd’s 1840s “penny bloods.” According to the British Library’s Untold Lives, Lloyd brought vampires to a wide readership with his publication of Varney the Vampire.

By the time the Long Lost Relatives column had a regular place in Lloyd’s Weekly in the mid-1880s, the paper had been around for more than 40 years. It had been founded by Edward Lloyd, who declared from the outset, “We have no private interest to serve; no party to land. We enter the political ocean a free trader. Our flag is independence, and we will nail it to the mast.” Lloyd was one of the fathers of the “penny bloods,” dramatic, serialized stories that were hugely popular with the working class. With Lloyd’s Weekly, he became a sort of “pioneer of the cheap press,” bringing the masses a newspaper they could afford. One writer claimed that, prior to Lloyd’s, “If a person of humble means wanted to know what was going on in the world, he would have to go to a public house and borrow the Morning Advertiser.”

The paper’s content was often unexpected, and included material not typically found in other publications. Inspiration for the lost relatives column apparently grew out of an 1877 letter submitted to the newspaper, for which Lloyd’s ran the following notice:

F. W. Wheeler, photographer, of Richford, Vermont, USA, sends us an account of an unknown Englishman drowned in America. The accident occurred in the Missisquoi River at Richford, Vermont, on June 28, 1874.  The deceased, a young man, was supposed to be Henry Preston, of Holborn, London. In his pockets were found a letter from his mother, and two worn photographs, probably of his mother and little sister. Our correspondent encloses copies of the photographs, also a copy of the letter.

The next Sunday, under the heading “A Message from the Grave,” Lloyd’s told its readers that “Monday morning brought the sorrowing mother of the deceased to our office.” She had the same photographs with her, and said that the last letter she’d had from her son had been dated just days before the accident. Since then, she’d known nothing of his whereabouts.

More such inquiries followed over the years — parents anxious to hear from sons and daughters “scattered abroad”; siblings separated by misfortune; wives hunting out “husbands who appear to have purposely disappeared.” (These last the paper claimed were impossible cases, and didn’t take them on.) Eventually the queries became so frequent that the paper decided to run a regular column, and in May 1886 headed the piece with the notice:

Letters continue to pour in upon us from correspondents asking the aid of Lloyd’s to discover relatives of whom all trace has been lost for many years. We shall deal with these mainly in the order they are received, giving, however, the preference to mothers seeking their children, and printing as many as circumstances will permit each week.

The paper’s popularity grew, and the column ran until at least 1900, as far as I can tell.  People wrote in from all over the world, and also from the humblest spots in London, where they’d lost track of each other. Lloyd’s published shortened versions of the letters and kept the longer on file, hoping for responses, and including these in the column when they came. A quick glimpse shows the multitude of ways families had been fragmented, and the pain it caused years afterwards. But sometimes people were reunited, even decades later, simply by way of a small notice in the newspaper, printed free of charge. Others, of course, never found each other. It’s astonishing to read these desperate notices now, what with social media, and the ease of spreading information not just far and wide but instantly.

Richard Vanson left Hanwell at 15, to be apprenticed as a bootmaker. He eventually settled back in his childhood neighbourhood, where he met and married Jennie and made his way into our family tree. Many of his siblings pop up at nearby addresses, so they seem to have made an attempt to return “home” and be close to each other, despite the system that separated them at such a young age. But their trials were far from over. Richard died young, just as his parents had, and of the same illness. And when his brother entered the workhouse as a grown man, likely down on his luck, his children were sent on to Hanwell, just as he and his siblings had been.

And so the cycle of poverty continued.

Children at Crumpsall Workhouse, circa 1890s, from Manchester Archives.


Edward Lloyd: Victorian newspaper proprietor, publisher and entrepreneur

“Long Lost Relatives.” Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, British Newspaper Archive.

Edward Lloyd and the Penny Bloods.” Untold Lives Blog, British Library, February 2015.

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper: Romance of a Daring Journalistic Venture.” The London Magazine.

My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin. London: The Bodley Head, 1964.

Children at Crumpsall Workhouse, Manchester Archives.



Marrying your uncle, and other brow-raisers

As difficult as it was to select the few threads that would become the focus of The Cowkeeper’s Wish, in the interest of brevity we cut our great grandfather’s twice married but never divorced sister Kate, and the brother-in-law who claimed to be the son of an Indian Commissioner and knight, but who worked as a porter. To ensure the book did not end up as a massive tome we erased a several times great uncle – a publican whose son threatened to burn down his hotel — and we did not share the tangent we traveled to learn about George Duckworth, the aristocrat who worked unpaid for a decade to help Charles Booth with his extensive study of London’s poor. Duckworth’s detailed notes were invaluable to us in recreating the streets and places in The Cowkeeper’s Wish, but, horribly, he was accused of molesting his half-sisters, writer Virginia Woolf and painter Vanessa Bell.

Brow-raisers aplenty we’ve stumbled across while writing and researching, and it seems there’s no single branch of our gnarled tree that does not contain a knot or two. Even the family ensconced in what Duckworth called “happy Plumstead,” with its grassy heaths and heady woodlands and the scent of flowers in the air, had its surprises.

Plumstead, Kent, around 1905…where “bluebells carpet the woods.” (Postcard courtesy of ideal-homes.org.uk)

Let me begin with Edwin Curtis, our great grandmother Emily’s forebear, and a cowkeeper like the Benjamin Jones in our book title, although in rather different circumstances. Edwin came to the dairy trade in a roundabout way. The second son of a butcher and grocer, he’d grown up in Salperton, Gloucestershire, in the heart of southwest England’s Cotswold Hills. He spent his unmarried years working as an agriculture labourer, but by the time he wed his wife Elizabeth Bryant in 1859, he and his father had swapped occupations – Edwin was the butcher and his father a farmer. But like Benjamin Jones and so many others before him, Edwin saw his future elsewhere. Instead of choosing the life of a city dweller for himself and his cows as Benjamin had done, Edwin’s path took him to High Grove Farm in Plumstead, where his cattle, eating sweet grass and drinking clean water, presumably enjoyed an existence more pleasant than Benjamin’s cows, housed in the muck and foul air of the Borough. Though just twelve miles from London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, George Duckworth noted, here “nightingales still sing, pheasants are still preserved, and bluebells carpet the woods.”

In this seemingly idyllic setting Edwin and Elizabeth raised a family of six children. When they died within a few years of each other soon after the turn of the century, the farm was passed down to two of their sons who, at age 48 and 37, had remained unmarried. While the elder of the brothers had a job at one of the many factories that had sprung up on the flats down by the Thames, and in his off hours tended the farm’s horses, the younger worked full time on the farm, following in his father’s footsteps as a cowkeeper. But there are no tales of filthy, diluted milk here, as there was with Benjamin Jones. Instead, the surprise that surfaced in this story was the teenage niece, Bea, who lived with them, helping out as a housekeeper, although it seems more was going on than the sweeping of floors and the washing of dishes.

