19th Century, Culture, People

“An 1890 Childhood”

The 1890s – when kids still had tea parties with their dogs. Attributed to James Ballantyne/Library and Archives Canada/PA-131941 (click image to go to source)

Before you ask, no those kids in the picture aren’t from Kingston or the child referred to in this post, they’re children who lived in Ottawa in the 1890s. But it’s a cute photo and has the right vibe for the text of this post, which is why I included it.

The title of this post is the original title of a piece composed by Daisy Chown for the 1973 book I Remember When: Stories of Kingston Folk. I believe members of Rideaucrest Home contributed stories for it, and a lot of them are really interesting, especially if, like me, you enjoy reading about the minutiae of daily life 100+ years ago. The Chown family was basically Kingston royalty, and there are still places around the city named for them (e.g. Chown Hall residence at Queen’s). Daisy Chown was born in 1881, and so was around ninety-two when she recounted her early life on what was originally called Gordon Street, now University Avenue. I’m copying it here word-for-word, except for a few typos which I’ve corrected. It’s a bit of a disjointed narrative, but I think that adds to the charm.

“I remember when we moved from Bagot Street to University Avenue, then called Gordon Street, in November 1887. The sidewalk was two planks wide, laid lengthwise. Later sidewalks were planks, maybe 5 feet wide, laid horizontally. Finally, there were cement walks.

“When I was teaching in Whitby Ontario Ladies College in the 20’s, one of my duties was to take as many as 100 girls walking – we called it a division. The sidewalks were of boards, and often a board came off where one could tumble and break an ankle. The front girls in the line said ‘board off’ to the ones behind them, and the word was passed back until it reached me at the end of the line.

“I started school at Gordon Street School which was on the corner where Ban Righ Hall now stands. It was a four room school which would be called a fire trap now, the staircase to the upper two rooms being in a shed-like addition at the back. The only entrance to the upstair front room was through the back room.

Ban Righ, the former site of the Gordon Street School. The schoolhouse was set further back from the road than Ban Righ is. (my photo)

Ban Righ, the former site of the Gordon Street School. The schoolhouse was set further back from the road than Ban Righ is. (my photo)

“When we moved to Gordon Street there were only three buildings at Queen’s; the Principal’s residence (Dr. George Monro Grant), the Theological Building and the Old Medical Building.

“There was one caretaker for those three buildings and the grounds, John Cormack. ‘Old John’ as we called him, tethered his cow in the grounds which were fenced in, the northern boundary being about where Ontario Hall is now. One entered the grounds by a turnstile. But we children played in the grounds and if seen by Old John, were chased. We would simply roll under the fence at the nearest point.

Where Old John used to tether his cow. None of these buildings were here at that time. (my photo)

Where Old John used to tether his cow. None of these buildings were here at that time. (my photo)

“My home was where Ellis Hall is now. There were 7 homes in the row, from the Browne’s on the north, to the Richardson’s on the south. We children played together; one of our games was ‘Tom, Tom Pullaway’ played in the road, automobiles being then in the far distant future. We played sometimes in the Richardson Carriage House, they having a team of horses, carriage and coachman. The Richardson children were Agnes (later Mrs. Etherington), Kathleen, James and George.

Ellis Hall, where the author's house used to stand. (my photo)

Ellis Hall, where the author’s house used to stand. (my photo)

A really bad photo of the Richardson house, now part of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. The Richardson family were fellow Kingston royalty and heavily connected with Queen's. Their house, however, was extensively remodelled in the 1920s and didn't look like this during the author's childhood. It's the only house remaining on this block of University Avenue. (my photo)

A really bad photo of the Richardson house, now part of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. The Richardson family, of grain shipping fame, were fellow Kingston royalty and heavily connected with Queen’s. Out of the children, Agnes became an important art patron, George was killed in the First World War, James became a big businessman, and Kathleen died at age 27. Their house was extensively remodelled in the 1920s and didn’t look like this during the author’s childhood. It’s the only house remaining on this block of University Avenue. (my photo)

“The ground north of Ontario Hall to Union Street was called the front common. A large military drill shed stood near the corner of Union and Division Streets. One day as we turned the corner from Alfred onto Union, coming from school at noon, the drill shed was not there. It had collapsed under the weight of snow. The streets were never cleared of snow, so the wind blew the snow in great drifts over the front common causing low and high places, the low places called ‘pitch holes’. Sleighs pursued horses’ hoofs on the downslopes and had to be hauled up the high sides.

