Genealogy

A Blacksmith’s Legacy

How does a gardener in a failing economy afford to purchase passage on a ship for a family of four in the hope of bettering his life in Canada? The answer may lie with a blacksmith.

The gardener was my great-great- great-grandfather Charles Brodie, born 1796 in Innerleithen, Scotland. The extended Brodie family lived in three neighbouring villages along the River Tweed: Peebles, Innerleithen and Traquair. The economy of the area rested on raising sheep augmented by wool-weaving. Hand weavers, however, were replaced by machines following the introduction of the steam engine at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Factories were built in cities close to cheap transportation routes forcing workers to leave their farms to find employment. The Scottish border towns fell into economic decline.

The blacksmith was Charles’ great-uncle, Alexander Brodie (1733 – 1811). Alexander was born in Traquair but reached the status of a master blacksmith in London. He designed The Register Stoves and Fire Hearths for Ships. Wood-burning iron stoves were a central feature of ships in those days, essential for cooking and warmth, but at the same time very dangerous. Many ships went to watery graves in flames. Brodie’s design was not only bigger but safer. The Royal Navy placed his stoves in all its ships “to the preservation of many valuable lives” according to a plaque in Traquair’s parish church commemorating his achievement. Alexander was handsomely rewarded for his design.

After the untimely death of his wife and two children, Alexander returned to Traquair. There he put his fortune to work to improve the lives of his fellow villagers. He eventually opened a woolen mill in Innerleithen, ushering in the industrial age. When Alexander died in 1811 his estate, worth over half a million pounds, was distributed, following a twenty-year court feud, among seventeen nieces and nephews. Charles’ father William (1751-1836) was one of the inheritors. Shortly thereafter Charles immigrated to Canada. One can only assume that the money came from his father’s inheritance.

Charles and his wife Elizabeth Kerr (b.1805) arrived in Canada in 1831 with two sons, Charles age twelve (1819-1859), and William age two (1829-1908). They settled in Montreal where the family grew to include two more sons, Robert (1835-1905) and Thomas (1838-1894). Charles was my great-great grandfather.

In 1850 Charles Jr. moved to Quebec City and opened a flour and grocery business. Robert, William and Thomas eventually joined him. Following Charles’ death in 1859 Robert and William formed a new partnership, the W. & R. Brodie Co. This company monopolized flour distribution in Quebec City and was the beginning of what today is the Brodie Flour Company.

In Quebec City’s Mount Herman cemetery, a granite monument stands high on the cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The four sides of the monument detail the life of each Brodie brother. Two sides include the inscription “Born at Innerleithen, Scotland. Died at Quebec“. A blacksmith’s legacy.

Brodie Grave Stone (2)

 

 

Notes and Sources:

Brodie, Peter – ancestry.ca.  Blair Family Tree

http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brodie_robert_13E.html

http://www.pastinnerleithen.com/alexander-brodie

William N. Boog Watson (1968) ALEXANDER BRODIE AND HIS FIREHEARTHS FOR SHIPS, The Mariner’s Mirror, 54:4, 409-412, DOI: 10.1080/00253359.1968.10659464

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Genealogy, Quebec

Lead Crystal

My grandmother was seventy-one, barely five feet, less than ninety pounds, and very frail. She lay propped up with pillows as family hovered around her hospital bed. Her eyes were rimmed with purple with the bruise spreading down across her cheeks. Her arm was in a cast and her smashed glasses had not yet been replaced. At nine years old, I could only stand and stare in horror.

I’m sure the mugger had thought Jean was an easy mark – a quick shove, grab the purse and run. But the mugger didn’t know my grandmother. She had fought for years to keep food on the table and she was not going to relinquish her grocery money without a fight.

My grandmother was born Jean Jamison Brodie (1884-1971 , the daughter of wealthy Quebec City flour merchant. She was sickly as a child and, strangely, given into the care of her mother’s spinster sister. In 1902, Jean trained as a teacher at MacDonald College in Montreal. Controlling students bigger than she was proved to be too strenuous and she gave up teaching after only a year.

In 1911 Jean married James Rankin Angus (1878-1964) from Glasgow, a naval carpenter who immigrated to Canada. James opened The Angus Bookstore within the walls of the old city. The couple had two boys a year apart, Colin (1912-1943) and Oswald (1913- 1977), and a third son, Ian (1918-2003), five years later.

