The Williamsons of Widnes

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Centennial Celebration in Canada 1910 - 2010

 John Williamson (1862-1929) & Ellen Williamson (18611945) nee Farrell

A "Man of Many Parts" and His Gracious Lady

John Williamson was born April 20, 1862 at 73 Jordan Street in Liverpool, Lancashire, England.  He was the second child of Robert Henry and Mary Ann Williamson (nee O'Donnell).  Robert  was born at Lerwick in the Shetland Islands.  Mary Ann was born at Knockanglass in County Tipperary. Ireland.

Ellen Farrell was born April 30, 1861 at Widnes Dock, Widnes, Lancashire, England.  She was the fourth child of Phillip and Margaret Farrell (nee Wallace).  The parents of Ellen, were born in Wexford, Ireland.

They met as members of St Mary's Chapel choir in Widnes, Lancashire.  The family story behind their meeting included John's older brother Thomas who was the first to court Ellen followed by John's later successful  courtship with her whereby John and Ellen celebrated their wedding at St Mary's Chapel on May 31, 1884.  They were blest with many children some of whom died at birth or during the very young years of their lives.  The eldest was Mary (1885-1976), followed by Nicholas (1886-1978), Eileen (1889-1980), Honorah (1891-1899), John Jr. (1892-1906), Thomas (1894-1895), Sydney (1895-1982), Phyllis (1897-1975),Monica (1898-2004),  Veronica (1900-1901), and Dorothea             John and Ellen's Wedding - 1884       (1903-1973).  There are others which require further verification as some died at or a period after birth, including a set of adolescent twins.  All in all we are told that Ellen had 17 pregnancies.
               

Little is known of John or Ellen's childhood.  John's father Robert died in a ca 1877 shipwreck.  John began around the age of 15 delivering milk using an old pull wagon carrying a large container and spooning its contents out with a scoop.  He later served as a clerk in a local pawn shop belonging to Ellen's stepfather Nicholas Harper.  Ellen had lost her father Phillip in 1864 to what his death certificate called "a fever 14 days certified". Ellen taught school in her early teens at St Marie's Catholic school in Widnes (Appleton).  The families were devout Catholics and active in their Church.

L-R Top - Nicholas, Mary, Eileen, 2nd Ellen with Vera, John with Mona, bottom Sydney, Phyllis & Jack.  (ca 1900)-------------------->>>

In addition, Ellen's mother Margaret's family owned a draper's shop in Wexford, Ireland, and had passed on dressmaking and tailoring skills to her, which became very important to John as after they married she taught John the basic design and cutting skills to make it possible to operate a successful tailoring business in Widnes.  John later completed a special tailoring course in London to qualify him as a "master tailor".  These were the beginning of busy years in which John accomplished more skills in business, music, politics, writing and in a newspaper career.  He was a very intelligent active man and loved learning, sharing, socializing and living life to its fullest.

The tailoring business began in the late 1880's.  Thanks to Ellen's mother Margaret Harper's financial help, John was able to establish his shop at 74 Victoria Street, Widnes.  As the early years rolled by, the business and the family grew and flourished.  It is said that at one time he employed 4 or 5 tailors.  His free time in the business enabled John the opportunity to get involved in local and national politics. 

He was elected to the Widnes Town Council as an Alderman and was present when Widnes was incorporated, by Queen Victoria's Warrant as a municipal borough on May 26, 1892.  He was later appointed to Chair the committee to build a cemetery and his name is displayed on the memorial plague at the entrance to the property and viewed by his grandson John Farrell Hopwood when visiting Widnes (now a part of Halton) in 2002.  Hopwood and his wife Eva were honored by the mayor of Halton during a visit in 1976, were he was shown his grandfather's seat in the old council chambers and given a tour of Halton, the new municipality which includes Runcorn.

