Sunday, June 30, 2013

On the lam?

Changes made since original post - see crossed-out section below (GB)...

We might be a little closer to filling in the gaps in the story of our family felon, grandfather Tom H Smith, who went to prison in the 1930s or 1940s for some kind of stock market jiggery-pokery. (See previous post.) 

Tom H Smith with Ollie & Bobby, July 1938

Toby and Caroline Yull both understood from their mother that Tom H was caught because of the sudden crash of the stock market in 1929. If he was a stock broker at the time, as we think he was – his second career; he started off as a journalist like his Dad – he may have been illegally borrowing clients’ money to speculate, and not been able to return it when the crash hit. It was and still is a common offence.

Caroline also reminded me of another episode. Tom H at some point high-tailed it across the border to Detroit, and sold vacuum cleaners there for awhile. He went, according to the story Caroline remembers, to evade arrest at home. Evidently, he later came back to face the music.

I did find this interesting immigration record some months ago while searching at, the commercial online genealogical information resource. It shows Tom H crossing the border to Detroit on October 22, 1933. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Immigration Services form, he was “accompanied by” a Frances Rochon. Curiouser and curiouser.  

So is this when he fled? With his girl friend? Or was she a co-conspirator?

If his offence was related to the stock market crash, it would make more sense if he’d fled years before. And we know, or are pretty sure, that he was living with the family in London, Ontario until at least 1932, probably into 1933. But it’s possible his crime was only detected long after it was committed.

To complicate things, I recently found a record at Ancestry, of a Tom Smith, about the right age, arriving by ship in Quebec from Liverpool in 1934. This may not be him, of course. Tom Smith is a very common name. And in almost all other confirmed records, our guy is ‘Tom H,’ ‘Tom Herbert’ or even ‘Thos H’ or ‘Thomas H.’ (These last two even though he was registered at birth as ‘Tom Herbert.’)

But the Tom Smith in the 1934 ship’s passenger list gives a forwarding address care of his son in Toronto – his son Jack. Our Jack at the time would have been 20. I’d never heard that he lived in Toronto on his own when he was young, but it’s possible.

So did Tom H also flee across the Atlantic to avoid prosecution? If so, it appears he didn’t remain there long.

On closer examination of the handwritten passenger list, it now appears the Tom Smith mentioned was born in Batley, in Yorkshire. Never mind! 

If he wasn’t back in Canada for good until 1934 or later, he might not have been charged or brought to trial until 1935, or even later. Note the date on the picture above of Tom H with Ollie and Bobby: July 1938. Could the wheels of justice have ground that slowly? Or had he already gone to jail and come out again?

In any case, it now begins to be clear why I didn’t find any court or prison records for him in the period from 1927 and 1934. Maybe it’s time I filed another Privacy and Information Access request with the Archives of Ontario.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Family Felon

Calling all family historians. Or just Smiths with long memories. I’m trying to find details of grandfather Tom H Smith’s conviction and incarceration sometime in the 1930s, or possibly 1940s.

It’s an episode in Smith family history that has been shrouded in some mystery, certainly for Blackwells. We didn’t even know about it until we were middle-aged adults, our mother apparently being too ashamed to ever mention it.

Tom H. Smith
When I first saw this picture, I assumed because of the way it was printed, that it was one of my father's, but it's frankly far too good for that, and was probably taken long before my father met him. (He may have copied the original picture.) Check out the next picture, a snapshot of Ralph Yull in his and Kay's first apartment. Note the picture on the wall.

Ralph & Kay Yull residence, circa 1939

It is possible to extract court and other records of criminal cases from the Archives of Ontario, which I would like to do. But if the case is less than 100 years old, it requires a special request under Information Access and Privacy regulations. This costs money, and I’ve already made one request that came to nothing. The Archives could find no records related to a Tom H Smith for the dates and courts I specified: 1927 through 1934 in the Toronto area or Middlesex County.

My assumption was that the case had something to do with our grandfather’s work as a strock broker. This was confirmed by Toby Yull who says her mother told her it was a stock brokering offence – something that was strictly illegal, but done “by everyone.” The courts, according to Toby’s remembrance of what her mother said, “made an example of him.”

So I thought the case might have dated from when the family lived in Toronto in the late 1920s, possibly just after or before the stock market crash, and that authorities didn’t track him down or prosecute until sometime later, after he’d moved to London.

