Jack of Two Hearts

Jack Ledsham (1886-1969), my grandfather, was a remote figure in my young life, an Englishman of modest stature with a smile as good as Maurice Chevalier’s. The smile and five-word conversations are the best I remember of him because he was a Jehovah’s Witness in the Fifties when I was growing up. Nothing else mattered to him. My understanding of him grew when family history got its grip on me. I soon liked him much better.

Jack was officially John Woodcock Ledsham, second youngest of six children. Census records reveal that he would have had another sibling except for that baby’s death during delivery in 1896. On that same occasion their mother Sarah (1860-1896) died. Her death certificate states that she hemorrhaged. Ten-year old Jack witnessed the alarming scene with his father Edward. No documents were needed to learn that he stood at the end of the bed where it all took place, his father holding him and shaking. He spoke of it more than once to his children, one of them my mother. The family lived in England across the Mersey River from Liverpool in a part of the city of Birkenhead known as Claughton Village. The Ledsham/Ledsom surname is seriously planted in Birkenhead and surrounds. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, so goes the adage. At the end of the 19th Century motherless Jack knew nothing of metaphorical apples but he was painfully familiar with real ones. His memory was vivid of the day he doubled up from horrible cramps caused by his voracious eating of little green pomes which had fallen from trees in his neighbourhood. He was desperately hungry. Without their mother he and his youngest brother William were being neglected. The older children, in their teens, must have been lost themselves in many ways but censuses show that they were at least occupied with working to earn a living. The father was suffering a breakdown and was not functioning as a parent. Jack accompanied him to work on occasion and remembered watching lunch food disappear into his father’s mouth while his own stomach grumbled fiercely. No sharing with Jack. Being largely unsupervised he and William were soon deemed to be at risk of becoming delinquent. Information at Wirral Archives Service and Shropshire Archives tells that in 1897 older brother Edward signed them and their father Edward/Edwin into the dreaded Birkenhead Union Workhouse.

Workhouses were supposed to be helpful havens for the desperate. The father was assigned to its Asylum where he was confined for about two years. Jack and William were taken to an industrial residential school in Quatt, Shropshire where they were registered as paupers. Now the boys lived some eighty miles from home and everything they knew. They would remain throughout their schooling years and trade training. What was it that they knew? Well, their house was a rowhouse on Mona Street, one of little Claughton Village’s oldest roads.

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17 Mona Street
Claughton, Birkenhead, Merseyside, England

Mona ran parallel to the busier Upton Road. According to a native son of the area, its connected dwellings initially featured two small bedrooms upstairs and one room on ground level, with slate floors and a fireplace. The 1891 Census has Jack’s address as Number Seventeen. His widowed paternal grandmother Agnes Ledsham, a shopkeeper at a sweets establishment, also lived on Mona. If her grandson wanted to visit he was almost at her corner house when he opened his front door. He turned right and could run to Number Seven in no time. If it was Sunday and he was going to St. Bede’s Chapel at the corner of Scott’s Place and Upton Road, he was almost there, too. He would not turn right outside his door but left and left again onto Scott’s Place. From there it was only a few steps to St. Bede’s. The church building, roads and white stuccoed houses still exist, easily observed with a very short walk from Upton Road. Other relatives resided there, too, namely the Halewoods, one of whom was Jack’s maternal grandmother. She lived right next door.

Where did Jack once play? Sometimes he might well have trekked a bit of a walk away, along the Tollemache Road to Bidston Hill which lay in splendid wait. It offered a sweeping view of the surrounds, ancient rock carvings, a lighthouse, old buildings to inspect and a windmill to admire. Bidston Hill remains popular to this day.

No mother, no familiar surroundings, absence from their father, siblings, cousins, grandmother and church. In adulthood Jack was to give his wife and children the impression that the Quatt Industrial School was an orphanage. However, it was not an orphanage and he was not an orphan. When he enlisted with the Canadian Army in 1917 his father was still alive, housed at 3 Scott’s Place, Claughton, England. Attestation papers state this fact.

