On this Mother’s Day in 2021, I ponder a date 175 years ago – the day my great, great grandmother, Esther Evans, gave birth to her fifth child, a son, in the tiny hamlet of Berriew, Wales. My great grandfather, John Newell Evans, graced the world with his presence on May 9, 1846.
The Evans family lived on a one hundred acre farm called Lower Penthryn. John Newell was welcomed to the world by his father James (1806), mother Esther (1809), sisters Mary Ann (1834) and Elizabeth (1837), brothers James Junior (1840) and David (1843). The home was a cottage with walls of ‘clom’, a mixture of clay mixed with straw, and a roof of thatch, made with thin slats of wood woven with mud in wattle fashion and topped with gorse or straw, likely similar to but larger than shown in the photos below. The photos are of the two centuries old Nantwallter Cottage, a typical Welsh farm cottage, relocated to St. Fagan’s Museum near Cardiff, Wales.
Great grandfather John Newell, while writing his memoirs in the 1930s, described the home in which he was born and where he lived for the first decade of his life; his memories still vivid nine decades hence. These words illustrate, in detail, the conditions under which his mother, Esther, raised her children in the 1800s.
“House, low, one story, thatched roof – 8 rooms down stairs and 7 under the roof. Kitchen and living rooms the floors were of flagstone and not all of the same size. In fact were more like cobble stones, and every week they were washed and each stone was marked all around the edges with [word illegible] stone. In one end of the kitchen was a brick oven for the bakingmade hot by Brush, which was piled in great stack in the yard. The brush was the product of trimming the hedges. All fences were of brush and every fall some were trimmed off, hence the supply of brush for the oven. In the living room was a big open fire place with smaller oven behind it with a sheet of steel between the oven and fire place, which caused the oven to heat. ‘No stoves in those days. Meat was roasted by hanging on a rack in front of fire place and it was kept turning around and the fat from the meat fell into a dish and with a spoon the women used to, what we called basting it, by lifting up the fat with the spoon and pouring it over the meat again, and it was nicely cooked. All the bedsteads were the old fashioned four posters with curtains and around each bed. Mainly all the beds were feathers. While we used common crockery nearly every house had a collection of ….plates and mugs which had been handed down from past generations. Great oak beach were used for joists and the windows were small with small panes glazed in the lead. The roof was thatched with wheat straw…Thatch was in many buildings over a foot thick making a warm house. The barns and stable were very often built on or continued to extend from end of house. The same roof carried on. The stable floors were of cobblestones. We burnt coal and wood in fireplace, principally coal and by the way the older people were worried what they would do for fire when coal all gone.”
Esther gave birth to another son in that cottage; Henry Evan Evans was born January 5, 1849. The eight members of the Evans family were comfortable in their home on Lower Penthryn Farm. Great grandfather John Newell cherished the memories of a happy childhood in Berriew.
Built in the 17th Century, the carriage house (now the Lion Hotel, top left) was located in the center of the village. The Evans children passed by the carriage house on their way to school (bottom left); the family worshipped at the parish church of St. Buenos. The three buildings stand adjacent in the center of Berriew to this day.
I was amazed, on a visit to Berriew in 2012, that the hamlet map had changed little over the years. However, the circumstances of the Evans family altered significantly with the death of the matriarch, Esther.
When John Newell was ten years old his mother became ill, suffering for two years before her death from liver disease on December 19, 1858. Soon after Esther’s death the family home burned to the ground leaving widower James and his motherless children without a home. This misfortune split the family apart. By 1862 all that remained of the James Evans clan in Berriew was dear Esther’s gravesite, probably located in the St. Buenos cemetery. It is believed Mary went into household service on an estate in England; she eventually married a licensed victuller and operated the Globe Hotel in Andover, England; Elizabeth became a teacher but drowned in 1862; James and David, left Berriew for employment elsewhere. John was sent to London to live with his maternal aunt and continue his schooling. Young Henry remained with his father, who married again to a much younger woman. They moved to nearby Newton and James fathered three more children. Not long after the marriage, Henry left his father’s new family to train as a carpenter
The death of their mother and the destruction of their family home inspired in James Evans’ sons a wandering spirit and a desire to recoup the family fortune in a promising new land. Their travels took them to Vancouver Island – James and David arrived at Fort Victoria in June of 1862; John followed in 1864 and Henry arrived about 1870. The young men discovered that the Cowichan Valley reminded them of their home in Wales and likely, following their “Mother’s Voice” made decisions to cease wandering. They became influential pioneer settlers, serving as public leaders and farmers in the Cowichan Valley. Although they never returned to Berriew, the voice of their lovely mother, Esther guided their ways, her memory strong in their hearts and minds.
John Newell Evans, last surviving child of James and Esther, spoke of a poem, shortly before his death in 1944:
“I committed these words over 85 years ago. They have been with me ever since, comforting and alluring me ever since. I don’t know who wrote them. 85 years ago all our newspapers had a corner in it called the Poet’s Corner, and a poem appeared in it, usually a local production.”
John Newell was 13 years old and grieving the death of his mother at the time he memorized “My Mother’s Voice”, verse found in the Poet’s Corner of a London newspaper.
As a mother and a grandmother on this Mother’s Day in the 21st century I reflect, with gratitude, on the birth on my wise great grandfather, John Newell, and the tragic death of my great great grandmother, Esther, for it is those specific events that set the path upon which my journey eventually began. Those voices of long ago, although never heard by me, resonate with sweetness and love throughout our family story.
Happy 175th Birthday Grandpa John; thank you for the courage of your wandering spirit, for your determination, for your loyal service to family and civic duty, for the words you penned that have guided our family’s journey.
Happy Mother’s Day to Grandma Esther and to all the cherished mothers and grandmothers since, whose voices of love have guided our ways – those now silent voices, “soft and mild”, and those still whispering sweetly, sometimes with “gentle chiding”.
Recently, my neighbour added a finishing touch to her outdoor decorations. At her front door is a festive Gnome complete with an extra level of protection needed during this challenging time. This charming Christmas greeter originated in a local garden center, Down To Earth Nursery, highly recommended for West Coast gardening needs:. https://downtoearthgardensandnursery.com
In 2019, when it was permissible to travel globally, I had the pleasure of visiting several Scandinavian countries. Fanciful Gnomes appeared in many places, but I did not understand the significance. Gnomes, ancient characters of Nordic and European mythology, represent the spirit of good luck and protection as guardians of Earth’s treasures. I wish I had purchased a souvenir. A Gnome would be a welcome addition to our home during this year of COVID despair – 2020.
My decorating budget was overspent, but I really wanted three Gnomes. Best solution – make Gnomes at home. For any DIY project the first step is GOOGLE, which offered a selection of Gnome videos, tutorials and step by step instructions. The hitch in the project was finding a tomato cage to use as the base. Tomato cages, abundant in Victoria garden shops spring and summer, are nowhere to be found in the autumn. I had given mine to my son at the end of the summer since I failed Growing Tomatoes 101. Actually my tomato plants flourished but Sir Royal Bay Buck feasted mine to failure. Sir RB Buck pretends he is the guardian of my earth treasures and even chooses to protect the garden’s fairy houses. I wonder if Gnomes invited the critter to dine on tomatoes and a host of other garden delights.
