Wednesday, June 17, 2015


The Victoria Disaster Continued

Every minute during the first hour, a body would be laid out on the river bank. The Princess Louise, now anchored just offshore, was used as a morgue. Some 200 died that day. A staggering loss for a city of 19,000 people.
Blazing bonfires and petroleum torches helped enable recognition of the bodies for the scores of relatives and friends who had heard of the accident and come to the scene. People were laid out dressed in their Sunday-Best.
But the farmer who owned the land was far from charitable and ordered everyone to leave his property. That’s when a giant of a butcher, one of the rescuers, looked him in the face and eyed an overhead tree branch, and yelled “Fetch me a rope!”
The farmer quickly melted away.
But there were other nasty people there, too—thieves. They stole watches, jewellery and cash from the bodies whenever the overworked police were not looking. They even stole items from the rescuers’ clothes laid on the bank.
Some took advantage of the shortage of wagons and cartage services to charge exorbitant fees to deliver bodies to homes in the city. A few drivers, finding no one at home, deposited the dead on the veranda with a bill tucked in a pocket.
The next day, just about every man wore a black armband and women black dresses. Flags were at half-mast, and the endless processions of funerals began making their trips to the cemeteries.
Undertakers called on colleagues in nearby towns for assistance. The supply of caskets soon ran out and they, too, were imported from all around the area.

Most of the victims were buried in Woodland Cemetery and Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
Woodland provided a special tour of its grounds May 23, 2015. Small flags were placed at graves of the victims: red for adults and white for children.
London historian Dan Brock spoke to about 150 persons inside the mausoleum where an actual copy of an old newspaper listed the dead, complete with heavy black rules. Paul Culliton, general manager of the cemetery, displayed the cemetery record book of that day. Brock then took the visitors on a tour of the flagged graves.
But Brock saved for the last, a most surprising announcement—the story of a victim who wasn’t.
Sarah “Sally” Walker, 14 years of age and her cousin Elosia Lawson had agreed to take the Victoria together. At the last minute, however, Sally decided to go on a picnic with her boyfriend instead, in defiance of her father’s wishes. Elosia didn’t tell either of the parents. She became one of the victims.
Today, according to Sally’s granddaughter, Jane Blake (Simpson), Sally often had premonitions. Here’s part of her account of what happened that day so long ago:

“As she waved goodbye [at the pier] to Elosia, she felt a wave of terror wash over her— something — but what? Perhaps it was her fear of being ‘found out’?  It haunted her throughout the day.
“Towards dinnertime, as they made their way back to town, several buggies rushed past them, raising clouds of dust, the horses panting from the exertion.  Closer to town, there was pandemonium— hysteria – screams that ‘the Victoria had capsized – the boiler exploded - hundreds are dead’…
“Sarah and her beau made their way up the river to the site of the disaster.  For hours, they helped pull bodies from the water, and piled them (like cordwood) on the bank.  It was said her mother fainted when Sarah finally emerged from the crowds, soaking wet and covered in mud – but alive!  Her father, brothers and sisters stared at her in stunned surprise.  My grandmother must have been an aspiring actress.
"Sarah escaped not only death, but detection that day, although my aunt and I both agreed that her mother ‘sensed the truth’, but was so relieved to find her alive that she had not been punished.  She must have flinched every time a family member described her miraculous survival.
“Her cousin, twenty-one-year-old Elosia Lawson and her two friends were among the estimated 180-200 victims that day.  Sarah’s beau’s entire family were also among the dead.
“One wonders if she really did have a premonition of the disaster, or if, plain and simple, she preferred a solitary date with her new beau – something that a fourteen year old young lady would never have been allowed to do  (especially without a chaperone) – unthinkable!”

White flags indicate graves of children and red of adults killed in the disaster.
Paul Culliton, Woodland Cemetery, shows where wife
and three children, one only 8 months, are buried.
Elizabeth Lawson is related to Elosia, who died.
Sarah "Sally" Walker
at 14.
Granddaughter Jane
Blake at 14.
Granddaugher Jane Blake
Where visitors climbed up from river wharf.
Today, remains of the steps as seen
from Greenway Park.

