Tag Archives: Cornwall

My American Cousin

By

Marian Bulford

Barb and John Mulcahy on their Wedding Day

In a drawer, safely tucked away, is Barb’s locket, shown here in her wedding day photo with John. Much to my regret, I never met my American cousin Barbara Jane Mulcahy in person.

However, we first got together in 2016 via Ancestry where I saw a family tree with three names including my surname, Bulford in it and in brackets (Adopted) I was intrigued enough to email the tree owner and ask how we were related.

Barb emailed me back almost immediately, like me very excited to meet a relative from across the pond, and me to meet an American relative. She sent me an invite to her family tree, and I sent one to her, so we could collaborate on our history. I asked her about the word ‘adopted’ after the names.

Barb told me, that her adopted mother was Elizabeth (Bulford) Smith and Elizabeth and her husband, Ira, adopted Barb soon after Barb’s birth in 1953. Barb’s families, both her adoptive family and her birth family, were very important to her and she told me later, of her excitement when, shortly after our meeting she located some birth cousins too.

She had a George Bulford born 16th of March 1889 in Mevagissy, Cornwall. We were related!

George Bulford was my Great Uncle, born to my paternal great-grandparents and he was Barb’s much-loved grandfather We emailed each other with information and worked out that I was a cousin – one time removed – of her mother Elizabeth, still alive at 96 years old, which made Barb, my second cousin – good enough for us!

George, at the age of 21 on the 7th May 1910, sailed on the SS Canada from Liverpool, emigrating to the USA. He landed in Quebec, on 16th May 1910 and from there, his final destination was Houghton, Michigan. First, he was a miner and later worked for the Ford Motor Company for 5$ a day.

She thought he may have also had some experience in shoemaking, as he had all the tools in his house, and frequently repaired hers and the family shoes. She was right! Uncle George had his occupation on the passenger list as ‘Boot maker’

Passenger List George Bulford, second from the top left

Barb and her husband, John Mulcahy lived on a farm in Britton, Michigan a village in Lenawee County. The population was 586 at the 2010 census. [1] From the photos, it looks like a beautiful spot.

In no time at all, Barb and I were emailing and telling each other about our lives. We both had dogs and sent each other a ‘Bark Box’ for our dogs, full of treats and toys. Barb was a dedicated vegetarian and loved animals and the outdoor life. We exchanged photos and Christmas cards and I told Barb all about my life here and introduced her to Genealogyensemble.com so she could read all about our family and other stories. She loved it!

She told me about the farm she lived on and her dog Missy, a goat named Leo, and two barn cats. They had fruit bushes, trees, and plenty of vegetables.

Barb was also an avid photographer, and at Christmas, I would receive a lovely Christmas card with a photo of hers on the front, like this one:

Winter in Britton, Michigan

Her husband John told me that her hobbies included dancing, wheat weaving, historical reenactment and she had an interest in architecture too. She was a talented lady. John wrote and told me:

When we moved to Tecumseh, in 1991, the first thing that Barb signed up for was a class in agriculture at the local school. She learned how to drive a tractor and saw some things that displeased her, such as a chicken butchering business. One of the projects of the class was to plant pine trees in long rows at the sides of the fields as windbreaks, they are useful around here because it is so flat and open. One day, I came home from work and found Barb lying on the couch. Apparently, her muscles, were all sore from hours of stoop labour, planting the pine seedlings. [2]

John continues: “The house looks nice, and that is Barb’s doing. She insisted on the new siding in 2001, and she designed the bay window you see on the side of the house. The red door was also her idea, a nice punctuation point with the grey siding. Barb was gifted as an architect, though she had no degree. She also came up with the name Macon River Farm when we began selling at the farmers market in Tecumseh.” [2]

Barb and John’s home with the bay window.

The Red Door

Leo The Goat

Via email, I ‘introduced’ her to my cousin Diane – Di – in the UK, and so, the three of us started to email including each other, and we learned more about our ancestors, exchanging information and photos we three had. Cousin Di and I were enchanted with these photos and Di commented for both of us when she wrote:

“John, your home is absolutely lovely, exactly what we Brits imagine a rural American farmhouse should look like, in a beautiful setting. The red door is inspirational, very Barb. It must be both a comfort and refuge for you, but also a constant reminder of your Barb, who put so much of herself into it. We are a crowded island, and you have so much space” [3]

Soon, Barb and I started to Skype too and shared even more of our ancestors’ lives and ours. We had a very good relationship going and we seemed to hit it off from our first emails to each other.

