All posts by Dorothy Nixon

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

My grandfather’s brilliant city hall career in four scandals – part 3

The Coderre Police Corruption Inquiry/Laurier Palace Fire Scandal

The Crepeaus in Atlantic City probably 1927. Working vacation?

If you are a Quebecker of a certain age, it is possible that as a child you never went to the movies. Everyone under sixteen years of age in this Canadian province was banned from attending the motion pictures even in the company of an adult from 1927 until 1962 *1

This is because of the tragic Laurier Palace movie house fire in January 1927 where seventy eight children perished in a crush at the downstairs doors, doors that only opened inwardly.

These 78 children were among a larger group of working class kids crowded into the upper balcony of the ramshackle Laurier Palace watching a Western on a Sunday afternoon.

A slew of high-profile inquests and hearings followed the tragedy. My grandfather, Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, was the first to testify at both the initial coroner’s inquest and subsequent hearings. It is unclear what exactly happened in the balcony as only children came forward to testify. All seven or so adults seated there seemed to disappear into the ether. There was talk of two men purposely closing the doors on the desperate kids. At least one older boy had time to go up and down the stairs a few times before the smoke got dangerous. The origin of the fire was never discovered. *2

Most parents, afraid of legal reprisals, testified that they thought their children were at church that afternoon. But parents of the era could hardly be blamed for allowing their children to attend the movies by themselves– against the by-laws. Many of their male children were already out in the workforce earning their own discretionary income and many of their young daughters were already ‘little mothers’ in charge of even younger siblings. With the traffic chaos on the streets in 1927, the movie house probably seemed like a relatively safe place for their children.*3

Just as special ‘kiddie matinees’ were taking off in the US (late 20’s early 30’s) Quebec banned all children from going to the cinema – for 4 decades. Crazy!

On January 10, 1927, the day after the Laurier Palace Fire, the front page of Le Devoir newspaper ran two related stories side-by-side. One was a dry report where my grandfather Jules Crepeau, Director of City Services, admitted that the Laurier Palace Theatre had been operating without a license.

“This will all be explained at the Coroner’s Inquest,” he said.

The second story was a shocking side-bar rehashing testimony from a two year old inquiry into police corruption, testimony that also mentioned my grandfather.

“Our readers will no doubt be interested in re-reading these extracts from testimony at the 1924 Coderre Inquiry into Police Malfeasance and Corruption, 4 that bear on motion picture theatre attendance.”

The side-bar included bits and pieces of testimony given in December, 1924 at this hearing by a certain Constable C.T. in the ‘special services’ division of the Montreal Police Department. The cop railed against City Hall. He was angry because members of the Executive Committee, he said, as well as my grandfather, repeatedly forced the police to cancel citations against motion picture houses that allowed children into the shows, unattended.

Constable CT gave specifics, naming each of the movies houses (the Ouimetoscope!) and the dates when citations were cancelled. He said, “One of these moments there’s going to be a catastrophe that will wake up the authorities.” Le Devoir put that quote in all caps.*5

Despite this sensational after-the-fact finger-pointing at a sensitive time by an otherwise respectable publication, no one took the bait. My grandfather Jules was once again called to testify at the Coroner’s Inquest as well as the other inquiries into the fatal fire but was never asked about Constable CT’s earlier accusations.

Indeed, a while later, when the Taschereau Government was deliberating whether to ban all Sunday showings in Quebec, my grandfather testified once again. He even brought in Ernest Cousins, Vice President of United Amusements, Montreal’s largest movie chain, to talk about the importance of Sunday showings to the movie distribution industry.*6

Isadore Crepeau, my grandfather’s brother, who just happened to be another Vice-President of United Amusements, was not called in to testify at this time, nor was my grandfather’s family connection to United Amusements ever mentioned.*7

So, why wasn’t my grandfather pilloried back in 1927, when passions over the tragedy were at a high boil, for these two year old allegations of interference with the policemen who patrolled motion picture houses (and who, btw, regularly accepted free tickets for their kids.)

Well, the truth is, Constable CT’s testimony was hardly gold-standard. Under cross-examination a day later, the cop admitted rather glibly to having lent the Chief of Police large sums of money at different times, for reasons he refused to elaborate on. He also admitted to depositing more than five thousand dollars into his five bank accounts over a short period of time. “Rents and winnings on horses” he said.

Constable CT was just another corrupt cop, put on the stand specifically to threaten my grandfather by bringing up, out-of-the-blue, the fairly benign subject of children and the motion pictures, when the Coderre Inquiry was mounted to deal with much more dire and dark issues: police involvement in prostitution of women and girls, drug rings and organized crime and illegal booze smuggling in the era of American prohibition.

Taken in that light, Constable CT’s statement “One day there’s going to be a catastrophe” uttered in December 1924, a full two years before the Laurier Palace fire, could be construed as a threat.

My grandfather, at the time, certainly felt threatened. He had Constable CT fired the very next day.

“Who is this Jules Crepeau who can tell the Chief of Police what to do?” asked Juge Coderre in his summary report in March 1925. As if he didn’t know.8

Three years later, in September, 1930, as explained in Part Two of this series, Mayor Camillien Houde was speechifying at the City Hall meeting where the aldermen debated whether or not to accept my grandfather’s coerced letter of resignation.

“The people want revenge,” Houde said. “They want revenge for the Montreal Water and Power Purchase (the purported reason for wanting my grandfather out) and for the Laurier Palace Fire.”

This was a sneak attack of some sort because never before had the Laurier Palace Fire been brought up as a reason to oust my grandfather from his lofty post at City Hall, at least not in any news clipping I have read.

With all the Houdist’s voting against him, my grandfather was, indeed, forced to resign his post of Director of City Services in September, 1930.