Elosia Lawson died but her cousin didn't.

A hearse of the type used in the 1880s was provided by Joe O’Neil of O’Neil Funeral Home.

Thursday, June 4, 2015


Victoria Disaster, Toronto Litho Company (from Western University).

Plaque in Greenway Park marking where it happened.
View today of where the ship sank in 1881.

Forks of the Thames today.
May 24, 1881 dawned a perfect day for a picnic at Springbank Park, a few miles down the Thames 
River from London. However, that Victoria Day—the Queen’s Birthday—would take a horrific toll on the city of 19,000, one that would be noted in newspapers around the world.
Crowds of families with their picnic baskets gathered near the city’s Sulphur Springs Bath House at the Forks of the Thames. Three flat-bottomed steam boats were ready to take them there: the Princess Louise, the Forest City and the Victoria.  A steamboat ride excited everyone. Ladies wore their Sunday-best dresses, long garments that almost touched the ground.
The crowds jostled and pushed as they paid their 15 cents for the round trip. But soon, everyone was onboard, the whistle blew and the Victoria chugged away to deliver them to Springbank Park.
Late in the afternoon when it was time to return to their homes, crowds were milling about the Springbank wharf. But there had been some difficulties with the Forest City  with the result that only the Victoria showed up at the wharf.
  Captain Donald Rankin couldn’t maintain order. Young men at the dock scampered over the ship’s rails, people complained. The captain tried ordering people off the ship but to no avail. The ship was soon overloaded by from 200 to 400 passengers it was later learned. The captain finally reversed the ship into the channel for the return voyage.
Only a few minutes later, the low-riding ship struck a large rock, creating a gash in the hull. Water began pouring in. Each time the passengers shifted position from one side to the other, she almost turned on her side. A bunch of unruly teens began making things worse by rushing from side to side singing, "One More River to Cross." The captain admonished them, but they simply jeered at him.
The voyage was beginning to become seriously frightening. The captain planned on running his ship aground on a sandbar just ahead. In the meantime, he refused to stop at Ward’s Hotel and later at the wharf at Woodland Cemetery—much to the chagrin of those awaiting the ship.
But a few hundred yards beyond the cemetery landing, the passengers were greeted by two racing sculls that put on a race for the ship’s passengers. As they swiftly swept by, the crowd rushed to the starboard (right) side to watch. The ship almost turned over. Terror-stricken, the passengers, in an attempt to straighten the vessel, rushed to the port or left side. Aided by the sloshing water from the gash in the hull, it was too much. The ship rolled over on her left side—the side facing away from the closer south bank.
Next, the 60 horse power steam engine's boiler, mounted rather flimsily on the lower deck, broke away and slid  across the deck amid clouds of scalding steam that seriously injured some passengers and then before dropping into the river took with it the wooden posts that supported the upper deck. 
Those already struggling in the water were now trapped under canvas, netting and other debris.
People attempted to climb over those above them by pulling on their legs—all of this happening just a few metres from the shoreline.
There were acts of bravery. One grandfather holding his wife against his body and a granddaughter in each arm and an infant’s dress between his teeth, made it to shore.
The long dresses soaked with water dragged many down to their deaths
According to London historian Dan Brock, two young men were found nude, lying among the dead. He theorizes that the two had been skinny-dipping when the accident occurred and had exhausted themselves to their deaths rescuing survivors.
A newspaper report of the time said, “a woman who had escaped had her babe torn from her breast by the falling of some of the timbers from the upper deck. She was taken to shore and in a few minutes saw her child float on top of the water. With a wild shriek she threw herself into the stream and saved the child, when she was with difficulty revived a second time herself. Scores of such incidents were noticed.”
Two hundred died. 

To be continued.

