As I mentioned yesterday, part of this trip was inspired by the detailed footnotes in Eleanor Neilsen’s The Egremont Road which has a lovely section on the Alisons and their allied families. And one of the main sources she pointed to was a memoir created by Peter John Alison, Harry’s youngest child, which is held at the Western Archives at Western University in London, Ontario. So, another one of our stops was in London so that I could look at the manuscript as well as an Alison photo album that I found in their catalogue when I was searching for the memoir.
The Archives is located in the D. B. Weldon Library on campus and getting to it was a little trickier that I thought it would be. But when you reach the building it’s huge and, at least for the day I was there, it was consistently packed. Luckily, the Archives are tucked into the back corner of a large Main Floor and you feel miles away from anyone when you’re tucked into the cozy reading room and working.
It’s suggested that you contact the Archives ahead of time for materials that they need to pull from storage (as pulls are only done three times a day) so I had struck up a conversation with one of their staff by email and both boxes were pretty much waiting for me on arrival. I settled in and spent most of the day on Peter’s memoir which, according to the top page was created to satisfy a persistent cousin to whom he remarks:
You have asked me so often to write you an account of my early days in the back woods of Ontario, Canada, that I think I will have to do as the Unjust Judge did with the widow – Grant your request to get rid of you.
The document gives a rough background to the family but it is full of interesting tidbits about his parents and siblings through the eyes of the baby of the family (he was six at the time of their move to Canada). He didn’t display a lot of respect for his elder brothers whom he felt were no help to their father in the initial establishment of their households in Warwick commenting:
My eldest brother had been in the Army with my father’s regiment, and my next brother had been in the Navy, they were not fitted for the bush life at all. It was pitiful to see them using an axe, the one most useful tool of those early days. They would chop around a tree like a beaver, then of course, they would not know which way the tree was going to fall, except it had decided leaning in one direction.
But he did admire his sisters (at least in retrospect) and their accomplishments:
My sisters were all highly accomplished for my mother had them taught by the best French and English masters, it was delightful to hear them play and sing to the piano, harp and guitar, and they spoke Greek and Italian as well as they could English.
In the memoir he shares his memories of his sisters Frances and Julia’s courtships (with Thomas Rothwell and Robert Hill respectively) in detail and humorously.
The manuscript by itself was worth the trip but the other item I had pulled turned out to be a photo album given to Frances (Travers) Alison, Peter John’s wife, in February of 1880. Very few of the pictures are labeled but among the ones that are is a picture of Peter’s brother, Brisbain. I would love to be able to identify more of the images through my research but we’ll see how that works out.
The staff at the archives were very helpful and a pleasure to work with!