I also thought I had worked out when he was incarcerated by piecing together information from Vernon’s City Directory for London. Vernon published semi-official phone books for many Ontario cities. Issued annually, the directories listed residents by name and also by address, and gave occupations and employers of adult residents.

The first listing I found for Tom H Smith in London is in the 1931 edition. The family was living that year in a very big and, judging by what it looks like today, very posh house on Richmond St., across from the University gates. By 1933, the Smiths had moved to St. James St., still in a good neighbourhood, but in a smaller, less luxurious house.

1140 Richmond St., London today

335 St. James St., London today

All this time, Tom H is listed as manager of Motor Credits Limited, apparently a loan company, not a brokerage, although he may have been stock brokering on the side.

Then in the 1934 edition of Vernon’s, there is no listing for Tom H, although the house at 335 St. James is still listed in his name. In 1935, there is no Tom H, and no listing anymore for Motor Credits Limited either. In 1936, Jack and Betty appear at the St. James St. address (as chauffeur and stenographer at The London Free Press), and the next year, Kathleen (Kay) appears as well, listed as bookkeeper at J. A. Nelles & Son. No Tom H either year.

Then in 1937, a Thos H Smith appears, listed simply as salesman.

My conclusion from all this was that Tom (aka Thos) H went to jail in 1933 or 1934, and got out and rejoined the family in 1937. This would have put the court case sometime before 1934. And that might be exactly what happened – except, if it is, why didn’t my initial Archives of Ontario request turn up details of the case?

There is another possibility. The third youngest of Tom H’s children was also Tom, of course, also with middle initial H. So it could be young Tom in the 1937 listing, still a teenager, joining the workforce to help keep the family afloat. (Selling newspapers, perhaps?)

Or it could be the prodigal papa, and the Vernon pollsters simply changed Tom to Thomas because they couldn’t conceive anyone actually being christened Tom rather than Thomas.

By 1938, the family has apparently unravelled a little further. Edith (Tom H’s wife, our grandmother) now appears living in “rms” (I assume, “rooms” – in other words, rented rooms in a boarding house) at 598 Princess Ave. It’s a not very salubrious part of town today, and I’m guessing it wasn’t a great area then either as it’s only a few doors west of Adelaide St., the traditional demarcation line between refined middle-class and industrial working-class London.

598 Princess Ave., London today
Betty and Kathleen (now also a steno at LFP) are with their mother at the same address. And a Thos H is now living on Sarnia Rd. (Again, is this young Tom or old?) Jack L, the former chauffeur, has, as we know, high-tailed it to Timmins for a miner’s life, married Ollie and fathered Bobby.

The remaining Smith family moves pretty regularly over the next few years until they land at 2 Horn St. in 1942. It's apparently a single-family residence, although whether owned or rented by the family (more likely the latter) is not clear. The house is not far from the forks of the Thames in downtown London. It’s an area that is gentrifying today, but that particular address is pretty run-down.

2 Horn St., London today
But no Tom H or Thos H appears until 1946, when, confusingly, a Thomas H Smith is listed at 2 Horn St., as sales rep at Canadian Johns-Manville Co. Ltd., a maker of asbestos-based insulation. Edith appears in parenthesis after his name, indicating, presumably, that she was wife and home maker again, and no longer head of household. So they were back together?

As a side note, I recently received my mother’s military records. In her application to join the air force in 1943, she gives her father’s address as “unknown.”

So. Can anyone give me any other clues on when Tom H was convicted and went to prison? Or can anyone corroborate or contradict any of the facts (or supposed facts) I’ve presented here. Anything that would help narrow it down to a range of dates and a place would be helpful.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Blackwell Family Archive

Warning: of minimal interest to non-Blackwells (or possibly anyone)

At the risk of appearing slightly obsessive compulsive and inspiring thought bubbles such as, ‘He really should get a life,’ and ‘What a wanker!’ I’m going to tell you how I spent most of last week and weekend.

I created the Blackwell Family Archive. And its catalogue.

The Blackwell Family Archive, since you asked, consists of old photos, loose and in albums, documents, certificates, letters, postcards, manuscripts  typescripts – anything and everything two dimensional that came to me after our parents died, or at least everything I’ve found in our rabbit warren house. I have now “catalogued” it.