Their home was a spacious flat on Fraser Street. Jean’s aunt moved in with them, the boys grew, and the book store prospered. All was comfortable until the stock-market crash of 1929, the year the two oldest boys graduated from high school. James struggled to keep the bookstore afloat, adding a branch store in a more affluent part of town to attract new customers. He downsized his family’s living quarters. Colin and Oswald found jobs and contributed to the household finances. Jean learned to be very frugal. She walked miles to save five cents on a bunch of carrots. My father Ian claimed his mother could create a dinner with five chicken wings and make it look like a feast.

In 1935, the inevitable occurred. Both bookstores were lost. My grandfather joined the ranks of the unemployed.  But not my grandmother!  One would think, given her frailty, she would simply collapse from the weight of the stress. Instead, the desperate situation seemed tgrandparentso galvanize her strength.  She collected the books from the bankrupt stores and set about running a lending library from her home.

It was not easy for Jean to deal with the public – she was a  private person and the family’s financial downfall was very humiliating. How difficult it must have been for her to collect dues, particularly late payments, and suffer petty complaints from  customers who, once her equal, now looked down on her as merely a sales clerk. But she had a family to feed and so she persevered.

Twenty years later, in 1955, Jean was mugged on the way to the grocery store. By then, my grandfather had found employment, the children were grown and had children of their own. Jean no longer had to worry about money for the next meal. Still she refused to give up her purse. Never would she allow herself to become a victim.

 

Notes:

  • Birth certificate of Jane Jamieson Brodie – on file with author
  • Certificate issued to Jean Jamieson from the McGill Normal School – on file with author
  • Wedding Announcement, Quebec Chronicle Telegraph June 1911 – on file with author ; Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection) 1621 – 1967
  • Death to the Ashes. A self-published memoir  by Elizabeth Craig Angus, daughter-in-law to Jean Brodie Angus, in which she reminisces  on various incidents in the life of the Angus family.
Genealogy, Quebec

Aunt Madge’s Quilt

IMG_3441

The incomplete quilt, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, had been shunted from pillar to post for almost eighty years during the many household moves my parents made. Rarely did it see the light of day, stuffed away as it was in linen closets and basement trunks, so none of the colours faded. My mother could quilt but she never finished it. Perhaps she felt the memories would be too painful. Mum finally gifted it to me during one of her downsizing periods. I couldn’t quilt but I did collect antique linens. Once again it was stored away in a box.

With the quilt came the story of its beginning. I remember few of the details and my mother is no longer here for me to ask. It was evidently begun by Madge, my mother’s oldest sister. My mother and my Aunt Vi helped her. There were two Violets in the family, a sister and a sister-in- law, but whether one or both helped is unclear.

I never knew my Aunt Madge. She died in 1941 before I was born. I. heard the tragic story again and again growing up. She was only thirty-nine and left behind two small boys, boys I finally met when we were adults.

Madge, born in 1902, was the first of George and Isabella Willett’s seven children to leave the farm overlooking the Chaleur Bay on the Gaspe Coast. She earned a teaching certificate at MacDonald College in Montreal and took her first job in Abbottsford in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. There she met Albert Whitney, an apple farmer. They married in 1934 and she happily settled into a familiar life as a farmer’s wife. The family quickly grew with the births of my cousins, David and Paige.

Then illness struck. Madge was diagnosed with cancer. My mother, now a surgical nurse working at the Veteran’s Hospital in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, traveled to Abbottsford on her days off to help with her sister’s care and with the two lively boys. Both Violets were also living in Montreal and they too were able to help. During this time, the last months of Madge’s life, they worked on the quilt together, faithful doulas accompanying her on her final journey.

Today the quilt has been completed. Two women from the Victoria Quilts branch in the Laurentian Mountains village of Arundel did the work. The Victoria Quilts organization makes beautiful lap quilts and gives them to cancer patients to keep them warm during their chemotherapy. Elizabeth Wood selected and purchased the backing and border fabric along with the batting. Pat Thomas did the hours of hand quilting. She claimed that the original stitches on the quilt were the tiniest she had ever seen and said she did her very best to match them.

The quilt fits the queen size bed in our guest room. The simple motif, repeated twenty times, is a flower pot made of brown triangles pieced together and appliqued to a beige background. Each pot holds a single brightly coloured flower with green leaves, all pieced and then appliqued. It has a modern, stylized look yet with a feeling of fresh growth.

