Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What’s in a name?

On with the Blackwells-in-Melbourne saga. I noted last time that Matthew Drummond, grandfather to baby boom Blackwells and Breens, was born December 6, 1884.

Before we go on with the narrative, let’s talk a little about his names.

Matthew Drummond Blackwell - his 1915 passport photo

No mystery about his first: he was named for paternal grandfather Matthew (1804-1859), the stone mason and architect in Manchester. But his middle name is a bit of puzzler. Where did that come from? Matthew Drummond would later name his own second-born son David Drummond, and in this generation, my brother Steve was lumbered with it.

The straightforward answer is that it’s a Scots surname, and fairly illustrious, going back at least to early medieval times. It’s derived, at best guess, from the Gaelic word dromainn, which means a ridge or high ground, used in multiple place names. The traditional origins of Clan Drummond were in Perthshire in the Highlands, near Stirling.

That might all be significant if, as I thought I remembered my Dad telling us, Drummond was an old family name. I may have imagined that explanation, though, or assumed it because Dad at times also claimed Scots ancestry (nowhere confirmed).

Clan Drummond tartan - sorry, we have no claim to it

It was certainly common enough to commemorate a mother's or grandmother’s maiden name, especially if it was an important family, by giving it to your kids as a middle name, or even a first. Winston Spencer Churchill is an example that pops to mind. Closer to home, Richard Henry’s second-born was David Marsden, Marsden being R.H.’s mother’s family name. R.H. also had a brother with first name Marsden.

But if it was a family name on the Blackwell side, it would have to have been from before Matthew-of-Manchester’s generation, the earliest we have confirmed. And none of his children, or their children got it, so far as I can tell – although I am waiting for cousin Paul Blackwell, keeper of the English family tree, to confirm this. Matthew-of-Manchester’s bride, as noted, was a Marsden.

It could be from Matthew Drummond’s mother’s side, but it wasn’t her or her mother’s surname (Sadler and Webb, respectively). Besides, Kate Sadler’s people on both sides were humble tradesmen from east-end London. No doubt the odd Scot landed up in Shoreditch, even in those less mobile times, but I would have guessed that instances of them marrying into working-class English families would be rare at best.

I asked cousin Sally in Australia, David Drummond’s daughter, if she remembered hearing anything about the origins of the name in the Blackwell family. I also asked brother Steve. And got two completely different answers, both interesting.

Sally wrote, “Dad told me that he was named after Mr. Drummond here in Melbourne who used to have a fabulous, very expensive jewellery shop which sold all manner of exotic and expensive gifts, like clocks, china and jewellery.  It closed early in the 2000s.  I am assuming he was a friend of the family early in the 1900s.”

As I pointed out to Sally, Mr. Drummond would have to have been a friend in the 1880s, but it’s not an implausible explanation. There was a jewellery business in Melbourne as early as 1878 called Brush & Drummond, and its premises then were on Collins St., just around the corner from R.H.’s office on William St. in the market area.

Steve’s story was decidedly more entertaining.  “The story I remember Dad telling about Drummond was that he was a friend of his father's, who had saved his father's life. It was something about when they were working on the dockside and a cable broke releasing a heavy object, and (Mr?) Drummond pushed my grandfather out of the way.”

Again, it would have to have been our great grandfather, Richard Henry, who was saved from being crushed, as it was he who first inflicted the name on a Blackwell child.

This explanation, besides its intrinsic appeal, opens up interesting possibilities. Richard Henry Blackwell’s early life is a complete blank. We have his birth and christening records (christened in Manchester Cathedral), but nothing after that until he steps off the S.S. Siam in Melbourne 40 years later. If he ran away to sea as a youngster, or to do something as marginal as dock work, that might explain his absence from the official record all those years.

Of course, that’s just me wildly speculating. No reason the incident, if it really happened, couldn’t have taken place in Melbourne in the early 1880s, when R.H. was overseeing off-loading of one of his shipments of wool or tallow or champagne. Hey, and maybe he was saved by the jeweller Drummond, who was there for the same reason.

