Farm Boys and Neighbours


Harold at home, shortly after returning from England. Toddler is likely his sister’s son.


Once Harold signed his attestation papers, he became a member of the 101st Ballalion of the CEF. The National Archive has a scanned copy of the 101st Battalion’s Nominal Roll of Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and men. I check that Harold’s name and details are there. As I scroll down the roll, I see most of the men on it were younger than 22 years old.

I find the  nominal list is full of other hard facts, all organised into neat columns so it’s worth spending more than a few minutes on it, to get a clearer picture of this group of men-boys who have answered a call.

First, I do a quick estimate of the pages of names on the roll; there are over 1000 of them (CEF expert, Jim Busby later informs me there were 36 officers and 1032 men in the 101st). Next, the column labelled ‘Former Corps’ shows that less than a quarter of the recruits had experience with soldiering before enlisting. Other columns show:

  • only one-third of the men were born in Canada, the majority were from England/Scotland/Ireland
  • less than a quarter were farm boys from the prairie

Under the names and addresses columns I find a father and son who enlisted together; there are brothers, cousins, and boys who lived next door to each other. At this stage, it still looks like Harold travelled to Winnipeg on his own to sign up, but I wonder if anyone he knew might have enlisted into the Battalion at another place or time.  I re-scan the roll, looking in the appropriate column for anyone from his hometown or from other towns and villages in the Swan Valley. I find two other names from Durban (his hometown): Albert John McRorie and Clarence George Braden. There are also a couple of boys from the neighbouring town of Kenville: Andrew John Davis and George Irwin Greig.


Albert John McRorie

According to local history books, the McRorie’s and the Gillespie’s were among the first families to settle in the Durban area and when I check the 1906 census, they are just a few families apart on the page so must have lived nearby. Albert is listed as ‘Bertie’ on the census and is a year younger than Harold. His attestation papers show he travelled down to Winnipeg too and enlisted a little over five weeks after Harold.

Bertie and Harold didn’t remain in the same battalion once they arrived in England. Harold was assigned to the 17th Reserve Battalion then to the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles. Bertie ended up in the Canadian Infantry 46th Battalion. Bertie’s battalion fought in every major battle attributed to the Canadian Corp, clocking up 1,433 killed and 3,484 wounded (a 91.5% casualty rate). It became known as the “Suicide Battalion.” Bertie became one of those casualties at Vimy Ridge on April 11th, 1917.


I looked for and located Bertie’s name on the Vimy monument when we visted in 2015


Clarence George Braden

Clarence Braden was three years younger than Harold (not quite 17) when he enlisted in Swan River around the same date as Bertie signed up Winnipeg. After training and shipping out with the 101st Battalion, Clarence was transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion before being assigned for a short time to the 46th Battalion. He was then reassigned to the 24th Battalion (Victoria Rifles). On 27th May, 1918, he was one of four men in his battalion killed in action at Mercatel during an enemy raid of the front line on the Arras-Bapaume Road.

He is buried in the Wailly Orchard Cemetery in France.


Andrew John Davis

Andrew John Davis, from Kenville is slightly older (nearly 22 years old). He’s originally from Wales, married, his occupation was as a clerk and he’d also had previous military experience with 101st Regiment Edmonton Fusiliers (and under this fact is written ‘Canadian Ordnance Coy’). According to a medical board inquiry in his records, he’d been hit by a vehicle in the summer of 1915 while training with the Fusiliers. His injuries were severe including having a fractured skull. In 1916, after re-enlisting with the 101st Battalion, he was assigned QMS (Quarter Master Sgt) and he continued to clerk with the COC (Canadian Ordnance Company) throughout his time overseas. He rose to the rank of Staff Sargeant in the final years of the war and was demobilised in Winnipeg in July 1919.


George Irwin Greig

George Irwin Greig’s file had not been digitised (or any details made available) until very recently and the information it reveals brings a significant change to Harold’s story. George Irwin’s regimental number turns out to be 700056. The date on his attestation paper is December 3rd, the place of enlistment-Winnipeg and the medical officer’s signature matches the one on Harold’s papers exactly. It looks like Harold travelled to Winnipeg and enlisted with a mate after all!

