Just a short post today, to share with you an article published recently in Geist magazine, called The Insulin Soldiers. It’s about a group of WW1 veterans who were patients at the Christie Street hospital in Toronto, and underwent the earliest trials for insulin back in the 1920s. As always, it was a fascinating journey to discover the soldiers’ stories. The image at left shows one of the men featured in the piece, Jim Ostrom, with his fiancee Grace, in about 1920. I hope you’ll enjoy the read.
“A sudden death,” and mourning ribbons revisited…
Back in Part 1 of this tale, I posted a picture of the three eldest Cartwright sons with their parents, George and Emily, at the annual picnic for McCormick’s, the biscuit and candy company where George worked. An observant reader pointed out that the family appeared to be wearing mourning ribbons, and in Part 2, I explored that topic. I was hoping to find clues by establishing when the picture was taken and comparing that to events in the family. Who was the group mourning? I guessed at the date of the picture, thinking the youngest boy, our grandfather Bill, was either three or four years old, which meant that the year was either 1912 or 1913. If the picture had been taken in 1912, some time after baby Edna’s July death, then perhaps the ribbons were for her. If the picture was taken in 1913, why wasn’t baby Stuart, born that January, among his brothers? And who were the ribbons for?
I’ve made a couple of discoveries since then — as usual, somewhat by accident. I had already visited the London Advertiser at Canadiana Online to search for mentions of family members, but the search mechanism is a bit clunky, and if you get a “hit,” you have to read the whole page to find the word you searched for. “Cartwright” often proved disappointing, since there is a Cartwright Street in London that was frequently mentioned. Instead I decided to browse through the Monday, July 22, edition of the paper in the year baby Edna died, thinking it would be interesting to know what was happening in the city that day, and in the Cartwrights’ wider world. To my surprise, I stumbled on an article about the annual McCormick’s picnic, which had been held two days earlier.
Below the article was a list of winners in various races, with a “Mrs. Cartwright” included among three names for the “Married Ladies’ Race.” Was it Emily, flying along in her hat and long skirts, hoping to trounce Mrs. McCabe and Mrs. McInnes, George and her little boys cheering her on? Likely yes, since there weren’t that many Cartwrights in London at the time, let alone Cartwrights with a McCormick’s connection. The old family albums contain a number of pictures from games played at these annual outings over the years, so I think it’s safe, in this case, to surmise that the Cartwrights attended the picnic in 1912, just two days before Edna’s death, and that Emily, a few months pregnant with Stuart, took part in the festivities.
Curious to know if the paper would offer any more clues, I scrolled through the next day’s edition, and soon came upon a little notice:
So the Cartwrights must have attended the picnic on Saturday, and then shortly after that, baby Edna fell ill. The same edition that features her death notice carries a cheerful photograph of the winners of the baby show being held aloft by their parents and the judges, the picnic crowd behind them.
What a great sadness this death must have been for Emily, George and their three little boys. When the 1913 picnic rolled around, with pillow fights, three-legged races, and a tug of war between the biscuit and candy departments, surely the family was reminded of the previous year, of Emily taking part in the Married Ladies’ Race, and then Edna’s death soon after. Is this why they wore the previously discussed mourning ribbons? Or were they mourning ribbons at all?
Searching through the photographs we scanned years ago for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, I came upon a McCormick’s picnic image dated 1922. This one shows George and Emily with two of their younger children, Gordon and Mary, the great aunt who’d been the keeper of Stuart’s baptism certificate until her death earlier this year at age 100. If you look closely, you’ll see that George and Gordon are wearing ribbons; perhaps Mary and Emily are wearing them too, but it’s hard to see in the old photo. Clear enough, though, is the lettering “McCormick’s” on the other two. So more than likely, the darker ribbons in the photo taken a decade earlier were also to do with the picnic.
