All posts by Dorothy Nixon

I am a Montreal based writer with a new book about the British Invasion of Suffragettes to Canada in 1912/13 Furies Cross the Mersey on Amazon Kindle.

The Scofflaw southern granny

May Wells and her daughter, Virginia and son, Thomas, my father-in-law. Don’t let the pic deceive you: May did not like boys and she often said so. She grew up in a female dominated family.

She was not your run-of-the mill granny, that’s for sure, my husband’s father’s mother, May

In fact, she was something of a catfish-out-of-water in 1940’s and 50’s Montreal, taking her skinny six foot tall frame for a tromp down Ste Catherine Street, sticking her head into Marshall’s to ask the price of a pretty fabric on window display only to slam the door shut with a “YOU KEEP IT” when she didn’t like the answer.

It didn’t help that she had a very loud, raspy voice with a pronounced Southern drawl that would draw attention anywhere let alone in a francophone city.

One day in 1944 in a pediatrician’s office, May made my mother-in-law shrink down into her chair when she exclaimed in her embarrassingly loud twang,“It’s plain to see, we have the only good-looking child in the room.”

Granny May was a strong-willed southern belle who came of age in Warrenton, Virginia in the Edwardian Era, the age of ‘the new woman.’ New women were brash and often broke the rules so it helped to be born into a wealthy family if one wanted to follow that route. And she was.

May was so proud of her southern heritage that for years she hid the fact she was actually born in the North.

Mary Pinkney Hardy Fair was born in 1880 in Wallingford, Connecticut to Robert J. Fair formerly of Galway, Ireland*1 and Elizabeth Hardy of the Virginia merchant class who grew up on a lavish Norfolk plantation, Riveredge.

Her mother, Elizabeth Mohun Hardy was one of fourteen children with long roots in Norfolk. Virginia and North Carolina. (No surprise, my husband gets this very ‘community’ on his DNA results.)

Elizabeth Mohun Hardy Fair (I assume as we have the original. Norfolk photographer. She looks a lot like her sister Mary Pinkney. Just check on the Net.)

One of Elizabeth’s sisters, Mary Pinkney Hardy, married Arthur MacArthur, a military captain and gave birth to Douglas, the future American general.

Elizabeth and Robert Fair married in Norfolk in 1870 but lived in Massachusetts and then Wallingford where Robert prospered in dry goods.*1 The couple had six children, three girls and three boys. Fair died young in 1885. The eldest son died soon after. Elizabeth moved back to Virginia and lived comfortably as a widow the rest of her life. The boys got Ivy League educations. The girls received a genteel, privileged upbringing, their social life chronicled in numerous society columns.

Thanks to the General Douglas MacArthur connection, May’s Hardy line has been traced by multiple genealogists: it goes back to the mid 1600s in Pembrokeshire, Wales and includes many generations of land-owners as well as Methodist Minister and a Sea-Captain who founded a trading post with the West Indies. *

May’s uncles fought in the Civil War for the South under Robert E. Lee. Two of them refused to attend the MacArthur wedding.

Two of May’s Uncles.

The many Hardy sisters of Norfolk, by all accounts, were tall and willowy, strong-willed and vivacious.

Every MacArthur bio has at least a short paragraph on the attractive Hardy women, but it’s an obscure epistolary volume from 1850 we own that suggests that these traits were inherited from the mother, Margaret Pierce*2

”Mrs. H is somewhat larger than myself; her complexion is a dark brunette; she has jet black eyes and her raven tresses nearly touch the ground. Some say she is a descendant of Pocahontas. I do love a real Southern character it makes one so cordial, generous and impulsive.”

Mary Pinkney Hardy Fair Wells of Westmount, Quebec was certainly impulsive. She tied-the-knot for the first time ‘on a dare.’ Her second marriage was to a handsome Italian whom she left because ‘he couldn’t have children.’

Somewhere, I have Thomas and Mary’s 1917 marriage certificate. The line “publication of banns” is crossed out, so it is likely, as May often hinted, that she didn’t get a proper divorce from one or both of these men.

As an ingenue May was thrown out of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel for smoking a cigar in the lobby. Still, she was a more practical and mature 31 when she married the thrice-widowed Thomas G. Wells, 49, of Montreal.

When May first set eyes on the affable, much older Thomas Wells in Montreal sometimes prior to or during WWI, as her sister, Elizabeth, had married a Montrealer in 1911.*3 May told her sister, “If he is ever widowed again, call me.” When Thomas’ third wife passed away, May hightailed it up to Canada and made her successful play for “Tommy,” the President of Laurentian Spring Water. (Thomas’ favorite first wife, Maude Walker of Ingersoll, Ontario also had North Carolina roots, I have recently discovered. This fact might have been an icebreaker.)

Thomas recounted to his children the first time he ever noticed May. It was on a boat and she was seated and when she got up “she went up and Up and UP!”

Although Thomas was bringing in a hefty salary, it was May’s large dowry that allowed them to live the high life in Westmount. Tall and skinny, she could really rock the 1920’s flapper styles. Still, May, a typical wife of the era, spent most nights at home while her husband shmoozed at his elite social clubs. She liked it that way. She had servants and a singleton sister, Emily, to keep her company.

That Flapper Style

Later in life, Mary was somewhat frail herself. My mother-in-law said May kept scores of medicinal bottles on her bedside table. Her favourite medicine was by far the bourbon and it was kept this ‘southern comfort’ in a flask by her side at all times.

In the 1920’s the Wells family lived on Chesterfield Street in the dry Westmount section of Montreal where she routinely scandalized her friends by pouring booze into her afternoon tea. She didn’t let American Prohibition get in her way, either. The story goes that when travelling back to America by train with her two girls* in the 1920’s she hid bottles of liquor under their pillows. She also sewed pockets into her petticoat to hold small flasks.

The one time she did get caught, she attempted to bribe the border guard. She got plunked on Ellis Island. Thomas was so angry at her he sent his chauffeur out alone to bail her out.

A flask engraved EHF likely, my husband’s great aunt Emily’s. We have inherited quite a few silver flasks from that family 🙂

After Thomas passed away in 1951 (receiving a note of condolence bordered in black from Mayor Camillien Houde) May moved to an apartment on Coolbrook above Cote Ste Luc, where my husband, as a little boy, often visited her and where she lived until her death in 1967.

And, yes, she even managed to make a splash on that occasion. She passed away on her eldest granddaughter’s wedding day.

Apparently, my father-in-law was ashen-faced as he walked his first-born daughter (that good-looking baby) down the aisle, but no one else at the wedding had been told.

May is buried in her famously all-female family crypt in Norfolk, Virginia. Here’s the pic.

Well, Thomas Hardy Fair, her older brother is buried there, too.

Poor little rich boy: My father-in-law may have missed out on maternal affection but he didn’t lack for material comfort. Besides, his Aunt “OMIE” (Emily) took care of him, even taking him -against the law -to the movies in the late 20’s and early 30’s to a Verdun movie theatre that looked the other way when it came to kids.

1. According to an obit (May 17, 1885) I found online from a New Haven, Connecticut newspaper, Robert Fair, from Fair Hill Galway, Ireland, had got his start as a new immigrant with a cousin, Edward Malley who owned a successful department store in New Haven. The obit also said he ended up as a breeder of fine Jersey cows which makes it sounds as if he was so prosperous, in his early 40’s, ­ he could devote himself to a gentleman’s hobby.

