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The “Shoebox” Collection of personal letters

Photo circa 1901 shows Martha (Moorhead) Ellis and her family on the porch of their farm in Youghall Beach, just outside of Bathurst. From left to right: Seated looking away from the camera is Margaret Ellis who would later enlist as a field hospital nurse in World War I and who, upon her mother's death in 1916, continued corresponding with her far-flung relatives up until 1940. Next are Martha's two other daughters Annie and the baby Marian.   Standing in the background is Mr. William Ellis, Martha's husband who, in spite of long hard days on the farm, lives to a very respectable age of 93.  Seated in the rocking chair is Martha (Moorhead) Ellis, who carefully preserved her precious letters for almost 50 years and to whom the book owes its origin.   Finally, standing on the far right is son Leslie, who in 1901 had just graduated from McGill as a medical doctor. (Photo courtesy Blake Maher)

The wind howled down the stove pipe, the windows rattled, and the lone light hanging from the kitchen ceiling flickered as if the power might go off

Cliff and I tired of playing checkers and Snakes and Ladders. I think we were driving Mum crazy with our begging to please let us go outside to dig in the snow drifts that were getting higher by the minute.

The festive season of getting presents, trimming and untrimming the tree, company coming, over eating and welcoming the new year seemed to be a long time past. But Mum had one final task that she had been putting off doing.

She made it sound like we would be doing her a big favour if we helped her organize the Christmas Cards by putting them in the envelopes they had arrived in, writing the year on the bottom right-hand corner, arranging them in alphabetical order by sender and finally tying a ribbon around the packet. As we did this, she dug out a box, filled with cards and letters from years gone by.

My curiosity got the best of me as I wondered what was written in all these letters that Mum had kept for so many years. I picked up an envelope with an American stamp and took out a letter that started with, “My dear Cousin” but I could not read the rest of the writing so Mum read it to me.

I did not have a clue who the people were, but I listened carefully to all the news about her family as to who was sick, who got married, who had a baby etc. Although the letter had been written before I was born, it discussed the same topics, Mum wrote about in her letters. Once the letter was read, I began to ask questions about these people.

Fortunately, Blake Maher too was interested in a shoebox filled with old correspondence that had been given to his mother by relatives. Her mother had died young and her grandmother as well, so little of the family's maternal "story" had been  passed through the generations. The letters changed all that by his researching and compiling of “The Moorhead Letters - The “Shoebox” Collection of personal letters of Martha (Moorhead) Ellis & Family 1869 - 1940" in July 2011.

The grandmother in question was Martha Moorhead. In 1873, at the age of  22 she left her home in present day Northern Ireland and traveled to Youghall near Bathurst. There she married, William Ellis, raised five children and died in 1916.

On August 25, 1874, Martha’s mother, Mary Moorhead penned a letter to her from Drumadooey, Ireland concerning her upcoming marriage. ”He (meaning Martha’s father) saw I was so much distressed at the thought of never seeing you again in this world but I would not have said one word to mar your happiness.”

On 24th August, (1875) a letter from Drumadooey, Ireland was written by her father, John Moorhead which says, “I am so happy to congratulate you on the Birth of your Son your first born”.

Martha’s half-brother, William Moorhead is living in Wolumia, New South Wales, Australia on the 29th January 1881 and speaks of his farm, “We are chiefly engaged milking and making butter, feeding pigs and calves and washing vessels. We are milking 85 twice a day. We never put our cows in the house . . . After they eat, they go and lay down under trees which keeps the frost off them. . . We have a very comfortable homestead and garden. We drive a sociable buggy with two horses to church.”

In 1887, Martha received the sad letter from her father advising her of her mother’s death and interment in Strabane burying ground.

Upon the death of Martha Moorhead Ellis, her daughter Margaret continued corresponding with her far-flung relatives up until 1940.

As I read the letters, I seemed to walk in the footsteps and feel the pain and joy of Martha and her family. I am certain, like any other mother, she worried when Leslie left for McGill in Montreal to study for a doctor. He went on to open a medical practice in Jacquet River. Daughter Margaret went to Saint John to do her nursing training and was a Nursing Sister in World War I.

Together the letters cover a 70-year period capturing snippets of daily life from the mid-Victorian times to the beginning of the Second World War. They announce the arrival of newborns, the death of close relatives, sicknesses and marriages, recount tales of transatlantic crossings, the first sightings of the “motor carriage’’, hunting expeditions and snow storms, relate bouts of loneliness, problems of unemployment, the challenges of old age, an intimate look behind the scenes of a late Victorian family of modest means who survived and, in some cases  prospered, after leaving Ireland for Canada, the US and Australia.  Some of  the texts convey thoughts and ideas which are still relevant today. Others will remind readers how times and values have changed.

As letters reached Martha from her siblings and their families in Ireland, Australia and the United States, she probably felt very lonely not to be present to share their joys and to support them in their sorrows.

The Moorhead Letters - The “Shoebox” Collection of personal letters of Martha (Moorhead) Ellis & Family 1869 - 1940 edited by Blake Maher, July 2011 can be ordered from

Query 1847
Cosman - Hepburn: George Cosman married Ann Hepburn on 19 May 1853. George probably died between 1865 and 1871 in Saint John, New Brunswick. Ann and her children migrated to Boston after 1871. I am seeking any information on George - his date and place of birth, date and place of death, names of  parents, and any other information to assist in my search.

Query 1848
Clark(e) - Burtt: James Clark(e) born 1820, Keswick, New Brunswick died 1914, Centreville, NB, shoemaker, married Lucy Burtt, born 1820, Jacksontown, died 1920, Centreville, parents Benjamin Burtt and Mary Jones. Buried in Centreville United Baptist Cemetery. I am interested in the names of James’s parents, Lucy’s grandparents, and the siblings of James and Lucy.

Query 1849
Fillmore - Butler:  Mary Sarah Fillmore born circa 1803 in New Brunswick,  married Michael Butler in Malden, Westmorland Co., New Brunswick circa 1823 and died 12 Aug 1853. Michael Butler was possibly born circa 1784 in Tipperary, Ireland. He died 20 May 1866. He and his wife are both buried at St Bartholomew's in Melrose, Botsford Parish, Westmorland County. Could Mary Sarah be a daughter of Jemima Tingley, and John Fillmore of Westmorland County, N.B.? I am interested in gaining documentation as to the parents of this couple.
Contact K. John McCarthy, 7320 N. La Cholla Blvd,  # 154-172, Tucson, Arizona, USA, 85741-2309. Email

Query 1850
Mackintosh - McIntosh - Clark: Seeking information on Captain Donald B Mackintosh / McIntosh who married Amelia Clark in Saint John in 1870. They had a daughter, Ella, born in NB circa 1871, a son Daniel T.A.  in Liverpool, England in 1873. Returned to NB. Son's picture was taken by Isaac Erb circa 1878.  Daughter is in 1881 New Brunswick census.
Don Mackintosh
1674 Hoolaulea Street
Pearl City, HI 96782

Query 1851
Brown - Flynn - Sewell: Nicholas Brown Sr., (possibly the son of Benjamin Brown of Maugerville and unnamed Sewell who may have died in childbirth in1790), married Pheobe Flynn in 1817 and his death occurred on 04 Jun 1852. A son Nicholas James Brown was born to them 29 Dec 1818, St. John River, New Brunswick. I would appreciate any help in my research of these families.
Contact Nadine by email

New and Used Genealogical and Historical books of
New Brunswick for sale.

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