The Wrens Come to America

In my first five posts I discussed the Uren and Barwis families in Cornwall. In this post I want to bring the saga up to the current time. In some sense, JG’s generation represented a peak – the Empire at its most extensive, the British middle class at its most prosperous. These were the people we read about in EM Forster, notably Passage to India and Howard’s End. Full Disclosure – if I could pick a period and a place to live in, and choose my social class, this would be the setting.

Following that theme, it seems to me that George Orwell is the author that best characterizes what happened to my family and many others following these lucky Edwardians. Solidly middle class in his upbringing, then serving as an unhappy minor functionary in Burma, he became a champion of the people as his country (and the Western world) experienced political and economic catastrophe that no one could have predicted. I see echoes in the life of my grandfather.

My grandfather John Gilbert (Jack) Wren was born in Shanghai in 1889. (That’s him in the picture to the left, with his Amah). Following the death of his mother Ethel, at some point in the 1890s he returned to England to live in the household of his Aunt Jessie. He always felt abandoned by his father GG, who seems to have taken no interest in the education of any of his sons, in spite of two generations of his own family history, and the role of education in the Uren family’s advancement. In 1906, Jack emigrated to Canada, and after working for others in Manitoba, homesteaded on the Saskatchewan prairie, near the modern city of Saskatoon.

I have two letters that he wrote in 1906, when he was working for a family in Manitoba. He was homesick for Scilly, but working assiduously to learn how to farm and manage livestock. His plan at that time was to settle farther West when he felt ready. Other than complaints about his boss, what comes through is pleasure working with animals, and the drudgery of farm work. He’s trying to make the best of it.

I have no proof, but in one of his letters he mentions that he is planning to come back to England for a visit, time not specified. Again, no proof, but it seems reasonable that he did return, and at some point met his future wife Blanche Banfield, probably in Scilly. Blanche was the daughter of Eldred Banfield, a farmer at Holy Vale, on St Mary’s in the Scillys. They were married in 1914 in Saskatchewan. (Post #3 talks more about the Banfields).

Blanche was a strong willed, intelligent woman. Before marrying my grandfather, she received nursing training at Charing Cross Hospital in London. She was also active with the Women’s Suffrage movement, and she is in this picture as a Suffrage supporter. I remember her well, although she died in 1962. She was an avid reader, and introduced me to the Saturday Review, a famous American journal of politics and the arts in the 60s, which had a permanent influence on my reading habits. She also had an enormous impact on the woman that my mother Anne became.

Anyway, by 1914, Jack and Blanche were settled in his homestead. I have quite a few photos of their two little ones, Ethel (born 1915) and Anne (born 1917), and of the homestead, a typical sod hut shown on the left. (You have to look hard; it’s that tiny little thing in the middle). Late in life Jack participated in a documentation/archive project with the Saskatchewan Archives Office that documented pioneer memories and experiences. His responses in the questionnaire are very vivid. In response to a question about why he came to Canada, he responded –

I was a school boy in the City of London, England. I was on the point of leaving school. My father kept on urging me to make up my mind what I wanted to do. I knew some people who had gone to Canada. Also in Trafalgar Square the Canadian Pacific Railway had an office and I think the Canadian government too. Anyway, there were beautiful exhibits of apples, etc. grown in Canada; did not know Canada then, and did not read the ‘fine print’ which said apples did not grow in Prairie Provinces.

He describes a terrible hail storm in 1916 –

Experienced a terrible hail storm about August 2 or 3, 1916. Hailstones as big as golf balls. Beautiful standing crop almost ready to cut pounded in the ground in about 15 minutes. Dead and dying chickens & ducklings all around. Windows all broken, and holes punched in roof let water in. I was at the edge of the storm. 1/4 just south untouched!

He also describes how quickly the area was “modernized”, as he moved from traveling on foot, to horse and buggy, and finally to model T all in 10 years. And finally, he details what appears to have been an old meeting area, a stone circle left by the First People, that he uncovered when he first broke sod.

Jack farmed the homestead until 1922, at which time he and family (Blanche and daughters Ethel and Anne) moved back to England. Then in 1924, back to Canada on the way to Chicago. The family first lived on Broadway Ave, just south of Addison, and my mother, who was eight or so at the time, can remember the speakeasy below their apartment, and a certain gangster, who gave the kids nickels, who was shot in front of it. They then moved west to Barry Avenue, just west of Halsted.

Jack’s birth in Shanghai turned out to be a problem that took 20 years to resolve. According to American immigration laws at the time, anyone born in Shanghai was Chinese, and being Chinese was not a good thing. Jack spent 20 years trying to become a naturalized US citizen, and it was not until 1944, when some functionary either took pity or made a mistake (accounts differ) that Jack succeeded.

Jack was lucky to have found steady work before the crash, and worked for Commonwealth Edison his entire career. I mention this because of my reference to Orwell above. Jack had every right to expect that his life would parallel his father’s and grandfather’s, but instead he tried farming, could not find work in England, then emigrated again and worked in respectable but not especially remunerative functions until he retired. Without his union, he would not have had much at all when he left work, and to keep his job and pension in the forties (as the Union took hold), he had to accept demotion to night watchman (which by the way, he loved – lots of time to read). Not quite Wigan Pier, but similar enough.

To bring this story to a conclusion, Jack’s second daughter Anne is my mother. I will describe this smart, complex woman in a later post.

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