At the time, Grandpapa Jules negotiated a huge life pension that would make him the second highest paid employee at City Hall, without working. Seven years later, during the Great Depression, his huge pension would be rescinded by the City.

Two weeks after that, Jules was hit by a car near his home in Notre Dame de Grace, a car driven by an off-duty police officer. I guess my grandpapa threatened someone with a long reach.

He would die a year later of complications.

As it happens, Le Devoir was the only Montreal newspaper to give Jules a lengthy front page obituary. They even called out the other Montreal papers on this point.

The other day a noted public servant was put in the ground. The newspapers only published laconic biographical notes about him that don’t give a just idea of the role he played in municipal politics.”

The obituary didn’t mention the suspicious nature of my grandfather’s death, but it did allude, rather kindly, to the many scandals in his career:

He was too passionate not to occasionally take sides between two rivals, often creating his own enemies. Indeed, he received some knocks, some devastating knocks, but we must say upon his memory, that none of these accusations stuck.

Read the entire obit here.

Notes:

  1. The city by-laws forbade children to attend movies unless in the company of an adult, not because of a fear of fire-traps but for a fear of the morality of pre-code Hollywood. Indeed, exceptions could be made for films vetted by the Censor. A year later, a similar fire happened in a motion picture house in Scotland – also caused by a crush at doors that opened inwards. The only change that came of that was a law forbidding such doors in motion picture houses. But, in Quebec, everything becomes political. A parade of Montreal citizenry testified in the sad affair: the theatre owners (who were eventually exonerated) and employees and the firemen and the victims’ parents; then followed moguls in the theatre business, small independent theatre owners, union activists, more parents and more firemen, also educators and church officials and representatives of various community groups – anyone with a stake and an opinion – showed up to testify . Fire safety became a mere side issue: it was all about the morality of the motion pictures. The government ended up banning children from all showings, in return for allowing the controversial Sundays showings for adults. (Children could not vote, but their parents could.) I personally think the new “Talkies” coming in right then in 1927 had something to do with the decision. They were English talkies after all. Despite all this, Quebec children over the decades often evaded the rules by dressing up and acting like adults. There were also special children’s showings at various theatres over the years.

2. “It must have been a cigarette.” Most movie house fires of the time started in the projection booth. This wasn’t the case here, so they took a wild guess. A fire station was across the street, but firefighters could do nothing upon arrival to save the children.

3. 1927 was a pivotal year in traffic safety in North America. The horse and wagon era was literally colliding with the era of the automobile – and their were no road rules yet. The same edition of the Montreal Gazette that covers the Laurier Palace Fire has a story of a toddler being run over in front of her house. This was a daily occurrence in North American cities at the time.

4. The Coderre Inquiry into Police Corruption and Malfeasance was launched after a record-breaking Brinks robbery in the Hochelaga district where it discovered that policemen were involved, but it had long roots back to WWI and prostitution around the Montreal Barracks. A Committee of Sixteen mostly Protestant groups organized an all-court press on Montreal City Hall in 1921, to protect the sad girls working in prostitution in the city after a prominent doctor gave a speech to the elite members of Canadian Club. They focused on the Baghdad Cafe, a sleazy dive serving US tourists located across the street from the ritzy Mount Royal Hotel, Tony Frank, Montreal’s leading mobster and top drug dealer was also implicated in the Brinks robbery. He thought he had the perfect alibi, but he and his henchmen were quickly hanged on circumstantial evidence. Judge Coderre, a religious conservative, used the Inquiry as his bully-pulpit. “Vice spreads its tentacles into every aspect of Montreal life, ” he wrote in his final report. He made many recommendations, all of which were ignored.

New York Times article: “300 to 600 houses of vice in Montreal, many owned by respectable women who live in good districts and seldom visit the brothels except to do administration.”

5. The Montreal Gazette’s quote at the time was “One day there’s going to be a catastrophe and if a fire breaks out one of these days no one will be able to get out.” These may or may not be the same quote. Unfortunately, the newspapers used creative license when transcribing the testimony and no full 10,000 page transcript of the Coderre Inquiry still exists, although Montreal City Hall has some original documents. https://www.archivesquebec.com/montrealp045.html . I visited there a few years ago and was shown a transcript on pdf that had been prepared for JAAA Brodeur and the Executive Committee. It was edited down and did not include Constable CT’s ‘prescient’ quote. From what I read, it appears that Constable CT brought up the incriminating evidence against my grandfather without even being asked. He changed the subject himself in mid interview. This transcript did contain a vivid account of a visit to a house of prostitution made by an undercover American. All he had to do was to ask the cabby and he was guided to this brothel (that was said to be under the protection of the police) where a dozen of drug-addled girls wearing ‘handkerchiefs’ were displayed before him.

6. The UA chain did not have children as customers, said Cousins, but Sunday was the company’s biggest day at the box office for adults. If Sunday showings were cancelled, United Amusements would have to close down their entire operation…. United Amusements was a movie distribution chain founded by Greek immigrant George Ganetakos during the WWI years.. He started out small, showing ‘flickers’ on the wall o f his uncle’s ice cream shop, then took on Ernest Cousins (an ice cream man) and my great uncle Isadore Crepeau when he expanded. Eventually his company became part of Famous Players. United Amusements built many of the gorgeous Montreal movie palaces of the day. Greeks were big in the movie biz as they were entrepreneurial by nature and this new movie revolution presented a big opportunity for them. In his testimony, as reported in the Montreal Gazette, Constable CT accused Greeks of corralling children into the movies. The Laurier Palace was owned by Canadians of Syrian origin, a group often back then conflated with Greeks. On the morning after the fire, as reported in Le Devoir, George Ganetakos, using the name George Nicholas, set up an emergency fund for the victims.