George is a year and a half younger and like Harold has been working on the family farm. His service records show that after arriving in England he is also transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion until late August, 1916 when George is reassigned to the 16th Battalion. In mid October, he suffers a gunshot wound (or scrapnel wound – differing reports on records) during fighting in Cambrai. The injury is severe enough that he is shipped back to England where an amputation is carried out above the elbow on his left arm and he spends the rest of the war convalescing. In February 1919, he is deemed medically unfit and sent home to Canada.

It’s surprised me how enormously helpful the nominal roll has been in building a picture of Harold at the most important threshold of his life. His name is on the paper and along with more than a thousand others, he is about to become a soldier. But he is not a person with a military background or military aspirations; he’s a farm boy from the new frontier of Canada. The nominal roll has also allowed me to leap ahead and see the future for four of the other local boys; futures that could have just as easily been Harold’s own future. And so now I have a question.

Question: How did the Canadian Expeditionary Forces manage to turn a pioneering farm boy like Harold into Private Gillespie 700033?


According to Veterans Affairs Canada, Bertie was one of nearly 3,600 CEF men who died at the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

Bertie and Clarence were two of 66,000 Canadians who would not return home.

George was one of the 144,606 battle casualties suffered by Canadian troops.



On the home front: Toronto in WWI, Toronto Star [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

700031— Patrick Michael McKenna, 41, born in Carlow, Ireland. Single, Machinist.
700032 — Auguste Alphonse De Keruzac, 45, born in France. Married, Carpenter.
700033 — William Harold Gillespie, 19, born in Ontario, Canada. Single, Farmer.
700034 — Arthur Charles Boon, 41, born in London, England. Married, Decorator.
700035 — Alfred Edward Cracknell, 41, born in Norfolk, England. Married, Labourer. Previous Military Service
700036 — Harry Cottrell, 32, born in St Catherine’s, Ont. Married. Decorator. (discharged Med unfit)
700037 — Alfred Hargrave, 41, born in Warwickshire, England. Married, Clerk. Previous Military Service, Rank – Sergeant.
700038 — Harry George Hills, 40, born in Cambridge, England. Married, Cook. Rank – Sergeant.
700039 — Fredrick James H. Johnson, 31, born in Manitoba, Canada. Married, Clerk.

On Friday, December 3, 1915 a total of thirty-four men walked into a recruitment office somewhere in Winnipeg, Manitoba and enlisted to fight overseas. It looks like Harold was the third man in the line that day – a farm boy – probably up bright and early. There is no sign of a friend with him that day, a local sports team or any other kind of brothers-in-arms — just a single young lad among a group of middle-aged men. Most of the enlistees were married, most were returning to Europe to fight for their homelands, some of them had been in military service before. Not one of them had come from the Swan River area; Harold had enlisted on his own.

Every man who enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) filled out and signed an attestation form. They were assigned a regimental number and became part of the Battalion.  Harold became Pte. W.H. Gillespie #700033 of the 101st Overseas Battalion.

It was nearly a year and a half since war had been declared, there must have been some changes from the first days of excitement over enlistment and fighting back in 1914. I wonder if any of the other enlistees that day shared their stories with Harold, told of news from England, talked of politics, made predictions? Or did they sit quietly, lost in their own thoughts, before signing over their fates to the CEF.

Library and Archives Canada has digitised the attestation papers of the men who enlisted with the CEF. Their database is searchable by name and by regimental number.

Harold’s official attestation papers record his personal details like his height, weight, age, eye and hair colour, but it’s what can be inferred from its other details that make this document even more interesting. The date that he enlisted was in early winter, a quiet time for farmers. The papers also show that he travelled a long way (to Winnipeg), alone in winter; I see an element of determination in details like that.

There are also details on this paper that generate questions for me. He listed his mother as next of kin, not his father. Why would he do that; was he closer to this mother than his father? Was her influence perhaps why he didn’t sign up when the first calls went out for enlistment? Was it simply the ‘done’ thing; a way to soothe the heart of the person who would suffer the most if something happened?

Perhaps the most exciting thing about this database is being able to access the records of the other men who enlisted that day (although details were missing for two of the thirty-four at the time of publication). Seeing who they were is as close to being there as one can hope to get 100 years later. Viewing their details collectively convinced me that Harold had signed up alone. They also revealed: he was the only farmer to sign up that day, most of the recruits were still recent immigrants and the army by this stage was readily accepting older and married men.

