“Did you see anyone you liked better than yourself?”
– a favourite expression of Rachel Mary Gilmore (1855–1930).
March 8, 1930. 8:00 p.m. 891/2 Hiawatha Road, Toronto.
The bedside lantern cast an orange glow through the brandy as Rachel poured her nightly libation, hesitated…then added a bit more. Her son-in-law, Robert Kilpatrick, in whose house she had been living for the past ten years or so, disapproved and forbade drink. It was the only fault Rachel could find with the otherwise kindly and quietly witty young man. After all, it was for her heart [pronounced: harrrt].
The New Year had dawned considerably less kindly. In the wake of the Great Crash, Robert had just lost his accountancy clerk position with a family construction business. Now, he and Ethel (Rachel’s daughter) were faced with difficult decisions, not least, the prospect of having to give up their house and move in with his brother’s family.
Thus, Rachel’s heart ached for more reasons than one. As the liquor eased the pain in her chest, she reflected on her own life (a rare indulgence) which, though it had started so optimistically, had rapidly descended into hardship.
Summer, 1870. Druminallyduff, county Armagh.
Rachel, aged fifteen, and her next eldest sister by five years, Ruth, waited with great anticipation the arrival of their brother-in-law, John Flavell, from Canada. He was coming home to the parish of Drumcree to visit his family in Corbrackey and not least, to collect the two sisters and spirit them away to Toronto. Twelve years earlier, John had married their eldest sister, Anne, in the parish church and right afterwards, the couple emigrated. Rachel, for one, could not remember Anne at all.
The two sisters traded their favourite notions as to what they were happiest to leave behind. Neither would miss the arduous task of cutting and hauling turf for the home fire, or the weekly trudging of butter, milk, and eggs to the market in Portadown. Still, they knew, as their mother frequently reminded them, that their lot had been fortunate compared to the countless thousands of Irish who had perished or been forced to emigrate in pitiable condition during the Great
Hunger. In north Armagh, while the country folk had suffered, farming conditions were favourable, families continued to multiply, and as a result, there remained very few small holdings to split from father to sons. The girls’ father, Moses, held just two acres on the Dungannon road, while their grandfather, Thomas Gilmore, occupied but a small cottier’s house with a bit of garden. Thus, Rachel and Ruth were joining that steady stream of young people who, having scraped together enough for the fare, took the train to book passage out of Londonderry or Belfast.
The sisters would miss their parents, in particular, their mother, Mary. Through her, they had heard (many times) the story of how, in 1767, the famous preacher, John Wesley, had visited her great-grandfather Thomas Jones’s house in Derryanvil—a place which Mr. Wesley described as “a village out of all road, surrounded with bogs.” Accordingly, a Methodist church was built in the field across from the Jones’s house in 1784. From that period, Mr. Jones and his descendants held to the primitive form of Methodism, that is, while maintaining their adherence to the Church of Ireland. By 1870, though the family’s numbers had increased throughout the parish, the Jones’s forty-one acre farm in Derryanvil had diminished to several acres, in part, due to bequests for the maintenance of preachers in the Methodist society.
On John Flavell’s arrival, however, all thoughts turned outward, as he (in his usual bombastic manner) assured the girls’ parents that he operated two spirit groceries in Toronto very successfully and could easily accommodate their daughters into his household. John and Anne had recently moved into the new and fashionable Seaton Village on the north side of Bloor Street, then considered to be the outskirts of Toronto. They attended services regularly at St. James’s Cathedral, and had attained a very comfortable station in life.
So, off they went. Though Ruth made her way to Detroit the following year, Rachel stayed on with her sister and brother-in-law.
1879–1888. Toronto the Good.
Very swiftly, the peaceable ’70s gave way to a tumultuous decade. It started in May, 1879, when Rachel’s sister, Anne, fell desperately ill and died on August 19th. Thereafter ensued a cascade of events that Rachel could not have foretold. A scant ten months after the death of her sister, Rachel gave birth to a son, George. Marriage was not an option for John and Rachel, as both civil and canon law forbade the marriage of a man to his late wife’s sister. At about this time, John Flavell’s businesses failed, and the family removed from Seaton Village to Centre Avenue in the crowded neighbourhood that was St. John’s Ward. In 1881, the family consisted of John, Rachel, the newborn son, and John’s children by Anne: John Thomas (age seventeen) and Mary Ann (age sixteen). In 1883, a daughter, Sade, was born, and in 1885, Ethel.
