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.

Dissenters and Poets

 

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Reverend John Forster. Published with the permission of the Primitive Methodist Ancestor Website.

Late in his life, Somebody Forster, my great-grandfather, awakened from his night’s sleep to ask his wife of many decades, ‘Woman, what are you doing in my bed?”  It was dementia.

Until lately, this serio-comic anecdote was the only thing I knew about my father’s mother’s father, other than that he was a Methodist Minister from the North of England. But, just last month, I accessed the 1901 UK Census, (for free, yea) and it took me about thirty minutes to find out all I could want about my great-grandfather Somebody.

First, I looked up my grandmother, Dorothy Forster, who I knew was born in 1895 in Middleton-on -Teesdale, County Durham, UK,  to see that her father was a Reverend John from Knockburn, Northumberland; her mother Emma, a former Cowen from Crook,  and, more importantly, that John was a Primitive Methodist Minister. (I checked. PM’s were dissenters; socialists and pacifists, apparently.) *1

Then, googling the keywords “John Forster” and “Primitive Methodist,”  I  landed on a webpage from a genealogy site, myprimitivemethodistancestors.org , with a short biography of Great-granddad John, with  grainy photos of him and wife Emma taken in 1914.

Apparently, John Forster, a bookish, self-educated son of a farmer, was an accomplished essayist who penned over fifty articles for the Connexions Magazine of the Primitive Methodists on sundry weighty topics including “Heredity in Relation to Morals” and “Primitive Methodism and the Labour Question.”(He also served as a Temperance Committee; amusing, as his daughter, my Grandma Dorothy*, could really slug back the gin!)

I was most intrigued, though, to see that John had published a book of poetry, in 1923, shortly after my father, his grandson, was born at the European Hospital near Kuala Lumpur, Malaya. The author claims that Reverend John’s poems ‘contain lyrics of extraordinary charm and grace.’

(Well, I know the Wasteland was published in 1922, ushering in modernity, it is claimed, but no one said anything as nice about T.S. Eliot’s poem 😉

Curious, of course, about these verses, I contacted the Primitive Methodism Website’s administrator, asking for help. She immediately emailed me back a longer biographical article about John Forster, but no examples of his poems.  The volume in question, Pictures of Life in Verse seems to have gone missing from the church/museum library.

Quelle Bummer!

There’s good news, though. This longer article lists Reverend John’s assignments or ‘circuits’ in chronological order.  The Forster family moved often, it seems, around the area:  Thornley, Crook, Middleham, Bradford, Middleton-in-Teesdale, (a very pretty sheepy village) about six other towns, then, it said, “his present one (1912) being Helmsley.”

Bingo!  I know from the 1911 UK Census, that Helmsley is the hometown of my grandfather, Robert Nixon.  Clearly, alliances were made in that era that resulted  in the marriage of John and Emma’s second daughter, Dorothy, to Robert Nixon, son of a delver in the local Rievaulx quarry, although a Great War would delay official matrimony.

Dorothy would have been 17 in 1912 and fresh out of her co-ed Quaker boarding school and Robert Nixon just 22, and working in service as a footman.3

Perhaps Robert’s prospects weren’t good enough for the righteous Reverend John. In 1913, according to online records,4 Robert, travelled to Malaya to work as a labourer in a rubber plantation. During WWI, Dorothy worked as a land girl, leading enormous Clydesdales through the woods, a comical sight as she was only 5 foot tall.*5

The same records also reveal that Robert returned to England in 1916, now the plantation’s Assistant Manager. This trip home was very likely to secure a wife for real as rubber company officials insisted their employees return to the UK to find respectable British (see: white) wives.

Whatever transpired back in Helmsley, North Yorkshire in 1916,  on December, 1921, *6 Reverend John Forster, perhaps taking time off from penning one of his charming verses, sent his second daughter, Dorothy  off to  Selangor, Malaya. She’d become pregnant almost immediately upon arrival. I know because my father, Peter, was born on October 23, 1922.7


