Like many of us, I wish I had asked more questions about my grandfather while my parents were still alive. All I knew was that my grandfather, Harry Jackson, had come alone to Canada as a boy and had been sent to a farm in Manitoba. Initially, my curiosity was solely focused on whether Harry had siblings, was an orphan or abandoned. As my research progressed, I developed a passion for learning all I could about this diminutive man.
Harry Jackson was born in 1888 in Driffield, Yorkshire, a small rural town. He was the fifth of six children born to John Edward Jackson and Annie Elizabeth Smith.
Shortly after Harry’s birth, the family would move to Leeds where his father sought work. Leeds was a heavily industrialized city, dominated by woollen mills and coalmines. Lower than the surrounding hills, the city was often blanketed in dense smog and soot emanating from factory chimneys. The briefest of rain showers would add to the coating of black residue that covered the city’s landscape.
Harry’s early years were marked by constant relocations as his family strove to find affordable housing, culminating in a home in the infamous Kirkgate Yards, the seediest area of Leeds. The “Yards” were narrow back alleys; overcrowded, squalid and a breeding ground for diseases such as cholera.
Like many of the city’s working impoverished, Harry’s family would endure several tragedies. His two youngest sisters would die at ages 9 and 2 but the most crushing would be the unimaginable horror of his mother’s suicide. In a state of delirium borne out of despair, his mother would end her young life by slashing her own throat.
Following his mother’s death, Harry, aged 10, ran away from home to live on the streets. Many of his nights were spent under a large railway viaduct; a place of misery that sheltered a host of the city’s homeless. To this day, the viaduct still bears the nickname “The Dark Arches’. It was from these surroundings that the authorities plucked Harry and charged him with vagrancy and truancy. He would be incarcerated for 5 years in Shadwell Industrial School and Reformatory.
Just prior to his release from Shadwell, the Children’s Aid Society of London took Harry into care. In collaboration with Shaftesbury Homes, arrangements were made for his transport to Canada. Presumably to facilitate his indenture, his year of birth was misstated; falsely indicating he was only 15. On April 28, 1904, he boarded the RMS Bavarian at Liverpool, ultimately docking in Quebec on May 8, 1904.
Upon arrival in Canada, Harry was sent to the farm of William Hughes, a dairy farmer in Rosser, Manitoba. Harry was treated kindly and quickly grew to love life on the farm.
Following his term of indenture in 1907, Harry worked several years at Notre Dame Dairies in Winnipeg. Fuelled by a desire to return to farm life, he jumped a freight train bound for Moosomin Saskatchewan. Little is known of his time in Moosomin except for one key event. In November 1915, at the age of 24, Harry enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force to serve in WW1.
On May 1, 1916, Harry was transported to England and a few months later, to the front lines in France and Belgium. He was assigned to the 1st. Battalion, Canadian Pioneers. Contrary to a common misconception, the Pioneers were at the heart of battle; repairing shell damaged trenches and transporting the wounded from the battlefield. A year later, the 1st. Pioneers would be reorganized into the 9th. Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops.
In the spring of 1917, Harry was granted leave; an opportunity he took to visit an aunt in Leeds. It was then that he met his cousin Lily. His infatuation with Lily would cause him to return to his unit 3 days late. He was promptly returned to France under arrest to face discipline. He was docked 6 days’ pay and returned to the front.
During the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), Harry’s unit would suffer heavy casualties from artillery bombardments, machine gun fire and poisonous gas attacks. Ironically, the Spanish Flu would accomplish what enemy aggression couldn’t. Harry would be hospitalized for 6 weeks with the deadly virus; an illness that would claim more than 20 million lives in Europe alone.
Harry would return to England a year later to marry Lily. At the war’s end, he and Lily were transported to Winnipeg to start their life together.
Lily was opposed to life as a farmer’s wife and so Harry had to forego his dream of returning to the land. They settled in Winnipeg where Harry worked as a lineman for the telephone company; a position he held for the rest of his life.
In 1928, (9 years after applying) Harry was gifted land under the Soldiers’ Land Grant but given Lily’s aversion to rural living, he never took physical possession of the property. By this time, their children had been born and they owned a comfortable home in the city.
Together, Harry and Lily raised three sons; Walter (my dad), Sidney and Douglas. He imbued in each of them a love of Canada and a deep sense of duty. It was a source of pride to him that each son would serve Canada during WW2.
Harry Jackson would pass away on October 31, 1945 at the young age of 57. He survived just long enough to see my father’s return from the WW2. Harry’s final resting place is the Military Field of Honour at Brookside Cemetery in Winnipeg.
Following Harry’s passing, Lily would marry twice more, only to be widowed each time. She died February, 1985 in Burnaby, BC at age 86.
Against all odds, this British Home Child built a life for he and his family. Endowed with Harry’s spirit and tenacity, his sons would go on to build their own successes.
Walter would have a career in the garment industry. A certified master mechanic, he gained the reputation of being the “go to guy” when there were seemingly insurmountable problems. His work would result in my family living in England, the U.S.A. and finally our return home to Canada.
Sidney, a talented artist in his own right, would become the art director of a U.S. newspaper.
Douglas, following up on a Memorial Cup triumph with the Winnipeg Rangers, would become a goalie with the Chicago Blackhawks organization; playing in both the NHL and its affiliate in Kansas City. Following his hockey career, Douglas entered the executive ranks with a major international oil company.
Harry can be justifiably proud of his legacy as both a family man and a Canadian.