Rachel’s sister found herself in a similar predicament in Detroit, where she had borne two children with William White. They, however, managed to flit to Chatham, Ontario, and get married secretly in 1882. Their story nevertheless spiralled into disaster when William died two years later of “exhaustion from acute mania” in an asylum in Pontiac, Michigan. Clearly, neither sister was in a position to assist the other.
Bad news was coming out of Ireland, too. Rachel’s mother had died in 1878, a natural event enough, but this was followed by her brother Moses’s death in 1882, in a highly publicized incident involving poisoning by laudanum. No small wonder, then, that her father, Moses, expired a few months later in February, 1883.
A scant five months afterwards, a new calamity struck when John, jun. was charged in Toronto Police Court with larceny. In September, he was found guilty of embezzling and stealing from his employer. The court administered a sentence of one month for larceny, plus one month for embezzlement, to be served concurrently. From all appearances, the family never saw young John Thomas Flavell again.
In 1886, Mary Ann brought home her intended bridegroom, Patrick O’Leary, a Leitrim man. Surrounded as the family was in St. John’s Ward by Italians, Scots, Americans of African descent, and Irish Catholics, it is yet difficult to conceive that her father, a strident old Orangeman, would have greeted the news with any degree of congeniality. However Rachel might have felt, in this, as in other matters, her opinion probably bore no weight. The marriage, and Mary Ann’s conversion to Catholicism, served only to fracture the family further—a relationship that would not be restored until after John’s death.
For die, he did on the 29th February 1888, aged just fifty-four years. Having laboured for the family’s living, where his previous occupation had been sedate and protected from the harsh Canadian elements, John Flavell succumbed to pneumonia.
Rachel and her three young children were left alone to fend for themselves in a city that prided itself as Toronto the Good. This was an expression that had been bruited about by William Holmes Howland in 1884, when he campaigned for mayor on a platform of “morality, religion, and reform.” It reflected the city’s strict adherence to the Victorian standards of the day, and bode ill for many of the poor unfortunates who inhabited the city centre.
1888–1905. The Irish washerwoman in St. John’s Ward.
Rachel Mary Gilmore AKA Rachel Flavell
Fortunately for Rachel Flavell (having assumed this name), who could turn to no family or friends, relief was found in the form of the rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity. The Rev. John Pearson would have understood very well the lamentable manner in which Rachel’s fortunes had ebbed. He was the one who had baptized all of the children at home. Consequently, the church awarded Rachel the contract for laundering and ironing the vestments and altar linens, and thus began her career as a washerwoman in St. John’s Ward.
This neighbourhood had suffered considerable decline since it was built in the 1830s by fugitive slaves from America. Since then, unending waves of immigrants had arrived to fill up the cheap rentals. In the absence of regulations, the landlords allowed the structures to decay. In time, St. John’s Ward became known as the “most notorious slum” of Toronto.
When the census was enumerated in 1881, Rachel’s neighbours included an English labourer, an American tailoress of African descent, a Scottish stonecutter, an Irish carter, a black American shoemaker, an Irish blacksmith, an elderly laundress, and an Irish sailor. By 1891, the Irish sailor, now a stationary engineer, the tailoress, and the shoemaker remained. Her other immediate neighbours having departed, in their stead were two Irish bricklayers, a cloth peddlar of English descent, an American labourer, and an American domestic servant.
In the 1890s, a large number of eastern European Jews began to settle in the neighbourhood. By the end of the century, Jews comprised the predominant cultural group in the Ward, followed by Italians. By the 1901 census, Rachel’s immediate neighbours were of Irish, Scottish, and African descent. Her nearest Jewish neighbours included John and Annie Grantstein, Hermann and Lena White, Charle and Eliza Hodesky, Joseph and Rebecca Levie, Abraham and Rebecca Landsburgh, and Hyman and Ethel Greenburgh, most of whom were emigrants from Russia, but also from Poland and Austria.
Rachel Gilmore assisted her Jewish neighbours as “Shabbas Goy.” On Jewish holy days, Rachel ran errands for her friends who were enjoined from performing certain work on the Sabbath. It was a common practice to hire a poor woman to discharge these duties, in return for a modest wage. The children—George, Sade, and Ethel—were brought along to light the fires, extinguish the candles, and carry groceries. Rachel admonished her children to look out for their neighbours, no matter who they were and where they lived.