7. My Mom’s Uncle Isadore was a glass manufacturer/insurance agent whose elegant stained-glass window graced the Rialto Theatre on Park Avenue for many years. It’s still there – in what is now an entertainment venue. In 1933, Isadore ‘fell’ out of his office window, seven floors up, and met his death. The police deemed it an accident relating a ridiculous story and citing unnamed witnesses. Isadore was very likely hired by Ganetakos because of his connection to my grandfather. A survey of movie industry magazines, like Box Office, reveals that my grandfather’s name came up much more often than Isadore’s.

8. Juge Coderre and his wife often attended City Hall events like the soiree for the Royal Princes held in August 1927.

My grandfather’s brilliant city hall Career in Four Scandals: Part 2.

Flying Dentures and the Terrible Typhus: The Montreal Water and Power Scandal of 1927

Jules Crepeau, second from right seated on a fishing trip with Aldermen and Mayor Mederic Martin. He looks deadly bored doesn’t he? Jules Crepeau lived to work.

On September 29, 1930, in a memorable public meeting of the Montreal City Council filled with oratorical fireworks, twenty-nine aldermen debated whether my grandfather, Jules Crepeau, should be allowed to ‘resign’ from his lofty post of Director of City Services at City Hall. It was an especially loud and rowdy session of Council, with observers in the gallery booing Mayor Houde, but, apparently, ‘a religious hush’ came over the hall when Etienne Gauthier, Chief City Clerk, read out my grandpapa’s coerced letter of resignation.

This was the most important debate ever held at City Hall, cried out the left wing Liberal newspaper Le Canada the next day. The City Hall reporter from the Montreal Gazette had unusual fun with the story: “It was a hot session. A dozen usually placid aldermen lost their tempers and their ruddy complexions paled in anger. The mayor lost the main span of this false teeth in the middle of a sentence, caught them on the fly and pocketed them nonchalantly. But nobody lost his voice. His Worship and Ald. Schubert of St. Louis ward put on the main bout, and the alderman asked Ald. Bruno Charbonneau, the pro-mayor in the chair, to have the mayor expelled from the Council Chamber for bad behavior.”1

______________________________________________________________________________

Jules Crepeau’s third and fourth scandals overlap in the late 1920’s, so I am starting with the least unsettling of the two: The Montreal Water and Power controversy where the City purchased a much-needed privately-owned water utility based in a separate city, Westmount, for 14 million dollars.

Gazette headline

This purchase in 1927 was fairly benign business-as-usual except in the eyes of those Anglo businessmen who despised monopolies. Indeed, with the support of Hugh Graham (Lord Althostan) Camillien Houde used this non-scandal in 1928 to propel himself right onto the Montreal Mayor’s throne where he would remain, on and off, for decades – famously apposing the draft in WWII and even going to jail for it.

In 1930, Mayor Houde invoked this same Water and Power ‘scandal’ to force my grandfather Jules Crepeau, a 42 year veteran of City Hall, to resign his all-seeing post of Director of City Services, just two years after Council had praised him to the hilt on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of his tenure at City Hall.

Like my grandfather’s other scandals that I am writing about in this series, The Montreal Water and Power Purchase is a bit difficult to unpack, but let me try.

The Purchase was all about contagion, especially typhoid epidemics in 1904, 1909 and 1927 respectively. A key ethical question loomed over the purchase: whether municipal utilities existed to promote big business and speculation or to serve the better interests of the citizens of urban areas, rich and poor, or both.

In 1904, the typhus bug had likely originated in the pipes of Westmount’s deceptively named Montreal Water and Power Company, tainting the unfiltered water in this tony suburb and killing 30. But s**t famously flows downstream and three times the number of citizens were killed in the working class town of St. Henri.

Assess to potable water had long been a problem in St Henri, a low-lying ‘burb that flooded every spring. That town also housed a number of abattoirs and tanneries mucking up the natural water supply. In 1910, the infant mortality rate in St. Henri was world class.

The beleaguered citizens of St Henri had to pay two water taxes, one to the Company and one to the municipality. Most people couldn’t afford it.

Thus St Henri was forced to pay the water tax for many of its poorer citizens. At the turn of the 20th century, this burden proved too much and, in 1906, St Henri was absorbed into the City of Montreal.*2.

From then on it was understood that the City of Montreal would have to purchase the waterworks from its private owners– it was just a matter of time. Between 1917 and 1926, a succession of bills were passed in the Quebec Legislature making way for the City to purchase Montreal Water and Power. Meanwhile, Montreal Water and Power continued to be ‘a thorn in the side of the city.’ 9

And when the purchase was finally approved by Council on February 14, 1927, the timing was most suspicious – or auspicious, depending on the point of view.

It seems the City Council signed off on the purchase shortly after Senator Norman Webster purchased the company stock in parcels between the spring and autumn of 1926 from the Hanson Brothers, through a family trust located in New York State. Webster paid only nine million, five hundred thousand dollars for the company. The city taxpayers were out four and a half million.

Apparently, the Montreal Star and Standard (owned by Hugh Graham until 1925) were the only English newspapers that condemned the purchase outright. The Council either acted too hastily, they said, or there were corrupt motives involved.

Surprisingly, no one mentioned the typhoid epidemic, taking hold right then in February, 1927, as a very good reason for Council to rush to purchase Montreal Water and Power, considering the events of 1904. I guess no one wanted to frighten away those monied American tourists who were flocking to Montreal for a boozy good time. 4

The Crepeaus visiting Atlantic City in 1927 or 28 judging from my mother’s size. Hmm…Working vacation? Atlantic City had no prohibition. You could probably cut the tension at home with a knife, considering what Jules was going through back then. My grandmaman had her own altar at home and kept a house full of priests. Was she super religious or was she afraid of something?

Alderman Mercure soon mounted a libel suit against the Montreal Standard on behalf of Council, so all people in question had to publicly testify.

