Genealogy

To the Lighthouse Part 11

myfatherugby

St Bees Senior Rugby XV  1939. Courtesy of St. Beghian Society website.

Read To the Lighthouse Part 1 here. What was it like to be a young man in prep school on the cusp of WWII?

I am so far ahead, now.  I can stop for a cigarette. We’re not allowed to smoke in front of the junior  students.

The  rugby match with the Geordies wears heavy on my mind, to divert from the other…  They are tough, those townies, built low to the ground, built for rugby and the claustrophobic confines of the coal mines.

I am Vice-Captain of the Senior XV, so it is a big responsibility. To lose to them would be an indignity, and yet they are so very hungry to beat us.

I draw on my unfiltered Player’s Navy Cut cigarette slowly, glacially, to try and stop time to stop thinking about my – our-  uncertain future.

But before I get two drags,  I  hear the sound of someone  huffing and puffing his way up the grassy path toward me, a small boy, a freckled red head. It’s Cowen, one of the new fellows, the asthmatic, courageously plodding toward me

I have to ditch this ciggy fast.  I toss it into the grass.

At the same time, the same grass rustles under my feet and I instinctively jerk to once side like a silly sock puppet. Did the boy see me?

Yes, he did. ‘Are you afraid of snakes?”  asks the boy, through his wheezes, in a non-judgmental matter of fact way.

I don’t answer.

“You were smart to get out of the way,” the boy persists. “It might be a poisonous adder. They can be found in a variety of habitats, including fields, meadows, hillsides and moors as well as coastal dunes.

“They have a grey or brown coloured body with a zigzag pattern along their back. Harmless grass snakes are mostly found in wetlands. They need frogs to eat.”

This Cowen boy, one of the new group from Mill Hill School in London that is being turned into a wartime hospital, is a small, copper-topped encyclopedia of nature, it seems.

“How do you know all this?” I ask Cowen. Mother’s mother is a Cowen from Bishop Auckland in Durham. The Cowans were shopkeepers, mostly. Or they worked in the lead mines in Alston, Cumberland.  Could we possibly be related? Well, we are all related around here. Especially the Border Reiving families: Forster, Nixon, Kerr, Armstrong, Bell, Johnson, Elliott, Graham, Scott.

This small wheezing boy replies, “My father told me.”

“I am afraid of snakes,” I admit to the younger boy. His naïve self-confidence has made me lower my ­­­­guard.

“But, I have good reason to be, “ I add, squinting menacingly at him.  I was born in Malaya and by the time I could walk I learned to watch out for the meter long orange necked keelbacks or die an agonizing death on the spot.” I grab my throat with both my hands and pretend to squeeze, bugging out my small blue eyes.

“I don’t know about Malayan snakes,” the boy soberly continues, unimpressed by my histrionics. I may be a member of the Shakespeare Club, but I am no accomplished thespian.

He continues.“ I know a bit about Indian snakes. I’ve heard stories.”

“Are you a child of the Raj as well?” I ask him with genuine interest.

“No, my father is a civil servant in  London. Foreign office.  But he loves the outdoors. He  takes me to Northumberland every summer on camping trips. While Mother visits her sister in Kent.”

This is getting far too personal, so I change the subject.

“Where are the others?” I ask authoritatively because I am supposed to care.

“They stopped  to raid the gulls’ nests even though I told them only a few gulls will have laid by now.  As the smallest in the group,  I knew they’d want to dangle me over the cliff to grab the eggs,  so I just kept on running. My lungs are burning.”

The boy admits this with no embarrassment, this plucky new boy with the asthma and caring father.

“We’ll never make it to the lighthouse at Whitehaven, at this rate,” I say, not that I care.

stbees

St Bees on the Coast of Cumbria.

“Too bad. I’d like to see the radar installation. If the war persists, I will likely be put in radar. I am a math’s major.”

I hardly hear him. The mere idea of fried eggs, however sketchy the source, thrills me. I am starving, what with these new war time rations.

 “It isn’t like being in  the Air Force,” he continues, “ but radar is important to catch the German subs when they attack. It’s too bad this war will be over soon, because I would like to work in radar, scanning for enemy submarines.”,

I had forgotten about the radar station at the lighthouse. I too am a math’s major destined, they tell me, for a desk job in statistics.  But I have the keen eyes and reflexes of a fighter pilot and that is where I want to end up, if I have to go. Dropping bombs on the enemy.

As if reading my mind, the boy says,

I know they say radar is for layabouts, but they’ll  never let me fly. I’m short-sighted.  “

Do you have good eyes?

“Twenty-fifteen, like Brian Sellers, the cricketer “ I say, bragging.  My long distance vision is, indeed, exceptional. Right now I can see two navy boats out on the grey waters of the Irish sea.

Warship sightings are commonplace these days.

Cowen lowers his eyes and opens up once again: “ I wish I were like you, an athletic stiff with spiffing eyesight, so I could get into the RAF and fly  exciting bombing missions.”

Here’s a boy who spends summers camping with his father, who teaches him all about snakes and nature, and he wants to be like me. I haven’t seen my father since I was five years of age – and that is a good thing from what little I remember.  My sister and I spend holidays with aunts who don’t want us around. They do it because of the money Grandmother Forster, aka Emma Cowen, left them.

Emma Cowen

Peter’s Grandmother, Emma Cowen of Bishop Aukland, Durham in 1914.

I don’t tell Copper-top this, of course. There’s a pause in the conversation. I sweep the grass with my foot for my cigarette butt – and to pretend I am not afraid of anything as insignificant as an English snake.

“Are you going to enlist in the RAF – before they conscript you?” the boy asks after a few minutes. Maybe fly bombers over in Europe? The village boys who have turned 18 are already signing up voluntarily. They want to get the best missions.

“They would, wouldn’t they?” I reply. “What else do they have to do?”

And, I tack on for no good reason, “I assure you, you do not want to be like me.”

“What?” The boy wrinkles his freckly red brow. I have confused him, this sweet naïve boy with his happy loving family.

“Well,” I change the subject. “You won’t be spending this coming summer in Northumberland with your father. They are keeping the school open for LDV training for all of us, senior and junior school. LOOK, Duck and Vanish.

“Yes, I know about Land Defense. But everyone thinks it  will be safer here. That’s why Mill Hill pupils were sent up  to St. Bees,” says Cowen.  “More boys from London are sure to arrive if the war doesn’t end soon. Their mothers will insist.”

“Do these mothers know  that  Barrow-in-Furness is just down the coast and it is a ship building port and likely to be a target of German bombs?”

I say this to scare him. I want to be cruel at this moment.  Truth be told, I resent this happy wheezy boy with the unkempt shock of red hair sticking straight out of the top of his head. War or no war, St Bees is a spartan place and is all about teaching British boys survival skills, on the rugby field mostly.  Land Defense Volunteers Training is somewhat  redundant.

But, then again, what do we schoolboys, happy ones like Cowen or unhappy ones like me, know about true survival?

stbeeshead

St Bees Head courtesy of visitcumbria.org

Final Part (111) to come..

