Part 3: A WW1 Barnardo’s Boy

“We all sympathize with you in your great affliction…”

In Part 1 of Hugh Russell’s story (see also Part 2), I recounted Hugh’s early years and his arrival in Canada with the Barnardo’s organization in 1906. I mentioned, too, that his sister Ethel followed with the same organization in 1908, and that his brother, Robert, came in 1912. What prompted parents Thomas and Sarah Russell, the coppersmith and weaver from Belfast, to send their young children away? I haven’t quite got to the bottom of this, but I have been able to find out a little more about Ethel and Robert.

This passport picture of my grandmother, Doris Deverill, comes to mind as I work on Ethel’s story. Doris was the inspiration for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, and came to Canada in the care of a woman who became like a mother to her. Doris’s parents had died, and if not for Bebbie, a dear family friend, Doris could easily have been a British home child.

In March 1908, when 10-year-old Ethel Baker Russell arrived on board the Dominion, the Montreal Gazette reported that of the ship’s 1,000 passengers, 250 of them were Barnardo’s children, and that “It is expected that fully 1,200 children will be brought to Canada during the coming season. The demand for these children far exceeds the supply.”

On the 1911 census, Ethel appears as a domestic helper in Mono Mills, Ontario, near Orangeville, with the farmer George Crozier and his family. It’s most certainly her, because the same address is given in 1916 on Hugh’s service record, stipulating that some of his pay go to “E. Russell.” And then in 1917, when he is visiting the Wrays while still receiving care at Cobourg, a tiny notice in a newspaper says that “Ethel Russell of Orangeville is visiting her brother, Pte. Hugh Russell, at Mr. Jas. Wray’s 6th conc.” So Ethel and Hugh were in touch, at least in those years. In 1921, a woman of more or less the right age and particulars appears, boarding at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in St. Catharine’s. But after that, I lose track of possibilities.

Brother Robert and the children’s parents, Sarah and Thomas, are even more elusive. In 1911, a boy of the right name and age appears in the care of a widow named Eliza James, living in Bedfordshire. This seemed a stretch at first, but I noticed that another boy was also living there as a boarder — nine-year-old Thomas Biddulph — and that both Thomas and Robert appear on a 1912 Barnardo’s passenger list to Canada. Furthermore, the 1901 census reveals that Eliza’s household included a five- and six-year-old boy whose birthplaces were unknown and who were “from Barnardo’s home.” So it makes sense that ten years later she would have two more such boarders.

Transcriptions of Barnardo’s Ups & Downs magazine show that Robert was employed by John Mitchell in Bolton, Ontario, but after that, just as with Ethel, I lose track of him, and so far there is no way of knowing whether Robert was ever reunited with his siblings. He was the youngest of the three — just seven when Hugh left — and may have had few memories of his older brother. Come to think of it, the family may well have been separated before Hugh emigrated. The last evidence of them living together is in 1901 in Birkenhead, when the census was taken.

Now, back to Hugh’s story.

Hugh Russell, Wingham Advance

On his first visit back to the Wray farm in 1917 when he was still a shell-shock patient at Cobourg, neighbours and friends held a party “to do honour to Private Hugh Russell.” He was presented with a watch, chain and locket, and one of the guests read out an address that was published in the local paper:

We, your neighbours and friends … bid you a cordial welcome back to the land of your adoption. We are proud of every loyal son but our hearts go out more particularly to you [whom] we have known and respected, and would therefore ask you to accept this watch and chain as a slight token of our esteem for you. While we are overjoyed to have you with us again, we all sympathize with you in your great affliction, but trust that An-all-wise-Providence will see fit to restore your speech to you. Although for lack of forethought we did not acknowledge your bravery when you enlisted alone and went to London to train yet we followed you with our prayers and best wishes and our fervent prayer now is that you may long be spared to enjoy the comforts of life . …

Not surprisingly, Hugh returned to the Wingham area. All evidence suggests he had a warm and supportive community there, and a great bond with Graham Wray, the only son of the couple who’d taken Hugh in back in 1906. Wray family stories and newspaper accounts say that Hugh carried a pencil and paper with him so that he could communicate with people. But soon there came a time when he didn’t need it any longer.

In September 1918, the Wingham Advance reported:

Hugh Russell, an Irish home boy, who has for several years worked with farmers in Turnberry and who has been unable to utter a word for the past two years, has regained his speech. On the 14th of September, 1916, Pte. Russell was shell shocked and for several days lay unconscious. When he finally came to, his speech was gone. He was for a time in English Hospitals but returned to Canada on June 30th, 1917. He spent the winter in Wingham and has for some time been employed with Mr. R. J. Breen, Turnberry. He was taking his horse to Toronto exhibition when she scared while in the car and Hugh very excitedly shouted “Whoa” much to his own delight and astonishment. Mr. Edgar Higgins saw him in Toronto and spoke to him when much to his surprise he answered by voice instead of by pencil.”