The Blackwell Family Archive in The Blackwell Family Archive Reading Room

Okay, I haven’t itemized every blurry snapshot, but important things have been numbered, described and stuffed in a labelled envelope and then into a labelled box. Some of the “items” are multi-page photo albums with, obviously, many pictures; others are  “collections” of snapshots, organized and classified according to an eccentric and not entirely consistent system of my own devising.

This is, for now, completely separate from the electronic archive I’ve been building at the same time, as I scan photographs and letters. I will eventually marry the two.

And why am I doing this? You might well ask. I might well ask.

In any case, you can see for yourself what I have by looking at the catalogue, which I’ve posted here. You can re-sort on any of the columns, by pointing to the column heading and clicking. Click a second time to reverse the order.

Just to forestall the inevitable critics: yes, I know perfectly well I haven’t followed professional archiving procedures or principles. That’s because I don’t really know what they are – and even if I did, I probably couldn’t be bothered anyway. So.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

'Smithie': the royal correspondent beloved of kings

Following up on yesterday's post about George Herbert Smith, I thought I'd run this short feature penned by brother Tom Blackwell. It appeared in The National Post (his employer) a few months after the death of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 2002. 

"Among the usual heaps of flowers, one simple wreath stood out at the funeral of George Herbert Smith, a veteran Fleet Street reporter who had come out on the short end of a too-close encounter with a speeding car.

The note adorning those red and white carnations and lilies 74 years ago was brief and to the point. What caught the eye were the names of the senders. "With deepest sympathy from the Duke and Duchess of York," read the message.

The Duke & Duchess of York (centre) in 1927, the year of George Herbert's death
I couldn't help but think about that wreath this year as news of another death overflowed the pages of this newspaper and others. The duke in question would unexpectedly be crowned King George VI after his older brother ran off with a U.S. divorcee. The duchess became queen, of course, but was far better known in later days as the Queen Mum, that one-woman royal institution who drew a million people to her funeral last spring.

The journalist? He was my great-grandfather, who sprouted a knobbly branch of ink-stained wretches on the family tree a century ago. For 30 years, the former schoolteacher reigned over the royal beat, loved by colleagues, who dubbed him Royalty Smith, and known to the kings, queens and princes he covered as "Smithie." The so-called court correspondent for the Press Association, Britain's domestic wire service, Mr. Smith was the first to inform the world that Queen Victoria had died, and once ghost-wrote a proclamation, signed by Edward VII, declaring an end to the Boer War.

When a car knocked him over one summer evening in 1927, the king and queen sent a telegram to his wife expressing concern. When he succumbed to the injuries five days later, George V cabled again: "Their majesties have known him for so many years and he will be greatly missed. I am to assure you how much His Majesty feels for you and your family in this sorrow."

The then Prince of Wales, the one who would later give it all up to become Mr. Wallis Simpson, met personally with my grandfather, who had emigrated to Canada, to pass on his condolences.
It all seems remarkable today: members of the royal family expressing heart-felt sorrow at the death of a reporter.

The Princes in Canada, the year of GH's death

But it was a different era, and my great-grandfather was a different kind of reporter. He lived through some rocky times for the monarchy: the end of Victoria's historic reign, the serial womanizing of her son Edward VII. But if he was privy to any of the scandal, it never appeared in his copy.

These days, almost anything goes in tracking the lives of the royal family, from intercepting cellphone calls to paying off spurned lovers and servants to spew out their lurid tales.

Mr. Smith's career, according to the obituaries that appeared in major British newspapers, was epitomized by discretion and friendship with the royals, the kind of cozy relationship that would make today's average reporter cringe.

"King Edward knew him well, King George, Queen Alexandra and Queen Mary were his personal friends. He went everywhere with the members of the Royal Family," said a gushing tribute in Newspaper World, a trade magazine of the day.

"A few years ago he went (by ship) with the Prince of Wales to Canada and acted as a valuable 'corrector of the press' in putting the right perspective on the sensational stories sent by some of his transatlantic colleagues, who daily sought to bait the Prince in the saloons of the liner."

Covering a royal visit to America, a New York publisher offered him big bucks to write a tell-all book about the bluebloods. He turned down the lucrative deal. (Andrew Morton would have fallen off his chair.)

