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.