This seasoned Primary teacher, never at loss for supplies and materials, searched the art studio and garage for materials and tools to make a wire cage base – florist wire, florist tape, plastic circles cut from mats the grandchildren use when painting, pony beads, wire cutters, a glue gun, a cake skewer, elastic bands, a marker. With a bit of fiddling, the bases were ready and, I hoped, strong enough to support evergreen boughs.
Our woodland backyard with towering cedars yielded the greenery needed for the Gnome project. I have yet to find a Gnome living in one of those majestic trees, but our youngest grandchildren believe there are fairies hiding among the roots and branches. Fairy Wishes are made every time they visit.
Armed with two sizes of clippers, I harvested the boughs and got to work wiring the fragrant cedar bits to the makeshift frames. Perfection was not required; the main goal was to cover the wire/plastic base with spreading branches.
Once the frames were adorned with cedar boughs I searched again through my stash for embellishments – red fleece, sherpa fleece, jingle bells, ribbons, shiny bits, a pair of pantyhose and some fiberfill. I fashioned hats and mittens using my sewing machine; attached bells, ribbon and sparkly bits; stuffed a pieces of pantyhose to form noses. All was ready to transform the triangular cedar forms into Gnomes.
Today, December 1, 2020, these cheerful creatures were delivered. Hopefully the Gnomes will not only provide protection for our loved ones but also bring Christmas cheer sprinkled with a little luck.
May the festive season and your home be filled love, luck and lots of fun.
September, to me, has long been deemed the beginning of the year; much more so than the first of January in any given year. ‘Back To School’ in September defined my life for more than half a century. Even now, although long since retired from a teaching career, my thoughts and concerns are highlighted in 2020 by a global pandemic, amidst which my five grandchildren went ‘Back To School’; excited to pave their learning way socially distanced, masked and highly sanitized; delighted to finally be back!
When teaching, I would have ‘Back To School’ dreams starting mid-August. In this unprecedented year, my waking thoughts reflected on education through the decades. The musings took me back, even before I was born, to the writings of my great grandfather, John Newell Evans, a learned man, who highly valued the importance of education. I am fortunate not only to have a copy of his memoirs written in the 1930s, but to also have visited the school he attended in Wales as a young boy from 1852 until 1858. (NOTE: Files related to John Newell Evans can be located in the British Columbia Archives)
September 2012, 160 years from when John Newell started school, I was overwhelmed to enter my ancestors’ hallowed hall of academia. It was my most unique ‘Back To School’ experience. The school built about 1850, which the James Evans Senior’s children attended, is, to this day, a majestic stone building in good repair. It is often used for art classes and community events. Almost nine decades after he attended the school John Newell documented his perception of education in his Welsh community of Berriew:
“…few rural schools were even equipped with anything except writing, readers and arithmetic and the teachers did not possess many qualifications to teach. Only on one subject did they compare with the modern teacher. My recollection is they were better writers than the present day teachers. We had no scribbling books, all slates and then after the lesson was done to the satisfaction of teacher the scholar copied it into a book with pen and ink. All had to be done very neatly and no blots or smudges must appear on the book. Berriew was the only rural school that I knew in our district which had maps and histories in the school and she was up to date with present day schools. She also had a library for the use of scholars. The boys and girls were also kept separate.” He describes the endowed school at Berriew: “a two story building, Boys on the ground floor, Girls up stairs. Also two separate yards for playing in and they were enclosed with high stone walls and they were roomy yards. In the winter and fall the boys got the use of a meadow to play football which was our principal game.”
Current events form an important part of the school curriculum in the 21st Century, as they did in the 1850s. In another section of his memoirs John Newell recalled social aspects of his early school learning and alluded to meeting his mother on his way to school on her return from visiting London in 1856:
“My recollection of public events dates to the Crimean War, when world history was made in many of its battles, notably the Charge of the Light Brigade, which Tennyson, in his poem placed it on record that nearly all of our school children of the present day can recite. Then we must not forget a name that will be carried through the ages – that of Florence Nightingale who devoted her life to the benefit of the British soldier, and the forerunner of the Red Cross society. Her praises were sung by everyone. She affected to all that was the best in human nature. I can well remember the rejoicing when peace was proclaimed. I remember my mother going to London at that date and her return home afterward. I think I could go to the very spot upon which I met her on my way to school.
After John Newell’s mother died in 1858 he was sent to live with his maternal aunt, who arranged for him to continue his education. He wrote of his London private school experience at age twelve years:
“…sent me to a private school in Lower Belgrave Place, supposed to be one of the best schools in London. It was not nearly so well equipped as was the Berriew school, not nearly so many maps and no library and I have doubts if our teachers were so good.“
John Newell Evans’ Memoirs
He remained at the private school for two years before furthering his education with a draper’s apprenticeship at a business located in the famed Covent Garden. John Newell’s interest in education did not end with the apprenticeship. One month before he turned eighteen he left England to join his older brothers in the colony of Victoria, British Columbia; Canada was not yet a nation. I have written much about his journey, exploits and endeavors in my family history book “Footsteps To Dreams“, but this post is about ‘Back To School’ and the impact my great grandfather had on his family’s pursuit of learning.
Within ten years of settling as a pioneer in the Cowichan Valley great grandfather Evans had assumed a variety of civic duties in the newly formed municipality of North Cowichan. He served for many years as Reeve, Councillor, Trustee, Committee Chairman and even had a three year stint as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (1903-1906). From an educational aspect, he was School Trustee for both the Old Somenos School and the Maple Bay School and was instrumental in setting up the first library in the district. There is considerable detail in his memoirs about the early schools and teachers of North Cowichan, but I will relate just a few anecdotes specific to his children’s school experiences. The Evans children, my grandfather, Arthur and his siblings, were expected to attend school and be diligent in their lessons. Going to school in the 1880s was not an easy task.
Grandfather Arthur first went to the Koksilah School, in the area of Fairbridge Farm. Next he attended the Mission School operated by Mr. Lomas located on what is now the B.C. Forestry Center property. My mother remembers hearing a story told by her grandmother Mary Jane that in the early 1880s the young Evans children would walk through dense forest on unpaved trails 5.5 miles (8.7km) to the lake. On arrival at the lake shore they were transported to the school on the other side of Somenos Lake in a dugout canoe paddled by a man their mother had hired. He was sometimes paid with the butter or baked goods that Great Grandmother Mary Jane made at the farm. At the end of the day they were paddled back to the western shore of the lake and then walked the several miles back home.
In 1885, when Grandpa Arthur was ten years old, the second Somenos School opened. It was located near the Mountain View cemetery, only 2.5 miles (3.8km) from the family farm on Old Cowichan Lake Road. Arthur and his six siblings trekked daily through the forest in any kind of weather, always alert for dangerous wildlife. Great Grandpa John claimed the Old Somenos School was the first school in British Columbia to erect a flag pole, a project inspired by the teacher Miss Jean Blair. He believed Miss Blair:
“should receive credit for erecting the first school flag pole. Today, every school has a flag floating and she (Miss Blair) also pioneered the first Christmas tree I really think, in the Province. Miss. Blair was then teacher. Then our children would walk, many for miles each way, along roads in winter which were knee deep in mud.”
