Condolence Letters Received by Bertha Gray Peters in 1916

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by Sam McBride

 1916 was a terrible year for Fritz Peters’ mother Bertha. 

 It began well, as she was living in a rented cottage on the southeast coast of England where she regularly hosted her son Private Gerald Hamilton Peters on his leaves and when he was undergoing officer training.  Another son, Private John Francklyn “Jack” Peters, had been missing since the Second Battle of Ypres the previous April, but she had been told by relatives that he was safe at Celle Lager prison camp in Hanover, Germany.

However, in late May 1916 she was informed by Canadian authorities that the Red Cross reported that Jack was definitely not a prisoner of war in Hanover, so it was assumed that he died “on or after” April 24, 1915.  He was killed in the heroic stand that day by Canadian troops against a massive German attack that used poison gas at a time when Allied soldiers were not expecting poison gas and therefore had no gas masks.

Then just a couple of weeks later Bertha learned that her favorite child Gerald, now a lieutenant with the 7th (British Columbia) Battalion (the same unit Jack served with, but with almost complete turnover due to heavy casualties), was missing after a counterattack by Canadian troops on June 3, 1916 in the Battle of Mount Sorrel in the Ypres Salient.  By the first week of July she got confirmation that Gerald was dead.

The following five letters illustrate the pain and desperation of the era, as letter-writers share their own sad experiences from the war with Bertha.  It was during this period of grief that Bertha turned to spiritualism as a way to get in contact with her dead sons, particularly her soulmate Gerald. 

Susan Cummins to Bertha                                 c. August 1916

 My dear Bertha,

          I see in today’s Book of Honour the sad news that your uncertainty about dear Gerald is at an end.  I can only say how intensely I sympathize with you, in your dreadful bereavement.  Only God knows what a mother feels at such a time.

          …If this war goes on much longer even the old men will have to go, I fear.

          …I remain with heartfelt sympathy,

 Your loving cousin,

Susan E. Cummins

Mary Wilkins to Bertha                            August 4, 1916

 938 Fitzgerald St., Victoria, B.C.

 My dear Mrs. Peters,

          I feel I must write a few lines to assure you of my real sympathy with you and your husband in your sad loss.  How the years have gone.  I cannot realize that your dear boys had grown to manhood.  How many hearts and homes this cruel war has broken.  One wonders where God is and how long before the end.  Sadness seems so rife just now.

          …This lingering tuberculosis is an appalling thing, but I must not trouble you with my troubles.  I hope Fred is well, remember me to him.  How the old Windsor1 days come back when I think of Windsor and our college boys…

 Yours very truly,

Mary A. Wilkins

1 – the Windsor referred to is likely the Windsor Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia.

Canon Rix to Bertha                                          August 22, 1916

 Canon G.A. Rix, St. Andrew’s Rectory, Prince Rupert, B.C.

 Dear Mrs. Peters,

          For some time I have had it in mind to write to you, but for the reason of the uncertainty as to the fate of your son.  I hesitated until I might learn something more definite.  Recently word has come through in regard to Gerald and I must no longer refrain from sending you a letter conveying my most sincere sympathy.  I am quite well aware that no letter can possibly convey any real comfort to one so grievously stricken, but I nevertheless wish you to know that you have been very much on my mind and that never in my life has my earnest sympathy gone out so completely as it has to you.

          You have been called upon to sacrifice two as fine boys as the nation possessed; clean were they in body, mind and soul and so far as the ordinary eye could tell, both were destined to lives of great usefulness and certainty of great comfort to you. 

          They have been taken (I earnestly trust that yet Jack will return to you) but as you so well know, they have offered themselves on the altar of loyalty – and as the years pass your increasing pride will be that they have done so.

          …Your sons not only offered themselves but you said not “nay”.

          …It was my pleasure at a meeting held to arrange for a patriotic demonstration on the second anniversary of the war to move that Mr. Peters give the address.  This was carried out and although I had to be out of town and did not hear the address, yet I have been assured that it was the finest effort of that kind ever made in Prince Rupert1.  I am sure you will be pleased to hear this.