England, Genealogy, Quebec

To the Lighthouse – Part 1

A fictional homage to my father – and his northern English genealogy

whitehaven to st bees cliff walk

Plaque at St. Bees (from http://josweeney.net/the-cliff-path-from-st-bees-to-whitehaven/ 7 miles to Whitehaven but this is the start of a 192 mile Coast-to-Coast walk that will take you all the way to Robin Hood’s Bay in North York.

(Sound Effects)  heavy breathing, feet pounding earth.

I am Peter N F Nixon, scholar at St. Bees Prep School in Cumberland, and I am running, running away back in time.  So stated the boss-eyed academic in the school library last evening, the guest lecturer from the Northern England Geological Society.

“If you take the coastal path,” he said, “from St Bees Head to Whitehaven Lighthouse,  it is as if you are going back in time as the youngest rocks are at Seacote. Early Triassic Age, just 250 million years old.”

Funny how I remember that. I was preoccupied with next week’s big rugby match against the tough cads from the colliery. The geordies.  The coal miners. I attended the lecture only because I knew there’d be a fire lit in the library. Although it’s my right as head prefect to sit on the radiator in my freezing dorm room (with windows always open) it is slim consolation this early in spring.  I could see my breath as I crossed the quad last night to get to the library.

Yes, funny how the geology lecture is all coming back to me as I run and run back in time along the windy coastal path to the lighthouse at Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast where the seabirds are engaged in their noisy mating rituals.

I am leading a penal drill with a few miscreant lower classmen who flung their gas-masks out the window to celebrate the war with Hitler being over.  Who told them the war was already over, just a few months after it was declared?

I am the house prefect and it is my duty to drill good sense into my younger charges’ heads by making them run long distances, whatever the season.  It’s no punishment for me – mickeying-off like this – or for most of them, to be honest. We are battle-hardened prep school pupils here at St Bees. Classes in the morning and sports in the afternoon, every day, rain or shine or snow.

We all wear short pants at St. Bees. It’s our uniform. I run and run and run in my short pants.17 years old, 6 foot 3 and a half  and still in short pants.

myfatherugby

Senior XV Rugby 1938-39. Webpage of the Old Beghian Society (see link below). My father is top row, 4th from left.  The scarf must represent his house.

I’m far ahead of the pack.  Truth be told, I am no leader of men. More of a loner at heart. So, I leave the kids to their own pace. I get no pleasure in being a prefect.  I don’t like minging on them. I don’t look for trouble or for a reason to cane.

Let’s see, what else did the lecturer say? “ North of St. Bees there are carboniferous-age coal outcrops and limestone outcrop, south of St. Bees permo-Triassic red sandstone. Moulded through the eons by glacial processes. Glacial means slow, doesn’t it?  Very slow.

I want it all to slow down. This war, despite the rumours to the contrary, is just starting. I can sense it. I am to turn 18 soon. I will have to sign up.

I am running back in time to slow things down, geologic time, historical time – but at a good clip, leaving my younger charges behind. I am one of the school’s finest middle distance runners, but the county record holder at javelin. Vice Captain of the Senior Rugby. I can swim with the best of them, but it’s golf I really enjoy, though, alone on the links of our school’s golf course.

I am running, running into the past.

The Normans, the Norse, the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans, the Briton Voltadini and the Celtic Brigantes tribes. Castles up, monasteries down, crusades to the east, crusades to the north. Saint Bega, for whom our school is named, founding the religious site about 1000 years ago by fleeing a forced marriage in Ireland. Or so the story goes.  And then 100 years later the Lord Egremont, the Norman, building the Benedictine Priory, the town parish, over it.

All around me there are fossilized strips of former medieval field systems and other remnants of the ghostly, gory, glorified past. It all weighs one down. Wouldn’t it be nice to live somewhere new with no past, no history, no weight?

If I never hear another lecture on Emperor Hadrian and his infernal wall I will be thrilled.  That meandering  Roman monument has only unfortunate connotations for me. I can still hear my grandfather, the Reverend John Forster, a self-educated farmer’s son, berating me at 6 years old for slacking on a long walk, “You are no Border Reiver, no bairn of mine if ye can’t walk the 7 miles from Brampton to the Birdoswol Roman Fort.”

Wouldn’t Gramps be surprised to see me now, one of the school’s most respected athletes, as I run and run, away, swiftly back in time with the myriad sea birds swirling over head riding the fickle coastal air currents coming off the Irish sea on the rugged, austerely beautiful coast of Cumberland, at St Bees Head?

This place is truly in my blood. I have border reiving ruffians on both sides of my family tree, my mother’s Forster and my father’s Nixon side. Brave scoundrels and fearless outlaws, they were raiders of cattle and sheep at the Scottish border in late medieval  times and beyond. Grandfather Nixon bragged about some outlaw Nixons hanged at Carlisle Castle back when he was a boy.

Geologic time, historical time, genealogical time, family memory and family myth.

It was my first week at St Bees. Mr. McFayden, the history teacher, asked me what my middle initials N.F. stand for. “Nesfield and Forster, Sir,” I replied, embarrassed to be singled out. “Ah, Nesfield, he says. “You are then descended from Dagobert, the Merovingian Prince who married Imagne de Nessfield, a Saxon landowner. By the 17th century they were living in Yorkshire. You are then related to William Andrews Nesfield  who designed the gardens at Castle Howard and Kew.”

I wrote home to my mother, in Malaya, all bristling with pride but she failed to take the bait. “Your great-grandmother, Anne Nesfield was the cook in the home of a Yorkshire solicitor, I think.”

Oh, the sin of pride.

Her father, John, socialist and pacifist – and a despiser of comfort  and weak grandchildren– taught her well.

Yes, I can see and hear the seabirds swirling and dipping overhead, over those formidable yet fragile orange sandstone cliffs, home to many colonies of breeding gulls: razorbills, cormorants, guillemonts, fullmars and kittiwakes.

It’s the start of nesting season.  I run and I am comforted by the birds’ loud squawking. I do love nature, her apparent simplicity here on the wild Cumberland coast; not like the bountiful Malayan landscape where I spent my first five years, as my father is a rubber planter, where there was so much fabulous flora and fauna to admire- and to fear – where I once confronted a leopard cat while tricycling near the tennis courts with my little sister.

St Bees. Wikipedia. Photo by Doug Sim

I am running, running back in time which is better than going forward in time.  It is May  9, 1940 and war was declared in September, 1939. The beach is cordoned off with barbed-wire. They have installed radar at the Whitehaven Lighthouse and barrage balloons in the town. I’ve lost 2 stone with the rationing.  New students from London are pouring into St Bees, because they feel it is a relatively safe place to be.  But, everyone over 18 has had to register for this war.  I turn 18 in October.

I am far ahead of the pack now and I like it that way. I am a loner at heart, not a leader of men. And I will soon have to sign up.

