Breaking through genealogical walls: my great-grandfather Walter Gear.

I’ve had very little sleep the past couple of nights. Idly searching through, I came upon some information that may have broken through a genealogical brick wall in an unexpected way, and it’s been keepig me at the computer until the wee hours of the morning.

My grandfather, Walter Gear, was a British Home Child. He emigrated to Canada with a group of children under the auspices of Miss Annie McPherson. He left Liverpool on September 7, 1871 at age 14 and sailed on the SS Prussian (Source.)  They arrived in Quebec City on the 17th of September and were taken by train to Belleville where there was a distribution home for such children. I knew nothing about his time over the next 16 years but in May 2011, I requested his file from Barnardo’s in England and there is a 6-8 month waiting period to receive any records they have about his birth family and the reasons why he was sent to Canada. 

Skipping forward in time:

There is also an arrival for a W Gear in 1887.  The passenger list for the SS Lake Ontario, leaving Bristol, England on October 6, 1887 and arriving in Quebec on Oct 17th shows a group of nine men, identified as Cattlemen. This leads me to believe that Walter may have returned to England at some point and then come back to Canada, although I have not been able to find his name on a passenger list corresponding to his return trip.

On the 12th of October 1899, Walter marries my grandmother Janet Forbes Morren (Source: Calgary Tribune). He and Janet have three children in Calgary: William (1900, my grandfather), Barbara (1903), and Mary (1905). On William’s birth certificate, Walter’s occupation is listed as “Drayman”, which would seem to accord with the occupation of cattleman on the 1887 passenger list. 

In the 1911 Census of Canada, Walter is living in Calgary at a lumber yard, working as a foreman in a stable. He has a roomer, George Dunkby. He is working 70 hours per week and earned $720 the previous year.Janet and the children are not living with him.That is tale for another post.

I had wondered about the years between his first trip over as a Home Child at age 14, and his second as a cattleman at age 30. It is my understanding that the Home Children would have been in service until age 18 or so, which suggests that there was a period of a dozen years when he would have been on his own.

Which brings me to my discovery. 

I found a marriage listed for a Walter Gear to an Elizabeth Miller in Sophiasburgh (now Picton, Ontario) on February 28, 1878. The registration lists Walter as 24 and Miss MIller as 18. 


Further searches yielded a birth (and death) certificate for a still born female child two years later in April 1880 and a daughter Lewella (later known as Ella) born in 1884. I am unable to locate either Walter or Elizabeth (now called Louisa) in the 1891 census, but in 1901, Louisa and Ella are living with Louisa’s mother Margaret, now widowed, and her brother Lewis MIller, a farmer, in Picton. Louisa is listed as married, but there is no husband in the household.

So the timeline looks like this:

1857 – Walter Gear born in England

1871 – Walter arrives in Ontario with group of home children (age 14)

1878 – Walter marries Elizabeth (age 24, per marriage cert)

1880, 1884 – Daughters born.  Only second one (Lewella) survives

18?? – Walter returns to England. His sister Alice gets married in 1886. Is it possible that he returned for that?

1887 – Walter returns to Canada as a cattleman, destined for Calgary.

1899 – Walter marrries Janet Morren, my grandmother, and has three children with her in Calgary.

1901 – Eliabeth is living with her mother, brother, and daughter in Picton, Ontario.

1911 – Walter living alone in Calgary, working as a teamster.

There is more. The certicate of Walter’s first marriage lists his parenta as Edward and Sarah Gear, in England.  I was able to track down his birth record in East Grinstead, Sussex and find out about his birth family.  But I’ll leave the details for another post.  Like many home children, the family appears to have been quite destitute. When Walter left at age 14, he was the oldest of 5 children.  His father died in 1867 when Walter was 10, and so choosing to come to Canada might have been the only way out for him. In 1871, the year Walter leaves, the family is living with their uncle Thomas Gear who is a carter. In 1881, his mother is working as a pew opener in a mission church. 

Walter travels back and forth between Canada and England a couple more times in the early 20th century and dies in Hamilton, Ontario in 1922.

The information that I’ve collected is somewhat circumstantial.  Could there be two different Walter Gear’s with the same approximate birth year who both emigrated to Canada? I have some research trips planned to the public library and Ontario Archives to try to dig up some more. 

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