The goal of schools like the one at Quatt was to turn pauper children into good citizens and Quatt looks to have done just that for Jack, at least, while he was there. Beyond regular meals and routines a few factors helped keep him in line: school days filled with lessons and physical activity and a kindly nurse who apparently took him under her wing. He likely attended Sunday School as well. At age sixteen he was apprenticed to a German hairdresser either in Quatt or Reading. Hairdressing was known in Canada as barbering. He lived in Reading for several years. While still very young Jack began to fall into some poor patterns of behaviour until his minister at the Anglican Church which he attended helped him straighten out. He played cricket in Reading as an old photo attests and worked steadily.

Around 1907 he was working in a barbershop behind a dry goods establishment where a very young woman named Gertrude Argyle, her schooling newly finished, was working for pay for the first time. Jack liked her from the start but Gertie, in her taped memoir, described her feelings at the time in no uncertain terms: she was not taken by him at all. She described him as short and he was – five foot three according to his WW1 papers – ginger-haired, freckled and much too old for her. She was right in every respect. The age difference of six years was a real detraction for a girl of fourteen. But Jack’s ardour persisted even when she left Reading to find work in Abingdon, her ancestral town just south of Oxford. They wrote back and forth until Gertie told him about a suitor more appealing to her, someone named Frank. In a return letter Jack railed that he was devastated and that if she ever changed her mind he would be waiting. His patience paid off and one day she mailed him a note to report that suitor number one was no longer and she would be glad to see him again. Clear-minded at age ninety-five, she recalled having been unable to get Jack off her mind. Instead of writing back Jack immediately hopped on his bicycle and headed for Abingdon forty-six kilometres away. That sealed it. Until Gertie was twenty, in her words, the two ‘had an understanding’. However, Gertie had to put on a few years and money had to be saved if ever they were going to marry. She usually worked in Abingdon, as a companion cum domestic servant while Jack cut hair and trimmed moustaches in Reading and Wokingham. The distance seemed manageable to Jack.

Not so for Gertie’s father George Argyle. The Argyles’ income had been going downhill ever since 1903 after George sold his flourishing little Argyle Dairy in Abingdon, Berkshire. Against his wife Ellen’s strong wishes – she had been a full working partner – he moved his family to Reading in order to attend regular meetings there of a new-found religious sect. Purchase of a general store on Howard Street in Reading did not lead to financial security. The oil used for lighting lamps was stored in barrels at the front of the shop and Ellen suffered severe headaches from the emanating fumes. The business had to be sold soon after purchase.

In nearby Tilehurst they tried market gardening which yielded poor income. After a ten-year struggle to get ahead George who made all the family’s serious decisions shocked them with another one in 1913: everyone would emigrate to Canada. Arthur, Gertie’s elder brother, had easily found work there, in Toronto. By mail he had been urging his father to make the move. Gertie was horrified and Jack’s reaction matched hers. In those still Victorian times her father forbade her to stay in England an unmarried woman. Gertie said she couldn’t leave Jack. Jack didn’t want her to go. He didn’t want her family to go. After much discussion two more life-changing ventures were taken on. Jack and Gertie would finally marry – she was finally almost twenty – and further, would emigrate with the rest of the Argyles who were, in effect, Jack’s family. He had little contact with his Ledshams.

                                                                 John Woodcock Ledsham 1886-1969   

                                                  John Woodcock Ledsham  1886 – 1969

They disembarked at Portland, Maine April 13 and boarded a bug-infested boat train to Toronto. They stayed briefly in downtown East Toronto on Curzon Street with Gertie’s brother. This was the aforementioned Arthur. On Jack’s first full day in Canada he was hired by a Scottish barber. Very soon his father-in-law was working at Christie’s Biscuits in the west end. Perhaps all would settle down.

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                                               Gertrude Argyle Ledsham 1893 – 1992

                                            with firstborn daughter Evelyn? born 1915

Four years later, thirty years old and father of two little girls, Jack was back in England fighting for Canada in the Great War. Detailed War records show that in September 1918, the year of the War’s end, he saw only his first action and a brief bit at that. During an attack in the Arras area of France his lower leg and heel were hit with shrapnel. He was removed from the field to hospital care in Boulogne, then to England and back to Christie Street Hospital in Toronto for an extended period. The gangrenous wounds did not heal easily but the stalwart Jack Ledsham refused to have his lower leg amputated. A severe limp would stay with him his whole life but he would have two legs. Minus most of a heel he would be supplied with custom-made boots. Should he be unable to stand for long hours cutting hair the Army taught him shoe repair. He did return to barbering however, running his own small shop and successfully supporting Gertie and their eight children, four girls followed by four boys the last two of whom were twins.

