Part 3: Mysteries and mystranscriptions, a genealogical case study

Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal in 1895, a few years before Walter and Maria Dunn arrived in the city as home children. © McCord Museum

A few posts ago, I started piecing together the back story of a WW1 veteran named Walter Dunn, whose daughter Elsie died in a tragic accident just after the war. In the first post, I tried to untangle Walter’s two wives, Blanche and Myrtle, and never really got to the bottom of it. I found out that Walter had married Myrtle in 1912, and that they’d had Elsie shortly thereafter. But by the time Walter enlisted in 1916, his wife’s name was Blanche, and I could never figure out what had happened to Myrtle. I’m happy to say that that mystery has now been solved, and that many other pieces have fallen into place for Walter’s story, including details about his life as a home child, which were still puzzling me in the second post.

For now, I want to travel back to 1912, when Walter married Myrtle Bishop in Montreal. The wedding took place in April, right after Myrtle had been baptized and converted to Catholicism. Then in May, little Elsie was born. When she died in 1920, her death record clearly stated that her mother’s name was Myrtle Bishop. But Myrtle had disappeared, and subsequent records consistently showed Walter’s wife’s name as Blanche. Try as I might, I could not find a death record for Myrtle or a marriage record for Walter and Blanche. But today I found both — simply because I took away detail from my search criteria.

I considered the possibility that Walter and Myrtle had simply parted ways, and that he and Blanche had never officially married. But I thought that pretty unlikely, so I kept on hunting. Having seen so many poor transcriptions on my travels through genealogical records, I figured it was most likely that the records weren’t turning up because the names had been twisted somewhere along the line. So today I searched Quebec death records between the years 1912 and 1914, and entered only the name Mirtle (I had seen it spelled that way on other records). Up popped a record for someone who’d died in 1912, and whose first name was apparently “Epse Dunn mirtle” and whose surname was “Pearl.” Right away I knew this was her. A closer look at the handwritten record shows her name scrawled in the ledger as “Mirtle Pearl epse Dunn” — epouse meaning her spouse’s name, but the transcriber must not have known that, and also made the strange error of inverting her given and surnames. The record doesn’t say how she died, but perhaps there were complications following Elsie’s birth. In any case, now I knew that Walter really was widowed, and that Elsie never knew her biological mother.

I was all the more determined, then, to find a marriage record for Walter and Blanche, and again I decided to remove details from my search criteria rather than adding everything I knew. I’d done this already, but I hadn’t gone far enough. I plunked in “Dunn” and searched Quebec marriage records between 1912 and 1916, and once again met with success. There they were, marrying in 1913 in an Anglican church, at a ceremony witnessed by Thomas and Sadie Woollands. So now I knew that Elsie was still a baby when Walter and Blanche married — and I had an aha moment when I saw the names of Thomas and Sadie.

I’ll backtrack a bit more: in my previous searches a few weeks ago, I had been frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find Walter’s wife-to-be, Blanche Poidevin, on the 1911 census, even though I knew that she’d come to Canada around 1908. You might remember from the first post about the trio that I used a roundabout way to discover Blanche’s background — the daughter of a French-from-France egg sorter who’d come from London, England, to find a job in Quebec as a domestic worker. It’s very common for uncommon surnames to get muddled, and I eventually found her passenger ship record by removing her surname and searching only for Blanches who’d sailed the seas from England to Canada at that particular time.

Since that had worked so well, I decided to try it again to find her on the 1911 census. I searched for Blanches, born in England, living in Quebec, and having immigrated at that time. Thankfully that’s one of the boxes that was requested on the 1911 census, so it really narrowed things down. The first person who came up was “Blanche Bidwin.” And yes, it was her, lost in a poor transcription. All the details fit — and on top of that, she was living with a couple named Thomas and Sadie Woollands.

St James Street, Montreal, 1910, a couple of years before Elsie was born to the newly married Walter Dunn and Myrtle Bishop. © McCord Museum

Transcription errors have actually eaten up much of my research time in the case of Walter Dunn. For weeks I couldn’t find him or his sister Maria on the 1901 or the 1911 census, and only when I loosened up birth dates and spellings to a ridiculous degree did any possibilities begin to appear. I’m pretty sure I’ve found Walter in both years now: in one, he’s been labeled “Walter Dum,” and it’s impossible to resist adding that that’s just dumb on the part of the transcriber — although I know myself how hard it can be to work out the loops and swirls of penmanship from days gone by.