Aunt Madge 001 (2)

 

Genealogy

A Soldier’s Fortunate Care

Lawrence Tarrant, known as Larry, was forever thankful to a young female doctor in England for saving his arm during the First World War. He was left with a permanent crook at the elbow where four inches of bone had been destroyed and an inverted hand missing the index finger. Of critical importance was that the skillful repair allowed him sufficient mobility in the arm to later hold down a job and raise a family.

Larry, the grandfather my son never knew, signed up for service on March 25th, 1916 in Magog, Quebec and was assigned to the 117th Battalion of Canada’s Expeditionary Force. He was a teenage boy of eighteen. Lance Corporal Larry arrived in England in August of 1916 but once there requested to be reverted to the rank of private. He knew this move would enable him to proceed immediately to France with the 24th Battalion His brother Lloyd had been killed at Mount Sorrel two months earlier. It would seem that Larry was determined to “get them” who had killed him.

On August 28, 1918, Larry was injured at the Battle of Arras. Canada’s 2nd and 3rd Divisions had been led into this battle by the British General Sir Arthur Currie. Currie’s questionable strategy was to launch successive frontal attacks on the German trenches in order to exhaust the enemy. Although very successful, the cost to Canadian soldiers was huge. Arras was the start of “Canada’s Hundred Days”, the series of offensives led by Canadians that culminated in the Allied final victory at Mons in November. At Arras, however, Larry was shot in the head, legs, and left arm, and was evacuated to England. Although badly wounded, he was actually one of the lucky ones. The total loss to the Canadian Corps during the Hundred Days was eleven thousand men.

In England, Larry was sent to Endell Street Military Hospital in London, another stroke of luck as it was one of the most remarkable hospitals of the war. Entirely staffed by women and the only women’s unit operated by militant suffragists, it was known not only for the skill of its surgeons but for its highly distinctive nurturing care. The staff concentrated on the psychological as well as the physical needs of their patients. Larry claimed that his doctor never gave up on saving his arm but it is just as likely that his doctor never allowed him to give up on himself.

Larry spent almost two years in England recovering from his wounds, first at Endell and then in Epsom, Surrey. His recovery was compromised by influenza so severe that he was hospitalized for weeks in yet another hospital at Hardelot. In August of 1919 he returned to Canada and a military hospital in Toronto. He was ultimately discharged from the army in 1920 as medically unfit for further service  He was only twenty-two years old, hardly yet a man but with four years of hell behind him.

On his return to civilian life Larry found work as a machinist at a paper mill in LaTuque, Quebec where he spent his entire career. He married Flora Tremblay in 1939 and fathered three sons and a daughter. He died in 1962 of a blood clot following routine gall bladder surgery. He was sixty –four. His eldest child, Lloyd, my son’s father, was nineteen. Today my son carries his grandfather’s name: Stephen Lawrence Tarrant.

001 (2)

Larry with wife Flora, two of his three sons (Lloyd and Gerry), his daughter Linda, and a the daughter of a cousin (Susan). His third son (Gordon) was born later.

Genealogy

Boy Soldier of the Great War

Every year in Ottawa two weeks before Remembrance Day, virtual poppies rain down the Peace Tower nightly to remember those who gave their life for Canada. This year, the 100th anniversary of World War I, the poppies are especially significant. One poppy falls for Private Lloyd William Tarrant, a soldier of that war and my son’s great uncle.

IMG_3336Private Tarrant was born on January 9, 1896 according to the Attestation papers he signed in Magog, Quebec before joining the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. 1 That made him nineteen years old, the legal age for enlistment. Family legend claims he lied about his age and was actually eighteen. A medical record found in his file supports an 1897 birth date, as does an old scrapbook of family records. No birth certificate was required in order to enlist. 2

Lloyd’s parents were James Tarrant and Mabel Hawley from the farming community of Bury in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. He had a sister Edith and three brothers, Laurence, Kenneth and Nelson. Their father ran a construction company made famous for its dams and bridges. 2 Lloyd listed himself as being employed as a clerk but did not state where. 1

Whether eighteen or nineteen, Lloyd was still a boy, a boy soldier sent off to do the work of a man. Between 15,000 and 20,000 underage youths signed up to fight in Canada’s armed forces in WW I. They served in the trenches alongside their elders and fought in all the major battles: Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele. Many were injured; many, many more died. 3