Can you marry your uncle? According to the Table of Kindred and Affinity found at the back of the Anglican Book of Prayer “Wherein, Whosoever are related, are forbidden in Scripture, and our laws, to Marry together,” the answer is no, and has been since at least 1560, when the table was first established.

The Church of England’s Table of Kindred and Affinity: “A Man may not Marry his Sister’s Daughter”

But in “happy Plumstead,” amongst the blooms of June 1913, Bea and her uncle did just that at the Woolwich Registry Office, where a Notice of Intention to Marry would have been posted for three weeks prior to the event. Presumably no one stepped forward to object, but it’s hard not to suppose there would have been whispers behind hands, elbows nudged, and glances exchanged, for surely within that relatively small community people knew of the close relationship, and that it was illegal, and, most would judge, immoral. And yet it occurred, and the official record remains to prove it, duly signed by the registrar and the deputy superintendent who performed the ceremony. Signing as witnesses to the ceremony were the older brother of the groom (another uncle to the bride), and someone with the same last name and first initial as the bride’s mother, although almost ten years earlier that same woman had disowned another daughter, our great grandmother Emily, for reasons that can only be speculation a century and more gone. And yet what can have been Emily’s crime, if the mother approved of such a match for her sister Bea?

Family historians are innately curious, as are writers, and when a tidbit such as the estrangement of a mother and her daughter is dangled before us, how can we help but try to figure out why such a thing might have happened? In this case, the obvious reason for the parting of ways seemed to be Emily’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy, established by the date of her marriage and the birth date of her first child. But if this was the reason for the mother’s harsh treatment, it was sadly hypocritical, for records show the mother herself had been a pregnant bride. Perhaps the mother had simply disliked George, her daughter’s chosen husband. But this too seemed unlikely. George was by all accounts an amiable, capable, dependable fellow who loved Emily, and had been friendly with her family for years before he and Emily married.

baby alice and m.a. elizabeth curtis-ingram circa 1907
Emily’s mother, who disowned her for unknown reasons, and Emily’s much younger sister Alice, circa 1907

Some things are simply unknowable, and it appeared we would never find out what had occurred to cause the rift between mother and daughter. Then, soon after The Cowkeeper’s Wish went to print, we came across an item in The Kentish Independent newspaper, dating from 1906. “Robbing Uncle,” was the headline, and there, in black and white, was a story that had not been passed down through the generations. Our great grandmother, employed to do housework at her uncle’s dairy farm, had stolen money from him – twice – and been caught. The uncle was the same man who would later marry her sister.

The article tells us that the uncle had noticed money missing from the locked box in his bedroom, and went to the police. They set a trap for the thief, placing twenty marked sovereigns in the box, and leaving the key in its usual location, the pocket of the uncle’s coat. When several of the marked coins immediately went missing, the police arrested Emily, hauling her off a tram and bringing her back to the scene of the crime. A dramatic encounter followed, with Emily pulling the coins from her stocking and pleading for leniency.

“Please don’t prosecute me, Steve,” the newspaper quoted, “I will give [the money] back. …  I have only had the two lots. I took [it] because I was going to have a little one, and had not money.”

Detective Sergeant Webber, testifying at the hearing, told the magistrate that Emily “was a perfectly respectable woman, and her husband, who was in court, was willing to repay the [money] if he was given a few days.” In the end, though, the magistrate felt it best to continue with prosecution, and sent her for trial at the South London Sessions. No record has been found to give us details of that awful experience, but the judge must have decided to be lenient, perhaps at her uncle’s request, or maybe because Emily and her husband revealed plans to emigrate to Canada, which they did the following year.robbing uncle

But even this sorry tale does not tell the whole story of the estrangement. If the theft was the reason for the rift, why did the mother (according to family lore) refuse to attend Emily’s wedding, which had taken place before the incident? Sadly, the dispute between them remained unresolved, and they never again spoke or even wrote to one another.

Years later, after both women had died, one of Emily’s sons visited the town she’d left all that time ago, and found not only long lost aunts, uncles and cousins, but a warm welcome besides.


  • booth.lse.ac.uk/notebooks
  • “Robbing Uncle”, The Kentish Independent, August 31, 1906
  • churchofengland.org

The patient, the doctor, and his “facsimile”

lma ellen page 94
Ellen Evans Roff, from the Stone Asylum casebook, 1903. This image appears with permission from London Metropolitan Archives (City of London).

Tracy and I recently spoke about The Cowkeeper’s Wish to the wonderfully enthusiastic and knowledgeable group, the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa (BIFHSGO), and in preparation for the event, I was reminded of our work researching Stone Asylum in Dartford, Kent, where one of our relatives, Ellen Roff nee Evans, spent a number of years in the early 1900s, “suffering from melancholia with marked depression,” the case notes say.

On our research trip back in 2012, were fortunate enough to read through these casebooks ourselves at London Metropolitan Archives, and to see the red-rimmed photographs that accompanied the notes. As we turned the rippled pages wearing our white gloves, we learned a little about some of the other women who were at Stone in the same years Ellen was. One grinned out at the camera with a challenging expression, and another glowered with her arms folded. An elderly patient sat with a nurse standing behind her, to prop up her chin for the portrait. She was “harmless and weak,” the notes say, but also “dirty and demented.” The most astonishing portrait showed a young woman pressing a hand over her eyes, and hugging her torso with her other arm. The notes say, “She believes she is here to have her light taken out.”

I wanted to dive into each of these stories, and find out as much as I could about these women — but of course we had enough work on our hands telling our own family story. So we took some photographs, jotted some notes to give context to Ellen’s experience, and closed the book. Years later, though, I think of the women often.

One of them gave her name as Annie Elizabeth Hancock nee Strachan. She was 39 years old in 1907, when she was admitted to Newport Asylum in Wales. The record gives her address at the time as 1 Woodland Road, Newport, but there’s no doubt she was a London woman, which must be why, in 1909, she was transferred to Stone Asylum, where Ellen was. She was diagnosed with delusional insanity, with causes listed as “family troubles and a love affair (prolonged mental illness).” Case notes tell us she believed she was “able to hear in her own head the thoughts of others.” Tucked in with the doctors’ notes was a letter she’d written herself, warning Stone Asylum’s Medical Officer of Health about a possible impostor among them.

