Thursday, 16 April 2015


Bess & Harry Welch, Joan & Lewis
It was a lovely warm sunny day on August 17th, 1923 when the S.S. Montcalm docked at Montreal, Quebec, Canada and the Welch’s took up their life in a new country.

When Bess was interviewed at the age of 90 by her niece Patricia Blaney Koretchuk, Pat asked her “What did you notice about Canada when you first arrived?” Bess replied “If I had the money to go home I would have gone the next day! If you don’t “parle francais” you are lost; you’re in another world”.

The Welch family stayed with Bess’s Aunt Nellie (Beatrice Ellen Blaney Cheffins) at the Cheffins home in the Maisonneuve district of Montreal. Bess’s daughter, Joan, remembers living in a large house which according to a Montreal city directory was 1401 Rue Theodore. Their daughter, Ethel was age 20 and living with her parents. Their son Eric E. Stan Cheffins had married Louise Charrington in 1922 and was living in Verdun. Their eldest son Robert Albert Cheffins had married Mona Beatrice Denovan in 1920 and they remained in Quebec most of their lives. 

After three weeks they found a small apartment to rent, about six miles away at 289 Hibernia, Point St. Charles on Montreal Island. They lived there for the next couple of years. It was a mixed neighbourhood with about an equal number of French and English speaking residents and the children were able to attend a local English Protestant school. I think they attended Lorne School as it was located about three blocks from Hibernia and about the same distance from Pacific Avenue.

Aunt Nellie continued to help when needed.  Joan recalls that Aunt Nellie was very strict and, when she or her brother Lewis misbehaved, their punishment was to write lines on a large standing chalkboard – “I will not …………”, a common practice in schools at the time. 

Bess and her brothers kept in touch with her aunt and the Cheffins cousins, Abbe, Stan and Ethel, over her lifetime, as did the next generation of the Welch family. Bess forever remained grateful for her Aunt Nellie’s help in those early days of life in Canada and paid that forward with her own family later in her life. “She was good to us” Bess would say many years later.                                                                                                                                                     
In 1923, about 52,500 English immigrants arrived in Canada. The biggest annual numbers arrived between 1907 and 1913 topping out at 142,616 in 1913. After WW1, English immigration resumed with the largest number being 93,467 in 1920. By 1921 the census shows, of the total number of people of English origin in Canada, 47.6% were in the Province of Ontario and 7.7% in Quebec. Most were urban residents residing in Toronto and Montreal.

The Canadian government expectation that the immigrating English would take up farming occupations did not happen, since most of the English were city dwellers before coming to Canada. They did bring other skills with them. Skills from the newest factory and machine-shop industries as well as domestic service, sales and other service occupations which were needed in Canadian cities.

Canada was a country with many British customs and traditions. The English usually remained emotionally attached to the local area where they were born and grew up; they were very proud of their roots. Churches and clubs were a way of meeting like-minded friends.

In the late 19th century, Canadians generally thought English immigrants were too uppity and felt that they looked down on the “colonials”. While this was somewhat true, it was exaggerated by the press and the unions who felt that the English were taking jobs that should have gone to Canadians. Some employers posted “English need not apply” signs.  Every generation of immigrants has experienced similar discouragement to some degree, even today employers often ask for “Canadian experience” when hiring.

While there was still some of this going on in 1923, the larger issue for the Welch family was living in Quebec where the principal language is French and thus fewer jobs for non-French speaking workers. 

Joan tells of a French neighbor who, when she heard noisy children in the street below, would dump her dirty dishwater out the window on to them. No knowledge of French was needed to get her message.

Harry took the train west to work as an agriculture worker for the first months that the family were in Montreal (it was harvest season) but he did not go back because although neither Harry nor Bess were afraid of hard work, harvesting work was too arduous given his heart condition. During 1924 and 1925 city directories list his occupation as mechanic or metal worker so perhaps he found some work along those lines as he had in Birmingham.

While jobs were scarce for non-French speaking people, Harry and Bess were able to work at various low level labour jobs where language did not matter so much and they learned a few French phrases which Bess used for the rest of her life. The one I remember as a child was “fermer la porte” which was used frequently. I can still hear her saying it in place of “close the door” when we ran in and out of her house; we lived next door when I was about 10 years old. One job that Bess told us about was a night shift, washing taxi cabs in the middle of the night! 
She worked in the Montreal General Hospital kitchen and was at times the sole support for the family. They also assisted her brothers Albert and Stanley and a stranger they found freezing on a Montreal street.

In 1924 she was also working as a cleaner for the wife of the head of the Montreal Branch of the Toronto Bank. It was established in 1856 in Toronto and opened its first branch office in Montreal in 1860 merging with the Dominion Bank in 1955 to become the Toronto Dominion Bank.

Bess’s relationship with that family would play a very helpful and important role during the Welch family’s troubles in Montreal. 