My great-grandfather's close ties with the royals did give rise to some choice stories.

When the Boer War ended, he travelled to Windsor Castle, expecting the king to issue a proclamation to his people marking the historic event, relates Chris Moncrieff in Living on a Deadline, a history of the Press Association (Virgin Books). But Edward VII was out to dinner and had not issued a statement. No problem. Mr. Smith penned a proclamation himself and handed it to the king's aide. It came back, signed "Edward R," and promptly became part of history.

The same king also once offered to buy a flower from a little girl at a charity event, only to realize he had left his wallet at home. Enter Mr. Smith to gallantly lend the king a pound. Edward was good for it -- Buckingham Palace paid my great-grandfather back later that day.

On another occasion, Edward gave a speech in London that the press corps was unable to hear properly. Again, my great-grandfather wrote out what he thought was in the speech and presented it to a royal aide for verification. He got it back a little later, edited by the king in green lead pencil.

I can't help but marvel at my forbear's celebrity connections; my own brushes with greatness have mostly involved notorious murderers and frumpy politicians. Yet I still feel a bit queasy about the symbiotic relationship he maintained with the subjects of his journalism.

Maybe I shouldn't worry. There is evidence he was a crack reporter.

Mr. Smith was the only scribe, for instance, to snag an interview with Cecil Rhodes, the famous colonialist, on a visit to Britain from Africa. As Mr. Rhodes - after whom Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, was named - came down the stairs toward him in a Downing Street building, my great-grandfather craftily locked the doors heading outside. The two men fumbled with the latch and the reporter got the scoop from Mr. Rhodes on an important meeting.

When officials announced to a horde of waiting reporters in January, 1901, that Victoria had died, Mr. Smith hopped on his bicycle and raced into the nearby town, reaching the few available telephones and calling in his story before any of his competitors.
He was also, by most accounts, a prince of a fellow: charming, generous, kind and modest among both kings and his fellow reporters and other commoners.

He apparently had a striking presence, adhering closely to royal etiquette that called for him to wear a morning suit - what we call tails - to many events. But he was never pompous, according to the tribute, and would help colleagues on a story or with personal troubles at the drop of a hat.

I strangely never heard about my great-grandfather - or the fact that four of his sons became reporters - until after I had decided to go into the news business myself, evidence, perhaps, of the disturbing notion that there is a gene for journalism. (Two siblings are also journalists.)

On one North American tour, he managed to fit in a visit with my grandparents, who died long before I was born. My mother remembers the neighbours in their west-end Toronto neighbourhood being enthralled by his mellifluous tones and fascinating tales as he relaxed on their front porch.

I'll forgive him his different standards of journalism. As an ancestral role model, I could have done much worse." 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

George Herbert Smith (1863 - 1927): RIP

Most of us in the Smith/Smith-by-marriage clan have at some point or another flipped through a scrapbook of English newspaper clippings about the death and funeral of our ancestor George Herbert Smith. (See photo in earlier post.)

If you’re of the baby-boom generation, GH was your great-grandfather. He was a pretty famous guy, a journalist in London, England who worked the royal beat, and somehow became friends with many of the royals of his day. He was knocked down by a car in 1927 and died a few days later.

Page 1 of George Herbert Smith memorial scrapbook

I don’t think anyone knows for sure the origins of the scrapbook. Who compiled it? Possibly GH’s widow, Kate (nee Langdale). Or possibly one of their younger children, Marjorie, who went by Molly, or Suzanne, great aunts to the baby-boom generation. Molly and Suzanne were probably still living at home in 1927 when their father died.

And how did it come to Canada? It may well have been part of Tom Herbert’s inheritance on his mother's death. Tom H was George and Kate’s eldest son, and the founder of the Canadian branch of the family with his bride Edith (nee Gladman). Tom and Edith emigrated to Canada before the Great War.

This is probably a picture of George Herbert
 & Kate (Langdale) Smith. If it is, it must
have been taken shortly before he died.

At one point, the original scrapbook lived on the shelf under the coffee table in my parents’ living room. Its whereabouts at this point are unknown. Sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, somebody – cousin Bob Smith thinks it might have been Tom Smith, I thought it might have been my father – copied the pages and compiled facsimile albums which were distributed in the family. If you’ve seen the scrapbook, it was likely one of those facsimiles.

