Remembering enthusiastic B.C. family historian, Judge R. Blake Allan

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By Sam McBride

Tomorrow, May 18, 2020, will be the 11th anniversary of death of my first cousin (once removed) Robert Blake Allan (1916-2009) in his 93rd year.  He was named after his uncle Robert Blake Allan who was killed in action in 1915 in World War One.   He was known through his life to one and all by his middle name “Blake”.

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Blake graduated from University of Alberta law in 1942

He excelled as a law student at the University of Alberta, then as a soldier in England in World War Two, then as a lawyer in partnership with my dad (his first cousin) Leigh Morgan McBride in Nelson, B.C. for 20 years in the firm of McBride and Allan, and then as a provincial court judge in Nelson and later in Victoria, before concluding  his career as Deputy Judge of the Tax Court of Canada.   But I think his greatest passion was for genealogy.

I have known quite a few “keeners” in my own experience in genealogy since the early 1990s, but nobody as energized and enthusiastic as Blake.

I had long had a casual interest in my family history, as it includes some famous historical names like Cunard and Dewdney, but I don’t think I would have ever become a genealogy buff without the example and inspiration of Blake.

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1970 announcement in Nelson Daily News of appointment as provincial judge

Blake was born in Nelson, BC Oct. 7, 1916, son of Wilfrid Laurier Allan and Lillian Maud Foote.  A year later the family moved to Staveley, Alberta where the Allan family ran a general store.  The family grew there to include brother James Henry Grant Allan (1919-2010), sister Margot Francis Allan (1922-1932) and Alexander Arthur Allan (1925-2010).

The family returned to Nelson in 1931 when Wilfrid was appointed secretary-treasurer of the Wood Vallance Hardware Company, succeeding Alex Leith, who died just a few days before his scheduled retirement.  Blake went to the new Trafalgar Junior Secondary School and then Nelson High School.  From there he went to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, along with several friends from Nelson, including Graeme Steed, Leigh McBride and Peter Dewdney.    After three years of war service overseas (primarily in England) he worked as a lawyer in Vancouver for a couple of years before returning to his native Nelson to join his cousin Leigh in the law partnership known as McBride and Allan, with offices at 415 Baker Street on the second floor above where Ted Allen’s Jewellery is today.  After his judicial appointment, Blake served as a judge based in Nelson for several years before transferring to Victoria, BC, where he lived the rest of his life.

He caught the genealogy bug in the late 1970s.  After moving to Victoria he joined the Victoria Genealogical Society, and was a member for about 30 years, including a decade or so as VGS Secretary.

I remember in about 1991 my dad Leigh passed on to me letters he received from Blake about the family tree.  As a history buff, Leigh was interested, but somewhat confused by Blake’s information and inquiries.   Others in the extended family made a joke about Blake’s obsession with family history, but I found it fascinating.  It got me going in family tree work and local history, which continues to be my overriding pastime in retirement years in the West Kootenay region of southeastern B.C.

Earlier in Blake’s life he tried coin collecting and stamp collecting as hobbies, but found them unfulfilling and overly competitive. Later, when he dipped his toe into genealogy while residing in Victoria, he found he really got a kick out of it, as there was always something new to learn, and another generation to pursue. He particularly liked the spirit of mutual support and collaboration with other family historians – much different from his previous hobbies.  His wife Ruth Alm was totally supportive of his genealogy obsession, saying once in amazement “he’s found relatives all over creation!”  Ruth was born in Kaslo, just a couple of sternwheeler stops on Kootenay Lake from Nelson where Blake was born.

What I found particularly remarkable about Blake was that he was as interested and helpful with sides of my ancestry that had no connection to him, as he was with the Foote line of our mutual ancestry. I was also impressed with his determination to learn computer word processing and the internet in his seventies in the early 1990s when they were much less user-friendly than they are today. Most folks in my dad’s generation did not even try, as it was so daunting.