The weather was another challenge they faced coming from the temperate climate of Birmingham. Demonstrating the difficulties with the weather, are family stories of frigid winter temperatures, tunnelling through the deep snow accumulation to get to the corner store and difficulty opening the door with the snow piled up against it. However, they dressed warmly and their usual resilience prevailed.

Perhaps their Canadian school mates taught them to make angels in the snow, build a snowman and the delight of catching a snowflake on their tongue. They likely enjoyed watching adults and children ice skating on the local ponds and on the river.

Joan tells of the Icemen cutting large blocks of ice from the St. Lawrence River and delivering them to the ice-house for storage, using horses and wagons. She and Lewis and the other local children would run, jump up and hitch a ride on the wagons.  The ice was stored in insulated buildings with sawdust until being delivered to homes for use in their ice-boxes, the precursor to the refrigerator. A block of ice was put in the top portion and the lower portion was used to store perishable food.

This photo of Eileen, Lewis and Joan was probably taken in the winter of early 1927 given the apparent age of the three children and the background showing a duplex in Verdun. Shovelling snow from the steps was a childhood chore.

Bess became pregnant with their third child in the summer of 1924 and delivered a second daughter on May 9th. 1925. Eileen Ellen Florence Welch was baptised in Pointe St. Charles, Quebec on June 21st that year in the Congregational Church according to the Drouin Collection of Quebec, Vital and Church Records, 1621-1967. Bess's friend Rose Mary Webb was a witness along with her uncle Harold W.J. Cheffins. 

The church was nearby, along Hibernia at the corner of Wellington. It was consecrated March 10, 1912 and in 1925 when it joined the United Church, it was renamed Main Memorial Church, in honor of Rev. Arthur W. Main, the pastor from 1906 to 1913. The church was closed in 1962 and destroyed by fire a few years afterwards. 

Not long after Eileen was born the Welch family were living at 106 Pacific Ave, in Verdun, Quebec. Verdun was a short distance south of Point Ste. Charles and the premises were larger than their former apartment. They had the top floor of a duplex, that being a building with two dwellings, one above the other. External staircases provided separate entrances for each residence.

In September 1925, when Eileen was just four months of age, a serious mishap occurred that affected the family for some time.

Thursday, 26 February 2015


Elizabeth (Beth) Blaney Welch, my Grandmother, liked to be in control, truly believing that she knew what was best for everyone. On the other hand, my Grandfather, Harry Lewis Welch was mostly easy going but occasionally he would aggressively take action.

So in an interview sixty-five years later it is not that surprising to hear Bess, still sounding angry, saying “I didn’t decide it! Harry decided that. He just made up his mind and that was it. He had sold everything - sold everything. I was mad! He had gone and bought the tickets. What could I do?” She pauses and the shaky tinkle of her tea cup being placed on the saucer can be heard.

As previously written Bess told her niece Patricia* that she had been ill from work and her brother Bill had provided the funds for her and the children to have a two week rest in Hertfordshire in south east England. Early in the second week, Harry called to tell her to hurry home as they were leaving almost immediately for Canada. No permission, passport or application form was necessary in order to emigrate at that time.

She may have been in the town of Hertford or St. Alban where there was a Blaney family but I have not done enough research to determine if they were related. Both are about 100 miles from Birmingham and it took most of a day on the bus or train to get home. While she said Harry did not know anything about Canada, she knew a little from her Aunt Nellie Cheffins in Montreal. Several relatives had gone before them but perhaps they didn't write home.

Bess said that on her return home she found, “There was a woman there and she said `I bought everything`. Oh! I screamed. I have to take something! I went into the kitchen and took two spoons & knives. There’s the knife right there". 

However there are a few family heirlooms that we believe were brought from England so I expect they came with at least a trunk and some suitcases but not much money. According to passenger list records Harry was carrying £20 and Bess was carrying $100. (each of which would be comparable to about $1,000. in today’s Canadian currency). I can only imagine moving to a foreign country today with $2,000. to begin a new life and provide for a family of four.

On the above records Harry indicated he was going to work as a harvester (farm labourer) in western Canada. Usually people from the UK went to Canada or the United States to escape poverty or unemployment at home. As the Canadian economy had picked up in the previous few years, Canada was actively promoting a new and better life with the opportunity for farm work and or Canadian land ownership for those who emigrated. Given Harry’s health problems, I expect he was one of the many who said they came for that reason but actually hoped to find other work in the cities. He and Bess would continue to work hard throughout their lives.

Their voyage began with about a 90 mile trip north-west on the LMS Railway from New Street Station in Birmingham to Lime Street Station, Liverpool, on the west coast of England, in order to board the Canadian Pacific Liner, the S.S. Montcalm. That ship would take them to Montreal Canada. 

With trains traveling at about 30mph, if they were travelling on a direct train it would have taken about 3-4 hours but if it was a route with stops in many small towns along the way it would have taken an extra hour or so. It would take even longer travelling overnight which they might have done to avoid paying to stay somewhere in Liverpool before boarding the ship the next day. Weekday morning trains left as early as 4am – getting to Liverpool at about 10:45am. The 3rd class fare was about 12 shillings. (20 shillings in a pound).