The obit doesn’t say that he first landed in Quebec. Robert’s sister Elizabeth stayed in Quebec and married a Samuel James Bennett, a lumber merchant, of St. Romuauld D’etchemin.

2. The book is Place in the Memory by S.H. de Kroyft New York John F. Thow 1850. It was given to Emily Fair my husband’s great aunt by her Mom. In pencil is written, “I wish my daughter Emily H. Fair to preserve this book carefully as a letter from Oyster Bay speaks of her grandmother and mother, who went for the Water Cure there in 1848.” A page later: “Page 13 speaks of your grandmother.”

On page 13 of the book is written “Tomorrow a lovely family Mr and Mrs Hardy and daughter of Virginia leave for their home and will be much missed in our social circle. Mrs. H is somewhat larger than myself; her complexion is a dark brunette; she has jet black eyes and her raven tresses nearly touch the ground. Some say she is a descendant of Pocahontas or Metoka as her father called her. I do love a real Southern character it makes one so cordial, generous and impulsive. Mrs. Hardy and myself have climbed these hill together, crossed valleys and traversed winding footpaths and waded the brooks, and plunged and bathed together till she almost seems a part of myself.”

This Mrs. Hardy was the former Margaret Pierce, also of the Norfolk merchant class.

3. Robert’s sister stayed in Quebec and married a Samuel James Bennett, a lumber merchant, of St. Romuauld D’etchemin. They had nine children, the eldest of whom, Benson, became President of the Asbestos mine in Thetford Mines and the first Mayor of that city. May and her two sisters often came up North to visit their many cousins, to escape the heat and, apparently,to scout for husbands.

James Fair’s sister’s marriage record on Drouin says that she is from Fair Hill, agreeing with his obit. . The Drouin record also says her father James (married to Bedelia Keyes) is ‘ecurie’ as far as I can decipher. From records online the Fairs were land agents for the Berminghams and Earls of Leitram and Rosshill in Galway. James in 1838, was a land agent for the Provost of Trinity College Dublin. He rented the land from them and sublet it to tenants. They raised potatoes and oats, so the upcoming potato famine couldn’t have been easy on their tenants and maybe that’s why James Fair, my husband’s great grandfather, came to Canada and then the US. Descendants of the Fairs in Galway run the Fairhill House Hotel and have a law firm Fair and Murtagh. Www.landedestates.ie

Notes:

­- 1.One MacArthur bio The General’s General, claims that the Hardy’s family were Scottish –and proud of it – and that’s why he fell in love with her. (The Hardy surname is Scottish or Irish. Pierce appears Scottish but, hey, we’re talking way back.) This book claims the Hardy’s dealt in fertilizer so came out of the Civil War relatively unscathed. Most other books say the Hardy’s dealt in cotton. MacArthur’s memoirs seem to leave that detail out. He calls them ____merchants. The Hardy’s had to leave their Riveredge plantation for a time during the Civil War when the Union Army took it over. Of course, they were slave owners.

2. May never took her son, Thomas, on trips. He stayed at home and played hockey on the Westmount rink. She wasn’t a total loss as a mother. She was a crack seamstress and made all over kids and grand kids fancy winter coats with fur trim. (She was scared of the cold Canadian winters.)Thomas wasn’t so keen on the fashion. It made him stand out at the rink.

3. As you can see, most of my stories of May come from my father-in-law, her son, and my mother-in-law. I am sure other family members have other stories that perhaps could put another slant on her personality.

4. My husband’s grandmother referred to Douglas MacArthur as “Dougie”. Watching a newsreel she might say “Dougie’s looking good.” Someone kept a stash of news clippings which I once had. I tossed them. May danced the first dance at his 1903 West Point Graduation Elizabeth the second. May’s dance card was donated to the MacArthur Museum. My husband’s aunt visited Douglas in retirement and she said that he was very bossy. LOL

5. May was embarrassed about being born in the North. She didn’t tell anyone until she absolutely had to. She had an older brother Thomas, who went to Cornell and studied engineering and died a widower, I think, in an Upper East Side apartment off Central Park. (My father in law claimed he was the private secretary to Dupont but I have found nothing to collaborate this.). She also had younger brother,

Charlie, who worked as a doctor for free (the story goes) but she clearly grew up in a comfortable female-run environment. I wrote about sister Elizabeth’s dizzying social life here.

Below: Thomas Hardy Fair, May’s eldest brother. It’s written on the back.

Of the 136 trees on Ancestry with Elizabeth Mohun Hardy Fair and Robert Fair, only two mention this son. This is what happens when you have no children. He liked to hunt in Canada. I have his hunting picture album. (Too many dead animals, but a few pics of women in their voluminous turn of the 20th century ‘white dresses’ posing on the porch of small log hunting shacks.)

The unwed moms of the North Yorkshire Moors

Ye Olde Homestead: Farndale, Yorkshire moors. Farndale-holidays.co.uk
To see other notable landmarks, including Castle Howard visit https://farndalecottages.co.uk/out-and-about/heritage/

While cobbling together my fathers’s family tree 1, I discovered that his paternal Nixon line2dies out in 1834, when Robert Nixon is born in Marton, North Yorkshire, taking his surname from his mother, Hannah Nixon of nearby Kirkdale. Their reputation is redeemed five years later in 1840 when Hannah marries Christopher Neesam of Osmotherly shortly after she gives birth to a second child, a girl.

There’s no record of Robert’s birth or who Robert’s real father is – and, thanks to further research, I think I know the reason why.

Judging from my father’s family tree,unwed motherhood was not unusual among these Yorkshire farmers.

Church records from rural Yorkshire in medieval times and beyond back up my observation. They reveal that unwed mothers were, indeed, commonplace even way-back-when and the number of unwed mothers in that place only increased over the next few centuries, most notably in the northern ridings.3

As it happens, Yorkshireman Robert Nixon, Hannah Nixon’s illegitimate child, gets married in 1857 to a kindred spirit, Martha Featherstone. Martha, too, had been born out of wedlock in 1835.

Martha’s mom, Mary Featherstone of Pickering, like her mother-in-law Hannah Nixon Neesam before her, gets married a few years later, in 1840, to one Joseph Shaw. 6

Oddly, the DNA cousin matches/tree matches suggest my father is related to both Joseph Shaw and Mary Featherstone,* so this could be a case of a very delayed marriage, for whatever reason.

Maybe that is Hannah Nixon’s case, too. However, I’ve yet to find any Neesam DNA connection to my father’s tree.

In the small town of Rudby (7 miles from Marton, just north of the moors) as much as ten percent of women had children out of wedlock in the early 1800’s. These unwed mothers were stigmatized not only for religious reasons but because they were costly to the town. Sadly, the ‘bastardy wages’ paid to these mothers didn’t do much to end their woe or improve their children’s prospects. An illegitimate child was twice as likely to die in infancy as a child with legal parentage.

Local authorities in Rudby believed that most unwed mothers were the result of ‘courting couples’ where the young man involved was simply marriage-averse, sometimes preferring jail time to tying the knot. It didn’t help the situation, they said, that many unmarried tenant farmers were content with their ‘live-in’ servants (sic).

Modern scholars examining these same records acknowledge that adultery and incest (and, let’s face it, rape) inflated the number of unwed mothers in England but, they think, not to any great degree.4

Grim history, indeed, but my research findings do get brighter.

According to another source5, unwed mothers in the country did have it better than their counterparts in more urbanized areas. A more stable population likely made for a better support system for these women.