          Again I assure you of my own and Mrs. Rix’s most sincere sympathy and our earnest hopes that you are well and that ‘ere long we will see you back in Rupert again.

 I am, yours very sincerely

G.A. Rix

 1 – Her lawyer husband, former PEI premier Frederick Peters, who at the time of the letter was City Clerk in Prince Rupert, was an experienced public speaker who was often invited to speak in support of the war at community functions.

Women’s Club secretary to Bertha          Sept. 25, 1916

 Dear Mrs. Peters,

          I have often thought of you in your great sorrow and have wished to write, but it was such a sorrow that I felt I hardly dared to do so.  Then, at our last Women’s Auxiliary (W.A.) Mrs. Hiscolks who is now our President, asked me to write.

          Dear Mrs. Peters – what you have gone through since I last saw you at your daughter’s wedding1.  It was a short time before my mother’s death when you wrote me such a kind letter.  Now, how can I express to you how we all feel for you in the loss of your brave boys whom you gave up for their country so bravely and unselfishly.  This is such a terrible war and the poor fathers and mothers are called upon to give up so much.  One knows that the Man of Sorrows is with the dear ones at the Front – for are they not following his example of giving up their young lives for us, and He alone can comfort all the sorrowing hearts in the Homeland too…

          I wrote to you when I heard of your eldest son’s distinction in the first naval engagement2.  I do hope he is safe and well, and that your youngest boy3 is still with you.  May God keep them both safe and comfort you in this great trial.  With love and sympathy from all of your friends in the W.A.

 I remain, yours very sincerely

E.C. Morie, Sec of C.C.C.W.A.

 1 – Helen Peters married Ted Dewdney in June 1912 in Esquimalt, B.C.

2. – The Battle of Dogger Bank in the North Sea, where Fritz’s heroism was acknowledged with the Distinguished Service Order medal.

3. –  Gerald’s twin brother, Noel Quintan Peters, was still at the family home in Prince Rupert.  He was rejected for military service, likely because of a slight, but noticeable, mental disability.  He was finally accepted into the Canadian Forestry Corps in 1917.


Patricia Garlink to Bertha                        October 31, 1916

 46 Devonshire St., Portland Place

 Dear Mrs. Peters

          Do forgive me for not writing before, but I have had another shock since I saw you last.  My husband’s belongings have been returned to me through the Germans.  When I tell you that some of the things were thickly stained with blood you will understand what I have been going through again.

          I should like very much to have tea with you before you leave.  Will you drop me a line to say what day.

          The medium Mrs. Leonard still says that Frank is alive and is now almost well, and my mother-in-law still says she firmly believes he is alive. In spite of everything she feels it very strongly.  I am writing this on duty so will have to stop.

 Much love,

Patricia Garlink

Scandal of First Wife of Dr. Charles Peters and a Pirate in New York in Early 1700s

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By Sam McBride

For many years in my family tree study, the only information I had on Dr. Charles Valentine Peters – the first of Fritz Peters’ ancestors of the Peters line to settle in North America – was from the book “A Peters Lineage: Five Generations of the Descendants of Dr. Charles Peters of Hempstead” by Martha Bocke Flint,

Published in 1896, the Flint book was well-read by Fritz and other members of his family as a comprehensive source of information on their cousins and ancestors.  Dr. Peters and his wife Mary Hewlett were great-great-great-great-grandparents of Fritz and his brothers and sisters.

The Flint book did not mention the extraordinary, documented story of Dr. Peters’ first wife, and what happened after the couple left England for the colony of New York.   Articles by John G. Hunt on the subject were in the quarterly publication The American Genealogist in 1967 and 1968.

In an article titled “Two Eighteen Century New Yorkers: Giles Shelley ‘Pirate’ and Dr. Charles Peters”, genealogical researcher Hunt notes that the surgeon Dr. Charles Peters was the son of William Valentine and Ann Peters of St. Clement Dane, London.  Records in England show that Charles married Mary Kake at St. Dunstan in the West, Middlesex  in about 1699 when he was 22 and she 18.  One child was born, a daughter.  Some time in the next three years  they emigrated to America.  Hunt notes that by September 1702 Mary Kake had left Charles and taken up with the highly successful (but already married) merchant/pirate Giles Shelley, who was a close friend of soon-to-be-hanged Captain William Kidd.  Like the infamous Captain Kidd, Giles Shelley was licensed by the King to take booty on the high seas from non-British ships.

