Tag Archives: church

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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Rennett Stowe from USA (Royal Garrison Church) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, 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.)

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My Address will be “Altorado” Alberta

The postcards Walter sent to Harold and his brothers may have looked wild and exciting like the sets from a Western, but they didn’t show the real challenges ahead for the young layman.

A. J. Wilkinson, lay-minister, Alberta circa 1913

A. J. Wilkinson, lay-minister, Alberta circa 1913

Walter had arrived in Cardston in the southwest of Alberta. Winters could be long and brutally cold on the open prairie. Locals told of the white skulls and skeleton bones of hundreds of cattle that perished a few years earlier, in the winter of 1906-07. They had drifted with the storms, reached the barrier of a railroad fence in a stretch of land between Lethbridge and Burdett and died of cold and starvation.

The area also suffered from frequent droughts; the land was rocky, the wind blew dust and tumble weed for miles, and farmers were only beginning to understand that it was more productive to graze cattle than raise crops, but that was not always a sure thing either.

Andrew Jenson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Ora Card (1901). Photo by Andrew Jenson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the biggest challenge would have been the locals themselves. Cardston was named for its founder, Charles Ora Card, a Mormon fugitive from Utah. He and some followers had escaped the crack-down on polygamy by the American government. They had set down roots in the area in 1887/88, establishing the first Latter Day Saint’s settlement outside of the United States. So Walter Cripps had come to carry out missionary work in a place where a large percentage of the local population were Mormon and had been living in the area for a generation already. The Anglicans view of the situation in Cardston was clear:

Eighty percent of the people … are Mormons, who never cease proselytising, and have put up a fine brick building, costing 8000 (pounds), to the name of their Mormon false prophet. Our people are but few out of the other twenty percent., but they are learning self-support and give 65(pounds) a year for their priest; and when they can raise 450 pounds a little ‘frame’ church will stand under the shadow of the big Mormon temple. (Our Opportunity in Canada, 1912).

Walter arrived in Cardston in May 1911, just before construction on the big Mormon Temple began, but he didn’t stay in town long. On the back of one postcard he tells Harold, ‘My address will be “Altorado” Alberta.’

Alberta Temple, Cardston, AB.  Prairie Postcard  licensed by University of Alberta Libraries under the Attribution - Non-Commercial - Creative Commons license.

Alberta Temple, Cardston, AB. Prairie Postcard licensed by University of Alberta Libraries under the Attribution – Non-Commercial – Creative Commons license.

From the Central House in Cardston, Canon Mowat’s ministers established mission houses in outlying areas. Each out-station was meant to be run by a priest and a layman who would live and work together. The priest was to do the ministering and family visits, the layman was to manage paperwork, assist with manual labour and housekeeping. Every three months the ministers were to travel back to the central house to meet up with their fellow clergy-men. In the early years, there were eight ministers, two laymen and a lay reader. Walter T H Cripps was assigned to the Altorado area and quickly dispatched.

I find Walter’s name on the 1911 census, taken only five weeks after he arrived in Alberta. It records him living in a rural area south of Medicine Hat. It also records him as Head of the House and as a minister by occupation.

Many missionaries coming to newly opened settlements had to build their own meeting houses and dwelling shacks. The mission houses, meant for meetings, services and Sunday school were little more than crude lean-tos fashioned from rough-cut timber; one door, one window and a stove to keep the congregation from freezing to death. The living shacks were even smaller; not much bigger than our garden tool shed, some were built with roofs too low for a man to stand up straight once inside, most were unfinished timber, and if it could be had, covered in tar paper to keep out the wind and dust. These constructions were knocked up in a few days with the help of neighbours if they could spare the time, or wanted to help. In 1911, Altorado was a brand new Mormon settlement of about 100 people.

Families moved to Altorado, in anticipation of the rail passing through. Like any large endeavour, there were problems with contractors and misinformation from land purchasing agents and the railway company generally made slow progress. When the route was finally announced in 1913, it was not good news; it would pass north through a new settlement to be called Foremost. Within the year, most of the population had shifted, and Altorado rapidly became a ghost-town.

Perhaps this is why Walter decided to take a trip home to England in 1914 and invited his young friend to travel with him.

*****

Census and Common Sense

I’ve already found that census data while very helpful, can sometimes get things wrong. Like the one where Harold’s younger brothers have been attributed to the neighbour’s family just because they were at the house on the day. So doubt and reservations need to equally apply when reading the 1911 census record for Walter’s household. While it records him as Head of the House there is someone else recorded there that day, a 17 year-old girl, Frances Exley. Her relationship to the ‘Head of Household’ is left blank, their marital statuses were first marked as “M” then scratched out. It is easy to jump to conclusions, and perhaps that’s what the census-taker did in first marking them as married.  I haven’t found any further record of Francis and so while it could be tempting to interpret it as an interesting (and shocking!) scandal on the prairie, I am thinking it is more likely she was either domestic help at the shack on the day, or a visiting parishioner.

Survey and Census

methodist surveyThe rural survey by the Methodist and Presbyterian churches is an incredibly rich snapshot of the Swan River Valley just prior to the First World War. Besides charts full of means and averages, it also includes snippets of local history that give some context to the statistics.

I find out that two years after the Gillespie’s arrive in the valley, the harvest was much larger than anticipated and the railway did not make enough cars available for hauling it away. Prices were affected as farmers became desperate to get their grain shipped.

After this debacle, homesteaders realised they couldn’t depend on railway companies and grain buyers and began forming cooperatives. Eighty families joined together to start up a Grain Growers’ Association in the area where the Gillespie’s settled. They built their own grain storage elevator; they bulk-bought baling twine, fencing wire and domestic goods, and organized social events. Although I can’t find a list of association members, as one of the earliest families to settle in the area, the Gillespie’s would surely have seen the advantages.

The survey lists what crops were being grown — wheat, oats, barley, timothy. It records that farmers were experimenting in growing clover and alfalfa, but were not interested in breeding livestock like farms in the far West. When I print off the 1906 Census, I can see my own family’s condition fits that statement. There is a column on the census showing the number of livestock owned by each household – Harold’s family had five horses and three cows.

Equally interesting is what I can’t find on the 1906 census, at first. The two younger brothers, Percy and Ray are missing from the family’s list, but scanning further along I find them listed as ‘sons’ under the Rolls family who have three of their own children the same age. It makes me smile to think there is an official record of the little boys playing at the neighbours’ place.

1906 Manitoba Census - playing at the neighbours

The Methodist survey documented social and domestic aspects of life as well. In 1910, most families still lived in log houses, didn’t have running water and relied on wood stoves for heating. Church socials, sports, picnics and agricultural fairs were favourite family pastimes. Phone lines were being erected and welcomed due to the isolation in winter. Travel was still difficult; the roads are described as ‘corduroy’. When I look that up later, I learn it means they were built with logs laid side-by-side to stabilise their foundations.

The survey says that most households had at least one family instrument. When I tell my sister this, she reminds me of the creepy old pump organ in our basement, she even finds the guarantee slip for it. She reminds me about the old beetle-back mandolin passed on to my other sister, and then I remember the story of an Irish harp being lost in a fire. After grandfather died, the farm was sold up. The ‘old house’ on the property was being used for storage and it was set alight by an impatient new owner before Mum was able to move everything out.

*****

On their own, surveys and census documents can seem a little dry, but when I started viewing and considering them along-side our family stories and photographs, the pieces click together. A far clearer picture is emerging of this family for me — strong, independent and determined to make a go of it.