John Newell Evans’ Memoirs
More than a century later the flagpole story mirrors two perpetual problems within the British Columbia school system – the need for families to fund raise and the obscure specifications of school budget allocation. I discovered the flagpole anecdote in an undated article in the archives of the Cowichan District Museum in Duncan, British Columbia.. “Brother and sister recall early school days near city’” appeared in the Cowichan Leader in the early 1960s, following an interview with my grandfather Arthur and his youngest sister Ruby:
“A cherished desire of the pupils was to have a flag. In 1901 with the permission of the teacher, E.J. Taylor, they held a dance to raise money for this purpose. The total objective was far from realized and it was decided to use some of the yearly grant. This sum included $40 for incidentals which would ordinarily take care of the purchase and cutting of fire wood.
The fathers of the children attending school had wood-cutting bees and the 25 cords needed to see them through the season were taken off school property, cut and piled, thus leaving the $40 intact for other purposes. The PLANS went ahead, Arthur Evans cut a beautiful straight, smooth cedar pole and set it up in a cement base, (and cement wasn’t’ easy to come by) and the flag was purchased for wholesale in Victoria.
All went well until they were informed their $40 could not be used for such a purpose and the superintendent of education returned the money. Other arrangements for payment had to be made but this didn’t dim the enthusiasm, and the flag-raising ceremony was celebrated by the inspector of schools giving the children a holiday.” (Note: this quote is not cited as the article was undated and unreferenced) Grandfather Arthur, at age 26, was a school alumnus when he set up the flag pole; his youngest sister Ruby, at age 10 would have been a student in Miss Blair’s classroom.
(Note: this quote from the Cowichan Leader is not cited as the article was undated and unreferenced)
Great Grandpa John recorded in the 1930s “today, many rural schools have disappeared, their places filled by consolidated schools with a teacher to each grade. Truly, the world moves on, …, our schools compare favourably with those of our cities. Perhaps we could lay claim to the B.C. School system being one of the best in the world.”
John Newell Evans’ Memoirs
I do believe my noble ancestor would have been proud that his offspring and their issue continue to value education and participate actively in the B.C. School system.
His eldest son, Arthur, went on to further his education in Victoria, BC at the Royal Jubilee Hospital by becoming a registered nurse, one of only two men to graduate in 1906. Grandpa Arthur served a distinctive career in a field not usually occupied by men during that era.
Arthur’s son, Harry McDonald Evans, following WWII, earned a teaching certificate from UBC in 1945, taught for two years in Summerland and then accepted the position of Assistant Registrar for the Provincial Department of Education. He soon became Registrar, a position he held for twenty-one years. He went on to become the Registrar at Simon Fraser University for another sixteen years. In 1985 he was recognized with an honorary doctoral degree from SFU. Uncle Harry dedicated his life to education. These words were written of him:
“He provided much needed expertise in ‘process’ through the tumultuous 60s and 70s, but he never forgot that rules are made to serve people not to make life miserable. His congenial manner, judicious counsel and commitment to fair play, won many hearts and minds over the years. He is remembered by students, faculty and staff as a major contributor to this young university.”
Simon Fraser Week, Volume 31, No.3, January 24, 1985
At least two of John Newell’s great granddaughters became teachers: Harry’s daughter, my cousin Patricia and myself. My first back to school memory dates to 1952 when I started Grade One. Our family had moved from Calgary to live with Grandpa Arthur, on the J.N. Evans dairy farm. I was not yet six years old when, on a crisp September morning, my mother and younger brothers walked me down the lane to wait at the milk stand for the school bus. I vividly recall proudly stepping onto to the bus and waving, with some trepidation, to my family standing at the end of the lane. I can still visually them framed by silver milk cans that teetered on the old wooden stand and lush Greengage plum trees in the orchard beyond. Alberta had not implemented Kindergarten in those days, which meant I started off Grade One with no formal preschool experiences.
All by myself, I walked through the doors of Duncan Elementary to meet my first teacher, who promptly assumed I would be learning disabled if I continued to use my left hand. She informed me of her displeasure with whacks on my wrist by a yardstick. My mother set her straight on that belief and the principal transferred me to a Grade One/Two classroom with a younger teacher, who kindly celebrated my handedness. I even learned to use the fountain pen and ink well to perfection with no smudges. It was not until 1979, when I dutifully prepared my first born for his first day of school, that I realized my first day of school had started as brave, independent journey. The photo, posted here, taken that first day of school in 1952 on the farm creek bridge is the only ‘back to school’ photo of me, although I have many of my children and my grandchildren taken on their first days.
There were eleven more years of first days of public school and four September start-ups in post secondary at UVIC to earn a Bachelor of Education. While training at the University of Victoria I requested a student teaching position in the one-room school at Notch Hill, Sorrento, British Columbia. For a few short weeks in the spring of 1966 I had a brief experience teaching Grades One to Four in a school built in 1921. It was similar to those for which John Newell had been a trustee and which my Grandpa Arthur had attended. The old school houses were integral part of the community not only providing a place of instruction for children but also serving the social needs of the community for meetings and gatherings such as concerts and dances. There is a family memory that Grandpa Arthur often played the fiddle at evening dances held in the Somenos School with the desks pushed to walls to allow for lively jigs and reels.
‘Back To School’ first days continued for many years as I welcomed my young students to Kindergarten, Grade One and/or Grade Two. Certainly every concerned parent of a left handed child received extra assurance from me that all would be well. Great Grandpa John’s belief in and respect for education provided the inspiration for me to become a teacher. Uncle Harry’s encouragement and support was instrumental in my pursuit of a teaching degree and to my success as a classroom teacher.
The focus of ‘Back To School’ altered with my transition from student to classroom teacher, but remained always ‘the beginning of the year’. Even during an hiatus as ‘at-home Mom’, September was still the beginning of our year as my husband was a school principal. Each August a new suit and tie purchase was made to get him ready for ‘Back To School.’ Principals always donned a suit and tie in those days.
Our sons, began their school journeys with Kindergarten in 1979 and 1983, fortunate to attend a modern school with many classrooms, a large gymnasium, huge playing fields, a well-stocked library and highly qualified teachers. Their pens were ball point, with no ink wells to be found, and not one teacher raised a concern about the fact my youngest son wrote with his left hand. There were no milk can bus stops and I saw them safely into school every first day until they would no longer permit me to do so. They only had to trudge a quarter mile uphill along a paved sidewalk, occasionally encountering a wild squirrel or rabbit, sometimes in the rain, but without ‘knee-deep mud’. They now relate to their offspring that a few years into their ‘Back To School’ experiences they were introduced to amazing new learning tools – computers and the Internet. “Truly the world moves on…” There were times when our sons would have preferred their parents were not educators in the same school district, but they flourished, pursued post secondary school training, continue to this day, to learn through professional development activities and now prepare for ‘Back To School’ with their children.
This September I worry for the children, their teachers, administrators and parents. ‘Back To School’ is distinctive in 2020, held with much more trepidation than I experienced in 1952. I know students are resilient; they will continue to learn. Our five all set off with their backpacks, computer devices and perhaps a mechanical pencil, fancy gel pen or even a stylus for writing. I know the adults in their school cohorts will do the best they possible can to make learning safe, interesting and fun. All I can do is cheer them on as they “ZOOM” into a new learning mode during a global pandemic. Our grandchildren in Grades Three, Five, Ten and Twelve were provided with a unique, well organized start-up system created by dedicated teachers and principals, who were diligent in following the directives of the Provincial Health Officer. Those who graduate this year, including our twin grandsons, will certainly have an amazing story to tell their children and grandchildren. As 2020-2021 graduates, they will be the first students to spend an entire year learning in COVID-19 times.