But the fact that the two explanations from Matthew Drummond’s boys – as remembered by their children – are so completely different makes me wonder if either is true. Maybe Richard Henry never really said, and they just made it up. One last crazy speculation. As reported last post, R.H. may have had a first wife who died at or shortly after childbirth. The couple was living at the time on Drummond St. in Melbourne. Nah.

The bottom line is that Drummond, a decidedly goofy middle name (sorry, Steve), no longer has currency in the Blackwell family. My brother, the last to bear the name, is not sorry. The final word goes to him.

“I suffered for the Drummond middle name, especially in Australia. The first day of school (I think it was called Ainsley) in Canberra, age seven [when the family was living there in 1954-55], all the kids had to introduce themselves with their full names, and mine was the only one that actually provoked laughter.” Haha. (Sorry again.)

Stephen, last of the Drummond Blackwells, aged 7, in Canberra, at left - armed and dangerous

Sunday, November 10, 2013


In my last post, I continued the story of Richard Henry, founder of the Australian Blackwells. We saw him established in business in Melbourne (wool and tallow brokering – not very appealing, but bear with the man). And we saw him, in 1884, take a bride, Tasmanian spinster Catherine Sadler, 29 – or Kate, as she later appears in some official records.

I’ve recently discovered, though, that Kate may not have been R.H.’s first wife. The following birth announcement appeared in The Argus of Tuesday, May 18, 1880: “BLACKWELL. – On the 12th inst., at 59 Drummond-street, Mrs R. H. Blackwell of a daughter.”

It is possible there was another R.H. Blackwell living in Melbourne at the time, but if so, he doesn’t appear in any other records I can find. Richard Henry arrived in the colony alone, he did not have a wife with him. Did he marry a Melbourne woman soon after arriving in 1878? The fact of an announcement would seem to suggest the baby survived birth, and I can find no death notice for a Mrs. or infant daughter Blackwell between that date and the beginning of 1884. Still, my best guess is that baby and mother perished shortly after the event, and R.H. was in the market for a new wife, which of course, he found in Kate.

After the wedding in Van Diemen’s Land, the newlyweds came back to Melbourne, to Prahran, the same suburb where Herbert Lillies and his bride would settle the next year, and wasted little time starting a family. Matthew Drummond, grandfather to baby boom Blackwells and Breens, came into the world on December 6, 1884, great uncle Richard Marsden, a few years later on August 8, 1888.

Most of what we know about R.H. before the turn of the century (and after for that matter) comes from The Argus and other newspapers of the day, which are available online, digitized and indexed at The National Library of Australia’s fabulous Trove website. The keyword indexing is based on largely uncorrected optical character recognition (OCR) text generated automatically after the pages were scanned. This means there is no guarantee that when you do a search you’ll find every instance of “Blackwell,” for example,  because in some cases the word may be rendered as “Bdaokwoh” or other difficult-to-predict manglings. But it's still an invaluable resource.

In my early searches in Trove, I found the already reported mentions of R.H. arriving in Melbourne and dissolving his partnership in the tallow and wool brokering business that he would continue operating on his own – all in The Argus. More determined searching has since turned up quite a bit more, including much evidence of the family business that our grandfather would eventually carry on well into the 20th century: distributing champagne in Australia. When we were children, this is what we were always told the family’s fortunes were based on. What I hadn’t realized is that it was a business originally started by our great grandfather, not grandfather Matthew. 

R.H. somehow wangled a contract with the George Goulet champagne company in Reims, France, to be its “sole” agent in the Australian colonies. It is not clear if Champagne George Goulet still exists today. You can find bottles for sale on the Web with vintages at least to 1999. And one winery directory has a listing for the vineyard – in Celles-Sur-Ource, about 170 kilometers south of Reims – but it’s not listed in other directories. The company has no website, or not that I can find, and doesn’t rate an entry in either the English or French Wikipedia. (There, I’m giving away all my research secrets.) But in the late 19th century, George Goulet was a highly regarded brand, patronized by royalty, which probably gave it its currency in Australia.