Monday, March 16, 2015


Trory Church of Ireland cemetery.
Those who search their family histories often turn to tombstones. But tombstones can present a new problem: Their inscriptions can be so badly weathered by countless years of rain, snow, ice and lichens that they are impossible to read.
But are they?
Dr. David Elliott revealed many solutions to this problem during his presentation to members of the London and Middlesex Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society recently.
Here are some of the steps this expert offered that can help. 
David Elliott
Brush the stones to remove lichen and dirt. Spray them with clean water. Permit the surface water to evaporate. This leaves the indentations themselves wet and often perfectly readable.
Dr. Elliott, who is a professional genealogist and operates Kinfolk Finders from his home in Parkhill, Ont., specializes in cemeteries in Ireland and visits the Emerald Isle on research trips each summer.
 Rub a handful of ordinary baking flour into the letters.
The two examples below offer vivid proof of the improved visibility that magically appears once the letters have been brushed to remove the accumulated dirt and lichen and then applied with the flour.

Before the flour was used.
After the flour was applied. Flour won't damage the stones and will wash away during the next rain.

During his presentation and using information he has picked up from some of the very old stones found in Ireland, he described how to find long-lost stones. “Look for protruding edges of stone and changes in the colour of grass or moss. Probe the surface with a sharp knife to see if there is a hidden stone. Cut turf around the perimeter.
When you do come across useful tombstones, watch for details such as these:
  • Local addresses
  • Parish and county information
  • Family relationships
  • Maiden names
  • Causes of death
  • Other person details
  • Symbols of associations: lodges, etc.
Dr. Elliott uses a computer program called digital paintbrush when just about all else fails. First step, make a duplicate of the photo within your computer so it remains untouched for possible future needs. This program permits you to use a simulated paintbrush to outline the faint letters of the stone. Use a different colour for every other word, he says. Do the words that you can discern first. Then tackle the more difficult words. Look for unusual spellings.
An example of using the digital paintbrush.
He also manipulates images via PhotoShop software. This, he says, enables you to move fragments electronically, separating broken fragments into different layers. Segments can be tilted in such a way that they are levelled. Segments can then be moved so the gaps can be removed and the lettering is aligned.
As a professional genealogist, he just doesn’t obtain the information he is searching for with one or two stones. He maps out the whole section (or perhaps in some cases, the entire cemetery) and makes a sort of roadmap. Here’s what he advises:
List each stone in its sequence in the row. Where there are many names that are the same in the row, include the first names, too.
Write a transcription in a notebook if there are questions about details.
  • Make sure that the first and last stone of each row are indicated.
  • Record any spaces, too.
  • Compare earlier transcriptions.
  • Check burial register of church or cemetery.
Use your photos and enhanced pictures on one computer and prepare a word document on another one. Use your field book and maps for references. Use transcriptions to make an index using a spreadsheet. Separate columns for first and last names. You can then sort by first and last names.
Google satellite view of cemetery and area surrounding it can be useful.

He suggests that you bring these tools: Digital camera and lots of batteries. Cellphone for emergencies. (You could easily trip and fall--even into a deserted grave site. If the cemetery is remotely located, you could summon needed help.)  GPS, first aid kit for cuts, insect bites, etc. Field book for recording information. Compass for making maps. Spray bottle and some brushes. Water for drinking and highlighting, hat.

For those who live within driving distance of London:
Join us at the Lamplighter Inn Wellington Road, London for an enjoyable luncheon followed by a presentation titled:  "We'll Meet Again": The Experiences of British Child Evacuees in Canada During the Second World War. Our speaker, Claire Halstead, a Western PhD Candidate, has been featured on CBC Radio: and noted in “Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter”. Check for more information about Claire’s original research.

Date: Saturday, 2 May 2015
Time: Noon to 2 pm
Place: Lamplighter Inn, Wellington Road, London
Membership is not required. Tickets are $38.00 and are available from Carolyn Croke (519-679-9644) before 11th of April.