In fact, unwed mothers in 18th and 19th century rural Yorkshire weren’t even expected to name a father. A gal in the family way just told her own mom who gathered up her hat and shawl and headed out to find an eligible young man to take the bio-father’s place. (Practical people, those Yorkshire farmers.)

Unwed mothers were also protected by the old Norse superstitions still adhered to by many. One of these superstitions maintained that pregnant women had magical powers, so they were not to be crossed.

The workhouse in Helmsley, hometown of the Nixon clan from the 1800’s onward. Unmarried mothers might end up here to pay off their ‘bastardy’ support, where they were allowed to nurse their child but twice a day. 3

.

The street in Helmsley where the Nixons lived in 1911. My grandfather, Robert Nixon, was born here in 1890. In 1911, he was a footman at Duncombe Park. Supposedly he got a girl pregnant right about then so he was sent out to Malaya in 1912 to be a planter. Family myth says this woman was either a fellow servant or the Earl’s daughter. Considering the high cost of going to Malaya in the day and that posts in Malaya were given out to sons of richer men, I suspect the woman was from an important family. This would have made a great sub-plot on Downton Abbey, a fictional story that unfolds in the same area.

1. I admit that I mostly used other people’s research to compile my tree. My father, a child of the Raj, told me little about his British roots. The only information I had to go on was that his mother’s father was a Methodist minister and that some of his ancestors were hanged for sheep stealing. See Border Reiving Ruffians. Also see Dissenters and Poets.

But after I compiled his tree with ancestors from places like Helmsley, Farndale and Appleton-le-Moors, I discovered, through DNA, that the ‘cousin trail’ matches on Ancestry supports the tree, 100 percent, at least for the first few generations. My father has matches both in centimorgans (dna) and tree with people on all branches of the tree.

Let me give you one example: When I discovered, using a stranger’s tree, that my father had a great grandmother, Anne Nesfield from Sleights, this explained his rather silly middle name to me. My father signed his name P N F Nixon, as in Peter Nesfield Forster Nixon.

The Nesfield clan of Ugglebarnby etc. Yorkshire is a well established. My father is a close genetic match with someone else with this Anne Nesfield in his tree. These genes make great rugby players as both sides have world-class players.

2. In genetics, the male Y chromosome haplogroup (or set of common alleles passed from father to son) is a much valued tool used by historians and ethno-anthropologists to track historical population movements back to the bronze age and even farther. All haplogroups are assigned letter and number signatures. My Yorkshire father Peter Nixon’s Y dna haplogroup is I1 Z63. I1 is the most common haplogroup in Northern Europe.

Apparently, my father’s Z63 subgroup dominated Northern Germany before the arrival of Charlemagne (who infamously lopped off the heads of thousands of male Saxons) and has has deep origins in Jutland (Denmark). Yorkshire is the most Anglo Saxon region in all England.

3. Hastings, R. P. Poverty and the Poor Law in the North Riding of Yorkshire: 1780-1837. Unwed mothers often had to repay their bastardy wages by employment in the Workhouse. In Victorian Times in Helmsley, as recommended by the authorities, mothers in workhouses were permitted to nurse their children only twice daily. The infants’ diet was supplemented with ONE meal of cow’s milk sweetened with sugar.

4. ibid ( That seems odd to me as I know that Emmeline Pankhurst turned to woman suffrage advocacy when she saw so many young teen patients in her husband’s Manchester clinic who were pregnant by incest.)

5. Gillis, J.R. For Better For Worse: British Marriages from 1600 to Present.

6. There is no birth record for either Robert Nixon or Martha Featherstone. Census records are what the genealogies go by.

 

My father’s ancient heritage on mytrueancestry.com.

I found this on Youtube, an interview with Tamara Hoggarth, born 1860 in Marton. (The poster says “She’s speaking English, I promise.” According to his blurb, she also had an illegitimate child before marrying

Here it is

Water, Water Everywhere: North America’s First Bottled Water Company

Pic above: Bottled water on an assembly line of large glass water bottles at the Laurentian Spring Water Company, circa 1986.

The image above was captured from a 1986 television news report aired on the centenary of the founding of the landmark Montreal company, Laurentian Spring Water. Laurentian was the first bottled water company in North America!

Laurentian was a family business and my father-in-law was a shareholder. His father, Thomas Wells, or Fuddy, had been President of the Company in the first part of the 20th century.

Thomas Fuddy Wells 1868-1951

This homage didn’t make for the most exciting news item: an assembly line and a talking head, the current General Manager discussing the history of Laurentian.

The GM said that the company was founded a century earlier when a certain Mr. Robert C. White, a shoe manufacturer, accidentally discovered a wonderful gusher of fresh water 250 feet down while digging under his business on Craig Street. Lots of water was needed in shoe manufacturing.


But, as it happens, this water was especially fresh, from a 5000 year old aquifer the man on the TV said, originating far away in the Laurentian Mountains, hence the company name.

He explained that horses were used to power the drill down into the earth. By the 1980’s, there were two wells, one 250 feet down and one 500 feet down.

While researching my story MILK AND WATER (where I have Thomas Wells and my grandfather, Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, discuss water and Montreal politics in 1927 while waiting for the Prince of Wales outside a speak-easy) I learned that Montreal island has many such aquifers. Whether or not they originate in the Laurentians is debatable.

Around 1900, during a time of typhoid, Robert White exploited this wholesome mountain imagery to break into the home-water market, by advertising that he had the PUREST water in town. The scientists out at Macdonald College in Ste Anne de Bellevue had tested it, apparently.

Up until then, White had used his glorious geyser to create a ritzy public bath where City aldermen from around the corner at City Hall conducted private meetings while sweating it off – and an elite swimming pool for water polo competitions and such. Women were allowed in on Wednesdays.

“PURITY” was a loaded concept back in the early 1900’s in North America. It had to do with tainted food, a genuine issue, tainted alcohol, typhoid and cholera epidemics, and also fears and racist beliefs about immigrants from Southern Europe and elsewhere. Ivory Soap and its 99.9999 percent pure slogan was born in that era, one of many, many new products advertised as pure in places like the Ladies’ Home Journal.

Robert White, who died in 1904, was Fuddy’s Uncle, it appears. According to family lore, he had a disinterested son so he brought Fuddy in from Ingersoll, Ontario. Fuddy was the son of a top Ingersoll lawyer who was from Cambridgeshire, England.

My husband’s grandfather had a gift of the gab, but the 1911 census has him down as an accountant for the company earning 7,000 a year, a lot of money in those days.

It is said that 1,500.00 a year was the minimal salary to keep a family of four in dignity. Few families in the City made that amount of money, even with both the Mom and Dad working. And even fewer had such small families. Still, my father-in-law maintained that it was Fuddy’s wife’s dowry that allowed them to live the high life in tony Westmount in the Roarin’ Twenties.

By that decade, Fuddy was a member of many prestigious clubs, including the St. George’s. Back in 1903, the St George’s Club had sued the city of Westmount, a dry city, claiming that as a private club they had every right to serve alcohol.

Fuddy participated in lawn-bowling and curling (and boozing) all in the name of the big schmooze.

My father-in-law claimed Fuddy regularly visited the restaurants around the Mount Royal Hotel and greased the palms of the waiters so that they would serve Laurentian brand soft drinks. Soft drinks were originally created to cut the bad taste of bootlegged liquor.