So all of this information brought me back to the question of why Harold decided to sign up and why he signed up when he did.

chlorine-attack-1915-newsIt’s important to step back and relate what’s been learned to relevant history sources and any issues that might be found in the wider context of history; things that might have affected Harold’s decision. After some reading, two issues stood out for consideration. There were  news reports of chlorine gas attacks in April 1915 on the Canadian First Division at the Second Battle of Ypres  and there was a lot of pressure on farmers across Canada to simultaneously boost food production and enlist to fight (Djebabla, 2008).

Big decisions are rarely made because of a single factor; normally it’s the accumulation of many until the scales tip one way or the  other. With friends gone, pressure for recruits, news of chemical warfare and potentially affairs of the heart, I’m beginning to see how it would have been difficult not to go.

Dec 3rd, 1915

William Harold Gillespie
Height — 5’7”
Chest Measurement — 36” (Range of expansion — 4”)
Apparent age — 20 years, 7 months
Next of kin — Mrs William Gillespie (Mother)
Religious denomination — Church of England
Declaration date — Dec 3rd, 1915
Regimental Number — 700033

signature of recruit





Home Again

Within three months of Britain’s declaration of war, Walter left his calling in the Lethbridge area and enlisted. He travelled to Regina and on October 23rd, signed up with the 28th Battalion (Northwest), one of the battalions that formed the Second Contingent of the CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Forces).  He recorded on his attestation papers that he was a student and received the rank of private.

As part of the Dominion, Canada was automatically at war when Britain declared war but Canada’s government was free to decide how many men to send overseas. The Prime Minister originally offered 25,000 men and ended up sending 30,000 + (making up the 1st Contingent) in October 1914. Formation of the second  contingent was underway before the first had even made it to the shores of England.

In the spring of 1915, the Second Contingent including Private Cripps and the 28th Battalion followed.

No 5 Platoon No 2 Company 28th Battalion

Private W Cripps stands on the extreme right in the second row. I found a commemorative booklet of their whole Battalion on the Internet Archive – digitised and uploaded only 6 months ago.

Walter likely joined as soon as possible because England was his homeland; perhaps he also thought he could serve God best among the troops in the battlefield.

Written on the back: Mr & Mrs Cripps & family. Croydon, Surrey, England.

Written on the back: Mr & Mrs Cripps & family. Croydon, Surrey, England.

Harold was not so quick to enlist.


While many young Canadians rushed to enlist when war first broke out, it was interesting to find out that the majority of early enlistees were not Canadian-born. I wondered why that was (especially in comparison to Australia’s figures). It was good to step back and gain a wider picture of what was happening in Canada in this early phase of the war.

In the summer of 1914, there were large numbers of single male immigrants in Canada, many of them from Britain. They came over looking for work/adventure, maybe with vague dreams of settling. But times were tough; there was a depression on, and a long cold winter was only months away. For many of these young Brits, enlisting must have looked like a paying job and a ticket home – at least for a visit.



Walter’s Regimental number was 73645. I spent some time last year looking through the attestation numbers to see if any of the other clergy from Lethbridge had joined with him. None of the names or details matched. But I did find someone familiar.

Also enrolled on the day into the 28th Battalion was Private #73634 James Allen, my great uncle from England (Edith’s brother). He had received a scholarship to study theology at St Chad’s in Regina in 1912.

So it was he that Walter had come to enlist with (October 23, 1914).

I went back to the photos my mother’s cousin shared with us some time ago. Her father, Jim is sitting on the steps of St Chad’s. And there is Walter sitting right next to him, his elbow slung over his mate’s knee.


Jim Allen (right) and Walter Cripps (centre) plus others on the steps of St Chad’s after enlisting in the 28th Battalion.

I still don’t know how Walter and the Allens knew each other, but the evidence is strong that there was some connection via theological study. Walter did not become a minister until the war was over (1920 in Canada) and family stories say that James abandoned his religious convictions during the  War. We have many pieces of memorabilia from Durham Cathedral and I now wonder if there was a St Chads, Regina connection with Durham and the theological colleges there (including a St Chad’s).

And Edith

I have no letters or documented proof in my possession for an important personal event in Harold and Walter’s trip to England – only family stories and all that went after. At some stage on their journey, the young men went to Herrington in County Durham and visited the Allen family.

