OFF THE RECORD
A holiday to Canada enabled Alan to reconnect with his grandfather in the most unexpected of places…
Alan Crosby connects with Canada
Ihave just returned from a holiday in Western Canada, flying to Calgary and back from Vancouver. It was a wonderful experience, not only for the magnificent scenery and wildlife but also for family history.
My grandparents were married in Calgary Cathedral in 1919, so of course we visited. Back then it was one of the tallest buildings in a town of 40,000 people. Now it’s just about the smallest, dwarfed by towering skyscrapers in a city of 1.75 million people. The cathedral, which is architecturally unambitious, is rarely open but we arrived shortly before one of the three services per week, and a delightful lady showed us round. Her accent was obviously not Canadian. We enquired and learned that she came from Penwortham, approximately a mile from where I’m typing this at home in Preston. Small world!
The cathedral has scarcely changed since my grandparents knelt at the altar 96 years ago. It’s a dark, rather gloomy building, very unprepossessing on the outside, but lovingly maintained and with every surface polished and gleaming. I’d wondered if I would be able to see my grandparents’ entry in the marriage register, but (a pathetic confession) I had not thought to check beforehand and the priest told me that the registers are now held in the archives at the University of Calgary. Unfortunately there was no time in our packed itinerary to pay a visit.
But I mused on the strange circumstances of that wedding back when this was not much more than a frontier town. It took place only a day-and-a-half after my grandmother arrived at Calgary station, having travelled alone from Liverpool on a transatlantic steamer to Quebec and then on the Canadian Pacific Railway across the endless prairies, to meet a man she had only known for six weeks when he was a patient in a convalescent hospital in October 1917. Not a sound basis for a lifetime together, and so it turned out... they stayed together for only five-and-a-half years and had two children, one of them being my dad.
After visiting the cathedral, we went to the branch of Sport Chek in Stephen Avenue, the main pedestrianised street in downtown Calgary (Sport Chek being “Canada’s largest retailer of sports equipment, sporting goods, sports apparel and footwear”). Not much of a family history connection, you might think, but you’d be wrong – the shop occupies the Clarence Block, a two-storey sandstone building completed in 1912 and, together with a sequence of other attractive sandstone shops and office buildings along the street, now a national historic monument and part of Calgary’s main guided heritage trail.
My grandfather, a clever and ambitious young lawyer, had his office on the upper floor of the Clarence Block back in 1919-1922 – he was articled to the firm of Lougheed, Bennett & Co, the top legal partnership in the city.
His bosses were Sir James Lougheed, one of Alberta’s leading politicians and the richest man in the province, and Richard Bennett, who was Prime Minister of Canada from 1930 to 1935. All very promising, though my grandfather managed to make a pig’s ear of both his career and his personal life and never gained the benefit of having two immensely influential patrons.
But back to Sport Chek. While the rest of the family undertook a brief course of retail therapy, looking at sportswear of all descriptions, I stood at the window on the first floor of the building and looked out at Stephen Avenue, and more sandstone blocks opposite. It was quite an emotional experience – almost a century ago the grandfather I never knew must have stood at that same window, looking out at that same view (albeit without the array of wine bars, gourmet restaurants, designer outlets and pop-up stalls that now line the street).
Family history takes us to many interesting places, but for me the main street of downtown Calgary on a beautiful sunny August morning, the Edwardian sandstone buildings overlooked by glittering skyscrapers, was among the best.
Almost a century ago, the grandfather I never knew must have stood at this same window, looking at the same view