Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Arthur’s Baby Book

The night before three-year-old Arthur Hamilton became ill, he was reciting a rhyme and joking about lisps and kisses and mistletoe with a family friend who was helping put the children to bed. Someone – his mother or the friend – recorded those words in his baby book.  

The following day, Arthur came down influenza. In fact, everyone in the house – his parents, his twin brother and his two older siblings – got sick. The others recovered, but Arthur did not.  

When the influenza pandemic reached the Hamiltons’ Winnipeg home in January 1919, it was at its deadly peak. Arthur was among more than 1,200 Winnipeg residents and 50,000 Canadians killed by the pandemic, which was brought to Canada by troops returning from the trenches of World War I. Some 21 million people died from the virus worldwide.

The last page of Arthur's baby book

Today, Arthur’s baby book, and that of his twin (my father) is in the University of Manitoba Archives as part of the Hamilton Family collection. These cheerfully illustrated booklets include important milestones, such as the twins’ first steps. Arthur’s book is especially moving because of the entry about the jokes he made just before he became ill.2

Archivist Shelley Sweeney has used Arthur’s baby book in the classroom many times. For example, she took it to a religious studies class that was exploring how people react to death by expressing regret and memorializing the person who has passed.

“It strikes people as so unbearably sad,” she says. “There are always sympathetic expressions and murmurs when I talk about it.”3

The death of a young child like Arthur seems especially sad, but the influenza pandemic traumatized whole communities. Some people lost family members to the flu after having already lost sons and brothers in the war. Many of those who died were between 20 and 40 years old, in the prime of their lives. Children were left without parents, families without income earners, businesses without customers, and manufacturers without workers. Poor neighbourhoods had the highest death rates.
Some people compared the pandemic to the Black Death of medieval times. The government banned large public gatherings to try to control the spread of the virus. Hospitals and physicians were overwhelmed.

My grandfather was a physician and my grandmother had trained as a nurse, but they couldn’t save their son. They tried everything they knew, but there were no effective treatments in 1919.

Their older son, Glen, a future a physician himself, later recalled being taken in to see Arthur’s body. He said, “I can remember on the floor beside his crib there was an enamel basin with boiling water in it – Friars Balsam [eucalyptus oil] – that aromatic stuff you put into body rub, and a little tank of oxygen. And those were the weapons to fight the flu. That was all!”4

My grandfather, Thomas Glendenning (T.G.) Hamilton, was devastated by his son’s death. Not only had he failed as a physician, but, as Glen Hamilton suggested in an interview, T.G. may have felt that he had been too attached to Arthur. “Dad was a very strict Calvinist Presbyterian and he felt that in some way, because he was so fond Arthur …. that he was being punished by the Lord ….”5  

Arthur and James (I'm not sure which is which)

Arthur’s death was a pivotal event for the Hamiltons in a way that seems surprising today, but was typical for the time. Many people were deeply religious and believed in personal survival after death. Grieving families wanted to communicate with loved ones who had passed, so they turned to mediums and séances. Between the two world wars, a strong spiritualist movement developed in Canada and elsewhere.6 Glen suggested that Arthur’s death stimulated his parents’ interest in the psychic field.

What made the Hamiltons unusual was the effort they put into exploring psychic phenomena. For more than 10 years, until T.G.’s death in 1935, they held almost weekly séances with a small group of regular participants.7 T.G. became known across Canada, the United States and England for his psychic research, while Lillian played a key organizing role in the background. T.G. emphasized the “scientific” nature of his enquiry, but his grief must have coloured these experiences. 

Around 1980, Margaret (Hamilton) Bach donated her parents’ research notes, speeches and photographs to the University of Manitoba Archives, and a few years ago I added a few items, including the twins’ baby books. Today, many people consult the Hamilton Family fonds. Some are interested in psychics, several have used the collection as inspiration for plays and visual art, and other researchers are using the collection to explore how people cope with trauma.

Although many people, including myself, are skeptical about the authenticity of their experiments, it is wonderful to see that T.G.’s and Lillian’s passion is still contagious in so many different ways.

(This story is also posted on
Notes and Sources
T.G. Hamilton and Lillian (Forrrester) Hamilton had four children: Margaret Lillian (1909-1986), Glen Forrester (1911-1988), and twins James Drummond (1915-1980) – my father -- and Arthur Lamont (1915-1919).