Half-bottle of Goulet champers recently auctioned on Web

The first evidence I found of R.H.’s involvement with George Goulet was an April 1883 ad in The Argus. It was the briefest of line ads – “Champagne, George Goulet’s extra dry, quarts and pints. R.H. BLACKWELL, agent, William-st” – probably aimed at the trade. The timing in relation to the dissolution of his partnership with Herbert Wallace in March of that year is interesting. Did they disagree about a direction for the company, with R.H. wanting to concentrate more on the champagne trade and Wallace wanting to stick exclusively with tried-and-true tallow and wool?

Then the next year, in The Wagga Wagga Advertiser, we get some insight into what R.H. was doing to spread the word about George Goulet champagne. Wagga Wagga is in an inland city of about 45,000 today, in New South Wales, midway between Melbourne and Sydney. It was mainly an agricultural town then. You have to wonder if the article, under the heading “A New Brand of Champagne,” was paid for by R.H. (Consider the name of the publication.)

“Yesterday morning we had the pleasure of an introduction to Mr. Blackwell, a representative from the firm of Messrs. George Goulet and Co., of Rehims [sic]. This gentleman has been commissioned by this new and popular firm with the duty of introducing their famous champagnes in Australia. Consequently, at his invitation, several local connoisseurs attended at the Commercial Hotel in order to pass an opinion on its merits.”

Wagga Wagga Commercial Hotel after 1890 flood

“There were some fifteen gentlemen present, including the agent for Krug and Co. [another French champagne company]. The wine was introduced in “magnum” bottles, and the decision of the fourteen well and truly tried men was decidedly in favour of Messrs. Goulet’s wine. After the wine had been thoroughly tested, a gentleman proposed “Health and prosperity to the firm” which was warmly pledged, and followed by a graceful and appropriate reply from Mr. Blackwell, who directed those present to an infallible test apart from the palate [huh?].”

“Upon this Mr. Armstrong [who he?] requested the respected host of the Commercial to bring up a bottle or so of Krug, in order to test the difference. The gentlemen present then gradually seized their hats and retired, apparently declining the kind of invitation of Krug’s agent. Mr. Blackwell comes among us with the best recommendation, from the fact that the firm he represents was honoured with a commissison to supply champagne to the Russian Emperor [Alexander III (1881-1894), “the Peace-Maker”] on the occasion of grand festivities upon his accession to the Throne last year.”

Coronation festivities for Alexander III - is that George Goulet wine on the table?

Most of the rest is a reprinting of a Times of London article describing a “special” correspondent’s visit to the Goulet winery. There is so much in the Advertiser article that is weird and not of our time that I itch to parse it, but this is probably not the place. Suffice to say, standards of “journalism” were quite different then.

In 1885, we see R.H. again reaching out to end consumers in the Bendigo Advertiser, the newspaper of a former gold rush town north west of Melbourne, today a mid-size city of 80,000. It’s a display ad (see below), although there is no picture, just text. Including an image would probably have meant commissioning an engraving, which would be expensive. Most news organs of the day, except the “illustrated” papers, appear to have been 100% text.

A big part of marketing a champagne at this time was playing up the fact that the rich, famous and noble drank it, or that it was served at prestigious events. So we have this interesting item from the June 13, 1885 Launceston Examiner (Tasmania): “The following telegram was received by the Melbourne agent for George Goulet Champagne [i.e. R.H. Blackwell], and forwarded to the Messrs. Irvine and McEachern, the local agents: We are sure you will be pleased to hear that we have received further orders from the Queen of England, for her house at Aix-La-Bains, where she is staying for three weeks, from the Queen of Wurbomberg [Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna of Russia, later Queen Olga of W├╝rttemberg] at Nice, as well as a very considerable one from Lord Lyons, the English Ambassador at Paris.” 

Queen Olga of W├╝rttemberg

And R.H. placed a display ad in the April 1, 1890 Argus, trumpeting the fact that George Goulet champagne had been “Selected against the World [?] For Banquet given by Municipality of Paris - Occasion of Opening Universal Exhibition, 1889 [the one at which the Eiffel Tower was unveiled].” 

