Sunday, 5 February 2017


First Published in the Toronto Branch of the Ontario Genealogy Society Newsletter - Toronto Tree - January/February 2017.

Joseph Henry Down (1889 – 1915) – The Poppy Trail

My grandfather Joseph Henry Down died at the 2nd Battle of Ypres, Belgium on April 24, 1915.   His body was not recovered, and there is no grave, but he is listed on the Menin Gate Memorial, along with over 55,000 other soldiers who lost their lives in the battle.

In order to commemorate Joseph’s death my husband John and I decided to plan a trip to Ypres in April 2015.  As part of the planning, we researched Joseph from cradle to grave.  The family had always lived in the east end of Toronto and I didn’t realize how many places they had lived in while still maintaining to be “East-Enders”.

Our plan was to find as much information about Joseph as possible analysing all the data I had collected in my genealogy research, plus additional information from any military records.  My husband also contacted the Legion and received a bag of poppies.  Our intent was to leave a poppy at every location where Joseph lived and we visited.  So before we made the journey to Ypres, we started in Toronto.

I haven’t located Joseph’s birth certificate, but the family attended St. John’s the Baptist Norway Church.  I made an appointment at the Diocese of Toronto Anglican Archives on Adelaide Street in Toronto.  The Archives are open 2 days a week and while you don’t need an appointment, it’s recommended to call ahead to ensure the records you need are available.  It was my first time at the archives and I was surprised when I was given the actual parish records to research.   So I donned my cotton gloves and very carefully turned the pages and I was rewarded.

 Joseph Henry Down was born on September 23, 1889, in the village of Norway, now a part of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the son of Charles Walter Down and Alice Maude Crew.   He was baptized at St. John’s Norway Church on September 5, 1890 and his parents are listed as living in Norway, and his father is listed as a Milk Dealer.

The Toronto Directories were invaluable in our research.  Joseph’s family lived mostly in the east end of Toronto.  Jane McNamara has listed all the directories on her blog which was very handy for this research.     These directories can also be accessed through the Toronto Public Library website, but I found Jane’s list more convenient as all the directories are listed on one page.

In 1893, the family is listed as living on Woodbine Avenue, Norway and his father also lists a business under Grocer and Fruit and Fishes etc. on 692 Queen Street East, near Broadview Avenue.  By 1899 the Grocery store was 668 Queen Street East, whether a new location or simply a re-numbering of the street is not known.

The 1912 Directory lists Joseph’s father Charles with an additional Cartage Business , listed as C. W. Down & Son at 81 Hamilton Street, around the corner from the Grocery store.   
Joseph attended Queen Alexandra Public School on Hamilton Street, near Broadview and Dundas Streets.   A search on the Toronto branch King and County page lists 4 Down surnames.  All belong to my grandfather’s line.  Joseph and his brothers William, Charles and R.E. (Richard Edward) Down are listed on the plaque.  Of the 4 brothers only Richard survived and returned to Toronto.   The King and Country page also a wonderful sidebar on the main page with links to military websites.

 Sometime between 1908 and 1913 the Joseph’s family also acquired property where they built a house on Bellefair Avenue in the east end of Toronto.  In 1911 Joseph married Bertha Snider (nee Busby).  Bertha was 10 years older and she was a widow with 2 daughters, Mildred Agnes Ellen and Marjory Maxine Snider.  Bertha and Joe had 3 children, Charles William “Charlie”, Geraldine Dorothy “Dolly” and Joseph Henry Kitchener “Joe”.
20 Bellefair Avenue, Toronto, Joseph Down on the steps at the back.  Picture taken circa 1913

20 Bellefair Avenue, Toronto, circa 2015

Using the birth registrations for Joseph and Bertha’s children together with the directories gave us more address to check out.  Thankfully the addresses still remained in the east end of Toronto:    50 Enderby Road, 290 Woodbine Avenue, 210 Hamilton Street, 534 Kingston Road and 582 Woodbine Avenue.

