Author Archives: Dorothy Nixon

Do You Believe in Ghosts?

margsword

I’m sitting on the fence, myself.

Over a decade ago, I discovered an old trunk of  paper memorabilia once belonging to Nicholson family of Richmond, Quebec, my husband’s mother’s ancestors. It contained 1000 letters, 300 from the pivotal 1908-1913 years.

From these missives, I learned a great deal about these  Canadian- born Scots, whose parents were  Hebridean Scots, cleared from the land in the 1800’s and forced to come to Canada. And, because of a rather weird series of coincidences I learned all about a certain Masonic sword.

One  evening back in 2004, about a  year after I first found the trunkload of letters, I received an email.It was from Matthew Farfan, editor of Townships Heritage WebMagazine.

It seems that a  couple in the Okanagan Valley of BC, we’ll call them the C’s, wanted to get in touch with me.  They had Norman Nicholson’s sword!   Norman is my husband’s great grandfather.

I had very recently posted an article about the Nicholsons on Matthew’s webmag with a big pic of Norman in Mason regalia front and center.  The family papers revealed that old Norman Nicholson was a member in good standing of the Sussex Preceptory No. 9, Knights Templar, Sherbrooke.

I immediately emailed this Mr. C. “How in Heaven do you know it is Norman’s sword?”

He explained.   In the early 60’s, his family had rented the Nicholson home, in Richmond, Quebec,  from  Edith Nicholson, Norman’s daughter.  Somehow,  Norman’s sword had been swept up in the bustle when the family moved out around 1965.

Mr. C had adored that house with its steep basement stairs and wondrous attic filled with fantastical (see : old fashioned) things. Mr C remembers  using the silver sword to ‘terrorize’ his sister.

tighsolas

 Tighsolas, built by Norman  in 1896, the year Sir Wilfrid Laurier came to power for $2,700. 

 

« Phone my wife, » Mr.C  further instructed. « She’ll tell you all about the sword. »

So I did, on the jump, and what a story Mrs. C. related! The sword had been hanging on the BC couple’s wall since the death of her in-laws. Prior to that it had traveled all over North America, as far as California.

In 2004,  Mr. C’s sister visited them. She mentioned, out of the blue, that the silver sword on the wall had a name engraved on it. They checked : the name was ‘Norman Nicholson.

A few months passed. Mrs. C had a sudden impulse to return the heirloom to its rightful owners. (What impeccable timing on her part!)  Her husband’s childhood stampbook provided some clues. Apart from many stamps,  it contained a picture of an old man with handlebar moustache decked out in Masonic garb with said blade at his side, and one envelope addressed to Mrs. Margaret Nicholson, Richmond, Quebec.

Normanregalia

 Norman in full Masonic regalia. This photo was in the stamp book and returned with the sword in 2004.

normanmargregalia

Margaret and Norman on Tighsolas lawn. A photo in the Nicholson photo album

Mrs. C googled ‘Norman Nicholson’, but no luck. There were too many people with that name .  She then he entered “Margaret Nicholson” into the search engine and, presto, she  fell upon the Eastern Townships Heritage website with my story and, plunk in the middle, she saw another picture of Norman in his Masonic regalia.

I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye. Over 50 years ago, in the age of Beatlemania and go go boots, an imaginative little boy living in Richmond, Quebec, plumbed the depths of that Nicholson treasure chest full of letters and memorabilia – the same one I discovered  in 2003 at my in-laws’ – and this little boy snitched some stamps and an envelope for his collection and glued it into a page beside an appealing photograph of a snowy-haired swashbuckler, who was really a down-on-his-luck Eastern Township hemlock bark dealer.

A little later,  he took the very sword the old man in the picture was posing with!

 stanps

(Some Nicholson letters. Many letters in the 1000 envelope stash  had the stamps carefully cut out. I now know where these stamps are!  )

There’s more.

Norman ’s sword arrived at my house  soon after. I showed it to my husband and my sons, Norman’s heirs, then placed it on the mantel.

That very night, as we all watched TV downstairs, we  heard a loud thump in the living room.

We went upstairs to find the Nicholson binder I had put on the coffee table had exploded open. Its cellophane pages were strewn on the floor. Atop the pile was Norman’s death certificate. I kid you not.

It was likely the dog nosing around that caused this to happen, right?  The binder had been filled to bulging with Nicholson documents. Still,  I took no chances. I placed a portrait of Margaret on the mantel beside the Masonic sword.

I like to think that is what Norman was looking for.

 

PS. Although perpetually cash-strapped due to the crash of the hemlock bark industry in the Eastern Townships around 1900, Norman always found the 3 dollars to pay his monthly fees to the Masons.  Norman’s records reveal he paid a hefty initiation fee, too, in 1888. Fifty dollars!

Clearly it was important to be a Mason in the ET. Apparently, the Presbyterian Church frowned up the society, saying Masons were encouraged to keep secrets from their wives. I know because the Nicholsons clipped a bit from a newspaper, likely the Montreal Witness, claiming as much!

In 1912, Margaret and their daughter, Edith, join the Order of the Eastern Star Chapter in Richmond. Edith became the Secretary. This OES was a female version of the Masons.

 

This is an updated version of a story published on the Eastern Townships Heritage Webmagazine in 2005.

A Contrast in Character

DrHenry

Dr. Henry Portrait.

He looks like one of the clan in the snapshot, with a trim athletic body, a handsome, rugged face, full-lips, sturdy chin, prominent brow over deep set eyes. He is confident in his posture as well as a snappy dresser.

He is Dr. Henry Watters of Kingsbury, Quebec and Newton, Massachusetts, first cousin to my husband’s grandmother, Marion Nicholson, the son of her Aunt Christina on her father, Norman’s, side.

That also makes him first cousin to Herbert Nicholson, Marion’s older brother.  And although the two young men resembled each other in build and facial features, they could not have been less alike!

Dr. Henry , by all accounts, was a near-perfect man, a  high-achiever, a man who rose to the top of his profession at the Newton Hospital near Boston, but who remained devoted to family (and that includes his cousins) throughout his life.

Despite his busy vocation, he corresponded with all of his extended family, regularly, with letters than demonstrated uncommon empathy. When writing his youngest cousin, Flora, who apparently had complained of boy troubles in her letter, “I don’t have much experience in these matters, but I can only say, if he doesn’t want you, he isn’t worthy of you.”

Herb, well, what can I say?  As the only son of Norman and Margaret Nicholson of Richmond, Quebec, great things were expected of him. A whopping FIVE dollars was put aside at his birth in 1885 to start a bank account for his future medical career. But, upon graduation from St Francis College in 1905, he went to work as a clerk at the Eastern Townships Bank.