Contemporary photo of Paris Exposition of 1889 showing Portuguese Pavilion and Eiffel Tower

This is just the beginning of the family connection with George Goulet. Next post: Matthew enters the business, meets and marries Vera Lillies, gets shirty about interloping champagne competitors, etc.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Richard Henry Ties The Knot

After a brief hiatus for ennui, and a two-post departure into Smith family lore, I’m back to the story of the Blackwells down under, still tracking the founder of the Oz Blackwells, Richard Henry. To make up for my long absence, I'm blessing you with a particularly long post this time. Oh, you lucky people! (Person?)

I finished last time with R.H. arriving in Melbourne, and speculated about why he might have left the old sod. One thing is certain: he didn’t come for the gold. The bonanza that began in 1851 and brought the first big influx of immigrants to the Melbourne area had played out by the time Richard decided to emigrate. His path in life was, as we'll see, a little more prosaic.

Less than five years after stepping off the Siam, in March 1883, he appears in The Argus (Melbourne), dissolving a partnership with one Herbert Wallace in a wool and tallow brokering business. Not quite as romantic as gold prospecting. Richard would carry on the business, the legal notice said, “on his own account,” at the same premises, 7 Market Buildings, William St., Melbourne, “under the style of R. H. Blackwell.”10

A tallow broker? Tallow is rendered beef or mutton fat, processed from suet. It was used to make soap and moulded candles before superior wax candles became readily available. 

Commodity brokers in the 19th century, not so different from today’s traders, bought and sold on behalf of clients – soap or candle makers on the one side in the case of tallow. It was an arbitrage business. They entered into an agreement to source a certain quantity of the commodity and deliver it to the client at an agreed price, betting they could buy for less before the contracted delivery date. Or they bought from a supplier at a price below what they calculated they could sell it on for later.

Modern sheep tallow soap - whoopee, get clean with mutton fat!

Modern tallow candles - yes, they were smelly

The next year, 1884, finds R.H. in Launceston, Tasmania (or Van Deimen’s Land as it was then known), a port city 50 kilometers down the Tamar River from the north coast, directly across the Bass Strait from Melbourne. He may have had wool and tallow brokering business to attend to in Launceston that January, but if so, it was not his only business. He also contracted a marriage.

Detail of 1850s Australia map showing Van Diemen Land and southern Victoria

The bride was Catherine Sadler, spinster, 29, a local girl. Was it planned for some time, or the result of a whilrlwind romance while Richard was visiting on business? By the standards of the day, Catherine was a little long in the tooth, but as it turned out, and luckily for us, she was still quite fertile. Richard himself was by now 46, so not exactly a prime catch either.

The wedding took place on January 3011 at St. John’s Church, Launceston12. Witnessing the nuptials that mid-summers day were R. J. and Alice Sadler. They were not Catherine’s parents, they were her elder brother, Robert James, and younger sister. Where were the parents, James and Elizabeth (nee Webb)? They may have been deceased, although at least one death record extant for a James Sadler in Tasmania shows him living on until 1892. Other James Sadlers died in 1876 and 1878.

St. John's, Launceston, ca 1902

Tracing James and Elizabeth with certainty is difficult – and what follows may be a tad dry for those not thrilled with the minutiae of historical research using primary sources.

Their surnames and Christian names are very common at this period. There were at least two other James Sadlers living in Tasmania during the same years, one a convict, transported in 1832 and pardoned in 1844. There was a second Elizabeth Webb too, also a convict. And to complicate matters further, one of the other James Sadlers may have been married to an Elizabeth, a different one.

Given the island’s very small population – an estimated 70,000 in 1847 – it’s a stroke of extremely bad luck for the genealogist.

Our James and Elizabeth – the ones who, after much poring over handwritten census documents and ships’ passenger manifests, I’ve concluded were indeed our ancestors – appear to have had at least eight children. Sarah Elizabeth was born in 1843, Robert James in 1846, Samuel Charles in 1849, Catherine Louisa in 1852, just plain Catherine – Richard’s bride – in 1854, and Alice in 1856. Elizabeth had two other girl babies in 1857 and 1860. It seems likely that they, unnamed in the record, and also Catherine Louisa – whose name was reused so soon – did not survive infancy. This all comes from official birth records.

In the Van Deimen’s Land census of 1843, a James Sadler appears, living on Elizabeth St. in Launceston, renting from William Fletcher, the “proprietor.” James is the “householder” and “head” of the house. It’s not clear if Fletcher was also in residence or somebody else, but the household, according to the return, consisted of three people: one married female under 21, one married male between 21 and 45 and one single male between 21 and 45.