So off we went, armed with a list of locations, a bag of poppies and a camera.  We found all the locations on our list.  I was familiar with some of the addresses as my grandmother and my great grandmother lived in the same houses until their deaths.  Some of the street numbers changed on the streets, but using the street directory, was an enormous help.  The street directory portion of the directory lists all the streets in alphabetical order and by house number. It also lists the intersections, so you can get an idea of the vicinity of the house you are researching.   I was able to pinpoint the general area of the house number by using the cross streets as reference.  For instance in 1914 , 290 Woodbine Avenue  is located  at the crossroad of Kingston Road and Woodbine Avenue.  That is not the case today.  290 Woodbine is a long block south of Kingston Road and I imagine the new 290 is a much more substantial house.  Some of the houses had disappeared completely replaced by an apartment block in one instance.  We did our best and photographed the houses we found and left a poppy as near to the location as possible.

My great grandfather’s Grocery store on Queen Street East is still there and is now a Hemp Store.  Around the corner on Munroe Street, the stables are gone and there are apartments.  My great grandmother’s house on Bellfair Avenue looks almost unchanged, except for a few cosmetic enhancements.  At “582” (as it was known in my family, no need to add Woodbine Avenue), it too appeared much the same as I remembered and I was left to wonder how my grandmother raised 5 children in the house.

Our last stop was St. John’s Norway Cemetery on Woodbine Avenue.  While Joseph isn’t buried there his name along with his brothers is inscribed on the Down family gravestone and we left our last poppy on the grave.

The Toronto part of our journey was complete.  Poppies were left at every location and now we were ready for our European excursion to continue our poppy trail through England, France and Belgium.  I wonder what the homeowners thought when they found a poppy fastened unobtrusively to their shrubbery?

Thursday, 26 January 2017


My husband and I were recently in Ottawa, Ontario from January 18 - 22, 2017 to watch the Canadian Figure Skating Championships.  We had some free time before the event and planned to see Rideau Hall and an Art Gallery.

I'm not sure why I chose to visit the Veterans Affairs Canada website at this particular time.  I think there was a posting in the Ontario Genealogical Society Facebook page about Military Records and I followed the link.   Veterans Affairs Canada

There are 7 Books of Remembrance at the Memorial Chamber at Parliament Hill.  Each day a page on each book is turned to commemorate the soldiers who were killed in action.  The books can be searched by name and/or year of death.  I searched the database for my grandfather Joseph Henry Down, who died at the 2nd Battle of Ypres on April 24, 1915.

His page was to be displayed on January 19, 2017.  This was incredible luck.  We toured the Parliament Buildings early January 19, 2017 and were in the Memorial Chamber of the Peace Tower before 11:0 am.  There is a small ceremony when the pages are turned at 11:00 am.
Joseph Henry Down, Sapper 2nd Field Company

This is the second time that my research on Joseph Down and Figure Skating have coincided.  In 2015 we were on our way from Toronto to Kingston, Ontario to watch the 2015 Canadian Figure Skating Championships and discovered there was an exhibit at the War Museum in Ottawa to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the 2nd Battle of Ypres.  We included a trip to Ottawa prior to going to Kingston.

I'm starting to think maybe Joseph is a skating fan.

Saturday, 14 January 2017


Over 4 years ago I wrote about the O'Leary sisters country and western group and the very tentative connection to my Meehan family see Meehan-O'Leary Connection.

Since that time I have been in contact with a descendant of Teresa Meehan and Norman Dunne O'Leary.    Susan also introduced me to another relative Rosemary.  Rosemary is a descendant of Mary Ann Meehan and Lorne Sheridan.  Susan, Rosemary and I share the same great grandparents George Thomas Meehan (1851) and Emma Howson.(1851)

Both Susan and Rosemary have been very generous and shared family pictures.  My grandfather George Meehan (1882) and my grandmother Isabel Faulkner were separated and I didn't know my grandfather.  So when Susan shared the Meehan family photo I was thrilled.

The picture was taken circa 1907 and appears to be taken for a formal gathering, possibly a wedding.

Back Row L to R: George Meehan (1882),Margaret Meehan (1876), James Meehan (1880), Mary Ann Meehan (1878),   Seated  George T. Meehan (1851) Teresa Meehan (1886) Emma Howson  Meehan (1851)

Saturday, 8 November 2014


As the 100 year anniversary of the first World War is upon us, I started to research where my grandfather Joseph Henry Down had been stationed during the War.  The Canadian government is digitizing all the service records for the soldiers of the first world war.  This is good and bad news.  Good news that the files will be available for free online.  Bad news because they are not available to the public while they are being digitized.  Because my grandfather's surname starts with a "D", these records are unavailable at this time.  So, I have taken much of my information from the Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914 - 1919 book, by Colonel G. W. L. Nicholson.