Great Grandpa John, although he understood education would evolve, could not have imagined school as it is today. Two of his great grandsons will soon graduate from the newest and largest secondary school on Vancouver Island; a school with a view that overlooks the shores upon which he landed in the spring of 1864.
Royal Bay Secondary School is start of the art, with facilities to provide education beyond basic academic courses to include art, choir, dance, music, theatre, culinary arts, computer programming, media design, engineering, languages, sports academies, trades training and expanded life skills. It is equipped with a commercial teaching kitchen, a 350-seat performing arts theatre, rooms for music, art and dance, a modern library, well equipped computer rooms, three gymnasiums, an indoor turf facility, an Olympic sized track enclosing a large playing field, a separate soccer/lacrosse pitch and a roof-top court for basketball and volleyball. Incorporated within the diverse, open-concept facility are three specialized academies for Dance, Lacrosse and Soccer, a Neighbourhood Learning Centre to support community needs and a partnership with Camosun College, which provides credit options for students wishing to pursue education in the Trades.
I have no doubt that Great Grandpa John Newell, were he with us today, would have delighted in the development of education, been astounded at the magnitude of today’s schools and heartily encouraged his three times great children to set lofty goals in a diligent pursuit of learning within their hallowed halls of academia. As wise John Newell wrote about education while in his nineties, “Truly the world moves on…”
May 3, 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the end of action in the Battle of the Atlantic. WWII ceased the year before my birth, but I grew up aware of the events with a vague understanding of my parent’s war memories. It took six decades for me to comprehend the specific impact it had for them because the stories I heard were devoid of serious detail. The telling of humorous tales was their way to cope with difficult memories of the war years experienced by a young couple in love, who married in haste before the sailor went overseas.
As a participant in the longest running battle of WWII, my father always gave remembrance on Battle of the Atlantic Sunday. I knew it made him sad, but never realized the scope of a battle that lasted 2075 days with the loss of 70,000 Allied sailors, merchant mariners, and airmen. Canada mourned the deaths of 4600 in that battle alone. It was not until the last year of his life that Dad shared his memories of the action, the tragedies, the loss. Even then the details were minimal, but heartfelt and sorrowful. After his death in 2005, my stepmother gifted me a journal my father had penned during deployment overseas serving on the HMCS Prince Robert. I treasure the tiny notebook filled with brief daily entries about his ship’s journey that lasted from July 29, 1943 until October 13, 1944. I had not known of the journal’s existence during his lifetime. His writing was not elaborate, but provided small details that led to fascinating research and my understanding of the battle’s magnitude.
I devoted an entire chapter called ‘Eddie Goes To War’ in my family history book, “Footsteps To Dreams”, based on the small diary written by a young engine room articifer (ERA) defending his country. The extensive research I conducted used the scant information found in the journal as my starting point. How I wish I could have shared with him the important role his ship and its company played in the Battle of the Atlantic. For the purpose of this post I will share only a few anecdotes experienced by my father during the mighty Battle.
The HMCS Prince Robert’s convoy escort duties mainly followed a route from Plymouth, England to the port of Gibraltar, with forays north to ports in Scotland and east into the Mediterranean. He celebrated his 21st birthday alone on board ship docked in Greenoch, Scotland. Diary entry: “Sept.1st – 21st birthday never even received a greeting very uneventful”. However, a few days later a mail bag reached the ship with greetings from home, even a fruitcake from his Mom, and orders granting a five day shore leave. He used the time to visit Glasgow, Edinburgh and London. It was a tourist opportunity to see the renowned sites of London such as the Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, although defined by the scourge of war – bombed out buildings, food rations, desperate citizens and air raids; quite a reality check for a young man raised in rural Alberta. On return to his post in Scotland, September 8, 1943 it was announced Italy had surrendered to Germany. The ship had been refitted and the convoy escorts began for the HMCS Prince Robert.
The HMCS Prince Robert, a luxury liner converted to a destroyer escort vessel, participated in the defense of countless convoys between England and the Mediterranean region. Although it did not engage in many skirmishes, it was constantly under threat by enemy aircraft and u-boats. The journal entries were often just one or two lines, but the longest entry I found was November 21, 1943. The historic events of that day are recorded in detail in “The Three Princes Armed: Luxury Liners to Warships” by R. Darlington and F. McKee and “HMCS Prince Robert:The Career of an Armed Merchant Cruiser” by C.R. Shelley.
The crew had been given shore leave awaiting ship repairs in Plymouth. Dad was with a group of friends watching a movie at a theatre when “ACTION STATION” flashed on the movie screen. An urgent call had been put out to the local venues in Plymouth for the crew of the ship to return immediately. The engine room team fired up the boilers enabling the ship to sail south to defend the 60 ship convoy, SL139/MKS30, under enemy attack in the Bay of Biscay. The event recorded in “Three Princes Armed” described the destroyer as “roaring in like the cavalry in a western movie…”
Diary entry: “Sun. Nov. 21st – Fairly smooth going until 15:15 when the action station bell rang, sighted enemy plane. Then it started; planes shooting out of the low hanging clouds. We sighted our Convoy and then we opened fire on Focke-Wulf planes round after round. Although we couldn’t see the action as I was down below a running commentary was given from the bridge. The Convoy was bombed heavily. Only lost one ship and crippled another out of over 60 ships with 24 as escort. Our fire drove off many a plane and 2 went off in a trail of black smoke. They let an aerial torpedo go at us but it swerved and landed just forward of a freighter…The plane that let it go was believed hit by us. We put up a barrage of fire for 2 hours then the planes left and Convoy gathered and got on course again with one freighter dangling behind. We were patrolling behind convoy. Two German pilots bailed out and landed in Sea…We were highly complimented by Commodore for saving convoy with our barrage of fire.” On return to Plymouth he also wrote, “Nov. 29 – Met Yankee sailors that came in our Convoy; they really thought a lot of our ship; said we saved the convoy.”
The battle must have been terrifying yet, other than his journal entry, my father never spoke of it again; nor did he ever know that the firefight had been well documented in the annals of military history. He did, however, speak often of the good times while docked in Gibraltar and other ports. He proudly told of the ship’s company being invited, on two honoured occasions, to participate in the “Ceremony of the Keys”, a ritual military ceremony enacted since 1779 in Gibraltar. He regaled his family with stories of playing for the ship’s ball team and, as the team back-catcher, using the “Rock’ for a back stop. The only way he could let his family know, during the war, of his location was with cryptic messages written on thin airmail paper. He told his mother to look on the Prudential calendar in her kitchen; it featured of photo of the Rock of Gibraltar. The prowess of the team was often boasted in his post war tales. I was astounded, while researching, to discover a website devoted to the history of the Prince Robert and even more surprised that the athletic talent of the ship’s company actually made the news in Canada. The Windsor Daily Star, August 11, 1944 reported on the athletic activities of the sailors during recreational time while at war, defining the Prince Robert as the “Sportin’est Ship in the Royal Canadian Navy”. Sure enough there was verification complete with a ball team photo and a nod to my father “…Engine Room Articifer Eddie (Red) Smith handled the backstopping chores.”