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Meanwhile Jack helped his in-laws out with money and caring. In 1945 when eighty-year old George lay in bed dying of cancer he and Gertie had him driven by ambulance not to hospital but to their house. George’s religion did not favour hospitals. Jack stayed at George’s bedside through his last hours. Always, he was aware of George’s tie with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Perhaps his bond with his father-in-law played a part in Jack’s joining the organization, too. To Gertie’s dismay her husband became an even more obsessed member than her father. She well understood the marital experience of her mother Ellen who claimed that love went out the window when George ‘took up’ with the sect. Jack devoted nearly all of his scarce spare time to the ‘JWs’.

Barbering had never been his love and he retired on the first day he could afford to do so. He spent every available moment in full partnership with the worshippers of Jehovah. Family life was no longer foremost. As a grandchild visiting his home I was met by a cordial, smiling man who sat with those present but only long enough to eat. He might listen to an NHL hockey game by radio or in later years watch one on a small black and white tv screen but only for a brief few minutes. Soon he rose, fetched his coat from the hall coat rack, picked up his black briefcase and in his familiar gait, limped away to duties at the Kingdom Hall on Donlands Avenue. For the rest of his life he took on responsibilities as requested: knocked on doors, counselled couples, gardened at the Kingdom Hall and stood at the corner of East York’s Broadview and Danforth Avenues promoting their Awake! and Watchtower publications. Having made contact in recent years with his old and still active Kingdom Hall I was referred to a woman who had known him when she was young. Her story was that in the course of shared responsibilities and worship she and Jack developed a strong bond, to the extent that at one time he suggested to her that maybe they were meant to meet after death, after Judgment Day. His family knew nothing of the friendship and anyway, absolutely no one thought he would be unfaithful to Gertie in this life. Had Gertie joined the sect he would have been wild with joy and entirely inclusive of her and for that matter, of any of his large family who would have entered the fold. No one did.

Jack didn’t appear to take his wife’s complaints seriously. It took until he lay dying that finally he confessed to her that he could have done some things differently. If he had, Gertie would have been beside him. She recorded that there was no one else she would have chosen to marry.

Long after his death I entered a one-chair East York barbershop on a whim and asked the gray-haired barber if he had been cutting hair in East York for very long. Yes, said the man as he clipped hair from the nape of a male neck. Why do you ask? Just wondering if you knew another barber over on Pape Avenue. Maybe, he said. Did you know Jack Ledsham? The barber paused, then looked up. Yes, I did know him. He was a Jehovah’s Witness, wasn’t he? Yes, said I. Jack reared eight children successfully, is what I remember, he said. He put his clippers down and came out with a revealing little story. A young fellow who once worked for me bought Jack’s business when Jack retired. Jack knew the young man had put absolutely all his money into purchase of the business and didn’t even have coins in his pocket at that juncture. Jack on his last day in his barbershop walked into the back of it and after a minute returned carrying a pouch full of coins. Here, he said. Take this and pay me back when you can. Jack then left the shop and never looked back. Such a fine man in many ways. His surviving very elderly children carry great love for him and warm memories of their childhoods in a large family. They were on their way to adulthood during those long years of his increasing pull away from them and the woman he loved, in favour of a highly controversial religious sect.

Did the sad, lonely and motherless little boy still live in the man, desperately in need of the support, trust and praise provided by that faith? He was a ‘brother’ there, even a marriage counsellor, a man of value equal with fellow members. Or was it none of that? Did he simply fall into an overpowering love for Jehovah? My research never finds every answer.

The funeral service for Jack was held by his fellow Witnesses. Their world. He would lie in the ground as if asleep, until Judgment Day. Did he ever make sense of his two lives? Perhaps he took Gertie more seriously than she thought. He chose the gravestone which is placed in a Don Mills Toronto cemetery and within its frame of engraved gray marble flowers it does not simply state my grandparents’ names and dates of birth and death. It clearly also reads: ‘Together Forever’. Not to the Witnesses’ way of thinking, though. Jack of two hearts.

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