Part 1: Myrtle, Blanche and Walter, a genealogical case study

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.

The Dominion Bank Building, circa 1914, at the corner of Yonge and King. Courtesy Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection.

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 south 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.

Patagonian-Welsh home children on board the Numidian in 1902, the same ship Walter and Maria Dunn traveled on when they left England for Canada. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-037613

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 1913, a year 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.

Domestic workers arriving in Quebec, 1911, courtesy Library and Archives Canada

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 1913 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.

 

An unknown soldier and an unconventional woman

Mary Jamieson Front & back (1)The woman in this lovely portrait, Mary Jamieson, came to my attention when I corresponded with her granddaughter Alison following my earlier post about finding women hidden behind their husband’s names. Just like Tracy and me, Alison Botterill and her sister Fiona Duxbury have been on a lengthy quest to solve some mysteries in their family’s past. Alison told me the following story:

During the First World War, Mary Jamieson was a young Scottish woman living far from family in London. She was involved in the suffragette cause, and family lore says she spoke at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, a popular place for speeches and demonstrations. She didn’t believe in marriage, unusually enough, and had a son out of wedlock in January 1916. Then in 1917, she was among the first to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, attached to the 2nd Artists Rifles, and a photo of her exists with some of her co-workers, taken outside Hare Hall in Romford. Though her record doesn’t survive, Alison and Fiona were told by family that she held the rank of forewoman and spent some time  in France, near Lille. They think she may have worked as a cook. The photograph is one of a series taken in the same place, and experts have suggested that the number in the lower right-hand corner dates it to approximately October 1918.

Alison's grandmother
Mary Jamieson sits second from left in the front row.
John Jamieson
John Jamieson, Mary’s son, was given to friends to raise

War work at this point in Mary’s life would have been a challenge, given the fact she was on her own with a little boy, John, and then a daughter, Mary Joan, born in June 1918. Both children were born in London workhouse hospitals, near to where Mary was living and working at the time, and are listed in the ledgers with their mother, bearing the surname Jamieson. In Joan’s case, the specification “Illegt” is scribbled in as well. A fragment of a story has been passed down that she was named for a “Lady Joan someone” — maybe a connection of Mary’s from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

Whether the children shared the same father or not is uncertain, but they didn’t spend long living as siblings. At some point John was given to friends to raise — perhaps soon after Joan was born, for Mary’s workhouse record gives no clues as to his whereabouts at this time. It must have been painful to give up the joy of seeing her little boy grow up, although there appears to have been some contact between mother and son during his early years. Joan stayed with Mary, and became part of her mother’s second family when Mary met her husband-to-be a couple of years later. Mary Jamieson and George Couper Reid had several children together, but they didn’t wed until 1948, shortly before Mary died.

(Mary) Joan Jamieson
Mary’s daughter, Joan Jamieson

With this second family, more clues emerge. Mary and George had a son in 1920, and though they weren’t married, Mary’s name on the birth record appears as Reid formerly Cameron nee Jamieson. So was Cameron the name of the other babies’ father?

Alison and Fiona hung on to that clue when Joan died, and a photograph of a handsome young soldier surfaced among her possessions. The writing on the back gave no name, but stated, in Joan’s hand, “This is my father who died of WW1 wounds in 1918. He was the eldest son of one of England’s old Catholic families.”

So it seems that Joan’s father died the year she was born — which might explain why Mary felt she couldn’t manage alone with both children. When looking at an enhanced version of the soldier’s portrait, military experts have suggested he belonged to the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and pointed out that he’s wearing a Military Medal ribbon. Putting all these pieces together, the sisters settled on a soldier named Archibald Borland Cameron as a good possibility for Mary’s man. He served with the KOSB (and later with the Border Regiment); he was awarded the Military Medal for heroic action in 1916; and he died in April 1918, just a couple of months before Joan was born. Other parts of his story don’t fit, however: Archie, as he was known, was Scottish, not English; and he was the youngest son, not the oldest. But his service record does offer a tempting detail: in January 1916, the very month John was born, Archie Cameron “illegally absented himself without leave.” Is this just a coincidence, or was it the case of a young father anxious to meet his baby son?

Untitled 3.tif

Does some distant relative of Archie’s have a photograph that matches the picture above, of Joan’s father?  It’s hard to imagine what evidence might surface now, after a century has passed, to clear up the mystery of Mary Jamieson and her children. But I can relate to Alison and Fiona’s determination to find the answers. And to the fact that, even when you don’t find answers, the search is fascinating.

Lives of the First World War: Mary Jamieson

Lives of the First World War: Archibald Borland Cameron

Lost and found: a WW1 nurse

LMA Stone Case Book Our Ellen 2
The elusive Ellen Evans, otherwise Roff, otherwise Humphries, discovered in the Stone Asylum casebook at the London Metropolitan Archives (City of London). Ellen’s sad and tangled story is recounted in The Cowkeeper’s Wish. (This image appears with permission, ©LMA.)

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts how challenging it can be to find women in a family tree, because they tend to disappear behind their men. During out research for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, one of the biggest brick walls was finding Ellen, our great grandmother’s sister, who left her husband in the 1890s and eventually turned up living with someone else and using his surname, though they had not married. Sometimes women disappear even more completely behind their partner’s name and become “Mrs John Humphries,” erasing every letter of their own identity.

