‘Off to Old England’: The Sons of England and roots-tourism

By Tanja Bueltmann

In July 1910, several Winnipeg members of the Sons of England left that city to join fellow society members in Montreal to embark on a month-long ‘home trip’ to England. ‘A more enthusiastic body of excursionists’, observed a reporter in a local newspaper, ‘could hardly be conceived, the east joining hands with the extreme west.’ A reported 700 people thus left Canada on the steamer Royal George eagerly anticipating the specially arranged programme of coach tours and cultural activities awaiting them in England. This instance of express loyalty extended to England by those Canadians of English descent travelling ‘home’ provides clear evidence of the pervasiveness of English ethnicity in North America. The organised excursions by the Sons of England society, an exclusive, English and Protestant association found only in Canada and South Africa, provide a particularly interesting prism in this respect: the society was only one of several associations formed by the English; it quickly spread across Canada and could boast a significant membership, counting 30,000 members on the eve of the Great War. So what were the Sons doing on their return trip to England?

Organised by a Mr Robert Verity, the Sons’ 1910 trip commenced in early July, when ‘five hundred sons and daughters of England gathered from various parts of Canada, [and] left by special train for Montreal’. An additional 200 excursionists joined the group in Montreal, making it ‘the biggest excursion party ever taken out of Canada’, going off to ‘visit the chief cities and interesting districts in the British Isles’. As one reporter observed, travellers were ‘all full of expectation of a delightful trip, and the renewal of old time associations. Long years have separated many from their friends and relatives, but the affection for the land of their birth still remains firmly rooted, not withstanding [sic] their loyalty to the land of their adoption. … a well known Winnipeg merchant, who has been absent 43 years, and who is now retuning for his first visit, but with a return ticket in his pocket. So far as can be learned, this is the case with all the voyagers, whose principal desire is to cement the ties which bind Canada to the motherland.’

To facilitate the maintenance of these ties, a special programme had been arranged for the entertainment of the Sons of England party in England, and the party travelled in special cars and coaching and motor tours were organised to get the most out of the tight itinerary. The tour commenced in Bristol, where the city’s Lord Mayor gave the Sons a cordial reception. With stops being made in Cheddar and Bath, the party then made its way to London, spending five days in the capital. A large portion of the Sons went to visit the House of Commons, where, as was reported in the Edmonton Capital, ‘the members of Parliament were genuinely interested in them.’ The Ottawa Citizen added that the travellers were ‘delighted with the metropolis and have seen all the sights that are historic and picturesque.’ After their visit to London, the Sons left for provincial cities, visiting, among other places, Oxford, Warwick, Chester, Liverpool, as well as Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Some of the Winnipeg members travelling home with the Sons were Mrs and Mrs John Eddy, J.S. Nicholas, W. Walpole and Mr and Mrs Jacob Freeman – all of whom had long since lived in Winnipeg and were well-known in the city and among the Sons of England. Jacob Freeman, for instance, had been the society’s District Deputy for the Winnipeg District. It was in that role that, in 1895, Freeman helped set up a new Winnipeg branch of the Sons to promote, as the local paper put it, benevolence and patriotism. The return home in 1910 was Mr Freeman’s first trip to England after 27 years in Canada, and may well have been a long-awaited culmination of this partriotism. Freeman certainly provided his local paper with an enthusiastic account of the trip. What his account also reveals, however, is that the Sons’ trip was not simply serving the purpose of revisiting the homeland: it was an active attempt to entice new migrants to Canada. As the Times reported, in fact, ‘each member of the party will try to induce one resident of Great Britain to come to Canada’.