Why did they enlist? Patriotism perhaps, but also adventure, pressure from friends or recruiters, escape from an unrewarding job or a steady paycheque of $7/day. In August 1914, when the fighting started, it was widely thought that the war would be over by Christmas. A short trip overseas might be a lark. 3

Lloyd joined the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles out of Sherbrooke. He trained briefly at Camp Val Cartier before his unit sailed for England on July 18, 1915. His service file states that Lloyd landed in France three months later on October 24th, 1915 but records nothing in-between. The Mounted Rifles joined the 8th infantry brigade of the 3rd Canadian Division. From October 1915 to the beginning of June 1916, it would seem Lloyd fought in the trenches of France and Belgium. 1

June 2nd, 9016 found the 3rd Canadian Division at Mount Sorrell, a strategic 30 metre high hill in Belgium’s Ypres Salient. The hill overlooked an important road between the city of Ypres and the town of Menin. Heavy rain and constant shelling left the ground a soggy mess of craters with horses and men blasted apart by artillery and the injured drowning in mud. The Germans also attacked from below, detonating mines they had dug beneath Canadians positions.

The men were nothing but fodder for the enemy. One can hardly imagine the horror and terror Lloyd experienced as he pushed forward through the explosions, flying shrapnel and falling bodies.

German forces soon captured Mount Sorrel and the nearby peaks of Hill 61 and Hill 62. They were then well positioned to attack the city of Ypres itself.

It was not until June 13th that Canadian and British soldiers were able to recapture Mount Sorrel. It came at great cost. Between June 2nd and June 14th, one thousand Canadian soldiers were killed with more than two thousand men missing. Thousands more were injured. Still others were taken prisoners of war and sent to Germany where they endured years of abuse. 4

Lloyd’s story ends here, at Mount Sorrel.

His file, covering less than a year of service, describes his death as “killed in action between June 2nd and June 3rd, 1916, aged 19”. 1 Was he killed instantly or did he suffer while holding unto hope that a medic would reach him before he bled out?

Unlike so many others, his body was eventually found and identified. He was buried, and later reburied, at Bedford House Cemetery (enclosure 4) in Belgium where he lies today. The last few pages of his scant 34 page service file cover the back-pay sent to his mother along with the Mons Star medal for early volunteer enlistment and the star awarded to every dead soldier, man or boy. 1

 

  1. Tarrant, Lloyd William Digitized service file – PDF format: B9504-SO52. Library and Archives Canada
  2. Family scrapbook compiled by Kim Tarrant Galley, great niece of Lloyd William Tarrant
  3. Black, Dan and John Boileau. Old Enough to Fight: Canada’s Boy Soldiers in the First World War. John Lorimer Company Ltd., Publishers. Toronto, 2013.
  4. Greenhous, Brereton and Jon Tattrie. “​Battle of Mount Sorrel”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 12 September 2014, Historica Canada. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mont-sorrel. Accessed 24 November 2018.
Genealogy

Collateral Ills

During the First World War, 2,504 nursing sisters served in the Overseas Military Forces of Canada. Unlike the British nursing sisters, Canadian nurses were actually part of the army, not an auxiliary unit. They were given the military rank of lieutenant to ensure the respect of the men. 1

There were forty-six Canadian nursing sisters who gave their lives while serving. Six were killed or mortally wounded on land; fifteen met death from enemy action at sea. Eighteen died of disease. 2 Ella Edna Willett, my great-aunt, survived illness not once but three times during her service in France between 1915 and 1919. 3

Ella was born on January 21st, 1892 in Dimock Creek, Quebec, 4 the tenth and youngest child of Alexander Willett and Susan Barter. She trained as a nurse at the Montreal General Hospital in Montreal. 1 On June 3rd 1915 at age twenty-three she enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. 5 She apparently came from an adventurous family. Three of her older brothers including my grandfather, locally known as the Wild Willet Boys, left home to seek their fortune in the Yukon. Ella may have felt she could match their adventures by going overseas with the army.