James, we can assume, was the married man. If he’s our James Sadler, the woman is Elizabeth. All three residents ticked off “arrived free” under “civil condition,” meaning they were settlers, not transportees. The men give their occupations as “mechanics and artificers,” apparently a broad category that took in all kinds of skilled tradesman.

In the 1848 census, we find James Sadler now living on George St., renting from James Davis. James and Elizabeth Sadler, if it’s the same family, appear to have come up in the world: this house is brick, the old one on Elizabeth St., wood.

The household is now reported to include one married man and one married woman between 21 and 45, and a son and daughter, both between two and six. This is consistent with the known children of “our” James Sadler. The daughter would be Sarah Elizabeth, then five or six, the son, Robert James, just turned two. James’s occupation is once again listed as mechanic and artificer.

Too Many Sadlers
But there are other complications in the record. A James Sadler and wife Elizabeth are also listed as parents of Charlotte Sadler, born 1834. Could this be the same James and Elizabeth? It seems unlikely. The census records say Elizabeth was under 21 in 1843. That would make her under 12 in 1834, which even in those times was a little young to be bearing children.

And if Charlotte’s parents are also Catherine’s parents, then what were husband and wife doing between 1834 and 1843, when the rest of their children started popping out, one every couple of years? Did Elizabeth have a nine-year headache? Very confusing, but I think we can assume Charlotte was no sister to our ancestor.

In only one place is Charlotte explicitly included in the same family as Catherine, Robert James, Alice, etc., and that is the Colonial Tasmanian Family Links database. Information about birth dates and parentage in the database is culled from records in the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office – the same records cited here. The linkages among them, according to the Tasmanian Government website, were “developed by family historians associated with the former National Heritage Foundation in the late 1990s.” I think those historians simply made a mistake in this case and Charlotte was the issue of different parents.

To muddy the waters still further, a third (fourth? fifth?) Tasmanian James Sadler appears in the record in 1863 as father of Louisa Sadler. His wife’s name: Margaret Webb. It could be just a coincidence. But given the dates, there is another plausible explanation. Our James wore out poor Elizabeth with constant child bearing – at least eight pregnancies in 17 years, the last when she was 46. Perhaps baby and mother both perished in that 1860 confinement, and James, after a few years, married a younger relative.

If Catherine’s parents are the couple in the 1840s censuses, where did they come from, and when? According to the census records, they “arrived free.” Did they come separately at different times and marry there? If so, there is no record of that marriage in Tasmania. But in passenger lists of ships bringing immigrants, we do find a James Sadler and wife, arriving from England on November 4, 1842 on the Orleana. The timing is right.

Detail of 1842 immigration record showing arrival in Tasmania of James Sadler "& wife"

The Orleana, a 649-ton three-master built in 1835, probably docked that day at Hobart, the colonial capital. On earlier voyages she is only shown docking at Port Adelaide in South Australia, but the records in which the Sadlers’ arrival is noted are part of the collection Tasmania, Australia, Immigrant Lists, 1841-1884, so it’s safe to assume they landed there.

Bounty system
The citation source for these records is Returns of Immigrants under the Bounty and General System. A number of factors in this period made life at home in England extremely difficult, especially for working people. There was the demilitarization of British society in the aftermath of the American Revolution and Napoleonic wars, the Corn Law that drove up food prices and the Enclosure Acts that impacted agricultural workers in particular.

It was a brew that produced high unemployment and in many cases destitution. To help ease the pressure, the government encouraged citizens to emigrate, to Australia among other places. Persuading them to risk the arduous voyage to Tasmania was not easy. To sweeten the pot, the government offered desirable individuals – of the right age and with needed skills – a bounty equivalent to the cost of their passage. They were paid after they arrived and had been approved by a local immigration agent.

Did James and Elizabeth arrive under such a bounty scheme? Did they receive their bounty? It’s not clear from the record.