To read more about the Hamilton Family fonds, see

1 Janice Dickin, Patricia G. Bailey, “Influenza”, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada, (accessed March 20, 2017).

2. Baby book of Arthur Lamont Hamilton. University of Manitoba Archives and Special Collections (UMASC), Hamilton Family fond, A10-01, Winnipeg.

3. Personal email communication with Shelley Sweeney, March 23, 2017.

4. James B. Nickels. “Psychic Research in a Winnipeg Family: Reminiscences of Dr. Glen F. Hamilton”, Manitoba History, June 2007, p. 53.

5. Ibid.

6. Esyllt Jones, “Spectral Influenza: Winnipeg’s Hamilton Family, Interwar Spiritualism and Pandemic Disease,” in Magda Fahrni and Esyllt W. Jones, editors, Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society and Culture in Canada, 1918-20, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012, p. 195.

7. Janice Hamilton “Bring on Your Ghosts!” Paranormal Review, winter 2016, p. 6. This magazine is published by The Society for Psychical Research in England. This edition is entirely devoted to the psychic research carried out by the Hamiltons.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Thomas Rixon: Ontario Farmer, Carpenter, and Transplanted Englishman

Thomas Rixon (1793-1876) remained throughout his adult life “a very ‘dandified’ Englishman, always appearing in his top hat, spats, gloves and cane and, although quite poor, always a ‘gentleman’.”1

This description, written by my grandmother about her great-grandfather, suggests that Thomas Rixon was something of a character. Given that he lived in a rural area near Lake Ontario’s Bay of Quinte and supported his family as a farmer and a carpenter, that top hat must have stood out.

If I had only had the usual census and church records to go by, I would have come to the conclusion that my three-times great-grandfather was a pretty ordinary guy, but the top hat was a good clue: Thomas has proved to be somewhat mysterious.

Shoreline near Brighton, Ontario  
The first time I looked for Thomas Rixon in the census on, I even had difficulty finding him because his name was misspelled two different ways (Rison and Rickson). But gradually, I have put together an overview of his life, with added details from a recently discovered article, written in 1984 by Fennell family historian Brian Harling.

Thomas was born in 1793 in Woolwich, Kent, England, a naval shipbuilding and military town on the Thames River near London. He was the son of William and Martha Rixon, one of eight children, four of whom lived to adulthood.2 He probably trained as a shipwright before immigrating to Canada.

Thomas may have traveled to Canada with his brother James (1796-1870). James settled in Milton, Halton County, southwest of Toronto, where he became a farmer and, with his wife Mary Davidson, raised six children.

According to Harling, the earliest record of Thomas Rixon’s presence in Canada was in April 1820 in a list, published in the Kingston Gazette, of people who had mail waiting at the post office.3

Thomas Rixon, shipwright, married Elizabeth (Betsey)Thompson (1804-1872) in October 1825 at the Anglican Church, Ameliasburgh Parish.4 Betsey’s family had come to Canada from Goshen, New York a few years before her birth and settled on Big Island, Sophiasburgh Township, Prince Edward County.5 According to an 1832 survey of Big Island, Thomas Rixon was on Lot 24 and Betsey’s brothers Hiram Thompson and William Maurice Thompson were nearby on lots 25 and 18.6  Big Island belonged to the Mohawk people of Tyendinaga at the time, so the Thompsons, the Rixons and many of their neighbours were squatters.

Why Thomas, who had grown up a city boy, ended up settling so far off the beaten track, and how he took to farming, is not known.

Most of the Rixon children were born in Sophiasburgh, and Harling found Thomas’ name in the Road Reports for Sophiasburgh Township between 1838 and 1846. Every year, all residents of rural municipalities were required to provide several days of labour, primarily road building and maintenance. By the time the census was taken in 1851, the Rixon family had moved to Cramahe Township in neighbouring Northumberland County. Thomas and his family were counted there in the 1851, 1861 and 1871 censuses.  

I am not sure whether Thomas and Betsey ever purchased their own farm, or whether they continued to rent. In the 1851 census, Thomas was listed on Concession 6, Lot 27, Cramahe. Harling noted that he was on Concession 8, Lot 12 in the 1850 census of Cramahe Township, and that he purchased a four-acre property – Concession 8, Lot 13 -- in 1852 and sold it in 1855. The 1861 census listed the family in a one-storey frame house.