I recently found an example of an elusive woman while engaged in some volunteer work I do for the Imperial War Museum’s excellent Lives of the First World War website. I’ve taken a special interest in the women’s records there, and I was searching specifically for women who’d worked at the Australian Voluntary Hospital in Wimereux, France. I was surprised to come upon a page for Staff Nurse Robert Hannah nee Walter E. C., and wasn’t quite sure where to begin to untangle such a jumble of surnames that could also be first names. I double-checked the original source Lives had used — the women’s service roll at the National Archives — and the name appeared the same way there.

Since it’s highly unlikely that a nurse in 1915 was named Robert, I thought the names were simply transposed, and should read Hannah Robert nee Walter. I searched for a marriage record during the war that would confirm that suspicion, but nothing fit. And then I remembered the “E. C.” that I’d ignored on the entry the first time around. I checked the National Archives record again, this time viewing the digitized version, and saw a tiny crucial “Mrs” beside the name, and left out of the transcription. Mrs. Robert Hannah? That made more sense. I popped in a new search, still within the Lives database, and found that Ella C. Walter had married Robert C. Hannah in Kensington, London, in 1917.

That the marriage took place in London was another bonus, since Ancestry holds those digitized entries of Church of England Marriages and Banns. Here I was able to find yet a little more about the woman so recently known as Robert.

When they married on January 6, 1917, at St. Phillip’s Church, Ella Clarice Walter was a 39-year-old spinster, living at 4 Richmond Mansions, Earl’s Court. Her father’s name was John Charles Walter, and though he was now deceased, he’d been “civil servant, Melbourne,” according to the certificate — another Australian connection for the woman who’d worked at the Australian Voluntary Hospital. Her new husband was considerably older than she was; a widower named Robert Campbell Hannah, he gave his occupation as “gentleman,” and he resided at the Thackeray Hotel in Great Russell Street.

Searching backwards now, I found Ella living on her own in London in 1911, a single 30-year-old woman of private means, born in Melbourne, Australia, a British subject by parentage. What brought her to London I don’t know — but being unmarried, Australian, and keen to assist with the war effort, she was an early recruit for the hospital founded by Lady Rachel Dudley, wife of the Australian governor-general, first located at St. Nazaire, France, and soon moved to an old hotel in Wimereux. The medal roll shows that Ella joined the hospital staff late in August 1914, with the war not even a month old.

avh, wimereux

In a 1915 piece about “the good work [the AVH] is doing at the front,” writer Katharine Susannah Prichard describes the setting, and brings the photo above to life:

The Winter quarters of the Australian voluntary hospital are in a great, rambling, muddily-white French hotel. When first you see it, you want to draw it as it stands against the sea, under a clear, shining sky. You feel you want to use a rough chalk for its vermilion roof, and for its shutters and doors that are vivid, apple-green. Beyond it stretch the dunes, vague and formless, with their coarse, wind-threshed, bleached grasses, and behind it spreads a scattered toadstool growth of white-walled, red-roofed cottages. Gris Nez forms a rampart on the north, and there is a deserted, red-roofed village along the coast. The Picardy landscape the hospital stands in is so tranquil in a peaceful, pastoral way, that it is almost impossible to believe, that only a few miles away all the damnable business of war is going on.

Ella Walter and colleagues in Wimereux
Clockwise from top: Elizabeth Mundell, Patience Outram Anderson, Ella Clarice Walter, and Mary Rawson.

When the staff first moved into the hotel, they’d barely had time to settle when word came that a convoy of wounded was on its way. Ambulances began arriving even before the beds had been made to receive the wounded. “They kept on arriving,” writes Prichard, “a continuous, slow stream of khaki-covered cars, with a red cross blazed across them. They came over the brow of the hill, and filed past the hospital from 10 in the morning until after four in the afternoon.” Soon stretchers lined the corridors, and 145 men required the staff’s careful attention.

Knowing Ella’s name wasn’t Robert helped me to find this lovely picture of her and some of her colleagues, posing in uniform. She and the other women depicted are each mentioned, albeit briefly, in the unit’s 1915 war diary. In May, the diary tells us, Ella contracted the measles (as did Patience), and in August, she had a brief stay at a rest home in Hardelot. The diary mentions many of the women resting there, and the Australian War Memorial holds a picture that suggests they were happy to go. I don’t see Ella in the Hardelot photograph, and I lose track of her now until her 1917 marriage to Robert Hannah. What sent her back to London, and was she nursing there as well until she married? These answers might surface if I keep searching. But it feels satisfying to have made even some small discoveries about this stranger, to sort the name and put a face to it, and to reunite a nurse with some of her colleagues from a century ago.

hardelot
WIMEREUX, FRANCE, 1915. “SICK NURSES OFF TO REST HOME AT HARDELOT” WAITING IN A MOTOR CAR OUTSIDE THE AUSTRALIAN VOLUNTARY HOSPITAL, FORMERLY THE GOLF HOTEL. (DONOR D. MASSY). AWM, P01064.027

Sources

Australian War Memorial: AVH in Wimereux, France

Discovering Anzacs: Australian Voluntary Hospital

“Handle with Care: Nurses Make Own Sacrifices Overseas.” Louise Almeida, Herald Sun, 23 April, 2014.

Lives of the First World War: Ella Clarice Walter later Hannah

Lives of the First World War: Australian Voluntary Hospital

National Archives: Australian Voluntary Hospital war diary, WO 95/4106/2

With thanks to Kathryn Shapland, Recollections of War, Albany, Australia, and Christine Bramble, Great War Nurses from the Hunter.