As a former lawyer and judge, Blake knew his way around government offices.  He did not hesitate to complain if he received poor service from archives, libraries and various government authorities.  I recall him making a big stink when he viewed microfilm which was unreadable, even though the originals were quite clear.

from left, Blake Allan, cousin Ken G. McBride and Blake`s brother Alex Allan

The pic at right shows Blake, left, in 1942 in uniform in Nelson beside his cousin (and my uncle) Kenneth G. McBride (1920-1944), and his younger brother Alex Allan at right. Blake would serve in the Canadian Army in England for four years until returning home in 1946 to work as a lawyer until his judicial appointment in 1968.

The pic below is of Blake in about 1995 in Scotland, where he did extensive research on his Allan ancestors in the Orkneys who came to Canada with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

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I was impressed with Blake’s determination to discover his roots, to the point that he rented cars in Britain well into his eighties, and drove in and out of the large cities, as well as on the scary one-lane roads in the outback.  He also drove fearlessly around Italy, which was his special love even though no family connections were there.

Perhaps the highlight of his research efforts was when he phoned a library in Ogdensburg in upstate New York asking about his great-grandfather Private John Foote who served in the Civil War, and the clerk who answered his call proved to be a second cousin with the same great-grandfather, and lots of documents about him seeking compensation for his war injuries year by year until his death in 1904.

Blake outlived just about everyone else in his extended family, and was as sharp as ever when I stayed with him at his Amblewood house en route to the funeral of our mutual friend Bruce Pelmore at the Royal Colwood Golf Club.  I am quite convinced that Blake’s enthusiasm for genealogy had a large part in extending his life, and still at the top of his game.

I remember Blake as wonderful source of information on our mutual family history, as well as sides of my ancestry not related to him.  I took a different approach to research and came up with other types of sources than his more traditional approach, but it worked well for both of us.

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Ted Dewdney’s memorable farewell event as he was transferred by his employer BMO from Rossland, British Columbia to Armstrong in the Okanagan in 1907

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by Sam McBride

My maternal grandfather Edgar Edwin Lawrence “Ted” Dewdney (1880-1952) died when I was a toddler so I have no memory of him.  He did not write diaries or memoirs for posterity, so all the information I had on him was either from his widow (my grandmother Helen Peters) or my mother Dee Dee.

dewdny 001With that in mind, it was wonderful for me to find extensive coverage about him in the Rossland Miner newspaper in 1907, as he was the centre of attention at the Rossland Club and from other friends in the community who got to know him in the seven years since he arrived in Rossland as a 19-year-old Bank of Montreal clerk in 1900.

Also, the newspaper stories went a long way in explaining several artifacts that were still in our family home more than a century later.  The gifts obviously meant a lot to him, as he kept them intact as he was transferred by his employer, the Bank of Montreal, to new communities eight more times before arriving in Nelson, B.C. in 1929, serving as manager of the local BMO branch until retirement in 1940.

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Rossland Miner Aug. 2, 1907 report of Ted’s transfer

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family heirlooms, including the stylized umbrella and address presented Ted at the Rossland Club event, as well as two of his tennis trophies and a plaque presented to Ted and wife Helen in 1920 as they were leaving New Denver for the BMO manager job in Rossland

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The signed scroll from the farewell night, described as an “address” in the news report

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inscription on the brass handle of the umbrella with best wishes from fellow militia members of the Rocky Mountain Rangers

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Rossland unit of the Rocky Mountain Rangers in family files.  It appears that Ted is 10th from right, top row.  They are proudly showing off their Maxim Gun.  Family photo.

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Rossland studio photo of Ted Dewdney, by photographer Gowman.  Family photo

 

 

 

 

Major L.M. McBride’s two-month journey from Nazi POW camp Oflag 7B to his hometown of Nelson, B.C. in early 1945

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By Sam McBride

My father Leigh Morgan McBride (1917-1995) enlisted for Canadian military service in 1941 immediately after graduating in law from the University of Alberta but before his bar examination, the last step before qualifying as a lawyer.  With his maturity, education and achievements, he was taken on for officer training, including time at Gordon Head near Victoria, B.C. and Currie Barracks in Calgary, Alberta.

