… and a little bit more

For the past three months, we have learned a great deal about cemeteries. Our manager, Paul, is always eager to tell us everything he knows about the history of our cemetery and others around London, local historians such as Catherine McEwen and Dan Brock are eager to share their expertise on Middlesex County stonecarvers, and the librarians, archivists, and others working in the many libraries and archives we have visited alway seem pleased to see us and interested in our latest research. Everyone we have encountered has been extremely helpful in providing information and support in our efforts to uncover more and more Woodland Cemetery history.

As stated in the last blog post, Woodland was forced to move twice due to city expansion. Originally it was a church graveyard, but because it became overcrowded, a park-style cemetery was established outside city limits, where it was eventually overtaken by building and moved again to Woodland Park. These park-style cemeteries originated in Britain and were quickly picked up in the United States and Canada as well. Mourning was in fashion in the Victorian age, Queen Victoria’s mourning of her husband for much of her life influenced the way people thought of death and dying. Beautiful stone tablets were created as memorials for deceased loved ones and elaborate mourning customs were established to celebrate the dead. Death was romanticized, and was viewed as a natural part of life for the Victorians (see references to Victorian post-mortem photography). Cemeteries reflected this. While cities expanded and land within city limits became more desirable for living space, cemeteries were moved outside of cities to large parks for space and beautiful surroundings.

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Queen Victoria in mourning clothes

A few park-style cemeteries in England eventually became run down and repurposed into open spaces for the public. Gravestones were taken down or demolished and most signs that a cemetery was ever present vanished.

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Leeds General Cemetery in disrepair. Leeds, England.
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Woodhouse Cemetery in St George’s Field at the University of Leeds.

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Woodhouse Cemetery at the University of Leeds is a strange place. If one visits, it does not seem like a cemetery at all. The original stones that survived the area’s transformation are placed along a short path near one of the entrances and placed close together. The tiles that make up the walk way around the cemetery’s original chapel list the names of people who are buried in the field, with anywhere from one to around twenty on each stone. In the image above, you can see there is writing on the path (people’s names).

The Victorian cemetery allowed for people to openly celebrate the beauty of death. They would take picnics to the cemetery, visit their deceased loved ones, and make a day of it. They showcased the art of the day and popularized the idea of public parks for socializing and relaxing. They served as a beautiful quiet space inside of rapidly expanding, industrializing, and dirty cities.

However, the First World War ended this desire for park-style cemeteries. Death was no longer celebrated as young men died by the thousands, and death became viewed as more brutal, terrifying, and unknown. Cemeteries became quieter places, the sheer volume of deaths taking place during the war caused thousands of monuments to be erected in cemeteries to commemorate the brave sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands who fought for their country. Stones lost their unique artistry as death became less personal. Mourning became more private and with that, personality left the cemeteries.

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A war cemetery at Vimy Ridge in France.

Victoria Grace Blackburn: London’s (Original!) Literary Powerhouse

For my historical blog this week, I want to talk about a woman whose gravestone I often wander by: Victoria Grace Blackburn (pen name: FanFan). Though her biography hints at a fascinating life, I get the feeling that she was someone who you would have had to meet in person in order to truly feel the force of her personality.

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As you may be able to tell from the name, Victoria was part of the Blackburn clan who founded the London Free Press. She was born on April 17, 1864 as the fifth daughter of Josiah Blackburn and Emma Jane Delamere, in Quebec. As a young woman, she studied at Hellmuth Ladies’ College in London, where she likely learned her passion for letters. After she graduated, she worked as a teacher in the United States, following her desire to remain in an intellectual environment (in one of the only stations an intellectual woman could occupy, at the time).

Fortunately for Miss Blackburn, her family’s newspaper provided the perfect opportunity to launch her career in another direction. In 1894, she began occasionally writing for the London Free Press while she embarked on studies of journalism, theatre, and literary criticism in New York and Europe. Being unmarried, she travelled the world with her sisters.

By 1900, Victoria had become the full time literary and drama critic for the Free Press. Having natural talent as well as fortunate station, she quickly became one of Canada’s leading and well-known critics, her fame spreading beyond London’s city limits.