Miner's Welfare Hall and Tivoli, New Herrington

The Allen’s were second and third generation coal miners at the Herrington Colliery. Simpson Allen was the head of the house and had been working in the mines since before the age of twelve. In 1911, (at the age of 55 years) he was still working as a Hewer (at the coalface) according to the census.

Written on verso: 'Taken in Herrington Woods'. Joe Allen is seated front row, left. Jim Allen is back row, right.

Written on verso: ‘Taken in Herrington Woods’. Joe Allen is seated front row, left. Jim Allen is back row, right.

There were ten children in the Allen family – five sons, five daughters. James and Joe were of similar age to Harold, the youngest two, Bob and Kitty (twins) were 6 or 7 years old at the time and Edith, the seventh child in the family was nearly sixteen.




My mum’s cousin wrote of Edith in her family history —

Edith younger - cropt from portrait with Jane I think

A young Edith, date unknown.

Edith was a bonny lass and very popular. She enjoyed the social activities at St Aidan’s church where most of the young people in the area gathered for tennis, dancing etc. She met her future husband Harold Gillespie, early in 1914, prior to the War. He had traveled to England with Mr Cripps who was serving as Anglican priest in Harold’s home town. Mr Cripps was originally from Durham, and he introduced Harold to the Allen family.

Of course we now know several details about Walter are not accurate; he was from Brighton and was a layman/student when he travelled to Canada (he would eventually be ordained there in 1920). So how he came to know the Allen’s and their town in County Durham is something of a mystery, but he did know them well enough to visit and, he introduced Harold to the family.

There is no consistent version in the family stories so we don’t know if romance blossomed immediately or if it happened when Harold returned as a soldier. Either way, I can’t help but think this first meeting must have had some weight on decisions that were to come.

LaurenticOn July 4th, Harold and Walter sailed back to Canada on  the S S Laurentic from Liverpool. They docked in Quebec and disembarked on July 12th. According to Harold’s postcard, Walter had to get straight back to his calling in Lethbridge.

Three weeks later Britain declared the country was at war with Germany.


The Battle Ships are Fine

Portsmouth Harbour from the Ramparts

Postcard #4 – Portsmouth Harbour – dated Croydon June 28th, 1914

Dear Ray,
I’ve been in the dockyards. It is a very nice place to go to see some nights. The battle ships (sic) are fine. Well I guess you will have my letter by this time I have many to write, Solong (sic) with love, H

One small sentence written on the last postcard from Harold’s trip abroad is probably the most interesting of all. He wrote the postcard the same day Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated in Sarajevo, an event we now view as the catalyst for the start of the war. I wondered how things were seen at the time, whether Harold and Walter might have had any inkling of what was so close on the horizon.

Manchester Evening News – Monday 29 June 1914 Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Manchester Evening News – Monday 29 June 1914
Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Many of Britain’s historic papers are locked behind paywalls but the Daily Telegraph has digitised and released its WWI archival papers. Its June 29th, 1914 edition has a whole series of articles detailing the Archduke’s assassination (see pp 11-16).

I also found an article from the Manchester Evening News available on the British Library’s newspapers site. Both reports fail to grasp the ramifications of  the Duke’s death.

Back in Canada the assassination was also in papers such as The Globe.  There was no interpretation of the events there either, only details.

Media coverage of the Archduke’s death continued for most of the week, but looking through the papers is is obvious that there were plenty of other things happening, other events that might be as just as interesting and relevant to two young men abroad.

The suffragette movement was gaining media attention for their increasingly radical actions, the Irish Home Rule Bill was back in the House of Lords,  Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition received a generous donation from Sir James Caird (see p. 13). On the same day as the assassination, there was also news of a commercial liner, the SS California running aground off the coast of Ireland on its way from New York to Liverpool. There was even mention of a heatwave (p.11) during the last week of their time abroad.

It seems the average man (like Harold and Walter) may not have been aware of what was to come. But as I continue to dig through the digitised papers and news of the time, I notice there is a constant atmosphere of military/naval activity. Portsmouth (the Royal Navy’s main harbour) in particular seems abuzz. Some of the details that grab my attention are:

And what about the battleships Harold wrote home about?