One of Rachel’s unerring goals was to provide her children with a good education. In an era when the poorest people could ill afford their children to attend school through the third grade, Rachel insisted that her children complete grade eight. At the same time, they were expected to help support the household and were often enlisted to iron and fold laundry in the evenings. For holidays, Sade and Ethel took turns visiting their aunt Mary Ann O’Leary.
1906–1920: The lost years.
To be clear, Rachel wasn’t lost: it is the records which fail us, for not a trace of her can be found during this period.
Nevertheless, we know that her son, George, was away in America, trying his hand at vaudeville as a song-and-dance man; Ethel was working as a sales clerk at Eaton’s; and in 1903, Sade married Hancy Calvert, a pressman. While it seems most likely that Rachel would have lived with Sade and Hancy, in fact she was not enumerated in their household in the 1911 census. Her whereabouts remain a mystery. One has to consider, however reluctantly, that Rachel may have had to resort, for a time, to the Toronto House of Industry in St. John’s Ward.
In 1909, Patrick O’Leary, the husband of Rachel’s step daughter, Mary Ann, died suddenly. Seven years later, Mary Ann remarried, to Patrick’s older brother, Bernard. The irony—that the laws about this degree of consanguinity had changed—was not lost on Rachel, not in the least. As further evidence of the changing times, Rachel didn’t even flinch (much) when Ethel brought home a Presbyterian boy (with a Catholic mother), Robert Kilpatrick, whom she’d met at Eaton’s where they both worked.
1921–1929. Retirement. 54 Galt Avenue, Toronto.
During this period, Rachel enjoyed the comforts of the loving home of her daughter, Ethel, and son-in-law, Robert. Her son George and his wife, Helen, were away in Ohio where he had taken up lithography. Sade and Hancy had removed from their urban home in De Grassi Street for the country life, ninety miles away in Simcoe. Rachel still attended the Church of the Holy Trinity, often taking her granddaughter, Ruth (named for Rachel’s sister), on the streetcar to the old church.
Even now, almost sixty years later, the occasional postcard came from Ireland. Usually, these were from Joseph Flavell, the son of John’s first cousin. Once in a great while, Rachel heard from Isabella, the wife of her cousin, Matthew Gilmore. Rachel knew that the last occupant of her father’s very small acreage in Druminallyduff had been her brother, William, who had had to pull down the house; he farmed the land until giving up the lease in 1894. Her Irish relatives dying off, it wasn’t surprising that these mementoes from north Armagh were running fewer and farther between.
March 8, 1930, 11:15 p.m. 891/2 Hiawatha Road, Toronto.
Her Methodist upbringing prevented Rachel from taking any pride in her life’s work. Nevertheless, she felt highly gratified that, in spite of obstacles, her children had grown up to be interesting, good, and kind people. Of her life, she could certainly say that it was an adventure, though she could have done without some of the hardship. Her only regret was in not knowing what had happened to her stepson, John Thomas, after his unfortunate encounter with the law. He had probably changed his name and moved out West. As for his father…well, this is where any such rumination should cease.
Her only worry remained what would come of her daughter, Ethel, and her family with this great depression bearing down upon them. In any event, she’d raised them well; they would withstand it, as she had had to do. What was it old Mr. Grantstein used to say to her? “L’chaim!” (To life!)
December 30, 2016. Postscript.
Ethel Kilpatrick found her mother, who had died in her sleep, in the morning of March 9. Rachel Mary Flavell née Gilmore was buried in St. John’s Norway cemetery.
The warren of houses that made up St. John’s Ward was razed by the end of World War II— except for the Church of the Holy Trinity which stands today as a beacon of social activism, in stark and miniature contrast to the glass and cement monoliths that surround it.
I would like to believe that Rachel Gilmore was the Irish wash lady referred to in a 1908 edition of the Toronto Globe & Mail: “The little rough-cast houses of Centre Avenue, Terauley and Elizabeth streets, from which three or four years ago the Irish wash lady wended her way to us on Monday mornings, where the Italian fruit vendor ripened his bananas under his bed at night, and the negro plasterer and barber gave colour to the social scene of a summer evening, have in these later days thrown their shelter over the oppressed Slavonic Jew.”
Each of us, her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, have had to draw on Rachel Gilmore’s example of strength and moral courage.