We all felt we got to know each other really well and enjoyed our relationship.

At the end of January, 2020 I noticed that I had not had a reply to a few emails which was not like Barb at all, so I wrote and asked if all was well. It was not.

She apologised for not answering sooner and told me she was making end of life arrangements.

I immediately emailed and asked her for whom she was making arrangements and said that I volunteered at the local Hospice and if I could be of any help, please let me know. Barb responded that she was making end of life arrangements for herself!

The shock to her husband John, her family, friends, and me and cousin Di in the UK, was profound. Even in the midst of all this turmoil, Barb took the time to email me, saying she wanted me to have her gold locket, that Barb is wearing in her wedding day photo.

She told me, that it belonged to her grandparents, and contains photos of her grandfather, George – my great Uncle – and his wife, Elizabeth Jane Curnow. It was a wedding day gift to Elizabeth from George, and she wore it on her wedding day, as did Barb.

Barb wrote that she wanted to keep it in the Bulford family. I was so very touched. After all, our friendship had lasted for only four years, even though it seemed much longer. I reassured Barb that it would be kept in our family, and eventually, I was going to give it to my Granddaughter Molly Marguerite.

Later, John sent her beautiful locket to me. To be honest, I had forgotten about it, so when I received it in the mail, I was very weepy and thrilled, all at the same time. I will treasure it.

Elizabeth Curnow and George Bulford were married on the 20th November, 1915

Our dear cousin, Barbara Jane Mulcahy died on the 15th of May 2020 at 3.40am. She is missed very much by us all, but especially by her dear husband John, who Di and I frequently email, just to keep in touch and for us all to be able to keep Barb in our memories. John very generously shares his memories of Barb with us, and we are grateful.

Rest in Peace, cuz, we love you and will never forget you.

SOURCES:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Britton,_Michigan

[2] Email quotes and personal photos used with permission of John Mulcahy, with grateful thanks

[3] Email quotes used with permission of my cousin Diane.

A Policeman’s Lot Is Not A Happy One.

A policeman’s lot is not a happy one. When constabulary duty’s to be done, to be done, a policeman’s lot is not a happy one, happy one. [1]

 

Francis Bulford (Front row, 2nd from the left) With Newquay, Cornwall Division 1929/30

(I can’t help but notice their enormous feet!)

My Grampy, Francis Bulford, was born in Devonport, Devon, England on 28th October 1884.

In 1905, he was a 20-year-old seaman in the Royal Navy when he decided to join the Cornwall Constabulary, and on the 1st November 1906, he was appointed to the force as Police Constable number 106. He retired in 1936 with 29 years of service.

After reading various newspaper clippings about the doings of my Grampy, I thought of the above verses by Gilbert and Sullivan as his duties were usually routine, but sometimes they were unusual, or even frightening.

His first posting was to Porthleven, a small fishing port not far from Helston. His ‘beat’ included the village streets, as well as the surrounding meadows, beaches and cliffs.

During Grampy’s time on the police force, he and his family lived at a three-bedroom rented property in a street known then as “Little Gue” at either number 14 or 15. My cousin Diane tells me her Mum (one of Grampy’s daughters) identified the building some 35 years ago. It was their home as well as the Police Station and the two small windows at street level were then barred.

This was where the cells were. The property is still standing, and the photo shows the modern window frames.

The house in Little Gue Street

Diane also told me about a time early on in his career when he was tied to a rope around his waist and was lowered down the cliffs to bring up a dead body at a place called Hell’s Mouth, on the north cliffs of Cornwall. Even the name sounds frightening.

It was Monday evening, January 1916 and Constable Bulford was doing his ’rounds’ at 10:30 pm when he happened upon a dead body, washed ashore on the rocks at Breageside, Porthleven.