One that had been in the Birkby family came into my hands a few years ago – thanks Sue! I’ve now finally completed copying and restoring, to the extent possible, the images of the original scrapbook pages. I’ve posted them as a PDF file here at my DropBox site. You can view the pages on a computer using Adobe Acrobat Reader, version 9 or higher, or on an iPad or other tablet or smartphone using a free Reader app.

Next post: More George Herbert by another Tom.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Poet Betty Smith: Stay Up Doodle In The Sky

I said in an earlier post that I thought my non-combatant parents, both working at office jobs in London from 1944 to 1946, had a high old time during the war, and I think in many ways they did. As did many others.

But this is not to diminish the hardship they experienced, the rationing, the lack of adequate heat, the drudgery of office work, the homesickness and worry about loved ones in peril. And even though both my parents arrived in London after the Blitz that Ralph Yull so vividly evoked in his letter home – see last post – they were there for the later flying bomb attacks.

V-1 Rocket in flight over London

The Germans developed the  V-1 flying bomb (Vergeltungswaffe 1), aka Doodlebug or buzz bomb, an early cruise missile, towards the end of the war. The first was launched on London on June 14, 1944, prompted by the D-Day invasion. The V-1 was later superseded by the new improved V-2. At the peak of their last-gasp terror campaign, the Nazis fired more than 100 rockets a day at southeast England, 9,521 in total, until the launch sites were eventually overrun by the Allied advance. 

When we were kids, both our parents spoke of the terror the Doodlebugs inspired. People on the ground could hear the drone of their motors as the rockets flew towards their targets. The engines cut out just before they exploded. So if the droning was at its loudest to your ears just before the sound stopped, you took cover. Or if you were a cool fatalist, you carried on regardless.

If you want to hear what a V1 sounded like, accompanied by air raid sirens, click on the Play button below to hear a recording from the BBC.

My father had a couple of Doodlebug stories. One was of walking down a crowded street when a rocket engine cut out somewhere nearby. He knew he should have the sang froid to ignore it, as chances were slim he was in real danger, but he couldn’t stop himself from starting to go down. One knee almost touched the ground, he said, as he broke stride. Then he caught himself and walked on as others around him did.

The other story, never embellished, was more chilling, about the day he happened on the scene of a direct Doodlebug hit on a city bus. The gutters, he said, were running with blood.

The poet Betty Smith, 1944

Just recently, while sifting through documents left by my mother, I came across a slender sheaf of mostly comic poems, typed on thin browning paper, composed, apparently, during Betty’s time in London. Among them is this one, untitled:

Every night I lie in bed,
And hear strange noises overhead.
It’s not the angels in the sky,
But doodle-bugs a passing by.
My heart into my mouth near sails,
Will it? Won’t it? Pass me by.
Stay up doodle in the sky.
With apprehension I await,
The cut out of its hymn of hate,
The throbbing stops the light goes out,
Enough to give the cat the gout,
Excitement tense on every face,
As under tables we all race,
Our shins we skin, our heads we bump
And then we hear that awful crump,
So out we crawl like nervous wrecks,
And strain our ears to hear the next,
Repeat the process jerk by jerk,
Then comes daylight, off to work.

The lightness of tone belies the seriousness of the rocket attacks. They were at least as effective as the conventional bombing of the Blitz, damaging or destroying 1,127,000 structures in less than three months (compared to 1,150,000 in a year of the Blitz) and causing 22,892 casualties (compared to 92,566 in the Blitz).

Most poignant, I think, is the notion that residents might be terrorized all night, then have to go into the office the next day as if nothing had happened. In some of the pictures of my mother from this period, witness the one above, she does look haggard. And the mundane office work must have seemed particularly surreal after a night of terror, which is perhaps what inspired this last piece of nonsense, titled “Horrible Examples”:

We beg to advise you and wish to state
That yours has arrived of recent date.
We have it before us, its contents noted;
Herewith enclosed are the costs we quoted.
Attached you will find, as per your request
The forms you wanted, and we would suggest,
Regarding the matter and due to the fact
That up to this moment your decisioin we’ve lacked
We hope that you will not delay it unduly
And we beg to remain, yours very truly.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The London Blitz: A Ralph’s Eye View

This is the transcript of a radio broadcast from October or November 1940 – not sure which station – featuring the text of a brilliant letter Ralph Yull wrote home to family:

“…now here is something different:  it is a most remarkable account of the last raid on London, as witnessed by a Sergeant in the C.A.S.F. [Canadian Active Service Force], and recorded by him.

