Thursday, September 14, 2017

Making a New Life in Canada: The Saunders Siblings

Immigrants are welcomed by a woman
symbolizing Canada, 1880
In our last blog post, we looked at the life of the Saunders family in England and their arrival in Ontario. Beginning after the War of 1812, there was a significant wave of immigration from Britain and Ireland to Canada, mainly to Ontario. Most of the Saunders brothers and sisters married men and women like themselves, who had also come to Canada with their families as children or young adults. 

The desire to find suitable husbands for five daughters may have been one of the motivations behind the Saunders family’s emigration. By 1850, about one quarter of the female population in the United Kingdom between the ages of 20 and 45 was unmarried, and the 1851 census showed that women outnumbered men by as many as one million. The problem of the so-called “surplus woman” was one that would occupy commentators in Britain for the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th. But in many parts of Canada, there were more men than women, particularly in newly-settled areas with large immigrant populations.

If seeing their daughters married was indeed one of their goals, James and Jane Saunders were very successful. Shortly after their arrival, daughter Emma (1827-1917) married William Skinner, a family friend from Crediton who had come over to Canada on the same ship. William Skinner, like James Saunders, was a shoemaker, and he established a successful business in London. Emma and William had five children, one of whom, Lillian, was sadly a victim of the notorious 1881 Victoria disaster, in which an overloaded steamboat capsized, killing 182 passengers.

Illustrated title page from Louisa’s
autograph book
The next daughter, Louisa (1829-1870), also married soon after her arrival in Canada. How she met Bernard Trainer, or indeed anything about his early life, remains a mystery. They were married in 1850 and lived in London until around 1855, at which time they moved to Goderich, where Bernard Trainer joined the Huron County constabulary. Louisa and Bernard had twelve children (Alice was number seven) before Louisa died in childbirth in 1870. Unfortunately, we have little personal information about Alice’s mother, and no photographs, but an autograph book in the museum’s archives which she assembled before leaving Crediton suggests that she was a young lady of refined tastes and genteel aspirations.

Ann (1832-1864) seems also to have married in the early 1850s, as did brother Stephen (1824-1889), though I haven’t been able to find out much information about either of them or their spouses. Next in line was Bertha (b. 1834), who married Robert Lynch Patton in 1856 and moved with him to Montreal. The officiant at this wedding was Rev. J. H. Robinson, and a year later William Saunders (1836-1914) married Robinson’s daughter Sarah Agnes. As I noted in my previous post, William was apprenticed to a local druggist and soon opened his own pharmacy. His interest in pharmaceutical plants, horticulture, and entomology led to his appointment as director of Canada’s Experimental Farm system in 1886. William and Sarah’s five sons also went on to have notable careers in science, music, and literature—they’ll get a blog post of their own. The youngest daughter, Mary (1839-1907), was married in 1870 to William Gurd, a gunsmith whose family immigrated from Ireland in the 1840s, and they had three children.
Mary Saunders Gurd

All in all, the Saunders siblings seem to have led mostly ordinary, middle-class lives. No doubt the parents were happy to see their daughters married to respectable and prosperous men, and two of their sons established in their careers, with William ultimately achieving great success and a national reputation. Edwin (1822-1895), the oldest son, chose to follow his own path, however. Soon after the family arrived in Canada, he moved to Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, where he built a small log cabin and lived by hunting, fishing, and gardening. His nephew William Saunders kept a diary of a family visit to Manitoulin in 1880, during which Uncle Ned helped the five brothers indulge their interests in fishing, hunting wildlife specimens, and sailing. Although Uncle William Skinner is said to have claimed Ned “never did any work,” residents of Manitoulin remembered him as an important part of their small community.

So, although Bernard and Louisa Trainer had both died by the time Alice was a teenager, she and her siblings still had an extensive network of aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom lived nearby in London. They would continue to maintain these ties after they moved to the United States in the 1880s.

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