When the Battle of the Atlantic began in 1939 the Royal Canadian Navy consisted of 6 destroyers and 40 merchant marine vessels. The demands of the war resulted in unprecedented shipbuilding and call to arms. Ultimately Canada floated one of the largest navies in the world. The statistics of our nation’s losses are staggering: – 33 warships, 2000 sailors, 73 merchant vessels, 1700 merchant mariners, 350 aircraft, 900 airmen made a supreme sacrifice to the war effort. http://espritdecorps.ca/army-articles/rcn-commemorates-the-75th-anniversary-of-the-battle-of-the-atlantic
Dad often mentioned in his diary the camaraderie shared among the sailors when in port. Many had been friends prior to joining the Royal Canadian Navy. When permitted shore leave they gathered in pubs, theaters, dance halls, skating rinks and parks to socialize, always aware that it could be the last time together. I noticed several references in the journal of friends on the HMCS Athabaskan. It was not until 2004 that I learned of my father’s darkest war memory was related to the sinking of that vessel on April 29, 1944.
My father wrote two brief entries about the tragedy, but did not indicate the traumatic impact it had upon him. Diary entry: “April 29 Duty Watch worked on top of the Hatch; Athabaskan, a Tribal class destroyer sunk by E boasts in (illegible) Lane. April 30 Held a Memorial service for tribal class destroyer Athabaskan, really a fighting ship.”
In 2004, after watching the national Remembrance Day ceremony with my very ill father, he finally shared, through his tears, the story of a friend who perished in the sinking of HMCS Athabaskan in the English Channel. The ship, had helped sink a German torpedo boat, T29, on April 26, 1944, but sustained damage and returned to Plymouth for repairs. While on shore that evening my father met up with a high school friend, who served on the Athabaskan. Over pints of English ale they shared stories and photos of their loved ones – Dad telling of his marriage a year earlier; his pal explaining he was engaged and would be married as soon as he returned to Canada. Promises were made to salute each other when their ships passed in the Channel. Little did they know that just two days later one would salute and the other would ‘cross the bar’. Dad, on top deck duty watch the night of April 29, 1944, kept the salute promise as his friend’s warship sailed past one last time. He did not tell me his friend’s name, but lamented the biggest regret of his war experience. When the war ended he always planned to lookup his pal’s fiance and tell her of the wonderful time they had together in that English pub and assure her she had been loved to the end. His regret: he never made contact because he could not relive the tragedy. We cried together that day and I weep just writing his sad story.
Mostly, the yarns told by my father were funny anecdotes of capers while in port and on board. We always enjoyed the descriptions of his wild, wacky antics peppered with his resonating laughter. The difficult war memories were safely stored away from ears of his children, and hopefully did not plague his mind. The HMCS Prince Robert ended its contribution to the Battle of the Atlantic in October 1944. Following a refit in Vancouver, BC it went on to participate in the Pacific Theatre of War until August 1945. My parents reunited in Victoria for a brief time in the Fall of 1944 before Dad was issued a new deployment to Halifax. They again reunited May 7, 1945 in Halifax hoping for another brief time together before Dad shipped out again, but the next day Victory in Europe was declared. The war was over! However, within hours my parents were in lock-down with only a loaf of bread, peanut butter and jam to eat, watching from a small apartment window as the celebration in Halifax, Nova Scotia turned to closures, drunken riots and extreme looting.
In the “75 Years Since…” we find ourselves in a different kind of lock-down. The planned 75th memorial celebrations of the Battle of the Atlantic and Victory in Europe are to be virtual in 2020, in the privacy of our homes, for the world is again at war, battling an unknown virus called Covid 19. Stay safe, stay calm and remember the valiant sacrifices.
I have advised my grandchildren that 2020 is history in the monumental making; “pay heed and be safe”. Months ago, as the midnight hour turned to welcome 2020, we were eager to embrace all that a new decade would offer. Plans were in place to bring it on, never anticipating the tumultuous events that would impose fear, anxiety, illness and death on the doorstep of our world. The World Health Organization claimed COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11. Heeding our government travel advisories, an April Mediterranean cruise to Italy, followed by land stays in Spain, France and the United Kingdom was cancelled; on the ominous day of March 15 we also cancelled our March 22nd flights to Maui and told our family,”we’re staying home”.
With much time on my well-washed hands, self-isolated now instead of travelling, fore-bodings of the past come to mind. William Shakespeare, in 1599, brought to our attention the warning, “Beware the ides of March” in writing of the 44 BC demise of Julius Caesar. (quotation credit from my copy of ‘Julius Caesar’ studied in English 200, year 1964)
“Caesar: Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue shriller than all the music…
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
Caesar: What man is that?
Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.
Caesar: Set him before me; let me see his face. Fellow, come from the throng;…
Soothsayer: Beware the ides of March.
Caesar: He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass“
The Ides of March, scheduled March 15 on the traditional Roman calendar, has always been considered a time for settling debts. Caesar apparently had his debts settled traitorously by others. It is interesting, however, to consider in this day and age that perhaps the world’s citizens are being held accountable for complacency and lack of planning. More recent soothsayers than the Bard have warned of a pandemic.
It is questionable that author Dean Koontz in 1981 actually foreshadowed the current crisis. The fictional crisis in the novel was man-made with a 100% mortality rate, but Koontz spun a pandemic tale in The Eyes of Darkness. Sylvia Browne, a self-described psychic, prophesied in her book, End of Days (2008), that a respiratory disease outbreak would occur throughout the world in 2020. Given Browne’s statements were made following the SARS outbreak the question remains – speculation or prophecy? Perhaps the most credible fore-warnings have come from technology guru and philanthropist Bill Gates.
Gates cautioned, in a 2010 blog post, that the H1N1 outbreak was a wake-up call with more to come. In the midst of the EBOLA outbreak in 2015 a Gates’ TED TALK presentation was called The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready. He warned, “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war.” At the 2017 Munich Security Conference Gates explained, “Getting ready for a global pandemic is every bit as important as nuclear deterrence and avoiding climate catastrophe.”
Here were are in 2020 slowing down, coming to standstill in many areas, trying to make sense of it all, attempting to ‘flatten the curve’, not knowing when it will end. I will not dwell on the philosophical aspects other the previous musings in this post, nor do I plan to engage in political bashing of any level of government. Perhaps this my is opportunity to reflect, make amends, refocus my purpose and consider all for which I am grateful.
The day the pandemic was declared I began a journal title, “Bird in a Cage, Pandemic 2020′. It is for my personal use to record what is happening in my world, that too in the realm of my family, friends and community, and to provide some purpose to my days in seclusion. Each day, feeling grateful my family is safe, I begin a journal entry: listing a positive thought, planning for some exercise, recording a chore from my long ‘MUST DO’ list, selecting creative project to work on and choosing the name of someone I can reach out with to with a message, card, letter or telephone call.
Posts for this blog in March and April were meant to share my new travel experiences, celebrate adventures in foreign countries and document tranquil times faraway from home. Well, my Spring travel experiences instead involve solitary, socially-distanced walks, quiet moments exploring our garden and searching the rooms of my home for lurking adventures, better known as ‘dust bunny demise’.
In watching news reports of the world at a standstill I have been amazed at the images of renowned streets, completely empty. The photographs which shocked me the most were those of India. Never did I imagine the chaotic, bustling streets I had travelled would ever be devoid of people, much less vehicles. I realize in previous travel photography I preferred to take photos of landmarks and landscapes without the crowds, without the annoying tourist photo bomb. When I travel again I plan to capture the crowds, the crush of people, the essence of humanity. I share a few photos from my previous travels; these are packed with people and vehicles. May the streets of our world come alive with vibrancy again.
TRAVEL MEMORIES: PRE- SOCIAL DISTANCING AND STAY HOME ORDERS.