On the stand Norman Webster was positively cocky. Yes, he owned most of the shares in the family trust. Maybe he had been at the Quebec legislature in early 1926 when the bill was passed giving Montreal the go-ahead to purchase Montreal Water and Power, but he knew nothing about it. He was there on other business, Presbyterian Church Union. No, he hadn’t ever intended to quickly flip the company to the City, at least not until the City Council approached him.

The Court ruled that the controversial purchase was legal and above-board: that’s what businessmen do, speculate. Montreal Water and Power was created for no other reason than to be purchased for a profit, in the future, said the Court. It was the responsibility of the City’s Executive Committee of aldermen, led by “Montreal’s Napoleon” JAAA Brodeur to have stopped the Webster purchase were it, indeed, such a bad deal for citizens. Brodeur (who died but a few months later) had testified that he knew about Webster’s prior purchase but he still thought the deal a good one.

La Presse pic of huge reception for UK PM Baldwin August 2, 1927. My grandfather, along with Alderman Mercure and Mayor Mederic Martin were among the copious head table guests, which included Norman Webster and Sir Hugh Graham. The Royal Princes were also in town to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Confederation. David and his brother were out golfing at a public event this lunch hour but they had attended a ceremony at City Hall that morning, an event organized by my grandfather’s office.

How does my poor grandpapa fit into all this? Well, Houde claimed that as Director of City Services it was his job to warn all the aldermen against the deal.

My grandfather defended himself in the papers by saying that he did not even attend the council meeting at City Hall where the aldermen voted to seal the purchase, so how could he have warned anyone? He only learned about the purchase the next day, he claimed.

It is a bit weird that he did not attend that Council meeting, since that was one of his many, many tasks. Was it a shady session? Maybe. Did my grandfather know about it? Probably.8

During the 1928 election campaign, Camillien Houde called out as corrupt the late Mr. Brodeur and a certain name-left-unspoken “everybody knows who he is” Minister at Quebec.

Houde won the April 2 election handily, winning over voters in English wards specifically on the W and P issue, or so said the Montreal Gazette, and the very next day a report was commissioned on all aspects of the Montreal Water and Power purchase. A board of arbitration put the price at fourteen million and Mayor Houde would go on to ratify the purchase. All in all, the Montreal Water and Power purchase was a very good thing for the city.

Still, Houde used the Water and Power purchase to bounce my grandfather two years later, saying the electorate had given him the mandate to do so back in 1928.

My grandfather wrote up a short letter of resignation on September 22, 1930 but he said in the newspapers that it was up to Council whether or not to accept it. Thus came about that rowdy debate at City Hall on September 29th, recounted almost word-for-word in most of the Montreal newspapers, except in the Montreal Star, where the news report was kept short and simple.1

Le Canada suggested that my grandfather had become ‘an embarrassment’ to Houde because he knew too much about the new administration. This was highly probable. Before acquiescing to Houde’s demand, my grandfather negotiated an enormous severance payout and life pension which one might guess was in return for his future silence. And the circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s untimely death in 1938 suggests the same thing.*7

In the end, on that cool autumn evening in late September, twenty-two aldermen – all Houdists – voted to accept my grandfather’s resignation and seven voted not to. My grandfather would retire and still be the second highest paid person at City Hall.

During that fateful council session Alderman Trepanier, my grandfather’s long-time ally, argued passionately on his behalf – claiming that Mayor Houde had his aldermen ‘by the throat.’ He was forced to retract that statement, replacing it with something less aggressive, “The aldermen are pirouetting to Houde’s every demand,” he said.

Houde was undeterred. “The people want revenge for the Montreal Water and Power Scandal and they want revenge for the Laurier Palace Fire,” he boomed, spitting out his lower plate.

And so we get to my grandfather’s fourth, most meandering – and most murky – career scandal at Montreal City Hall in the 1920’s, the Laurier Palace Fire/Coderre Police Corruption Scandal. This is where my grandfather’s story starts to look like the convoluted plot for a season of Line of Fire. To be continued in Part 3.

David, the Royal Prince, with Mayor Mederic Martin on the morning of their visit. The charismatic prince sorely disappointed his female fans a few hours later by rushing to the golf game in Laval des Rapides incognito instead of taking an open car on a parade route. Still, may privileged guests got to follow the princes on their round.

1. Read the entire Gazette report here: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=Fr8DH2VBP9sC&dat=19300930&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

Le Canada, published in league with the Liberal Party of Canada, called the debate at the council session, the most important ever held at City Hall. They also said ‘there was a religious silence in the room” as my grandfather’s resignation letter was read out..

The Montreal Star story, of which I have a paper clipping, was much more restrained, featuring classic reporting that summarized the situation and said ‘lot’s more happened.’ It mentioned the flying teeth, though.

2.Lord, Kathleen. “Days and Nights: Class, gender and on Notre Dame Street in St. Henri, 1875-1905. McGill Thesis 2000.

3.This according to Fong’s book on McConnell and Wikipedia FR on Houde. The Star’s archives aren’t online anywhere. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camillien_Houde

4.The epidemic was taking hold probably right around then. By March the numbers were making the newspapers. There would eventually be 5,000 cases and 533 deaths. Americans sent up their health experts to locate the cause – eventually found to be milk not water. With no prohibition in Montreal in 1927, the city was a tourist haven for Americans looking for a good time. That’s probably why Council didn’t bring up the epidemic in their defence. (My opinion only.) Brodeur later denied there was any typhoid epidemic at all. “Just a few cases.”

5. In 1927, L’Autorite Magazine, among other revues, called my grandfather an innocent pawn of Chairman Brodeur, during the inquiry into the Laurier Palace Fire in 1927. In this particular case, I suspect they got it wrong. See my next post. They also claimed Houde kept Jules on at first because he needed his knowledge.