James is listed as a “chairmaker and carver” – consistent with his classification as an artificer in the 1840s censuses, and enough, one would think, to make him eligible for a bounty. However, the record shows only that he “left the place of landing with his wife on his own account.” The implication is that he did not have a job lined up before he left home, or if he did it was an entirely private arrangement. For other passengers, in the same column of the ledger, an employer name and wage – presumably prearranged – is recorded.

According to the Orleana passenger list, James and Elizabeth – we’ll assume it was she – hailed from London. On May 2, 1841, in the parish church of Shoreditch St. Leonard in the London Borough of Hackney, we find a James Sadler, bachelor “of full age” – listed as a “carver,” son of Robert Sadler, also a carver – marrying Elizabeth Webb, “spinster,” a “minor” and daughter of Samuel Webb of Church St., a cooper (barrel maker) by trade. It must be them.

The church in question had been immortalized in a nursery rhyme: “Gay go up and gay go down/To Ring the Bells of London Town…/’When I grow Rich’ say the Bells of Shoreditch.” Not that the working poor of Hackney grew rich in this period. Hackney in 1841 was a decidedly suburban community. A potted history at the website of today’s Hackney borough council notes, interestingly, that  “the furniture trade moved into Shoreditch in the early 19th century. The west bank of the River Lea was then lined with timber yards providing wood for this burgeoning industry.”

So. Long story short, we think we know where R.H.’s bride originated. Probably.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Remembrance of Things Past, Part II

If you didn’t read my last post, a short piece of memory writing by Kay Yull about her parents, go back and read it now. Otherwise, what follows, a gloss on Kay’s story with some historical context, won’t make much sense.  

Kay's original typescript (date unknown, but pre-2005)

First, Tom and Edith (Gladman) Smith came to Canada, we think, in 1910 or 1911. We know they were married in England at St. John’s Church, Whetstone, Middlesex, near their homes, on March 8, 1910. They were 24 and 22. So yes, they were young to be leaving home and family to come to a “foreign” country. That said, Canada was a fairly British place in those days.

Tom and Edith married (the lower entry)

We do not have definitive evidence of their first arrival in Canada, although many ships’ passenger manifests from the period survive and records were generally meticulously kept. Tom and Edith were not counted in the 1911 census in England, however. And they were certainly here by early 1912, the year, most likely, of the events Kay describes in her first vignette.

(We do, as a side note, have a record of them arriving back in North America from England a few years later in January 1915, on a ship from Liverpool that docked in Philadelphia. They must have spent some time at home over Christmas, perhaps to introduce their new son, Jack – who not only lived, but lived a very long time – to his English grandparents. Jack, aged 1, is named in the ship’s manifest along with his parents.)

Kay believed her parents were living in London, on Briscoe Street, at the time of their first child’s birth. This appears not to be the case – such are the vagaries of memory, either Edith’s in the original telling, or Kay’s in the remembering of it.

We have a death record, dated March 20, 1912 in Toronto for baby George Smith, aged 0, son of Tom H. and Edith (Gladman) Smith. The death came five days after the birth, as in Kay’s story. Tom, who was a journalist early in his career, is likely the Thomas H Smith who was listed in the 1912 Might Directory for Toronto, living at 427 Yonge St. If this is our Tom in Might's (his name was often mis-recorded as Thomas, but he was christened Tom), he was working at the time in the editorial department at The News, a long-defunct daily newspaper, presumably as a reporter. (Tom and Edith did later live at 151 Briscoe Street in London, in 1918.)

It is possible, I suppose, that George was not their first, that Tom and Edith had an earlier child who also died, although the fact that this baby was named, apparently, for his paternal grandfather suggests he was a firstborn.

Tom’s military service during WWI – he was a Lieutenant in the army – is a bit of a mystery. We do have his supposedly complete Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) records, but there are, um, ambiguities. They indicate he enlisted on February 11, 1918. However, the enlistment record shows he also served from December 1915 to June 1916 in the 142nd Battalion, London’s Own. The 142nd, first formed in September 1915, went overseas in November 1916, without Tom, evidently. It’s interesting also to note that conscription came into force in Canada in January 1918.