   
            St Bede's Church - Appleton Village - Widnes                                               Widnes Town Hall

John's Story in the Widnes Weekly News

The September 19, 1941 issue of the Widnes Weekly News recalled John with the heading, A Man of Parts, a Former Widnes Leader.  The article mentioned the recent  the promotion of John's son as Squadron Leader Sydney Williamson in the Royal Canadian Air Force and went on to state:

"... Recalled to many Widnesians the activities of his father, the late Alderman John Williamson, one of the first members elected to Widnes Town Council when the borough was incorporated in 1892.  His education was associated with St. Austin's, Grassendale and St Edwards, Runcorn and it was from Runcorn that he crossed the river to Widnes in 1883, eventually to start business on his own account in Waterloo Road and later in Victoria Road.

      

       Alderman John Williamson ca 1892                 John with Sir John Swinbourne & Politicians - ca 1900

His social and trade union activities were pronounced; he was prominent in Town Council affairs and his work for the Liberal Party in the Parliamentary elections was marked by his appointment as one of a deputation in 1885 to wait upon Mr. Parnell at the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, in an appeal to that gentleman to except the candidature of Mr. E .K. Muspratt for the edict which he had issued enjoining all Irish electors to vote Conservative.  Mr. Parnell expressed his regret at having to oppose Mr. Muspratt who had always been a staunch supporter of Home rule, but decided that no exception could be made of Widnes.  In subsequent elections Mr. Williamson worked hard on behalf of Mr. Birrel in 1886, Mr. H. Wade Deacon in 1892-95 and Mr. McInerney in 1900.  He attended Mr. Gladstone's funeral on behalf of the Widnes Liberal Party.  He was appointed Liberal Agent in subsequent general elections when Sir John Swinbourne was a Liberal candidate.  For a short period Mr. Williamson engaged in electioneering work in the Wandsworth, London Division.

About 1910, Mr. Williamson and his family left Widnes for British Columbia where he engaged in journalistic work..  He was a man of many parts and his incursions into literature and music are evidence of this.  He was a writer of short stories and poetic pieces, and after the Great War was over he wrote a serial story which appeared in the Weekly News, entitled "O'Farrell of the Princess Pat's".

The Move to Canada

 Indeed, John Williamson was "a man of many parts".  His energy and ambition drove him in many directions.  In 1910, at the age of 48, he and his family immigrated to Canada.  He wish to move in the early 1900's, however Ellen would not leave her aging mother Margaret and would not leave Widnes until after Margaret's death in 1909.  Leaving the women of the family temporarily behind John, along with his sons Nicholas and Sydney, arrived in Vancouver British Columbia in March 1910.  The Williamson women led by Ellen along with her daughter-in-law Florence with her new baby John, plus daughters Mary, Eileen, Phyllis, Monica (aka Mona) and Doris, arrived in June 1910.

Candace Staniforth, a descendant of Nicholas Williamson, asked "Why did they leave England?"  The writer remembers Mona's interpretation of this adventure in her father John's life.  First, John was a very talented, gregarious and ambitious man. He rose in local and regional politics in England.  His tailoring business prospered allowing him free time and money to pursue his interests.  He enjoyed many interests, especially in music, the violin and orchestral opportunities and in particular books, writing and poetry. We treasure some of his works. Not only was he an Alderman and a fill-in for the mayor of Widnes on occasion, he became a talented newspaper journalist and editor in Canada on the old "Vancouver World Newspaper" and in other towns of B.C. especially "The Penticton Herald" (1911-13) as editor. 

              Vancouver B.C.                 Copies of his editorials remain in the family.  Believe it or not, at age 55 he was appointed to a special undertaking of the Catholic "Knights of Columbus" men's fraternity in the American Army during WW1 (1917-19) to provide magazines, papers, books and other amenities to U.S. Army men and was sent "in uniform" to France.  However, this is not answering the question!
      