It’s interesting how often Hugh’s connection with horses weaves into his story. A family anecdote says that Hugh took a job looking after wild horses that were brought to Ontario from the west by train. The horses were loaded into train cars, shipped a certain distance, and then side-lined for a period of time to rest, since they were standing all the while. It was Hugh’s job to feed, water and walk the horses, and prepare them for the next part of a long and no doubt frightening trip. Hugh was out west doing this work when James Wray died in 1931. The family story goes that the Wrays were unable to reach him, and when he returned home, he learned the sad news, and that he’d missed the funeral.

This job of Hugh’s sent me down another rabbit hole as I tried to imagine him tending wild horses, and also why the horses were brought from the west and what became of them. A 1925 article in the Quesnel Cariboo Observer described them as beautiful creatures roaming “vast rangy land,” through sage and cactus hills, open, grassy plateaus, and rugged mountains. “Every conceivable colour is represented in their shining coats in summer, from the beautiful jet-blacks to the white-eyed, mouse-colored pintos.” Despite a hard life in the wild, facing starvation, cold winters, inbreeding, and men with guns, the wild-horse population had increased to such an extent that ranchers considered them pests, and a bounty system was introduced in British Columbia in 1924. According to Horse-Canada Magazine, some 10,000 horses were killed by bounty hunters in B.C. between the 1920s and 1940s.

The Quesnel Cariboo article describes the job of chasing wild horses as “dangerous, spectacular, thrilling,” and also “the poorest paid hard work on earth. … There have been for many years a number of white men who do practically nothing else the year round but chase wild horses. It is not very remunerative, but the love of the chase holds them. Next to ice hockey it is the most thrilling sport and hardest work that I know of; it seems to grip and hold one, and the love of it grows on a person worse than the drink habit.” One wonders what Hugh made of these horses as he cared them for them post-capture.

In 1937, 20 years after his shell shock diagnosis, he was living at another farm when he went missing one Sunday in July. He was described in the press as 42 years old, very thin, with jet black hair, horn-rimmed spectacles and a swarthy complexion. He’d acted strangely at dinner, said the farmer he worked for, and after finishing his meal, had walked in the direction of the nearby swamp. The farmer thought he was suffering from a bout of melancholia, but called the police when he didn’t turn up the next day, fearing Hugh was experiencing memory loss and “a recurrence of shell shock.”

The day after that, the Windsor Star reported that police had found evidence that “Former Barnardo Home Boy Had Bedded Down in Bog.” So as in his soldier days, he had slept outside, under the stars. Before long, he turned up at the Wray home. What happened after that only raises more questions, for when Mrs. Wray saw him, she called police, and he immediately disappeared again. When police finally caught up with him a day later, he claimed he wasn’t Hugh Russell, then “broke for a nearby bush and disappeared. The bush consists of more than 1,000 acres and will, it is believed, afford him a haven until he re-appears of his own accord.” I could find no more articles about the incident after that, and curiously none of the articles I found about the disappearance were published in the Wingham Advance, which had so often mentioned Hugh in earlier years.

One more puzzling detail comes from family members: apparently when people went out looking for Hugh during this time, a woman told them that someone had approached her with a pad and pencil, asking for directions to the Wray farm. So had Hugh lost his voice again? Or has the story become muddled over time? As Tracy and I often found when writing The Cowkeeper’s Wish, the more answers you have, the more questions you have.

What was Hugh running from? Was there some strange behaviour that prompted Mrs. Wray to call the police? Had he suffered from melancholia, memory loss and “recurrence of shell shock” at other times through the postwar years? What, if anything, brought relief? Wray family members recall that Graham — “a real gentleman” — always stayed in touch with “Hughie,” and thought of him as an older brother. When Graham’s three girls were young in the 1940s, he’d bring them to visit Hugh in London, Ontario, where he’d moved sometime after his mysterious disappearance. London street directories place him at various addresses from the early 1940s until 1970, living alone in a rented room. Early on he worked in a hosiery factory, then as a watchman, and eventually at the veterans’ hospital. Why did this horse-loving farm hand move to the city? I can’t help thinking that his 1937 disappearance holds the key — that perhaps he entered the veterans’ hospital for care, and afterwards stayed in the city. But I may well be wrong.

Though he died in London, he was brought back to Wingham for burial in the Wingham Cemetery, where Graham Wray and his parents lie. The London Free Press ran a spare obituary that makes no mention of his sister or brother, but holds one poignant detail: Survived by a close friend, Graham Wray.

From Find A Grave