A ladies man and/or a gambler, Herbert immediately got into debt, borrowing money off all of his relations, until, in 1910,  he got into such a desperate situation that he filched 60 dollars from the till at work.

Herbert didn’t go to jail: The Nicholsons were too well connected for that, but even Norman’s patron, E.W. Tobin, the Liberal MP for Richmond, Wolfe, couldn’t help Herbert’s cause.

  Herbert was forced to skulk out West. His already cash-strapped dad had to come up with the huge sum of 500 dollars to help pay his sons debts and travel expenses.

Herbert was a teeny bit ashamed. “Don’t tell anyone where I am,” he wrote to his parents from Saskatchewan, where he was staying with Norman’s former partner in the hemlock bark business.

Out West, Herbert worked in a series of jobs in, yes, banking, then insurance, and then with a the farm equipment company, Massey-Harris.

At one point he devised a scheme to dupe immigrant farmers out of their hard-earned cash.

“I also made a 100 dollars yesterday in the shape of a man’s note due in a year’s time. I sold a threshing outfit that I repossessed from a party that could not pay for it.  For 3300 and as there was only 3000 against the rig to the company; I am 300 dollars to the good.  In doing this I had to divide up with two others who assisted me and knew what I was doing so we get 100 each.  Have to keep these things quiet, of course.”

 

Herbletterhead

Herb’s letterhead from 1911-12 illustrating his roving ways

His other letters home were full of complaints about his workload, the freezing cold weather, etc. – and no shortage of insights into how capitalism works. “You have to already be rich to get rich out here,” he said.

Later, Herbert settled down in ‘real estate’ in Vancouver, got married twice to wealthy women, and then moved on to California.  He died in 1967, childless.

Beside his name in the Nicholson family genealogy it says “Successful Banker.” sic.

Dr. Henry ,whose dad, Alexander Watters,  was a Kingsbury, Quebec farmer, never married.  Henry employed his younger sisters, Christina then Anna, as his housekeeper in his comfortable clapboard Colonial in Newton, Massachusetts.

Henry may not have been a ladies man in the usual sense of the word, but he certainly had a way with the young ladies in his family. In the 1910 period, he indulged the Nicholson women no end with trips to Wellesley College in his flashy Stanley Steamer, with sea-bathing at Nantucket, box seats at Red Sox games, theatre plays, and dinners at the posh Windsor Hotel in Montreal, when at home visiting.

His younger sister, May, got new shirtwaist suits and fancy hats from him as gifts on a regular basis. Henry once used his  vacation time to drive his Aunt Margaret up and down the E.T to visit old friends.

And much to his Uncle Norman’s admiration, he paid his own father, Alexander, a trip “home” to the Old Country in 1911. “Not many sons would do that,” wrote an envious Norman to his wife.

Unlike Herbert, who found nothing good to say about any of his employers, the banks, the railway or insurance,  Dr. Henry never complained about work as a doctor and surgeon in his letters to family, even when suffering from a fatal disease at a relatively young age.

From his obituary in the New England Journal of Medicine: “When stricken with what he knew meant the shortening of his days and the limiting of his activities, he carried on cheerfully and uncomplainingly. He was the friend as well as the associate of those  with whom he worked, the friend and the physician of his patients.

Dr. Henry died 1937 and is buried at home, of course, in the clan cemetery in Melbourne, Quebec.  Herbert died in 1967 and is buried somewhere in a Long Beach cemetery. His last visit home to Richmond was in the 1920’s.

Herbnicholson1910

 Herbert Nicholson 1910ish

The information comes from the Nicholson Family letters of the 1910 period. The Watters clan of Kingsbury, Quebec is written down as Waters on the 1911 Canadian Census. Henry had a younger brother, William, who died in 1910. A photo on Ancestry claims this 21 year old William is an MD too. He must have been a recently graduated one, or still a student.

I have a short obit cut out left by the Nicholsons. It says the family is shocked at William’s death in Montreal, but nothing  else. A man could catch a cold and die in a day in those days, but this very short obit suggests something else more nefarious.

Below: 1911 census showing Herbert Nicholson living in a boarding house in Qu’Appelle Saskatchewan, with two recent immigrants, one from Germany, one of Scotland (a bartender, no less) and a female (!!!) stenographer. His temperance-minded parents would have passed out, had they known. 

 

quappelle

*This post was originally published on Writing Montreal, my blog.

“Piccole Donne” and Why We Write Family Stories

margMcleod

Margaret McLeod Nicholson, born 1853 in Richmond, Quebec. During the US Civil War she, too, would have been a ‘little woman.’

 

The first novel I ever read was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  I was ten or eleven years old.  I didn’t read the book in school. My mother bought it for me along with a number of Deluxe Junior Classics published by the Doubleday Company.

I can remember the look of the book: grey with a yellow spine and sketches of the four March girls in blue ink embossed on the cover. I can remember the feel of the book: the pages thick and slightly hairy, typical of Book-of-the-Month Club editions. I can remember the smell of the book: inky and acidy. It was a new book, after all. And I especially recall the thrill of opening the book, which I understood was my rite of passage into the brave new world of grown-up reading.

I loved Little Women. It changed my life as great books often do, but I can’t say the plot stayed with me. It was only recently, when I decided to learn Italian by listening to ‘easier’ audio books, that I became re-acquainted with Louisa May Alcott’s American classic. Over and over again, I listened to each delightful chapter, first in English, then in French, then in Italian. “Piccole Donne”. Superbo in any language.

It is understood that Louisa May Alcott used her own Massachusetts family as a model for Little Women, a work of fiction.  Authors often lean on real-life characters for inspiration. Who wants to read about unrealistic characters?

1967

Me at 11 with Mickey Finn, the Jr. Deluxe Big Red and very badly cut bangs courtesy of my mom.

The authors at Genealogy Ensemble are publishing a book of authentic short stories about their ancestors, Beads in a Necklace: Family Stories from Genealogy Ensemble. These stories, many of which saw first light on this blog, will soon be available in a glossy hold-in-your-hands hardcopy format.

Beads in a Necklace also includes personal essays by the nine authors, explaining how each of us was inspired to begin the long, difficult and rewarding journey of writing down our family stories.

Claire Lindell was surfing the Net, way back in its early days, when she came upon an article about her father, a pioneer in the Canadian mining industry.

Barb Angus was inspired by missed opportunities and a book called The Wolfe Pack by a McGill University author, Dr. Mildred Burns.

Lucy Anglin lost her mother very early in life and feels that her stories help honour her memory.