They may have seen some battleships in the dockyards being outfitted or repaired. It is just as likely they saw ships from the Grand Fleet arriving in harbour. The King had called for an assembly of the Grand Fleet at Portsmouth (see p. 11).  Over 200 ships assembled at Spithead for review from July 16th – 20th, just a fortnight after Harold and Walter sailed for home.

Grand Fleet for the King's Review July 18th 1914. Available public domain

Grand Fleet for the King’s Review July 18th 1914. Available public domain

The fleet would remain in near Portsmouth until late July when they would be ordered North in readiness for war.


The days leading up to the declaration of war against Germany were interesting times and it is possible to get a clear idea of the news, the emotion and atmosphere from sites online. BBC Radio has a series of podcasts: 1914: Day by Day and there are many newspapers now digitised and online such as the Daily Telegraph. The papers are especially useful for zeroing in on local areas, to see how the news was reported to small towns, rural areas and big cities.

Reading papers from 100 years ago can be a frustrating experience. Front page news hadn’t taken off as a concept in many publications (altho’ Canada’s Globe seemed to grasp the concept) so you may have to wade through a dozen pages of advertising first to get to the news.






Postcards from Portsmouth and Memories of Battle

I nearly missed this postcard in the collection.

It’s another from the city of Portsmouth, also printed in Germany with no writing on the back. It shows the Garrison Church, with a military or constabulary unit in the foreground, standing at attention. portsmouth garrison church

It made me pause and look a little more closely at Portsmouth. Harold and Walter obviously spent some time there and the place impressed Harold enough to send three postcards home about it. What made this place so fascinating for our 18 year old ancestor in mid-1914?

I’ve never been to Portsmouth and while I knew it was both a recreational destination and a port, its story is much richer than that. It has a very long and important history as a naval base and is still home to about two thirds of the Royal Navy’s fleet.  It also had a long and illustrious history as a ship-building city; once employing more than 20,000 people in the industry. Portsmouth, in 1914 was growing rapidly; its population was just under 250,000. In June 1914, It must have been a lively place — a jolly place as Harold said — with plenty of people flocking to the seaside looking for things to see and do. There must have been naval activities happening too and I want to find out more about those, but first I want to find out about the sites that inspired the postcards home.

The Church Garrison in the postcard photo is one of the oldest buildings in Portsmouth, dating back to 1212. It was a built as a hospice and shelter for overseas pilgrims on their way to Canterbury  (Domus Dei). Inside the church, there are hundreds of memorials to England’s better known naval and military figures (and other notables) such as Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Sadly, during WWII, the roof of the nave was lost and never replaced. Many of these memorials are now deteriorating. I can imagine Harold and Walter among the many tourists leaning in, looking closely, pointing at the historical names they recognised, reading up in the guides about the ones they did not.

By Rennett Stowe from USA (Royal Garrison Church) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Rennett Stowe from USA (Royal Garrison Church) [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

In the postcard Harold sent to his brother Percy, he mentioned the large anchor on Clarence Esplanade as being from ‘The Victory’. The HMS Victory,  was Lord Nelson’s ship from the Battle of Trafalgar. The ship itself may have been in Portsmouth when Walter and Harold were there but it would have been in very bad shape (restoration would begin in 1922). I can’t find any record of it being on show at the time. Harold didn’t include any further explanation on the card; the name of the ship and the story of the Battle would have been a well-known story taught in history books throughout the British Empire.

Clarence Esplanade, Southsea

Clarence esplanade today postcardOriginal postcard photo of the anchor of ‘RMS Victory’ on the left. (Click to enlarge)

The Esplanade as it is today, below (Google street view). 



I intended to write about the other postcard from Portsmouth as well, but as I researched links to include about the city’s history, I experienced some personal explication I didn’t see coming. I’ll admit, it was a bombshell moment for me, but it explained a lot.

In my original post, I wrote about my discomfort with the whole notion of war. I have always had an aversion of anything to do with it; I even skipped history classes at university when the topic was to be covered. I never stopped to reflect on why I felt that way. It just seemed natural — why would anyone want to dwell on such horrible things?