Ella served in two Canadian Stationary Hospitals in France, #2 in Outreau and #3 in Boulogne. She also served in two Canadian General Hospitals, #7 in Etaples and #11 in Liverpool, as well as a transport ship sailing between England and Canada. 6

The process to save the wounded began at a casualty clearing station, the patients having been brought from the front by field ambulance. The stations were nearly always situated on a railroad siding. Some patients required immediate surgery, others were moved quickly by ambulance train to better equipped stationary hospitals and still others to general hospitals for long-term care. Some of Canada’s most brilliant and experienced surgeons served in the stationary hospitals. To be one of the nursing sisters who served with them was said to be the highest ambition of most Canadian nursing sisters. 7

The responsibilities of the nursing sisters were long and arduous under grueling conditions: blood and gore everywhere, rats often underfoot, the cries of the wounded, planes soring overhead and the shrieking of dropping bombs.  The sisters had to shorten their skirts to keep them out of the ever present mud. 8

By far the greatest emotional drain on the sisters must have been the huge numbers of casualties arriving day after day and the triage system: deciding who needed immediate attention, who could wait, and who had no hope to survive and had to be left to die. Through all of this the sisters were said to work calmly and remain cheerful and comforting. 9

On September 2nd, 1916 Ella was struck down with appendicitis and underwent surgery herself in Boulogne’s General Hospital. She was given three weeks sick leave to England (at half pay!) before returning to her unit. 10

Two years later, on October 31st, 1918, Ella was again admitted to hospital, this time in Rouen. She was diagnosed with measles complicated by bronco- pneumonia. These were the days before anti-biotics. On November 6th she was listed as dangerously ill and remained on the list for eighteen days. Upon recovery, she was sent to a hospital in the south of France to recuperate (likely once again at half pay). She returned to duty on January 9th, 1919. 11

The final blow for Ella was the Spanish Flu, one of the deadliest diseases in human history.

Spanish Flu attacked young adults and moved with grim speed. Victims’ lungs filled with bloody, frothy liquid and their faces turned blue as they drowned in their own fluids, often overnight. It killed 2.5% of those infected as opposed to roughly 0.1% of previous flu outbreaks. 12

The military provided an ideal incubator for Spanish Flu. The soldiers were in the age group that was particularly vulnerable and they lived in conditions conducive to its spread. Stressed, dirty, hungry, wet and cold, massed in camps, huddled in trenches and tents or jammed into troop trains and ships, soldiers were easy prey. 13 Ultimately they spread the disease to the doctors and nurses who cared for them

Ella was admitted to #4 Canadian General Hospital in Basingstoke, England with Spanish Flu on March 6th, 1919. She was hospitalized a full month but amazingly she survived. 14

Ella returned to Canada in August 1919 under the general demobilization of troops. 15 She married William Boyt, an American, and had one son. William died in in Florida in 1978 at age ninety- one. Ella died in 1985 in Vancouver at age ninety-three. 16

 

 

 

  1. Nicholoson, G.W.L. Canada’s Nursing Sisters. Canadian War Museum, 1975.
  2. Ibid
  3. Willett, Ella. Service File Accession 1992-93-166, Box 10376. Archives Canada
  4. Willett, Peggy. Personal Family Tree
  5. Willett, Ella. Service File Accession 1992-93-166, Box 10376. Archives Canada
  6. Ibid
  7. Nicholson, G.W.L. Canada’s Nursing Sisters. Canadian War Museum, 1975.
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid
  10. Willett, Ella. Service File Accession 1992-93-166, Box 10376. Archives Canada
  11. Ibid
  12. Lorinc, John. “Peacetime Killer.” Canadas History, Oct. 2018
  13. Sharon Adams. “War and the Spnish Flu.” Legion: Canada’s Military History, Sept. 2018.
  14. Willett, Ella. Service File Accession 1992-93-166, Box 10376. Archives Canada
  15. Ibid
  16. Willett, Peggy. Personal Family Tree
Genealogy

The Gray Child

Undocumented. Today that word screams illegal immigrant and deportation. Yet in 1975 my five year old Montreal-born son was classified as undocumented in his birth-province and not entitled to an education in his mother-tongue.

The 1959 death of Premier Maurice Duplessis ushered in a turbulent period of political and cultural change in Quebec that ultimately led to violence and threats to secede from Canada.1 The new Liberal government of Jean Lasage promised to improve the economic and social standards of the province and to win greater respect and recognition for French Canadians.

The rights to develop many of Quebec’s natural resources – water, forests, and minerals – had been sold off by Duplessis to foreign and out-of-province companies. Management jobs in most industries were largely held by Anglophones leaving French Canadians to feel they were the “water haulers” of the province and not the masters.