  1. Checking into Emma Cowan’s parentage, I see that her ancestors belonged to this same church, Redwing Chapel, that has an online presence! United Congregation of Red Wing Chapel, Garrigill, and Low Chapel, Alston, Cumberland; http://www.fivenine.co.uk/family_history_notebook/source_extracts/parish_registers/cumberland/redwing_registers.htm
  2. Website: Myprimitivemethodistancestors.org
  3. UK Census 1911
  4. UK Immigration and Transportation Records http://www.familysearch.org
  5. Family Lore
  6. UK Immigration and Transportation Records. After WWI, there were many, many more unmarried women than men in England, so perhaps this had something to do with Dorothy’s decision to go to Malaya to marry Robert Nixon. They did not get married in the UK, or at least I can’t find any record of a marriage.
  7. Family lore, (my Aunt Denise, who died last month) said that Robert kept his Asian mistress after marriage. Dorothy eventually got her own boyfriend, a colonial lawyer who remained faithful to her until her death in 1971. Both Dorothy and Robert were interned at Changi Prison in Singapore during WWI. Dorothy was Women’s Camp Commandant for a term. I only met my grandmother once in 1967, when she came to visit. Robert  died while she was at our house in Montreal’s Snowdon district.  He fell off a ladder at his daughter’s, Denise, in Farnborough, Hants, UK.  I recall the telegram. I recall, also, that my grandmother managed to wipe a tear or two from her eyes. I’ve written about my Colonial Grandmother in a play Looking for Mrs. Peel, which makes it all the more amusing that my great-grandparents were named John and Emma.

Night Flight

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Peter Nixon, former RAF Ferry Command pilot, and new wife Marie-Marthe circa 1949.

My father had flown over the Nile.

The Nile River. In Africa.

And, even better, he had flown over the Nile…at night.

Weren’t we impressed, my two brothers and I, way back when in the 1960’s, to learn that particular spine-tingling fact.

Of course, we knew that our father had been in the War (well, duh) as part of something called the Ferry Command (ZZZzzzz) that moved planes back and forth over the ocean.

To us, our father’s Air Force career seemed dull and boring and highly unromantic and, obviously, not dangerous at all.

But, then, we kids ferreted out his black leather WWII log book.  We deciphered his compact, prep-school handwriting to see that he had been over the Nile at night and, now, our already strapping  6 foot 4 inch British Pater suddenly seemed taller in our eyes.

(How ever did he fit that huge Yorkshire farmer frame into those tiny mosquito planes, I now wonder.)

I write about this because yesterday my husband came to pick me up at Trudeau Airport in Dorval.

My plane from New York City had been delayed by  half an hour and he had wandered the premises for a bit.

“Do you know there’s a section of the airport devoted to the Ferry Command,” he asked me as we walked back to the car.

“No,” I said.

“And they show some of the airmen involved,” he continued. “Maybe your dad is one of them.”

But, I was too tuckered out from travelling all of one hour in a cramped commuter jet to take a look at said installation. Luckily, my husband had snapped some pictures on his phone.

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Half a century has now passed since the day we kids first perused that enigmatic leather log book.

My father has been dead for 10 years, succumbing in 2005 to Alzheimer’s in the Veteran’s Hospital at Ste. Anne de Bellevue.

While he was sick, a couple of books were (finally) written about the Ferry Command. I read them.

I came to realize that the Ferry Command is the reason I am here, on Earth and in Montreal.

The Ferry Command, you see, was headquartered at Dorval.

(Hence, the installation. Hence, IATA headquarters being in Montreal.)

My father never mentioned it, or, more likely, I wasn’t paying attention, but the Ferry Command was an important part of the WWII effort.

There was nothing safe about being a Ferry Command pilot. Ferry Command planes, I discovered, were shot down and/or crashed regularly, and some crashes (the ones that made headlines, anyway) involved planes that were taking a dozen or more Ferry Command pilots, huddled together like so many human popsicles in the frigid belly of the machine, back to Canada from an overseas mission.

What exactly was this Ferry Command? Well, before the US officially entered WWII, skilled American pilots were hired on the sly, at sky-high pay, to ferry planes from Canada to England.

Planes, secretly being manufactured in the States, were literally pushed over the Border, and, then, these Yankee flying aces would take them over to England.

When the US officially entered WWII,  enlisted men from the RAF were brought into the Ferry Command, my father among them.

My father, a British child of the Raj, was 19 in 1941, either having just finished prep school at St Bees on the coast of Cumberland, or a year into his Oxford studies.

He had been a top athlete at St Bees, captain of all the school teams. I’m guessing that’s why he was funnelled into the RAF.

Anyway, I read  that the Ferry Command pilots partied hard in the Mount Royal Hotel between assignments. I’m guessing my father met my French Canadian mother at one of these gatherings.

(Too late to ask either of them.)

Lately, I also learned something else of acute interest to me: that Ferry Command planes were serviced by young women maintenance workers at Keswick Airport in England.  I’ve seen certain alluring pictures on the RAF website. (I suspect they only chose the prettiest Screen Gems style women for these promo pics.)