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Leigh M. McBride and his brother Kenneth G. McBride, both proud to be officers of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada.  Family photo.

As a lieutenant, he led his Seaforth Highlanders of Canada unit ashore in the Allied landings at Pachino in the southwest tip of Sicily.  It was the largest amphibious invasion in history, and destined to be exceeding size a year later with the D-day invasion of the French coast.   The invasion could have been a bloodbath like Dieppe the previous summer, but at that point Italians were turning away from Mussolini, and as a result surrendered in large numbers to the Allies.  The situation changed dramatically when Germany sent some of its best troops to stop the Allied advance.  Leigh was in the thick of the fighting against the Germans until being hit in the shoulder by a bullet.  He later said he was fortunate that the bullet did not hit any bones in his shoulder, but the wound must have been substantial, as he was sent to an Allied hospital in North Africa via Malta for treatment.   He returned to his regiment in  November, and was in at the forefront of the Allied advance to Ortona, which would be one of the bloodiest battles of the war, commonly known as “little Stalingrad” after the gigantic victory of the Russians over their German attackers by the Volga River.   I remember Leigh often talking about the extraordinary Christmas dinner that the Seaforths enjoyed in a church in Ortona.  As per military tradition, on Christmas he and other officers were the waters and servers of the privates, corporals and sergeants.  Thirty years later, in April 1975, he visited the re-built church with Seaforth buddies who were at the famous dinner, including the quartermaster Borden Cameron of Vancouver who organized the food and drink for that event which went on just a few blocks from where vicious street-fighting was going on between the two sides.

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Leigh met a fellow Nelsonite while in North Africa for treatment of a bullet wound to his shoulder.  Nelson Daily News

The hilly terrain in Sicily and mainland Italy was such that the advantage was almost always with the defending forces.  On May 23, 1944 Leigh and his men were part of an ambitious attack on the Hitler Line.  That day is remembered as his hometown city of Nelson’s Black Day of the War, as two Nelson boys (Priv. Ray Hall and Priv. Jack Wilson) were killed, and two others (Leigh and Priv. Joe “Bud” Dyck) went missing.  Both were seriously wounded and were hospitalized at Italian and later German hospitals.  Word came through the International Red Cross in July that Bud was alive and recovering in a German POW camp, but it was not until September 20, 1944 – four months after going missing – that his parents were advised that he was alive in a German POW camp, recovering from serious wounds, including schrapnel to his legs, arms and face, and the permanent loss of his left eye.  In response to a request for the Regimental History of the Seaforth Highlanders, Leigh wrote about the fateful day he was captured (see the November 4, 2019 posting in this blog).

pow article in local Nelson newspaperLeigh received treatment at a hospital in Rome before being sent by train for medical care in Germany, followed by time in prisoner of war camps.  I am not sure how many POW camps he went to, but once when I visited Regensberg as part of Western Europe he said “oh, I was in a prison in Regensberg”.   His last camp before repatriation was Oflag 7B (VIIB) north of Munich.  This was a camp for Allied officers.  He describes his experiences at this camp and others in newspaper interviews conducts as he was returning home in February 1945, and later in presentations in Nelson in March and April 1945.

He knew as early as October 1944 that the extent of his wounds made him a good candidate for a prisoner exchange and repatriation.  His parents worked tirelessly to get packages of supplies, particularly food, to him through the Red Cross, which was trusted by the Germans.

His repatriation was confirmed on about January 11, 1945 when he was at the German military centre Heilig Annaburg near Berlin, where he was photographed in a group with other injured Allied officers about to head home in prisoner exchanges.

My dad rarely went to movies, but he did make a point of taking our family to a drive-in theatre in Spokane, Washington in 1970 to see the movie “Patton”, where much of the story involved the Allied push across Siciliy and the conflicting egos of American General Patton and British General Montgomery.   I suspected his Seaforth Highlander friends recommended the move, and he told me it was very well done.  I don’t think he ever saw the movie “The Great Escape”, and I never heard comments about it from him one way or the other.   That escape concluded in May 1944 just a couple of weeks before he was captured.  Hitler’s vengeful act of having 50 of the escapers shot would have been one more reason for the next-of-kin of POWs to be worried about getting them back.