I really doubt the war is already over. I suspect it has just begun.

my father and denise

My father and his sister, Denise, in 1978, sent to England to go to school in 1926, as many colonial children were. She was the one who told me the story about the leopard cat.

 

PeterNixonandme

January 1954

 

To Be Continued..
On May 10, 1940, Germany attacked France and the Low Countries.

 

School boy lingo, specific to St Bees (apparently)

 

Minging: Prefect looking for trouble

Boss-eyed: cross-eyed

Mickeying off: to run away

Geordies: Miners

Cad: village boy

 

 

 

Resources :

 

http://www.st-beghian-society.co.uk/Picture%20Gallery.htm

St. Beghian Society Magazines

 

http://josweeney.net/the-cliff-path-from-st-bees-to-whitehaven/

7 Mile Walk from St. Bees to Whitehaven with many wonderful photos of the Cumbrian Coast.

 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/47/a3856647.shtml

Growing up in WWII Cumbria BBC

 

https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/29816760.pdf

William Andrews Nesfield bio

 

Border Reivers and Sir John Forster

https://wwwborderreiverstories-neblessclem.blogspot.com/

The Geologic Story of West Cumbria

http://www.westcumbriamining.com/wp-content/uploads/26-Geological-Story_C.pdf

 

Genealogy, Quebec

Biology and Ambition

 

marioncanoing

Marion canoeing circa 1907

Marion Nicholson, first year teacher at Sherbrooke High School in 1906-07, is serious about having a career. She is not focused, like so many of her colleagues, on finding a husband or ‘a pupil of one’ as soon possible. Or so she says in her letters home to her mom.

However, Marion’s “strictly private’ pocket diary  from 1907 suggests something else: that the young Richmond-born woman is very much torn between her biology and her ambition. In this little brown journal, eighteen year old Marion often comes off like a flighty Scarlett O’Hara type.

January 12: “Went to a card party and dance at Mrs. Griggs’. Had a grand time. Played cards with Mr. Watson, danced with Mr. Avery, had supper with Mr. Davidson and Mr. Sampson came home with me.” Marion even reflects on this coquettish behavior in a February 19th entry: “I believe I think too much of boys and am a flirt.”

Marion’s busy social life centers around skating parties at a Sherbrooke rink where she obliges many potential suitors – and turns down some others.

That Edwardian winter there are two young men fighting over the ultimate privilege to take Marion home from the ice rink, or the snow shoe club or the local youth hangout: Monty and Gordon.  It does get complicated.

Here’s the entry for January 28: “I slighted Monty by taking off my skates before his turn. He was quite huffy. I guess I will have to go skating with him tomorrow instead of driving with Gordon.”

For Feb 3: “Went to the theatre with Monty. I did not tell Gordon. Gordon was there by himself. He did not look our way the whole time.”

Eventually, this juggling act becomes too much for Marion. “I have decided who I like best and G is the one. I am tired of having two.”

In the spring of 1907, Gordon takes Marion canoeing.  The couple gets caught in a storm on the river and has to take shelter on shore. How romantic!  How promising!

By the time June rolls around,  Marion is getting anxious for the school year to end. It isn’t her work. She is exhausted from all the late nights and ‘dissipation’, as she refers to it in her diary. She returns to Richmond, 30 miles away, to spend the summer with her Mom and sisters.  Here, her social activities center on family friends: the Pepplars, the Clevelands, the McCoys, the Sutherlands and the Crombies.  In 1907, Richmond is a town without any eligible young men. They have all moved away to find jobs.

Marion helps support the family, so she isn’t expected to do work around the house. Most days she is bored silly.  She often sleeps in until noon. She sometimes spends afternoons taking ‘crazy’ photos with her Kodak.

Marion gets down on herself for this: “I think I am about the laziest person alive. All I have the gumption to do is sit and dream of what I would do if I tried. I have wasted two weeks of my vacation doing nothing, when I could have been practicing music or sewing. I hope I improve.”

In Richmond, Marion can go to church, twice a day if she wants. There are frequent afternoon teas hosted by society matrons, daily walks downtown to the mail to see if Gordon has written her, ice cream socials, croquet, tennis, strawberrying and country drives to places like Windsor and Kingsbury by horse drawn carriage.

Town tycoon Mr. Wales is the only Richmond citizen who has an automobile, but that will soon change.

Yes, it is the summer of 1907 (a year on the cusp of some game-changing technological changes)  and the living is far too easy for Miss Marion Annie Nicholson, an energetic young woman who, one day, will lead the PAPT teachers union while supporting four children as a single mom.

According to Marion’s 1907 diary, the most interesting thing to happen to her that summer is when some kittens get into the barn.­­

Oh, and there’s this entry for July 13th :“Lily Lyper nearly murdered. Great excitement.”

Even sleepy Richmond, Quebec had its share of scandals 100 plus years ago.

 
Mariaon1906sherbrooke

Marion, seated bottom and other Sherbrooke High Teachers 1906

 

tighsolas

Marion and beau in front of Tighsolas, their house in Richmond, Quebec

 

Afterward: (added March 14)

Marion did not see much more of Gordon, the son of a wealthy Sherbrooke merchant who would  be making a very good salary, 3,000 a year, in 1911 at the age of 26, this according to the Census.

Gordon married a friend of Marion’s, it seems.  In 1913, Marion married Hugh Blair, the son of a prosperous Three Rivers lumber merchant,  although his parents did not favour the marriage because by that time the Nicholsons were broke.

Marion’s in-laws did not attend the October wedding at the Nicholson residence on Dufferin in Richmond. Marion’s marriage contract was a nasty piece of work  saying she got nothing but the furniture should the marriage break up FOR ANY REASON.

As it happens, Hugh died in 1927. Marion was left high and dry cut out of the Blair family business, so she rolled up her sleeves and went back to work becoming a Master Teacher and WWII era President of the Provincial Association of Protestant teachers in Quebec.

She never re-married, despite having many suitors, such was her sex appeal even in old age. She died of a heart attack in 1947, a few months after representing the Canadian Teachers Association at an UNICEF education conference in Sevres, France. The Editor of the Montreal Gazette (another admirer apparently) wrote her an editorial page eulogy: “With the death of Marian A N Blair, education in Quebec, indeed the entire nation, has suffered  a serious loss. ”

In the end, Marion did have it all, love, work and family. It just came with some major trials and tribulations. Apparently, she never complained.

 

Genealogy, Great Britain

A Stranger in his/her Bed: An Audio Drama

Here is the first in a series of well-researched creative vignettes I am writing about my father’s side of the family, in Yorkshire and Cumberland and Malaya.

I have written AND VOICED this family story, part fiction, part fact, part family myth that explores genealogy in a different way.

Alzheimer’s runs in my father’s family. This vignette is based on a serio-comic family story about the Reverend John Forster of Knockburn, Northumberland who succumbed to that disease late in life.

 

Click here for a 10 minute audio of the story: A Stranger in his/her Bed

The Characters:

John Forster of Knockburn, Northumberland

(photos courtesy of Our Primitive Methodist Ancestors website.)