I’ve found Maria too. The 1911 census shows her living as the “adoptive daughter” of a “voyageur” for a shoe factory. Yet another poor transcription had aged her by ten years, so she hadn’t turned up on my previous searches. In another aha moment, one of the men listed at the address — the voyageur’s wife’s brother — turned out to be the man Maria marries in 1917.

The stories of home children are often heartbreaking — Walter’s certainly is, having left home at 11, and later lost a wife and a child and gone to war, where he was gravely wounded. His sister Maria seems to have fared better. She lived to be 104 years old, and her 1994 obituary remembers her as “a very good and caring mother who had a generosity of spirit and certain joie de vivre.” The notice lists her loved ones, including brother Walter and various members of her husband’s family — and also two younger sisters in England, the girls born in the years before Walter and Maria were sent away. I’ve since found a 1959 obituary for Walter, too, and his also mentions the sisters. I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of it yet, and I might be wrong, but I believe these sisters may also have left the family home and lived in institutions within England. I wonder — Walter’s service record in 1916 states he doesn’t know if his parents are dead or alive, but his wounds brought him to a Liverpool hospital. Did he find his sisters then? Did he ever find his parents? Did he want to?

There will always be lingering questions with this type of work, but it’s amazing how one little find can uncover another, and before you know it, a story has formed.

Part 2: Home children Walter and Maria, a genealogical case study

In my last post I told you about a man I was researching, who was wounded in WW1 and whose daughter was accidentally killed not long after his return to Canada. That post focused on unraveling the two wives of Walter Dunn (Myrtle Bishop and Blanche Poidevin) and sorting out who was the daughter’s mother. In this post, I’ll dip further back into Walter’s story — but don’t worry, I will eventually come forward again, and investigate his daughter’s death in 1920.

As I mentioned last time, the 1921 census record for Walter and wife Blanche showed that he arrived in Canada in 1898. When I saw that, I immediately wondered if he was a “home child.” Library and Archives Canada describes the home child scheme this way:

Between 1869 and the late 1930s, over 100,000 juvenile migrants were sent to Canada from the British Isles during the child emigration movement. Motivated by social and economic forces, churches and philanthropic organizations sent orphaned, abandoned and pauper children to Canada. Many believed that these children would have a better chance for a healthy, moral life in rural Canada, where families welcomed them as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help.

After arriving by ship, the children were sent to distributing and receiving homes, such as Fairknowe in Brockville, and then sent on to farmers in the area. Although many of the children were poorly treated and abused, others experienced a better life and job opportunities here than if they had remained in the urban slums of England. Many served with the Canadian and British Forces during both World Wars.

homechild traveling alone
Chadwick Sandles, a 1911 home child, courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

I found Walter’s name in the LAC Home Children database, and for several reasons I knew I had the right Walter Dunn. The year of his arrival, 1898, matched the 1921 census; among the other children he was traveling with was a girl named Maria, whose age was correct for the sister I’d already found out about by matching Walter’s Quebec marriage record (which named his parents) with English census records. So it was clear that Walter came to Canada as a home child along with his little sister Maria. They were listed as 9 and 11 years old, and they were traveling on the Numidian with the Liverpool Catholic Children’s Protection Society. Along with Walter and Maria, the Society was transporting 22 other children ranging in age from 3 to 18. A Miss Yates was in charge of the group, and Miss E Cawley was listed as the matron. There were other groups of home children on board too, and many from a number of English workhouses. Three boys between 8 and 11 were rejected as unfit upon arrival, and were sent back across the ocean. One can only imagine how that must have felt, and what became of these boys after their journeys, but that’s a story for another day.