In 1974 the Official Language Act, or Bill 22, 2 was passed. It made French the language of civic administration and services, and of the workplace. Only children who could demonstrate sufficient knowledge of English were exempted from receiving instruction in French. No longer could French Canadians and immigrants send their children to English schools to ensure they would eventually find good jobs.

“Testers” were sent out across the province.

In 1975 my family was living in Fermont, a small town in northern Quebec built to service the huge US Steel-owned iron ore mining enterprise at Mount Wright accessible only by rail and air. Anglophones were a minority but they did have an elementary school. Kindergarten was shared with the French school board and provided in French. High school students were bused to English schools in Labrador City 20 kilometers away.

My son Stephen was in kindergarten in 1975 and thus was required to be tested before entering English grade one. His father and I were not concerned. English was his first language. He had spoken early and by age five had a well-developed vocabulary. He was an outgoing, curious, and very chatty child and, although we were not allowed to be with him during the testing, we were confident he would be comfortable with what we were assured would simply be part of his regular school day. He expressed no concerns following the test saying only that he knew the answers to the questions.

Some months later we received the results. Our English son had failed the English test and would not be permitted to attend English school! Imagine our disbelief. What could possibility have happened? When we dug deeper with Stephen, he said he was only asked questions in French and he could answer them. What was the politics behind the French questions? And how was a five year old to know the consequences of using his newly acquired fluency in French?

We made inquiries and petitions everywhere – the Ministry of Education, the schoolboards, a legal firm. The best advice was to stay calm – the testing process was proving to be costly and unmanageable. A new system for determining eligibility for English schooling was being developed.

Meanwhile the English school board accepted Stephen as a “Gray Child”. Their term. They would receive no government funding for him and consequently he would receive no documentation from them. That would ultimately mean no high school leaving certificate, the pre-requisite for any post-secondary education. Still we took the chance. English education was our minority right and we would fight for it.

For three years Stephen was classified as a “Gray Child” saved only by the 1977 passing into Law of Bill 101, The Charter of the French Language.3 According to this new law, one parent had to have been educated in an English elementary school in Quebec. Both Stephen’s parents had.  The English school board reclassified Stephen as being legal and he and his descendants became eligible for an English education. The precious blue eligibility certificate remains in a safety deposit box to this day.

 

  1. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/quiet-revolution/

 

  1. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/bill-22/

 

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charter_of_the_French_Language
Genealogy

A Coal Mining Heritage

Scottish coal miners in the late 1800s began their 12 hour shifts in the early morning darkness. Slowly they made the long descent into the pit, the only sounds being the drone of the winding gear and the clunking of the open cage carrying the men. The blackness became thicker and thicker as they neared the pit head. Each man carried a safety lamp and wore a token around his neck for identification. A series of tubs carried the men to the coal seams until the roof became too low for the men to stand upright. Then they would begin a crouching walk. Each man carried a simple lunch of water, bread and jam for the crouching position caused indigestion if the stomach was too full.

The men were assigned work positions and began the grueling task of hewing coal from the rock face. The coal was loaded into tubs and pulled by ponies to the bottom of the shaft where they were then hauled to the surface by the crane.  The work was hot, dirty and dangerous in cramped and claustrophobic conditions. Seams were prone to collapse and noxious gases collected. Most colliers suffered from significant breathing difficulties and persistent coughs. The ponies become blind from a life in the dark. Once every summer they were brought above ground for two weeks to graze, their eyes carefully wrapped to protect them against the light. 1

Such a coal miner was Allan Syme of Blantyre, my husband’s grandfather, born in 1882. He was the son of coal miner Hugh Syme and his wife Isabella.2 Allan was said to be fifteen when he first entered the mine.3

What was Allan thinking as he descended into the darkness that first time? Perhaps it was of the Blantyre Disaster of 1877 some twenty years earlier, Scotland’s worst coal mining disaster that had killed 207 miners and left 92 widows and 250 fatherless children. 4 Not a soul in the village was left untouched by the loss. Exploding gas, called firedamp, caused the disaster and firedamp was still ever present in the tunnels. Would this be his fate?

Or perhaps Allan was simply thankful he had a job. Generations of Blantyre men were able to feed their families by working underground, sons following their fathers into the depths time and again. Only a few were able to escape the mine, the most famous being the African missionary David Livingston.