Janice Hamilton grew up with oil paintings of her ancestors on the walls around her.

Tracey Arial first wrote about genealogy for a classroom exercise; not a great experience, but one she looks back on with amusement.

Marian Bulford immigrated to Canada from Great Britain in 1978, but it’s her English sea-side roots that move her to write.

Mary Sutherland was inspired by her father once saying, “Find your way home,” and by some fine family heirlooms.

Sandra McHugh was inspired by her ‘two solitudes’ marriage and her Greek husband’s very different kind of family.

I myself got my start when I found 300 family letters from the 1910 period that had belonged to my husband’s ancestors from Richmond, Quebec.  I read them out loud to a good friend who said, “Ick. They sound so old-fashioned.”

But I saw something else in these letters. I saw the story of a strong matriarch and her very spirited young daughters, who had known much better financial times but were making the best it.

I saw women who were on their own, in their fine house in the good part of town, because their men-folk were far away.

I saw proud, independent women who sometimes relied on the kindness of a well-off, gentlemanly neighbour to drive them to the post office or to shovel out their walk in winter.

It was the plot of Little Women, but with characters from real-life closely related to my husband and my very own children! How could I possibly resist that?

 

Beads in a Necklace: family stories from Genealogy Ensemble will be launched in mid-November. A limited number of hard copies will be available for purchase, locally. 

Check back with http://www.genealogyensemble.com to find out how to buy one of these rare first editions.  An e-book  version will be available at launch, as well, with print-on-demand capability by Christmas.

 

pagefromCanadthenandnow

The chapter on the Laurier Era from Canada Then and Now, my fifth grade history textbook. I read this, too, back in the day, but I was not impressed.  This was a typical textbook, filled with sturdy but dull prose and employing a narrative style devoid of colour and controversy. This chapter, about a most pivotal time in history, made no mention of suffragettes and restless young women in harem pants.  In fact, there are only two women in the entire textbook: Marguerite Bourgeoys and Jeanne Mance, worthy women, no question, but only two? Beads in a Necklace showcases many of our worthy women ancestors. It’s terrific social history.

Heatwaves and Victory Gardens

 

socialnotespotato

On Sunday, October 1, 2017, some members of Genealogy Ensemble will be participating in the Culture Days event at the Verdun Farmer’s Market, in promotion of Beads in a Necklace, our  book of family stories to be published in November.   My talk will focus on WWI Victory Gardens and the rising cost of living during that period.

The newspaper clipping, above, is from the social notes column of the Richmond-Times Guardian, (Richmond, Quebec) circa 1905. The very silly item about a big potato is probably my husband’s grandfather’s way of poking fun at small town pretentions.  Or is it?

The Nicholson family’s vast vegetable garden behind their charming red-brick house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec was no joke to them, not even in an era when pre-prepared foods like Heinz Beans, Jello, and Quaker Oats, were fast becoming house-hold names.*(1)

In 1911, with their four children were grown up, the large backyard garden that produced corn, beets, sweet peas, etc., was critical to the diet of this frugal Scottish Canadian family.

The potato patch was a particular concern:

“I put the Paris Green on the potatoes twice. Mrs. Montgomery came over to tell me that the bugs were eating up my potatoes. I was waiting to get someone to do it for me, as that was one thing I never attempted.

“But when she interfered thought we would try it. So one dark night, Flora (daughter) got the lantern and we went out when the bugs were asleep and gave them their dose. We dressed ourselves in the shed. You ought to have seen us. When we got through left our clothes there. Went to bed and dreamed all night that the bugs were crawling over us.”

So writes Margaret Mcleod Nicholson, in a July, 9, 1911 to husband Norman, who was away in Northern Ontario working as a railway inspector.

You have to admire Margaret’s style. Although her letters were often penned in haste and full of household concerns, ‘the local news’  as in gossip, and much high anxiety over finances, she certainly could paint a word picture when she wanted to.*(2)

In the spring of 1911, it was 57 year old Margaret’s job to care for the garden because her two older girls, Edith and Marion, were away teaching in Montreal, and her youngest, Flora, was very busy studying for final exams. Margaret and Flora were living alone for most of the year.

Although her daughters returned to Richmond for the summer, they came and went as they pleased, often in motorcars owned by wealthier neighbours. *(3)

Norman, in his letters home,  warned his wife not to work too hard out in the backyard, especially in hot weather, and the summer  of 1911, as it happens, was very, very hot.*(4)

tighsnapcorn

An ‘old-fashioned’ carriage in front of Tighsolas, the Nicholson home, circa 1910. A hire. The Nicholsons couldn’t afford to keep a carriage, let alone buy an automobile, like so many of their neighbours.

The same  letter continues:

“We have had dreadful hot weather. Just fancy, one night we slept out on the veranda. Took our mattresses down. The Skinners (other neighbours) were sleeping in theirs so that we were not afraid and we had Flossie (the dalmatian) with us but yesterday afternoon it rained so last night was cool.

We all had a good sleep and today is fine. We feel like working. I hope you did not have this extreme heat. We had quite a cold wave about the 24th but no frost.”

This sounds like typical Quebec  weather, doesn’t it?  So up and down.  It’s not easy cultivating a garden in this province. It takes perseverance.

Six years later, in the spring of 1917, most everyone in the west end of the city of Montreal was out on the street digging their wartime Victory Gardens.*(5)

Marion Nicholson, now a mother and homemaker living on York Street in lower Westmount, describes the scene in a letter home to Mom:

“Every vacant lot around the city has been utilized for gardens and I think it is more common to see people out digging and planting in these gardens than in a small town like Richmond. Some I think are making their first attempt.”

Her small family is no exception.  “Hugh (husband) and Willie (cousin) are making a garden. What success they will have I do not know. One thing for sure, the beds are straight (her underline) and square. I myself would prefer more in them.”

Marion (who is six months pregnant) then describes how she has hardly slept all week while tending her very sick toddler. She begs her mom to send as many crates of eggs as she can on the next train.

It certainly was an era of high-anxiety about food, nutrition  – and so many other things.

butterbill1917

Margaret’s 1917 butter bill. Inflation. The price of butter goes up from 30 to 40 cents from September to October.* (6)

Still, Marion closes her letter to her Mom by praising her comfort food:  “So, now to get a taste of your home-made bread. When I eat it, I close my eyes and I feel as if I were home. Thank you for all the good things you sent.”

orchard[1]

Edith, young Margaret, and Marion, far right, in summer of 1918 in an orchard in Richmond, possibly behind the Nicholson home as they had apple trees. (The newborn is in other pics.) This was the year of the Spanish Flu. It was safer in the countryside. Marion stayed an entire month in Richmond, until her husband, Hugh, begged her to come home in a letter. “The ice in the icebox has melted all over the floor, there’s no food in the house, the windows are kept open and it’s hot as Hades in here. Please come home and take care of me!” He was in the care of his sisters-in-law, who had better things to do in wartime Montreal  than to baby their brother-in-law. Edith, a Sun Life employee, volunteered in Soldiers’ Aid for the YMCA and for the Navy League.