Two weeks ago, before the wave of fear crested and self-isolation became the norm in our nation, I spent a day with my youngest grandchildren. In the midst of us laughing about something quite silly, my 7 year old grandson asked, “Nanny, is it okay to be laughing?”. I realized there was fear and confusion in his young mind. We were still hugging at that time, so hug him I did, assuring him all would be well. As I tickled him back to laughing, I offered comfort explaining absolutely laughter was the best medicine for our sad world. The uncertainty of the world’s heath, as disconcerting as it may be, serves as a reminder to stay apart for now but remain together in positive resolve, to be patient not panicky, to be kind not judgmental. Laugh, if you can, until your sides hurt, but remember it is okay to cry sometimes too. Stay safe and well through this journey.
We don’t have a yardarm, but today, as the sun sets below the fence in our backyard, we are taking a moment to toast my Dad in remembrance. It is been 15 years since he took his last ‘stand easy’. Fifteen years since we last heard his contagious laughter and the naval jargon that peppered his speech from time to time. Fifteen years precious in our memories. “Sun’s over the yardarm” was often announced by Dad when it was time for ‘happy hour’.
Life began for my Dad in 1922. Home was a rural community of Calgary, Alberta known as Ogden. Connected to the city by streetcar tracks and unpaved roads, Ogden was created to provide housing for employees of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The company built the Ogden Shops in 1912 for repair and maintenance of the engines and rail cars, which rumbled through the Rocky Mountains connecting the rest of Canada to the Pacific Coast. My grandfather completed a machinist apprenticeship in the Ogden Shops in 1916 and worked 52 years for CPR. He expected his two sons to dedicate their lives to the company that provided so well for the family. That was always the plan as the boys were growing up. They went to school, played hockey and softball, served as alter boys in local Anglican church, sang in the church choir, romped with wild abandon on the prairie and knew with certainty a C.P.R. apprenticeship awaited. Even the offer of a scholarship and opportunity to play hockey in the NHL when Dad was 17 years old was thwarted. His father refused permission for his youngest son to go the United States, not for school, not for hockey. The implicit order was ‘work for the C.P.R. or become a minister of the church’.
Best laid plans, however, sometimes go awry. A world war called plaintively on the young men of Canada. Dad’s elder brother joined the Royal Canadian Navy, much to the horror of his father, who had served valiantly in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in WWI. Granddad believed if the army was good enough for him it was good enough for his sons. My father, at the time, was not quite old enough to sign up for war. After high school graduation he began the planned machinist apprenticeship. When not working on steam engines, he played hockey for the Calgary Royals; the team won the city champions in 1940, 1941 and 1942 and Dad was a star player.
The Royals were eliminated from the Memorial Cup playoffs on March 27, 1942. At the year-end party the next evening Dad was approached by a Navy hockey scout. The Navy team was still in playoff contention in their league. When asked, “Do you still want to play hockey?”, my enthusiastic, hockey loving father replied that he certainly did. Transportation was provided the next morning to the recruiting station at H.M.C.S. Tecumseh. Yes, even on the Canadian prairies there were land-based ships. Dad signed on, by-passing the mandatory fitness exam as the scout had verified a superb level of fitness. He played his first game for the Navy on April 1, 1942. Before month’s end the Navy team had been eliminated, ending Dad’s naval hockey career. The youngest Smith son boarded a C.P.R. train bound for basic naval training at H.M.C.S. York, another land-based ship, in Ontario. His mother bid him loving farewell at the station; his father refused to speak to him.
Dad joined the Navy to play hockey and ended up going to war. His naval service was loyal and diligent. After basic training he was deployed to H.M.C.S. Naden in Victoria BC. He met and fell in love with my mother. They were married in Victoria May 15, 1943.
Two months later the novice recruit was assigned to H.M.C.S. Prince Robert as an engine room articifer. A newly married prairie boy, who had only seen the ocean once as a teenager when his family visited Vancouver on vacation, found himself on a ship sailing the Pacific Ocean for an unknown destination. He began a diary on departure day July 29, 1943, writing in it daily for the duration of his time aboard the Robert, a cruise vessel redesigned as a warship. According to his diary, the crew finally learned their destination on August 11, 1943 – Panama, Bermuda, Clyde Bank on the North Sea with Greenock, Scotland the first war-ridden port of call. After refit and rearmament in Scotland the ship served for 18 months in the Battle of Atlantic as a convoy escort between the United Kingdom and ports in the Mediterranean region. The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest running battle of WWII.
The Prince Robert returned to Esquimalt Harbour October 13, 1944 for a scheduled refit. Following a brief shore leave the crew was deployed to other ships with Dad again on a C.P.R. train bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. There he was assigned to two land-based ships, H.M.C.S. Peregrine and Scotia, where he applied his machinist training to repair and maintain vessels in refit at the graving dock in Halifax Harbour. He expected deployment again to the European theater of war. During the time Halifax his brother, Wilfred’s, ship sailed into the harbour for refit and my mother took rail transport from Calgary to visit. They were in Halifax the day the war ended in May 1945, experiencing the terrible riots and ensuring lock-down that occurred during the celebration of peace.
After the war Dad remained in the naval reserves, but returned to Calgary as a civilian to finish his machinist apprenticeship, working on steam engines alongside his father and brother in the Ogden Shops. Within a few years, the lure of the ocean and his love of ships inspired him to move his young family to his wife’s hometown of Victoria. He took more apprenticeship training in welding and pipe fitting at H.M.C.S. Dockyard, where he remained employed until his retirement. Not only did he work in the shipyards, eventually at the management level, but he also devoted time to his naval reserve duties with H.M.C.S Malahat and worked evenings and weekends as a referee for the Western Hockey League.
To relate Dad’s overflowing story would take many hours. He possessed many fine qualities interwoven in his life’s tale. To his family and friends he was loving, charming, flirtatious, patriotic, determined, loyal, competitive, athletic, highly skilled, hard working, jovial, proud, spirited and a bit of an ‘Archie Bunker’. His laughter rings clear in our memories.
We often thought of Dad as ‘jack of all trades and master of several’. He dearly loved the trains and and ships he repaired. His masterful skills transferred beyond his work into his personal life. His ingenuity amazed his family of 5 children and 8 grandchildren as he created, constructed, ‘jerry-rigged’ and repaired whenever a need arose.
He was a fiercely competitive sportsman, who pursued athletic endeavors with passion and determination. When serving on the Prince Robert, he played back-catcher for the ship’s ball team using the Rock of Gibraltar as the backstop whenever in port; the team rarely lost a game. There was a lingering regret that his father prevented an NHL career, and another when he refused the chance to referee with his pal Scotty Morrison at the time of the NHL expanded in 1960s. That opportunity was turned down as he had family of 5 to support and felt it was too risky to pack us up and move to Ontario. When Dad was 80 years old he was told he would never skate again after double knee replacement. His response to the surgeon, “Like Hell I won’t!” A few months after his surgery he laced up the skates, yet again, and continued skating three times a week until his legs would no longer support him.
In 1973 he was awarded the prestigious Order of Military Merit for his loyal service to country. He wore that medal proudly pinned first in the line of many WWII medals. His patriotism never wavered from the first hockey game he played for Navy until his last Remembrance Day service in 2004 when, even in terrible pain from the cancer that wracked his body, he stood proudly at attention saluting as the Last Post sounded, tears streaming down his wrinkled cheeks. I was honoured to help him to his feet and share that moment with him.
