Ruby welcomes comments -
The “Shoebox” Collection of personal letters
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
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
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 amazon.com
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