Activities in politics encouraged camaraderie at the men's club or at the local pub.  He enjoyed a drink with his buddies and often this left managing the shop and employees often to grandma Ellen.  This was also the time of a leap in the development of "ready made" clothes for sale at other shops that offered greater variety and lower costs and therefore serious competition. This was around 1890 into early 1900's.   

Violins - John, Nicholas, Mary, Eileen & Jack ca 1900--->

The economy was experiencing a recession.  We believe too, as he was not a member of the "right class" in England --- then a very class conscious culture --- his political opportunities did not meet his expectations.  Ellen would not leave Widnes as long as her mother Margaret was alive.  Through all of this Ellen, his loving wife, managed the family, taught him tailoring, looked after the shop and insured family stability.  So --- between unreachable goals, driving ambition, the pub, waning attention to business needs, and as a male  with perhaps a mid-life period with a change of heart, he and Ellen were nearing 50 years of age --- really too late to get up and move so far with no friends or backing, yet he decided to leave England with a hope and a vision of a brighter future.

<--- 2905 Quebec Street

After the arrival, they all lived in the Mount Pleasant area of Vancouver, first in a small house at 2622 Howard Street and around 1912 purchased a large family home at 2905 Quebec Street in the same area.  "2905" as it was referred to was the family home until 1943.  Nicholas and Sydney immediately found jobs.  Mary and Eileen became teachers and taught school. The younger daughters, Phyllis, Mona and Doris attended Elementary School.  John was about to make a major career change.

The Writer is Challenged

As John had been a dedicated writer and author, published prose and poetry, he was hired first as a news reporter and later joined the editorial staff of the Vancouver World; the forerunner of the present lively Vancouver Sun newspaper.  As a reporter he covered news stories for the World, many of which highlighted major events in this rapidly growing major city on Canada's Pacific coast. As his reputation as a writer and editor grew he was invited to assist smaller newspapers around Vancouver with editorial skills and managerial help.

Penticton Photos 1912 - 1914

                                 
           The Town                KVR Hotel            Freight Sheds       Horse & Buggy      Sacred Ground        Packing Fruit

In June 1911 John was hired as the editor of the weekly Penticton Herald and remained until March 1913.  The job of editor at Penticton was a welcome challenge for John.  No doubt he had the skills needed.  Penticton was a rapidly growing small city in the sunny Okanagan Valley of south central British Columbia.  It was a time celebrating the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway - Kettle Valley Division.  As well, Penticton was at the heart of an exploding growth in a fruit orchard and farm industry peopled by immigrants, many of whom were from Britain.  He rejoiced at this assignment and brought Ellen and the younger children to Penticton even though Ellen was reluctant to settle there.  This was mainly due to the limited educational opportunities at that time.  The eldest daughter Mary had recently graduated as a school teacher and her first assignment was as the school mistress at a small one room school at nearby Okanagan Falls.  She boarded with the local McLellan family where she was courted and soon to marry their son Leslie.  With everyone settled in, John happily embraced his first job as the editor to create a thriving newspaper.  Evidently the paper previously had not met the expectation of the owner.

                                                               Penticton Today

     
    Penticton B.C. - on Okanagan Lake         SS Sicamous - Paddle Wheeler -Museum            Skaha Lake - South Penticton  

The Editor's Adventure in Penticton

(The author photocopied and reviewed over 80 editorials covering John Williamson's period as editor of the Penticton Herald)

John's first editorial on June 10th 1911 headlined "What We Propose".  John wrote "It is our intention to make the paper a live one in the interests of Penticton and the lake towns in the vicinity, and to this end we desire the cooperation, forebearance and assistance of the readers.  The future of Penticton appears to be assured, and within a year or two a great increase in population and importance will be witnessed. As the town grows so will the Herald. It will be the policy of the paper to supply straight, clean and reliable news, and to publish only that which is fit for circulation in any home."