In retrospect, they had good reason to worry.  On April 14, 1945 a group of British and Commonwealth officers was being marched away from the camp when they were attacked by an American warplane which mistook them for German troops.  Fourteen of the POW officers were killed and 46 wounded.  The camp was liberated by the U.S. Army two days later.

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Leigh’s mail card from Oflag 7B POW camp.  It may have arrived in Nelson after he was home.

Leigh occasionally watched the TV comedy “Hogan’s Heroes” and enjoyed it.  He said while in one POW camp he played chess with a German guard who looked a bit like Sgt. Schultz in the show.  Through the efforts of his parents, Leigh was able to get law books included in his Red Cross packages which he read in preparation for the bar exam he would be taking after returning from the war.

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German Christmas card image from Oflag 7B

After his prisoner exchange was confirmed, he left Heilig Annaburg by train for the Swiss border.  As a result of Allied bombing, rail trips took about four times longer than normal.  He became officially free in Constance, Switzerland.  From there he was taken to the port of Marseilles, which had been liberated in the Allied invasion of southern France in the fall of 1944.  The Red Cross ship “Gripsholm” took him to New York, where he and other freed Canadian were taken in a sealed railway car to Toronto, and headed west from there on the Canadian Pacific Railway.  Reporters met them at several locations along the way, but, as part of the repatriation agreement, they could only comment on the help provided by the Red Cross, which Leigh and others were happy to do.

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In repatriation group, Leigh is top row, third from left, at Heilig Annaburg.  Below, photo of the same facility today by Brennen Jensen of Maryland, whose late father is four in, front row.  Brennen contacted me when he saw that I had posted on an online site the same Heilig Annaburg photograph that his dad brought home from his own repatriation.

pic from brennenWhen he finally got to Vancouver he was greeted by his mother Winnifred Foote McBride, who had not seen him for almost three years.  The reunion was particularly poignant because her other son, Capt. Kenneth Gilbert McBride, also with the Seaforth Highlanders, was killed in action near Rimini on Sept. 16, 1944 when his jeep ran over a German mine.

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Winnie McBride greeting her son Leigh at Vancouver CPR station.  She probably asked the Sun newspaper to send her the print when they were finished with it for printing purposes.

From Vancouver, mother and son made their way home to Nelson on the Kettle Valley Railway, arriving in the evening of Feb. 28, 1945 to an enthusiastic welcome party of family, friends, the mayor and other dignitaries.  In the coming weeks he was in strong demand as a speaker at service club meetings, and an extensive interview with the Nelson Daily News.

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After passing his bar exam he began his career as a lawyer in Nelson.  He was never the same physically after the war, as he had nerve damage and hearing loss as well as adapting to life with vision in just one eye.  He once showed me where schrapnel was still in his leg because it would be dangerous to remove it.  This was painful for him, but he never complained about it, as he remembered so many fellow soldiers who had more serious injuries or died in the war.  In the late 1960s his cousin (and former law partner in Nelson) Judge Blake Allan told him he could get an appointment as a judge if he wanted, but Leigh declined the opportunity because, as he told me, it would not be fair to soft-spoken defendants if he could not hear them.

Each year until the 1970s Leigh would travel to the Shaughnessy Veterans Hospital in Vancouver for examination by doctors there.  In 1969 he moved to Trail to begin working as a lawyer for the large mining and smelting company, Cominco Ltd.   In addition to golf, his hobby in retirement was reading books about Italian art and architecture, an interest he developed while participating in the 30th anniversary of Canadians in the Italian Campaign in 1975.  Within a couple of years after retiring from Cominco I 1982 Leigh contracted Parkinson’s Disease, which got progressively worse and resulted in him in 1990 going to a care home in Trail, where he died August 8, 1995 – exactly 42 years after being wounded in Sicily.