It is clear Thomas did not get rich with farming or with carpentry, although he and Betsey had many mouths to feed. Fortunately, no one had much cash and farmers were usually self-sufficient. They grew their own food and they grew flax they wove into linen cloth. They sent their cow hides to the local tannery and some farmers even made their own boots and harnesses..7

The Rixons had eleven children, and, towards the ends of their lives, they raised two of their grandchildren, Samantha Rixon and Phineas Wellington Rixon. There is a family story that Thomas and Betsey had a twelfth child, Arthur Wellington Rixon. I have searched for him online, and I hired two local researchers to look for him, to no avail. I strongly suspect he never existed, and will write about this in a future post.

Thomas and Betsey’s other children were well documented:
William James Rixon b. 1826, m. Mary Jane Cardinell; Methodist preacher, died 1918, California
Henry James Rixon b. 1828, d. 1830
Catherine E. Rixon, b. 1829, m. Homer Platt, d. 1922, Brighton
Rhoda H.  Rixon, b. 1832, m. Jonathan Rolfe, d. 1907, Osceola, Michigan
Martha Jane Rixon, b. 1834, m. Moses Smith Perkins, d. Montague, Michigan, 1875
Ormacinda E. Rixon, b. 1836, m. Henry Ryan Fennell, d. 1913
Kezia Matilda Rixon, b. 1838, m. Charles Warner, d. 1910, Cramahe
Phoebe Ann Rixon, b. 1841, m. Marshall Dulmage, d. 1885, Brighton
Mary Lucy Rixon, b. 1843, m. Aaron Warner, d. 1924
James P. Rixon, b. 1845, d. 1848
Sarah L. Rixon, b. 1847, m. Amos Knapp, d. after 1920, Michigan

Grave of Elizabeth, wife of Thomas Rixon
Elizabeth Rixon died on Sept. 13, 1872 at age 67, and was buried in Hilton United Church Cemetery, near Brighton. After her death, Thomas must have moved in with his daughter Kezia Warner because, at the time of his death on Dec. 12, 1876, his place of residence was at the Warner home, Concession 6, Lot 27, Cramahe. Thomas died at age 82 and is also buried in Hilton Cemetery.

Although Elizabeth’s gravestone is on the ground, it is still visible. Harling reported seeing Thomas’s gravestone next to it, broken and almost illegible, in 1984. Thirty years later, Thomas is still remembered.

Photo Credits: Janice Hamilton


1. Note on the back of a photograph of Samantha Rixon, signed at the bottom with initials LMF.  LMF was my grandmother, Lillian May (Forrester) Hamilton. She probably wrote the note in the 1940s or early 1950s since she mentioned her granddaughters. My cousin Alison Hermon emailed me an image of the note about eight years ago. Not realizing that there were errors, I forwarded a transcript to a genealogist working on the Fennell family, and it is now posted in the Public Member Trees section of Ancestry.  My grandmother wrote correctly that Thomas was from Kent, but she added that he went to the U.S. before coming to Canada. I have no confirmation of that. She stated his family was of Huguenot descent, which is possible since there were many Huguenots in southeast England, however, I have no evidence to prove it. Lillian also stated Thomas was a member of the United Empire Loyalist Party. Although it seems clear he loved England, he is not on any list of Loyalists, and several of his children ended up moving to the United States.

2. Janice Hamilton, “The Rixon Family of Woolwich, Kent,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Jan. 24, 2017,

3. “Fennells & Smiths, 19th Century Northumberland County, Ontario, Canada. A genealogical newsletter. Quarterly/ vol. 3 no 1/November 1984,” p. 2.
Professional genealogist Gabrielle Blaschuk found this article, written by Brian Harling, in the public library in Brighton, Ontario. She commented, “This is a priceless find, as I have confirmed that a number of records they have listed have, in the interim, disappeared and no one knows their whereabouts.”

4. Ibid. p. 2

5. Janice Hamilton, “A Confirmed Connection: the Thompson family of Goshen, N.Y. and Sophiasburgh, Ontario,” Writing Up the Ancestors, Nov. 4, 2015,

6. C. Loral R. Wanamaker, “John Thompson to Upper Canada circa 1800. Settled first Sophiasburgh twp. Later family Lot #72 – 3 Concession in Township of Ameliasburgh, Prince Edward County, Ontario,” (manuscript); hand-drawn map, p. E1, 1981; private collection of Elmire L. Conklin.

7. C. Sprague, “Early History of Big Island,” (manuscript), Quinte Branch, OGS, 1960.