That same year, 1922, the London Advertiser carried a mention of “G. Cartwright” having the largest family in attendance — seven children in all. In the family tree as we knew it, that’s all the Cartwright kids accounted for: George, Jack, our grandfather Bill, Earl, Florence, Gordon, and Mary. Do, the youngest, was not yet born.
It’s very satisfying to solve these little mysteries, but of course the big one still lurks. What happened to baby Stuart, for whom we have a baptismal certificate but no birth or death record? Can we assume that, because baby Edna is not in the earlier picnic photo, it was taken in 1913, a year after her death? But if that is the case, Stuart was born in January of that year. Why is he not in the photo?
As we’ve seen, assuming can be problematic. When this whole tale first began, I assumed my great aunt Mary had tucked the certificate away in her bedside table, knowing it would be found after her death. Perhaps she knew something about baby Stuart that she’d never told anyone, and she didn’t want him to be forgotten. But there’s a danger in reading too much into the fragments that come our way in family research. And much can be learned by sharing information with other family members who might hold missing pieces. My mom’s cousin Susan Butlin, also an author and a lover of historical research (The Practice of Her Profession, McGill-Queen’s University Press), was the one who found Stuart’s baptism card after Mary’s death, and she describes the discovery this way:
“The Baptismal certificates, along with several Confirmation certificates, were found in the right top drawer of Aunt Mary and Dorraine’s long, low bureau of drawers in the bedroom, not the bedside table, I don’t know where that came from. They were neatly placed together in a small book, it might have been a New Testament, from which they stuck out. Also in the drawer were things like new gloves, small boxes with pieces of jewelry, small personal things that were valued. After I looked at them, I saw Stuart’s certificate and, according to my sister, I said ‘Oh my goodness, look at this!'”
Susan agrees that it’s highly likely that Jack, Bill, Stuart and Earl (Susan’s father, and the baby born after Stuart, in January 1914) were baptized at home, together, in September 1914. But why, and what became of Stuart after that, remains unknown. I still hope to find out that he was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where Emily and Edna lie, but Covid, quite understandably, means that cemetery staff is slower than usual in replying to these sorts of requests. The history section of the website shows pictures of the old burial registers, dating back to the 1870s, so if Stuart was buried there, the details will be hiding somewhere in those pages. Finding Stuart’s grave won’t tell us how he died, but it will be one more piece of the puzzle, and might lead to still more clues as to what happened to him.
Home baptisms for multiple children? The plot thickens…
In the last few days, another clue has come in from the relative who found the scrap of paper containing burial details for babies Emily/Sissy and Edna. It turns out two other baptism certificates were in Great Aunt Mary’s possession: one was her own (born 1921), and the other belonged to John Frank Cartwright, known as Jack, the middle son in the trio of photos of George and Emily’s eldest boys. Mother Emily was pregnant with Jack when she came to Canada in the summer of 1907, and he was born that October, after “Sissy” had already died. The document shows Jack was baptized seven years later, on the same day as Stuart: September 26, 1914. Again the word “church” has been crossed out so that the place name for the baptism reads “Parish of Church of the Redeemer.”
Those of you who’ve been following the story closely (see parts one, two and three) might remember that when we originally discovered the card bearing Stuart’s baptism details, we thought it was strange that he’d been baptized more than a year and a half after his birth. George and Emily were regular churchgoers, at least in later years, so we assumed they’d have had their children baptized quickly. Was it a clue that there was something wrong with Stuart, and were they prompted to get it done when he was close to dying or being sent away? Now we know Jack was baptized with Stuart, which makes me wonder what the situation was for the other children, for whom we have no cards.
Here’s a list of the first seven of George and Emily Cartwright’s offspring:
- Eldest boy, George, born 1905 in England. We don’t know when/if he was baptized, but presumably not in England, since the baptisms for that area/era (Bexley, Kent) are available online and his is not among them.
- Emily Louise, George’s “Sissy,” born 1906, England, died August 18, 1907, buried the next day at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, London, ON. As with George, we have no baptismal info.