Fresh water was not considered a human right or even a necessity in the big city in the Victorian era. Water pipes were brought in to keep fires at bay and preserve businesses. Water fountains were placed on Mount Royal only to keep fathers from heading off to the tavern to quench their thirst.

Private homes had to find their own water, either digging a well or getting it from the St. Lawrence River. The poor people of Montreal, many of whom lived ‘below the hill’ in Griffintown, often had no source at all of drinking water, and many still used privies, holes in the ground, as toilets. But filthy water they had a’plenty, every Spring, when their homes flooded. Montreal had the highest infant mortality rate in the Western World due to intestinal diarrhea from contaminated water and milk and the working class suffered the most.

Wealthier people could pay private water sellers to lug barrels up from the river for them. If you did have a tap at your disposal, the water was suspect as the City disposed of its waste very near where it accessed its tap water.

No surprise then that in the early 1900’s Montreal had a series of game-changing typhoid epidemics that took a toll on both rich and poor communities. This made it easy for Laurentian to start selling water to homes. They played it up in the newspaper.

My father-in-law also claimed that during one of the epidemics Laurentian gave water away to anyone who wanted it. I found no newspaper ads suggesting this.

The man on the TV in 1986 said something very interesting. He said that by the 1980’s, thanks to enormous efforts over the decades by the City to provide all households with potable water, Laurentian was selling only to offices, but they were hoping to once again sell to households.

Hmmm. Something was happening here! There were no typhoid epidemics in the 1970s’. Walkerton would only happen a decade later.

It was all about finding new markets. And, as we all know, new markets were found, with the help of a widely-circulated myth (with iffy origins) that everyone needs to drink eight glasses of pure water daily to clear out their kidneys. Meanwhile plastic water bottles fill the oceans and the relatively new idea that fresh water is a universal human right and not a commodity to be hoarded and exploited, is being challenged.

The family-owned business was soon sold to the Labrador company, now Labrador Source. My father-in-law inherited a small fortune and helped us buy our first house.

Family heirloom: A Laurentian Crate in our living room. Glass bottle of course.

Michele Dagenais of the University of Montreal is the expert in Montreal’s Water history. I used many of his papers to write my own book. You can buy Montreal:City of Water here. As it happens, Professor Dagenais also wrote a book about early Montreal CIty Hall, where he discussed my Grandfather, Jules Crepeau and his job as Director of City Services.

Margaret votes

Nicholson Clipping of the 1912 visit to Montreal of militant British suffragette, Barbara Wiley. At least one Montreal society lady, a Mrs. Weller, wife of an electricity magnate, openly admired the suffragettes. She visited them in London and soon after invited Miss Wiley to speak at her Westmount home. where she got many of her friends to subscribe to Votes for Women, Mrs. Pankhurst’s militant -minded magazine. Most upper crust women who admired Pankhurst kept it under wraps. Mrs. Pankhurst was simply despised by many people, especially men.

Suffragist: A person who advocates for votes for women.

Suffragette: Someone who advocates militant methods to win the vote for women.

If you come from Protestant Canadians, especially Presbyterians or Methodists, it is likely you have a female ancestor or two from 100 years ago who believed that women should have the vote.

It’s safe to say, however, that none of these ancestors ever marched in a suffrage parade, as did some American women. They likely didn’t throw hatchets at store windows, either, as did some British suffragettes. Nor did they ransack golf courses or go on hunger strikes in jail like the most militant suffragettes in England.

The Canadian Woman Suffrage Movement was much more tame (dull and boring) than in the UK or even in the US. In 1913, in Canada, the movement was controlled by a group of elite matrons, most with wealthy husbands, who were highly invested in the status quo. They did not want working class women or even ‘excitable’ young women of their own class to enlist in their suffrage associations. Most of them weren’t ‘equal rights’ suffragists.

Some of these ladies wanted the vote solely to cleanse society of its undesirable elements – to impose their values on others. Some wanted to clean up or “purify” what they saw as a corrupt City Hall, that allowed prostitution (the social evil) and alcohol consumption to flourish. Others wanted the vote to improve the lives of children of all classes because they believed men only cared about money. These were maternal suffragists and probably in the majority.

Page from minute book of Montreal Suffrage Association at BANQ.. Hmm. Someone has crossed out a line claiming the association is non-militant. Ha ha. They also want to subscribe to Pankhurst’s Votes for Women magazine.

The Montreal Suffrage Association was launched in March 1913 at the height of the Canadian movement. The MSA was led by Miss Carrie Derick, McGill Botany Professor and the former President of the Montreal Local Council of Women. Two other McGill profs were on the Board of the MSA, they were male, of course, along with two church ministers (one of whom was a real Pankhurst hater) and socialite and philanthropist Julia Parker Drummond.

At their inaugural meeting, the MSA promised to conduct a ‘ sweet and reasonable education of the people.”

My husband’s great grandmother, Margaret Nicholson of Richmond, Quebec and her three daughters, Edith, Marion and Flora, were not invited to join the MSA, even if the girls lived and worked in Montreal. Even though they attended suffrage evenings sponsored by the MSA.

Still, they were avid supporters of woman suffrage. They left behind (for my own education) many newspaper clippings like the one at top covering all aspects of the topic.

I also have a 1908 letter from Margaret to her husband, Norman, recounting a huge argument she had about the vote with an anti-suffrage preacher relative. ‘I told him we don’t live in St Paul’s time and I don’t milk cows out in the field. ” St Paul was often invoked to prove women’s place is in the home.

Edith writes this in a 1913 letter from Montreal. “We are going to hear Mrs. Snowden (moderate suffragist from England) speak at St James Methodist Church, but she is not militant and for this I am very sad.”

So, she was all for the militant suffragettes, who were at their naughtiest and noisiest in 1913, employing incendiary and sensational tactics “deeds not words” to get their point across and making all the North American news feeds.

Canadian women finally won the vote, in May 1, 1918. A select few, those women with men active at the war front, had been allowed to vote in the infamous – and very undemocratic – conscription election of 1917.

Margaret Nicholson did not have a close relative in the war. She voted for the first time in December, 1921.

I have that letter too. Here is what she wrote:

December 7, 1921, Richmond, Quebec.

Mr. Fraser and I went down to vote at around 11:30. I did not want anyone calling of me and asking to drive me to the poll. I wanted to go independently. Mr. Duboyce called at about 3:30 and asked me if I had voted. I said, “ Do you suppose I would wait until this late hour to vote?” He was going to take me down in the car. He then came up and asked if my neighbour, I mean Ethel, would go to vote. Well, she would not. Later, I was invited over to Ethel’s. She said Tobin did not need her vote, but if she was going to vote, she would vote for him. Mrs. Farquarson did vote, but seemed ashamed. I have not seen her since. Mrs. Montgomery came last night, but too late to vote.

Of, I am so delighted with this country!

It did not feel degrading in any way.

Margaret Nicholson and her daughters, circa 1910 in their fancy white dresses.
Margaret’s 1921 letter to her husband. “How I love this country..”

If you would like to read more on the weird Montreal Suffrage Movement in 1913, you can find Furies Cross the Mersey on Amazon.ca.

I mix the story of the Nicholsons with the story of Carrie Derick and the Kenney sisters, Sarah and Caroline, who moved from England to Montreal and tried to start a militant movement. They were the sisters of Annie Kenney, Mrs. Pankhurst’s famous first lieutenant. I believe I was the first person to figure this out..thanks to Google News Archives.