He explains that he had been taking supper with his sister, who is a London ambulance driver, and that at about half-past twelve he “stepped outside to have a look about, in the hope that I’d be lucky enough to see one of our night fighters score a victory.  I was quite surprised to see fires of considerable size blazing about two miles away.”

“I slipped a coat on” he continues, “and walked to the top of a hill, the better to see – and the higher I got, the more serious it looked… 

Ralph Yull (left)

“From where I stood, I could look over the Regents Park area to Baker Street Tube Station, and beyond to Marble Arch, Piccadilly, Hyde Park and the west-end in general. 

It was a holocaust of flames and smoke; bursting bombs, and more and more incendiaries starting more fires.  Broken gas mains were flaming, and there was a veritable devil’s tattoo of anti-aircraft fire and machine guns. 

It’s awful to think that such a destructive and inhumane thing as an air-raid in which people are dying and homes being blasted, could be beautiful – but actually from a distance it was a sight worth seeing.
From my eminence, it was [as] though I was looking into a vast cauldron, from which arose a dull red glow, shot through with terrific, vivid white flashes; while clouds of smoke, dust and sparks billowed up and caused the moon to change from pale green to a rich orange tinge. 
On my left was a battery of three light guns, whose muzzle-blast reminded you of the yapping of a bad-tempered terrier dog.  Dead ahead, another battery of heavier guns were going off with a report like a giant firecracker exploding in an iron drainpipe.           

Then there was the crash of the heavy-calibre guns that might easily be mistaken for an exploding enemy bomb.  Firing in groups of three, combined with all the other sounds you hear in an air-raid, it is like a sort of symphony orchestra.
Through all the noise and confusion, there is a constant consciousness of whistles; as an inevitable background to any air-raid, there are always police whistles, wardens’ whistles, signals from rescue parties, and other whistles that impress themselves on your mind by their constancy. 
They never seem loud or close at hand – yet you always hear them.  One of my clearest remembrances of air-raids will always be of this particular sound.
Well, anyway, I stood watching the great fire, and said to myself, ‘I’ll walk down to the next corner, to see if I can see it better from there’.  When I got there, the next corner looked a better vantage point, and so on, until I was rushing up the street towards the area that had been paid particular attention by the Luftwaffe.
On the way down, I stopped to talk to a group of fire-watchers, and we all suddenly heard the oddest sound – like the sound of old brass cow-bells at home, that go clunk-clunk, instead of ringing clearly.
The sound was overhead and all around us, coming nearer.  It was such a gentle sound that no-one took alarm, and we finally started to hear things falling in the road.  A policeman came up, and told us they were probably booby-trap bombs – that is, a tin of fifty De Reszki cigarettes – which exploded when any attempt was made to open them!  Several had been found already.
We spent a fruitless ten minutes trying to locate them, and then I continued on down to the fire.  Just as I was leaving the group, a big one started to come down, and it sounded as if it was landing fairly close – so the five special Wardens flung themselves down on the ground like so many rag dolls!  But when it did land, it didn’t explode.
I continued on down the street, past Lord’s Cricket Grounds, and rounding the curve, came in full sight of the fire.  It was ghastly, yet magnificent.
At the extremity of the street a broken gas main was flaming like fury.  Flames towered up fifty feet or so and brought into sharp relief the tiny scurrying figures of the Auxiliary Fire Service and the other workers, as they raced between the flames and me. 
I hurried down, and the first job presented itself in the person of a girl, who asked me to help put out incendiaries that she had located in a row of flats round the corner.  Several of us polished them off, and in the doing of it, I got drenched.
I was flinging a pail of water at a blazing hole in the ceiling, just when a guy on the floor above was flinging a pail of water at a blazing hole in the floor – the consequences were staggering, as the pail-full caught me squarely in the chest!
All this time, that man was circling about overhead, dropping things on the fire.  Strangely enough, you don’t hear them explode if you’re working hard – or else, it may be that you don’t care!
Further down the street I saw a fireman struggling to get a hose into a four-storey building, the top floor of which was well alight; so an air force bloke and myself gave him a hand, and up to the top we went, by a circular stairway.
On reaching the top, the fireman said, ‘Hold onto the hose, while I go down and start the pumper’.  We were holding on like mad – but nothing happened.  So the other chap, fearing that something had happened to the fireman, went to the window to have a look – and at that moment the water came on!
The hose started leaping and bucking like mad, and as the first surge of water came spurting through, it bashed me up against the wall as if I were a straw.
We soon had it under control, though, and as three men trying to point a hose seemed to me one too many, I went down to the street, to see if I could help elsewhere.
All I can remember of the next two hours is being on a roof, and my foot going through the slates and cutting my shin; climbing endless stairs with sand and water; kicking down locked doorways to gain access to houses on fire, and holding the hose.
The house whose roof I stuck my foot through we couldn’t save – and yet the lady who owned it had the pluck to crack jokes and make us tea, while her top storey was blazing.
Next I spotted a rescue party hacking at the indescribable wreckage of a house – mattresses, bird-cages, tables, linoleum, bedding, chesterfields, lumber, steel, bricks and dust, all welded into a seemingly immovable mess.
‘There’s three in that lot!’ said a grim-looking old cuss – so off with the coat, and everybody tore into the pile, and miracle of miracles, we found the man of the house alive – shaken but unhurt – lying in a small groove-like space, sheltered by flooring boards from above.
He was able to tell us exactly where to find his wife and mother, and although we could see them and hand them water, it was another hour and a half before we got them out – both almost completely unhurt.
By now almost every other roof for blocks around was blazing.  Not just small fires, but ones which everybody at home would turn out to see if they occurred in London, Ontario. 