"Anonymous" comments on Grandpa's Grave that flour should never be used. Dr. Elliott replies that enriched flour might produce a chemical reaction. Plain flour, he says, should be OK. Irv

Friday, August 1, 2014


Naval Gun from HMCS Fraser.
"On a Sailor's Grave No Roses Bloom"

This is a silent tribute to the Canadian sailors whose ships were sunk in the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II.  A tombstone stands in memory of each ship lost.
   This Battle of the Atlantic Memorial can be seen along an embankment and pathway at the Forks of the Thames in downtown London adjacent to HMCS Prevost.
These ship were lost.
Ypres, 12 May, 1940, no lives lost. Fraser, 25 June, 1940, 47 lives lost. Bras d’Or, 19 Oct. 1940, 30 lives lost. Margaree, 22 Oct. 1940, 142 lives lost. Otter, 26 March, 1941, 19 lives lost. Levis, 19 Sept. 1941, 18 lives lost. Windflower, 7 Dec. 1941, 23 lives lost. Adversus, 20 Dec. 1941, no lives lost. Spikenard, 10 Feb. 1942, 57 lives lost. Racoon, 7 Sept. 1942, 37 lives lost. Charlottetown, 11 Sept. 1942, 10 lives lost. Ottawa, 13 Sept. 1942, 113 lives lost. Louisbourg, 6 Feb. 1943, 37 lives lost. Weyburn, 22 Feb. 1943, 8 lives lost. St. Croix, 20 Sept. 1943, 147 lives lost. Chedabucto, 21 Oct. 1943, 1 life lost. Athabaskan, 29 April 1944, 128 lives lost. Valleyfield, 6 May 1944, 123 lives lost. Motor Torpedo Boat 460, 2 July 1944, 11 lives lost. Motor Torpedo Boat 463, 8 July 1944, no lives lost. Regina, 8 Aug. 1944, 30 lives lost. Alberni, 21 Aug. 1944, 59 lives lost. Skeena, 25 Oct. 1944, 15 lives lost. Shawinigan, 24 Nov. 1944, 91 lives lost. Clayoquot, 24 Dec. 1944, 8 lives lost. Motor Torpedo Boats 459, 461, 462, 465, 466, 14 Feb. 1945, 26 lives lost. Trentonian, 22 Feb. 1945, 6 lives lost. Guysborough, 17 March, 1945, 51 lives lost. Esquimalt, 16 April 1945, 44 lives lost.
One stone represents the ships and crews lost from the Merchant Marine.
A memorial service is held during the first week of May at HMCS Prevost, 19 Becher St. It is open to the public.


Thursday, April 10, 2014


Ron Watts in uniform of British Soldier War of 1812.
British soldiers who fought in the War of 1812 had to be as tough as nails. They were not pampered.  To prevent the carrying of personal items, uniforms had no pockets. One uniform had to last three years. They were issued with three shoes—not pairs. The shoes had leather tops with wooden soles. There were no left and right shoes. They were rotated to promote even wear.
Ron Watts, a London re-enactor, displayed the uniform, Brown Bess musket, his sword and other items of British army life of the time, during a meeting of the London and Middlesex Historical Society recently.
Soldiers’ hats were tall to make the men appear taller. The hats were made from beaver skin with the hair removed, he said. Later, the hats were reduced in height but carried false fronts, again, to make the soldier appear tall.
Coloured vertical hackles stood next to the false front to help indicate which men were where during the smoke of battle.
Watts’ role during reenactments was that of an engineer. These soldiers wore a sturdy leather apron to protect the clothing. In his case, he also carried a billhook, “a rather vicious looking weapon,” used for many purposes, including cutting brush, wood, trees and for building bridges; it also could be used for cutting meat and in battle.
“The main weapon was the Brown Bess musket—still used today in re-enactments.”
The British used 69 calibre musket balls. They were smaller and easier to load, but were notoriously inaccurate, he said. A good soldier could shoot and reload three times in a minute. (Watts was tested and was rated at just slightly below three times.) The musket was reliable up to about 80% of the time on a dry day.
Re-enactment soldiers today use about 90 grains of powder per shot, but some use 100 or even 110 grains. Soldiers had to be very careful when loading: too much powder could result in broken ear drums or damage to the weapon itself. They were supposed to check to see that the touch hole was smoking to be sure the gun had gone off. When in good condition, a musket could fire 18-20 rounds without misfiring. When it misfired, the soldier had to stop and clean it. To keep it in top condition, the weapon was carefully cared for, with the stock protected with wax.
Photo by Roxanne Lutz