Emma Cowen of Durham, his wife.

 

The Places

Brampton, Cumberland, 1920

Birdoswald Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall Cumberland (Cumbria)

The Script

John Forster awoke one night from a rather disturbing dream, stared down upon his wife of 33 years in the bed beside him, and bellowed in his booming preacher’s voice: Old Woman, what are yee doing in my bed?

The wife was jolted awake – but she caught herself and calmly replied. I am sleeping. Well, I was sleeping.

Woman, what are you doing sleeping beside me, repeated her aged husband, punctuating his sentence with a downward stab of his spiky chin.

I am sleeping beside you because I am your wife, the old woman replied. What other reason would there be for me to be sleeping beside you?

But, you are NOT my wife, sputtered the old man, splashing his snowy white beard with little beads of saliva.

I am, most certainly, the woman replied, this time with a slight quiver in her voice.

I am EMMA Cowen of Durham, the woman you married in 1892 .  You are John Forster, former Primitive Methodist minister from Knockburn, Northumberland,  and, she added, playfully, in an effort to pacify him, author of numerous essays on politics and a lovely book of poems Pictures of Life in Verse.

I know who I am,”  the old man said, menacingly. It’s you I ‘ave me doubts about.

Emma Cowen sighed and pulled herself up in the hard-packed feather bed, battling through her many bodily aches and pains.

Her husband was suffering from a softening of the brain, so said the doctor, and this fog took over him especially bad upon waking from a sleep or sometimes even a short afternoon nap.

This episode was particularly startling though. The anger! Where did it come from?

We are married, Emma insisted, knowing full-well  it was useless to argue at these times but somehow not able to help herself.

We have three children, Nora, a concert pianist who teaches music at a girls school in Maryport, another daughter, Agnes, in Carlisle, just two streets away and Dorothy who is a planter’s wife in Kuala Lumpur, thousands of miles away.  Dorothy has two children, Peter and Denise. They go to school here in England and  they visited us in Carlisle just last summer. Do you recall?

I know who Peter and Denise are, John Forster replied, in increasing frustration, knotting his furry brow.

Peter is the soft bairn  I took to BIrdoswal Roman Fort at Hadrian’s Wall, who whimpered that he was tired before he got halfway there. And it’s not but 7 miles aft. No Border Reiver blood has he!

I repeat, it is YOU I don’t know – but  with the pitch of his voice lowering he asked, “What are you doing in my HOOS?”  This sounded more like a plea. The moonlight coming in through the window in the bare bedroom lit up the watery irises of his eyes – and  not in a comforting way.

The little girl in Emma wanted to check the corners of the room for wicked fairy-folk, malevolent gyests or mischievous boggles.
I live here, said Emma, defiantly.

But, my wife is Mary Chaytor Hall, naw Emma Cowen.  She of the strawberry blonde ringlets. She was fair, you know. Very fair. YOU ARE NOT FAIR! These four words fell like sharp knives upon Emma’s heart

How self-indulgent of her to feel this way!

She shook the feeling and said in a dull monotone, “Your first wife was Mary Chaytor Hall.  You were married six years only. She died, young. Was this the 100th time she had to explain this fact to her husband, she wondered.

Was she the daft one for attempting to knock sense back into this head?

We married in 1892, she continued. It is now 1925. So we have been married 33 years by my counting. And I’ve stood beside you, the busy wife of an itinerant preacher, moving every two years all over North Yorkshire: Carlisle, Crook, Middleton-in-Teesdale, Cockersmouth, Stanley, Helmsley, helping you prepare your sermons. Occupying the pulpit myself when you were indisposed.  Teaching Sunday School.  Tending the infirm and weary in our flock.

And so you too should be able to vote, said John, his line of thought veering into the present.  What has property got to do with it?

Yes, we worked hard for that, didn’t we, in our day. Woman suffrage.

John stared at her with vacuous blue eyes now, the silvery moonbeam having moved. Watery blue, his eyes. He blinked, once, twice, three times.
I don’t recall ye  ‘ever making sermons, woman. ” said John. “Ye didn’t have the head for it.”

Emma frowned. “I most certainly did,” she said.

And Peter was upset because you carried Denise part of the way, but made him walk,  Emma added, by way of a dig.  He is only five years old after all, just one year older than Denise.

As if things were as before and her husband could comprehend a dig when he heard one.

The dig came from her own angry place.

Who was her anger directed against?  Her husband, his first wife, God? No good place among them.

If  Mary Chaytor was the only woman he could remember, at times, would the memory of second wife, Emma Cowen, eventually fade completely from his brain and she become nothing more than a warm body in his bed?

A stranger in his bed.

She who had stood by her husband, as an undeniable equal in life and work, all of these 33 years.

Ahhhhcchhh, I don’t understand, John growled, his frustration swelling.   I don’t understand. He shook his head hard dislodging his nightcap over his right ear in comical fashion.

Emma edged an inch or two away from her husband, feeling guilty.

Then, John Forster suddenly turned away from Emma and lay back onto his hard feather pillow.

The peace and calm lasted but for a brief moment..

Henry Maine! It’s all his fault! John Forster howled, his head still attached to his pillow.

Henry Main? Who is this Henry Main? Emma asked.

He said it all come from the Romans, the Twelve Tables, but he was wrong.  It makes no sense.

Liberte, Egalite,Fraternite,. John Forster’s skinny freckled forearm shot up in the air. We must lift up our voice against classism, materialism, against selfishness in all of its forms.

Emma almost smiled. She could see him for a moment in the pulpit again, preaching to his untidy frazzled flock of North Country farmers and their wives.

My dear, dear husband, you are an unhinged filing cabinet, overturned and burst open, foolscap floating away on the capricious air currents.  I always said you were too learned for you own good. And see, it has all turned back on you, all this old knowledge swirling around in your befuddled brain. If it isn’t this Henry Main, whoever he is, it’s praise for Karl Marx. If it isn’t  about Marx, it’s critiques of St Paul or Cicero.

What er you talkin’ about, woman? Cicero is not a filing cabinet.

Emma chuckled out loud this time.

What should she do? Call for her daughter, Agnes, again? At 2  am? No, let her sleep.

She took a different tack.  Would you like to me to go outside to the pump and get yee a cup of fresh water, Emma asked John.

The doctor  had said dehydration was an enemy of old people. She started to swing her leaden legs out onto the hardwood floor but arrested them in mid air.

No, woman, it is dark outside. The wolves may be out.  I’m not wanting any wife o’ mine to put herself in danger’s way.

She did not ask which wife he was referring to, the old haggard one or the beauteous young one.  It felt good to hear her husband’s concern.

The mischievous fairy inside Emma wanted to ask “What wolves are you expecting to find in the city of Carlisle?”

But, she this time, she checked herself.  It occurred to her, that she could not go on as before.

We are both strangers to each other, now, Emma thought.