If you want to read more about the Canadian suffragists and their involvement in the Conscription election, read my Service and DIsservice, also on Amazon.ca KINDLE.

Brush with a (Messy) Icon

Marion1FIXED

Marion Blair, my mother-in-law, 1990s

There were no teenagers back in the old days, my mother-in-law, Marion Blair, used to say. You were a girl one day and a woman the next – at least when it came to the way you dressed and the way you arranged your hair.

Somewhere, I have a black and white studio photo of Marion looking rather glamorous wearing what appears to be bright red lipstick, (it’s hard to tell for certain) taken in 1929.

I find the photo a bit freaky, because Marion was born in 1917! At a mere 12 years of age she certainly had achieved that polished ‘movie-star’ look and she maintained that impeccably groomed image right up until her death in 2002.

So it was no surprise to me when my husband came into the room a while back as I was watching an old Bette Davis movie on TCM and said, “That woman looks just like my mother.”

“Your mom didn’t look at all like Bette Davis,” I replied. “But, I can see your point. The movies, back then as now, instructed girls – and boys – on how to be grown up.”

Now, this was doubly ironic as here in Quebec in the 1930’s children under 16 were banned from the cinema because of the 1927 Laurier Palace Theatre Fire where 72 children had died in a crush to the exit.

So what did these deprived Depression Era English Quebec children do to bend the rules and partake of some healthy Hollywood escapism? According to my mother-in-law, they sneaked into the movie theatres and comported themselves like adults. That meant no shouting and no jostling. Girls often applied make-up to enhance the illusion.

Marion Blair was the middle of three sisters, so it is no surprise, really, that her appearance meant a lot to her, especially since her sisters were, let’s face it, much better looking. Think Rita Hayworth and Merle Oberon.

She was the skinny sister with the slightly wonky left eye and a wild boy-crazy “biker chick” personality that had to be tamed with two years at Trafalgar all-girls school. (Hmm. Maybe, there were ‘teenagers’ in the 1930’s after all.)

The 1930’s Hollywood Dream Factory inspired more than Marion’s hair and makeup. She was a wannabe thespian. At McGill in the late 30’s she got to play comedic parts in the famed Red and White Revue.

Somewhere, I have some clippings from the early WWII McGill Daily. In one of them Marion is flying in the air attached to cables with a giant wand in her hand and an enormous toothy grin on her face.

Marion Blair was a natural for the theatre, but in 1941, with war raging, she chose a domestic existence and married Thomas Wells, a Westmount boy who had played semi-pro  hockey with her brother and who had recently enlisted in the RCAF.

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Marion, ballerina, 1942, Dunville, Ontario RCAF training base.

As a young mother in the 1950’s, Marion continued to act in local amateur theatre out in the suburbs with the Hudson Players Club. (I guess the stage was the only place she felt safe ‘letting her hair down.’)

Her own mother, Marion Nicholson Blair, had been widowed in 1927, when Marion Jr. was just 10 years old. Mother Marion had been cut out of her husband’s family lumber fortune, but instead of remarrying one of her many suitors she went back to work as a teacher at the Montreal Board and also got involved with the Protestant Teachers Union, rising to President during WWII.

The Nicholson/Blair female-run family had little money to spare but being a natural wheeler-dealer, mother Marion found patrons to send her children to university which is why daughter Marion could swing from the rafters at McGill’s Morris Hall.

Which brings me to another related story – about another photograph, one I actually have on hand to show you.

My mother-in-law’s patron was a friend of her mother’s, a Mr. Dean from the local Westmount Church. One summer in 1936 he took them to Saranac Lake, New York on a vacation.

One morning,  as they walked on the waterfront, at the marina, Marion spotted a portly older man with very disheveled hair on the pier beside a small sailboat. “What messy hair that man has,” said Marion to her companions. “Disgraceful.”

Mr. Dean would have no part of it. “That, my dear,” he told her, in a hushed and reverent tone, “is Professor Einstein.”

So my mother in law snapped a photograph – and here it is.

Saranac Lake

This picture is more than mere family memorabilia.

With a little online research I soon figured out that my mother in law caught the Man of the Century setting up for a famous AP photo shoot. (Or perhaps shutting down from it.)

Here’s that photo “Einstein at Play” taken a few minutes before or after my mother-in- law snapped the photo of the physicist icon with the famously messy head of white hair.

EinsteinatPLAY

 

A pic of Marion on on stage and a clip from the December 1955 Lake of Two Mountains Gazette.

The Family Genealogist

 

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The truth is, family genealogists haven’t changed that much over the years. They are still the one in the family with time on their hands and the fierce determination to stick with it through all the brick walls and misinformation and family myth muddles. They still wonder, when all is said and done, if anyone in the future will value their hard work.

Well, I think future generations will care and something happened to me lately to prove it:

The evidence comes in the form of a letter dated only March 3rd, but I know it must be from the 1970’s. It is from a certain Isabel to a Muriel. The type-written missive appears to be the last in a series on the subject of creating a family tree– and, without ceremony, after the “Dear Muriel” salutation, the letter gets right to the point.

“I have found two omissions, Jean Pepler, how could I miss her? and Jean McLeah. I have made Jean Pepler 84a as I found it after I had put in the numbers.”

Jean Pepler is my husband’s great grandmother’s niece. I know this from a family tree I once had on hand, the McLeod Family Tree, and more particularly from about 300 family letters from the 1908-1913 period, letters I long ago transcribed and published in an online book, A FAMILY IN CRISIS.

But, until recently, when I received this 50 year old note, I did not know anything about Isabel or Muriel

Isabel, the genealogist of the letter, discovers another error. “I just found another error in these family notes. The Millers have two daughters. I forgot Annie…I’ll have to correct it before I send it.”

Yes, like all genealogists, past and present, Isabel has poured a lot of energy into her family project and after she’s typed out the family tree, just when she thinks she’s finished, she finds some errors!

Not wanting to retype the whole tree chart, Isabel merely creates an in-between number for Jean Pepler, an esteemed Quebec educator, to use on the summary list at the of her document.

This wonderful letter was sent to me by my husband’s cousin, Debbi who still lives in Quebec. We didn’t know about Debbi either, not before then.

You see, when my husband got his DNA done a few years ago on Ancestry, he immediately discovered two first cousins (whom he knew very well) and a third cousin, Jean, he didn’t know at all.

He assumed this person was a third cousin because he shared 60 centimorgans of DNA with her, the average amount for third cousins. I contacted the woman to confirm the exact relationship.

My husband and Jean were second cousins once removed, related through my husband’s two times great grandparents John McLeod and Sara Maclean of Uig Carnish, Isle of Lewis Scotland. My husband’s great grandmother, Margaret Nicholson and Jean’s grandmother, Isabella Hill, were sisters living around the corner from each other in Richmond, Quebec in early 1900.

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John McLeod of Uig Carnish Isle of Lewis, Scotland (Crayon Drawing) and his wife Sarah McLean McLeod, tintype.

These days, due to the Coronavirus, Jean is hunkering down with her daughter, Debbi, and they are passing the time exploring genealogy. Debbi saw my years old note on Ancestry.

“ I’m the one who is most interested in family,” Debbi wrote me. “Can you tell me more?”