6. Le Canada was a very modern-looking newspaper with lots of ads and a ladies and sports page. (See BANQ for more info.) It was a newspaper published in league with the Liberal Party of Canada, and contained many scathing articles and editorials about the ‘firing’. They refused to call it a resignation. Basically, they said the new Houde administration was corrupt, already breaking laws at all levels of government, putting hardworking fathers out of their city jobs and replacing them with their own. (The Depression was starting and unemployment was rampant in Montreal. Le Canada contested Houde’s claim that the people wanted Jules out over the Montreal Water and Power deal, since these same people, they said, had re-elected most of the alderman who voted for the deal in 1928. (I’m not sure if this is true.) They said my grandfather was gotten rid of cause ‘he knew too much and maybe he had become….embarrassing.’ Probably true. When City Hall contested the Pension in 1930 /1931, there were snippets in newspapers here and there that my grandfather might run for municipal office, even as Mayor. Did he really want to run for Mayor? Not quite his style. The average Joe on the street didn’t know his name, *unless they read the tabloids in 1914. I think these postings were little threats. “Make sure I get the pension, or…” Le Devoir did not think it right that my grandfather was turfed out, “ He will be a hard man to replace: no one knows like he does how to keep the wheels of municipal government running smoothly,” but they laughed at the idea that the Houde administration was more corrupt than the previous administration ‘which was well known to be run by liberals.’ They also claimed at the time that my grandfather managed to keep the scandal over the Water and Power sale at arm’s length – at the time, anyway. They suggested that all his scandals, including the one in 1914 over the bribery, only served to enhance his reputation at City Hall.

To get his pension the city charter had to be amended at Quebec..

7. My grandfather finally won the court case and got his pension (and retroactive payments) in 1931. In 1937, under financial pressure during the Great Depression, the city rescinded my grandfather’s pension. (Thank you Christian Gravenor for digging out that info.) .Just two weeks later, Jules would be hit by a car near his home in NDG, a car driven by an off-duty policemen, get a broken his leg among other serious injuries, spent two months in the hospital, and die a year later of bone cancer (from the x-rays, my mother always said.). All very suspicious, wouldn’t you say? My mother who was only 16 at the time of the incident thought it was an accident, but my cousins were told he was murdered.

8. My grandfather’s job, as defined clearly by the City Charter, was to be the liaison between top employees, like the city engineer (a Mr. Terrault) and the powerful Executive Committee of aldermen, although this worked only in theory. 8 As the unelected top civil servant he was expected to be neutral on all issues but the very nature of this position made that next to impossible. No doubt my grandpapa Jules was a pawn of the powerful JAAA Brodeur, among others even higher up in the political pecking order. I suspect he was ordered to stay out of it – or he chose not to participate out of reservations of his own. During testimony into the Laurier Palace Fire taking place simultaneously an alderman said as much.

9. At the court hearing it was described as such by another alderman.

A copy of my grandfather’s coerced letter of resignation from his City Hall File that I retrieved. For all of his scandals, and all the work his office did, the file was pretty thin. I suspect it has been heavily redacted long ago.

MY GRANDFATHER’S BRILLIANT CITY HALL CAREER – IN FOUR SCANDALS: Part 1

Bonsecours Market, Montreal, circa 1900.

If a British novel penned in the first part of the 20th century contains a Canadian character (for example Brideshead Revisited, or Bridge on the River Kwai) that character is inevitably English and from Montreal. Most UK readers of the era would have been unfamiliar with any other Canadian city, including Toronto.

Founded in 1642 as a fur-trading fort, Montreal’s port is strategically located on the St. Lawrence River. By 1900 the city was the financial and industrial capital of Canada– and only increasing in wealth and influence as the rest of the country became more and more industrialized.

The city (majority English in the early going) expanded greatly around that time, gobbling up the mostly French suburbs and flipping the balance of power at City Hall. This expansion also put a strain on city services, especially the housing, water works and transportation systems. Businessmen of all stripes scrummed for the right to improve these services – and make a bundle in the process. The question of the day: were water and power and transportation monopolies good or bad for the average citizen.

The city saw unprecedented immigration in the 1910 era, the numbers peaking in 1912. This influx of mostly poorer people from both Northern and Southern Europe further strained the already inadequate city infrastructure, generating some scary, well-publicized urban problems (including typhoid and ‘the social evil’ of prostitution) and giving rise to a prominent social reform movement. This reform movement was led by McGill professors, clergymen and the elite wives of successful businessmen whose good intentions, often handicapped by an intransigent value system5, inevitably got entangled with the dirty politics and deep dark prejudices of the day.1

The Beck Detectaphone Affair: Tawdry Tabloids and Tasty Tortieres

Jules Crepeau’s first scandal of record at Montreal City Hall was small potatoes. In 1900, as Secretary in charge of Bonsecours Market (the main farmer’s market in the city) he was called to testify on behalf of one Germain Tessier, Clerk-in-Chief, who apparently forced vendors to pay ‘bonuses’ to him for the rental of stalls. It was all on the up and up, said my grandfather. Mr. Tessier was honest and these costs arise naturally and are not, as some butchers were claiming, ‘a surcharge to pay for the next municipal elections.’

My grandfather’s second scandal was much more substantial, a meaty pulp fiction style fiasco involving all levels of government that almost put an early end to his brilliant City Hall career.

Indeed, as the Toronto World tabloid loudly reported in a March, 1914 headline: “Most highly-seasoned stew that has ever been uncovered in Canada. Beats all other scandals put together.”

Jules, along with a handful of members of the provincial legislature, allegedly got caught accepting bribes in a sting set up by journalist Edward Beck, former Editor-in-Chief of the Montreal Herald who had recently started his own tabloid Beck’s Weekly with the help of former Herald publisher Lorne McGibbon,2 just so he could write about it.