Porthleven 1906

When PC Bulford was interviewed by the local newspaper, The Cornishman, a month later, he described the bodies as follows: [2]

The first body found was a big body, about 6′ 6″ stoutly built, badly cut upon the rocks with no clothing and decomposed, and headless. PC Bulford sent for a stretcher and the local doctor, Dr Spaight.

The next day, Tuesday, at about 9:30 a.m., a second body was found by PC Bulford on the Sithney side of Porthleven. This body was about 5 feet in height, slightly built, with no identifying marks except cuts from the rocks, decomposed, nude and again headless.

The local doctor examined the bodies, but there was no possibility of identifying them or finding the cause of death.

The newspaper suggested that these were two of the crew of the SS Heidrun, a Norwegian collier ship that had departed from Swansea, Wales with coal for Rouen, France. It was wrecked on December 27th, 1915, four miles off of Mullion, with the loss of all 16 hands.

The crew members whose bodies were found are buried at Church Cove, The Lizard Landewednack, Helston, Cornwall. The church overlooks the English Channel, so it seems this was a fitting resting place for these sailors.

Headstone for the crew of the SS Heidrun

(Photo Credit: https://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?181509)

Sources:

[1] https://www.gsarchive.net/pirates/web_op/pirates24.htm Opera, The Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan

[2] “The Cornishman” 27th January 1916. Newspaper cutting in the Bulford Family archives

Notes of interest about Porthleven, Cornwall England.

Porthleven was the home town of the ‘Dambusters’ Commanding Officer Guy Gibson, and there is a road named in his memory.

http://www.helstonhistory.co.uk/local-people/wg-cdr-guy-gibson-raf-vc/

It is a town, civil parish and fishing port near Helston in Cornwall and was originally developed as a harbour of refuge when this part of the Cornish coastline was recognised as a black spot for wrecks in the days of sail.

Porthleven has exploited its location and exposure to powerful swells to become one of the best-known and highly regarded surfing spots in Britain and has been described as “Cornwall’s best reef break”. Waves often exceeding 6.6 feet (2.0 m), break on the shallow reef that was shaped by blasting the harbour. Kayaking is also popular. RNLI lifeguards patrol the beach during the holiday season. The beach is separated from the harbour by a granite pier, which stands in front of the Porthleven institute and clock tower. When the tide is out it is possible to walk east along Porthleven beach for approximately three miles.

Read more about this wonderful part of Cornwall, England here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porthleven

Two previous stories about my Grampy and his police adventures in Porthleven can be found here;

https://genealogyensemble.com/2018/10/10/all-in-a-days-work/

https://genealogyensemble.com/2018/12/12/plucky-police-constable/

Plucky Police Constable

On the 26th December 1912, the SS Tripolitania, a steam cargo ship from Italy on its voyage from Genoa to Barry Wales for coal, had beached on the Loe Bar, near Porthleven in Cornwall England. The weather had been and was still a vicious South Westerly gale with 100 mph winds, rain, huge churning waves and blowing sand which made it difficult to see anything.

One of the first men on that beach, waiting for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) to arrive and assist, was the local Police Constable, (PC) Francis Bulford – my future grandfather. He could clearly see the crew on the vessel’s deck as the bow dashed onto the sand and heaved up and crashed down again and again.

Police Constable Number 106, Francis Bulford

The wreck had the sea on one side of her, and Loe Bar on the other side. The Loe bar is a half mile wide shingle bank – also referred to as a rocky beach or pebble beach – which separates the Loe, the largest natural fresh water lake in Cornwall, from the sea.  Loe Bar was originally the mouth of the River Cober which led to a harbour in Helston. However, by the 13th century, the bar had cut Helston off from the sea and formed the pool.

Loe Bar 1993 Aerial View Helston Museum.org

Loe Bar has a well-earned reputation for being treacherous and over the years several lives have been lost. The combination of powerful waves, a steep slippery shingle bank and vicious currents make it a very dangerous stretch of beach, and there is a local rumour that a freak wave here claims a life every seven years. At the end of the day, the best advice is to heed the signs and don’t even think about swimming here. [1]

On that day after Christmas, 1912, the steamship SS. Tripolitania was still rising and trying to ground in the violent weather. PC Bulford could just make out a  rope hanging over her starboard bow. Then, to his horror, he saw a deck hand start to slide down the rope.