- John Frank aka Jack, born October 1907, baptized in the parish of Church of the Redeemer, September 1914.
- Edna May, born July 1911, died July 22, 1912, and buried two days later at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. We have no baptismal info.
- William Charles, our grandfather Bill, born May 1909. We have no baptismal information for Bill.
- Stuart Ingram, born January 1913, baptized in the parish of Church of the Redeemer, September 1914.
- Earl Richard/Richardson Ingram, born January 1914. We have no baptismal information for Earl.
The new information, and the gap in age between Stuart and Jack, makes me suspect that several baptisms happened at once. If Jack and Stuart were baptized that day, surely Bill was as well, being between them in age. And since no baptismal record for their older brother, George, has turned up among similar records in Erith, perhaps he was also baptized that day, though by now he was nine years old. The daughters, of course, had died already, but the youngest of this group, Earl, may also have been included, since he was nine months old in September 1914. Come to think of it, if there ever had been baptism records for babies Emily and Edna, surely they would have ended up among Mary’s belongings as well, since Mary inherited the family papers etc., and the ill-fated girls never grew up to take their certificates off with them.
Of course, it isn’t unusual to find groups of siblings in baptism registers. In fact, when I went hunting for the English-born children George and Sissy in the register for Bexley, instead I found their mother Emily and her three younger sisters being baptized in June 1907, just before her departure for Canada, and after her husband had left to get settled there. Emily’s sisters were 16, 18 and 19, and she was 21 years old and already, according to family lore, estranged from her parents. So what prompted this group trip to the church? Why weren’t they baptized earlier? Were they something other than Church of England before this time, or were they simply not a religious family? Did the baptism provide Emily with a sense of security for her forthcoming trip across the ocean? If so, why didn’t she have her babies baptized at the same time? Whatever the reasons, the information is intriguing. George Cartwright — Emily’s husband and the father to the brood of 11 (if we count Stuart) — was baptized as a young child, as were his siblings.
One thing the new information tells us is to avoid assumptions. Speculation can be a great exercise, but it’s important to stay open to all the possibilities, because you never know where you might go wrong in closing a door. The other thing that comes to mind is that, if the siblings were baptized along with Stuart that September day at the beginning of WW1, they were gathered together, wherever the baptisms were performed. Bill was five, Jack was almost seven, and George was nine. So they were old enough to remember the occasion and the brother, too. Why did no one speak of him in years to come?
And what does it mean that the word “church” is crossed out on the cards? Were the children baptized at home? And if so, why? From what I can glean online, home baptisms in those days usually happened because a child was ill and not expected to survive, and couldn’t be brought to the church. If this was the case with Stuart, did the minister come to their home to baptize him, and perform the ritual for the other children as well, since he was already there? Or perhaps they had all come down with a some sort of illness, and only Stuart didn’t survive? It occurs to me that even if we do find out where Stuart was buried, we will still not know how he died, or why there is seemingly no birth or death registration.
The mystery continues.
Family history and the two world wars
It’s been a privilege and an incredible learning experience to research and write about our family’s lives in both the First and the Second World War. Our opa, Gerrit den Hartog, was a gardener-turned-soldier when the Netherlands was invaded in 1940; his story and that of his family is told in The Occupied Garden. Our great uncle, Joe Deverill, was a teenage sailor in the First World War, one of just ten to survive his ship’s sinking in 1917; his story, and that of the wider family, is told in The Cowkeeper’s Wish. My husband’s grandfather, Stanley Pringle, served in both wars. When my husband was little, and eager to hear war stories, he told him simply, “It’s an awful thing to have to kill another human being.”
❤ Many of you know that for the past several years I’ve been working on a book about WW1 patients and staff of a military hospital here in Toronto. The research is incredibly time-consuming but fascinating too, and I have had some wonderful encounters with the descendants of my “characters.” I wrote about one of the most moving exchanges for Geist magazine recently, and the article, titled “Solace,” is now viewable online.
