All posts by Dorothy Nixon

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

The Family Genealogist

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isabel and Muriel were sisters-in-law.

Floraa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

My Grandfather, North Yorkshire and Discobulus

VenusandAdonis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

father

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

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

Lord Feversham 1829-1915

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

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

MRsDOROTHYNIXON

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

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

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

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

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

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I Remember Maman: Montreal’s Film Row Circa 1940

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Marie-Marthe Crepeau Nixon

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

 

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

To the Lighthouse Part 3

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

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

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

To the Lighthouse: Part 111. One Mean SOB

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

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

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

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

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Abbot’s Well Rievaulx, North Yorkshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BATUACES

Batu Caves Religious Resort, Selangor, Malaya

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

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

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

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

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

The  old armed guard waves us on.

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

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

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

 See  Night Flight, here on this blog

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

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

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

 

To the Lighthouse Part 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St Bees on the Coast of Cumbria.

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

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

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

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

As if reading my mind, the boy says,

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

Do you have good eyes?

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

Warship sightings are commonplace these days.

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

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

Emma Cowen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St Bees Head courtesy of visitcumbria.org

 

Read To the Lighhouse Part 111 here

To the Lighthouse – Part 1

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

whitehaven to st bees cliff walk

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

(Sound Effects)  heavy breathing, feet pounding earth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

myfatherugby

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

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

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

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

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

I am running, running into the past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, the sin of pride.

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

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

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

St Bees. Wikipedia. Photo by Doug Sim

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

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

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

my father and denise

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

 

PeterNixonandme

January 1954

 

To Be Continued..

To the Lighthouse Part 11

 

School boy lingo, specific to St Bees (apparently)

 

Minging: Prefect looking for trouble

Boss-eyed: cross-eyed

Mickeying off: to run away

Geordies: Miners

Cad: village boy

 

 

 

Resources :

 

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

St. Beghian Society Magazines

 

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

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

 

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

Growing up in WWII Cumbria BBC

 

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

William Andrews Nesfield bio

 

Border Reivers and Sir John Forster

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

The Geologic Story of West Cumbria

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

 

Biology and Ambition

 

marioncanoing

Marion canoeing circa 1907

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
Mariaon1906sherbrooke

Marion, seated bottom and other Sherbrooke High Teachers 1906

 

tighsolas

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

 

Afterward: (added March 14)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Stranger in his/her Bed: An Audio Drama

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

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

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

 

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

The Characters:

John Forster of Knockburn, Northumberland

(photos courtesy of Our Primitive Methodist Ancestors website.)

Emma Cowen of Durham, his wife.

 

The Places

Brampton, Cumberland, 1920

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

The Script

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How self-indulgent of her to feel this way!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dig came from her own angry place.

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

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

A stranger in his bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma chuckled out loud this time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Thinking about my Filles du Roi Ancestors

 

mapancestry

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

So, fun stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_

Notes and Resources

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Keeping Up with the Montgomerys

autoshow

Montreal Auto Show. 1914. McCord Museum photograph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TheNicholsos

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

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

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

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

MarionMON.PNG

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

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

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

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

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

 

Itineray

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

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

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

So wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clayton'sauto

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

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

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

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

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

Nichsolsonhomeafewdaysago

Tighsolas as it looks today.

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