To her employers and patients, she was known as Nurse Pirie. But to Norman, she was simply Grandma Stevens. She lived with Grandpa Stevens in a house that his Grandpa had built, near enough to Norman’s family home in Hamilton, Ontario, that Norman could ride over on his bicycle. Which he often did.
Norman long ago told me that his Grandma Stevens had gone to boarding school in France at some point and had worked as a private nurse for an aristocratic French family with an ailing child. He said she had told his mother that she thought it unkind of her family to send her off on her own as a schoolgirl when she didn’t speak a word of French. Norman felt that the Pirie family was proud of its Huguenot heritage and had wanted Elsie to experience living in France and learn the language. She clearly learned enough to go back and work in France.
Norman has a picture of her as a young woman, taken by a professional photographer in Lille. Was that where she had studied, or worked? There was no indication. I wondered about her – where did she live? who did she work for? why had her family sent her alone to France? – but assumed I would never find out. There were no documents. Norman’s grandparents had burned their personal correspondence not long after they married; it was regarded as confidential and not for posterity.
But a few days ago, I opened a box that has been sitting in our basement since Norman’s mother died in 2002. It was labelled “Norman – Family Photographs.” Along with dozens of packages of family snaps from the 1960s and 1970s, it contained hundreds of postcards from the turn of the last century. Grandma Stevens collected postcards!
Some were brief exchanges between family members, much like today’s text messages – “I’ll be on the evening train that gets in at 7. Can you meet me?” – and some were miniature letters. Some simply said, “Here’s another one for your collection.” Some had no messages and had been saved for their images only. A few were in albums. Many were from France.
So one evening, Norman and I spread them out over the dining room table and began to sort them into groups. It took hours. Details were patchy – someone had soaked off many of the stamps and thereby removed the postmark. Few writers bothered to include the date in the message, and hardly anyone included a last name, because these were exchanges between friends and relatives. Maud and Ruth and Louie and Freddy felt no need to identify themselves beyond a single name.
Postcards do not tell a consistent or logical story, but we now know a lot more than we did.
Elsie Mabel Stevens, née Pirie, was born in Plumstead, near Woolwich, in 1887, the eldest child and only daughter of George Pirie, a Scottish-born engineer and fitter who worked at the Royal Gun Factories associated with Woolwich Arsenal. Her mother, Jessie, was a nurse and probably a midwife, and Elsie had three younger brothers.
The earliest postcard we found was awarded to Elsie for “punctual and regular attendance” at Bloomfield Road school in 1899: the picture is of two people admiring a waterfall after having taken what appears to be an improbably dangerous route over the rocks. Perhaps awards like these gave little Elsie the taste for collecting postcards.
After that, the next postcards date from 1905, when Elsie turned 18, and continue to 1913, the year she went to Canada to marry her sweetheart, William Stevens, who was homesteading in Saskatchewan. One group dated from her training as a nurse in 1908 and 1909; they were addressed to her at the Cottage Hospital in Aldershot and at the West Ham Infirmary in Leytonstone.
In 1910 and 1911, she seems to have remained in Plumstead, working locally. Then in 1912, she returned to France.
Identifying the aristocratic family was easy. Her parents sent her postcards c/o the Comtesse de Bondy at 13, boulevard des Invalides, Paris, or at the Château de la Motte aux Bois, Hazebrouck. There were several images of the château in Elsie’s collection, and plenty of Alpine scenes, particularly around St-Gervais-les-Bains. There were also pictures of a Château de Maubranches in Moulins-sur-Yèvre.
There was even a picture of the Comtesse de Bondy herself, in an Alpine setting, with someone called the Marquise de Loys (the Comtesse is the confident-looking woman on the right). This was one of several postcards created from personal photographs.
On a French website called Geneanet, I found Édouard Marie Robert Taillepied de Bondy and his wife Émilie Charlotte Marie Loys de la Grange. She was born in 1886, so she was just a year older than Elsie, and she had two sons: Olivier (the sickly child, who was born in 1911 and died when he was only 26) and Jacques, born in 1913, after Elsie left.