McGibbon was livid over a proposed 40 year tramways deal that would greatly benefit his arch-rival, Montreal Star publisher, Hugh Graham. McGibbon and Beck hired Burns detectives from the US armed with ‘detectaphones’ in the hope of proving that the tramways people were bribing members of the legislative assembly.

That didn’t work out. Instead, the American detectives posed as members of the Montreal Fair Association, a group hoping to get a private bill passed at Quebec so that they could start up a horse-racing and liquor business. They allegedly got my grandfather to accept 3,500 dollars a year in return for insider help, effectively doubling his salary as second assistant city clerk – were the charges true.

Sir Hugh Graham nuturing his aldermen from La Patrie 1914.

This all came down a month before the 1914 municipal election where it looked like the municipal Reform party, that had been elected in 1910 with help from Montreal suffragists, would be thrown out paving the way for the much despised tramways deal.

Now, it helps to have a background in the complicated Montreal/Quebec politics of that era -and thanks to a 1972 Masters thesis, my own decade-long research as well as BANQ fonds, I do.3

But let this excerpt from the Toronto World summarize the bribery situation (and its myriad mysteries) for you.

Yes, my grandfather got caught up in something much bigger than himself:a series of feuds between the municipal reformers, mostly ‘benign’ English businessmen who wanted to clean up what they saw as a corrupt political system and the ‘machine,’ an informal alliance of aldermen arranged in a hierarchy, who made sure their poorer wards got all the infrastructure improvements while they allegedly pocketed pork, as well as much bitterness between two English publishing titans, Hugh Graham and Lorne McGibbon, who had once been partners in a scheme to control Montreal’s newspapers.4

My small potatoes second assistant city clerk of a grandfather was held up to the voting public5 by Beck as an example of a corrupt (see “impure”)4 French City Hall when the real flash point was a transportation mega deal that would pour millions into the coffers of various Square Mile multi-millionaires, most of them Anglos.5

My grandfather’s name was dragged through the mud in many English and French tabloids, all of whom quoted Beck’s Weekly.

By the look of Beck’s purple prose, he really had it in for my grandfather. It seems personal.

“The City Hall is a sweet-scented sink hole of pollution if men like Crepeau speak the truth. Their greedy official hands take toll of contracts, levy tribute on ordinances, and prey upon the poor city labourers. Graft, graft, graft is written over the doorways, the lintels and on the doorposts.” 6

According to the newspaper Le Devoir, my grandfather’s mustachioed face filled up the entire front page of Beck’s first edition. Ouch! La Patrie tabloid put a smaller pic cropped from grandpapa’s official City Hall picture in their newspaper the next day. (It’s probably the same pic.)

The Beck’s Weekly account also made my grandfather look very stupid. “The endurance of the operators (of the detectaphone) were sorely tried by the gabbiness of the Handy Man of City Hall.”

Now, Jules Crepeau was anything but stupid. He was an energetic man – with complete recall – who hustled and muscled his way up the municipal ladder over a 32 year period. “Affable, intelligent, ambitious and active, with pride of purpose,” were words used to describe him*7, as were “a model of courteousness and a living encyclopedia of municipal affairs.” Apparently, he didn’t join the civil service for “security and repose.”8 He also had powerful people in the Liberal Party of Canada on his side.10

In 1888, Jules was a message boy in short pants in the Health Department (my mother like to say he started out ‘sweeping the floors’) and by 1921 he was Director of Services in a dark power suit, his office overseeing basically everything that came down in the city.

Back in 1914, my ‘handyman’ grandfather had clearly earned a reputation for being useful, but I think he was merely a willing (?) pawn of ‘the machine’ and of some very powerful politicians and industrialists – on both sides of the English and French divide and at all levels of government.

If he were greedy, as Beck so salaciously writes, he didn’t seem to prosper above his salary grade. *9. Even at the height of his career in the 1920’s, my grandmother Maria Roy was no ermine-draped socialite. She herself swept the floors in their three storey grey stone at 72 Sherbrooke West (right beside the Liberal Reform Club of Canada, a watering hole for political bigwigs); she herself rolled out the dough on her fabulously fatty tourtieres; and she gave away to Catholic charities most items from the roomful of ‘gifts’ Jules received at Christmas – keeping only the cigars and certain beautiful pieces of Chinoiserie.

In April 1914, my grandfather sued Beck and McGibbon (and Tarte of La Patrie) for libel and won. He was awarded 100 dollars in reparations and two thousand in legal costs by the Court. He donated the 100 dollars to a children’s hospital, as reported in the Liberal l’Autorite newspaper. (See bottom)

It is no coincidence that Jules was defended by R.L Perron11, distinguished Montreal lawyer, Quebec Liberal MLA, lawyer for the Tramways people and President of the Reform Club (Liberal) of Canada. Thanks to Perron, the detectives’ evidence was deemed inadmissable in court. Of course, it had already been printed word-for-word in numerous newspapers.

Beck’s Weekly ceased publication in 1915 during WWI. It is said that Hugh Graham made sure Beck couldn’t get the newsprint.

In 1916 Beck went West to work for a Winnipeg newspaper12 (where he was sentenced to prison for contempt of court – but won an appeal) and then he left journalism and moved into public relations, working for the pulp and paper industry headquartered in Ste Anne de Bellevue, Quebec. He stayed there until his death in 1930, occasionally planting stories in the Toronto Press about corrupt Montreal politics.

My grandfather kept his job as second assistant city clerk, soon rising to first assistant city clerk, occasionally earning some strategically-placed praise in the left-liberal newspapers l’Autorite and Le Canada until in 1921 he was unanimously appointed Director of City Services. This was a new post created with a new city charter – and after broad public consultations. This lofty post was specifically created to ensure that the city services were distributed evenly between the wards. Ha ha.