The Lord certainly does works in mysterious ways, the loyal wife whispered to the bare bedroom walls, to the  window frame with the peeling brown paint, to the pellucid moon beam bending around the frayed gray gingham curtain. She pulled her prickly woolen blanket up over her chest.

And my poems were fine, weren’t they? John Forster purred. My lyrics of uncommon charm and grace, they said.

Yes, Hinny, your poems were very, very fine.

And with that John Forster, my great grandfather, fell back to sleep. Emma Cowen, my great grandmother, adjusted the cotton nightcap to cover his bony head, as lovingly as she could muster, and steeled herself for the morning.

 

I wrote a story about the Border Reivers of Northern England on this blog. It can be found here.

 

Genealogy, Quebec, Writing

Thinking about my Filles du Roi Ancestors

 

mapancestry

Filles du Roi: Mothers of Millions. According to a map on my Ancestry DNA page, these orange dots are where French Settlers of the St. Lawrence ended up by 1900. 1

 

“Women’s work consists of household work and feeding and caring for the cattle; for there are few female servants; so that wives are obliged to do their own housework; nevertheless, those who have the means employ valets who do the work of maidservants.”

 

So, begins and ends the one paragraph devoted to women’s work in Pierre Boucher’s seminal book Canada in the 17th Century. 2 In fact,  Boucher spends more time in his book describing native women and their unusual ways than he does describing these pioneering French women. He either thought women’s work too obvious to detail or he didn’t actually know much about it.

This is a problem for writers like me who desire to write a story about their filles du roi ancestors. There’s little information out there about them that is not statistical, transactional, or speculative.3 In my case, I wanted to write about Francoise Boivin, whom I have at least twice in my mother’s tree. According to Nos Origines, Francoise, who gave birth to eight children, has around 700,000 to one million descendants.

Boivin is especially interesting because there appears to be some question as to whether she was, indeed, a genuine fille du roi; whether she married her husband Louis Lamoureux twice, once in France and once in Quebec, and whether she was an orphan, like so many of these women, or she came to New France with both her parents.

So, fun stuff.

Suzanne Desrochers, a York University scholar, used her 2007 Master’s thesis to explore the challenges involved in researching background about the filles du roi.  Desrochers, too, wanted to write an historical fiction piece about such an ancestor, but was stymied by the lack of evidence.

“In Quebec,” she writes, “ the 17th century belongs to religious figures or saintly women such as Marie de l’Incarnation, Marguerite Bourgeoys and Jeanne Mance while virtually no biographies of lay women exist.”4

Also, no records were kept in France  side with regard to filles du roi emigrations, and the story of women in France in that era is undocumented, too.

Historian James B. Collins*5 investigated this issue in an article he wrote in 1989. By digging through wills and notarial records he uncovered a paradox of sorts: French women had fewer public rights in the 17th century compared to before and afterwards but some of them had economic clout in the private sphere.

This is because wives’ sidelines were often what kept a poorer family afloat. These sidelines often involved the producing of alcoholic beverages like cider and wine, activities Boucher doesn’t describe in his book. One wonders, did some of these women transfer these lucrative skills to New France?

In her thesis, Desrochers suggests that women in New France, by virtue of their rarity, probably enjoyed higher status than their equivalents back home where women outnumbered men, but nothing can be proved. It would be nice to think it was so, wouldn’t it? This would be a perk, perhaps, to make up for the fact that Canadian women back then gave birth on the cold floor, even in the dead of the  winter, so as not to soil the family bed.

Whatever the humble origins of most filles du roi in France, 6 these female pioneers produced more progeny and were longer lived than their sisters back in Normandy and the Ile de Paris. This fact alone suggests that life in the New World was better than in France. Or at least the food was better.7

And, it is unlikely that these filles du roi had been prostitutes prior to emigration, despite all the longstanding rumours to the effect. Prostitutes were afflicted with venereal disease that leads to infertility – and these filles du roi, mothers of millions of North Americans, were anything but infertile.8

_

Notes and Resources

(Thanks to Claire Lindell for lending me her books on Les Filles du Roi)

 

  • 1. According to Peter J. Gagné in King’s Daughters and Founding Mothers, a true fille du roi is one of the ‘girls, women, or widows who went to Canada at the expense of the King in convoys recruited and conducted by French authorities, who were established in Canada by the Intendant and who received at marriage a King’s gift of 50 livres for commoners and 100 livres for demoiselles and sometimes, (but rarely) even more.’ P. 42.  Gagné’s meaty two volume set contains extensive bios about each fille du roi, and a lengthy introduction revealing, for instance, the clothing in the ‘trousseau’ given each King’s Daughter and the conditions of the ocean voyage they had to endure. (All information is gleaned from bits and pieces of evidence out of New France.) It is said that while waiting for husbands in New France, these fille du roi were taught cooking, needlework, knitting and how to make home remedies. Still, there is only speculation as to the truth of these women’s  lives: their particular origins, circumstances, hopes, fears and motivations.  These females are spoken of, for the most part, as commodities. An example: the introduction contains an anecdote claiming that the future husbands preferred, for practical reason, fatter girls over the thin pretty ones, rural girls over city girls. At the same time, it is assumed any fille du roi was in the driver’s seat with respect to courtship, because, by contract, she could turn down any marriage proposal.  One line in Gagné’s book is especially irksome. An observer who has met two young filles du roi claims that their personal stories are such, they would fill novels, but he gives no further details. What a missed opportunity! This is exactly what everyone today is looking for!

 

  • 2. Boucher, Pierre, Canada in the 17th Century. Translated by Edward Louis Montizambert. Archive.org.

 

  • 3. Nos Origines at nosorigines.qc.ca has Francoise (born 1646) marrying Louis Lamoureux, Quebec born, in New France, although it is indicated that no record of their marriage can be found. Other sources claim that the couple married in France. Could the Boivins have been Protestants from Rouen? Protestants hid among the emigrants to New France and converted to Catholicism upon arrival. (Leslie Choquette)

 

  • 4. Desrochers, Suzanne. Women of their Time: Writing Historical Fiction on the Filles du Roi of 17th Century New France. York University, 2007. Electronic thesis available at the Theses Portal, Library and Archives Canada.

 

  • 5. Collins, James, B. The Economic Role of Women in 17th Century France. French Historical Studies. Volume 16. No. 2 Autumn. 1989.

 

  • 6. According to Desrochers, it is estimated that 1/3 of the filles du roi came from La Salpêtrière, a Jesuit-run Paris hospital/workhouse for orphans and widows and other unfortunates including young and older women ‘of good moral character’ who  were trained in the household arts and likely forced to emigrate to New France and other French colonies like Martinique. Desrochers wonders whether the fille du roi immigration was voluntary. Records indicate that many French men of similar backgrounds who emigrated to New France in the 1600s did not stay, but the filles du roi mostly stayed. Gagné claims that around 50 filles du roi returned to France.