Below, a photo of Bud Colquhoun and one of his father Stewart, sent to me from his friends in Northern Ontario.
“We all sympathize with you in your great affliction…”
In Part 1 of Hugh Russell’s story (see also Part 2), I recounted Hugh’s early years and his arrival in Canada with the Barnardo’s organization in 1906. I mentioned, too, that his sister Ethel followed with the same organization in 1908, and that his brother, Robert, came in 1912. What prompted parents Thomas and Sarah Russell, the coppersmith and weaver from Belfast, to send their young children away? I haven’t quite got to the bottom of this, but I have been able to find out a little more about Ethel and Robert.
In March 1908, when 10-year-old Ethel Baker Russell arrived on board the Dominion, the Montreal Gazette reported that of the ship’s 1,000 passengers, 250 of them were Barnardo’s children, and that “It is expected that fully 1,200 children will be brought to Canada during the coming season. The demand for these children far exceeds the supply.”
On the 1911 census, Ethel appears as a domestic helper in Mono Mills, Ontario, near Orangeville, with the farmer George Crozier and his family. It’s most certainly her, because the same address is given in 1916 on Hugh’s service record, stipulating that some of his pay go to “E. Russell.” And then in 1917, when he is visiting the Wrays while still receiving care at Cobourg, a tiny notice in a newspaper says that “Ethel Russell of Orangeville is visiting her brother, Pte. Hugh Russell, at Mr. Jas. Wray’s 6th conc.” So Ethel and Hugh were in touch, at least in those years. In 1921, a woman of more or less the right age and particulars appears, boarding at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in St. Catharine’s. But after that, I lose track of possibilities.
Brother Robert and the children’s parents, Sarah and Thomas, are even more elusive. In 1911, a boy of the right name and age appears in the care of a widow named Eliza James, living in Bedfordshire. This seemed a stretch at first, but I noticed that another boy was also living there as a boarder — nine-year-old Thomas Biddulph — and that both Thomas and Robert appear on a 1912 Barnardo’s passenger list to Canada. Furthermore, the 1901 census reveals that Eliza’s household included a five- and six-year-old boy whose birthplaces were unknown and who were “from Barnardo’s home.” So it makes sense that ten years later she would have two more such boarders.
Transcriptions of Barnardo’s Ups & Downs magazine show that Robert was employed by John Mitchell in Bolton, Ontario, but after that, just as with Ethel, I lose track of him, and so far there is no way of knowing whether Robert was ever reunited with his siblings. He was the youngest of the three — just seven when Hugh left — and may have had few memories of his older brother. Come to think of it, the family may well have been separated before Hugh emigrated. The last evidence of them living together is in 1901 in Birkenhead, when the census was taken.
Now, back to Hugh’s story.
On his first visit back to the Wray farm in 1917 when he was still a shell-shock patient at Cobourg, neighbours and friends held a party “to do honour to Private Hugh Russell.” He was presented with a watch, chain and locket, and one of the guests read out an address that was published in the local paper:
We, your neighbours and friends … bid you a cordial welcome back to the land of your adoption. We are proud of every loyal son but our hearts go out more particularly to you [whom] we have known and respected, and would therefore ask you to accept this watch and chain as a slight token of our esteem for you. While we are overjoyed to have you with us again, we all sympathize with you in your great affliction, but trust that An-all-wise-Providence will see fit to restore your speech to you. Although for lack of forethought we did not acknowledge your bravery when you enlisted alone and went to London to train yet we followed you with our prayers and best wishes and our fervent prayer now is that you may long be spared to enjoy the comforts of life . …
Not surprisingly, Hugh returned to the Wingham area. All evidence suggests he had a warm and supportive community there, and a great bond with Graham Wray, the only son of the couple who’d taken Hugh in back in 1906. Wray family stories and newspaper accounts say that Hugh carried a pencil and paper with him so that he could communicate with people. But soon there came a time when he didn’t need it any longer.