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The Christmas dinner he mentions in his talk to the Nelson Rotary Club would become famous as the Seaforth Highlanders’ 1943 church dinner in the middle of the Battle of Ortona.

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On these maps of German POW camps, Leigh circled the camps where he spent time as a prisoner, and noted the site of his repatriation.

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menu on M.S. Gripsholm, page one

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menu on Gripsholm, page 2

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front page of newsletter for relatives of Canadian POW’s

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from POW newsletter

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Oflag 7B mentioned in POW relatives newsletter, December 1944

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Oflag 7B again mentioned in Canadian POW relatives newsletter

 

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Oflag 7B facilities today, used for police training

 

In 1981 Trail and Kimberley, B.C. theatre clubs celebrated Cominco Ltd.’s 75th anniversary with rollicking joint stage show “1906 — and All That”

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by Sam McBride

1981 was a happier time in Trail and Kimberley and surrounding regions. Cominco Ltd. was at the peak of a billion-dollar modernization and expansion program at its mining, smelting and fertilizer operations, with about 5,000 workers at Trail and another 3,000 at Kimberley. Today, it would be about a thousand at the highly-automated Trail plant and just a handful at Kimberley, since the Sullivan Mine finally ran out of ore and closed in 2000 after almost 100 years of production.

When Cominco — originally known as the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company Limited (often abbreviated to C&S) and today part of Teck Resources Limited — celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1981, the folks from the Trail and District Community Arts Council and its equivalent in Kimberley saw the occasion as a chance to thank Cominco for its support of the visual and performing arts in Kootenay communities over the years.

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poster for the 1981 stage show, designed by George Bourchier of Rossland, B.C., who was a long-time Cominco employee and veteran of many Rossland Light Opera Players productions

The B.C. Group Vice-President at the time, A.V. “Marc” Marcolin, had long been an ardent supporter of new facilities and financing for the arts in the Kootenay communities where Cominco employees resided. With that in mind, theatre groups got together to put on a special show “1906 and All That” commemorating the founding of Cominco in that year. What was really special about the project was the cooperation between theatre groups in both communities in putting together a heritage show in appreciation of Cominco’s support over the years that was performed jointly in both Trail and Kimberley, where most of the company’s B.C. Group employees resided.

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 program cover

Here are some mementos from the show, including posters, program material, photographs and news clippings from shows in both Trail and Kimberley. I remember Marc was particularly pleased to hear the “Cominco 75!” song composed and directed for the occasion by George Ryan, who was well-known for his musical direction of many shows of Rossland Light Opera Players and Trail Theatre Unlimited.

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Trail Daily Times photo and caption from an early September 1981 rehearsal

After retiring in 1982, Marc Marcolin went on to serve as mayor of Trail and continued to be a vigorous booster of the community. In the mid-1970s, Marc had a key role in convincing the Cominco board of directors to remain in the Kootenays and upgrade its facilities there, rather than leaving B.C. and building a brand new mining and smelting operation in Latin America, which was an economically attractive option favoured by several corporate leaders at the time.

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program pages for the Trail show

 

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program pages for the Kimberley show

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Eleanor Honey and Wally Bertoia of Rossland Light Opera in a skit

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Trail Times preview of the show, early September 1981

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Barbara “Babs” Bourchier, long-time organizer and participant in RLOP productions and an active member of the Trail and District Community Arts Council

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Trail Times review of the show, Sept. 19, 1981

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one of the letters of thanks to organizers from Marc Marcolin

 

 

 

 

 

Annual Children`s Parade was a popular part of July 1st Celebrations in Nelson, B.C. in early 1900s

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By Sam McBride

My paternal grandmother Winnifred Mae Foote (1889-1960) enjoyed photography as a hobby in her hometown of Nelson, British Columbia from the early 1900s until the last years of her life.  As the eldest in a family of five daughters (and no sons), she liked to take photographs of her four younger sisters as they grew up, and they would in turn take photos of her.

The annual Children`s Parade that was part of the July 1st Dominion Day celebrations was prominently featured in her 1908 scrapbook that survives today as part of the Foote-McBride family history files.