Now, my father never mentioned that. That, certainly, would have stuck in my brain, way back when, in the optimistic era of the Beatles, Emma Peel and Women’s Lib; a time when WWII, to us Boomer children anyway,  seemed so many, many lightyears away.

How Now Black and White Cow. Isle of Lewis Obsessions.

This book above, The Genealogy of the Macaulays of Uig and this plaque, below,  in Hudson, Quebec, are related.

The other week, while strolling with our two dogs by the water in Hudson, Quebec, my husband and I passed another  couple walking their enormous pooch, a Newfoundlander-like dog, but one with large black and white patches.

I remarked on the unusual colouring of said canine and one of the owner’s replied, “Yes,  he’s our Jersey dog.”

I asked my husband,  “Aren’t Jersey cows brown? Those black and white cows you see everywhere are called something else. Aren’t I right?”

“Yes,” replied my husband, who grew up in the country so he knows a lot about such things. “Those black and white cows were developed by a guy from here in Hudson. There’s a plaque up on Mount Victoria? Do you want to do see?” It seems he couldn’t remember the name of the breed of cow, either.

So my husband took me to see this plaque, installed to honour the memory of a local man,Thomas Basset Macaulay, who developed a new breed of cow, the Holstein, on his experimental farm on the shores of the Ottawa River.

T.B. Macaulay, as it happens, was also the long-time President of Sun Life Insurance.

OK. So, what’s all this got to do with two-legged genealogy?

Well, the name T.B. Macaulay rang a bell with me.  I have a self-published book, The Genealogy of the Macaulays of Uig, in my house.

The book once belonged to Edith Nicholson, 1884-1977, my husband’s great aunt,a proud descendant of the Isle of Lewis Scots, those penniless crofters who were cleared from the land in the 1800’s and forced to emigrate to Canada and beyond.

My husband’s great aunt Dede, a teacher, left behind a slew of letters (from 1906 to 1936) and a few other personal possessions, including an 1888 two volume edition of Middlemarch; a yearbook from The Hostel from 1928 (that was McGill’s women’s Phys Ed residence);some yellowed newspaper clippings about the militant suffragettes; and this little genealogy volume, given to her in 1931.

The inscription reads: To Edith Nicholson, in appreciation of her connection with the Nicholson Institute of Stornoway. T.B. Macaulay.

There’s even a picture of Mr. Macaulay inside the book.

And here’s that inscription.

How well Mr. Macaulay knew my husband’s great aunt Dede, I don’t know. Edith had worked at Sun Life between 1917 and 1920, but only as a lowly stenographer in the accounting department.

After that she worked in the Registrar’s office at McGill and as a Tutor-in-Residence at the Hostel and as Assistant Warden at Royal Victoria College. In the 1930’s, Edith stepped out with Carrie Derick, the suffragist and first female full professor at McGill.

Edith’s family, from Richmond, Quebec was cash-poor but well-connected.  J.C. Sutherland, the long-time Superintendent of Protestant Education in Quebec, was a close friend. Edith’s father, Norman, had stumped for Sir Wilfrid Laurier back in the day.

But no Macaulay figures in any of the family’s 1,000 letters, although there are many mentions of Morrison’s and McLeod’s and other Isle of Lewis surnames. As far as I know from the same stash of correspondence, Edith got her job at Sun Life because the head of the Accounting Department lived beside her sister, Marion, on York Avenue in Westmount.

No, these two people didn’t have much in common, except that they were both of Isle of Lewis, Scotland, origin and they both were into genealogy big time. Somewhere along the line T.B. Macaulay learned of Miss Edith’s obsession.

Edith would visit the Hebrides homeland, herself, in 1933. She would bring back loads of information about the Nicolson Education Institute of Stornoway, a school. She was clearly proud of the connection she felt she had with this particular place. And for a few years in the 1930’s she would sign her name Edith Nicolson, without the H.

Now, that’s taking genealogy seriously!

Isle of Lewis genealogy is very well-documented on the Internet. This page leads to a story about how the Nicolsons and the Macaulays of Uig liked to feud over grazing privileges. But, of course.

Edith, second from right, in Navy League uniform, in front of Sun Life Building, 1917, during WWI.

Macaulay’s Secretary wrote the letter to Edith. It was slipped inside the book as was a genealogy of the Nicolson clan from Medieval times and later.

The Mysterious Charlie G: An Edwardian Era Love Tragedy

Edith and her beau circa 1909 somewhere near Potton Springs in the Eastern Townships of Quebec
Edith and her beau circa 1909 somewhere near Potton Springs in the Eastern Townships of Quebec

Edith Nicholson (1884-1977), my husband’s Great Aunt Dede, never married. She told her nieces and nephews and great nieces and great nephews that she lost her Great Love in a hotel fire. The couple wasn’t ‘officially engaged’ but there was ‘an understanding’.