So off he went and along with the routine local news highlighted the celebration of the "cutting the sod" of the new Kettle Valley railway's future path in and out of the town.  The readers were advised that the event lacked viewing space for spectators "down at the meadows near new Mill". He kept the public alerted to the drama of local politics, the celebration of King George V's coronation stating "All loyal Britishers will rejoice at the happy termination of the ceremonies in London.  Another has been added to the long line of Kings who have ruled over the destines of this great nation and empire it has built up in centuries that have  past".   Commented on the expansion of electrical power in the town alongside ads promoting the wiring of homes and offices.  He gave the large celebration of "Dominion Day"; now Canada day, lots of coverage on July 1st, of which many visitors journeyed to experience by paddle wheel steamboat down the Okanagan Lake from Vernon, Kelowna and other lakeside towns.

John helped to promote tourism for Penticton predicting as "A pleasure  resort Penticton can be made second to none" with its dry semi-desert climate and beautiful lakeside beaches.  He did not live to see it happen in the years to come.  He was also ahead of his time by supporting a healthy environment  through clean water supply, proper garbage disposal, and the inspection of food and drink products for unhealthy ingredients.  He also gave the Herald's support to the Provincial government's early action to prevent forest fires which haunted the area, "The prevention of forest fires in the coming summer needs attention" and when on to elaborate all the needs and decisions that must be met.  Noting the need for caution in managing the forests, he criticized the "timber owners had devoted less money and trouble to fire protection ... and (ignored) the gross carelessness of workmen in the use of  poor out-of-date spark arrestors".

As the 1911 year moved on, the growth of the nation was followed carefully.  The Herald was fully behind the creation of the Royal Canadian Navy.  With a government plan for a national referendum on a navy he wrote, "When the people of Canada decide --- as they will --- at the polls, that Canada must have a real navy ... for adequate defense".  The paper reported that the latest Census listed Canada's population as 7,081,896; a 32% increase over the recent decade and offered a prediction it should reach 25,000,000 in three decades. Public roads were another important need and the readers were advised of a Provincial government survey for a trans-provincial road for southern B.C., noting that it will "... follow the direct available route across the Province, arriving at Princeton from the west via the Similkameen river from the summit of the Hope mountains".  He could not know that it would wait another 37 years and that a grandson would drive the promised "Hope-Princeton" route during the opening week in 1948"!

During his tenure as editor, the Herald focused on various stories concerning the expansive growth and needs of the fruit orchard industry.  The many area orchards produced tens of thousands of fruits with varieties of apples, pears, cherries, plums, greengages, apricots, peaches and enjoyed bountiful crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, and various families of melons.  A hot dry climate with a soil blest with ingredients left by volcanoes millions of years earlier combined with a plentiful source of fresh water to produce a veritable food miracle.  Trainloads of fruit and vegetables left the Okanagan Valley each year bound for markets across Canada and as far away as Europe.  The prosperous valley adopted a vigorous wine making industry in the last half of the 20th century, which changed orchards into vineyards in many areas.

 
        The Okanagan Valley                              Penticton B.C. Canada - Beach and Lake Area at Night

John Williamson spent many hours of his days laboring over the news and writing of life in Penticton's formative period. It is amazing to see the coverage the Herald gave to almost every aspect of life, from politics, business, education, churches, merchandizing, tourism, fruit industry down to the growing importance of the area in the life of the Province and the Nation.  It is neither appropriate or possible to review it all here.  There are many interesting stories offered during his two years as editor.  He exhibited the popular writing style of the period.  He introduced special insert reviews of celebrations, visiting dignitaries and merchandizing shows and gave unique attention to organized groups and community events. Increased use of photographs became eye-catching messengers of important images of the day.  The paper was popular and classy!

The reports and opinions of a newspaper inevitably impact on the readers in various ways.  Some messages favor and others offend the readers views. He did run into difficulty with the more powerful from time to time.  At one point, he complained of the attempt "to muzzle" the press"  by town leaders who rejected a Herald reporter's presence at a political meeting.  His final March 29, 1913 editorial was headlined "Valedictory" in which it criticized his enemies and lauded his friends, yet one could sense his disappointment.