In September 1918, the Wingham Advance reported:
Hugh Russell, an Irish home boy, who has for several years worked with farmers in Turnberry and who has been unable to utter a word for the past two years, has regained his speech. On the 14th of September, 1916, Pte. Russell was shell shocked and for several days lay unconscious. When he finally came to, his speech was gone. He was for a time in English Hospitals but returned to Canada on June 30th, 1917. He spent the winter in Wingham and has for some time been employed with Mr. R. J. Breen, Turnberry. He was taking his horse to Toronto exhibition when she scared while in the car and Hugh very excitedly shouted “Whoa” much to his own delight and astonishment. Mr. Edgar Higgins saw him in Toronto and spoke to him when much to his surprise he answered by voice instead of by pencil.”
It’s interesting how often Hugh’s connection with horses weaves into his story. A family anecdote says that Hugh took a job looking after wild horses that were brought to Ontario from the west by train. The horses were loaded into train cars, shipped a certain distance, and then side-lined for a period of time to rest, since they were standing all the while. It was Hugh’s job to feed, water and walk the horses, and prepare them for the next part of a long and no doubt frightening trip. Hugh was out west doing this work when James Wray died in 1931. The family story goes that the Wrays were unable to reach him, and when he returned home, he learned the sad news, and that he’d missed the funeral.
This job of Hugh’s sent me down another rabbit hole as I tried to imagine him tending wild horses, and also why the horses were brought from the west and what became of them. A 1925 article in the Quesnel Cariboo Observer described them as beautiful creatures roaming “vast rangy land,” through sage and cactus hills, open, grassy plateaus, and rugged mountains. “Every conceivable colour is represented in their shining coats in summer, from the beautiful jet-blacks to the white-eyed, mouse-colored pintos.” Despite a hard life in the wild, facing starvation, cold winters, inbreeding, and men with guns, the wild-horse population had increased to such an extent that ranchers considered them pests, and a bounty system was introduced in British Columbia in 1924. According to Horse-Canada Magazine, some 10,000 horses were killed by bounty hunters in B.C. between the 1920s and 1940s.
The Quesnel Cariboo article describes the job of chasing wild horses as “dangerous, spectacular, thrilling,” and also “the poorest paid hard work on earth. … There have been for many years a number of white men who do practically nothing else the year round but chase wild horses. It is not very remunerative, but the love of the chase holds them. Next to ice hockey it is the most thrilling sport and hardest work that I know of; it seems to grip and hold one, and the love of it grows on a person worse than the drink habit.” One wonders what Hugh made of these horses as he cared them for them post-capture.
In 1937, 20 years after his shell shock diagnosis, he was living at another farm when he went missing one Sunday in July. He was described in the press as 42 years old, very thin, with jet black hair, horn-rimmed spectacles and a swarthy complexion. He’d acted strangely at dinner, said the farmer he worked for, and after finishing his meal, had walked in the direction of the nearby swamp. The farmer thought he was suffering from a bout of melancholia, but called the police when he didn’t turn up the next day, fearing Hugh was experiencing memory loss and “a recurrence of shell shock.”
The day after that, the Windsor Star reported that police had found evidence that “Former Barnardo Home Boy Had Bedded Down in Bog.” So as in his soldier days, he had slept outside, under the stars. Before long, he turned up at the Wray home. What happened after that only raises more questions, for when Mrs. Wray saw him, she called police, and he immediately disappeared again. When police finally caught up with him a day later, he claimed he wasn’t Hugh Russell, then “broke for a nearby bush and disappeared. The bush consists of more than 1,000 acres and will, it is believed, afford him a haven until he re-appears of his own accord.” I could find no more articles about the incident after that, and curiously none of the articles I found about the disappearance were published in the Wingham Advance, which had so often mentioned Hugh in earlier years.