Allan eventually took a wife, Elizabeth Sneddon 5, and raised a family of six: Hugh, Allan, Peter, Isabelle, Mary and Betty. Their home was a two bedroom flat in a four-plex on Bruce Terrace, initially owned by the mine and then by the parish council. It boarded The Dandy, a wooded area leading down to the River Clyde and a view of the ruins of Bosworth Castle. Hugh would follow his father into the mine. Mary would marry a Royal Navy officer and become the mother of my husband.

Slowly conditions improved in the mines, as did Allan’s position with the mining company. The last years of his career were spent above ground as a contractor hiring the men to work in the pit. 6.

At the age of 58, Allan’s life ended tragically in the darkness of night, not the darkness of the mine. He was killed by a car as he crossed a road on his way to deliver a pay packet to an ill employee.  His skull and multiple bones were fractured by the impact and he died at the scene. The driver had not been able to see him in the blackout imposed by WWII. 7

Allan’s widow, bound to a wheelchair by rheumatoid arthritis, would be cared for by his children in the house on Bruce Terrace until her own death.

 

  1. http://blantyre.biz/mining-in-blantyre/blantyre-history-of-mining/6159-2/
  2. https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/view-image/nrs_stat_births/42004712?image=1&viewed_images=true
  3. Allan is listed as a coalminer in the 1901 census. https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/view-image/nrs_census/26961400?image=44&viewed_images=true
  4. http://blantyre.biz/mining-in-blantyre/blantyre-history-of-mining/blantyre-mining-disaster-1877/
  5. https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/view-image/nrs_stat_marriages/3498462
  6. Personal recollection of granddaughter Elaine Shane
  7. https://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/view-image/nrs_stat_deaths/9267528?image=1&viewed_images=true
Genealogy, Quebec

The Maiden Aunts

Aunt Kay and Aunt Vi. Their names were always said as a unit for as children we saw them as inseparable. Their lives were also lived as a unit, lives devoted to family, career and an insatiable love for travel.

Violet, born 1904 1, and Kathleen, born 1907 2, were the daughters of George Hudson Willett and his wife Isabelle of Caplan, Quebec. George was a farmer and a seasonal guide for hunters and fishermen 3. Money was tight. From the beginning the girls wanted more than a life on the Gaspe coast.

By the time she was seventeen Violet was living in Montreal with her older sister Madge and working as a stenographer 4. Kathleen joined her a few years later. In 1927 Kay signed her first contract with the Lachine School Commission, later to become part of the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal 5. Kay’s career was that of a teacher, a consultant, a principal and ultimately an adjunct professor at McGill. Violet spent her entire career at the Bank of Montreal retiring as an executive secretary.

Initially the sisters lived in a lodging house in downtown Montreal 6. Early in my childhood they moved to an apartment in Montreal West. The apartment was small: living room, kitchen and one bedroom with twin beds. Beautiful rugs, furniture, and treasures from their travels made the space appear luxurious. Kay kept a meticulous inventory of their possessions 7. The sisters entertained friends and family simply but elegantly. A drop leaf table at one end of the living room opened to seat six with place settings of silver, crystal and fine china. As children we learned to eat with proper table manners when visiting our aunts!

The sisters never married although family legend claims that Violet left a heart-broken suitor in the Gaspe, a man who wrote to her every Christmas until her death. Kathleen had many male friends and colleagues but there were no rumours of love affairs. Both women were slim and beautiful and dressed with style. Vi was a redhead; Kay was a brunette with a distinctive white streak. Later in life she dyed her hair and the streak became blue, an idiosyncrasy that fascinated me.

Both women were devoted to their nine nieces and nephews. They spent time with each one, individually or in family groupings, in the city or at the farm in the Gaspe. Family photos are witness to cousins and aunts enjoying time together at the beach 8.

More than the beach, however, I loved going to lunch with them in Montreal at the Eaton’s dining room on the ninth floor. It always included a shopping trip! Their joint gifts to all of us over the years included clothes, books, educational toys, university fees, and travel experiences. They gave me a piece of the silverware every birthday and Christmas from the time I was very young. You can imagine how excited I was as a four year old opening the gift of a fork! Today that silverware is a treasured memory of their love.

The sisters lived together their entire lives except for the four years that Kay taught in Germany. Even then Vi joined Kay to holiday with her in Europe. In the end it was Alzheimer’s disease that separated them. Vi succumbed first. When Kay could no longer look after her, she was placed in a home where she died in 1983 at the age of eighty 9. As in their youth, Kay followed several years later. She died in a nursing home in 1991 at the age of eighty five 10.

