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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Sad Case of Alice Irons

John Ogden to the left. Bertha Milnes to the right. For all eternity.

What do you think of family tree research? Have you been bitten by the genealogy bug? I have. It's fascinating, it's frustrating, it's ultimately satisfying. At times it's just a sea of facts -- names, dates, places. Other times you can't help but imagine the story behind the facts. Some make you smile, like the lifelong spinster who finally gets married when she's 74 years old; some make you go hmmmm, like my great great grandfather, John Windover, who outlived four wives. And then there's the sad. All the women who died in childbirth, all the stillborn babies, all the men who went to Europe to fight in WWI and never came home.

My family tree research had been frustrating due to the lack of information about my mother, Diane Chapell. Recently, however, I was finally able to confirm the actual names of my maternal grandparents. This has, of course, led to the discovery of oodles of relatives, most from the Sittingbourne area of England, as well as the area around Aberdeen in Scotland. My research has led to some surprising discoveries.

My great grandfather, George Edward Chapell, brought his wife and young children to Canada in 1912; his two younger brothers had come over the year prior, settling in Victoria, BC. George settled in BC as well and while his two younger brothers eventually returned to England, George stayed put. What absolutely surprised me, though, was the discovery that one month prior to George setting sail with his family, his older brother James also came to Canada. Not to BC though. James and his two sons (from his first marriage) settled right here in Toronto! A few months later, he was joined by his new wife and their two young children, as well as his teenage daughter.

That wife was Alice Irons. She married the widower James Chapell when she was 21 (he was 32) and immediately became the mother to his three children, then went on to bear him both a son and a daughter. Marrying James makes her my great great aunt, by marriage.

When James and his two oldest sons came to Canada in early 1912, Alice was obviously left behind to manage in his absence, with only the help of her teenage stepdaughter to handle the home, the finances, the children. A few months later, more stress. She packed them all up to make their voyage to Canada to join James in Toronto, arriving in mid-November in Quebec. What a chilly and dreary sight that must have been!

In 1928, Alice died. The cause of death was erysipelas (I had to google it), caused by diabetes. Very unpleasant. When I read the death registration earlier this month I was dumbfounded to learn that Alice was buried in St. John's Norway Cemetery. That cemetery is only minutes from where I now live, and the captain and I actually used to live kitty-corner from it back in the 1980s! It was quite remarkable to discover that these relatives, ones I never even knew existed before this year, had such a close geographical connection to me.

I couldn't resist. The captain and I hopped in the car that day and headed for the cemetery, stopping in the main office for directions to Alice's gravesite. Armed with a map, we finally found the right section and the right row, in an area without headstones, only in-ground plaques. I was warned by the man who helped me in the office that 1928 was a time of hardship and poverty and some graves therefore had no markers. Yes, I was forewarned, but I was still very saddened to discover that Alice Irons Chapell rests eternally in an unmarked grave.

John Ogden to the left, Bertha Milnes to the right. But Alice? You don't even know she's there.

I do understand that grave markers are not inexpensive, then or now, but I think it's terribly sad that generations have now passed and neither the children, nor the grandchildren that would have followed, have made the effort to mark the grave. I considered planting something there, in that barren patch of grass you see above, but I know it would just be mowed down.

Poor Alice. She was the mother and step-mother to five, brought her children across the ocean to settle in a new country, and died when she was only 47. She deserved better.


Heloise said...

Fascinating to read of your discoveries. I too am hooked on family history. Making new discoveries is wonderful.

Leslie Jane Moran said...

Sad indeed. Genealogy is fascinating. Love the stories and hopefully connections dug up as a result of a good hardy search. Bravo for being so patient and persistent thus giving Alice a voice in this very intimate way. I think she'd appreciate all your work. This is her marker.

martha brown said...

It funny how people feel about markers. They are not really important to me at all. I'm hoping that my family won't waste their money on one for me! But I know that my mom really wants one, and I'll respect that :)

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