Sunday, 14 June 2009
Seeds are Momento of Tragic Death
On July 16, 1891, a Transatlantic Cablegram was sent from Toronto to the Sowter family residing in Cobourg Road, Bristol. It contained just four words: "Ernest drowned red river". It is impossible to know the precise effect this message had, but it is easy to imagine the grief of family members when they heard the news. The same day, at the Headquarters of the 90th Battalion of the Winnipeg Rifles, Ernest's friend, Private Harry Hooper wrote to the the late soldier's mother.
Dear Mrs Sowter,
I want to write to you about dear Ernest but I don't know what to say. When I received the news in Town yesterday noon, I cannot tell you how I felt. I have lost more than a brother. I wish I could run home and tell you all about him.
I saw him this morning dressed in his full uniform, he looked beautiful in his coffin. He died with heart disease, he has complained to me of his heart before. He was out bathing just a few feet fromshore, another boy who had been with him had swam out to the middle of the river. There were a few children on the bank who he stood in the water for a few minutes and then fell over.
The doctor says it was his heart. He has succh a happy peaceful look on his face as if he saw beyond this world. He has been greatly interested in Church work lately and I am sure he has gone to heaven. he is greatly loved by all his officers and men. He will be buried this afternoon at Five o'clock by the Corps of Volunteers to which we both belong. Captain Mclaren who is very much cut up about him will write you.
We picked out his grave in the Regimental burying ground in St John's Cathedral next to the Officers who were killed in the Rebellion. I have all his clothes and will hold them until I hear from you. I telegraphed the Parkinsons in Toronto at once and they replied that I had to hold him until I heard from them again - the undertaker says the body cannot wait as this climate is too hot . . .
Dear Mrs Sowter,
I thought I would write you an account of dear Nestie's (a nick-name) funeral which took place yesterday afternoon. I forwarded you today's Free Press which will give you a far better account than I can write, it was so peaceful.
Dear Ernest was thought a great deal of in the City, his employer, Mr Carsley sent a most beautiful wreath and was also present himself. I have been to his grave this afternoon and took a flower from each wreath, I thought you would like to have them. He is buried in a beautiful spot next to our late Colonel McKeaud. At his head stands two oak trees, the emblem of our dearly beloved home. I intend to obtain photographs of the grave to send - I think you would like to obtain it.
I collected the cards off two or three of the wreaths that had them on the remainder were chiefly from the 90th and had the different companies initials worked in them. Canon Matheson preached the service, it was very impressive. The Doctor says that dear Ernest must have died before his head ever touched the water as he had heart disease. I will write you again in a day or so. Believe me to be Dear Mrs Sowter, your deeply sympathysing Friend, Harry Hooper.
One further letter exists [dated 31 July] in which Harry Hooper asks Mrs Sowter whether she would like her late son's burnished gold ring which had broken in two and the pages of a diary her son had kept the previous winter. It also hints at Ernest's ill health.
Extracts from the newspaper obituary are very descriptive of the occasion:
Consigned to the Grave
Beneath the shelter of a spreading oak, alongside the graves of the 90th men who fell at Fish Creek and Batoche in the 1885 Rebellion, the mortal remains of Corporal Charles Ernest Sowter were consigned to their final resting place with full military honours . . .
The body was taken from the camp in a hearse which was preceded by a firing party of 13 men of D Company and followed by the chief mourner, Private Thomas H Hooper, a life-long acquaintance . . .
The sad procession wended its way to the cemetery by the shady and grassy lanes of St John's where the swaying of the trees was like a soft and gentle requiem as the regiment passed almost noiselessly along . . .
The firing part fired three volleys over the grave . . .
Fast forward some 110 years and the written momentoes mentioned above found a new home. They must have been passed down through the family and when an elderly relative died, a house clearance firm would have cleaned out the home of the deceased. This is, probably, how they ended up for sale at a Bric-a-Brac fair in Somerset for a couple of pounds. I saw them and recognised there was probably an interesting story behind the tragic death of Ernest Sowter. I put them away in a drawer and forgot about them for the best part of a decade.
When I was looking through them, in more of an investigative frame of mind than I was when I first purchased them, I found they were accompanied by folded pouch of paper. You can imagine my surprise when I unfolded the paper and found the dried flower heads that Sowter's friend Harry had plucked from the wreaths and sent home to the dead man's mother. I was further surprised to find that the pouch was full of flower seeds from 1891.
Now I am left thinking, what happened to the photograph of the grave in the St John's Roman Catholic Cathedral cemetery and the broken ring and diary pages? Did they ever get sent back to Bristol or were they lost in the post? I wonder, too, what state the grave is in, today? I'll certainly be checking the Census returns to find more details of the family.
More importantly, what about the seeds and this is where I am seeking your advice? I seem to remember once reading about some scientific organisation managing to grow flowers from seed long ago, but cannot remember where. I am loathe to try myself and waste the seed. Indeed, should I try to create a connection with the sad events of the past and do something with the seed? Do you know of an institution that might be interested in the seeds? I would really welcome your views. Please think about it and let me know. Thank you.
Welcome to the Graveyard Detective
An illustrated look at the World of Graveyards and Cemeteries. There are many Stories behind the Stones that Stand in them. Who knows what we might find?