I finish this tribute to my Dad today with a precious family story, loved especially by his eldest grandchildren. It is the basis for our toast to Dad this evening. Many years ago, when his grandchildren were very young, Dad created a wooden Santa Claus, which he placed each December on the roof, propped against the chimney. How I wish there was a photo of that jolly old elf. One year we arrived to visit Dad and were shocked at his appearance. He looked like he had been in a tavern brawl – bruised, scratched, quite the worse for wear, but with no broken bones. He had slipped off the roof while trying to prop Santa against the chimney. His explanation, “The little fat bastard kicked me off the roof!” The comment delighted his grandsons aged 5 and 8 years, but horrified his 3 year old granddaughter. Sweet Alana could not understand why Granddad called Santa a ‘bad name’. Many years later when our family was grieving Dad’s death, Alana’s mother was given a sympathy card with a bottle of French Chardonnay, called “Fat Bastard”. The gift of wine triggered many emotions and happy memories. Each Christmas for the past 14 years my niece, my sister-in-law and I raise our glass to the man who dared to call Santa a ‘little fat bastard’.
A wafting aroma of coffee roused me in the pre-dawn hour, awakened yet again to another wet, dreary, typically West Coast winter day. I cannot recall, in the many decades I’ve lived in Victoria, such heavy rain, incessant over so many days. It is what it is without complaint, but the gushing sound of water whooshing through the down spouts gave me pause to reflect upon our good fortune. Our family has not been impacted severely by the flood waters rising on parts of our lovely island. Securely equipped with umbrellas, Gortex jackets and waterproof boots, we understand rainy days in our small patch of paradise pale in comparison to the flooding close to home, the catastrophic fires of Australia, the extreme winter blizzard conditions on the east coast of Canada and the devastating drought in parts of Africa. Coffee cup now in hand, I opened my iPad to a discover a cheerful memory of my first trip to Maui, a long time ago.
Sunset at Makena Beach, Maui, HI
The memory jog from a social media platform prompted a search of weather related travel photos captured before I began using WordPress as a travel blog. I share just a few random photos of past adventures.
Sunrise in Varanasi, India on the Ganges amidst the holy worshipers; sunset in the high desert of Sedona, AZ; a smoggy day in New Dehli, India
Sooke Harbour – at the end of a day on the ocean
A rainbow welcome to the Isle of Skye at the end of foggy, soggy drive from Inverness, Scotland; azure skies to accent the ancient pillars at Stonehenge, England; sunset close to home on the Sooke, Harbour
How fortunate my memories are enhanced by lovely photos. This post finishes with a photo that spoke to me of coffee and torrential rain experienced before, when we found a coffee shop refuge in Paia, HI while the tropical rain fell in sheets and puddled above the tire rims of our rental car. Not sure which was frothier – the latte or Baldwin Street outside.
Each day the sun rises to turn a new page in my journey’s story, bringing what may along the way, sometimes offering glimmers of brightness, other times gloomily tucked behind the clouds. Today I savoured my coffee while pondering the silver linings in anticipation of what is to come.
It is a dreary, rainy West-coast day, this last of 2019. There is always discussion when the 9th year rolls around as to whether a decade ends with 9 and begins with 0 or begins with 1 and ends with 0. I recall, when the century turned 19 years ago, the discussions were rampant. I think the beginning of a decade or a century is arbitrary and really not worth the argument. The experiences count, not the numbers. Jokes about 2020 vision have been tossed about as 2019 comes to end. The vision of 2020 and beyond is but a mystery. The unknown journey awaits; we will take it one step at time, cherishing the moments, the experiences, the love of family and friends. Meanwhile, the pleasure of our resident hummingbirds adds to the beauty of this day, December 31, 2019.
Today I reflect upon the nineteen years since the last century diminished into history. During that time my husband and I embraced retirement after many years in the field of education. The years of this new century have been precious, full of opportunities to celebrate, sprinkled with only a few worries and sad moments. We watched proudly as our adult sons embraced their careers with diligence, hard work and well earned success. Our family grew with the addition of two beautiful daughters-in-law, who are caring, wise mothers to our five remarkable, amazing grandchildren. It is joyful to observe them grow and develop; we do so with great pride. Added to the family tree in recent years were two great nephews and seven great nieces – adorable, each and every one. I honoured our family with the publication of a book depicting the family history spanning two centuries and seven generations. The family, of course, continues to grow; perhaps in this century someone will continue to record our story. Our tree has strong roots and many lovely branches.
2015 “Footsteps To Dreams” book launch
Sadly, there were farewells. My youngest brother, too soon, in 2003 and my husband’s youngest sister, too soon, in 2014. Amid the tragic tears, we smile that we were blessed with their presence and savour the memories. They are forever loved. The family patriarchs and matriarchs, our beloved parents, noble mentors, all born in the previous century, passed the family torch to the next generation with dignity and grace. First my Dad (2005), father-in-law (2013), mother-in-law (2015), and Mom (2019). We are eternally grateful for the love, guidance and opportunities they provided for their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Now, as the seniors in the family, we hold the torch high, and hopefully can follow in their footsteps, with wisdom, empathy and love.
Except for a couple of medical blips, we have been fortunate to enjoy good health. A few close friends have been dealt more challenging health issues. We worry for them and try to support as best we can. Their experiences reminds us to greet each day with gratitude and positive energy, following the adage of longtime friend PK, who reminds us often to ‘just give ‘er all you’ve got‘. We attempt to do just that at home, in our travels, with our hobbies, for those we love, wherever the days take us. When not care-giving in the past nineteen years, we have visited twenty-two countries and plan to continue adding to the list. Milestone celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries have been shared with our precious family and dearest friends, close to home and far-away. We hope for many more festive events and quiet times together. Metaphorically, I suppose we are now in the winter season of our lives, but it doesn’t feel like that. Our days are sunny, even in the rain. We may not have spring in our steps, but we plan to grow old gracefully, enjoying every step we take.
I awoke this morning thinking of my lovely Grandma. As I watched the first snow of the year fall gently in my backyard, I wondered if had it snowed in Calgary on November 26, 1919, her wedding day.
Grandma on my wedding day, 50 years ago.
I loved her deeply and miss her still, some 45 years since she became my first angel. Of course, I did not, in my youth, take the time to talk to her about her dreams. It is the folly of youth to ignore the past lives of seniors in the family and then it is too late ask. My youth, however, has long since passed and I eventually took the time to learn more about her story, long ago, before I became a character in it.
My paternal grandmother, Annie, was born to Henry and Sarah Watkins at #7 Park Row, Tredegar Wales 6 May 1895. Henry and Sarah had two older children, Mary Catherine and John Henry. The joyous occasion of Annie’s birth soon turned to tragedy when her mother died three days later of complications related to child birth. Annie’s Aunt Sarah, older sister to her father Henry, immediately took care of the new baby. Sarah and her husband Edward Taylor adopted their infant niece. Anniebecame the little sister to the Taylor children, Thomas and John, and daughter to Sarah and Edward. Although born in Tredegar, Wales she grew up in Smethwick, Englandabout 100 miles (169 km) from Tredegar. Smethwick islocated on the outskirts of Birmingham, about 10 miles (15 km) from Walsall where Annie’s husband to be, Jessiah Smith, was born.
