Monday, 11 December 2017

Who Do I Think I Am? Part 3...

Welcome to the 3rd and final instalment in the 'Who Do I Think I Am?' trilogy. Memory whizz kids may remember the previous two instalments - 1 - where I explain how I have very little knowledge of my long-dead Grandfathers, and 2 - where I share the only thing I really know about my paternal Grandad, Alf - that he survived the Halifax explosion of 1917 and wrote a diary detailing what he saw.

Me and Dom. Waiting for bags
at Halifax Airport
This week, myself and four other family members went to Halifax, Nova Scotia to be there for the 100th anniversary of the explosion - the largest human-made explosion before nuclear weapons. I had little idea about what to expect. All I'd been told by anyone who'd previously visited was, 'Wrap up warm' and 'Canadians are lovely'. Aside from that I didn't know how the trip would pan out. I imagined that my Dad would look at the waterfront for a bit, and then we'd find a nice restaurant and eat and drink lots. Classic Bond family activities. Beyond that, I had no expectations.

Here are some things I learnt while I was there.

1. Halifax is a beautiful city.
2. People from Halifax are called Haligonians.
3. Haligonians are the nicest people in the entire world.

No really, they are. Everyone we met was interested in why we were there. At first I thought this was because we had a great story to tell. But the truth is that everybody had a great story to tell. Loads of people have a connection with the explosion because it was so far reaching and devastating. We met people from various places that had travelled to Halifax like us, to be there for the Centenary. So it wasn't that we were unique. It was just that everyone we met was utterly lovely and made us feel like we were part of the history of it all. I knew it in my head before I went, but I felt it for real whilst I was there.

Display along the waterfront.
A model of the Niobe. This was ship
that Alf Bond was on.
So what did we do? How did we commemorate the explosion? Well, the day before the anniversary was classic school trip territory. We went to the Maritime Museum! There was a great deal of focus on the explosion (natch) with posters along the waterfront detailing biographies of local heroes, and a large section of the museum describing not just the explosion but the after effects of rebuilding the city. 

Vincent Coleman - train dispatcher.
He stayed where he was to
alert an incoming train to stay clear, via Morse
Code. He knew he would die.
 "Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in
harbour making for Pier 6 and will explode.
Guess this will be my last message.
Good-bye boys.
I had read lots beforehand but the exhibits brought it to life. A hundred years ago, upon hearing about a fire in the docks, everyone went to their windows to watch. (Just as we'd all do now.) When the fire reached the munitions store and the explosion happened (9.04am) the shattered windows across the city meant hundreds of people were blinded by the glass. As a result, the Halifax explosion led to changes in care for those with vision impairment across Canada. Details like that were new to me. It was also fascinating to see primary sources from the actual ship that Alf was on at the time - the Niobe. Actual photos for real. All so fascinating. And then of course there were the other people in the museum. 

My Dad and Mary. Their
Dads were on the Niobe.
My Dad got chatting to the man behind the desk (who was later spotted on the local news so he must be An Expert!) As my Dad told him about his Dad on the Niobe, a woman overhead, nearby. She took my Dad off to meet her mother who was further inside the exhibition. It turns out this woman's Dad was also on the Niobe and she'd come back to Halifax for the Centenary too. On the one hand, big deal. Two people met, whose Dads were on the same boat once. But then also, BIG DEAL! My Dad met a woman whose Dad might have once met or said hello to his Dad (that later died when he was seven) in another continent a hundred years ago. It was all a bit mind-blowing at times.
The Bond family contingent
as snapped by professionals!
 That and more photos here.
On the day of the anniversary, everyone assembled in Fort Needham Memorial Park at 8.45am. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. It was rammed. It was also throwing it down. We stood in the relentless rain waiting for the ceremony to start. The Mayor, Mike Savage shook hands along the row and came to us. My Dad told him his 'My Dad Was on the Niobe' story. Half an hour later we got a mention in his speech about how people have travelled from England to be there. It was us! Another woman that got a mention was nearby in a wheelchair. It turns out she was ten days old on 6th December 1917. I can't imagine, ten days after my 100th birthday, sitting in a wheelchair in the pouring rain for a couple of hours on a Wednesday morning, but she did it. She definitely deserved her mayoral shout out.

The bell from Alf's ship.
The minute's silence took place at 9.04am - the time of the explosion. To mark it, a ship's bell rang. It happened to be the bell from the Niobe. Another 'hair standing up on the back of your neck' moment. Alf would have heard that clang. A hundred years later, so had we.

There were many other highlights of the day. Hearing a poem from the parliamentary poet laureate - George Elliott Clarke; signing the Book of Remembrance that will be placed in a time capsule until 2067; realising with a weird pride that Alf would have spent his next few days in Halifax helping search for people in the rubble - possibly even saving some lives? Who knows? His diary is fairly blank until he leaves Halifax a week later. All the uninjured survivors - particularly those stationed on the boats - were tasked in starting the clean-up operation. I can't imagine it being anything other than horrific. 
Dad signing the
Book of Remembrance. 
Dad looking at the
waterfront. As predicted.
What I do know is that this trip was worth doing. Everyone who asked me how long I was in Halifax, seemed surprised it was only four days. And yes, four days isn't nearly long enough to spend in such a lovely place. (I didn't even scratch the surface of all the restaurants I wanted to try and the beers I wanted to sample.) I did loads though. Not a moment was wasted. In those four days, there were a hell of a lot of wow moments. And as predicted, my Dad did look at the waterfront for a bit, and we did find nice restaurants where we ate and drank lots. So I was right about that.

John from the Archives Office, 
with Mum and Dad. 
As for the diary? Well after nearly a hundred years of it being in Liverpool (in a drawer or box) it has moved house. It now resides in the Nova Scotia Archives building. My Dad signed it over to them when he arrived. It makes sense. We've all seen it, we've all read it, and now it is back where it started, a hundred years later. Nice one, Halifax. You really are a lovely place to spend a few days. Nice one, Alf. I feel like I know you a little bit better now. Thanks for surviving and thanks for the genes.

Have a lovely week, folks.

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