  • 1. Most of the famous food brands of the 20th century got their start in 1900-1910 by advertising in magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal with happy-family lifestyle ads with bigger graphics and fewer printed promises. “Pure” was the adjective of the day.

It was understood, even back then, that the home was evolving from a center of production to a center of consumption. Margaret, born in 1853, made everything from scratch, on a woodstove, with recipes she kept firmly locked in her head; Marion Nicholson, born 1886, would cook on a gas stove relying on her Fanny Farmer Cookbook; her daughter, also Marion, born 1917,  living in middle class comfort in 1950’s suburbia, would feed her brood nothing but canned vegetables, even canned potatoes, which she warmed on an electric stove.

  • 2. Norman was tickled by an anecdote from a November, 1909 letter, where Margaret vividly describes a back-and-forth argument she has had with a male relation over woman suffrage. The relation invokes St. Paul as was the custom. She replies “St. Paul has been dead for a long time. I don’t live in those days, milking cows and making fires.” Norman, who is active in local politics, replies in support of his wife: “Too absurd to think that a woman cannot exercise her franchise with as much intelligence as some of the male sex. And when you have to drag some of these supposedly intelligent men to the polls as you would cattle.”
  • 3. Margaret disliked motor cars. From 1909. “Mr. Montgomery is selling his horse and buying a car. Don’t you think he is foolish?” But, she was happy to go on drives when invited.
  • 5.  http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/victory-gardens. Apparently, Victory Gardens weren’t only a way to add to the food supply; they were about improving morale on the home-front by making people feel useful.

 

  • 6. A Chicago Agency sent a very fancy direct mail advertisement out to Richmond homemakers in 1916 on behalf of a new product called Crisco Shortening asking, “Do you like the taste of fresh buns in the morning? Try Crisco.” A coupon was attached.

 

Border Raiding Ruffians

Border Raider and Reivers Public Domain

  Border Reivers: They were often romanticized in art.*

 

Growing up in Montreal in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, I was often asked, “Are you related to HIM?”  They were referring to Richard Nixon, President of the United States from 1969 to 1974, also a Vice-President from 1953 to ’61.  To this I would reply an emphatic “No! I’m English.  He’s Irish.” I always wanted to add, “Do you ask everyone named Johnson if they are related to Lyndon?”

My father was the one who insisted we were not related to Richard Nixon. Dick was an Irish Nixon, Daddy said. Our Nixons were English. My father also told me, with a sly self-effacing wink, that our Nixons were sheep stealers.  It all sounded a bit cockeyed to me.

Today, 50 years on, I am engaged in working out my genealogy. I’ve had my DNA tested at Ancestry and I’m growing a tree. It seems that my dad was right on two points, about the sheep and, possibly, about Richard Nixon’s Irishness, but not about our family’s relationship to the late American President.

We probably do come from the same ancient stock.

I’ve just learned the Nixons of Northern England are descended from Border Reivers, families from the lawless, burnt out Scottish/English border regions of the British Isles  (Cumberland and Northumberland) who raided other people’s livestock for a living. If you are a Nixon, Forster, Graham, Armstrong, Bell, Eliot, Armstrong, Robson, Crozier, Kerr, and yes, Johnson, you might be descended from these 13th to 17th century outlaws.  Apparently, the Nixon Administration was full of them.

As it happens, I am both a Nixon and a Forster.  An alleged ancestor of mine, illustrious Border Reiver Sir John Forster of Northumberland, was knighted for his service to Queen Elizabeth I in 1557. Sir John was lucky to be on the winning side of two key battles. His castle was in a strategic location on the “middle march” section of the border, so, apparently, he enriched himself with his share of the spoils from all local cattle raids, in England and Scotland.

The Nixon Clan has an even sketchier reputation. According to some accounts, they were “rude borderers” from Carlisle, Cumberland, who held no allegiances (except to the Armstrong Clan) and felt at home on either side of the border.  They were real baddies who were exiled to Ireland and, then, kicked right back to England. Many in the clan were hanged for their transgressions at Carlisle Castle.

That is likely where my father got the idea that Richard Nixon was an Irish Nixon.  I suspect my great grandfather, Robert Nixon ( 1863-1937), a sawmill worker in Helmsley, Yorkshire in the 1920’s, filled his young grandson’s head with many a grand, romantic tale of their burly, bearded ancestors, skilled light horsemen on  fleet-footed stallions, engaging in strategic, daring cattle raids on the Scottish border.

It appears that these Border Reiver families can be described as reckless ruffians on horseback and/or heroic defenders of the monarchy; scoundrels or heroes; charming rascals or organized crime. It’s only point of view.

Just don’t blame these people for their wild way of life.  In the 13th to 17th centuries, the area around the English/Scottish border was ravaged by warfare and not suitable for farming. Raiding sheep and cattle was just a way to earn a living. Also, the exact location of the border was disputed.

The BBC paid homage to these Border Reiver families with a TV show in 1968 called “The Borderers,” featuring a young and handsome Michael Gambon. The adventure series never came to North America, but I have found it on YouTube. If the BBC series had come to Canada back in 1968, when I was 13, I doubt it would have appealed to me any more than any other small screen horse opera.

But my father would have been mightily impressed.

* Illustration at top from book  Border Raids and Reivers, Robert Borland. Available on Archive.org and in the public domain.

 

Here’s  Sir John Forster’s Wikipedia page.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Forster_(soldier)

You can read more about the Border Reivers on the Historic UK website, where I got some of my info.

http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Border-Reivers/

Read about their connection with the Nixon Adminstration here.

http://articles.latimes.com/1996-02-11/news/mn-34692_1_border-reivers

How to Bring a Voice to Your Personal Essay

Writing stories about your ancestors can seem a bit self-indulgent.  Who wants to hear about your long dead aunties and uncles? Your own relatives may roll their eyes when you pull out your tablet and talk about the blood, sweat and tears that went into a year-long investigation into an-all-but-forgotten life.

Sure, the genealogy writing exercise may start out as a purely personal exploration (as in Why am I here?) but with careful attention to detail and a sense of humility on your part, the practice can become so much more than that.