 

  • 7. Choquette, Leslie. Frenchman into Peasants: Modernity and Tradition in the Peopling of French North America. (Copyright American Antiquarian Society) includes a 1684 quote from army officer La Hontan. “The peasants here are very comfortable and I would wish such a good cuisine on the whole petty nobility of France…They hunt and fish freely. In a word, they are rich.”

 

  • 8. Landry, Yves. Les Filles du roi au XVIIe siècle. Bibliotheque Quebecois. This is a topic of great debate among historians, whether these ladies were filles du roi or filles de joie. Desrochers says there is no way to tell. The VD theory is postulated by Yves Landry in his book, where he cites statistics about fille du roi fertility and longevity. It is important to note that families in New France were offered financial bonuses for having a slew of children.

 

 

Genealogy, Quebec, Technology

Keeping Up with the Montgomerys

autoshow

Montreal Auto Show. 1914. McCord Museum photograph

Roads trips. They have been a staple of life in North America for over one hundred years and it all began around 1910 in American and Canadian towns.

In big cities like New York or Montreal there was little need for an automobile, what with the streetcars and subways. As silent film footage from the era shows, the city roads were preposterously chaotic.

But, in the  towns during the warmer months, anyway, an auto was both useful to get around and quite the status symbol for the well-off professional man.

Case in point: Dufferin Street in Richmond, Quebec, a leafy stretch lined with red-brick homes in the Queen Anne Revival style.(1)

In 1910, the Skinners, the Nicholsons and the Montgomerys are neighbours on the north side of Dufferin.

Floyd  Skinner, a dentist, buys his first auto in 1909. So does Nathan Montgomery, a man in his forties who is already retired. (2)

Margaret Nicholson, my husband’s great grandmother, living in the pretty house called “Tighsolas” between them, doesn’t think much of these extravagant testosterone-fueled impulse purchases. She writes this in a letter to her husband, Norman, who is away in Northern Ontario working on the railroad:

“Mr. Montgomery is going to buy an automobile. He is getting rid of his horse. Don’t you think he’s foolish?  I would not want one. They are too dangerous.” (3)

TheNicholsos

Norman and Margaret Nicholson, daughters Edith and Marion and Aunt Christine Watters.

 The Nicholsons, you see, never, ever, get to own an automobile. In 1910, they are house-rich but cash poor. They cannot begin to afford a ‘motor’ because in 1910  autos can cost as much as a fine house, in the 2,000 to 4,000 dollar range. (4)

If Margaret Nicholson is very wary of the newfangled horseless carriage, her daughter, Marion, my husband’s grandmother, is not. In fact, she accompanies the Montgomerys on their 1909  auto-buying excursion in Montreal.  Marion, a teacher in the city, tells her mother about it in a letter but wrapped in a little white  lie. “I bumped into the Montgomerys on the street. He is buying an auto and she is in for a shirtwaist suit.”

I suspect this is a lie because in the Nicholson family album there is a photograph of Marion and Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery posing in front of the Motor Import Company of Canada on Atwater and St. Catherine. Marion likely had planned to meet the Montgomerys all along.

MarionMON.PNG

Marion, left, caught in the act of accompanying her neighbours on an auto-buying excursion.

If Margaret felt autos were dangerous, her eldest daughter, Edith, also a teacher, clearly did not.  In the summer of 1911, Edith traveled all the way to Montreal by motor with the Skinners.  Here’s how Edith described her trip in a letter to her dad:

“As you will see by the address, I am in Montreal. I came in with Dr. and Mrs. Skinner in the motor Friday. Left home at 10 am and got to Waterloo at 12.30 had dinner. Saw all we could of the town and left at 2 for Montreal, got here at quarter past six. Without one break down. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed every minute of it.

I will name the places we passed through so you will know the country we passed through. Melbourne, Flodden, Racine, Sawyerville, Warden, Waterloo, Granby, Abbotsford, St Caesar, Rougemont, Marieville, Chambly, Longueil, St. Lambert, Pointe St Charles.

Don’t you think I was a very fortunate girl to have such a trip?

 

Itineray

1911 itinerary.  6 ½ hours for 93 miles.  The speed limit in the city was 8 miles an hour and 15 miles an hour in the country.

 The Eastern Townships is a very hilly place so this pleasure trip must have been quite the  roller-coaster ride for Edith and possibly a bit hard on the, ahem, lower body, especially if Edith was wearing a tight corset under her ‘duster coat.’ (5)

In 1910, autos were considered toys. Motoring was considered a fad, a pastime. The preface to the special insert promoting the 1910 Westmount Horse Show in the Montreal Gazette claims, “The automobile will never replace the horse in Man’s affection.” (6)

So wrong.

Although it was wealthy males who kick-started the automobile revolution, it was women and teenagers who had the most to gain from it.  They were free at last to travel far and wide on their own.

freeatlast.PNG

Free at Last! Margaret’s youngest daughter Flora and friends on an automobile ride in the country circa 1920.

So, here we have three houses on Dufferin Street in Richmond, Quebec – and already two automobiles.

Still, if you pay attention to her actions and not her words, it  is clear that Margaret Nicholson doesn’t really hate autos. Margaret often allows Mr. Skinner or Mr. Montgomery to take her to the mail to post letters to her husband.

 What she says to Norman in her letters is to sooth his prickly pride, that’s all.

To make things worse, just around the corner on posh College Street live Isabel and Clayton Hill, Margaret’s sister and brother-in-law. Clayton is a prosperous stone-mason and, much to Margaret’s chagrin, he owns an especially fine automobile.

Clayton'sauto

Magical Mystery Tour Car. Clayton’s Auto. A Pierce Arrow, perhaps. Very expensive at about 5,000 dollars.

Margaret is always feuding with Clayton and her sister mostly over the care of her elderly mother.

She remains bitter about her relations’ good fortune. In another letter to her husband she writes: “Clayton’s auto has broken down again. Isabel says the repairs are costing a fortune. Aren’t we lucky not to have one.”

Then, again, she accepts rides from her brother-in-law on occasion.

In 1910, there was no resisting the lure of the motorcar. The swanky male ‘toy’  was already proving to be indispensable even to its most vocal female critics.

Nichsolsonhomeafewdaysago

Tighsolas as it looks today.

  1. Richmond was a railway town, on the decline, between Portland, Maine and Montreal, Quebec. Queen Anne Revival style homes had irregular roofs, turrets, and lots of gingerbread moulding.
  2. On the 1911 Canada Census
  3. Nicholson Family Letters. Author’s collection.
  4. This was all changing with the Model-T Ford, and mass assembly. In 1910 Ford claimed his factory was putting out 1,000 autos a day. And he paid his people good salaries so they too could buy an auto. Soon, average middle class families could own a motorcar at around 400 to 600 dollars.
  5. Duster coats were long affairs meant to keep women’s clothes clean. Cars with an internal combustion engine were notoriously dirty.  Steam driven cars were dangerous and noisy. Electric cars, clean but slower-moving, were aimed at women in advertising, and, maybe, just for that reason, they did not catch on, at least until 100 years later.
  6. Magazine articles of the era were already pointing out that ‘the Billion Dollar Toy’ was creating significant waves in the economy, a sign that the auto wasn’t merely a toy but here to stay. By mid-century automobiles and automobile parts were the driver of the US economy.