He shouted to him ‘Wait a bit’! intending to let the boat properly ground before attempting a rescue, but the crew member either not hearing in the loud gale winds, or not understanding English, slid down the rope and dropped onto his hands and knees, into the surf.  At that very moment, an enormous wave lifted the steamer, swept around the port bow and rushed back, bringing with it the sailor who was swept against the ships’ side and disappeared. “I should not be surprised in the least if his body is recovered, that it is found he was killed by being caught under the steamer’s bilges” said PC Bulford when interviewed later. [2]

The rest of the crew remained aboard until the steamer was properly grounded. By that time villagers and the RNLI crew from the Penlee Lifeboat had joined the PC. Together, they all ran out and grabbed the crew by the hands, to lead them to safety.

The Steamship SS Tripolitania grounding on Loe Bar 26 December 1912 PHOTO

Photo © Of the late W.F. Ivey and Graham Matthews (Grandson of W.F. Ivey) [3]

By this time, the beach sand was saturated with sea water and the rescuers’ feet were sucked down.  Meanwhile, the wind was blowing and tossing so much sand into eyes and mouths they could barely see. The rescuers placed handkerchiefs over their own mouths and the crewmembers’ mouths and dragged and pushed and pulled everyone to safety.

The Cornish Times – below – stated, that “Life-saving apparatus arrived soon after the SS Tripolitania struck, but their services were not required”

That day, the 28 members of the crew were saved but one, and his body was never recovered. In addition, two of the crew of the brave Penlee Penzance Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Janet Hoyle, died of pneumonia the following Thursday. [6] All these men were volunteers.  See notes below.

 

SS. Tripolitania The Calm After The Storm [4]

Once the storm was over, attempts were made to refloat the ship, by removing much of the shingle from the seaward side, but they failed. She was eventually scrapped in situ.

 

Digging out the SS Tripolitania PHOTO

Photo © Of the late W.F. Ivey and Graham Matthews (Grandson of W.F. Ivey) [5]

By the way, the meaning of the word ‘Abaft’ above, which I took to be a typing error means according to the Oxford Dictionary, “In or behind the stern of a ship” It is a nautical adverb. Plucky’ is an adjective meaning “Having or showing determined courage in the face of difficulties” Francis Bulford born 28 October 1884 died 25 March 1963 was my plucky Grandfather. RIP.

Follow this link to read another story of my Grandfather here:

/https://genealogyensemble.com/2018/10/10/all-in-a-days-work/

SOURCES:

[1] https://www.visitcornwall.com/beaches/west-cornwall/helston/loe-bar-beach

[2] Cornish Times Newspaper Clipping. In Possession Of The Bulford Family Archives

[3, 4, 5 ] http://www.helstonhistory.co.uk/w-f-iveys-shipwrecks/tripolitania/

[6] http://www.rnli-penleelifeboat.org.uk/About%20us/PastCoxswains

NOTES:

William Nicholls – Coxswain 1912-1915

Mr William Nicholls was appointed Coxswain on 3rd July 1912 and was the Coxswain of 2 reserve Penzance lifeboats. William was instrumental in the choice of the Janet Hoyle from the shipyard.

During his time on the Janet Hoyle, she launched twice in service, the first being an extremely dangerous mission to the SS TRIPOLITANIA on boxing day 1912.

In a letter, dated September 1959, Coxswain William NICHOLLS recalls the launch to S.S.TRIPOLITANIA as follows:

“My most arduous lifeboat service took place in 1912. On Boxing Day, at 8.00 am, the Coastguard called at my house in Penzance. He brought a message that a steamer was drifting disabled across the Bay. Neither the Sennen or Newlyn boats could go out, and so the message was passed to me. A strong gale (100 m.p.h) was raging; shop fronts at Penzance were blown in and boats overturned in the harbour, Penzance Pier Head being under water. At 8.30 the boat was in the water, all reefs taken in, and away. I have often thought of the appearance of the Bay when I rounded the pier head. The seas were pitiless, and the first one aboard completely filled the boat. I remember thinking that this was my last trip! I thrashed about 8 miles, opening up all the Western land, and then, seeing nothing of the ship, came about, and edged towards Porthleven, where the broken sea was worse. I was, from there, signalled by green rocket to ‘recall’  The vessel, S.S. TRIPOLITANIA, had gone ashore on Loe Bar, near Porthleven; and to judge the height of the seas, she was thrown at dead low water to twenty feet above high water. She remained there for years until broken up for scrap. There were only two lifeboats afloat on that day, my own, and the Plymouth boat, which was blown ashore in Jennycliff Bay inside the breakwater. The stemhead of my boat split from the planking, and the lovely paintwork smashed in spots into the drab first coat. She looked like a spotted leopard. Two of my men died on the following Thursday from pneumonia, which shows the terrible conditions we had to face on that service.”