Some believed DeDe, some didn’t.

In 2004, I found 300 Nicholson family letters from the 1908-1913 period in an old trunk – and in a letter dated May 3, 1910, Edith writes of this loss to her mother, Margaret:

Your letter received this am. It was so good to hear your voice over the phone. It was quite natural. Oh, how I wish I could talk over everything with you. It seems terribly hard to think it all for the best, when there are so many that are of no use living on and others that are held in esteem cut off in a moment. One thing, I am very thankful for that he wrote me. No doubt one of the last things that he did. I can’t express my feelings. I never felt so badly in my life. But I suppose there are few who have had so pleasant a one as I have, and trouble comes to all.

So the story was true, after all!

Edith mentions many young men in her letters sent from Montreal where she was working as a teacher back to Richmond where her Mom lived. Edith often uses only initials when talking of her romantic life. Apparently, back then, courting was something to be coy about.

It took me long while to figure out but her Great Love was one Charlie Gagne, bank clerk, from Levis, Quebec. A French Canadian man, most likely. Now, that was a surprise.

It seems Edith and this Charlie had an on-again off-again relationship through 1908-1909.

Gagne is a French Canadian name but from the letters it is clear Charlie spent time around Edith’s group of Richmond Protestants. Perhaps he was a convert from Catholicism. In Montreal, Edith worked as a teacher at French Methodist Institute in Westmount, a school where Catholics, mostly French Canadians, were converted to “the Way.”

The Nicholson’s also left behind a photo album from the 1910 era. I have photographs of Edith on a country outing with a handsome young man. If this is Charlie of the May 3, 1910 letter, he is a slim, with a charming smile and a cocky attitude and he is a great dresser. Edith Nicholson would have accepted no less.

There are a few other mysterious mentions of Charlie, or Charlie G or CG in the 1909-10 letters.

In August 1909, Edith writes her Mom saying she managed to ‘show’ Charlie to her father at a train station, (it sounds like a set up) but her father was cool to her young man.

In September 1909, Edith’s mother Margaret writes her father Norman and says “Charlie has gone to Mexico. So that flirtation is over.”

In October 1909, Edith writes her Mom saying she hasn’t heard from Charlie G and that she has no intention of trying to contact him. “He could still be in Mexico, for all I know.”

In February, 1910, Edith writes that she is taking medicine, for ‘her heart has had a jolt’.

Then there’s NOTHING but that May 3 letter about Charlie’s death. Edith writes that she is looking at his picture in the Montreal Star and that “it does not do him justice.”

So I had bits and pieces of a sad love story, but I had to fill in the blanks. I couldn’t even be sure it was Charlie G. who died in the hotel fire.

One sentence in the May 3 missive was especially enigmatic. “It seems if it had only been an accident, it would be easier to understand.”

So, about 5 years ago, I tripped over to the McGill Library to check out the May 1910 Star.

Amidst the pages and pages of stories of Edward VII’s death, I found a story about a Cornwall fire, the Rossmore House Fire, where a Charlie Gagne, bank clerk from Levis, perished.   Proof at last.

Charlie had recently been transferred to the Cornwall branch from the Danville, Quebec branch, which is near Richmond, Edith’s home-base. (The February jolt!)

Only half of Charlie’s body was found at the scene and that was burned beyond recognition. There was only a tie pin to identify him.

The fire had started in a stairwell and, as a boarder who knew the hotel well, Charlie tried to use the stairway to escape the fire, as did a few other boarders, including an entire family.

Most hotel clients had been rescued by fireman at their hotel window, or had frantically jumped to safety.

There was no photograph with this Montreal Gazette newspaper article, though – so I was confused.

Then Google News archives came online and I saw that the Rossmore Fire happened on April 29!

I headed down to Concordia’s Webster Library to check out the January-April reel of the 1910 Montreal Star.

Sure enough, the Cornwall fire was front page news on April 29 as the Star was an afternoon paper.

The next day’s issue had a back of the newspaper follow up article on the fire with a photograph of Charlie Gagne, Levis-born bank teller at the Bank of Montreal.

The photo was of a sober-faced Charlie, but it was without a doubt the man of the family album.

At long last, mystery over.

Then, much later, on Ancestry.ca, I found Charlie’s name on the 1901 Census and his 1910 death certificate that claims he died accidentally in a fire. Charlie, the snappy dresser, was the son of a modiste, a widow, and he had a younger sister. And he was buried as a Roman Catholic!