As soon as I opened the National Museum’s website about the Battle of Trafalgar and saw the painting of the ships at battle, I felt shaky. I remembered something from childhood that I had completely forgotten. When I was seven, my mother, sister and I travelled to England to visit relatives. Mum took us to Madame Tussaud’s while we were in London and one of the exhibitions had been of the Battle of Trafalgar. It was (to say the least) a full-on experience. I remember the smell of gunpowder, flashes and the roar of cannons; the deck of the ship rocked and men screamed and groaned. They were covered in blood, slumped over guns, Admiral Nelson lay dying in another man’s arms. It was like walking through hell and it was terrifying.

The memories that came back were vivid and charged, but were they accurate memories or the exaggerations of a small child’s over-active imagination? My heart was racing just thinking about the experience.

I got back online wondering if the exhibition still existed or if there was any record of it at all. British Pathe had just what I was looking for and I’ll admit I had to get up from the computer the first time I watched the video. The exhibition opened in 1967, the year we visited, and the news footage shows all the preparation and work that went into making the exhibition an authentic replication. The final scenes will give you some sense of what the seven year old experienced.

(To be fair to my Mum, she  probably had no idea what to expect when we went into the exhibit.)

Their English Vacation — Part One

It doesn’t matter if there’s anything written on the back or not, postcards can fill gaps in the story if you know how to read them. The pictures on the fronts may be of significant places, events or sentiments. If there are a few words on the back, they might communicate details, a mood, a motivation for travel, mention other people or reveal the sender’s relationship to the person getting the card. The address provides details of who the card was for and where they were. The postmark can place the sender in a specific place on a day, even down to an hour — if it’s not smudged and if they didn’t have someone else post it. Even the company that produced the postcard can add to the pool of information.

So I’ve been spending a lot more time with the postcard collection, examining the messages, dates, photos, and publishers. I wanted to work out where Harold and Walter went on their tour of England.  Four of the postcards I am sure were sent during their overseas trip, two others were probably purchased at the time, but I can’t be sure.

Here they are in chronological order:

Postcard #1 

The High Altar Westminster AbbeyFront photo:  The High Altar at Westminster Abbey, London
(Printed in England, no stamp or postmark).
Addressed to: Mrs. Gillespie

Croydon, May 8th, 1914
Dear Mother,
I received your letters this morning. I was so glad to get them I didn’t expect them for a day or so yet, but I was looking for them just the same. I have seen all the pictures that I am sending you on these cards. I am having a jolly fine time. I will write you again in a day or so. We are having quite a lot of rain. Solong (sic) love to all, Harold

NOTE: Most of the postcards have ‘Croydon‘ written above the date. Walter’s family was recorded as living in Croydon in the 1911 UK census so were likely still there. It looks like they used Croydon as their homebase while they travelled around.

Harold was apparently sending postcards back in batches (‘… all the pictures that I am sending you on these cards”) which may explain why there are addresses but no stamps or postmarks on them.

Postcard #2

York MinsterFront photo: York Minster (Published by T.T. & S. ; Thomas Taylor & Son England, no stamp or postmark).
Addressed to: Mr. Gillespie

Croydon, June 12th, 1914
Dear Father,
I am sorry I didn’t tell you how much money to send. But I hope you have sent it, about a week before this reaches you. I am afraid I wont (sic) be able to see the falls on the way home. Mr Cripps has got to be back at a certain time. If I want to see the falls I will have to go alone. I have a half a notion to. It will only mean a day more from home. I am very anxious to see it. But I will be home in lots of time for the work. Solong (sic) Love to all, Harold

NOTES: This message highlights for me just how young Harold still was. When he sent this, he was financially dependent on his parents and the farm; still not confident about travelling on his own, and in need of his father’s permission even as he asserts his desire to be away a little longer. The falls he was anxious to see I imagine were Niagara Falls (I don’t know if he went on his own or not).

It also proves some things don’t change much in 100 years, I remember writing home for money when I was first travelling too.

Postcard #3

Clarence Esplanade, SouthseaFront Photo: Clarence Esplanade, Southsea (Published by  Eyre & Sportiswoodes, England. No stamp or postmark)
Addressed to: Percy Gillespie

Croydon, June 20th, 1914
Dear Brother,
The sea shore that you see on the card is very pritty (sic). I was down yesterday and walked all the way along it. The anchor that you see standing up the (sic), is off the Victory. It is an enormous size. It is a jolly fine place to be, is Portsmouth. Well solong (sic) With Love

NOTE: His youngest brother was fourteen at the time. Neither of the brothers back home would have ever seen the ocean.

