Thursday, 2 August 2012

Sidetracked by a trio of enterprising brothers

Canadian picnic: Art, Fred and Ern are the three hatless men on the left

Self-discipline is something I've needed a lot of this week, not only to ensure that Olympic-viewing doesn't take over everything (although, goodness knows, that's been hard enough) but also to make sure that I keep my eyes firmly on the title of my book. With so many fascinating characters writing First World War letters, it's very easy to wander off course and spend time becoming interested in their lives rather than sticking to the letters they wrote. I'm not saying that background information isn't valuable, but recently I've had to remind myself that my aim is to write about the First World War rather than individual families!

The enterprising Stride brothers, for example, caught my imagination and were a case in point. The trio set off for Canada in 1909 in order to find work in the building trade. They came from a Somerset family which had run a successful building business since the 1800s, developing housing and shops in the Shirehampton and Avonmouth areas of Bristol. But by the early 1900s the business couldn't support the whole family, so the brothers set off for Canada in search of pastures new.

Ern, 27, was the eldest and drove the business forward; Fred, 26, was the easy-going one; and Art, 25, was the youngest, elegant and dapper. They found work in Vancouver and all three lived off Fred's wages while saving money earned by the other two, and in time they set up their own business. The brothers lived a lively social life which centred around the local methodist church. They were musical and played viola and cello, and there were plenty of outings, as pictured above.

For some years Fred and Art remained settled in Canada, both marrying Canadian women, but Ern's life took a less happy turn when became ill with tuberculosis. In the early stages he was nursed by Fred, however the Stride family was close and didn't want to bury one of their own in a foreign land. So Ern came back to England (and in the end he lived until he was 45).

Where do First World War letters come into this story? When Ern returned to England, conscription was in full swing and the Army lost no time in calling him up. Although he resisted, he was put on light duties at home. 'Well or ill everyone seems to be caught in the net,' he wrote. 'We are caught in the military machine alright, no escape.' There followed regular letters from Ern to his brothers in which he wrote about everything from his duties at an anti-aircraft station to the mood of the country.

Ern's letters give a fascinating insight into England at a time when trench warfare had started wear down public enthusiasm for the conflict and will provide valuable material for my project. But the enterprising Stride brothers deserve a book of their own!

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