Exploring ancestry through prose provides you with a versatile platform to inform and delight your readers.  Your stories even may inspire others to take the plunge and explore their own roots while polishing their writing skills.

Genealogy writing is often personal in nature, as in “My great grandmother, Lydia Tittle, was born in 1897 in the poorest part of Ulster,” and it sometimes it comes in the form of the personal essay, as in “When I was a little girl growing up in rural Georgia, I was very close to my Ma Tante Mathilde, my father’s French sister.”

It may sound counter-intuitive, but my top tip to avoid sounding self-indulgent when writing about yourself and/or your ancestors is to use your own natural voice.

What is ‘voice’? Well, storytelling was once a sacred art.  The storyteller invoked a muse to tell a certain tale to an enraptured audience. I like to think of ‘the writing voice’ as something similar. Before I get down to writing a first draft, I invoke a piece of my personality to tell the story. For me, it’s a feeling I conjure up, much like I’m told a method actor does before walking onto the stage, and sometimes, as with acting, it can be a bit unsettling to bring up this feeling/personality, even scary. It certainly doesn’t feel self-indulgent.  Enveloped in this character/feeling, it’s easier for me to choose the appropriate words and expressions while writing and to maintain a consistent tone for the piece.

The biggest mistake any beginning writer can do is to try to imitate someone else’s voice because   readers will pick up quickly on the deception, but if you write stories in your own voice, even if you are still developing your style and technical skills (and what writer isn’t?) your readers will be inclined to be generous with you because they will sense you are ‘opening up’ to them, taking a risk, giving them a little piece of your heart, as it were.

Ask yourself these questions before you embark on the personal essay writing journey:

  1. Are you using your own unique voice?
  2. Is your essay and the information contained within worthy of the time the reader will spend on it?
  3. Does your story have substance? Is it useful, as in informative; diverting as in surprising or funny; or moving, as in sentimental or touching?
  4. Does your story have universal human appeal so that all readers can relate, or is it aimed at a specific reader with a specific interest?
  5. Does your story have a take-away, a gift that keeps on giving such as a fascinating fact or two, a broader insight, or some useful research tips that the reader can call upon later?

The Dowry

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Maria Roy Crepeau and three daughters and a granddaughter in front of 72 Sherbrooke West in 1926 or so.

In the Edwardian Age, an ambitious young man, however resourceful, usually needed a solid financial foundation to kick-start his career.  If he didn’t have family money, he had to marry well. Take my grandfather, Jules Crépeau, (1873-1938). The son of a mere house painter, he rose up in 30 years from Messenger Boy in the Health Department to Director of City Services, the top civil servant at Montreal City Hall.

Jules didn’t have the advantage of a superior education; indeed, he completed his regular studies at night. He did have a workaholic nature, an affable disposition, a memory like a steel trap,*1 as well as a connection to the powerful French Canadian industrialists, the Forgets.

New information I found on the Internet reveals that the make-or-break-point for young Jules was in 1901, the year of his marriage. Back then, Jules was making only $600 a year, not a terrible salary for a single man, but certainly not enough to get married on.*2 So, Jules, like so many others, had to choose his wife very carefully.

My grandmother, Maria Roy, the daughter of a master butcher, brought a huge $40,000 dowry to their 1901 marriage, so I’m told. The next year, Jules had a house built for them on Amherst, near Ontario Street, and by a noted architect, at that.*3 Maria’s money!

Lovell’s Directory shows that in 1905 the Crépeau family moved to a tony stretch of St. Hubert Street.  Jules is listed as Head Clerk.  City Hall.   In 1918, they moved to St. Denis Street, just a few doors down from J. A. Brodeur, “Montreal’s Napoleon,” and Head of the Executive Committee. My grandfather was, by then, Second Assistant City Clerk, with a salary of $2,500 -$3,500.

 

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Crépeaus around 1918. My mother wasn’t born yet. Doesn’t Jules, center, look stressed?

In 1921, Jules was promoted to the newly-minted post of Director of City Services*4, almost tripling his salary to $8,000, and soon thereafter, to $10,000. In 1922, his family moved to a three storey greystone at 72 Sherbrooke West.

It’s during this period, the Roarin’ Twenties, that my grandmother, Maria, finally started earning dividends on her dowry, taking  shopping trips to New York City to stock up on bourgeois bric-a-brac like marble urns, porcelain statuary, and art nouveau lamps; a complement to the whole roomful of ‘gifts’ the family received from various community groups, especially at Christmas. Jules and Maria needed a good supply of breakables. Family legend has it that the crockery flew over the stairs throughout their tumultuous 37 year marriage.

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Aunt Flo posing in front of some Crépeau bric-a-brac on Harvard in the late 1940’s. The marble bust of three children actually ended up in my mother’s possession, gracing our upper duplex apartment in the 1960’s, but rather out of place among the melamine furnishings and artwork from Woolworth’s. Today, I own the orange art nouveau-deco Le Verre Francais “Amourettes” vase at top right.

In 1931, Jules Crépeau was forced to resign by the new populist Mayor Camillien Houde, but not before negotiating a huge life pension of $8,000 a year. But, soon,  my grandfather, who had no hands-on business experience, lost all of his savings with bad investments.*5  In 1937, Jules also lost his pension when Montreal City Hall passed an emergency bill to abolish it as a cost-saving measure. *6

Just two weeks later, Grandpapa was hit by a car driven by a plain clothes city policeman. He died the next year from complications. Jules probably threatened someone with a long reach.

Living out her life in the final family home on Harvard in Notre Dame de Grace, Jules’ wife, Maria Roy Crépeau (1879-1951) never complained about her situation as an impoverished widow, and this despite the fact her fat dowry financed the first years of the choppy Crépeau-Roy merger. Still, I suspect her story wasn’t at all unique, especially in the Depression Era.

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Rue Jules Crépeau, Ahunsic, Montreal. Designated in the 1980’s. Funny story. In the late 80’s, when my husband and I were buying our first computer, the ONLY place in Montreal we knew that sold them was in  Ahunsic, where we seldom ventured. We got lost and stumbled upon this road and park. I had to find a phone booth to phone my mother to tell her that a street had been named after her father. Serendipity or what? Jules’ nemesis, Camillien Houde, has the huge road winding through the mountain named after him.