Postcard #4

Portsmouth Harbour from the RampartsFront Photo: Portsmouth Harbour (Published by: B & R Ltd.; Brown & Rawcliffe Ltd., Liverpool)
Addressed to: Ray Gillespie

Portsmouth, June 28, 1914
Dear Ray,
I’ve been in the dockyards. It is a very nice place to go to see some nights. The battles ships are fine. Well I guess you will have my letter by this time I have many to write, Solong (sic) with love, H

NOTE: His brother Ray was sixteen years old when Harold sent this postcard. It’s interesting that there is one postcard to each member of the family saved in this collection – was it on purpose? It’s fascinating to compare the content and style of each message he wrote.

While nothing is written on the last two postcards, they have both been printed in Germany and so must have been purchased before the First World War started (after which time Germany obviously did not import to England). The card on the left is from London and the one on the right is from Peterborough (click on them to see larger versions).

Royal Exchange And Bank of England, London

Longthorpe Peterborough

Plotting the postcards on to a map made their trip even clearer. From Liverpool, they travelled to London and Croydon where Walter’s family lived. Based on the postcards and dates, it’s likely  they travelled north for a spell (I’ll get to Middle Herrington and Allen’s family in the next post) , returned to Croydon then travelled south to the coast before returning to Liverpool to sail back to Canada.

Tour of England map 1914


Now that I have a better idea of where they went, I want to know more about what they saw and what they heard. What news was available, how aware were they of what was to come as they travelled around a country on the very brink of declaring war.


All Aboard the RMS Cedric

The closing of Altorado appears to have been providential. Without a ministry to tend to, the spring of 1914 becomes a chance for Walter to return to England to visit family and friends and an opportunity for Harold to travel with him.

The years between 1910 and 1914 are filled with significant events for Harold’s family; his parents take several trips, his older sister Edna marries (in 1912) and the following year, she and her husband have a baby (the first of the next generation). In April of 1914, Harold turns eighteen.

Harold, photo taken in 1914.

Harold, photo taken in 1914. Back stamped ‘US Postcard’

Perhaps the trip was in celebration of his coming of age. Whatever the motivation, his parents could not have asked for a better travelling companion for him – Walter is a minister, he is someone older and more experienced in travel and he has respectable connections on the other side of the ocean.

There’s no trace of the letters that must have criss-crossed the prairie in 1913, but plans were made and tickets were purchased. In late April 1914, the young men travel to New York City where they board the RMS Cedric and sail third class to England. They land in Liverpool on May 1st, 1914.

RMS Cedric passenger list 1914

RMS Cedric passenger list 1914


There is a postcard of the R.M.S. Cedric in Harold’s collection and it is possible to gain some basic details from the ship’s manifest so I couldn’t resist straying a little to find out more about this White Star ocean liner and the voyage. After all, it is only two years since the Titanic disaster and Harold and Walter are recorded as travelling Third Class (isn’t that the same as steerage?) I wondered how much had changed for transatlantic travellers in the two years since and how much had not.

RMS Cedric postcard 1914

RMS Cedric postcard 1914. Note the old style sailing ship being pushed out of the picture.

R.M.S. Cedric was the second of the White Star Line’s ‘Big 4 ships built by Harland  and Wolff (the same company that built Titanic). New York – Liverpool was her regular run until the war broke out then she, like so many others, was refitted for carrying troops. It could carry just under 3000 passengers, 2300 of whom would travel in Third Class accommodation. The voyage took five days.

One of the first things I found online is a site with brochures depicting the interiors of the Big Four. The interior of Third Class on the Cedric doesn’t look too bad (you’ll need to scroll down to the photos in the linked site).

Thankfully there were also changes in Maritime  regulations and practices including:

  • provision of enough life boats for everyone on board
  • trained staff and designated roles for emergency situations
  • improved reporting procedures and protocols
  • improved communication equipment
  • improved hull construction and testing regulations
  • a binding agreement  (between participating countries) for Ships’ Masters to respond to distress signals

The first International Conference for the Safety of Life at Sea met and signed the agreement bring about these changes in January 1914.