 

 

 

 

All In A Day’s Work

The local Police Constable (PC) was tired. It was early morning and he had been on duty all night.

Time for home and he was looking forward to a nice cup of tea and a big breakfast with his wife. Maybe a chat with some of his children, before they departed for school. Then a nice long sleep.

It was a beautiful day, the 7th February 1923 in West Cornwall, England. The PC was riding home from his night shift on his bike to his village of Nancledra, so although the wind was brisk, he was warm.

He was coming home from the Police Station at Porthleven and was half a mile from home when he heard someone shouting. It was Mr Andrew Curnow a local farmer. He was waving his arms shouting something and beckoning to the PC. “Here we go again”, thought the Constable.

A few of the villagers were gathered at the top of a large disused mine shaft peering down. This was the Giew Tin Mine the only active tin producer in 1921 and 1922 but closed just that year, in 1923.

The PC rode over to Mr Curnow who was by now agitated and excited.  ‘Quick! he shouted ‘ My dog has fallen down the Giew mineshaft!”

They could hear the dog’s frantic barking. The tall PC strode into the knot of people and they stepped aside to let him see what they were all peering at, down the long, dark shaft.

The PC looked down the steep shaft but could see nothing. Quickly he decided to enter the shaft and rescue the beagle. ‘Get me a rope, quickly’ he shouted.

Mr Curnow was aghast……..this was a disused narrow, crooked vertical shaft and who knew how far down the dog was. But the PC insisted and Mr Curnow ran off. The PC took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. he knelt on the grass and peered down. This shaft was a twisted one, but he could hear the frantic yelps and barking of the beagle.

Mr Curnow ran back with a farm hand and by now attracted by the shouts and activity more locals were gathered around the hole. Together, they roped up the PC and lowered him into the shaft. It was very dark so that after a few minutes they could only hear the PC’s voice. ‘Lower’ he kept shouting ‘Lower’

They continued obeying his instructions until…….silence. They all looked at each other faces grave. Suddenly the rope moved and the PC shouted ‘Got ‘im’ Pull me up!

With renewed vigour and a newfound strength the men, by now sweating with the effort of keeping the rope steady, heaved and pulled until the head of the PC and the beagle appeared at the top of the shaft!

Everyone grabbed both the PC and the dog. The beagle jumped up on his master barking hysterically whilst the PC lay on the grass sweating and panting. Everyone cheered. They all agreed that the old mineshaft should be covered over to prevent another accident.

This brave Police Constable was my Grandad, Francis Bulford. Born 28 October 1884 died 25 March 1963. RIP.

PC Francis Bulford with his wife, Emily Marion, and five of his eleven children

Below, the newspaper account of the rescue.

 

 

Giew Mine, near Nancledra Cornwall, England

Notes Of Interest On Cornish Mining

The closure of the tin mines in Cornwall was never about running out of resources – it was in response to competition from cheaper tin from abroad. South America and China are still major players in tin extraction and production. The collapse of the world tin cartel in 1986 being the last nail in the coffin of tin mining.

The Giew mine is known to have been working from the mid-eighteenth century. In its time Giew has been known as Gew, Reeth Consols, Trink and St. Ives Consols. The remaining buildings centered around Frank’s Shaft are only the easternmost of a number of shafts all working the area. The engine house dates from 1874.