As far as I can tell, Walter and Maria were the two oldest children of Walter Dunn, a dock labourer, and Margaret Shearon, a hawker. Walter’s occupation alone suggests the family lived in poverty. Dock labourers loaded and unloaded ships, and transported the goods between ship and shed. Though they could sometimes earn a decent wage, relatively speaking, the social investigator Beatrice Potter, writing in the 1890s, describes this type of work as casual and uncertain, and says “The most they can do in their forlorn helplessness is to make the pawnbroker their banker, and the publican their friend. … If married, they must submit to the dreariness of a one-roomed home which, even in its insufficiency, [depletes] their scanty earning. … And the fact that the wife can and frequently does work weakens the already disheartened energies of the husband, and with the inevitable neglect of children and home tends to drag the whole family down into the lower ranks of casuals.”

Margaret’s job as a hawker — selling her wares in the street — does indeed suggest a deep level of poverty. But she must have been accustomed to a hard-scrabble existence; before marrying Walter, she was already a “basket hawker” living with her widowed father, a dock labourer just like her husband-to-be.

flower sellers
Walter’s mother’s occupation, hawker, meant she sold her wares in the street, calling out to passersby. This image shows Covent Garden flower sellers, and comes from the book Street Life in London, 1877, courtesy LSE Library.

According to Potter, a dock labourer’s income was effected by “the vicissitudes of dock trade” but also by competition. A man might show up for work punctually day after day, and prove that he was competent and dependable, but it didn’t give him job stability. “A strong man presents himself at the gate. He may be straight from one of her Majesty’s jails, but if he be remarkable for sinew he strikes the quick eye of contractor or foreman. The professional dock labourer is turned way and the newcomer is taken on. … The professional dock labourer retires disgusted; why exert himself to rise early and apply regularly if he is to be unofficially dismissed, not for any lack of duty or any special failure of strength, but simply because another has sunk from a higher plane of physical existence and is superior to him in brute force? And the widely know fact that a man without a character can live by dock labour becomes the turning point in many lives.”

In 1891, the couple were living on Circus Street in Liverpool with little Walter and Maria. The street no longer exists, but was just a short walk from the docks where Walter Sr worked, and where the Numidian would set sail from when the children left for Canada. What caused this to come about is unclear, but can be guessed at. The children weren’t orphaned, and they were probably not abandoned, since baptism records show that two more daughters were born to the couple in 1892 and 1894, four years before Walter and Maria moved away. So it was likely just dire poverty that led to the elder children leaving their parents and their two little sisters, hopefully for a better life.

The ship’s ledger states that the children’s ultimate destination was to Miss Brennan’s Home on St. Thomas Street in Montreal. An 1894 article in the True Witness and Catholic Chronicle described the home as a large, plain brick building, with “an appearance of neatness and scrupulous cleanliness which would do credit to a Dutch housewife.” It was newly opened then, and had space for more than 50 children. As for Miss Brennan herself, there was apparently “no more suitable lady … to fill the position of superintendent.”

How long the Maria and Walter were there is still a mystery to me, and where they went afterwards is uncertain too. I haven’t been able to find either of them in the 1901 or 1911 census records. But it seems they stayed close. When Walter’s ill-fated child, Elsie/Juanita, was born in 1913, one of the witnesses was Mary Dunn, who must be Maria. Maria married a man named Louis Bourdon in 1917, and Walter and his wife listed Maria Bourdon as a family contact when they crossed the border in 1935. So 37 years after they left their home in Liverpool, brother and sister were still connected.

Back in England, the Dunn family had carried on. In 1901 and 1905, Walter and Maria’s parents had two more daughters, and named one of them Maria, as if replacing the girl who’d gone. Unlike the sisters born in the 1890s, Walter and Maria probably never knew these two girls. Some home children were reunited with family, but the evidence doesn’t lean that way in this case. In 1911, parents Walter and Margaret were still living in Liverpool, with just the youngest daughter. In the column for “number of children born to this marriage,” they’ve answered four — discounting, it seems, the two who went away.

This detail is a sad fit for a note in Walter’s WW1 service record years later: asked if his mother and father were alive, the answer was: “does not know.” And yet — the wound he received in France eventually landed him in a Liverpool hospital. Did he retrace his steps when he returned there? For many home children sent far from loved ones, WW1 presented an unexpected opportunity to find family again.

Next time, I’ll explore Walter’s WW1 experience.