So, I sent Debbi my compilation of Nicholson Family Letters that contain numerous mentions of Clayton and Isabella Hill. Clayton was a prosperous stone mason in Richmond who lived in a big house on ritzy College Street. Their son, Stanley, is Jean’s father. Their daughter Isabel (Hill Knott) is Jean’s aunt and Muriel (the letter’s recipient) is Jean’s mother, Stanley’s wife.

Isabel and Muriel were sisters-in-law.

Floraa

Flora Nicholson (1895-1978) my husband’s great aunt, with Stanley Hill and future family genealogist Isabel Hill Knott circa 1906

“Were there any other siblings in the McLeod Richmond family?” Debbi enquired of me. “ I’ve heard of Dan and Flora. Maybe a Mary-Jane, too?”

“I think I remember Mary-Jane from the letters, “ I replied. “ There was also a Christie in Illinois and a Sarah in Sarnia. But, I can’t remember any other siblings.”

I then explained to her that I once in my possession a McLeod family genealogy, neatly tied with shoelaces in a sturdy flip-board cover, but I’ve since misplaced it. Sad!

But, only a few days later, checking out some stored data on some random memory sticks, I stumbled upon some gifs of that same McLeod genealogy. (And, yes, we had missed some siblings!)

I emailed the gifs off to Debbi and that’s when she emailed me back a scan of her Great Aunt Isabel’s March 3rd letter from the 1970’s.

“As you can see, it’s the same genealogy. Jean Pepler is there at 84a!” Debbi wrote in the email.

What a serendipitous string of events had to unfold to marry these two documents, once again, almost half a century later!

 

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Isabel’s Pepler page with new info added by a relation.

Today, with electronic communications, genealogists have so many tools at their disposal it is simply dizzying. Isabel’s letter reminds us that in the good old days it could take years and years of correspondence by mail or telephone to build a family tree – and typing it out before the age of White Out and word processors was an especially arduous task.

Isabel did, indeed, take a long, long time researching the tree:

“You should see my desk in the kitchen. At least now I can clean it up, getting rid of all the bits of notes I have gathered over the years.”

Isabel says that she spent three weeks at her kitchen table to type out the seven page genealogy.

“As this is all I have done for the past three weeks, I have no news….This has been hard work and has taken a lot of time but that is something I have plenty of.”

Isabel wasn’t sure, in the end, if she had done a good enough job:

“I find it hard to put in any notes for the younger members. There lives are still in the process of developing, but they can fill in what they find important. There might be even more births.”

And like many genealogists, then and now, she wondered if it was all worth the effort.

“What a job! Probably nobody will be interested because we have to accept that the world has changed.”

Well, it was worth the time and effort, Isabel, I can tell you that. Fifty years later many of us still do care. So, thank you for all the hard work you put into piecing together your (well, our) family tree.

 

 

 

 

My Grandfather, North Yorkshire and Discobulus

VenusandAdonis

Venus and Adonis by Titian. This Renaissance painting is now at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles but it once graced the Hall of Duncombe Park in Helmsley, North Yorkshire. I know this because of a precious little volume from 1829 I found on archive.org, A Description of Duncombe Park, Rivalx Abbey and Helmsley Castle.

As it happens, my father’s  paternal ancestors are from Helmsley, today a picturesque market and tourist town on the River Pye in the Ryedale District.

helmsley

Duncombe Park  was once an imposing structure in the Doric style built in 1718 overlooking Helmsley Castle not far from Thirsk where the vet who inspired All Creatures Great and Small worked. It was the seat of the Earls of Feversham.

My grandfather, Robert Nixon (1890-1967), was born to Robert Nixon Sr. and Mary-Ellen Richardson.

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This stretch of very unimposing row houses is where the Nixons lived in 1911, according to the UK Census.

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Mary-Ellen was from nearby Rievaulx, a village famous for its cathedral ruins. She was born in this quaint cottage, Abbot’s Well. Her dad was a tailor.

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According to this census, Robert Nixon Sr. was a delver in a quarry in Rievaulx in 1911.

The same census page says my grandfather, Robert Jr.  21,  was a footman, likely at Duncombe Park. Robert was a strapping 6 foot 4 inches tall. The gentry liked their footmen to be fine physical specimens, but this was not always a good thing if Nixon family lore can be counted upon.

According to an English ‘auntie’ of my  father’s, the daughter of ‘the local earl’ went ga-ga for young Robert back in the day, so the love-struck girl’s powerful father sent him away, far away to Malaya.

I have no picture of Robert, but I recall seeing one decades ago and he looked like my dad, Peter.  So here’s a picture of Peter in 1958 holding our new puppy, Spotty, a coonhound. My father was also 6 foot four inches tall.

father

This myth might be true, as employment in Malaya was only offered to young men from well-off families, not delver’s sons.

I see that the sitting Earl of Feversham had four daughters, but they were much too old for Robert. Maybe it was Feversham’s granddaughter who fell in love with my strapping grandfather. I hope so, because I like this family myth. This is a Vanity Fair pic of the Earl from Wikipedia.

Lord Feversham 1829-1915

According to travel records, my grandfather, Robert took a boat to Malaya (willingly or unwillingly) in 1912 to work at Batu Caves Estate in Selangor, just outside of Kuala Lumpur.

He returned to England after WWI to marry my grandmother, Dorothy Forster, from County Durham, whose father was an itinerant Primitive Methodist preacher posted in Helmsley between 1912 and 1914.

MRsDOROTHYNIXON

Dorothy followed him to Malaya in December, 1921 and my dad was born ten months later on October 24.  Robert later became Manager of the estate. Both my grandfather and grandmother were interned at Changi Prison during WWII.

According to the 1829 book, Duncombe Park was  home to a treasure trove of classical paintings, among them the Titian shown at top, but also a Da Vinci, a Reubens, a Rembrandt  as well as Discobulus, described as ‘the finest statue in England.’

My grandfather never did get to see these great works of art in person because most were burned in a fire in 1879.  Back then, some of these paintings were worth five thousand pounds.

The Discobulus and the DaVinci work were lost in the fire but Titian’s Venus and Adonis was saved to eventually find its way to California and the Getty Museum.

Duncombe was rebuilt in the Baroque Italianate style and used as a backdrop to the 2012 British mini-series Parade’s End, with Benedict Cumberbatch.  I love that mini-series, so it is all very appropriate.

Duncombe

Dunscombepark1

The Story of Three Thomas Wells’s

or

In Praise of Small, Local Museums

 

THOMASWELLS

My husband’s grandfather, Thomas Gavine “Fuddy” Wells, born 1868, Ingersoll, Ontario.

My husband’s grandfather, Thomas Gavine Wells, or “Fuddy” was born in Ingersoll, Ontario in 1868,“ the year after Canadian Confederation” as my father-in-law, Thomas Gavine Wells Jr., liked to say.

According to my father-in-law, Fuddy’s father, also Thomas Wells, was a lawyer from  England. His mother was a White – and, by the way – the Whites invented the hockey net.

This is everything my father-in-law, who loved to regale us with family stories, knew about his father’s British branch.

It has taken me quite a few years to confirm through the historical record that this information is correct –  well, except for the hockey net part.

…..

A few years ago, I started researching the background of my husband’s grandfather, Thomas “Fuddy” Wells, the one born in 1868 in Ingersoll.

As a young man,  Fuddy came to Montreal to work as an accountant for his uncle, Thomas White, who had founded an accidental company, Laurentian Spring Water, when he stumbled upon a golden aquifer under Craig Street while digging a well to service a shoe factory. Fuddy eventually became a salesman and then the President of the company.