Dear Sir,

There has been so much shuffling over my not going home that there must be some reason for it, on Dr. Nelis’s part. Early last August Dr. Nelis went for a 3 weeks holiday. He was a fat man with a very red face, bright blue eyes with remarkable clear whites and dark hair and moustache with a short clipped beard. At the end of August, his facsimile came back, but it must have been either his twin brother or a very near relation, but there were differences in the two men, slight, it’s true, and most people meeting him casually perhaps would not notice. The man that returned had always a pale face, hair greyer, beard much greyer, eyes of cloudy grey with a touch of blue; the whites were dull with brownish splotches; his shoulders seemed broader, and he walked with a quicker step than Nelis. Now this second man had been about the asylum on isolated occasions before the August holiday, because I had noticed the difference in face and beard. But the two men were so similar I knew it was no good making remarks. On the last Sunday in September, the bright blue eyed man reappeared and I had a good look at him because I asked him if I could have a room upstairs in 6 as I got smoke in my sideroom in Ward I. This man I never saw again in the asylum, & if that was the first Nelis returned for some purpose of his own, he had dyed his beard and moustache jet black, because the original Nelis’s moustache & beard were dark brown. Dr. Nelis was Dr. Glendinning’s assistant at Abergavenny for 25 years, [so Glendinning] ought to know if it was the same man. . … Anyone can see what a muddle such a state of affairs might cause. … If they are two men, where is the first Nelis, & what did he go for? & if the second man is not a doctor at all, he can be prosecuted for practicing without certificates. …”

stone patient letter crop
Annie Elizabeth Strachan, from the Stone Asylum casebook, courtesy London Metropolitan Archives (City of London).

Annie wrote this letter in March 1909, shortly after being admitted to Stone. Dr. William Francis Nelis worked at Newport, not at Stone, so one would guess Annie was attempting to convince the powers that be at Stone that something untoward had gone on at Newport, and was preventing her discharge. I wish now that I’d photographed all the pages about Annie in the Stone Asylum casebook, but I’m left with only fragments, and a growing curiosity about both the patient and the doctor with the bright blue eyes — not to mention his pale facsimile.

Annie Elizabeth Strachan was the eldest of five, born in London to Archibald and Elizabeth Charlotte Strachan in 1867. Her father was a butcher, and the family lived on Albany Street for many years. In 1891, though, they appear with her grandparents in Lambeth, and Annie, 23, is listed as “artist — oil and watercolour.” By 1901, her mother has died, and she is working at home as a lace milliner. The surprising detail here is that, though she is living with her father, her grandfather, and a grown-up brother, Annie herself, the only female, is listed as head of the household.

So what happened to land her in Newport and then Stone Asylum? The clue lies somewhere in the “family troubles and a love affair” note in her file, and perhaps in her surname, Hancock. I can find no appropriate record of an Annie Elizabeth Strachan marrying a man named Hancock, and a note in her file states “proper name is Miss Annie Elizabeth Strachan” — note the underscoring. So was Hancock the man she had the affair with and simply wished she was married to? Certainly our own Ellen, estranged from her husband Fred Roff, used a different surname — Humphreys — when she met and had children with another man, though they never officially married. Maybe something similar happened with Annie. The probate record for her mother’s death in 1894 includes the name Robert John Hancock, coachman, but so far I can’t officially link him with Annie.

Of Dr. Nelis, more surfaces. William Francis Nelis was born in Australia in 1855 to Irish parents. His mother and baby sister died when he was just three, and he and his father eventually moved to Scotland. Nelis studied medicine, and was drawn to the field of psychiatry. After a brief stint as a ship’s surgeon, he took a position at Carmarthen Mental Hospital, and then at Abergavenny, where he remained for 25 years,  the very detail Annie Elizabeth Strachan included in her letter. But the curious thing is, Annie does not seem to have been a patient at Abergavenny, so how did she know that Nelis had worked there for 25 years? According to the obituary, she was right, too, that at Abergavenny, Nelis was assistant to Dr. James Glendinning — the man Annie felt certain could spot a fake Nelis, because they’d worked together for so long. But again, how did she know of Glendinning? In 1905, Nelis was appointed Medical Officer at the newly opened institution at Newport, which must be where he and Annie encountered each other, since she entered that asylum in 1907. Nelis remained at Newport for the rest of the his career, retiring in 1929, just three years before his death.

The new hospital was apparently his life’s work, and according to his obituary, he treated the patients there with an uncommon kindness: “his ear was ever ready to listen to their grievances, however trivial.” Obituaries always emphasize nice things about people, but the write-up but goes on to say that he was a profoundly knowledgeable psychiatrist, and that modesty and shyness kept him in the shadows. “He realized there was a long road to travel before the secrets of mental diseases were laid bare.” He was also interested in botany, and had an “artistic bent,” like Annie the painter, perhaps; he oversaw the landscaping of the grounds at Newport, where a long avenue of trees led to the asylum, and shrubs were arranged artistically around it.

“Dr. Nelis was under middle height, but in spite of lack of inches, he had a dignified personality; his eyes were keen and shrewd, and he was endowed with common sense and excellent judgment. In addition he was blessed with an extraordinarily retentive memory, which remained unimpaired to the end. He could recall by name patients who had left the hospital many years before, together with their peculiarities.”

No doubt he would have remembered Annie Elizabeth Strachan just as clearly as she remembered him.

When Dr. Nelis died, he willed some of his money to his longtime housemaid, and to others who’d worked for and with him at the asylum; other portions went to a number of different hospitals, nursing funds, a society for the blind, and a hospice for the dying. The largest portion by far went to the Committee of Visitors of the Newport Mental Hospital, Caerleon. They were asked to use the money at their discretion to assist “necessitous mental patients on their discharge from the hospital.”

Once again it strikes me that a man is often much easier to research than a woman, especially when he has money and an important position, and she has neither. I have yet to discover when — or whether — Annie Strachan left Stone Asylum, or if her suspicions about Nelis and his facsimile were ever put to rest. She doesn’t appear at Stone on the 1911 census, but I haven’t found her with certainty anywhere else either. One positive note is that her case file suggests her recovery is “probable,” so maybe she fared better than our Ellen, who left Stone in 1910 only to re-enter the workhouse, where she lived out the remainder of her years. Perhaps in Annie’s case the “family troubles” mentioned in her file got resolved? Her record shows she entered Stone as a pauper patient, but was re-classified as a private patient in 1910. So someone, somewhere was contributing to her care.

stone asylum
Courtesy the Wellcome Library


City of London Mental Hospital [later Stone House Hospital], Patient Records, Female Casebooks: CLA/001, London Metropolitan Archives

William Francis Nelis obituary: Journal of Mental Science, Volume 78, Issue 322, July 1932 , pp. 766-767

“Large Charitable Bequests.” Western Morning News, 29 June, 1932.


Christmas in 1905: Stimulating the Economy Edwardian-style

christmas card 1900s
An early 1900s Christmas card courtesy Museum of Childhood

Christmas stimulates all industries, but there are some trades which practically live on the greatest of our yearly festivals. For instance, there is the manufacture of Christmas candles, which are used in countless myriads in the Roman Catholic and Greek Churches all over the world, and at which skilled artists work all the year round. These candles are of all sorts and sizes, but the speciality of the trade is the Paschal candle, which is some six feet high and three inches and a half in diameter, weighs nearly fifty pounds, and is invariably made of the purest beeswax. These great altar-shafts are elaborately decorated with broad bands and designs of blue, gold, bronze, and red, all painted by hand, so that it is no wonder that they are costly. Nine to twelve pounds per pair is quite a usual price. There are also the special small candles of all colours, made for the decoration of Christmas trees and known as “tree-tapers.”