She was an important player in London’s cultural scene, but one gets the sense that the town wasn’t always the right fit for her. Being well travelled, she often commented on London’s lack of growth, publishing (loving) criticisms such as “[London is a city that] has not believed sufficiently in herself” in the Free Press. Regardless of some detractors she gained in this manner, she became the managing editor of the London Free Press in 1918, and remained in that position until her death in 1928.

Though some believed that her success was due only to her family connections, she had many professional admirers, and gained praise (like that below, published The Editor) not only for her reporting work but for her literary endeavours.

“A writer with a large brain and a big, warm heart: a twentieth century thinker, with the individuality of original thought and expression: a poet just beginning to realize her gift, and its underlying responsibility: one of the best equipped of our literary and dramatic critics, and with the faculty of logical and comprehensive interpretation–altogether, a distinct force in the intellectual life of the Dominion, of whom much may be expected.” –The Editor.

In addition to writing for the newspaper, Victoria also authored several poems, a novel, and two plays. Her expansive style ranged from satire to tragedy, and she explored themes such as ill-fated love, sacrifice, war, and loss. While none of her work ever reached the level of fame that would have caused it to be well-known today, many of her original hand-written manuscripts are still housed at the Archives at Western University. (Fun fact: after her death, her sister Susan M. Blackburn established a fund, bequeathed to Western University, to purchase Canadian literature in both English and French in memory of her sister Victoria)!

Blackburn’s most critically acclaimed work was The Man Child (published in 1930, 2 years after her death). A novel about the First World War, it is much more serious than many of her other works. The novel follows Jack Winchester, a Canadian boy who leaves London for the trenches of France during WWI. Though its tone is sometimes celebratory of the war (a common attitude of the time), it chooses to celebrate the soldiers who gave their lives over any grand nationalist cause. Many Londoners enjoyed the book because it was a thinly veiled portrait of our city (and the nearby hamlet of Byron), acknowledging the war as a personal and painful experience rather than just a far-away event.

In addition to being a literary powerhouse, she was also active in her community. She founded the Women’s Canadian Club and was the president of the London Women’s Press Club; she was a participant in London’s own little theatre scene as well. She lived at 652 Talbot street with three of her sisters, where a historical plaque still stands to mark her significance.

In 1928, at the age of 61, Victoria suffered a lengthy illness: uterine cancer. She spent the last few weeks of her life in St. Joseph’s Hospital, likely surrounded by her many friends and remaining family members. She died on March 4, 1928, and was buried in Woodland Cemetery (in the Blackburn plot in Section S) shortly thereafter.

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More fortunate than many other Confederation Era Canadian writers, much of her work has survived to the present day. Below is one of her poems, published during WWI, which may give us a feeling for her literary style as well as her compassion:

 

Epic of the Yser
Dead with his face to the foe!’
From Hastings to Yser
Our men have died so.
The lad is a hero–
Great Canada’s pride:
We sent him with glory,
For glory he died–
So ring out the church-bells! Float the flag high!

Then I heard at my elbow a fierce mother-cry.

On the desolate plain
Where the dark Yser flows
They’ll bury him, maybe,
Our Child of the Snows:
The message we sent them
Through fire and through flood
He signed it and sealed it
To-day with his blood–
United we stand! Our Empire is One!

But this woman beside me? . . . The boy was her son.

 

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Janet Barbara Groshow: A Mother’s Love Lasting Through Time

We are busy with preparations for our Walking Tour on Saturday and the documentary we are preparing for Rogers TV, but I wanted to find the time to tell this fascinating story nonetheless! Our blog today is about another one of our “Women of Woodland” – Janet Barbara Groshow. We discovered her story while we were researching for our military tours last summer – she is one of the women we have buried here that served in the First World War as a nurse. The story of why she did so, however, is unique and touching.

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Janet was born on November 3, 1860, and appears to have lived in the United States for a while before moving to London. In London, and worked as a Matron at the Victoria Home for Incurables, which is now Parkwood Hospital. She was married and had three sons – William, James, and Thomas.