Joseph was born  September 23, 1889 in Toronto.  He was married to Bertha Snider (nee Busby) in 1911.  Bertha was a widow with 2 girls, Mildred and Marjory.  Joseph and Bertha had 3 children:  Charles, Geraldine "Dolly" and Joseph.  It should be noted that his son, Joseph, was born in December 1914 and his father probably didn't see his son.

On August 4, 1914, England declared war on Germany.  Shortly after that Samuel Hughes, the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence ordered that a recruitment settlement be established at Valcartier, Quebec.

Accordingly, Joseph, felt the call of duty and left his family behind to sign up.  He was deemed fit for duty on September 1 at Valcartier and then signed his Attestation paper on September 25, 1914.   He was assigned to the 1st Division Engineers, 2nd Field Company.  He was a Sapper in the army and he had been a linesman before entering the service.

The new recruits were sent from Valcartier to Quebec City by train in October to board ships for England.  Apparently there was too much equipment for the ships that had been procured and loading appears to have been a shambles.  On October 3, 1914, the 2nd Field Company left for England aboard the "Zeeland" bound for Southampton.  During the 11 day crossing there was a rumour that the Germans would intercept them at Southampton and so at the last moment, the ship was directed to dock in Plymouth. 

Plymouth was not ready for such a large contingent of ships, machinery and people.  It took 9 days to unload the cargo and send everything and everyone to Salisbury where the training camp was located on Salisbury Plains.  The Divisional HQ was established at "Ye Olde Bustard" 3 miles north west of Stonehenge.  According to the war diaries for the time at Salisbury it rained almost non stop and outdoor training had to be suspended.  As well the contractors who were building the barracks for the soldiers were well behind schedule and many men were still living in tents as the winter approached. 

Joseph Down, seated left.  Photo taken in Fisherton Street, Salisbury, circa 1914

In February 1915, the soldiers started to move to France.  On February 2, 1915 an advance party left Avonmouth, Bristol for St. Nazaire, France.  The Southampton to Le Havre route unavailable to them, because of fear of a German attack.  It was then a 500 mile journey to the Front.

On February 15, the Division arrived in the Hazebrouck Strazeele area, where they commenced training with the British Troops until the beginning of March 1915.  From March 10 -12 they fought in the battle of Neuve Chapelle and then were assigned a tour of duty in the Fleurbaix sector.

Between April 14 - 17, the 1st Division relieved the French 11th Division in the Ypres area in Belgium.  They found the area very wet because they were close to the Yser canal.  The trenches were shallow and needed to be reinforced.  Some of the shallow trenches had been used as latrines and others used to store dead bodies.  The Canadian soldiers had to dig deeper trenches and repair the others.

On April 22, they were engaged in the Battle of Gravenstafel.  This battle was the first battle where the Germans used chlorine gas attacks as part of the battle strategy.  The Canadians had no gas masks for protection. 

The second gas attack occurred at the Battle of St. Julien took place between April 24, and May 5, 1915.  There were more gas attacks by the Germans with the Canadian army supplied with wetted handkerchiefs to combat the gas.  Sadly this is where Joseph Henry Down's war ended.  He was not felled by a gas attack, but by a bullet.  He was killed in action," shot through the head and killed instantly about noon on the 24th of April 1915, whilst on duty with a working party in the Ypres Salient, near St. Julien." according to his service record.

On May 3, 1915 the army withdrew after losing over 5,000 Canadian Soldiers. Joseph Down's body was never recovered and his name along with 55,000 other soldiers is commemorated on the Menin Memorial Gate in Belgium.   

Sunday, 20 July 2014


Until August 4, 2014, everyone from around the world has an opportunity to write a letter to an unknown soldier.  This project is called 14-18 Now  to commemorate the start of WW1.  You can write to the unknown soldier or you can write to one of your relatives.   All the letters will be published on the website.  As of July 20, 2014, the site has received over 14,000 letters from around the world from all walks of life and age groups.  So please write a letter to say thank you, write a letter to say stop all wars, just say something.  This is the link:  1418now

I chose to write to my grandfather Joseph Henry Down (1889 - 1915).  He was shot in the head and killed at Ypres.  He is memorialized on the Menin Gate with so many other war dead.  He looks like a handsome man in his uniform.  Little did he know that he would be killed 6 months after enlisting.  He left behind 3 children and 2 adopted children and a broken-hearted family.