The Christmas plum pudding occupies the energies of housewives for several weeks before Christmas. It also keeps busy large special departments of various biscuit and cake manufacturing firms for a large portion of the year; for we export plum puddings by the hundred tons to all parts the world. …

No one actually grows holly or mistletoe for sale, though plenty make a yearly harvest by cutting it and sending it to market. There are, however, several plantations in Yorkshire especially devoted to the growing of Christmas trees, and men are at work on them all the year round to make the trees perfectly symmetrical. The best of these trees are worth as much as £3 apiece.

Near London is a palm “forcer” who has nearly a hundred glass houses devoted to the growing of palms of different kinds, and his market is in the main a Christmas one. Palms are becoming more and more popular for Christmas decorations. Their prices, wholesale, run from a shilling to a guinea apiece.

Toys for Christmas and Christmas cards keep thousands employed from one December to the next, while a brand new business has recently sprung up in the manufacture of artful advertisements masquerading under the guise of Christmas cards.

The proportions of the Christmas cracker industry may be gathered from the fact that between 15,000,000 and 16,000,000 are manufactured each [year] for home use.

There is an ever-increasing number of people who make their living at window decorating, and for these the great harvest of the year comes at Christmastide when every window vies with every other in attracting customers. The butcher’s artist is, perhaps, the most important of the lot. His work is not only to hang up the fat beasts so as to make the best show, but to decorate them with designs cut in fat. So much as a pound or thirty shillings is paid for a portrait of the King and Queen done in this way, and there is a man in Smithfield who will guarantee to copy any picture which the butcher likes for a specified sum.

Penny Illustrated, 23 December, 1905

Christmas weddings in Victorian England

V&A Christmas birds
A Victorian Christmas card, circa 1860-1880, courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum


It was a coster wedding, at which, by lucky chance, I once happened to be present. … It was difficult at first to distinguish which were the bride and bridegroom-elect; but there was one lad, the splendour of whose tie and the redundance of whose buttons proclaimed him to be the happy man; and on his arm there leaned a maid whose face shone with soap and happiness, and the feathers of whose hat stood out several inches further over its brim than those on the headgear of her companions, and therefore marked her as the bride.

“A Costermonger’s Wedding,” Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, 1912

During the years of researching our family’s path through Victorian England, we came upon a number of marriages that took place on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Working class people typically worked six days a week in those times, and these were two days that they and their relatives could probably count on having to themselves. On top of that, churches often offered their services free or at reduced rates on Christmas, and a flip through marriage registers shows a definite spike in the number of ceremonies performed.

lady chapel st saviour's
The Lady Chapel in St. Saviour’s Church, where Jennie Evans and Richard Vanson were married. From The History of the Collegiate Church of St. Saviour, 1894.

Our great grandmother’s sister, Jennie Evans, married her shoemaker love Richard Vanson on December 25, 1890, at St. Saviour’s Church in Southwark. Nowadays St. Saviour’s is the beautiful Southwark Cathedral, but at the time of Jennie’s wedding, it was in the midst of a long overdue renovation that would transform it from “as vile a preaching-place as ever disgraced the 19th century” into a glorious place of worship.

The ongoing work made the normally large church tiny, and the only place in use at the time of Jennie and Richard’s wedding was the ancient and intimate Lady Chapel, a portion of St. Saviour’s that had not been spoiled in earlier renovations. Jennie’s sister (our great grandmother) and her brother-in-law signed as witnesses to their union.

The minister was busier than usual that day. The register shows 13 couples were joined in holy matrimony on the 25th, more than double the amount that took place in all of December. The grooms list jobs like lighterman, brush maker, and varnish maker, and hail from addresses close to Jennie and Richard’s on Red Cross Street, so they were no doubt poor, and happy to reap the benefits of marrying on Christmas Day.

The tradition had begun years earlier, and continued for decades, though it’s a challenge to find out what such weddings were really like, since the people who wrote about the working class — however fine their intentions — were often not of that class themselves, but rather outsiders looking in. In 1866 the writer and social explorer James Greenwood described “penny wedders” arriving at a London church, and wrote of a guest: “[his] attire was not at all of a bridal character, and consisted of greasy fustian, and a dirty cotton neckerchief wisped about the collar of his blue-checked shirt. His face was dirty, too, as were his hands — a fault he seemingly was not unconscious of, as from time to time he gave them a sly rub on his coat-tail.”

As more couples poured in to the church to be married, writes Greenwood, “sight-seers flocked in to see the fun. The candidates for matrimony were nearly all of the very lowest order, and the marrying couples were, as a rule, very young. There were exceptions however. In one case an old man, at least sixty, had brought to the altar an old woman as old as himself, and who wore on her marriage finger as many plain rings as should and doubtless would have been a caution to the old gentleman had they each represented a previous espousal; but they did not. A fancy for wearing plain rings prevails amongst many barrow-women, and they prefer them to stone rings. There was another instance of middle-aged folks coming together, and one that was rendered remarkable from the fact of the parents bringing with them a troop of illegitimate children—the eldest a lanky boy of fifteen—to see them ‘made honest.’ I gathered this fact from the buzzing and whispering about me, and it was curious to note the variety of opinion that prevailed on the subject. Some said it was a good thing, and ‘better late than never.’ Others, that it was a bad thing, and a pity that some people must make ‘poppy shows of theirselves.'”

Christmas weddings certainly happened because people were poor and had little time away from their jobs. An 1865 article notes that a Lambeth clergyman had to commence his marriage ceremonies at 8 a.m. that Christmas in order to get through them all. And in 1899 in the East End, some 84 ceremonies were performed at one church. “They were mostly the costermonger class,” the article notes. “They were accompanied by large numbers of their friends, and crowds of people assembled outside the building and saluted each departing couple with showers of rice and confetti. The proceedings were enlivened with selections from mouth-organs.” There are stories of couples being married five at a time, and even a dozen at a time, “and it is satisfactory to know that the various husbands and wives paired off happily, without any ill results of this great ‘mix.'”

Sadly, there are few proper wedding portraits in our family archive from this period, and an online search for Victorian weddings more commonly turns up images of privileged people. At one extreme end of the spectrum, Prince George and Mary of Teck married just a few years after Jennie and Richard, and the opulent setting is depicted in this Laurits Tuxen painting, where light streams through the chapel windows at St. James Palace, and the jewels and taffeta shine.

prince george and mary of teck laurits tuxen
The Marriage of George, Duke of York, with Princess Mary of Teck, 6 July 1893. Courtesy Royal Collection Trust.

Bargain Christmas weddings continued well into the 20th century, and really only began to die out as working conditions improved. The practice was still in place during WW1, when our ancestor Clara Donnelly married a munitions worker named Bert Morel. Listed alongside them in the register that day and the next are other munitions workers and soldiers marrying their brides, and perhaps adding “Happy Christmas” after the “I do.”

1916, wedding party Clara and Bert
Munitions worker Charles Bertram Morel and Clara Donnelly married in Lambeth on Christmas Eve in 1916


“84 Couples Married at One Church.” Coventry Evening Telegraph, 26 December, 1899.