The close-knit Foote sisters and their mother Edith James Foote left Perth, Ontario for Nelson in the summer of 1900 to join father Jim Foote (1861-1921) who had arrived the year before to start a job as blacksmith at the Silver King Mine.  After two years living in a rented house in the remote Silver King Townsite outside of Nelson, the girls were thrilled in 1902 to move into the vibrant city of Nelson when Jim got a job as carpenter with the City of Nelson construction department.

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Foote sisters, from left: Lillian, Isobel, Marion, Gladys and Winnie.  Family photo, c. 1904.

Win`s sisters included Lillian Maude Foote (1891-1962), Gladys Edith Foote (1894-1965), Isobel Bessie Foote (1897-1988) and Marion Louise Foote (1902-1923).   Win`s album features numerous photos of her sisters, herself and friends, usually related to a fun community event such as the Dominion Day celebrations or church picnic.

For Nelson children, their time to shine and be the focus of attention was the annual Children`s Parade down Baker Street that was one of the first events in the annual two-day holiday celebrations marking Canada`s birthday.  Here are photos from the album from 1906 and 1908 of the Children`s Parade, as well as a clipping from the Nelson Daily News of July 2, 1908 describing the first day of parades and associated July 1st events.  Also included here are a couple of newspaper ads of other special events, as well as the daily report of who was staying at local hotels during the celebrations.

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1906 Children`s Parade, Winnie Foote photo

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Two photos in Foote album of the 1908 Children`s Parade

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Another Win Foote photograph of the 1908 Children`s parade, identified as such but not included in the album.  Print quality is better, likely because it was not exposed to viewing as much as the album has been over more than a century.  Family photo.

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Ad describes on of the 1908 holiday events.

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Nelson Daily News reported a long list of visitors staying a local hotels during the Dominion Day celebrations.  NDN July 2, 1908.

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This photo in family files is not identified, but it is very likely taken in the civic field with the Gyro Bluffs in the background.  The young ladies have ribbons from winning something, which may well have been during the Dominion Day sports events.   My cousin (once removed) Blake Allan told me he thought the girl in the centre of the front row was his aunt Isobel Foote Murphy.  I am not certain about that, but there must have been either a family member or a good friend in the group for Win to paste it into her scrapbook.  Family photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eddie and Isobel Murphy were a pioneer couple across the lake from Nelson, British Columbia from 1920s to 1950

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by Sam McBride

I never knew my great-uncle Arthur Edward “Eddie” Murphy (1894-1950) as he died a year before I was born, but I feel a connection to him because my parents gave me my middle name of Edward in his honour.  His wife Isobel Bessie Murphy (1897-1988) was a younger sister of my grandmother Winnifred Mae McBride (1889-1960).

Eddie played and excelled at just about every team sport going on in Nelson, including hockey, baseball and lacrosse.  He was perhaps best known as an expert rower who led Nelson team to victory in regattas in Kootenay Lake, the Okanagan, Vancouver and Portland.  He and his brother Howard were prominent in Nelson with their Murphy Brothers Painting and Decorating business, which continued a business started in the 1890s by their father William James Murphy.  Isobel had a key role in the operation as interior decoration consultant.

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Gathering of family and friends in 1925 at Murphy beach across the lake from where the Prestige Inn in Nelson is located today.  Eddie Murphy is the the man on the left, and his wife Isobel is lady second from the right.  At bottom left are their nephews Leigh and Ken McBride.  Man in dark suit is Wilfrid Laurier Allan, who was secretary-treasurer of the Wood Vallance Hardware Company in the 1930s.  Family photo.

I remember Isobel well from growing up in Nelson, where she was a popular member of extended family.  She was a smart businesswoman who was renowned as an interior decorator with extensive knowledge of paint, colours, wallpaper, antiques, rugs, carpet and other aspects of home furnishing and decoration.  By the early 1970s she had largely retired, but still ran the Murphy Signs business in Nelson which included a variety of signs and billboards.  She was in top form until suffering a stroke in late 1974 that resulted in substantial dementia.  The last 13 years of her life were in the Mount St. Francis long-term care home in Nelson.