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  1. Le Devoir was the only Montreal newspaper to publish a long obit of my grandfather, in 1938, saying that Jules was the go-to guy for any information about how City Hall ran. Affable is their term.
  2. The 1911 census shows that a $600 a year salary was average/above average for a family. Many era workers were ‘day workers’ with unsteady employment, but, even that $600 salary was not enough for the big families of the era to live on. Terry Copp, the sociologist who wrote An Anatomy of Poverty,claims that $1500. was the minimum salary for a family to live in dignity in Montreal in 1910.  In the Edwardian Era, in England and elsewhere, a working class couple might start out in good shape, with a decent salary for a small family, but as more and more kids came, the family fell into poverty.  Such might have been Jules’ fate, save for this huge dowry.
  3. Louis Zephirin Gauthier specialized in churches. His partner was a Monsieur Roy, so maybe he was a relation. Back then few Montrealers owned their own home, in the 20 percent range. Since 1899, male renters could vote in the municipal elections; women had to be single and own their home to vote. Montreal has long been known as a city of renters, but, just lately, this appears to be changing.
  4. The post of Director of City Services was created in 1921 after much deliberation and input from citizens to ensure an equitable distribution of money among the city districts. The post was a liaison between the seven city departments and the Executive Committee. Newspaper accounts of the time reveal that my Grandfather’s office did everything from organizing events for the visiting Royal Princes to being on the City Clean-Up Committee, to testifying in Quebec with respect to Private Bills. When someone had a beef at City Hall, they wrote to his office. My grandfather was the first to testify at the inquiry in to the fatal Laurier Palace Fire, in January 1927, which was ironic, as I suspect  the fire may have been started by organized crime to get at him. (Just my theory, though.)
  5. Jules’ brother, Isadore, Insurance broker and VP Of United Theatre Amusements, the company that erected many of the famous 1920 era movie houses in Montreal, ‘fell’ out of his 7th floor office while waving for his chauffeur in 1933.
  6. Kristian Gravenor, journalist at Coolopolis.blogspot.ca http://coolopolis.blogspot.ca/2017/01/ndg-coincidence-undercover-cop-slams.html wrote a bit about Jules and dug out the info about the cancellation of his pension.

An Ingenue, a Diary and the Goddess of Love

 

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Young Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Virginia. Daughter of Elizabeth Hardy, who was  sister to Mary ‘Pinky’ Hardy, United States General Douglas MacArthur’s mother.

As a schoolgirl back in the 1960’s before Expo 67 opened in Montreal, the only works of art I would have recognized were the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo.  I would have seen them, you see, on TV caricatured in advertisements for toothpaste or gloves, or on sophisticated Saturday morning cartoons like the Bugs Bunny Show.

Today, when I think of the Venus de Milo, I think of my husband’s Great Aunt  Elizabeth.

In 1910 Elizabeth Hardy Fair,a single society girl from Warrenton, Virginia, USA, was visiting the Continent for the first time. She was in her mid twenties.

The aging ingénue kept a written record in diary form and I have  it.  This European diary reveals that she started her trip in London (hated it, too gloomy) and then went on to Paris,  (loved it, so pretty).

Sorry to say, that’s about as deep as she gets.

Still, Elizabeth penned this one rather intriguing phrase from a visit to the Louvre:  “Saw Gaylord Clarke coming out of the Venus de Milo Room. Second time we have met since abroad.”

Now, if this were a scene from an E.M. Forster novel, and Miss Elizabeth Fair were a luminous young woman of head-strong character, this  ‘chance meeting’ at the Louvre would have been, no doubt, a significant turning point in the trajectory of  Miss Elizabeth’s life.

Just think of it.  In 1910, women such as Elizabeth covered themselves, neck to toes,  in starchy shirtwaists and princess skirts.

Now  contemplate  the Venus de Milo with her sumptuous drapery dipping below the upper curve of her perfect buttocks, and  then figure what it must have felt to be  a young man coming out of the Venus de Milo room  in that era–before the age of California beach volleyball. And then imagine what an opportune moment it was for the very eligible Miss Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Warrenton, Virginia.

As it is, this Mr. Clarke left for England the next day. End of their story.

Elizabeth soon returned to Warrenton, still very much single. Eight years later she would travel to Montreal (to visit her older sister, Mae) and find a husband in the form of one Frank Tofield,  banker.

She would live out her life in the posh Linton apartments on Sherbrooke Street West in ‘uptown’ Montreal, impressing her great nephews and nieces at every Sunday dinner with the button on­­­ the floor under the dining room table that she used to summon the staff with her foot.

Now, as someone who likes to write about ancestors, I like to think that everyone who ever lived is worthy of at least one book, or at least a good short story, but my husband’s Great Aunt Elizabeth may be an exception.

Elizabeth and Frank had no children and all she left behind  to her nephew is a tattered scrapbook with a few yellowed clippings like this one from a 1904 St. Louis Social Notes page: .

Miss Elizabeth Fair of Warrenton VA is the guest of Dr. and Mrs. John O’Fallon and is a beautiful girl who has been a great deal feted and admired around St. Louis. The 1904 World’s Fair!

The year before, in  1903, she attended her soon-to-be famous first cousin, Douglas MacArthur’s, West Point graduation.  She glued the dance card into her scrapbook. Mae had the first dance, a waltz; she had the third, a gavotte.

And then there’s this diary, this pedestrian record of her 1910 European experience visiting  all the usual landmarks, Hyde Park, Les Champs Elysees  and Le Bon Marche where she bought handkerchiefs and gloves. It is a diary exposing no wicked sense of humour, sharing no penetrating insights, and including not even one memorable phrase like, say,   “I shall return.”

Well, she did mention seeing suffragettes on the march in London.

Oh, she does pencil in this candid opinion on Da Vinci’s most famous work.

Went to the Louvre in the morning. Pictures most interesting. Mona Lisa was carefully inspected but it does not appeal to me in the least. After lunch, shopped and then drove through Parc Mont Claire. This park is lovely, abloom with flowers, statuary and strollers galore. Great place for lovers and babies… So, no surprise, in 1910, Elizabeth, had love and babies on the mind.

I wonder what was wrong, then, with this mysterious Mr. Clarke?  If things had gone well, it might have been a very good thing for one Frank Tofield. Family legend has it the well-to-do couple argued incessantly over the decades over her spendthrift ways.

(I found Frank’s signed Bible and it was filled with dozens of brittle, faded four leaf clovers.)

So, no book about Great Aunt Elizabeth Hardy Fair, by all definitions a most ordinary Southern Belle and first cousin to a genuine history-book legend. No short story either.

Just this short blog post.

The End.

Below: Elizabeth at her wedding: lavish tastes

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A Beautiful (Terrible) Life

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The Royal Selangor Club and padang today in Kuala Lumpur.  Photo taken by my son.