Shortly before the First World War, Janet’s husband died, leaving her a widow. When her son William enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in September of 1914, it must have been a loss she felt doubly. William was her youngest son, and had been working as an accountant before he decided to serve. Janet continued her work as a Matron, anxiously awaiting any news of her son’s service. We know from several public historical accounts of mothers who had sons serving in WWI how hopeless and worried she must have felt.

It was after the second battle of Ypres that William was reported Missing in Action, presumed dead. Janet never knew anything more of his fate. To make matters worse, perhaps prompted by their brother’s probably death, Janet’s other sons James and Thomas decided to enlist as well, in early 1916. They left for France, leaving Janet alone in London.

Instead of accepting the loss of her youngest and the potential loss of her other children, like many mothers of the time were forced to do, Janet decided to take matters into her own hands. Instead of remaining in London, helplessly awaiting news, Janet decided to enlist herself – as a nurse in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. She sailed to France, hoping dually to discover what had become of William, and to be geographically nearer to Thomas and James as they fought.

Janet’s incredible decision makes the Groshow family possibly the only mother/son group to serve together in the same war. Janet was 56 years old at the time of her enlistment, making her officially too old to serve, under C. E. F. guidelines. She may have lied about her age when enlisting, or perhaps a recruitment officer knew of her story and decided to let her serve.

Overseas, Janet served as Matron at a Red Cross Hospital in Kent, as Superintendent of CAMC’s Cliveden Hospital, on HM Transport 2810, which carried troops across the Atlantic, and at No. 7 Canadian General Hospital in Étaples, France. Her service files reveal that she suffered a nervous breakdown after a series of air raids, and spent some time in the hospital. However, after every obstacle that was thrown her way, she got back on her feet and continued to perform her duties as a nurse.

Janet served for 3 years before she was invalided home due to her contraction of tuberculosis in 1919. The war was not kind to her other two sons either. James, her eldest son, suffered a rifle bullet wound to the right forearm near the beginning of his service, but survived. Later, he was diagnosed with cardio disease due to the strain of active service. He also had trench fever, a disease caused by the horrendous living conditions in the trenches. He was invalided home on May 5, 1919, the same year as his mother. Janet’s middle son, Thomas, suffered perhaps a worse fate. His military service file notes that he started experiencing mental health issues due to the horrors of war on January 29, 1917. He was officially diagnosed with Shell Shock (neurasthenia) on April 10, 1917, which caused rapid dementia starting at age 24. His Shell Shock symptoms started after a heavy shelling, and prompted a 56 day stay in the hospital, during which he could not speak and was in a constant stupor. He was discharged to duty from the hospital several times until, finally, in 1918 his symptoms were bad enough that is was recommended he not return to France. Back then, mental illnesses were not treated as debilitating conditions but as signs of weakness of which to be ashamed. After his discharge, Thomas was not able to receive any treatment for what we may now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He moved to Detroit, and died fairly young, of causes unknown.

Despite the losses that Janet suffered due to the war, her service to her community continued once she was back in London. She spent some time recovering from her TB at the Queen Alexandra Sanatorium. Once she was well enough, she devoted herself to helping other tuberculosis veterans and supporting their families. She also spent a great deal supporting active service members.

She became the first female president of a soldier’s branch of the Canadian Legion – Byron Branch 69, which eventually honored her with a lifetime membership. During the Second World War, she provided hospitality to wounded soldiers and assisted war brides arriving in London. Her life exemplified London’s strong connection to the British Empire and its military traditions. She is pictured here with her Legion Members at a meeting for Veterans, colloquially referred to as the “Old Boy’s Club,” in which she found an unlikely but celebrated place.

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By the time Janet died in 1960, Woodland Cemetery’s Veteran’s section was well established. This allowed Janet to be buried next to both Thomas and James (William’s body was, unfortunately, never recovered). Janet’s love for her boys sent her across the ocean into a war zone, so it is only fitting that the family unit stayed together, side by side, in death.