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Another photo of the group of family and friends in 1925 near the Murphy beach, looking back towards the city of Nelson. Family photo.

Isobel was one of four Foote sisters who arrived in Nelson in July 1900 with their mother Edith James Foote.  They joined their father John James “Jim” Foote who had arrived in Nelson in 1899 to start a job as blacksmith at the Silver King Mine.  The family lived in a rented cabin on Silver King townsite for two years until moving to Nelson when Jim began working in construction for the City of Nelson.  Their home by Hall Mines Road and Cottonwood Creek was rented from former Nelson alderman Thomas Slader.

The story of the lives of Eddie and Isobel Murphy are told well in their obituaries below.  The Eddie Murphy obit, likely written by his widow Isobel, was in the Nelson Daily News in March 1950.  The submission for Isobel’s obituary was written by her nephew Judge Blake Allan.  Eddie and Isobel never had children of their own, and were almost like second parents for the children of her sisters Winnie and Lillian.

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obit in Nelson Daily News, March 1950, after Eddie died at age 56.

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Isobel Murphy obit January 1988, written by nephew R. Blake Allan

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Isobel Murphy with her nephew Leigh McBride, about 1970.  Family photo.

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Eddie Murphy with a prize catch, late 1940s.  Family photo.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First-hand account from the Canadian attack on the Hitler Line on May 23, 1944 by Seaforth Highlanders officer Major L.M. McBride from Nelson, British Columbia

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Note from editor Sam McBride: The following report was written by my father Major Leigh Morgan McBride (1917-1995) in response to a request in 1968 by Professor Reginald Roy of the University of Victoria who was producing a regimental history of the Vancouver-based Seaforth Highlanders of Canada regiment.  Parts of this report were quoted in the regimental history, and later also in the Mark Zuehlke book “The Liri Valley – Canada’s World War II Breakthrough to Rome.”  Leigh lost his left eye in the action he describes, and spent several months in German hospitals and prison camps before repatriation in early 1945 in a prisoner exchange.  While in a POW camp, he learned from letters from his parents that his brother and fellow Seaforth officer, Capt. Kenneth Gilbert McBride, was killed by a road mine explosion near Rimini, Italy on September 16, 1944.

 

By Leigh Morgan McBride

The morning of May 23rd, 1944 in the Cassino area was very foggy – the heaviest fog I remember seeing in Italy.  Originally Major E.D. (Davie) Fulton* was to be in command of “D” Company of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada but he and C.Q.M.S. Staines were involved in a highway accident and if I remember correctly, Davie either broke a leg or sustained other injuries which sent him to hospital.  In any event, as a result of the accident I was in command of “D” Company when it participated in the attack on the Hitler Line.

The start line was at the edge of the woods – we were the forward company on the right and the “A” Company under Major J.F. McLean D.S.O. was the other forward company on our left.  There had been sporadic shelling of our battalion area for the previous few days.  However, as soon as we got under way from our start line and into the wood we immediately came under heavy fire, both machine gun and artillery, and our casualties were heavy.

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Major L.M. McBride c. 1942

Our squadron of the North Irish Horse (note in pen on carbon copy: our supporting tanks) had been warned to beware of any enemy hiding up the trees.  As our tanks lumbered forward over the uneven ground the range of fire of the machine guns would suddenly lower hundreds of yards and our company would be the recipient rather than tree-borne Germans.  The visibility that morning was virtually nil with the heavy fog or mist plus the smoke from shells and mortar bombs and right from the outset we had difficulty with our radio communications.  We tried about three times to get the machine gun fire from our tanks stopped but with little success and this, coupled with the heavy fog resulted in Dog company being scattered from “hell to breakfast”.

The different units all seemed to get completely broken up into small groups sometimes with other companies or even with the Pats who had started on our right flank.  Taking the small group of company headquarters that was still intact I started to pick my way very carefully through enemy wire trying to make sure that I just stepped on hard ground which had not been disturbed and as I moved through the wire my runner Johnson was stepping right in my footsteps.