None of this is to criticize our ancestor or imply he shirked his duty. But we do know that young able-bodied men out of uniform, at least in England, were often assumed to be and treated as cowards. Women of the White Feather Campaign might accost them in the street and press a white feather on them, symbolizing their supposed cowardice. To be fair, Tom was already 28 when war broke out in 1914 and over 30 by the time he went overseas – not old, but no longer in the first blush of youth either. And he did have a wife and two young children to support in Canada.  

By the time he was declared fit to join the CEF early in 1918, most of the great battles that defined Canada’s war had been fought – Ypres (1915), the Somme (1916), Vimy Ridge (1917) – and over 45,000 Canadians had already perished. Amiens, August 8, 1918, was yet to come, but by then, Tom was back home in Canada again.

Did he fight? Did he even get to the front? The CEF records are frustratingly unclear. A UWO History professor who looked briefly at them last year questioned whether Tom had gone overseas at all. On closer examination of the records, though, its clear he did, if briefly.

Page from Tom H Smith's CEF records, showing return on troop ship Tunisian (lower left, highlighted)

In his pay records, he is shown returning on the Tunisian, a troop ship, on April 1, 1918. Even if he was sent overseas immediately after enlisting, he couldn’t have been away long. Why did he return so soon? Was he wounded? We do have a photo of him from this period, in uniform, carrying a cane, so it's possible. But again, the records are unclear.

And what did he do in the war? The only clue is a card catalogue entry in the CEF records for “Smith, Thomas H, Lieutenant.” “Conducting officer” is written in the space for “Remarks.” Presumably this is what he was. But what exactly was it? It appears a conducting officer – with nothing in front of it, such as “train conducting officer” – was a minder for important people or, especially, for war correspondents visiting military installations. A PR flak in other words. This makes sense given his journalistic background. Certainly in the second war, conducting officers often had newspaper experience.

So did he catch a bullet while squiring some journo around the trenches in France – or fall off a bicycle in Picadilly Circus? We’ll probably never know. If it was either.

To get back to Kay’s story, it must have taken place later in April 1918 in London (Canada), where Edith was living – on Briscoe Street. The two children, of course, were Jack, then four, and Betty, two. And here they are, probably shot a few months later...aw, aren't they cute!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Remembrance of Things Past

I’m old, and retired; my mind wanders, I’m easily distracted. And that's why I've ignored this blog for so long.

Toby Yull has brought me back to it by sending along a lovely little piece of memory writing by her mother, our beautiful Aunt Kay, the last of her generation. I’m reproducing it here in its entirety – it’s not long:

“I want to say something about the first ‘Smiths’ who founded this family in Canada. I cannot write poetry, but I do remember them in a way that only a few of us can do.

My parents were very young people, newly married, who had left their families and their homes and come to what was, to them, a foreign country. They never really talked about this, or indeed much about their life in England, but my mother did tell me two stories about their lives that have lived in my memory for all of my long life.

The first concerned the birth of their first child. They lived, when he was born, in the upstairs of a house on Briscoe Street in London, and I do not know if the baby was born there or in a hospital, but I suspect it must have been in their home, since the story she told me occurred on the day the baby was just five days old.

The child was in a crib or bassinet at the foot of their bed. It was morning, and my father was standing at a dresser, combing his hair. She saw his reflected face in the mirror and saw that he was weeping. Seeing this, she suddenly knew that their baby was dead.

In my mind, I can see this scene very clearly.

The other story took place some time during World War I. By now they had produced two children who had lived, who are still living. My father, as far as she knew, was overseas. She had the two children standing in front of the kitchen sink, and was washing their faces preparatory to taking them out. She heard the door open and looked in the mirror and saw her husband standing there.

I, too, have lived through a war when my young husband was absent – in my case, for nearly six years. I can imagine that scene very clearly. And it, too, has stayed in my mind all the years since she told me of it, when I was a child.

It fascinates me that these two tiny vignettes, two little glances into their lives at that time, both contain my mother’s memory of the mirror image of my father. Was he someone she only saw in this way? Was he always an ‘image’ to her?”

I dispute Kay’s disclaimer that she can’t write poetry. She could.

The piece obviously stands on its own, but the history nerd in me can’t resist asking questions. Next post: a gloss on Aunt Kay’s remembrance.