But this politically sticky post (being at the centre of all municipal activity; the designated liaison between top elected officials and the seven city department heads, including the Chief of Police) put my dear grandpapa in the way of other ugly scandals.

I will write about those in parts 2, 3 of this series: My Grandfather’s Brilliant City Hall Career in Four Scandals.

1.https://archive.org/details/lamtropolededema00nant/page/8/mode/2up?q=%22Jules+Crepeau%22

For more information: Montreal, City of Tomorrow (in French) by Honorable Nantel, 1910. Internet Archive. I found this book entering my grandfather’s name. The author is describing the city in 1910 and how its recent vast expansion has created opportunities and problems. He wants to pattern Montreal after Paris. He thanks my grandfather, among others, for providing him with information.

2. Lorne McGibbon was a prominent Conservative Party organizer who had brought the bribery scheme idea to a certain Thomas Chase Casgrain, Postmaster General in Borden’s Conservative party, who claimed it was ‘criminal’ – so he went it alone. During WW1 McGibbon spoke at Win the War rallies in support of Premier Borden and conscription. Indeed, he claimed in a speech, that any man who didn’t serve in the war shouldn’t be given work at home.

Cap-aux-Diamants, revue d’histoire de Quebec.L’annee memorable 1914. Issue 117. 2014 Page 49.

3.. The Municipal Reform Movement in Montreal: 1886-1914, University of Ottawa Master’s Thesis by Michel Gauvin. 1972.

4. The terms ‘benign’ and ‘machine’ from the Gauvin Thesis. ‘Machine’ refers to an earlier administration, but I think it still applies here. “Benign” is used in the sense that these businessmen believed their motives to be pure and beneficial to both their pocketbooks and the citizenry.

5. Montreal had universal male suffrage with exceptions. It could be said that many (most?) male British citizens could vote in municipal elections: they had to live in a house above a certain rental price, pay off their water tax. There were other stipulations. Widows and unmarried women with property could also vote.

In 1910, inspired by a 1909 visit from Britain’s Ethel Snowden, a moderate ‘maternal’ suffragist, the Montreal Council of Women mounted an effort to get the female vote out and ‘purify’ City hall. Their words. Widows and unmarried women of property could vote in the municipal elections. Council of Women volunteers went door-to-door and sure enough, their Reform candidates and Mayor, John James Guerin, was elected. The women were elated, assuming they had won the battle for their key interests, child welfare, temperance, etc. Guerin gave up the post within two years, claiming that as Mayor he was powerless do to anything.

In 1914, populist Mayor, Mederic Martin, a cigar manufacturer, won the election. He would remain Mayor for many years.

It was these women reformers who liked to refer to City Hall as ‘impure.’ Martin, irked by a letter they sent to him about the Tramways Affair, dared call them out in the press as women of leisure, “idlers” but he had to publicly retract his statement. These women were anything but lazy. He got them back: at the public consultations into the Tramways Affair the Council of Women was asked only silly questions: “Why can’t women get the ticket from their purses before getting on the tram instead of holding up the line.” Why can’t women shoppers shop outside of rush hour?” OUCH.

When the Montreal Council of Women helped get the Reform ticket elected in the 1910 municipal elections, Carrie Derick, President of the Council and Montreal’s No. 1 suffragist, wrote an ecstatic piece in The White Ribbon (the magazine of Christian Temperance Union) about how they had cleansed City Hall of impurities. Purity was a loaded concept in 1910, an era of tainted water and milk and of heavy immigration from Southern Europe. Here’s a bit from her article:

Self-seeking and dishonour, which would have been scorned in private life, long characterized the Municipal Government of Montreal.

The Citizens appeared to be indifferent or helpless, allowing corrupt officials to display open disregard of all right principles. Associations and leagues to purify the administration of Municipal affairs sprang into being and died.

The result of our united efforts and public-spiritedness paid off (in the election of 1912). An unusually heavy vote was registered. Practically the whole of the reform candidates were elected.

Men united with women in urging women electors to do their duty by voting in order that civic reform might be secured, reform which alone would diminish the unceasing supply of sick, poor, the weak and depraved...”

Derick’s ideas were inspired by the eugenics theory. She was a gold-medal McGill geneticist, educated in Europe, and she gave many lectures, some of them mixing her areas of expertise, social reform, suffrage and social engineering. Her stature lent these ideas weight. The movement would accelerate after WWI and culminate in 1924 in the Coderre Inquiry into Police Malfeasance which would again ensnare my grandfather Jules, by this time the Director of City Services. I will write about that in Part 3 of this series.

5.The group included McConnell and Sir Rodolphe Forget who supported Mayor Martin in in 1914. (My grandfather was kin to the Forget’s, supposedly, but he was a Conservative Senator and my grandfather was aligned with the Liberals, so…)

6. Beck’s Weekly was quickly founded when Sir Hugh Graham bought the Herald from under McGibbon after Beck, as Editor in Chief, complained about the Tramways Deal in the Herald in March 1913, with a full page rant in huge 20 point enboldened type. “The Tramways Company’s Brazen Demands: It is well-known that the Tramways Company has City Hall under its thumb and works its sweet will with the people working there. It is known to have an alliance with a sector of the newspaper industry, stifling public opinion. The President of the Tramway and his henchmen occupy seats in the legislature and vote away people’s rights.”

Beck also invited the Montreal Suffrage Association to create a multi-page insert in return for their support of his point of view. That group passed a resolution against the deal (not in their usual purview) soon thereafter. The suffrage insert was published, with a front page letter from Christobel Pankhurst hiding out in Paris. The Montreal Suffrage Association and Beck then had an argument over the profits.