 

french-canadian, Genealogy

Montreal Movie Mysteries

rialto

The Rialto ceiling today from Google Earth.

When I was a little girl in the 1960’s, whenever my family crossed the Cartierville Bridge in Montreal’s Ahunsic area to go to Laval, my mother would claim, “That is Uncle Louis’s bridge.”

Her much older brother, Louis, who died of a heart attack in 1965, had been a civil engineer and it is likely he worked for Dominion Bridge, the company that made that structure in the 1930’s.

The Cartierville Bridge wasn’t much to look at, so I wasn’t at all impressed.

I recently learned that back in the day my mother had a much lovelier family creation to brag about. Her Uncle Isadore’s glass company, Ceramo, had manufactured the beautiful stained-glass panels on the ceiling of the Rialto Theatre, the opulent 1924 movie theatre on Park Avenue decorated to look like the Paris Opera House.1

According to reporter Dane Lanken, who wrote the definitive book on Montreal’s old cinemas, this ceiling is rare, if not unique, among the grand movie houses of the day.*2

My mother’s Mon Oncle Isadore, an Outremont-based insurance broker, was also the VP of the United Amusements Corporation, a company that distributed films for Famous Players and that built the Rialto and dozens of other lavish Montreal movie houses, so it was all very convenient.3

Mummy rarely spoke about her Uncle Isadore during her life-time and she never talked about his many interlocked businesses.

She clearly didn’t know anything about the Rialto Cinema ceiling.  She never mentioned how Isadore had welcomed the audience at the opening of the magnificent Monkland Theatre in 1930, not in-person but from up on the screen in a talkie film.*4

(How cool that must have seemed just a few years after sound technology was introduced.)

In 1930, my mother would have been only nine years old and not entitled to enter movie houses.  Children under 16 had been banned from cinemas in Quebec 2 years before, in 1927, after the infamous fatal Laurier Palace fire.5

And my mom was only 11, in December 31, 1932, when her Uncle Isadore fell to his death from his 7th floor office window at 414 Saint James Street West.

She never ever mentioned that shocking event, either: I suspect no one told her about how her Uncle Isadore died.

Isadore414StJacques

From La Patrie, online.

 

Lanken mentions Mon Oncle Isadore more than a few times in his beautiful book. He doesn’t discuss the manner of Isadore’s death.

However, Louis Pelletier, a Concordia scholar, does mention Isadore’s demise in his PhD thesis about the movie distribution industry in Montreal – with a sly aside.  Was it a suicide? Who knows. *6

Pelletier also says that Isodore was likely brought on as VP of United Amusements in 1921 as a ‘token’ francophone.

The 2012 thesis is brilliant, but here Pelletier (like Lanken) fails to make one key connection. Isadore’s brother was Jules Crepeau, my grandfather, Director of City Services in the 1920’s. Isadore’s appointment wasn’t token: It was tactical.

If you conduct a search of the Digital Media Database which contains many era Hollywood Trade Magazines, Jules’ name comes up more than Isadore’s.*7

Jules also died relatively young, in 1938, about a year after he had been hit by a car driven by a plain clothes policeman on Royal Avenue in NDG.*8

He had retired from his lofty post at City Hall in 1930.*9

Back in 2008, when I asked my mother if the 1937 car ‘accident’ had been a ‘hit’ *10 she replied an emphatic “No.” The policeman in question had been very upset about it, she told me. She died in 2009.

Ten years later, knowing what I now know about Isadore Crepeau and my Grandpapa Crepeau’s controversial and scandal-ridden career at Montreal City Hall,*11 I imagine that my mom’s recollection of this very contrite cop was a second-hand memory planted there, perhaps, by her older brother Louis.

Uncle Louis. Now, he’s the one I should have been able to talk to.  Had he lived, what twisting tales he might have told me.

  1.  Lanken, Dane. Montreal Movie Palaces. Great Theatres of the Golden Era 1884 – 1938.  Penumbra Press. 1993. This feature is likely why the Rialto has been deemed a National Historic Monument, and why it still stands today. Most other Montreal movie houses were destroyed or left to languish.
  2. Ibid. These United Amusement theatres included the Belmont on St.Laurent, and the Monkland on Monkland Avenue and the fabulous Art Deco Snowdon Theatre where I saw The Sound of Music in 1965 – at 11 years old. We lived on the adjacent street.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid
  5. It’s a ban that stayed in place until 1962. Over 70 children were crushed to death escaping from the balcony of a Sunday showing after a small fire.
  6. Pelletier, Louis. The Fellows Who Dress the Pictures: Montreal Film Exhibitors in the Days of Vertical Integration (1912-1952). Concordia PhD Thesis, Communications Department. 2012. The Montreal Gazette, December 31, 1932. The official story is Isadore fell trying to build a device to hang a flag to signal his chauffeur. This happened after his secretary had left his office. After dark. In the depth of winter. Supposedly, Isadore’s unfinished cigar was found on the sill. The police cited unnamed sources for this report, not the secretary, not the chauffeur, not the wife.
  7. www.digitalmediahistory.org. In 1921, Jules was interviewed by Variety about the controversy over Sunday showings. In 1924, he was interviewed about risqué movie posters. In 1926, during the Coderre Commission into Police Impropriety and Malfeasance, his name is brought up in connection with the police. It is said he forced police on the beat to look the other way when movie houses broke the bylaws by letting children in unattended. The New York Times rehashed this bit in 1926 in a two-page story covering testimony during American Senate hearings into Prohibition. In 1927, Jules is mentioned in relation to the Laurier Palace Fire. Jules was the first to testify at both the initial inquest and the later Royal Commission.
  8. Family lore says his death was due to bone cancer from the X-Rays he received from a broken leg from the accident.
  9. Jules had been forced to retire by new Mayor Camillien Houde. Jules negotiated a huge pension of 8,000 dollars a year that was rescinded in 1937 with an emergency measure due to the Depression, just two weeks before he was knocked down by that policeman on Royal Avenue, a block from the United Amusement Offices on Monkland.
  10. In 2008, I asked my mother to tell me all she remembered about her childhood and my grandfather. She didn’t know much about the political intrigue but she did know that her father and brother received numerous death threats and that on occasion big shots like the Mayor or the Chief of Police visited their home on Sherbrooke Street West in secret meetings.
  11. According his obit in Le Devoir, he had a mind like a bank vault and each drawer was filled by a City Hall by-law or other fact. A Gazette article about Mayor Mederic Martin in 1937 claimed “Jules Crepeau’s hair went gray teaching aldermen their jobs.”
  12. Jules and Isadore were the sons, two of four, of Joseph Crepeau and Vitaline Forget-Depatie who, according to Jules’ marriage certificate on Drouin (1901 – Maria Roy) were from St.Louis de France, which would be Trois Rivieres. Montreal City Hall records (his file) claim Jules was born in Laval and that Joseph was a house-painter. Joseph’s paternal line can be traced back to Maurice Crespeau (curly-haired ones) of Poitou-Charentes, born 1637. Vitaline’s Forget line goes back to Abraham Martin, owner of the Plaines of Abraham, known as “L’Ecossais.” https://www.geni.com/people/Abraham-Martin-dit-l-Écossais/6000000000397138666  Jules and my mother did have very curly hair and this is perhaps due to deep Sephardic Jew and Algerian roots. My mother has some Sephardic DNA, to the tune of 4 percent. Crespeau (Crespin) is understood to be one of the Sephardic French Canadian names. https://www.jewishgen.org/Sephardic/nameorig.HTM  Jules’ wife’s Maria Roy’s MT DNA has traces of Sephardic as well and can be traced back to a Lily Rodrigue in Normandy. Rodrigue (Rodriguez).