One more puzzling detail comes from family members: apparently when people went out looking for Hugh during this time, a woman told them that someone had approached her with a pad and pencil, asking for directions to the Wray farm. So had Hugh lost his voice again? Or has the story become muddled over time? As Tracy and I often found when writing The Cowkeeper’s Wish, the more answers you have, the more questions you have.
What was Hugh running from? Was there some strange behaviour that prompted Mrs. Wray to call the police? Had he suffered from melancholia, memory loss and “recurrence of shell shock” at other times through the postwar years? What, if anything, brought relief? Wray family members recall that Graham — “a real gentleman” — always stayed in touch with “Hughie,” and thought of him as an older brother. When Graham’s three girls were young in the 1940s, he’d bring them to visit Hugh in London, Ontario, where he’d moved sometime after his mysterious disappearance. London street directories place him at various addresses from the early 1940s until 1970, living alone in a rented room. Early on he worked in a hosiery factory, then as a watchman, and eventually at the veterans’ hospital. Why did this horse-loving farm hand move to the city? I can’t help thinking that his 1937 disappearance holds the key — that perhaps he entered the veterans’ hospital for care, and afterwards stayed in the city. But I may well be wrong.
Though he died in London, he was brought back to Wingham for burial in the Wingham Cemetery, where Graham Wray and his parents lie. The London Free Press ran a spare obituary that makes no mention of his sister or brother, but holds one poignant detail: Survived by a close friend, Graham Wray.
A little dip back in time to see how the influenza pandemic was being characterized in the papers over a century ago. The article comes from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, October 19, 1918, and the photograph from The Sketch a year later.
THE INFLUENZA SCOURGE. We are told that the best way to guard against influenza is not to worry about it. It is sensible advice, although probably it will have little effect, for the people who are given to worrying over what may happen to them will go on worrying. The people who will follow the advice will be those who would have done so in any case. It would be idle, of course, to try and soothe popular fears by minimising the severity of the epidemic. The whole world is in its grip, and not only is it widespread, but its form is often most virulent. In Sheffield last week, for instance, the number of deaths from influenza and pneumonia reached 300, and all over the country the mortality has been high. There is thus far no sign of any abatement of the scourge, and there are no measures known to medical science that can prevent its running its course. The only useful precautions are those that the individual can practise himself—living as healthily as possible both in mind and body, taking plenty of fresh air, food, and sleep, and keeping out of crowds. If, despite this, he gets it, let him go to bed at once; it is not a complaint that tolerates obstinate heroics. This world outbreak has completely mystified the medical profession. There have been similar pandemics but a writer in The Times is of the opinion that there has been none of these proportions since the Middle Ages. It has swept over the earth like a cyclone, and the causes of its spread are unknown. It is not to be ascribed to the war, although it is possible that its effect has been more pronounced on account of conditions that the war has produced. We do not know that there is even sound evidence of that, for in this country the national health was never so good, and although the sanitary conditions are worse through shortage of labour, that can scarcely apply to the United States where the epidemic is as bad as here. Perhaps the mental state of the people, which has been abnormal for over four years, may have lessened the resistive power, and provided a favourable reproductive nest for the disease germs. But the phenomena of the disease remain baffling, and call for profound and lengthy scientific study that has not hitherto been given to them. We have passed beyond the time when any intelligent mind would see in this world affliction a visitation from God for fighting a war in defence of our liberties. Pandemics are mysteries only because they have never been thoroughly investigated. We may be sure there are definite physical causes for them, and that it is not beyond the brain of man to trace them. The last thing we must do is to give way to superstitious fears.
Source: The British Newspaper Archive
Lately in the news there have been stories about hospital ships being brought into action to help ease the burden on regular hospitals; about distilleries making hand sanitizer especially for police and healthcare workers; and about automotive companies producing ventilators instead of car parts. There’s even been speculation that a certain high-end parka manufacturer might begin churning out hospital gowns.