Oil painting by my step-mother, Joy Smith, depicting Tredegar, Wales
Near the end of WWI Annie Watkins meta Canadian soldier named Jessiah Smith. The story of how they met was never told to my family so it was necessary to speculate. Jessiah Smith, born in England 1895, immigrated to Canada 1908 with his widowed mother and four siblings. He served in the Canadian Army with the Expeditionary Forcesin England and France during the latter part of WWI. Jessiah suffered from influenza, although it may have been mustard gas poisoning, and was admitted to a military hospital inLichfield, Staffordshire 27 February 1919, where he remained for 58 days. I assume Jessiah met Annie while in the military hospital in Lichfield, Staffordshire.
One possibility is that Annie worked at the hospital or volunteered in support of the war effort. She may have been a member of the Women’s Patriot League or the YWCA; both organizations offered volunteer services to military hospitals and camps. Perhaps social functions were organized for the troops when they were on English soil. Maybe Annie had a friend from Jessiah’s hometown of Walsall, who introduced her to the hometown lad returned. Smethwick, Lichfield and Walsall were all communities of the Midlands separated by short distances. Somehow, through a social or employment network, Annie met Jessiah and fell in love.
Annie Watkins, prepared to set sail for Canada
Jessiah returned to Canada July 1919, but first proposed marriage to the pretty lass from Smethwick. He sent her a postcard from the transport ship the day he set sail for Canada. She cherished that postcard all her life; it is now one of my treasures of the past.
A collage of the postcard Jessiah sent to Annie on his return to Canada after the war
Annie Watkins set sail from Liverpool 14November 1919 as one of 1604steerage classpassengers on the SS Scandinavian. Sailing in cramped quarters on the Atlantic Ocean in November would have likely been a stormy, uncomfortable ordeal. The Scandinavianand other ships such as the Corsican, Grampian, Megantic, Melita, Metagama and Tunisian, with a passenger capacity of about 2,000 were but a few of the smaller classes of ships which transported war brides to North America after WWI. Many women married Canadian Expeditionary Forces’ soldiers in England, while others married upon arriving at the home town of the spouse to be. Approximately 50 of the women travelling on the Scandinavian on that trip, including Annie, were listed as “to be married”. Many more had already married in England and were joining their husbands in Canada. Although there are no official records about the number of war brides who came to Canada at the end of the Great War, there are estimates of at least 35,000. My grandmother was among that group.
SS Scandinavian and a partial passenger list; Annie listed at the bottom
She left the comfort of the only home she had known to sail, for the first time, on the ocean destined for marriage many thousands of miles away from her family. She was a single woman with no family or friends to accompany her. She must have experienced a mélange of emotions on that journey to follow her dream. The ship arrived in Quebec waters at midnight 21 November 1919. By mid-afternoon 22 November 1919 Annie had cleared Montreal customs and health inspections, boarded the west bound C.P.R. train and was on her way to meet her love in Alberta. She arrived in Calgary in the early morning 26 November 1919 and was married long before nightfall. In those days the Anglican Church performed marriages before noon. Her mother-in-law, my very pious, stern great grandmother Elizabeth, was insistent that Jessiah and Annie marry immediately. After all it was improper for an unchaperoned, single woman to reside their home for even one night.
Marriage certificate for Annie and Jessiah
Annie and Jessiah were married in St. Augustine’s Church on November 26, 1919 in Calgary, Alberta. They lived in the community of Ogden for 56 years; had two sons, eight grandchildren and at, the time of her death in 1975, two great grandchildren.
Annie and Jessiah on their wedding day
I know she followed a dream one hundred years ago. My hope as her first grandchild and only granddaughter, is that I contributed somewhat, many years later, to the fulfillment of her dreams. Grandma was a remarkable woman. How I wish I had chatted with her about her family, life in England, the journey to Canada and her dreams.
Grandma in her garden across the street from the church where she was married.
This is a partial excerpt from Chapter 12 of my family history book, “Footsteps To Dreams”.
We were privileged to enjoy another relaxing get away on the beautiful West Coast of Canada. At this time of year, in Tofino on Vancouver Island, there is usually perfect storm watching weather with sodden skies, blustery air and wild waves. Autumn, however, at the end of October 2019, allowed Summer one last hurrah offering azure skies, with not a breath of wind nor a drop of rain. Even the waves were tame, but not so gentle as to deter the surfers.
Surfers are of hardy stock, daredevils prone to tackle the ocean’s power under any conditions anytime time of day and even at twilight.
The gentle calmness of the air and clear skies allowed me to capture the textures of Nature along the shore and in the forest without an umbrella perched upon my shoulder.
With no wind to roil the puddles, the tidal pools were clear. We needed, however, to be wary; a rogue wave can appear at any time. Even as the tide was receding a small roller, ignoring the tidal flow, took us unawares and quickly had us standing in ankle deep water. Good thing we were shod with waterproof boots, a must-have when visiting the west coast beaches of Vancouver Island.
The pristine sand of Cox Bay is ever changing with undulating patterns sculpted for fleeting moments by the motion of the ocean and by those tramping, scurrying or romping across the sandy expanse. It was a pleasure to meander at leisure.
Along the shore can be found an array of water tossed debris, varied and unique. From shells and seaweed to roots and logs and sometimes the unexpected. Our friends, while dutifully picking up a discarded beer can, also discovered a five dollar bill – recycling fee perhaps. I managed to find a sand dollar.
Each beach combing walk offers an ever changing assortment pulled up from the deep or washed up from another land.
Torrential rains, bracing wind and raging waves constantly alter the vista. Mother Nature is a sculptress extraordinaire. From time to time a regal inspector can be seen taking it all in.
Botanical specimens struggle to thrive in the rugged environment.
Sometimes human sculptors take over, working magic with driftwood strewn on the sand.
Incinerator Rock Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
For several minutes I watched a gull paddling in a sandy puddle. It repeatedly and quickly slapped the water with its webbed feet, stirring up tasty treats. Fascinating it was to see tiny ripples created, the wavy patterns floating silently across the beach, while the neutral shades of the bird’s feathers reflected in the glistening water.
Many beaches, forests, parks, campgrounds and trails can be found within the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Several times we have visited Radar Hill located high above the ocean; each time it has been shrouded in mist and fog. This year, on a clear, sunny day, we finally experienced the scenic vista, a panoramic view of Clayquot Sound. My camera could not capture the stunning scope of the extensive land and seascapes.
We travelled beyond the Pacific Rim Reserve to walk the Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet. On previous visits the walks were truly wild with pelting rain, buffeting winds and a haunting sound resonating from the Amphitrite Point Lighthouse. This year there was no ocean roar, no wind swept mist, no torrents from the skies, no need for gloomy, nautical warnings. All was quiet with a brilliant sun sparkling on the cerulean water and the lush forest serene in the warm autumn air. For us, a new experience to enjoy at relaxed pace without battling the elements.
The Wild Pacific Trail is a scenic walk through an ancient forest alongside the mighty Pacific Ocean with spectacular vistas from every angle. The windswept rugged terrain of the shore is best viewed from a myriad of secluded viewpoints dotted along the forest trail.
Each time we have walked the trail we have met people from all parts of the world, all of whom marvel at the majestic splendour. This time we meet people who live in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta, but were born in my husband’s hometown of Jalandhar, India. What are the odds of such an encounter?
The sun sank beneath the western horizon on the eve of my birthday in a glorious tribute to yet another trip around the sun. I am blessed to have experienced many.
Never must we take for granted the beauty of our existence in the paradise of our world.