Thus ended the era of the maiden aunts. Their legacy lives on in the achievements of their nieces and nephews, achievements fueled in large part by the values they imbued in us.

 

 Research Notes

This family story is based on my own memories of my aunts and the stories my mother told of her older sisters in conversation with me. Where I can document specific facts, I have used the Evernote Clipper and stored the clips in an Evernote notebook labeled Family History.

  1. Violet Gwendolyn Willett – Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection) 1621-91967
  2. Kathleen MacDonald Willett – Quebec Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection) 1621-91967
  3. Library and Archives Canada. Sixth Census of Canada, 1921. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2013. Series RG31. Statistics Canada Fonds. Reference Number: RG 31; Folder Number: 108; Census Place: St Charles de Caplan West (Parish), Bonaventure, Quebec; Page Number: 1
  4. Library and Archives Canada.Sixth Census of Canada, 1921. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2013. Series RG31. Statistics Canada Fonds. Reference Number: RG 31; Folder Number: 124; Census Place: Outremont (Town), Montreal (Laurier-Outremont), Quebec; Page Number: 11
  5. Teacher’s Engagement document – on file with author
  6. Library and Archives Canada.Sixth Census of Canada, 1921. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Library and Archives Canada, 2013. Series RG31. Statistics Canada Fonds. Reference Number: RG 31; Folder Number: 124; Census Place: Outremont (Town), Montreal (Laurier-Outremont), Quebec; Page Number: 11
  7. Handwritten inventory of apartment at 7455 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal – on file with author
  8. Family photos – on file with author
  9. & 10. Death announcements, Montreal Gazette – on file with author

 

Genealogy

Family Diaspora

Since time immemorial parents have lost children to the far flung reaches of the globe. They left home to serve their country, to preach the Word, to better their own lives or to simply seek adventure.

Today, advances in transportation and modern technology allow families to keep in close touch no matter how far apart they find themselves. Not so in the time of my great grandfather. When five of his seven sons left Scotland at the turn of the twentieth century he knew he would likely never see them again.

My great grandparents, David Angus (1842-1929) and Ann Rankine, had themselves left their families to seek employment elsewhere. David was a shoemaker. They settled in the Glasgow district of Partick a short day’s journey from their home village of Kincardine. Of the nine children born to them in Partick only two were girls, the younger dying in infancy.

By the end of the nineteenth century Glasgow had become a heavy industry and shipbuilding center. The influx of workers into many Scottish cities was so rapid that housing, city planning and provisions for health care couldn’t keep up. This unplanned growth created squalor and over-crowding on a massive scale. Two-thirds of Scots were living in one- or two-roomed houses compared with only 7 per cent in England. Poverty was widespread, wages were low in comparison with other parts of the UK and infant mortality rates were alarmingly high. (1)

Two of David’s sons, David and Ebenezer, escaped this desperate social situation when they immigrated to Australia, David to Melbourne and Ebenezer to Sydney. They both raised families the descendants of which live in Australia today. Both brothers are buried in Australia

Thomas settled in Malaysia as a missionary. He was likely inspired, as were many others at the time, by the legendary African exploits of David Livingston from nearby Blantyre (2). Although the family lived in Kuala Lumpur, Thomas sent his daughters, Kathleen, Joan and Margery, to a missionary boarding school in southern India, the same school I attended years later when my own father worked in East Pakistan. Typically missionaries went on furlough every five years so Thomas may have seen his homeland again.

Andrew did not stray far from home. He lived and died in East Bourne, England and we can presume he returned to Scotland frequently.

My grandfather James (1879-1964) immigrated to Canada and settled in Quebec City. It was many years after his father had died before he was able to return home. He took his Canadian “bride” to Glasgow for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. His only sister Rachel, with whom he had faithfully corresponded over the years, suffered from dementia at the time of their visit and hid from him. A sad ending to their long distance relationship.

The two sons who remained in Scotland, John and William, died in middle age. It was Rachel who cared for their widowed father in the last years of his life. My father and his two brothers spent time with their aunt at her home in Steppes when they were stationed in England during World War II. Their visits were too late for their grandfather.

Today there are more people of Scottish descent living in countries around the world than there are Scots in Scotland. My family is part of this diaspora.

  1. http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/Images/MigrationandEmpire1830- 1939_tcm4-571546.doc
  2. http://protestantism.enacademic.com/389/Livingstone,_David