Seaforth_crest_in_colour_from_decal[1]Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion and I woke up on the ground back in front of the wire but Johnson had been killed instantly as had Warner the older of the two signallers.  The younger radio operator had a bad gash on his cheek and I helped him over to a nearby ditch that would give him some cover until he got proper medical attention and patched him up temporarily with a field dressing.  That eliminated all of company headquarters except myself, and trying to locate the three platoons I came across a private from the Pats and we went on together through the fields of hay or some type of crop which was almost waist-high.  Suddenly, we came under machine gun fire and hit the dirt.  Every time we moved in the deep hay it of course showed up and we got another blast for our trouble.

By then we realized that the heavy firing we heard was between us and the woods and that it was either Jerry tanks or 88s dug in so as to be almost invisible until you stumbled over them.  The only thing to do was hope that our own tanks would be able to help, but we did not know at that time what a terrific pasting our tanks had taken from the dug-in tanks and 88s.

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McBride in Italy. c. 1943

I am not sure what happened next – whether we were on the receiving end of a shell or mortar bomb but whatever it was hit me in the left eye and when I more or less came to it was to find several Germans looking down at me.  They put a bandage on my eye and when it started to get dark they put me in an ambulance and we no sooner got under way when a large shell went off beneath the vehicle, and some unfortunate Jerry who had a bunk below me in the ambulance got almost the full brunt of the explosion.  I don’t know how badly he was hurt but it sounded pretty grim.  I got shrapnel in my left shoulder and left leg but none of it too serious.  After that I have a recollection of a very bright light in an operating room which must have been in Rome as my German records show an operation taking place there.  The next thing I remembered was waking up in a German Red Cross train somewhere near Verona in northern Italy.

I felt before the attack on the Hitler Line that 2nd brigade would have had a much better plan exploiting the penetration on the left flank which had been breached by 1st brigade.  Even if we attacked where we did, I am sure it would have been less costly  to the battalion had we attacked several days earlier, however, perhaps there was some perfectly valid reason for the delay which would be apparent at higher levels.

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McBride (right) with fellow Seaforth officer Borden Cameron during the 30th anniversary reunion in April 1975 in Italy

Our front was so narrow that it left no alternative than a direct frontal assault.  The hay or alfalfa completely hid the enemy and yet they still had an excellent unobstructed field of fire at our infantry and the North Irish Horse tanks.  We had tremendous artillery support that morning but much of its effect was wasted because the enemy were dug in so well and because the visibility was so poor because of the very heavy ground mist or fog that hung over the ground.  In Sicily and the month-long battle of the Moro River crossing and Ortona we never operated under such chaotic conditions as we encountered in the Hitler Line.  “D” Company got completely scattered going through the wood and because of the heavy small arms fire and shelling and the fog it remained broken up in small groups.

I have read with interest the chapter on winter patrols northwest of Ortona.  After reading of Keats, Shelley, Byron et al wintering in sunny Italy it was a rude shock to encounter the winter of 1943-44.  Although we were virtually at sea level the weather was terribly cold for days on end and then it would be followed by heavy and constant rainfalls and everything turned into a sea of mud.  I think you described it very graphically when you described Lt. Gildersleeve’s boots.  Incidentally, I think the functioning wireless set mentioned in footnote 48 on page 408 very likely was that belonging to “D” Company as the one signaller was killed and the second wounded when we were in the middle of the wire.

I am sending your material (maps, war diary excerpts, etc) under separate cover and apologize for the delay I writing but we recently moved our offices and everything has been somewhat disorganized since last fall.  Very best wishes to you in your project.

Everything in chapter IX seemed correct and the only error I could spot was the weight of the Churchill tank which you stated to be 39 tons.  My recollection is that they were 40 tons but I could easily be wrong (note on carbon copy in pen: I wasn’t).

Feb.13, 1968

Kind regards,

L.M. McBride

 

* E. Davie Fulton (1916-2000) went on to serve as federal Minister of Justice in the Diefenbaker cabinets from 1957 to 1963.

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