“Delivery sleighs were platforms on runners drawn by horses. One sport was to ‘hook’ rides on delivery sleighs. I remember doing it when I was over 30 years old – I do not remember a driver ever objecting.

“Behind our row of houses was the back common, site until recently of Queen’s stadium. We rode bobsleighs on the back common from Union Street to quarries behind where Leonard Hall now stands and behind 90 Queen’s Crescent (my recent home).

“I had friends living at Edgehill, the Fortescues. I could drop over our back fence and walk to Edgehill, no houses on the way. The Fortescues were an interesting family, in that the father had been a Hudson’s Bay Company factor and the family lived at Moose Factory. There were 9 children and as they reached school age Mrs. Fortescue took them by sailing ship through Hudson’s Bay and Arctic to England.

Edgehill still stands, but oddly it's totally surrounded by newer houses and barely visible from the street. (my photo)

Edgehill still stands, but oddly it’s totally surrounded by newer houses and barely visible from the street. (my photo)

It does have a street named after it though! (my photo)

The street is named after it though! (my photo)

“In summer a horse drawn streetcar ran on a track. In winter a small horse drawn bus replaced the streetcar, the bus floor covered with straw.

“Mr. John Hewton’s Knitting Mill occupied the site on King Street where Queen’s Heating Plant now stands. The millhands worked from 6:30 to 6:30, 6 days a week, with one hour at noon for their dinners.

Where the Hosiery Mill used to be. (my photo)

Where the Hosiery Mill used to be. (my photo)

“There being no electricity we depended on ice for our refrigerators. There were large sheds for storing ice cut from the lake. . . . No automobiles, so one could hire horses and rigs from livery stables. We started with coal oil lamps in our University Avenue home, later had gas installed, and finally in 1918, electricity. Milk was not bottled, nor bread wrapped for many years.

“Sydenham Street Church, at that time Methodist, now United, was a narrow rectangle until 1887 when the church was widened by side wings. During the alteration, services were held in the roller skating rink on Johnson Street between Bagot and Wellington.

“The upper part of Princess Street was called Williamsville, so the present Princess Street Church, corner of Albert, was called Williamsville Church. Cataraqui cemetery was called ‘Waterloo’.”

That last bit about Waterloo actually refers to the community, once separate from Kingston, around the intersection of Princess Street and Sydenham Road. It was sometimes called Cataraqui and sometimes called Waterloo (occasionally with “village” appended to either name) but I can’t remember which name came first. It’s striking to see old photos of the village, because today it’s a particularly busy and car-oriented part of Kingston and it was once quite rural.

Anyway – I hope this passage brought a little corner of the past to life for you. One of my favourite parts of local history research is engaging with the fact that people in the past had as full and real lives as we do today, and I think this piece really makes you remember that we are always “sharing” the world with those who came before us.

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5 thoughts on ““An 1890 Childhood”

  1. I sent your post to my father (the boy on the pony). He writes
    Very interesting, I never knew the Chown folks were considered “royalty” in Kingston.

    Daisy and I (and you) are both descended from the third child, Arthur, of Roger Chown and Sarah Thorne, the English couple who started the Chown dynasty in Canada. Arthur’s third child was William Whitfield Chown who begat my grandfather, Russell Clarence Chown, who begat my father, William Charles Chown. Arthur’s fourth child was Alfred Francis Chown who was the father of Daisy Chown.

    • Wow, thanks for this! I should be clear that “royalty” is my own term haha, what I mean by that is that the Chowns lived and worked in Kingston for many years, they were well-established merchants, lived in fashionable areas of town and were connected with other important/wealthy families such as the Richardsons and Fortescues, as Daisy Chown mentions. George Y. Chown was also Registrar and Treasurer of Queen’s around the turn of the 20th century. So they were not just any family, especially in Kingston’s rather small social scene. Once again, thanks for reading and for sending along your father’s comment!

  2. I sent your post to my father in Vancouver (the boy on the pony) and he writes:
    Very interesting, I never knew the Chown folks were considered “royalty” in Kingston.

    Daisy and I (and you) are both descended from the third child, Arthur, of Roger Chown and Sarah Thorne, the English couple who started the Chown dynasty in Canada. Arthur’s third child was William Whitfield Chown who begat my grandfather, Russell Clarence Chown, who begat my father, William Charles Chown. Arthur’s fourth child was Alfred Francis Chown who was the father of Daisy Chown.

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