Laurentian Spring Water was the first bottled water company in North America – and that deserves a story of its own – but not here.

DAPPERGENTS

The dapper gentlemen of the St. George’s Lawn Bowling Club, Westmount, Quebec. Fuddy is seated above the man on grass with splayed legs.

 

This piece is about my more recent search for more information about Fuddy’s father, Thomas, the lawyer in Ingersoll, Ontario, who was from England, but what part?

But, finding that out was difficult. Putting up my husband’s DNA  on Ancestry did nothing to clear up the mystery. Wells is a common name, as is White.

Making things more difficult, Fuddy’s 1868 birth certificate isn’t online, nor is Thomas, the lawyer’s, marriage certificate.

CENSUS

However, Fuddy’s four marriages (yes) are online, giving his birth date as 1868 and his mother as Mary White.

The  1901 and 1911 censes claim Fuddy was born in England, in 1868, (that would explain the lack of a Canadian birth certificate) but the 1881 census (above) confirms he was Canadian-born.

The paper-trail isn’t always to be trusted, it seems.

According to an online notice from the Canadian Law Almanac, Fuddy’s father, Thomas, started his law career in Ingersoll in 1866 – the year before Confederation.

Now, I put all this information aside for a year or two until a few months ago when a genealogist friend  said she’d give it a try using UK records.  After a bit she got back to me: “No luck. There are just too many Thomas Wellses,” she said.

Then, trolling the Internet for more information,  I stumbled  upon a brand new net nugget: a citation in the footnotes of a book published in 1989 for “Diary of Thomas Wells, teacher, 1851-1864, Ingersoll Cheese Factory Museum.”

I immediately contacted said Cheese Factory Museum to be told that Thomas Wells’ diary was in the Ontario Archives – and, then,  I couldn’t find it on their database. Darn!

But, shortly  thereafter, I received another email.

An intrepid researcher at the Ingersoll Museum had taken it upon herself to do a little research about Thomas Wells and she had discovered his obituary in the Woodstock Journal. Bingo!

Thomas, it seems, was born in Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire, 4 miles from the famed University.

His father, John, had a farm there, 326 acres, 10 employees.*

Thomas came to Canada in 1854, to Ingersoll in 1856, and worked as a teacher as he put himself through law school. He was a sportsman, like many of his descendants, and played baseball among other games. (He kept a diary that was used for a very detailed thesis and subsequent book on amateur sports in small-town Ontario.)*

Thomas, said the  obit, was “the Dean of Western Ontario lawyers” and was still practicing law at 93 years of age, right up until his death in 1926!

Now, that ‘s a scintillating family story my father-in-law  should have passed on to his four children and fourteen grandchildren.

It was every bit as good as the  ‘hockey net’ one – and it has the added benefit of being true.

(Adding this after the fact. Although Wikipedia does not give Frank Stocking credit for the hockey net (He was the husband of Thomas’s wife’s cousin a daughter of the founder of Laurentian Spring Water, Robert White) there is evidence he invented the sturdy net with frame.

INGERSOLL

The Professionals of Ingersoll. Thanks to the railway, Ingersoll (between Toronto and London) was a town of note in the 1870’s, with a healthy sporting rivalry with nearby Woodstock. But the hockey net was NOT invented there. According to online info, the hockey net  was invented in Beamsville, Ontario.

 

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Westmount High School Football Team, circa 1936. Thomas Gavine Wells Jr., my father-in-law, second row, fourth from left.  He played semi pro hockey for a Montreal team, but that career was ended at 19 when Emile “Butch” Bouchard, the future defenceman for the storied Montreal Canadiens, checked him into the boards at the Montreal Forum. He broke a leg. (Wikipedia describes Bouchard as ‘the best body checker of his era.’ OUCH!)

 

*Fulbourn Valley Farm, as described in a Victorian Era list of Cambridgeshire farms on the Internet. This was a farm slightly above average size for the era in England.

There are other snippets about John and his Cambridgeshire farm on the Net: hail was a problem for his barley crops; his maid lied a lot;  his wife took over the farm when he died; and there were two ransacked Roman burial tombs on the farm.

JohnWells

*For the Love of the Sport: Amateur Sports in Small-Town Ontario. Bouchier, Nancy B. (Her thesis is available at Canada’s Thesis Portal.)

(Funny story: researching Fuddy’s life in Montreal for a book, Milk and Water: Scandals, Lies and Covers-Up in Jazz Age Montreal, I came across a 1903 snippet in a newspaper about the St George’s Club and how they evaded Westmount prohibition by claiming to be a private club and not encumbered by city by-laws.)

The lack of a birth certificate would just mean that his Anglican Record from St. James Anglican in Ingersoll is not online. His father, Thomas, was warden of the Church.

I Remember Maman: Montreal’s Film Row Circa 1940

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The white building is United Amusements’ former address on Monkland, now a lovely condo. My mother’s uncle, Isadore Crepeau, was VP Of this company in the 1920’s and 30’s. 

 

I have only recently discovered that Monkland Avenue in Notre Dame de Grace was once Montreal’s movie Mecca, referred to in industry circles as “Film Row.”

In the 1960’s, as a school girl, I lived in adjacent Snowdon  and I often saw second-run movies at the Monkland Theatre – and yet no one told me this.

On top of that,  my mother, grandmother and aunts all lived on that street during the 1940’s, in a large second story flat at the corner of Oxford and Monkland. My mom worked at RKO Motion Picture Distributing just a few blocks away.

When my Mom and I passed by the building in our tiny Austen Cambridge car on visits to see our cousins who lived on the corner of Monkland and Montclair, she would often tell  me, “You was born right there, over a shoe shop.’

I can see from Lovell’s Directory, online, the place was Eddy’s Shoe Shop, now Patisserie de Nancy.

Over the years, my mother only occasionally mentioned her past employment at RKO and I never asked for more information because I was not at all interested.  In the 1960’s, RKO was out of business, although it had been one the top five studios in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

 

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Lovell’s reveals the truth about Monkland in the 1940’s. Movie Distribution Mecca!

In the 70’s, I studied Film and Communications at McGill and still I never asked my mother about working at RKO.

In class we studied Eisenstein’s montage method and D.W. Griffith’s short and long silent films and even deconstructed Citizen Kane scene-by-scene, (a movie made by RKO and Orson Welles who later bought the studio and drove it into the ground) but those other classic RKO Films, Bringing Up Baby, It’s a Wonderful Life, or I Remember Mama* with Irene Dunn were not on the syllabus.

The RKO brand, for the most part, sounded so far away, in the Dark Ages of the 1940’s, when my mother was young and a working woman.

These days, I spend a lot of time watching Turner Classic Movies and I am now very familiar with the RKO ‘radio signal’ logo and their classic and all but forgotten movies. I am also researching more about my mother’s Crepeau family.

I think I know how my mother got the RKO job.

Her father, Jules Crepeau, had been Director of City Services in the 1920’s and her uncle, Isadore, had been VP of United Amusements, the local movie distribution concern that built the grand Monkland Theatre with its ornate plaster work, as well as a score of other Montreal movie palaces , including the Rialto on Park Avenue, the Rivoli on St. Denis and the Strand, where well-known pianist Willie Eckstein tickled the ivories.

My mother was a secretary or ‘stenographer’ as they called it back then, even though she had studied classical literature, Greek and Latin, at College Marguerite Bourgeois and was perfectly bilingual in English and French.