It is a truth universal for genealogists: If at first you don’t succeed – finding info on an ancestor on the Internet – try and try again.

About ten years ago, surfing the Library of Congress online archive, I discovered that there existed a 1953 March of Time video about the Malayan Communist Emergency.  Even better, the blurb on said website claimed said this particular episode of the iconic newsreel contained a bit about my grandmother and namesake, Dorothy Nixon.

I soon found out that the video was long out of production. I couldn’t even find an old copy on eBay. Then, about two or three years later, a former Malayan colonial posted the video in its entirety on YouTube, Playing Cricket whilst Fighting Goes On. It’s still up there. 

Today, all I have to do is point and click and there she is: my small snowy-haired grandmother, about  55 years old, seated beside a man in a tall turban while scoring a cricket match at the much-storied Royal Selangor Club, on the pedang, or green, in Kuala Lumpur.

My grandmother’s segment is at the end of the piece describing  the decade long jungle conflict, at about the 6 minute mark.  “Mrs. Nixon,” says the announcer, “is a fixture at the Royal Selangor Club” which has just opened up to non-Europeans. It isn’t mentioned, but I know for a fact that, at the time, Dorothy was the only woman who had ever been allowed into the men’s section of the club.*

Before WWII, the green or padang was surrounded by government buildings.  That is why, on Boxing Day, 1941, two weeks after Pearl Harbour, the green was bombed by the Japanese.  My grandmother was at the Kuala Lumpur Book Club, a library nearby, when the bombs hit. According to her family memoir, she hid under a desk until the barrage ended and then got up to help dig out dead bodies from the rubble.

Here’s a post-war picture of Dorothy with the Selangor Cricket team from the 1947 sent to me by a former Colonial.

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The picture suggests my grandmother enjoyed being one of a few women among a large group of men. And, it’s true, almost everything I have learned about her seems to underscore this point.

A few days after the bombing, when Kuala Lumpur was overrun from the North by Japanese soldiers riding on bicycles, all rubber planters’ wives were told by telephone  to leave the city.  My grandmother removed herself only reluctantly, taking a dark and noisy night train to “safety” in Singapore.  When, a few days after that, and much to everyone’s surprise, Singapore fell, Dorothy simply refused to get on a boat to Batavia like most other British women, so she was interned at Changi Prison.

For a 6 month period in 1943, Granny, as we kids called her, was elected Women’s Commandant, where she had repeated run-ins with the mostly hands-off Japanese Commandant. Soon after she relinquished her leadership post, she was arrested by the Japanese Kempetai for allegedly spying (and colluding with the Men’s Camp) in an infamous ‘radio’ incident called the Double Tenth.  

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Dorothy: Self-portrait. The relative luxury of her Changi cell. At first, the Japanese Commandant was hands-off and even helpful, but that changed over time with a new man put in the position.  The women’s camp population grew large, to over 300, over the span of the war and soon there were three women to a cell. 

Dorothy spent a month in a tiny windowless room in the bug-infested basement of the Singapore YMCA with 17 desperate male suspects who were taken out nightly to be tortured. Their screams and a bright light kept her from sleeping.  Then she was put in solitary confinement for five long months and starved to an inch of her life on two cans of condensed milk a day.  Apparently, she much preferred the buggy room.*

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(A page from her ‘memoir’..Double Tenth is 10th of October)

My father, a classic “Child of the Raj” hardly knew his own  British ‘mater’, so much of what I knew about my grandmother before my recent Internet forays was mere family myth.

Using Ancestry.co.uk, I recently discovered that my Granny travelled by boat from Yorkshire (well, Liverpool) to Malaya in December, 1921 to meet up with her new husband, Robert, also from the North of England, who was working on a rubber plantation near the beautiful Batu Caves.

(She had been a Land Girl in WWI, in forestry, leading the giant Clydesdales that pulled the logs through the woods.)

She gave birth to my father, Peter, but ten  months later, and this despite the fact my grandfather refused to give up his Asian girlfriend. Anglo rubber companies forced their employees to marry British wives, which provoked a lot of resentment against these interloping women, who were considered too high maintenance and parvenus of a sort.

Still, colonial life wasn’t all terrible. In the twenties, Dorothy attended polo matches with sultans and hosted formal dinners for British dignitaries, some of these men living legends, at her airy bungalow on her husband’s rubber estate.

“We had fun in those days,’ she told a journalist in the 1970’s, who put it in a book about Colonial Malaya. The journalist described my grandmother, in her dotage, as very weak and ‘somewhat vague.’

It was later, in the 1930s that Dorothy became Head Librarian at the Kuala Lumpur Book Club, a turn-of-the-century institution that also provided a mail-order book box service for Brits isolated in the remote jungle.  I don’t know if she took on this job out of sheer boredom (since her children had been sent to England early on, and she had the usual quota of servants) or because the Depression forced her to.

Then came WWII and her near-death experience at the hands of the Japanese.  Eventually, in the fifties and sixties, she was anointed the “Grand Dame of Cricket” in Malaya.  For a while they were giving out a Dorothy Nixon Trophy.

My grandmother died in 1972 at age 77, shortly after that interview, in her rooms at the Majestic Hotel in KL surrounded by her precious personal collection of books which were later donated to the Malaysian National Library, but not before meeting her name-sake granddaughter.

Upon her retirement from the KL Book Club, in the summer of 1967, she flew in to visit us for six months in the Snowdon area of Montreal.

Dorothy Senior was not impressed, I can tell you, with our bilingual island city, our ‘exotic’ World’s Fair, or her pimply, pubescent string-bean of a granddaughter.

And all I saw in her was a bad-tempered old crone, always pacing the narrow halls of our cramped upper duplex apartment with a Rothman’s cigarette in one hand a tall tumbler of gin in the other, criticizing almost everything, including my mother’s decadent pound-of-butter, six egg French Chocolate Pie.

So closely confined and besieged by a band of unruly Canadian grandkids, she must have felt as if she were back at Changi!

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Granny, in picture, visited us for Expo67.

She did, indeed, tell my mother about her WWII experience and my mother did mention it to me. “Try to be nice to your grandmother,” I recall Mummy saying. “ During the war she had to sit cross-legged for days in a room with many men.”  But, that plea made no impression on me.

My grandmother and I hardly spoke,that sweet Expo summer, even though I gave her breakfast in bed every morning, one hard-boiled egg and a tiny container of a strange food called ‘yogurt’, and we both preferred it that way.

After all, the  very first week of her visit she had told me I could never visit her in Malaysia, as she would ‘lose face’ in front of her Chinese friends.

