5 Years of Guided Spirit Walks at Victoria Lawn Cemetery
For a good part of a year, probably close to six months, mostly all I talk about (and live and breathe) is our annual Guided Spirit Walks at Victoria Lawn Cemetery.
The tours through Victoria Lawn are certainly a labour of love. The work is a mash-up of theatre writer, director and stage manager jobs, with some military logistics and a whole bunch of historical research thrown into the mix. And it’s like that every year!
But this year is pretty special. It’s our 5th anniversary.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of attending one of our tours in the past, you really are missing out. It’s a simple walking tour with theatrical scenes presented by a wonderful group of volunteer actors. I always try to write a tour that explores a variety of themes: love, hope, fear, tragedy, and community, just to name a few, to make sure that it’s accessible to everyone, and not just historical facts.
Victoria Lawn has such a wealth of historic personalities buried in its beautiful grounds that we’ve been able to explore the stories of the War of 1812, the Second Welland Canal era, the First World War, and the construction of the Welland Ship Canal. The cemetery has 120 years of our city’s history all in one place.
The tours have changed quite a bit since they began as part of the Cultural Capital of Canada program in 2012. Back then, we had only 7 volunteer actors. We only had 7 stops and they were all monologues. That’s all fine, but how much monologue do you want to listen to? The tours are meant to interpret our history but we also don’t want them to be boring.
In 2016, we have a cast compliment of 20 volunteers and it is now a huge undertaking to prepare everyone for the mid-September performances. That’s over 20 costumes (some actors play more than one character) and many props, plus a bunch of rehearsal time.
So why spend all this time on this program?
There is a huge amount of evidence that costumed, first-person interpretation of historical resources is one of the most accessible ways to tell stories and make emotional connections to the widest audience possible. So many visitors comment every year on how they really appreciate watching – and participating in – local history. The tours make history come alive before your eyes. The tours make the complexities of history easier to relate and emote with, and appreciate.
In other words: no other program can do for an audience, and for a historical resource, what this program can do.
2016 Tour at Victoria Lawn – Keep the Home Fires Burning: Stories and Music from the First World War.
This year’s tour will continue our 2014 exploration of themes and stories from the First World War with sources from the front in Europe and the home front here in St. Catharines.
Though don’t expect to see the same characters or even see similar themes develop across the scenes in the cemetery. By 1916 the war had extended far beyond the original Christmas, 1914 deadline. Governments were now reorganizing fundraising, manufacturing, farming, and recruitment efforts to make the war machine as efficient and successful as possible.
Knowing what we know about the First World War make it difficult to read the pages and pages of letters home from the front. A line here or there regarding a night-time gas attack or a major shelling offensive by the opposite side is loosely shrugged off as ‘no big deal’. The portrayal of patriotism and stoicism in the letters, postcards, newspapers and war-time posters that appear in tonight’s tour only provide a glimpse of the harsh realities of war.
Everything you hear tonight is taken directly from some kind of primary source dating from the First World War. These are the words of those who experienced the war at home or at the front. In some cases they are given context or extra weight for dramatic emphasis by my own words but always under the influence of the sources. I think it is important to note, as just a selection of examples, that Olive Weller really did organize a ‘Tea Tent for Patriotic Purposes’ and that a reception was held to honour the returning Pte. Percy Bradshaw. It is important not only because these are true stories, but because these stories belong to our community and should be shared as widely as possible.
Now that we’re in the thick of the war, we have the first soldiers returning home (Pte. Percy Bradshaw), new soldiers going over (Cpl. Bert Hill), men already in the trenches (Lt. Jack House), and more experienced officers in charge of training operations (Lt. Col. Frank McCordick).
Home front efforts also pick-up in activity with the Merritt family residence being transformed into a convalescent home (Catharine Welland Merritt) and the beginning of formal fundraising activities like the Victory Loan Flag program in 1917. Local efforts like a daily tea service at the McLaren & Co Department store downtown, or the Wayside Tea Tent for Patriotic Purposes in Port Weller (Olive Weller) were also organized to help.