The Brown Bess musket was the longest serving weapon used by the British, he said. It was also the first weapon made with interchangeable parts. Prior to about 1760, when a musket broke down, it had to be returned to the original gunsmith for repair because only he had the correct parts. After the use of interchangeable parts came into effect, different gunsmiths could manufacture the different parts and any gunsmith could repair a musket.
The manufacturers of powder mixed it with sawdust to increase the quantity, but while it did that, it reduced the effectiveness of the weapon in the field.
Watts appeared at the meeting dressed in the colourful uniform of the Royal Scots. “On the end of my musket, I have a 22-inch three-sided bayonet. Many of the British soldiers of the time believed that after the first shot, the musket became a handle for the bayonet, much preferred in close-order combat, rather than reloading and firing.”
During the Battle of Longwoods, the British attacked from a low valley with the Americans on the high ground. It had snowed the night before and the slope was slippery. The American soldiers not only had the advantage of higher ground but also used Kentucky rifles. Although slower to load—about one shot per minute—their rifled barrels put a spin on the ball that made for much more accurate shooting than that of the Brown Bess.
The British lost that battle.

Site of the original battle near Wardsville, Ont.
You can visit the site of the battle on Longwoods Rd. (Number 2 Highway) 51 kms west of London east of Wardsville.
The Upper Thames Military Reenactment Society will re-enact that battle, May 3-4, 2014. It will be held in the Longwoods Road Conservation Area. This is not the site of the original battle. From London, drive west on Longwoods Rd. from the exit of Highway 402—it’s about five kms.
Click here for more information:

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Londoners just don’t realize the great wealth of music that resides here. Example: The Western Jazz Ensemble that played to a packed house during the London Jazz Society’s gig March 9 at the Mocha Shrine Centre on Colborne St.
The mostly greying devotees at the Society gave its 25 members a standing ovation, and in true jazz fashion to show their enjoyment, applauded throughout the gig.
These young men and women are primarily trained in classical music, but study jazz twice a week, says Dr. Kevin Watson, assistant professor of Music Education, Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western University.
Some also play in a smaller jazz chamber group on campus led by Barry Usher.
During these days of low employment, I wondered, is there sufficient demand for them when they graduate?  He replied: “There is a variety of career aspirations in the group. Many will seek to become music artist/educators, mixing teaching with performing. Some are studying music composition and hope to establish themselves as composers. A few of the members are in non-music degree programs (e.g., business school, environmental science).”
All of the members are selected for the Jazz Ensemble by auditioning. There is a mixture of first year through graduate students in the program. A degree in the program usually takes about four years.
You can learn more by clicking on their website. Be sure to listen to their music on the Youtube site shown.
The London Jazz Society donates money regularly to Western's jazz program in honour of founder Doris Jackson.

Kevin Watson accepts $8,000 cheque from Barbara Wenman, president, London Jazz Society.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


According to London historian Dan Brock, Governor John Graves Simcoe actually wanted the capital of Upper Canada to be located where Wortley Village is now, rather than on the east side of the forks of the Thames River. But there are some local writers who would not agree.
In those days, there was a great deal of chaos. Of course, there was not much here, just a vast wilderness. Try to imagine that today.
According to Brock, the main east-west "road" was what is now Commissioner's Road. It followed the old trail the Indians used. Brock says it was comparable to Highway 401 today as a way of moving through the wilderness.
There were all kinds of situations where one set of plans over-ruled another. One example, a vast area was laid out for the Town of London, but no one could touch it at the time. Settlements just grew up around it, leaving London as the hole in a doughnut, he says.
During a recent lecture, he used images from old maps to make his point.
Historian Dan Brock.