Less formally, but perhaps more importantly was the change in the competitive culture of the commercial lines in making the crossing. Transatlantic crossing times increased slightly after the Titanic disaster.

Harold and Walter arrive safely and in style.




I Don’t Know if We Can Call Them Settlers

 Image from Antoine of Oregon by James Otis from Internet Archive

Antoine of Oregon by James Otis

In school we learned  about brave pioneering folk who travelled west, put down their roots and their crops, built cabins then prairie dynasties and their families owned the land for generations. They made it sound like once settlers secured a Land Grant no one went much farther than the local church or possibly the next town ever again.

But that was generic Pioneer history taught from textbooks. We have postcards — lots of them — that tell our family’s version and it’s quite different from the ‘settled settler’ one.

While the urge to farm on their land and succeed drove them hard, there was also the urge to explore even farther when there was the chance. Walter wasn’t the only person Harold knew who adventured West and wrote back about it. In the summer of 1910 (the year before the family met Walter) Harold’s parents left the boys in charge of the farm and travelled across the mountains to visit family on the West Coast. They spent July and August there, enjoying many of the local sites.

Landing North Vancouver, sent  July 10, 1910

Landing North Vancouver, sent July 10, 1910

The following year (the same summer Walter travelled to Cardston) Harold’s mother made a second trip on her own to the West Coast. She was in her mid-forties by then, yet the backs of her post cards are filled with lively adventures.

She visited her sister Isabella and family living in Bellingham, Washington, a timber boomtown due to the reconstruction work in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. While visiting, Harold’s mum sent several postcards to Harold including one telling of their wonderful time spent on Lake Whatcom.

"Bellingham 1909" by Sandison, J. Wilbur (James Wilbur), 1873-1962 - Library Of Congress CALL NUMBER: PAN US GEOG - Washington no. 48 (E size) [P&P] Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Bellingham 1909” by Sandison, J. Wilbur, 1873-1962 – Library Of Congress  Licensed Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Once back over the border, Catherine stopped in Aldergrove to visit her sister-in-law and family then tram-hopped her way back to Vancouver. The Ringling Circus came to town that week and Catherine, and her sister-in-law took the children to watch the parade.

Even before his parents travelled to the coast, Aunt Isabell, as she spelled herself, sent Harold at least one postcard (in 1908). It showed a giant felled cedar tree on the trunk. The radius of the trunk is twice the height of the man proudly leaning against it. His auntie promised to send him more in the future, and hoped he would come to visit someday.

To Harold, From Aunt Isabell, jan 10, 1908

To Harold, From Aunt Isabell, jan 10, 1908

So many places to go and extraordinary sights to see.


From: An Entangled Object by Bjarne Rogan in   Cultural Analysis 4 (2005)

From: An Entangled Object by Bjarne Rogan in Cultural Analysis 4 (2005)

For years I thought my grandfather was a deltiologist (although I didn’t know the term then); I have more than a hundred post cards from his younger life. But as I’ve become a better historian, I have learned to ask better questions. Instead of wondering — Was Harold a collector of postcards?, I set out to answer — Why are there so many postcards? After reading about the history of picture post cards — the short answer is that post cards were the emails and Instagrams of their time. They became popular after the World Fairs and Exhibitions in Paris, London and Chicago used them to commemorate their events. Soon every town and city was selling them as a way of promoting their local sights and civic accomplishments to tourists. People were collecting and sending hundreds of millions of them around the world each year. Post cards were perfect in so many ways: they had just enough space to dash off three or four lines, were cheap to post, and captured a place if you didn’t own a new-fangled Kodak camera.


Sent to Harold from Papa, July 04, 1910

Sent to Harold from Papa, July 04, 1910

Receiving postcards always make me restless, even if they are the kitschy ones flaunting fluffy native animals or photo-shopped sunsets. Postcards rub my nose in the fact that I’m in a small, comfortable corner of Australia – bogged down in routine — no sign of adventure in sight. I know that’s only the view from where I sit; many people would trade places with me in a shot, but postcards are a reminder that someone is out there living large while I are not. I become restless because I’ve never seen that beach, that animal, that city. Maybe I don’t even want to; it’s just a reminder of being stuck. I’m stuck and they are not.

I can’t help but think that maybe it was the same for Harold. Perhaps it’s no wonder he was able to talk his parents into letting him head overseas.