Shelley included Mary Peters In his will dated September 22, 1702,  specifying that upon his death she would receive 50 pounds, and then 50 pounds per year for ten years “free from the control of her husband.”  The will stipulated that Mary – still legally married to Dr. Charles Peters – would be granted use of Shelley’s house and furnishings for the rest of her life.

The affair became well known in 1705 as a result of a court case launched by Shelley’s ignored wife Hillegond.  As the cuckolded husband, the situation of his wife living openly with another man must have been extremely embarrassing for Charles Peters in the conservative New York society.  And obtaining a divorce from an English court was virtually impossible from distant America at the time.

In 1710, Shelley adjusted his will to note that Mary Kake Peters had died.  There is no record of how or when she died.  With her dead, Charles was free to marry again.  There is also no record of the death of the daughter, but Hunt suggests she probably died at young age.

Sometime between 1710 and 1712, Charles Peters moved to Long Island and married Mary Hewlett, whose grandparents arrived in New York when it was known as New Amsterdam and controlled by the Dutch.  Apparently, Mary Hewlett and her relatives were unaware of Charles’ disastrous first marriage.  The couple had eight children and were accepted into the establishment of the community of Hempstead.  Charles died in 1733, and Mary Hewlett died 11 years later.

Their son Valentine Hewlett Peters (1716-1786) was a United Empire Loyalist in the American Revolution, as was his son James Peters (1746-1820).  After the rebels won, James (Fritz’s great-great-grandfather) was a leader in the Loyalist evacuation to New Brunswick.  As he was elderly, Valentine decided to stay in New York in the new country known as the United States.  The image below is of James Peters as a young Loyalist.

There is no mention of an earlier marriage of Dr.Charles Peters in the writings of James Peters, or in the writings of his descendants.  In that era of primitive communication, it appears Dr. Peters’ cover-up of his first wife and her scandalous affair with a pirate was successful – at least until original records were identified and interpreted in the 1960s.

It appears that Dr. Charles Peters was concerned that the details of his parents and ancestry could lead his in-laws and neighbours in Hempstead to discover the fiasco of his first marriage.  This led him to fabricate the connection to the famous Puritan Rev. Hugh Peters and his brothers William and Thomas who came to colonial America in the 1630s.  Hugh returned to England in 1642 and never returned to America, as he became a senior lieutenant of Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War.  William was the only one of the three brothers to have sons, so over the years many in the Peters family tree assumed that William was the direct ancestor.  Flint found no records of any such connection, and chose to avoid the controversy of  Dr. Charles’ ancestry.  She began the family tree listings with his marriage to Mary Hewlett and her ancestry, but had no details on his parentage.


John G. Hunt, “Two Eighteenth Century New Yorkers: Giles Shelley ‘Pirate’ and Dr. Charles Peters”, The American Genealogist, Vol. 43, 1967:p.  163-7.

And John G. Hunt, “Addenda and Corrigenda”, The American Genealogist, Vol. 44, April 1968, p. 111


Fritz Peters’ Cadet Report in 1906

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by Sam McBride

The Peters Family Papers contain a wide array of personal letters, photographs, family history notes, and original documents such as the following report on his performance as a Royal Navy cadet on the training ship HMS Britannia from when he started with the navy on Jan. 15, 1905 until May 14, 1906.

Memorabilia such as this is the basis for my new book “The Bravest Canadian — Fritz Peters, VC: the Making of a Hero of Two World Wars”, to be released by Granville Island Publishing in September 2012.

November 8, 2012 will be the 70th anniversary of the action against Vichy French forces in the harbour of Oran, Algeria which earned Peters the Victoria Cross and the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross.

Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters in about 1906 (McBride Collection)