Of course, there were other issues which prompted his return to Vancouver.  Ellen had left with the family for Vancouver.  She had been unhappy in Penticton.  He had plans for his own small newspaper in the Mount Pleasant district of Vancouver.  He thus rejoined the family aided by the intent to continue his adventure in the newspaper business.  However, the shattering of peace in Europe intervened.

The Great War Years

Shortly after his arrival in Canada John joined an American Catholic men's fraternal organization known as the Knights of Columbus (K of C).  The K of C had expanded into Canada and he served as the Vancouver Council's Secretary.  When the United States entered the Great War in 1917 the military organized a non-combatant K of C group attached to the U.S. Army.  The purpose was to create a special contingent to help soldiers on leave from the trenches to relax with papers, magazines, books and other amenities.  John, at 55 years of age, was one of two Canadian's chosen to serve. He donned the uniform and went off to France.  His previous roles as a musician, writer, editor and publisher were valuable experiences for the new job.  This adventure also offered him the opportunity to visit his mother Mary Ann, brother Robert and niece Josephine in Lancaster, plus other relations and friends in Widnes. His son Sydney was serving in France as a fighter pilot with the Royal Flying Corps  John cherished his leaves to see them all..

Mary Ann was overjoyed to see her son and grandson once again.  At 91 she was not well, and sadly would die in 1920 shortly after John's return to Canada in 1919.  Son Sydney had recently visited Widnes to visit his cousins and friends.  Unfortunately, back in France Sydney crashed in his fighter biplane and was badly injured.  He was sent for treatment and recovery at a military hospital in the south of England.  A serious back and leg injury would plague him the rest of his days.  John visited Sydney in hospital as often as possible.  Sydney, as a Wing Commander in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during World War II, became the base commander for several large air bases across Canada serving the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, that made it possible to turn out thousands of commonwealth air men for active overseas service.

Photos of John and Sydney During the Great War

     

      John and Sydney - 1917         Sydney - RFC - ca 1916          John - Notre Dame - Paris

Ellen - Loving Wife and Mother

Life began to change for John and Ellen as the children matured and married, especially during the 1920's.  Ellen was at peace living among the people and things she loved at 2905 in Vancouver.  The dedicated wife and mother, once upon a time school teacher, excellent seamstress, home lover and serious reader of books while accepting the passing years with her "man of parts" who never stopped living at a fast pace.  Her daughter Mona tells of Ellen's exceptional talent at viewing a lovely dress Mona admired at a fashionable shop, buying the necessary material, then cutting and sewing a perfect replica for Mona to wear.  All done through her astounding memory over detail!
<--- John & Ellen - 40th Wedding Anniversary 1924
The early years of the marriage were not easy with challenging days of hard work and as it was with many women with many children, times spent sorrowing over lost little ones.  Caring for a busy ambitious husband, the children, plus periodically helping in the Widnes tailor shop as a seamstress, hosting John's colleagues in local politics, and often waiting for him to return after an evening celebrating at the local pub was not unusual for Ellen.  She relied on the love and wisdom of her mother Margaret and her sisters Mary, Margaret and Catherine for understanding and support.  Ellen experienced 17 pregnancies, some who died at or shortly after birth, plus more lost during the adolescence years and a grievous loss of talented son Jack at 14 years of age. Many such painful happenings were all too real before the advent of modern medical science.