“Christmas Marriage in Birmingham.” Leicester Chronicle, 3 January, 1891.

“Christmas Marriages at St. Mary’s.” South London Press, 30 December, 1865.

“At a Penny Wedding.” Shields Daily News, 25 September, 1866.

The History of the Collegiate Church of St. Saviour. Rev. W. Thompson, 1894.

The Marriage of George, Duke of York, with Princess Mary of Teck, July 1893. By Laurits Regner Tuxen, Royal Collection Trust.

A Costermonger’s Wedding.” Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia, 1912.

James Greenwood: The Victorianist

Germans in England in WW1

Taken in the 1890s, the image gives a glimpse of German-English connections in the Royal Family. Queen Victoria and her daughter Victoria, then German empress, are seated in front. Standing behind them, far right, is Queen Victoria’s son Edward, who would soon become king. Standing next to him, Empress Victoria’s son, and so Queen Victoria’s grandson, Wilhelm, Kaiser of Germany in WW1. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Since the very hefty middle part of The Cowkeeper’s Wish is set in WW1, we were especially intrigued by a branch of the family with German connections. Our grandmother’s aunt, Nellie Deverill, married a man named Percy Kraushaar in the early 1900s. Though Percy’s great-great grandparents had arrived in England from Germany a century or so earlier — long before our own Benjamin and Margaret walked from Wales to London with their cows — it seems it wasn’t until the WW1 era that some members of the Kraushaar family anglicized their name. A 1919 notice in the Gazette reported, “I, Albert Henry Crawshaw, a natural-born British subject … now serving in His Majesty’s Army, heretofore called and known by the name of Albert Augustus Henry Kraushaar, hereby give public notice … I absolutely renounced and abandoned the use of my former Christian name of Augustus and my former surname of Kraushaar, and then assumed and adopted and determined to use and subscribe the name of Albert Henry Crawshaw.”

king george punch
King George sweeps away his German titles. Punch, 1917.

There was plenty of hostility towards Germans in England in those years, and even people who had stronger ties to England than the country of their ancestry sometimes felt a need to distance themselves. The royal family’s own lineage was German through almost all of its branches, and in July 1917, King George V issued a proclamation “relinquishing the use of all German Titles and Dignities.”

Right around this time, papers reported riots in which angry groups smashed the windows of German bakers and butchers, throwing loaves of bread into the street and demolishing furniture. A shop owner with “a continental name” had his window cracked before he could convince the rioters that he was French rather than German. Another felt compelled to chalk in big block letters on the wall outside his store “WE ARE RUSSIANS,” but even when police managed to get in front of the crowds, stones were thrown over their heads and glass shattered.

Life must have been difficult for soldiers with German surnames. One man I came upon while researching Cane Hill Asylum, where our great grandmother was a patient in 1917, suffered delusions connected to his German ancestry. According to Charles Fray’s military record, “He began to imagine some months ago that people in the streets gesticulated at him and made disparaging remarks about him. Subsequently he imagined that the men at his regiment poisoned his food. Since admission he has … voices telling him that he is to be made away with because he is a spy…. The man is of German parentage, hence the nature of the delusions.”

emil heitmann
Emil Heitmann in uniform, some time during the First World War.

Recently I was intrigued to learn of Mizpah Cousins, the work of a woman who has researched her family story, rooted in both England and Germany. Margaret Lossl‘s grandfather, Emil Heitmann, had come at age 19 from Germany to London in 1908 and found work at a first-class hotel as a waiter. The job came with a posh flat, and life got even better when he fell in love with Agnes Meyer, London-born but of German extraction. Soon she was pregnant, and shortly before baby Emma was born, they married.

Margaret thinks that when her grandparents decided to marry, Emil had to acquire his birth certificate from the German embassy, and it was this that alerted the government to the fact that he had not completed his obligatory military training. He was called home late in 1911, and his little family went with him. More children were born in Germany.

Had Emil Heitmann not returned to Germany, he probably would have been sent to the internment camp at Alexandra Palace for the duration of the war. This was the fate of other members of Margaret’s family. Many lost their jobs, she says, and everyone gave up speaking German. In 1914, the palace was used as a place of refuge for Belgians who had escaped their country when Germany invaded. But soon it became a sort of prison for “enemy aliens” — Germans, Austrians, and Hungarians living in England when the war began, many married to British women. Between 1915 and 1919, the palace received about 3,000 prisoners. As one man put it, “the breaking up and ruin of mostly English-raised families” was unbearable.

Alexandra Palace
Sleeping accommodation in the Small Hall at Alexandra Palace. ©IWM (Q 64158)

Emil served with the German army, and Agnes remained with their children in Hamburg, separated from the rest of her family. It’s hard to imagine what such a situation must have been like. War was difficult for the average person on each side, but having ties to both sides must have been at times excruciating. Having inherited the postcards and letters Emil sent to Agnes over the course of the war, Margaret was able to research her grandparents’ war experience in Germany, and to weave this with the story of the relatives Agnes left behind in London’s East End. The “perilous predicaments,” as Margaret puts it, sound fascinating.

Sources and further reading

“Anti-German Riots in London.” Leeds Mercury, 9 July, 1917.

Lives of the First World War: Charles Frederick William Fray

Lives of the First World War: Soldiers with German or Austrian Parents

Mizpah Cousins: Life, love and perilous predicaments during the Great War era by Margaret Lossl

National Archives: Wettin to Windsor: Changing the Royal Name

National Archives: Daily Life at Alexandra Palace Internment Camp


“The stinky London of Charles Dickens”

Oliver TwistTiny glowing reviews from readers are trickling in for The Cowkeeper’s Wish in various places. I especially love one that describes the setting as “the stinky London of Charles Dickens” and calls the book “a vivid story about regular people in the real world.” That’s what Dickens wrote about too; his characters were fictional, but the world he placed them in existed in all its sooty splendour.

Our ancestors, Benjamin and Margaret Jones, arrived in Red Cross Street in Southwark in the late 1830s, around the time Oliver Twist began appearing in monthly instalments in Bentley’s Miscellany. Some say the workhouse in Oliver Twist was modeled on the Mint Street workhouse, steps away from our ancestral home, and condemned by the Lancet as “a den of horrors.” Though the esteemed medical journal called for its removal and labeled the tramp ward “an open sty,” the workhouse remained in place until the 1920s, and is a landmark in our own family history.  The Mint Street workhouse makes regular appearances in our story, and was sadly the eventual home for Benjamin and Margaret’s daughter, “Lazy Mary.” Family lore says that Mary entered the workhouse after her husband died, because she was too lazy to care for herself. There is more to the story, of course — no one enters a den of horrors out of laziness. But the fact that the story exists speaks volumes about the stigma attached to workhouse “inmates.”