7. From his obituary in Le Devoir, 1938. It was here where it is said that grandpapa had complete and utter knowledge of every detail, however minuscule, of municipal government “like a bank vault.” (This sentiment was widely held.) He was the go-to-guy even at the Quebec legislature, the most influential man when it came to private bills, said the obit.

Another newspaper article said, “Jules Crepeau went grey teaching aldermen their jobs.” In those days, the federal Liberals were aligned with the provincial Liberals who were aligned (claimed the Editor of Le Devoir in 1930 upon the force ‘resignation’ of my grandfather) with Mederic Martin’s regime. Of course, my grandfather, as a civil servant, was supposed to be neutral in his allegiances, but the very nature of his job as defined by the City Charter made this next to impossible.

8. From an article in L’Autorite newspaper upon his installation as Director of City Services in 1921.

9. I met someone online whose grandfather, a corrupt cop-on-the-beat of the era, had managed to buy four homes, at a time when few working class men in Montreal owned their own homes. It is possible that my father needed money to buy his way up the ladder, but it also seems unnecessary, considering his connections and his boundless energy and sharp mind.

My grandfather’s home at 72 Sherbrooke West was right beside the Liberal Reform Club of Canada, where Canada’s Liberal Party power brokers socialized over the decades. No coincidence, I suspect.

I can see that Mme Guerin-Lajoie also lived a few doors down. She’s the famous Quebec suffragist. I wonder if my grandmaman knew her. I assume my grandpapa did.

10. https://numerique.banq.qc.ca/patrimoine/details/52327/3584769?docsearchtext=Jules%20Crepeau%20Beck L’Autorite newspaper’s explanation of the Beck affair, March 1914. It’s all bait and switch tramways business, apparently. The story is put on a back page with the headline being “A tissue of lies,” my grandfather’s quote. This liberal anti-clerical newspaper was started in 1913 by one Tancrede Marcil, who was a disciple of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. BANQ’s blurb claims Laurier was the real ‘chef’ of this newspaper. Marcil also worked on the start up of Le Devoir newspaper.

The elite newspaper praised and promoted and acted as cheerleader for my grandfather throughout his late City Hall career. I’m not surprised that the Liberal Party of Canada was on my grandfather’s side. I just wish I knew more. It looks as if my grandfather was part of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s plan to rebuild the Liberal Party of Canada and get re-elected. The party had been turfed out in 1911. That was working for Laurier at the beginning, but then WWI happened and the infamous Conscription Crisis killed his chances. He died, anyway, in 1919. WWI broke out a few months after the Beck business, in August.

The article at bottom appeared in l’Autorite in1915, when it seemed that the Chief City Clerk, Patrician lawyer/journalist/scholar L 0 David, my grandfather’s boss, might win a seat in Parliament. (He didn’t). (I got it off BANQ). They are rehabilitating Jules’ reputation after the Beck scandal. LO David, a Senator, made some unsuccessful attempts at winning political seats federally and provincially. It is said that this cultured, learned man preferred writing his histories over the day-to-day minutia of his important day job as Chief City Clerk. That allowed my grandfather, a self-made, humbly-educated ‘detail’ man, son of a mere house painter, to punch above his weight at work.

In a front page editorial in March 1914, Publisher Marsil derided those people who said his newspaper was started up by Pro-Tramways people, much as Beck’s Weekly was started up by anti-tramways people. Nonsense, his newspaper was independent, Marcil said.

Louis Dupire Editor of Le Devoir wrote in 1930, upon Jules’ forced resignation from his position at City Hall that attacks such as Beck’s only served to increase his prestige.

11. RL Perron would benefit, it seems, in 1927 from the Montreal Water and Power Deal, my grandfather’s next scandal.

12. This was during the Galt Inquiry into some Conservative Government impropriety involving legislative building contracts. Beck refused to testify claiming the inquiry was illegal. He died in 1930, after an appendicitis operation, but he lived to see my grandfather turfed out of City Hall by Camillien Houde, so he likely died happy. He got a short obit in the New York Times, where where the bribery scandal was mentioned as his crowning achievement.

Below: Young Grandpapa and Edward Beck. Archive.org. Bitter adversaries or politics as usual? I suspect Beck hated my grandpapa because they were equal in social standing, pretty much earning the same salary.

My grandfather “The Handyman of City Hall.” According to Beck, my second-assistant city clerk of a grandfather ran the show. This is from Beck’s Weekly as republished in the Quebec Chronicle. BANQ
My unique story of the 1910 suffrage movement in Montreal.
My Story about Montreal during Prohibition, using two families, mine and my husband’s.

The Scofflaw southern granny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two of May’s Uncles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That Flapper Style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The unwed moms of the North Yorkshire Moors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My father’s ancient heritage on mytrueancestry.com.

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

Here it is

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

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

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

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

Thomas Fuddy Wells 1868-1951

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret votes

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

Suffragist: A person who advocates for votes for women.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 7, 1921, Richmond, Quebec.

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

Of, I am so delighted with this country!

It did not feel degrading in any way.

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

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

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

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

Brush with a (Messy) Icon

Marion1FIXED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mariaondancefixe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saranac Lake

This picture is more than mere family memorabilia.

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

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

EinsteinatPLAY

 

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

The Family Genealogist

 

letterpic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mcleod

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

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

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

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

Isabel and Muriel were sisters-in-law.

Floraa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

peppler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

My Grandfather, North Yorkshire and Discobulus

VenusandAdonis

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

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

helmsley

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

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

helmsleynixonhouse

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

abbott'swellcottge

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

RobertCENSUS

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

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

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

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

father

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

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

Lord Feversham 1829-1915

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

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

MRsDOROTHYNIXON

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

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

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

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

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

Duncombe

Dunscombepark1