John Sarsfield Williamson died from pneumonia at age 14.  Ellen, John and his siblings were devastated over his premature death.  He was an accomplished violinist who after a competitive performance, in the presence of an Oxford University adjudicator, won a scholarship.   The family had happy expectations for his future and there was great mourning when he died so young.  There is no document or paper detailing the award or his invitational performances in and around Liverpool/Widnes, Therefore, we rely on anecdotal information from his mother, brothers and sisters. They talked of him with loving pride. Jack ca 1905-->

Ellen enjoyed receiving the Widnes Weekly News by mail.  Her homesickness for England never really ever left her.  As a young lad, the author of this story spent many hours with her talking about everything from the history of Napoleon's romance with Josephine to living the good Christian life plus the memories of the Williamson/Farrell families in Lancashire and Ireland.  The author, as a little boy about 4 or 5 years old and encouraged by his mother, on occasion escorted his grandmother Ellen to the downtown cinema theatres.  He was directed to "look after her" as she wished to see the popular Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald musical romances when they came to town.  She was a most gentle, kind, unpretentious person who radiated a peaceful presence, carrying a deep devotion to faith and family in her heart and soul.   While she loved John and was proud of him, she seemed undisturbed by his ambitions and energies.
<--- Ellen talking to a son - Mother's Day - 1939

One More Try!

Once again John had a fling at running a newspaper.  Around 1920 he created and financed the B C Western Catholic newspaper!  It was in response to the local Archbishop's desire for a weekly Catholic paper. Mona was his secretary and looked after the subscriptions, accounts and correspondence.  Sydney, back from England and well again, ran the printing press at the small shop on Main Street and 7th Avenue in Vancouver.  Of course it was a struggle to take on such a risky  business and make it pay.  After a few short years of the struggle and a policy difference with the Archbishop, John decided to shut it down.  He never managed a paper again! 

John was now in his sixties and experienced the difficulty of obtaining employment.  He taught violin to young and old alike and wrote periodic articles for the local papers and a serialized feature story for the Widnes Weekly News entitled "O'Farrell of the Princess Pats", a story set around the Canadian Light Infantry regiment of that name.  He created and published a poem "Mildred" styled along a Tennyson epic poem, which was never offered for sale . Soon John and Ellen had to rely on the financial help of their single daughters Phyllis and Mona who were employed by the Canadian Pacific Telegraph company.

His health began to fail in 1928 and he was forced to slow down and rest.  We are not sure what caused the final illness and his death on February 23, 1929, however he died at home at 2905 from what we believe was cancer.  He was 67 years old.  Ellen continued her life with the help her daughters Mary and Mona and their husbands who shared periods of living and caring for her at 2905 with her daughter Phyllis.  Mary and her husband Les McLellan took over the home in 1943 when Jack and Mona Hopwood were transferred to Nelson B.C. with Canadian Pacific Telegraphs.  Ellen then went to live with daughter Eileen and her husband Ashley Cooper.  Ellen passed away in hospital from cardio-vascular difficulties in Vancouver, Canada on July 7, 1945.  She was 84 years old.

Both John and Ellen Williamson are buried at Ocean View Cemetery, Calvary Section, Burnaby B.C., a nearby suburb of Vancouver.  To us, they were special people. Those who knew them experienced the warm love and strong faith of John and Ellen and the privilege and honor of sharing a small part of their lives.  We loved them so very much!  May they rest in peace!

Some Family Links

Monica Hopwood (nee Williamson)
Thomas John Hopwood 1896-1974

Some Williamson Photo Memories

 

 Records of Voyages to Canada

Candace Staniforth searched the National Archives in London, UK and acquired a copy of the records of the Allan Line (Steamship) departing Liverpool with the list of 3rd class passengers a follows:

Allan Steamship Line SS Grampian bound for Quebec

 - Contract Ticket Number 38249
      March 22, 1910, John Williamson, Nicholas Williamson, Sydney Williamson
 

Allan Steamship Line SS Victoria bound for

 - Contract Ticket Number 1196 for Quebec:
     10 June 1910, Mrs. E. Williamson, Flo Williamson & Jack, Mary, Eileen, Phyllis, Mona, Doris

-     -     -     -     -     -     -    -

Researched and presented by their grandson John Farrell Hopwood and prepared for

the centenary year 2010 of the family's arrival in Canada..

Published June 2009 Revised January 2010