Each time I hear these stories, as well as today’s announcement that the Canadian government will help businesses “re-tool” to produce the supplies we need, I am reminded of my WW1 research, both for The Cowkeeper’s Wish with Tracy, and for my new book, still in the early stages, about patients and staff at a military hospital here in Toronto in the First World War.
In those days, all sorts of factories had transformed to produce munitions, but there were countless other changes too. Fancy shoemakers made army boots, milliners made military caps, and tailors made uniforms instead of ordinary suits and overcoats. Passenger ships became troop carriers or floating hospitals. Car manufacturers made military vehicles, and rubber tire producers made gas masks and balloons for reconnaissance. Even cardboard box manufacturers were affected by war: boxes of all sizes were now needed for care parcels for soldiers and sailors, for the boots and shoes and hats that made up their uniforms, for the medals that got pinned to them and for the ammunition they used. Cardboard discs hung in windows, proudly announcing that the man who lived there was off fighting for king and country.
Though the Spanish flu pandemic that surged in this period differed from the current outbreak, I feel somewhat comforted to dip back in time and explore how an earlier generation coped with worry and fear, and what sorts of decisions were made to try to slow the spread. Their pandemic rushed in at the end of a horrific war, and ours comes in the midst of environmental despair. Many people seem to be feeling a weird clash of emotions. On one hand, we’re only just recognizing an obvious but beautiful fact as the virus drifts across borders: we really are all in the same boat. Italy seems close when you can sit at your computer in Canada and hear people singing from their balconies, in isolation together. At the same time we’re dismayed by what we’ve collectively done to the planet that holds us. A sense of despair was also there a century ago, as the war was ending: people likened influenza to a deadly wind blowing about the earth as a kind of punishment.
According to Howard Phillips, the author of Black October, “many people were convinced that [the flu pandemic] must somehow have been connected with the war. Thus, in Entente countries, tags coined included ‘war plague,’ ‘Flanders grippe,’ ‘Hun flu,’ ‘Turco-Germanic bacterial criminal enterprise’ and ‘German plague,’ as many believed that the war-epidemic link lay in the unburied corpses on the battlefields or the dastardly use of poison gas. ‘So many were killed in the great war of the white people’, explained indigenous healers in faraway Southern Rhodesia, ‘that the blood of the dead caused this great sickness,’ while in the memory of one elderly flu survivor sixty years later, the war ‘poisoned the air … all the bombs and things … travelled with the wind [around the world].’
There were three waves of the pandemic then, just as there are expected to be subsequent waves of Covid 19. In January 1920, two years after the original outbreak, the death of a young Toronto boy prompted the Star headline “Is flu back again?” Over the course of the month, both the Star and the Globe reported on large outbreaks south of the border with such increasing alarm that it soon seemed inevitable the epidemic would return, swirling over the city like frenzied snowflakes, and falling wherever it chose. In Chicago, California-bound trains were “crowded to the limit” with people fleeing to escape flu. And in Detroit, the coroner announced the county morgue was “filled to its capacity with bodies. … If bodies continue coming in as they have in the last two days extra arrangements for their care will have to be made.” Ads appeared in Toronto papers for cure-alls like Hamlin’s Wizard Oil: snuff it up the nose at the first sign of a cough or sore throat and you could stop the symptoms from turning into “dangerous influenza.” By the end of January, there were “more than 500 cases of flu at the border,” as one headline put it, characterizing the illness as a band of murderers poised to invade.
In all likelihood we are in for a long and difficult ride that will impact all of our lives in a variety of ways. Hopefully we manage to lean on each other, without touching, of course. A friend of mine — the writer Phil Dwyer — recently posted some wise words.
“Trying times test us. In our responses, we show who we really are.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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
National Archives: Wettin to Windsor: Changing the Royal Name
National Archives: Daily Life at Alexandra Palace Internment Camp
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.
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:
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:
Another 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.