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Sundays and the Great Depression

I used to hate Sundays. I had to go to Sunday school. I really didn’t understand why I had to attend because my parents just dropped me off. That’s right. They didn’t even go to church. And no one asked me if I wanted to go.

After they picked me up, things got worse. It was homework time until lunch. Of course, I could have done my homework on Friday night but Fridays were reserved for movies on the television and reading in bed with a flashlight until all hours.

And worst of all, some Sunday afternoons were for Visiting the Elderly Relatives. In my mind, my aunts and uncles were ancient. Plus my brother, being a boy and older than me, was apparently able to take care of himself, as he always seemed to be absent from these visits. So I would sit in the living rooms of my aunts and uncles, with no toys or any other amusements, and listen to the adults talk.

I now cherish the memories of these visits because they provided me with an appreciation of the social history of Montreal, as well as significant events such as the Depression and World War II.

The stories about the Depression are the ones that struck me the most. During the Depression, a quarter of Canada’s workforce was unemployed.1  My dad, Edward McHugh, was a young man out of work in Montreal and he joined his older brother and sister in Drummondville, to work for the Celanese. At the peak of the Depression, the Celanese employed 1,757 workers.2

None of the McHughs had cars in those days so they must have travelled back and forth to Drummondville by train. And Uncle Thomas McHugh married a local girl. I can just imagine the McHughs, from Verdun, arriving in Drummondville for the wedding. I doubt very many people spoke English in Drummondville at the time. The culture shock must have been intense.

My aunts and uncles, even into the 1960s, were thankful that they were able to have some work during the Depression. Uncle Al Scott worked for the Northern Telecom for 40 years, although with reduced hours during the Depression. Luckily Uncle Frank McHugh worked for the Montreal Tramway Company so he was able to keep working during the Depression. He was a tram driver for tram number 24 that started in Montreal West and crossed the city on Sherbrooke Street. His job was safe.

My aunts and uncles loved to have a good time and the Depression did not stop them. My Aunt Elsie used to describe their card parties. There was only one bottle of scotch, some ginger ale, one can of salmon and one loaf of sliced white bread. My aunt was able to spread the salmon so thinly that she could make sandwiches out of the whole loaf of bread.

It was very clear to me that the Depression was a very frightening time in their lives. During this period, the future must have seemed bleak. Life was a struggle to make ends meet.

 

Notes

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Depression_in_Canada

2 http://www.patrimoine-culturel.gouv.qc.ca/rpcq/detail.do?methode=consulter&id=14311&type=pge#.WSNY7Gg1-Uk

 

The Cipher

By Sandra McHugh

When I say that my grandfather, Thomas McHugh, worked as a cipher, Bletchley Park, MI5, and Russian spies immediately come to mind. He was neither a Russian spy nor did he work as a cipher during the war. His employer was the Bank of Montreal and it was his first job when he came to Canada in 1912.

The decision to immigrate to Canada was not easy for Thomas. He was in his mid-30s and already had seven children, between the ages of one and fifteen. For over 40 years, the jute manufacturers of Dundee, Scotland had been providing employment for his parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, wife, and for him. However, by the early 1900s, he was facing a precarious future for his children.

By the early 1900s, Dundee had suffered a serious decline in the textile industry and more significantly, the jute industry.  Jute was imported from India, however, the mill owners realized that it would significantly lower the cost of production to open mills in India to prepare the jute and import the finished product to Scotland. Once mills were established in India, the jute production in the mills in Dundee decreased substantially.1

So when Thomas arrived in Canada, a little ahead of his wife and his children, he was eager and prepared to do any job so that he could. The Bank of Montreal had its headquarters in Montreal, Quebec. In the early 1900s, the bank had significant dealings with Great Britain and there were correspondence and banking instructions back and forth between Canada and Great Britain daily. These instructions were mainly sent by telegraph overnight. There were two reasons for this. Some of these instructions were confidential and it was preferred that they remain so. Overnight instructions reduced the number of people who would have access to them. Another reason was the time difference between Montreal and the United Kingdom. The banks in London and Edinburgh were open for business while Montreal was still asleep.

Even in those days, the banks were concerned about security, privacy, and confidentiality. The banking instructions and transactions were submitted by telegraph and were encrypted. It was the job of the cipher clerk to decipher them so that the bank staff could then ensure that the instructions were carried out as required.

To be a cipher clerk, one had to be reliable, meticulous, and honest, and ensure the confidentiality of the bank’s business. The cipher clerk used a cipher handbook to decipher the information. Also, the cipher clerk worked overnight, so it was a difficult job for a man with a family.

So while my grandfather, the cipher, did not work in espionage, I still think that his first job in Canada was rather interesting.2

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Dundee

2 As related by my father, Edward McHugh

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