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This snippet of a late-1800s Charles Booth poverty map shows some of the Dickens sites that appear in The Cowkeeper’s Wish. Red Cross Street, runs north-south in the centre of the map, and ends at Marshalsea Road. Tucked in beside Marshalsea is St. George’s Workhouse, known as Mint Street workhouse, and almost due south of that is Lant Street. St. George the Martyr Church, where Little Dorrit was married, appears on the lower right part of the map, where Marshalsea meets Borough High Street.

Dickens had strong ties to our family’s neighbourhood. When he was just a boy, his father was sent to Marshalsea Prison under the debtors’ act. Some of Dickens’ siblings and their mother lived there too while the sentence was carried out, but Charles, just 12 at that point, lived nearby on Lant Street and worked in a blacking factory. Lant Street appears in the bottom left area of the map shown, and the letters “BD SCH” stand for “board school.” Many members of our family attended the Lant Street Board School, which opened in the late 1870s, and served the poor children of the area. In the late 1890s, the annual school report noted that “in a low locality like this,” a more distinctive school name connected to the history of the area might be a good idea. And since Dickens had already been commemorated in many placenames throughout the Borough, “Would not therefore Charles Dickens School, Lant Street, Southwark, be an appropriate name for this school?” It took years more for the change to come about, but finally, by 1912, the name was in place. Our grandmother Doris and her siblings attended, and so did many of their cousins.

Lant Street Board School in the early 1900s.  The girl with the white bow in the second row, second from right, was our grandmother’s cousin, May, who in later years wrote wonderful letters that gave us some of the detail for our story.

Dickens placenames pop up throughout this neighbourhood: there’s Quilp Street, Copperfield Street, and Dickens Square. And tucked in behind Red Cross Street (now Redcross Way) is Little Dorrit Playground, put in place by the London County Council in 1901 to address the notion that childhood was “blighted” in this impoverished area. One writer claimed the children here were “more woe-begone, unwashed and unhealthy-looking” than any in the city. If you ask me, the girls above look ordinary and even lovely enough — but earlier pictures do show children in bare feet, with ragged clothing and an unkempt appearance.

If the playground was meant to brighten children’s lives, a social reformer wandering through shortly after it was put in place was not impressed. The space was surrounded by high walls. It had one gas lamp in the centre and a drinking fountain. “It is essentially a playground for rough children, no seats because of the encouragement to loafers, nor any caretaker. I have only been there during school hours,” he admitted, “when few children were about.”

The area has changed, of course, since those “stinky” days. While much of our years-long research was done online, we visited London to see the site of our story for ourselves. It gave us chills to walk along Redcross Way, up past Crossbones Cemetery, and over to Borough Market. We ate lunch on the grounds of Southwark Cathedral, where Benjamin and Margaret and others in our line were married, and we studied in the local history library, right next to St. George the Martyr Church, where Little Dorrit was married, and where a wall from Marshalsea Prison still stands. These are just some of the remnants that are left from the years when our family lived and loved here.


For some wonderful pictures and stories about Dickens’ connections to Southwark, visit the Southwark Heritage Blog.

“Sudden mental derangement” at East India House

Tracy and I would never call ourselves genealogists, and there are many extremely skilled people out there who know research tricks we’ve never even thought of. We’re just a couple of curious and tenacious writers who love history and putting our family story in context. When we came upon the anecdote of our ancestors, Benjamin Jones and Margaret Davies, walking from Wales to London with their cows in search of a better life, it seemed the natural start for our story. And we were a bit relieved not to have to peer yet further into these distant branches of the Welsh part of our tree, where suddenly everyone was named Jones and Davies and Evans. There was even a John Jones and a David Davies and an Evan Evans! Instead, we went forward, following the path of our family over the next hundred years or so, where luckily they mixed with others who had more easily searchable names. For all we’ve discovered, I’m still intrigued by what came before, and a little in awe of people who’ve traced their families back much further than we have. Sisters Alison Botterill and Fiona Duxbury, whose grandmother we wrote about a while back in An Unknown Soldier and an Unconventional Woman, have done extensive research on many different branches of their family, and find themselves most curious about a line that was wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries, but whose station declined over time. Much as we did in preparation for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, the sisters have written short pieces about members of their family in order to put the bigger story in perspective, and have generously agreed to share one here.

East India House, Leadenhall
East India House, Leadenhall Street, shortly after its reconstruction in the late 1790s. Courtesy the British Library.

A Sad Tale

A very melancholy circumstance happened yesterday forenoon. Mr John Burford, Clerk to the Committee of East India Directors for Buying threw himself out of a one-pair-of-stairs window, under the new portico of the India House, Leadenhall Street. His head was broken to atoms and he only survived a few minutes. He was taken into the House where his body will lie till the Coroner’s Jury give their verdict this day. The cause of this fatal accident can only be attributed to sudden mental derangement as Mr Burford had regularly transacted his business in the office, tho’ he had for some time appeared rather dejected. He had been only two minutes in the room, where there were other Clerks, when he opened the window, and suddenly sprang out of it, in the sight of a number of people.

8 May, 1800, The Times

India_House wiki
This image shows the portico, the site of John’s suicide, more clearly. The “one-pair-of-stairs window” simply means the upper floor. A search through the British Newspaper Archive reveals all sorts of people throwing themselves from one, two, and three pair-of-stairs windows. See also the poem, “From a Fourth-Pair Window.”

John was born in 1748, one of three sons of Richard Burford, a distiller of Wapping, whose family had been in that business for at least four generations. His elder brother Richard was a Blackwell Hall factor and the largest supplier of broadcloth to the East India Company, and his younger brother, Jonathan Sommers Burford, worked in the Pay Office at that company.

John married Lucy Elsden of Kings Lynn in 1786 and they had 8 children, at least two of them dying in childhood. Lucy’s mother was Elizabeth Rolfe, of that Norfolk family made famous by an ancestor, John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas in the early 17th century in America (and not John Smith as per the Disney film, although he was the man she saved from death). Her father, Edmund Elsden, was a very wealthy Norfolk merchant who left a fortune at his death in 1793. At the time of Lucy and John’s marriage it must be assumed John was on a sound financial footing – her sisters also made very good marriages to rich men – as it is unlikely her father would have otherwise allowed the marriage.

John had been appointed to the role of Assistant Clerk to the Committee of Buying in 1772 and ten years later was promoted to the position of Clerk.   At the time of his marriage he was living in Lothbury, in the City of London, with his brother Richard, but then moved with his new wife to a house at no. 2 Artillery Place, just off Finsbury Square where Richard had relocated to. Jonathan Sommers Burford and his family were living in Great  James Street, Bedford Row, its smart Georgian terraces still surviving.

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An excerpt from the Old Bailey trial two years before John’s death. The full account can be seen at the wonderful Old Bailey site, including the fate of those convicted of the crime.

In December 1798 John and Lucy were burgled at home of a large number of items, mainly clothes, and both of them appeared as witnesses at the Old Bailey. Of the four accused, two were found guilty and sentenced to death.