There were twenty fires to every fireman, and being old-fashioned buildings, with steep pitched roofs, thousands of gables and chimney-pots, it was very difficult to get at them.

The houses all butted together, so that if one fire got out of control, it pretty well spelt finis to the others in that block. 

There were many unusual silhouettes, as churches and other buildings of unusual design would be a seething mass of flames inside, and the lovely arches, and odd corners with their gargoyles, etc. would stand out framed blackly against the angry red of the inner fire.

At last it began to get light, and the last of the Hun raiders dropped his load and scooted.  The anti-aircraft bursts pursuing him grew farther and farther away.  I felt about done in, so I trudged home tired but happy – glad to have been some help in London’s biggest blitz so far.”

Editor’s note: Some years ago, long after I had had a short story published in a literary magazine, my Uncle Ralph read it and was generous in his praise. I was very touched, but surprised. In my youthful arrogance, it had never occurred to me that tough, practical Ralph might be interested in anything as effete as literary story-telling (for so I flattered myself that it was.) Of course, I was forgetting he was a born oral story-teller, the master of “Betty and the Golden Arm.” And now I realize he was a very fine prose stylist as well. Papa Hemingway couldn’t have described this scene more vividly and affectingly.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mystery Photo Subjects Identified

One of the most interesting photos found among John and Betty Blackwell’s effects was this surprisingly well-preserved studio shot which, judging by the clothes, was taken sometime around the turn of the last century. But who are they?

Smiths, surely. I thought the older of the two boys looked like he could be a teenage version of my maternal grandfather, Tom Herbert Smith. That would make the middle-aged man George Herbert Smith, Tom H’s father, the royal reporter. And the younger boy would be one of his brothers. I also thought the older boy looked quite a bit as I remember Chris Yull in his teens. Karen thought he looked a bit like me.

In any case, I sent the picture to Mort Smith, a second (third?) cousin I made contact with in England a while back after stumbling on one of his son Alan’s several-years-old posts at an Internet genealogical site. Here’s Mort’s reply:

“Fantastic photo that I've never seen before. It is definitely George Herbert Smith in the centre and my father, George Morton Smith, on the right of the picture. My dad was born in 1887 so he would have been 13 in 1900. I suspect it may have been a year or two earlier than that.”

Tom H was born in 1886. The 1901 census says Tom H (mistakenly identified as “Lone H,” but corrected elsewhere), was the eldest child, listed as 15 at the time of the survey, with George M next at 13. So it must be Tom on the left. I’m guessing the picture was taken in 1898 or 1899, when they were 13 and 11.