Oh, well. I’m making it up to her now.

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*The Royal Selangor Club, founded in 1884 by British colonials, has a long history reaching back to Victorian times. The story goes the club was knick-named the Spotted Dog because, from the beginning, people of all races were allowed to join, although this March of Time piece suggests that happened only in the 50’s. Still, no question, Malaya  in the 1920’s and 30’s was a bustling multi-cultural society – but with a distinct pecking order.

*Luckily, she wasn’t horribly tortured like the men or a  certain young Chinese  woman, who suffered all kinds of indignities including electric shock and, yes, even, waterboarding.*(IF you have seen the brilliant BBC series Tenko, you’ll know all about her Changi experience. That fictional mini-series was bang on from what I can see. )

An Ill-fated Social Experiment

Royal Arthur School

80 Canning Street

September 30, 1912

Dear Mother,

I am writing this in school to tell at last taken that long talked of flat and while I think (of it) will tell you the address; it is 2401 Hutchison St. and is almost next door to the McCoy’s which makes it fine for us. We moved in on Sat last (Sept 28) and they have been in cooking and doing all sorts of things for us. Mr. McCoy gave us a basket of peaches to start on.

The flat is completely furnished and is lighted by electricity and we do all our cooking by gas. There are four girls in the scheme, Flora, May, Lena Bullock who is a school teacher, too, and yours truly. We are planning to pay 20 dollars each per month and hope to be able to make ends meet but if we cannot then we will get another girl to come in with us.

The flat itself costs us $40.00 then we will have the rest for running expenses. When you come take an Amherst car up Bleury and get off at St. Viateur. And we will let you see what sort of housekeepers we are.
This is the first part of a missive written by Marion Nicholson, school teacher at Royal Arthur School in the Little Burgundy district of Montreal, to her mother, Margaret, back home in Richmond, Quebec.

By today’s standards, the letter contains nothing earth-shattering: a young working woman has taken an apartment with three other girls and is anxious to tell Mom all about it.

But, it is,indeed, an extraordinary letter.  In 1912, when the correspondence was penned, it was unacceptable, borderline illegal even, for women in the big cities of Canada to move in together to share expenses.

First, there was the problem of prostitution, so any such arrangement was highly suspect.  And then there was the problem of, well, personhood, that is no one would rent to a woman, even a woman with a steady salary, because these women couldn’t sign a lease.

Most women didn’t have a bank account, and those wealthy women who did couldn’t keep more than $2,000. in it.

Marion cashed her paycheque of 60 dollars a month at Renouf’s, a store that sold textbooks to the Montreal Board.

Official records reveal that between September 1912 and May 1913, 2401 Hutchison, in the Mile End district of Montreal, was occupied by another family that had been living there for years.  So, Marion and her friends did not sign any official lease.

Their unusual sublet was no doubt enabled by the McCoys mentioned in the letter.  The McCoys were family friends from a pioneering  Richmond  family.

 

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Margaret Nicholson and daughter Marion in Richmond in 1912. Letters reveal that her family was afraid for Marion, she had become so thin.

The earlier letters in ‘the Nicholson collection’ explain why Marion was so excited about getting her own apartment. For a few years, she had boarded at a rooming house on Tower, in Westmount, run by a widow named Mrs. Ellis.  As was likely the custom, this Mrs. Ellis “lorded it over” her female charges, (Marion’s words) making sure they towed the line, especially when it came to male visitors and curfews.

In 1910, in the big bad city, even a well-connected 27 year old women like Marion Nicholson was considered in need of protection.  Besides, no respectable widow wanted to be accused of running a bawdy house.

In late 1911, Marion began seeing a certain Mr. Blair, a very eligible lumber merchant, which made her especially hate her curfew.  In 1912, already bone-tired from managing her class of 50 “very bad” second graders, she ran herself ragged in her spare time looking for a flat to live in.

Then, in late September she found that flat. And it even had electricity, a luxury her lovely family home in the fancy section of Richmond, Quebec wouldn’t have until the next year.

Family letters reveal that Mr. Blair or “Romeo” was a regular visitor at 2401 Hutchison during the fall and winter of 1912/13, not that Marion talked about his visits in her letters home. Flora, her younger sister, was the one who spilled the beans.

Oh, my!

Still, in the end, this bold feminist experiment didn’t work out, but not because of any sex scandal.

Running a home back then was just too labour intensive for women who worked during the day, even a home with a newfangled gas stove.

That’s why, during the winter of 1913, Marion and her flat mates relied on a series of older female relations, including mother Margaret, to keep house for them on a rotating basis.

In May 1913, the girls abandoned their flat on Hutchison and moved into a hotel room downtown at the Mansions on Guy Street.  Supposedly, they left behind a big fat mess.

 

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Flora (front) and Mae Watters, around 1908 in Richmond, Quebec. Mae would get married in 1914 but Flora only much later, when in her forties.

Marion Nicholson soon became engaged to Mr. Blair.  She was disillusioned at work because a “mere boy out of school” had been hired over her head and given the much coveted  7th form, a position second only to the (male) principal, is how she described it to her father.

Sister Flora and Mae, a first cousin, returned to Mrs. Ellis’ much despised rooming house on Tower because they simply had no other place to go.

In the 1910 era, there was a dire shortage of accommodation for working women in Montreal.  In fact, Montreal’s leading citizens, including Mssrs. Birks and Reford, Mrs. Molson, Reverend Symonds of Christ Church Cathedral and Miss Carrie Derick of  the Montreal Local Council of Women, were holding public meetings to organize a hotel downtown just for women,  ‘respectable’ women (sic) where the girls could spend their evenings engaged in wholesome activities and presumably not cavorting around town at Vaudeville theatres, motion picture palaces, or at Dominion Park, the enormous thrill park on Notre Dame East.*1

Marion, who enjoyed all of the above activities, didn’t write anything in her letters about this critical community project, but I can guess what she thought about it.

In 1906, while attending McGill Normal School near what is now Place Bonaventure, she roomed at  the YWCA on Dorchester and simply hated it. “Too many rules,” she wrote home to Mom.2

  1. Montreal Gazette. Definite Start to Women’s Hotel. November 18, 1910.
  2. Marion Nicholson would marry, have four children and be widowed in 1927. She would go back to teaching and rise to be President of the Montreal Protestant Teacher’s Union during the WWII years. She fought for higher salaries and pensions for teachers, but died before she could earn one herself.  She was honored with an editorial in the February 16, 1947 Montreal Gazette that began: With the death of Marion A.N. Blair the teaching profession in the province, indeed, the whole Dominion, has suffered a serious loss.
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