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 . . .

17 July

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.

13 comments:

@eloh said...

What a beautiful and interesting post.
I hope someone out in blog land knows about seeds.

Laurie said...

Thank you, @eloh. I hope they do!

Owen said...

Hi Laurie, just checking back here finally, I will have to remind myself to check all three of your blogs more often, I've been focusing on "Creating Pictures". So... you stayed with the two column design finally ?

This story is quite touching, how Ernest fell down dead in the water from his bad heart. I'd never read anything at all about the resistance of the Metis in Canada, and had never heard of the battles of Duck Lake, Fish Creek, and Batoche, which echo similar tales in the American West. Thanks for contributing to expanding my horizon northward to Canada.

Will be curious to hear what becomes of your seeds, whether viable or not after all that time. I would think any good university botanist worth their salt should be able to advise you how to proceed to try to propagate...

Maybe those were the wild oat seeds that Ernest had been sowing ???

robert said...

A truly impressive site you call your own, glad to have found it. With the kid asleep, at least for now, even at a quarter past three in the morning it kept me awake, providing many seeds for thought.
Glad too to see you 'aboard' - hope you will enjoy the jourey.

Skellyton Art said...

It is quite amazing that everthing was there for you to find at that bric-a-brac fair. I am quite sure Ernest would be amazed that we speak of him now, don't you think?

You have visited my blog, I have quite a fondness for cemeteries. I spent so much of my childhood there. A sad childhood. The cemetery was a retreat,an escape from our world for my sisters and myself.

I am glad I found your blog. Thanks for visiting mine.

The Sagittarian said...

Maybe you could try a Heritage site? In NZ (where I live) there is a heritage place which does this sort of thing, it will be a job for Google or someother search engine I suspect. Fantastic find tho'.

June Saville said...

A great concept this blog - and an interesting post. Will return.

And thanks for visiting Journeys in Creative Writing!

June in Oz

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

Thank you for this wonderful piece of detective work. It is wonderful to be able to connect to lives gone so long ago. I hope you get good advice on the seeds.

Paris said...

What an incredible and beautiful post. Wow! I really like your "detective" work.

Margaret Pangert said...

Sorry, Laurie, I returned to "creating Pictures in My Mind" to leave my comment. Now I'm re-transposing it here where it belongs:
Wow, that is quite a story! His family must have felt so indebted to Harry Hooper: first, for putting them at ease that his death was caused by a congenital illness rather than an accident; secondly, for describing his friend, his life, and his funeral so graciously; and thirdly, for sending back mementos. I think the best place to send the seeds would be the Thomas Jefferson-Monticello foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia. They have a research and collections dept. for just that era and commodity.

Laurie said...

Thanks, Margaret. I am trying not to confuse people! Aim is to keep the quirky items like the dog at the grave etc. on Creating Pictures, with the Graveyard Detective being used to carry the more detailed stories such as the Seeds post and material on symbolism etc.

Interestingly, enough - at least I think so - twenty years ago, while on assignment in Portugal, the UK's young journalist of the year wrote a piece about me looking for a statue of my great, great grandfather and described me as "The Graveyard Detective". Yesterday, while googling - as you do - I found a brief reference to an obscure US radio show which, it was suggested, featured a graveyard detective! Not me, though!
Best
Laurie

swan said...

You simply have no idea how excited I am to be apart of your blog world. This page of your is exquisite! Also thank you for following my blog as well. bright blessings!

A Woman Of No Importance said...

This is more than fascinating, Laurie - You were destined to find Ernest's ephemera, and to learn that he might have been known as 'Nestie' is just so sweet... Makes them all even more human somehow...

I wish you luck in your investigation and enquiries about Mr Sowter... What a guardian you are! x

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?

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