Mort, by the way, is almost exactly my age, though of the generation before mine. He, like his father and uncles – and grandfather – before him, is a journalist: the “family business,” as he refers to it. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Smiths in Brighton

It always seemed to me that my parents had a high old time during the war, a great adventure. It also seemed this was their impression, at least in retrospect. They were young, history was being made, the world was topsy-turvy. Exciting stuff. Of course, they didn’t have to fight.

It was a lot different for many others, including Tom Smith, who went ashore at Normandy on or shortly after D-Day and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. And for Ralph Yull who rode dispatches on the Italian front and saw some of the blitz, and for Robert Smith who, as noted in a previous post, was killed in Italy.

But even those who fought, weren’t fighting all the time, and there was opportunity in England for overseas service people, especially settled office workers, to travel and learn, and cut loose – as many of Betty Smith’s pictures from this period make clear.

On one occasion, three of the four overseas Smiths hooked up in London, probably in 1944. They also took a jaunt to the Channel-side resort of Brighton, along with Betty’s roommate, Pat. Jack and Tom appear to be dressed in identical uniforms in the two sets of pictures, so presumably both occasions were at about the same time.

Was this Tom’s last leave before going to fight? The photos unfortunately aren’t dated. The trees are in full leaf, which could make it any time from April to October. (D-Day was June 6, 1944.) Here’s a selection of the pictures.

This one of Tom, Betty and Jack was apparently taken in London, perhaps just before or after Brighton. I’ve tried to deduce where it was shot, with no luck so far. It appears they’re just standing in the street, with nothing of any particular interest in the background – so maybe near Betty’s flat, or Jack’s or Tom’s billet. There are other pictures of Tom and Jack together and just Tom in the same location.

Now they’re in Brighton. The inscription on the back of the first, in Betty’s hand, reads, “Some park in Brighton. P.S. I think we found a few.” (Jack appears to be checking Tom’s head for lice – presumably as a joke, but maybe not if he’d just come back from the front.)  The inscription on the second, taken at the same time, reads, “Note the blouse, suit and shoes you sent me.” Which confirms these were pictures Betty sent home.

We finally get a glimpse of Brighton in this one. I think that’s the famous pier in the background. The inscription on the back reads, “Brighton in the background – me looking about 6 months gone!” None of the Smiths looks particularly cheery here. Ditto for the next one, apparently taken by Jack, with Betty, Tom and Pat, who would have been the photographer for the other pictures that day. Inscription: “Brighton again!”

Sunday, June 9, 2013

More Wartime London

In an earlier post, I went searching for where my mother, Betty Smith, lived in London during the war (1944-46) when she was serving there with the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division – and found it.

But it turns out she lived in more than one place. I later came across this picture of the entrance to a mews (former horse stable laneway) where Betty and her roommate, Pat, lived, probably before they moved to 1 Glebe Place.

The inscription on the back in Betty’s hand reads, “This is the gateway into the Mews – Pat in the background – notice on the extreme right the telephone box & in the foreground at the right an Emergency Water Supply tank – they are all over the city in case of incendiaries [fire-setting bombs]. That carriage in the background is used by two old ladies – drawn by two ponies – no kidding.”

This inscription and others in the archive, almost all in Betty’s hand, are a little puzzling. They could be just reminders to herself of what the pictures show, possibly even written long after. This one, though, and some others, make me think they were photos she mailed home and the inscriptions were explanations for her family and friends.

If you look closely at the archway in which Pat is sitting, you can see the name of the mews carved in the stone – Pont St. Mews – and the date, 1879. Here’s what Pont St. Mews looks like today, with arch intact.

This next one has no inscription. It shows John Blackwell, then about 24, standing outside 1 Glebe Place. If you compare the brickwork and stone masonry in this picture with the one of modern-day Glebe Place from my previous post, the location is in little doubt.  

Although the one picture of John has no inscription on the back, this last one, not very good, does. It makes me think, again, that this was a picture sent home to family – and recovered years later, possibly when Betty's parents died. If so, this one must have been sent home soon after Betty and John hooked up. The inscription reads, “This is John – he is no Adonis, but he does look a little more like a human being than this.”

Next post: the Smith siblings in uniform do Brighton.