This was part of the re-working of Giew Mine started in 1869 by Thomas Treweeke. Other shafts, running from east to west include Blackburn’s, Robinsons Engine, Martins, Ladock Shaft and Giew Engine Shaft where it joined Billia Consols Mine. It produced tin up until 1922.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/cornish-tin-mining-mines-industry-cornwall-south-crofty-mineral-start-ups-a8240601.html

In Cornwall, the ingression of water was the worst problem in shaft mining. A deep mine is a bit like a water well. You have to pump the water out constantly. The steam engine driving a pump was the answer to allowing deep mining in Cornwall.

http://www.cornishmineimages.co.uk/giew-mine/

You may wonder why Cornwall had the mineral mines that the rest of Britain missed out on. There is a simple geological explanation. During the late stages of the cooling of the mass of granite that makes up a lot of Cornwall, fissures opened up in the granite when it was still molten, and more hot molten rocks bubbled up through the granite from the earth’s interior. These new rocks contained many minerals, and as they crystallized they formed mineral lodes – tin, copper, zinc, lead and iron with some silver.

Because the ore-bearing rocks formed in this way, rather than being sedimentary rocks like coal (hence coal is laid down in great flat plates), they have to be mined vertically rather than horizontally.

Each fissure has to be mined straight down into the earth. Each fissure needed a separate mine. Therefore a great many vertical shafts were needed, rather than the one shaft that was used in coal mining. 

There were no other substantial buildings in a typical mine. Given that many of the mines were small and vertical, they did not invest in cages to haul the miners up and down, instead, access to the mine was by ladder, a tiring part of the daily toil of the miners.

http://www.cornwall-calling.co.uk/mines.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isn’t The Internet Wonderful?

For quite a few years, I have been doing genealogy, and although I have found many many family names, I had never actually met any family members associated with my research.

However,  a few years ago I was contacted via ‘Friend Reunited’ a now defunct website, by a second cousin on my Dad’s side. Samantha was my cousin Cheryl’s daughter, and she was looking for members of the Bulford family for her parent’s anniversary genealogy gift. Through Sam, I was united with Cheryl, her mother and my first cousin and from there, more first cousins I had never met.

My parents divorced when I was seven, and after that, I never had further contact with my paternal side of the family. This was SO exciting! There was Diane, my Aunt Sylvia’s daughter, Cheryl, Aunt  Florence’s daughter and Joanna, Uncle Roy’s daughter. All familiar names but people I had never met or even thought I would ever meet. We all contacted each other via the internet in great excitement, and exchanged the information we had all collected, and they sent me photos I had never seen, of my Dad’s family.

After numerous emails, we all decided to meet in the UK when I went over for my annual holiday. As this was the paternal side of my family, we met in Cornwall where my father and my cousins’ mothers and fathers were all born. I met, once again after 68 years my Uncle Roy, the last surviving member of the 11 children born to my father’ family.

We all met at the apartment Uncle Roy lived in with his wife, Aunt Evelyn. They had made us all Cornish Pasties, a local treat. Uncle Roy was 94 then, and Auntie Evelyn was 90 (both still alive today!) and my Uncle looked so much like my father, I became quite emotional. Uncle Roy’s sons David and Jonathan were there too with their sister Joanna and suddenly, just like that, I had five cousins! I had brought photos and they had some too, which we all pored over. I learned so much about the family in that short visit, to add to my family tree.

I showed David and Jonathan a photo of me, aged three that was taken on a beach in Newquay, one of the last visits to my Dad’s family before the divorce, and wondered aloud where it could have been taken. David took me by the hand to the balcony of the apartment opened the door and pointed. David said ‘This is Towan Beach where your photo was taken’ and there before me as in my photo, was the beach and the houses on the cliff behind me, still prominent today. Then I did cry.

The next day, we all had a family reunion Sunday lunch with wives and children, in the local pub. We reminisced we took photos and promised to keep in touch, which we have done so every year for the last 6 years. Every year I visit the UK we have our Bulford reunion usually in the West Country at a local pub, and each year I find out more about my Dad’s family. Photos, war records, marriages, deaths, some researched information I had, that my cousins did not know about were all shared via the internet. PLUS a recently found USA Bulford branch too, which is to be the basis for another story.

The internet, isn’t it just amazing and wonderful?

 

Marian circa 1948

Towan Beach Newquay, Cornwall UK

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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!