My postcard
The S.S. Montcalm was built in 1921 by John Brown & Co. in Glasgow Scotland and was owned by the Canadian Pacific Line. It was 16,418 tons, 549 feet long x 70 feet wide with 2 funnels and two masts. She had a service speed of 16 knots which enabled her to cross the Atlantic in less than a week. 
There was accommodation for 542 cabins and 1,268 third class passengers. The Montcalm’s maiden trip was in January of 1922, travelling between Liverpool and St. John New Brunswick, Canada. In the winter, her destination was St. John, New Brunswick in the spring, summer and fall she continued down the St. Lawrence River to Montreal, Quebec.

Bess was 26 and Harry was 30 when along with Lewis age 7 and Joan age 6, they boarded the Montcalm on Friday August 10th, 1923. For the children it was a great adventure including new playmates but for their parents there must have been some trepidation around leaving behind the home and life they knew. They were facing the sea for the first time and a new life as strangers in a land almost three thousand miles away from family and friends.

As to the voyage, it was a seven day journey over the same route taken by the "unsinkable" Titanic which sideswiped an iceberg and sank in the spring of 1912. They also knew about one of the worst ship disasters in Canadian history; the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, carrying 1477 passengers and crew, en-route from Montreal to Liverpool, when it collided with a freighter in the fog and sank in the St. Lawrence River in 1914. 1,012 of its passengers and crew were lost.

After boarding they looked around the 3rd class deck which was the lowest deck of the ship, for their 4-berth room. They walked along the narrow passageways which were lined with handrails to help with the rocking of the ship and in case of rough seas. 

Courtesy of CP Ships Archive
The children were delighted with the bunk beds but the room was pretty small as shown here. There were four bunk beds with curtains and rails as well as a small sink with a mirror above. They probably went back onto the deck to wave goodbye, along with the other passengers, to those on the dock wishing everyone well on their long trip. 
According to the Canadian Pacific archives, life aboard ship was pretty comfortable compared to previous years. As Bess herself would much later say “it had a beautiful playroom for the children, we had meals in the restaurant area - it was beautiful” Photos of third class areas show a large dining saloon and a smoking room.

Joan remembers her and Lewis having the upper bunks and her parents sleeping on the bottom ones in the little room they shared. She remembers the playroom, walking with her father on the deck and her mother being sick for much of the trip.

Family lore has it that Bess was pregnant when she left England and likely had a miscarriage. The story goes that her second daughter Eileen Ellen Florence was conceived in England and born in Canada; however Eileen’s birth certificate shows that she was born in Montreal May 9th, 1925 almost two years after their arrival.

During the trip Bess and Harry made friends with Harry Robert Ralph and his wife Beatrice. Harry Ralph had emigrated to Montreal in 1914, returning to England and marrying in 1918. The Ralph's were on their way from London back to Montreal travelling 3rd class on the Montcalm as well. 

Courtesy CP Ships Archive
Shipboard routine was breakfast 8:30am to 10:00am. and lunch was served at 1:30pm. Tea was at 4:00pm on deck and in all the public rooms, with the children served separately. Dinner was at 7:00pm. Dinner included soup, salad and a choice of salmon, beef or lamb along with vegetables, desert and coffee or tea. An orchestra played at lunch and dinner as well as on deck for dancing. Divine (church) service was 10:30am. on Sunday. 

There was a bookstall stocked with postage stamps, books, magazines, candy, toys and novelties. There was also a money exchange and free rental of a safe for storage in the Purser's office of any valuables. Deck chairs and steamer rugs were available for rent.  There was a physician and nurses on board for attending passengers and in the case of sickness contacted on board there was no charge for his service or medicines.

Bess described the part of the journey when they reached the area where the Titanic sank, saying “we went right through the icebergs. I was scared sick! Everyone on board was locked inside, no one was allowed outdoors on the decks”.

The last leg of their journey was 139 miles down the St. Lawrence River. They arrived at the port of Montreal on August 17th, 1923.  It was a breezy, warm and sunny summer day when they disembarked with a temperature of 72 degrees. Their luggage was examined by the authorities then left on the dock requiring their personal attention but it could also be held for claiming later.  

Harry on the left and Bess on the right, their friends in between and Joan standing holding her hair.

They had an address for Aunt Nellie Cheffins' home and they proceeded from the dock to Rue Theodore which was several blocks away. They were able to stay there for a few weeks until they were able to find a tiny place of their own in Montreal and begin to work.

In her 90s Bess would say in an interview with her niece Patricia Blaney, "Montreal, that was a tragedy and Bess wrote to her family in Birmingham about the same time "2 days after we landed I would have come back to England right then – but no money left to do so. I never wrote home to tell them either”.

In spite of many difficult challenges in Montreal, Harry & Bess made the best of it there for about four years.

* Thanks to Patricia Blaney Koretchuk for her generous sharing of her recorded interview with Bess conducted in 1988.