Elsie seems to have worked for the family for less than a year. The last few postcards from 1912 are from Bourges, not far from the Chateau de Maubranches. Elsie apparently worked there in the Hotel Dieu (a hospital run by nuns) before she left France.
When she returned to England, the nurse who replaced her in the de Bondy household sent her a postcard from Cambo, a resort near the Pyrenees.
Thank you for your letter… The last I saw of your box and parcel was on the railway station at “St Gaultier” but I understand the railway company here will not take them to England unless someone is going with them. What became of them after we left I cannot say… I’m more than sorry I ever came to France and often wish I had returned the first month. I hope to return early in March. I must now save to return as it costs FF100 to Paris from here. I would bring your luggage with me if I were coming soon.
Trusting you will be happy in Canada and that your wish may be granted. M. le Comte in my idea very bad state of consumption. If you saw the Comte you would not know him – all skin and bones. Baby is well.
The Countess gave birth to her second son in Cambo in January 1913. And the Count de Bondy died the following year, 1914, at St-Gaultier. I wonder why Nellie regretted her decision to come to France. Perhaps she was homesick.
In amongst the postcards we even found Elsie’s train ticket home. The date in December 1912 is stamped with perforations right through the ticket.
So far, so good. But I was intrigued by a set of postcards sent to England from France. Several came from someone signing herself “Auntie Nell” in writing to Elsie and “Nell” in writing to her parents (not the same as Nellie the replacement nurse), as well as someone called Jessie (the same name but clearly not the same person as Elsie’s mother), a Helen Nys, a Léon and Marguerite, and a Hippolyte something-or-other. Some were in French, some in English. They all dated from before 1912. Were they people she had met while attending school in France?
I kept returning to look at one from Nell to Mr and Mrs Pirie, sent in 1909. It shows an unremarkable train station at a place called Croix-Wasquehal. The message says, “Do you remember this station?” So the station had some meaning for the Pirie family. But what?
Today, Croix is part of the Lille metropolitan area in the north of France, close to the border with Belgium. It is right next to a town called Roubaix, also now part of Lille. There were two other postcards from Croix and eight postcards from Roubaix (five from Nell; three from Jessie). On one, Nell gave an address in the rue des Bouvines, Roubaix.
Did Elsie have an Aunt Nell? And if so, was she visiting France when she sent the card or did she live there? I rummaged about on ancestry.com, but could find no evidence of aunts and uncles. I could trace back several generations of Piries, and several generations on her mother’s side, too, but that was all.
I was hunting in the wrong place. I finally fetched up on a site called Filae, a French version of ancestry.com. You can search the site for free, and it lets you see up to eight documents (census records, birth and marriage documents) before it starts charging you.
On a whim, I tried “Jessie Pirie.” Bingo! I yelped for Norman. Yes, she was George Pirie’s sister, and she had been born in Croix!
“Nell” turned out to be Hélène Pirie, another sister. A third sister, Mary, had married a Jules Nys and had a daughter Hélène. Marguerite (Margaret) had married someone called Léon. Hippolyte Scotet had married another sister who had been given the English name Jemima, in honour of a relative; the French couldn’t cope with that, and she shows up in the records as Germina or Jimmia. Altogether George Pirie had seven sisters and one brother, all but one born in Croix.
Apparently, George Pirie’s father moved with his wife, son, and daughter from Scotland to France in the mid-1860s, settled in Croix, and went on to father a large family there. Most likely, he worked at a textile factory in Croix owned by a fellow Scot, Sir Isaac Holden. He was just one of many Scottish and English people who lived and worked in Croix. Some came from the very same town in Renfrew, Scotland.
Only his eldest son George went back to the U.K.; the rest of George’s sisters and his only brother remained in France and married French people. Those cards were from Elsie’s relatives: aunts, uncles, and cousins.
When she went to school in France, Elsie may not have known the language, but she was not surrounded by strangers. She had a large family in the Lille area, and they kept in touch with her and her parents. But it seems that Elsie never mentioned them to her children and grandchildren, and Norman (and his own siblings) had no idea that somewhere in France, they must now have a sizable number of third cousins. Some may still be in Roubaix or Croix. Perhaps we will meet them one day.
Text by Philippa Campsie; photographs and postcards from the collection of Elsie Mabel Stevens.