All summer, our monument conservation students Rachel and Hannah have been taking care of upkeep of the Scottish Cemetery site, which you may remember we uncovered last summer. Thanks to the work of last year’s monument team, these stones are now visible to the public and rest in a limestone screening at the site where they were unearthed. Having done as much research as we thought we could, at the time, we made an archive of these stones and their inscriptions (which you can find here) and we compared this to a record of burials at St. Andrew’s Cemetery taken by local historian (and one-time president of the Ontario Genealogical Society) Leslie Grey in 1955.
This was all of the information we expected to find – after all, it’s pretty hard to access information about a cemetery that no longer technically exists, and we had exhausted our sources at the London Room and other archives in the city.
Yesterday morning, Leah and I were doing a little organization within our two vaults of archives, taking a catalogue of our resources, and making sure everything was in place. Imagine our surprise when we opened up a book that had been hiding on one of our back shelves only to discover that we held the original hand-written burial registers for St. Andrew’s, which were likely given to Woodland when the graves were moved in the 50s.
Now, this didn’t really give us any new information, per se – we knew the basic details of those who were buried there already. But shoved inside the front cover were about 19 sheets of type-written legal paper, laid out like this…
This record, which doesn’t contain a date or the name of the person who prepared it, is a grave-by-grave stock-taking of the First St. Andrew’s churchyard cemetery, and most importantly, the column on the right provides details abour the family, such as spelling of names, brief lineages, where the family is from, if they have members buried in other places, stories of their lives or deaths (if they were particularily interesting), and the names, addresses, and phone numbers of their (then)-living descendants.
In the above examples, you can see statements like “these two were cousins” or “this person was involved in the founding of the church” or “we think they moved to Stratford” or “we don’t know who this was, but definitely not from this family!” This isn’t usually the type of information that cemeteries usually keep on hand, and it certainly isn’t the type we collect.
More than that, a lot of the information seems to be speculative. On several pages, the transcriber notes “I could not find anyone who knew the family,” suggesting that they were going around London seeking out the living and having real conversations with these people about their family history. Based on one date included in the papers, we can place this after 1950, and it might be likely that these were prepared by Leslie Grey as well, who we know had a passion for preserving the history of FSA.
These papers are incrediby interesting for me, mostly due to the image they furnish of someone walking around London and personally getting in touch with families, asking these questions, and recording the answers as something of import. London was obviously a smaller community at the time, which is what allowed this person to make reference to “the Bell family on Oxford Street” and have that make total sense within the cultural lexicon (whereas I would have to do a bit of digging to find out who that family would have been).
Is this something that we could do today? Is it something we should be doing? London is a bigger city, and we quite often run up against important privacy laws when collecting information as a cemetery. However, it does mean that we rarely see the creation of more personal records such as these.
History in a “Post-Truth” Age
Another striking thing about these records is the fact that a lot of the facts recorded are admitted as conjectures. The phrase “I think” appears several times, and the transcriber alludes to being told things by family members personally. None of it is actually cross referenced to any outside source. Should we treat this record the same way that we treat our burial records, which is to say as the closest we can come to knowing the factual truth of our history?
In today’s world, we’re caught up in an important debate about fact, “fake news,” and what we can consider “truth”. As a society, we privilege objective fact – that’s why the first place we look when we’re researching are governmental documents, birth records, death records, anything “official”. We put stock and trust in these to give us an accurate picture of a life. And yet the stories we remember, and the stories we tell on our tours, are more likely to come from documents like this, or from newspaper accounts, or accounts that descendants of families continue to bring to us. Some would say this makes them less factual, and therefore less valuable. But some would say that the little fascinating tidbits of information like this are what makes the story worth telling, and what translates it into more than just names and dates.
It also makes me wonder how the history we’re creating today will be treated in the future. The things recorded in this document, in the sense that they are personal accounts, are the things that we might find on our Facebook pages in the future. Do you think that we should treat this record differently in terms of validity and truth than we might, in the future, treat a Facebook post as historical record? Or are their important differences in intent?
Perhaps the other moral of the story is not to judge an archive by its cover! We often wish our earlier counterparts had been a bit more careful with where and how they stored things – this is hardly the first time we’ve stumbled across a juicy / incredibly valuable find stuffed haphazardly between book pages. For a place like Woodland, this could have once been practical – for example, we often find handwritten letters from familiies about their plots, and these are kept in our plot books, where they once would have been most useful to those running the cemetery (long before we came to conside them historical artifacts)!
As the current custodians of Woodland Cemetery’s history, we need to be careful not to repeat the same mistakes. We may think that we’re recording something in a useful way, but will it be accessible to future generations once we’re not around to give context or explain it? Will people be able to search our archives and find what they need? The answer, for Woodland at least, is currently “no” – which is why we’re putting so much effort into doing a thorough catalogue of all of the historial material we have in our vault. It’s only been 139 years – I think it’s about time!
If anyone else is keeping track of the St. Andrew’s graves and would like a digital copy of this record (which includes more personal information than the transcriptions of the stones which we previously published), let us know by commenting below!