Were my mother alive today, I would ask if it was fun and exciting, or even ‘glamourous’ working on Monkland back in those days. Or was it tedious. Did she have to put up with sexist behavior at work? (I bet she did.)

Her bosses, according to the industry rags, got to party once a year at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City at the annual RKO sales meeting and  Montreal’s Film Row regularly welcomed visitors from all over, including Hollywood.

And the big question I’d like to ask, if I could go back in time: “Did you get free movie tickets?

 

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Marie-Marthe Crepeau Nixon

filmrow

 

george

From Box Office magazine, 1940. c/o Digital Media Library.

 

  • I Remember Mama is a film about a struggling immigrant couple who raised their children without ever letting on that they are very poor. My mother raved about this film when it came on TV in the 1960’s. The movie was made by RKO in 1948 and she would have worked on publicity.

To the Lighthouse Part 3

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Senior Rugby, St Bee’s School, 1939. Peter Nixon, top row, fourth from left

(To the Lighthouse Part 1: Geological Time, Historical Time, Genealogical Time.)

(To the Lighthouse Part 11: You Don’t Want to be Me.)

To the Lighthouse: Part 111. One Mean SOB

I think, once again, of the thick- legged cads on the colliery team. Tough as nails.  It would be a shame for them to beat us on the rugby field – or on the battlefield.

A pair of kittiwakes soars sand shriek 15 feet over us, just as the eight students approach slowly from the south, at a jogging pace,  two of them cupping their pockets and looking very self-satisfied.

“We got three big eggs,  and one just for you, Nixon,” speaks up Armstrong in a flattering tone.  He’s normally the most belligerent of my young charges. Another with Border Reiver blood. It’s a bribe and a most worthy one.

The Nixon clan was once in thrall to the Armstrong clan, I recall  Grandfather Nixon, a sawmill worker, telling me a few years ago as we walked the well-trod path from his home in Helmsley North Yorkshire to nearby Rievaulx to see the stone quarry where he had laboured as a young man, the famous cathedral ruins and the small thatched cottage, Abbot’s Well, where Mary Ellen Richardson, his wife, my grandmother, grew up. She was a tailor’s daughter.

abbottswellrievaulx

Abbot’s Well Rievaulx, North Yorkshire

“They are falcon’s eggs, we think” interrupts Bell, Armstrong’s sidekick, also of Border Reiver blood. You should have seen the mother. She attacked us with her enormous beak and flapping wings.” Falcon? I now understand this to be a ruse. Or is it?

Can miracles of nature happen? Can schoolboys steal some eggs from a falcon’s nest? Might the war in Europe never really start?

The smirk on the faces of all the young chaps tell me there will be no eggs, gull’s or falcon’s, for luncheon today. It is all a big joke.

“Well, let’s turn around them, we’ll never make to the lighthouse and back with those falcon’s eggs intact,” Armstrong says, stubbornly sticking to his story.  I can taste the savoury most-likely fictitious fried eggs  and it STILL makes my mouth water.

“The headmaster told me to take you to the lighthouse and back,” I say, nonchalantly exercising my power over them as is my right.   The boys groan. I start to run, outpacing them but staying close enough to make sure they don’t delay.

We pass the ruins to the entrance of the old King Pit, once the deepest shaft in the world. 160 fathoms deep built in 1750 by the Lowther family. Or so says a plaque next to it.  I once again think of the boys on the colliery team and their ancestors who worked within these mines. The rise of all the towns around here, Whitehaven, Maryport, Workingham is thanks to the 18th century coal trade with Ireland. The collieries on the coast once covered thousands of acres. I must have read that on another plaque somewhere else.

I have no coal miners in my family tree. We are too tall. I come from farmers, mostly.  My father, Robert Nixon, was a footman at elegant Dunscombe Park in Helmsley before he took the Lutzer ocean liner out of Southampton to Singapore in October, 1912.

He probably already was acquainted with  my mother, Dorothy Forster, as her father, John, was preaching in Helmsley at the time.  Who knows when they got engaged.  Dorothy, a land girl during WWI, a titch of  a woman tasked with leading the enormous Clydesdales through the forests with their loads, followed him to Malaya in December 1921, a mere ten months before I was born.

Robert is  6 foot 4. The gentry like their footmen tall and presentable. Still, Robert preferred to try his luck out in the bug-infested jungle. Perhaps it was Dorothy who insisted, she not wanting to be married to a lowly servant. He started out as a labourer, wielding the whip, but soon rose to be manager of the Batu Caves Rubber Estate in Selangor with almost life and death power over the Indian workers. He was born a servant in England but became a demi-god in Malaya. His imposing height helped him there, too, no doubt. And the fact he is one mean SOB.

Right now, he has the management of two rubber estates in Selangor, just to make ends meet. The economic downturn has made it hard on him and my mother. My mother has taken on a job as the librarian for the Kuala Lumpur Book Club.

BATUACES

Batu Caves Religious Resort, Selangor, Malaya

This war in Europe will not affect them, thank goodness.

I  continue to run into the past, toward Whitehaven on the Cumberland Coast. Sandstone cliffs and igneous outcrops and beaches covered in pebbles. Geologic time, historical time, genealogical time, historical memory, family myth. The rest of the boys follow with Cowen, his cheeks as red as a robin’s chest, slipping behind. I slow down the pace just for him. My little friend.

We pass ‘the candlestick,’ the old chimney of the Wellington Pit.  We’re almost at Whitehaven now.

But an armed guard, an old man in his grey-blue denim LDV jacket, with a gold star on the sleeve, waves at us with his rifle and says, “ Go back!   The lighthouse is off limits. There are motor launches out on the water looking for German subs. Can’t you see?”

The boys gather in a circular group and they all cup their eyes with their hands to look out to sea. A few with very good eyesight, like mine, point in the direction of the boats.

The  old armed guard waves us on.

“Haven’t you St. Beghian’s heard?” he says. “The Huns have attacked Denmark and Norway. The war is on for real.”

And just as he speaks, a lone steel and wood bird buzzes into view. I am the first to see it with my impeccable long range vision, but soon all ten of us stop running and turn our eyes toward the misty sky to gaze into our future.

  1. My father ended up in the RAF, posted at Dorval in Montreal, headquarters of the Ferry Command, where he met my French Canadian mother at a meet-and-greet at the Mount Royal Hotel.

 See  Night Flight, here on this blog

As it happens, one of the St Bees Village boy, a printer’s apprentice, signed up in 1939 and distinguished himself early on. He was then posted in Dorval and died on a flight mission to the Bahamas in 1941. I have no idea whether or not my father knew him, before or after enlistment. He never mentioned this.  There is information on this man, Alan  Rodgers, posted on the St. Bees Village website.

In January, 1941, a few days after Pearl Harbour, the Japanese invaded Malaya, dropping bombs on the ‘green’ in Kuala Lumpur, also hitting the building housing the Kuala Lumpur Book Club.  Four died there in the rubble, but Dorothy, my grandmother, hid under a desk and survived.  She and her husband, Robert, ended up interned at Changi Internment Camp.  Read about it in Beads in a Necklace, our book. Also here at the Globe and Mail. Read  or LISTEN TO a one act play about John Forster’s dementia in A Stranger in his/her Bed.  

Or read the complete story of Dorothy Nixon’s life in the colonies here in my e-book, Looking for Mrs. Peel.