But the war was not all about patriotism and ‘doing your bit’. It was also marked by tragedy after tragedy on the front and at home. More than a few men were killed while in service with the Welland Canal Protection Force (Thornton Waneless Dunn), and still later the canal construction operations were marred by well over 100 deaths (James Sr. and James Jr. McArthur).
A new addition to this year’s tours is the familiar music of the period, much of it composed in between 1915 and early 1917, in the thick of the tragedy of the war. The tunes are so iconic that I felt an exploration of the hardships of battle and the distances felt between the front and at home would be lacking without including the music that would have flooded the music halls and would have been guiding the emotions of all involved. I hope that the music will add to your emotional experience tonight.
Finally, the shear number of participants in the war from St. Catharines and those buried in Victoria Lawn make it impossible for us to ever share everyone’s story. However, I felt it was important that, at the very least, the names of the over 300 soldiers who died overseas be commemorated in some way during the tours. And so, with a little participation from our audience, we will do just that. Over our eight tours, each name of every soldier killed in the First World War from St. Catharines (including Merritton, Grantham, and Port Dalhousie) will be read aloud.
It was and has been really important to me (and to the museum) to be as accurate and true to the characters and the historical sources as we can. Much of the script is a collection of the primary sources lightly strung together with a few transition sentences. When you hear the actors speak, in most cases, you are hearing the words of the very historic personalities they portray.
Is there really a better way to explore your local history?
We Can’t Say ‘Thank You’ Enough
While I write, direct, and do a whole lot, there is no way this program could succeed with just little ol’ me.
First, I’d like to thank the staff at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre for their assistance and their patience with me as we head down the road of mounting this massive production. One might not think that everyone would get excited about a program they aren’t wholly involved in, but boy, do we have the best staff in the museum world as they are not only interested but also excited.
We must also thank cemetery staff and Cemetery Services Supervisor Tim Lagace for their generous support of the program.
Very special thanks to Kathleen Powell, Curator and Supervisor of Historical Services for her period-costume, sewing, and military expertise in addition to her invaluable research of the First World War. This tour would not be possible without Kathleen’s assistance, expertise, advice, and support.
Additional special thanks to Meredith Leonard, Visitor Services Coordinator and Sara Nixon, Public Programmer, for not only keeping me sane but also keeping the train on the rails when there is so much to do. Their invaluable contributions as sounding boards are why the tours are so successful.
Most importantly, I must thank and draw special attention to the many volunteers who make this annual program the huge success that it is. Not only do they lend their time and talent, but they usually also bring additional contributions to the production, whether it be their own costumes, props, or even enlisting family members to help too.
These fantastic people are listed below;
Special Thanks to…
Tim Lagace, Supervisor, Cemetery Services and the staff at Victoria Lawn Cemetery
Staff and volunteers at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre
Mrs. Rassika Risko & the Governor Simcoe Secondary School Department of Dramatic Arts
Mrs. Gwen Stickney & the Governor Simcoe Secondary School Department of Music
Kathleen Powell and the Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps Niagara
Matt and Grace McJerrison
John-Luke AddisonDavid Webb
Vox Violins: Mark Clifford and Beth Bartlet
Christine Girardi and the Niagara Falls History Museum
Museums of Niagara Association
2017 – One Dominion
Next year it is, well, you guessed it: the sesquicentennial of confederation. Believe it or not, there are a few political players buried at Victoria Lawn who were somewhat involved in proposing or opposing confederation on behalf of St. Catharines. It’s going to be another fun exploration of our local stories and testing of our national myths.
I hope you’ll join us again for more stories from Victoria Lawn Cemetery.
This blog entry is an extended version of the Writer/Director’s Notes that appeared in the Guided Spirit Walks at Victoria Lawn Cemetery program for ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning: Stories and Music from the First World War” in September of 2016.
If you are interested in participating as an actor or volunteer or in some other capacity, please contact Adrian at the Museum at email@example.com.
Adrian Petry is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre. He is also writer and director of the annual Guided Spirit Walks at Victoria Lawn Cemetery.