Here is my letter to Grandpa Joe .  I don't really know if I would call him Grandpa Joe, but that seems right. I called my grandmother Grandma Bert or some times just Bert, short for Bertha, a name she really didn't like.  
My letter to Grandpa Joe

Saturday, 9 November 2013


When I was researching George Howson my 2x great grandfather,  I simply searched George Howson England to see what information if any I could find.
As you can imagine I found quite a few (4,670,000, to be exact).

I have found George Howson, the educator in Yorkshire.  I have found George Howson, the silversmith in Sheffield.  I have various Howsons who were Innkeepers, and since my George was an victualler, I thought they were possibly related.  I still haven't made my way down the list of all 4,6700,000 and now I know that George lived at least for a short period of time in Abingdon, Berkshire, it might help narrow down my search (123,000, my odds are getting better).

But at this time of year the George Howson  that interests me most is Major George Arthur Howson (1886-1936).  He was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment in England and served 1914 -1918 in the war.  He was promoted to Captain and awarded the Military Cross at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917.  He was promoted to Major and left the army in 1920.

After the war he started the Disabled Society for injured ex-Servicemen.  An American War Secretary was inspired by John McCrae's poem in Flanders Field and started selling poppies as a remembrance for those who had died in the war and to support ex-servicemen.

George Howson suggested to the British Legion that his Disabled Society could make the poppies.  The poppy was designed so that it could be made by people with disabilities.  The legion continues to sell poppies to this day.

So, Major Howson, I don't think you belong to me, but thanks for your service to your country and your wonderful idea, that helps make the poppy a symbol of remembrance.

Friday, 4 October 2013


We arrived in Abingdon-on-Thames on a beautiful sunny day after spending the morning in the City of Oxford.  It's just a bus ride way about 5 1/2 miles south of Oxford.

Abingdon, in now considered part of Oxfordshire,  but historically it was in Berkshire.  It claims a long history that dates back to the Iron Age.  A defensive enclosure was discovered in the town centre that dates back to the Iron Age and shows evidence of Roman occupation.

St. Helen's Church dates back to 1100 and is still in use today.  And that is where my personal interest begins in Abingdon.   We are on a search to find St. Helen's Church where I know my George Howson married Jane Lay in October 1816.  They also had a son Thomas born in June 1817 and sadly died one day later.  I've already checked with the Oxford Family History Society and they can find no burial records or any other baptismal records, for that matter for George and Jane.

George Howson is listed as a victualler and so we will definitely need to search out some pubs.  Just for authenticity sake, you understand.  Morland was the main brewery in Abingdon for many years.  While Morland brewery was purchased by the Greene King Brewery, you can still see some of the Morland signs.

Armed with a map of Abingdon, off we go to find the Church.  St. Helen's Church is a large Church with it's own small cemetery.  Unfortunately, the church isn't open for tours when we are here.  So, I'll just have to view it from the outside.  Many of the tombstones in the surrounding cemetery are hard to read.  We did find a tombstone for a Charles Lay, but I have no idea if he is one of "my" Lay people.  The stone reads:  An affectionate remembrance of Charles Lay, who died on November 29, 1849, age 39.

Charles Lay Tombstone in  St. Helen's Churchyard

St. Helen's Church entrance
I also know from one of the church records that George and Jane Howson lived on West St. Helen's Street, so we'll have a look for that as well as Ock Street where the pubs were located.

We decide to meander through the streets to see what we can see.  We find a pub on Ock Street called the Brewery Tap.  It once housed the Morland administration office in the 1800's.  It is where the landlords came each month to pay their rent.  The pub itself is quite new but there is lots of Morland memorabilia around.

After a wander through the town, it's time to be on our way.  I'm sorry to leave Abingdon as we only had a flying visit here.  I think I found an Innkeeper in Devon in my family tree, so maybe that will be our next holiday.