A few months after John’s death, Richard was issued with a notice for bankruptcy and he was summoned to appear before the bankruptcy court in September 1800. Having looked at various registers at the East India Library, it is apparent just how fortunes were made and lost, given that in the later part of the 18th century Richard was turning over around £90,000 each year.

John wrote his will in 1796 naming his wife and brother Richard as executors. Curiously, he requested that he be buried in the vault with his “dear sister-in-law,” Mrs Richard Burford, in Finchley.  The burial records for St Mary’s, Finchley, show that this is indeed what happened despite his death being by his own hand. His brother Jonathan Sommers Burford appeared as witness to the will on John’s death.

To date I have found no reference to John’s suicide in the East India Company records held at the British Library. Perhaps he had secretly been giving his brother Richard preference over other suppliers to the company and this had been discovered? Perhaps the burglary had affected him badly? Perhaps, given his father-in-law’s successful business ventures and those of his sister-in-laws’ husbands, he felt a great deal of shame about Richard’s  impending bankruptcy? (Later his other brother, Jonathan Sommers Burford, would face financial difficulties too.) Perhaps he felt the loss of his baby son Edward in the February of 1800, aged only 2 months, very deeply? (Lucy was to lose their eldest son John the following year, aged only 8). Or perhaps the request in his will to be buried with Richard’s wife hints at some darker family scandal? Sadly, we will probably never discover the reasons why he should have felt the need to end it all.

© Alison Botterill & Fiona Duxbury

Our grandmother’s scrapbook

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

Tracy and I are heading off to London, Ontario, this weekend to talk about The Cowkeeper’s Wish, so we are naturally thinking about our grandmother, Doris Deverill, whose story first inspired us to write the book. We used a wealth of resources to piece together the century-long tale, but the most treasured ones came from our own family archive.

The following article tells a little about that collection, and some of our mishaps along the way. The story first appeared earlier this year in the Alberta Genealogical Society’s journal, Relatively Speaking.

Several years ago my sister and I set out to tell the story of the British side of our family, from our Welsh 3xgreat grandfather, who walked to London, England, with his wife and his cows in the 1840s, right on down to our grandmother’s marriage nearly a century later in London, Ontario. We aren’t professional genealogists by any stretch, but rather writers who share a passion for family history and great stories. Armed with an abundance of curiosity, we scrutinized all the essential documents: census, birth, marriage and death records, and also workhouse and asylum ledgers, old newspapers, passenger lists and immigration papers. We looked everywhere for our people, and got chills whenever we found them. Some of the loveliest material had been passed down from the very people we were writing about: letters and postcards with strings of x’s, embossed funeral cards, a lucky penny that went through the war with a sailor-great-uncle, and an array of photographs. Treasured possessions, all, and a gold mine for researchers who like to read between the layers of everything they encounter.

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

Our grandmother, Doris Deverill, was born in Whitechapel in 1910, and emigrated to Canada in 1919. Her childhood had been infused by war, and both her parents were dead. She was now under the care of a family friend named Martha, a woman she loved dearly, but it must have been devastating to leave her siblings, her friends, and everything she’d known to cross the ocean and start somewhere new. Maybe it was this monumental loss that caused her to paste the postcards she received, for years afterwards, into a scrapbook. Or maybe it was just a young girl’s admiration for pretty pictures. The cards featured sweet little girls holding kittens or puppies, the images often tinted to give them an even more tender look than they’d have in sepia. And the text usually matched the pictures’ sentimental themes:

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

But when I say the postcards were pasted into the scrapbook, they really were pasted. It’s impossible to know, now, what she used to adhere them to the pages; though many of the cards date from the 1910s and 20s, she may have re-glued them later, or even started the project later in her life, gathering the loose pieces she’d collected over the years. Regardless, it was obviously the cards themselves our grandmother had been preserving rather than the messages on the backs. She would never have imagined that, long after her death, anyone would want to know what the postcards said or who they were from.

We, of course, were itching to know. As we flipped carefully through the book, turning the thick pages, we pried at the corners of the cards just gently to test how easily they might be released, curious to know what secrets would spill forth once we saw them. For though so much can be gleaned from historical records, these personal artefacts had been held by the very people we were searching for. A postcard had been chosen just for Doris in some little English shop by an auntie, a sister, a cousin; had been written on and stamped and mailed, had traveled all that distance by ship, just like Doris herself, and then been brought to the door by the postman, and she had happily received it and devoured the message with her fingers carefully placed at the card’s edges, no doubt, so as not to muss the pretty picture.

Over the years of our research, we often longed for more of these kinds of resources to help us unravel the family story. We’d sometimes joke with each other by email as we slogged through the many dry spells of our research periods: “You’ll never guess! I found the cowkeeper’s wife’s diary from 1842! She recounts their travels from Wales; how long it took them and all the strange things they encountered, and their first impressions of London when they landed there, the cows weak and weary and their own feet blistered and sore! There are delicate pressed wildflowers inside, and little drawings in the margins!”

Of course, there was no such diary; and on actual records, the cowkeeper’s wife had signed her name with an x, so likely she could not have written one anyway, even if she’d cared to. But we did have Doris’s scrapbook – and with a variety of approaches we had some success in releasing the postcards from an almost century-old grip. Some were sawed free with dental floss; some were steamed or blow dried; some soaked in tiny baths. It was a bit like taking the scrapbook to the spa, and pampering it to give over its secrets. And it was beyond exciting, even though, to be honest, most of the postcards had fairly mundane messages, such as:

Chapter 15 - Reverse of post card from Ethel

Ernest Biss postcardAnother featured a hand-drawn rose on its front, meticulously painted, and signed Ernest Biss. We didn’t want to soak this one for fear that the rose would disappear, so we carefully steamed it loose and watched it curl at the edges. The rose suffered a little from our efforts, and we lost some of the message on the back – but once again, it seemed disappointingly spare anyway. But we had a name, at least, and with a bit of sleuthing we discovered that Ernest was about 19 the year Doris left for Canada; he was her neighbour in College Buildings in Whitechapel, and his father was the verger at nearby St. Jude’s church, where she was baptized. Their families would have shared the same dismay when the Titanic went down, taking with it the church’s beloved minister Ernest Courtenay Carter and his wife Lilian. Doris was given the middle name Lilian for Lilian Carter; was Ernest likewise named for Ernest?

What became of Ernest Biss and his drawing abilities? We can follow him in various documents through the years, but his link with Doris remains a mystery. Did they correspond after Doris and Martha left for Canada? If so, there is no trace of an exchange, and only the rose remains.

The wordiest postcard in Doris’s scrapbook depicted the ship Metagama, which brought Doris to Canada. Metagama was a passenger ship launched in spring 1914, but soon pressed into service as a troop carrier during WW1. In 1919, when Doris was on board, there were still plenty of soldier-passengers making their way home. Doris and Martha were just two of 1,300 souls on board, arriving in Montreal after a nine-day journey. From there, before boarding a train to London, Martha sent the card to Doris’s brother Joe. Doris wouldn’t see Joe again for about 40 years, which means he either sent the postcard back to her as a keepsake, or held onto it all that time and offered it in person, when she returned to her birthplace as middle-aged woman.