 

France, Genealogy, Germany, Quebec

My Uncle Frank: German or French?

supr8

1958 St-Eustache, Quebec. Super 8 film ‘capture.’

I never thought I would write about my Uncle Frank Walter, my Aunt Flo’s husband and my mother’s brother-in law.  He is, perhaps, the least controversial figure in our family. One might even call him boring. I never heard a word uttered for or against him – and, believe me, that’s saying a lot .

Frank married Flo her late in life, in 1955, when she was 50 and he was 63. He was a tile painter by trade. He was French from France, my mother told me, but in Quebec that’s hardly exotic.  My mother also told me his last name “Walter” was really pronounced “Valter,” but that didn’t seem important.

Frank and Flo, the giddy ‘newlyweds’ would visit us occasionally, in St. Eustache, north of Montreal, where we lived in the mid 1950’s. They had a big black Buick and they took it everywhere on day trips. They also had a Super 8 movie camera and I have a few seconds of faded film of Aunt Flo and me by the swing set. On another visit, they brought me a giant stuffed panda bear. I was enraptured. My brothers later beat the stuffing out of it, out of jealously, I imagine.

My family visited them at Christmas at their apartment in the city on West Hill Avenue in 1964.  I have a colour photo with my Dad and us kids sitting on their fancy pink French Provincial style couch that I would inherit much later in the 1980’s and put in our basement.

Frank was very old (in my eyes). He was the closest I came to having a grandfather around.  He had grey hair on the thin side and sported a debonair pencil moustach. He was always smoking a pipe.  I could sense, even as a child, that he was a bit on the vain side.  He had a twinkle in his eye and he still flirted with my Aunt Flo who happily flirted back. They made quite a pair.

Frank died in 1977 and I clearly recall the scene at the grave on a hill with trees in Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery on the mountain, as Aunt Flo wept uncontrollably and the tears rolled down my cheeks in empathy. She was crushed at the loss of her “Ptoutsi.”

I thought of Uncle Frank again, in 1990, when Aunt Flo went into a retirement home.  Helping her clear out her apartment, I found a photo album from his WWII service. The album contained many pictures of younger female servicewoman. His girlfriends?  He was a ladies man, after all!  The album creeped me out, so I tossed it in the garbage.

At the same time, my aunt gave us her ‘junk’ to sell in a garage sale in our suburban garden. One piece was Frank’s foot locker from WWI. (Yes, he participated in two world wars.) A collector came around before the start of the sale, gave the tables in the yard a quick scan and immediately pointed to the foot locker.

“I guess French Infantry foot lockers from WWI are worth something,” I said to my husband, suddenly wishing I’d held on to it.

 

uncleffrank2 unlcef1

Intimate ‘captures’ of Frank and Flo from a Super 8 film taken in the mid to late 1950’s in their home.

flo1 flo3

Left: Domestic life on West Hill, in NDG. Right: A visit to a war memorial in Montreal.

 

Aunt Flo died in 1999.

The other day, checking up on Aunt Flo in Notre Dame des Neiges cemetery1 where she was laid to rest, I realized she wasn’t in the family plot but buried with Frank and his family.

So, I took a closer look.  To my surprise, I saw that Uncle Frank’s full name, at least as listed at the cemetery, was Ferdinand Francois Walter and that he was named after his father, who was buried beside him.

Frank’s Mom, Octavie Turgeon, was there, too. A Quebecois name, that’s for sure. So Frank had a German-sounding father and a French Canadian mother.  He wasn’t even from France. He was Canadian-born.

I checked on Drouin and sure enough, Frank’s father, Ferdinand married his mother Octavie in Quebec, in 1890.2  Ferdinand, an engineer, was from Willers, Alsace Lorraine, the son of Francois, and Octavie was from Levis, Quebec.

(Willers, by the way, is one of those achingly picturesque towns in the Haut Rhine.) Ferdinand’s mother was a Berkertz, also German sounding.

Ferdinand’s signature on the marriage document was remarkable in that it was executed in a meticulous ornamental font. I can see where Uncle Frank got his artistic talent. Octavie’s brother signed for her indicating she was illiterate.

The couple sounds like a mismatch. Maybe she was beautiful or rich.

Other Drouin records reveal that Ferdinand Francois, my Uncle Frank, was born in Montreal in 1893.3  WWI military records at LAC reveal Frank enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1916.

“Frank Fern” is how he is registered. So, that prized foot-locker was Canadian Army issue. Fern? Is that a typo, or, back in 1916, did Ferdinand sound too German?

Was Uncle Frank, French or German?  Actually, he was something in-between.

I checked the 1891 census to see that Frank’s father, Ferdinand Walter, emigrated to Canada in 1878, a few years after the Franco Prussian war, when Alsace was turned over to the Germans in the Treaty of Frankfurt, 1871. He is listed as “French” and “Catholic.”

I further learned that in 1872 residents of Alsace who wanted to remain French citizens had to make French Citizenship Declarations or automatically become German citizens. These declarations have been digitized and are available on Ancestry with an explanation. Apparently, there were 124 Walters from Alsace who were determined to keep their French citizenship. Five are listed under Francois.

I wonder if most in the Walter clan wanted to remain French.  That would take a lot more research.

In the end, I picked up some interesting European history while I learned a rather boring truth about my still very uncontroversial “French” Uncle Frank Walter – the “W” pronounced like a V.

Sorry if I led you to believe otherwise.

Still, I wonder how my young uncle felt in 1916 going  back ‘home’ to shoot at his cousins. Perhaps it was just business-as-usual. Alsace-Lorraine was been the site of a vicious tug-of-war between Germany and France for generations.

Ferdinand

Ferdinand’s pretty signature on his wedding certificate.

  1. Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery: Locate a deceased person. https://www.cimetierenotredamedesneiges.ca/en/recherche-defunt
  2. Ancestry.ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.
  3. Ancestry.ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.
  4. Ancestry. ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.
Genealogy, Quebec

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.

Genealogy, Saskatchewan, Scotland

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.