We tried all the methods to free the postcard from the album, but when it came loose the writing was still covered by a fuzzed layer of the album’s paper. So we kept steaming, peeling, stopping, discussing. Then we’d peel, stop, discuss some more. The postcard was like a scab that shouldn’t be picked – but imagine what it might tell us, having been written on the very journey that opened the door for our own existence. Surely it was a little diary of sorts, but real this time, and in our possession!

In the end, we got the layer of album paper off of the post card, but most of the words came away with it. We held the bits of paper up to the light, and we peered at all the remnants with a magnifying glass, but much of the message had been lost to us. We were left with:

Arrived quite safe this morning at 6 o’clock. We had a very … Write you later on.

Had a very what? Difficult journey? Wonderful journey? Big breakfast? Bad fight? Tearful goodbye with fellow passengers? Though the family correspondence had never been terribly revelatory, the loss still felt awful, since first-person accounts in the histories of ordinary people are rare wonders, no matter how mundane. And yet, our story got told anyway; built bit by bit like an intricate collage. When I think back to our wrong turns, and to the brick walls we encountered while searching for clues, I realize that it isn’t important for me to have all the answers, and that part of the beauty of this kind of research is in the very mysteries that can never be solved. For after all, each time a new person is added to a tree, more blank spaces inevitably open. Every “answer” prompts new questions, and keeps the journey, rather than the destination, in focus.

rms metagama

War, PTSD, and “the Golden Rule Exchange”

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Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-927

I was in London, Ontario, recently, giving a workshop about the many wonderful resources we used to research The Cowkeeper’s Wish, and afterwards I was approached by Gord Wainman, one of the participants, who told me a bit about his father, “a very troubled soul” who’d served in the First World War.

I was moved by the story and asked Gord to share it here, and am posting it the day after Remembrance Day to underscore the idea that war wounds, both mental and physical, continue long after war has ended. Here, in Gord’s words, is the story of Stanley Holmes Wainman and his family.

A year before he died, my father made a final request. He wanted to be buried in a simple pine coffin with his body wrapped in an old wool army blanket. He made me promise I would respect this wish. His reason for this spartan request — to honour the many friends and comrades who had died on the World War 1 battlefield.

He fought at Vimy Ridge and was part of the final advance to Passchendaele only to become a casualty two weeks before the war ended. He was a bombardier, overseeing the firing of artillery and accompanying the horses and Limber wagons into battle. At least twice, he was sent to “gas” school where soldiers were trained on how to respond to mustard gas attacks. Not the best military “occupation” for such a gentle man who worked as an accountant before joining the army.

Stanley Holmes Wainman appears far right

My father was 21 when he joined the 40th Battery, CFA in Hamilton on Sept. 17, 1915. Six months later he was in England but was hospitalized shortly after he arrived because he had German measles. He landed in France on July 14, 1916, and except for an 18-day leave and a brief hospital stay for impetigo, he was in the field for over two years.

He never spoke of his war experiences. Until I found his records, I did not know he was a bombardier. I did not know about the “gas” schools. I did not know that his right foot was partially crushed by a Limber wagon near Valenciennes 20 days before the war ended. He was evacuated but his return to Canada was delayed by several months until he could walk again.

If the luggage he brought home was sparse, his emotional baggage was huge and its weight affected us all – my mother, my brother and myself. We lived with his depression. We all bore his pain.

Several family friends described my father as someone who always seemed to have a “permanent cloud” over his head. In the 32 years I knew him, I never remember hearing him laugh. Even his smiles were forced.

After the war, he spent most of his life devising a financial solution to the world’s ills which he believed would end all wars. He wrote a book, convinced it would change the world.  He expected my brother and I to continue his mission.

While he never talked about his war experiences, he did say that he and his fallen friends had been “duped”. A genius with figures and a self-taught thinker, he was going to correct that. He was obsessed, spending little time with wife or sons.

He and my mother were what I’d call “progressives” today, meeting during the founding convention of the United Church of Canada. He was a Methodist, my mother an Anglican. They paid a price as they were initially shunned by both families.

In 1929, ten years after he returned to Canada, my father lost his job when the Depression hit. He rode the rails to harvest in the West and tried to make money painting barns in Northern Ontario. My mom and brother suffered. Several years ago, I read a heartbreaking letter my father wrote to my mother while he was up north begging her to help their son David understand why they lived in such desperate conditions, above a store on St. Clair West in Toronto.

By the mid 1930s, my father ended up in Windsor, Ontario, where he stayed. That’s when his obsession about ending war and human misery became all-consuming. He developed a financial system he called “The Golden Rule Exchange.”

Living with constant supper-time lectures on the evils of greed and the golden rule solution, my brother Dave fled home at the age of 17. I was two and idolized my big brother.

A few years before Dave died in 1997 at age 69, he told my wife, in tears, that he was racked with guilt for leaving “that poor little fucker” — me — to fend for myself in that toxic environment. “There was no laughter or joy in that house”, he said.

Considering all the conversations involving PTSD, we now know that’s what my father suffered from. Back then, if there were physical signs, it was called “shell shock”. But he showed no outward signs.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America outlines seven symptoms. If a person has two or more, they likely suffer PTSD. My father scored on six of the seven: exaggerated expectations of self, other or the world; persistent anger; diminished interest in participation; detachment from others; inability to experience positive emotions; nightmares.

When I was eight or so, Canada entered the Korean War. To make his point about the horrors of war, my father took me to see the silent 1930 movie All Quiet on the Western Front, based on a book by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of World War I. Looking back, I know my father wanted the movie to speak for him.

The impact on me has been periods of depression. My wife sometimes says… “It’s time to leave now Stanley”, not out of disrespect for my father, but to shake me out of my mood.

Stanley Holmes Wainman died in 1974 in the old “Parkwood” military wing of Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario. My brother and I knew it was the end of a long painful life. My mother Leota May died 14 years earlier when I was 17. I was a late comer. My father was nearly 50 when I was born in 1942. I was named after Major Gordon H. Southam, a unit commander with the 40th who was killed in action in 1916.

Laid to rest in a pine coffin and wrapped in the wool army blanket he requested, Stanley Holmes Wainman was buried beside his wife Leota May. A small family group attended, my brother Dave and his family and me with my wife and daughter.

Before he died, I told my father I found a blanket and that seemed to comfort him. Then he said something that stunned me considering he lived his life convinced he could solve the world’s problems.

“I always thought I knew the answers, but now I’m not so sure.”

I didn’t cry at his funeral. Four years later, out of the blue, I began to sob uncontrollably, with no idea what triggered it.

Despite our bad times, he was always there for me when I got in trouble. Despite it all, I still miss him.

Gord Wainman

lone man passchendaele
A lone Canadian soldier navigates the mud-soaked battlefield at Passchendaele, Belgium, in November 1917. William Rider-Rider / Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-002165