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From British Columbia To New South Wales - The Custody Battle, 1920

Updated on August 31, 2010

This is the sixth in the continued series of my paternal grandfather's family history. Born in Elgin Scotland he left home at the age of seventeen to full of a young man's dreams to settle in the Qu'Appelle Valley of Saskatchewan where my grandfather was born. When my great-grandfather, Harold Platt Christie set sail for Canada in 1882 with his brother and sister he could not possibly have predicted where fate, tragedy and his own restless spirit would leave it's mark for the generations to follow.

I continue, again, in the words of my aunt.........

Canadian Flag - 1876 - 1965
Canadian Flag - 1876 - 1965
The Union Jack
The Union Jack

If my reader thinks they have read enough of loss and tragedy - they 'ain't read nothing yet'!  It all becomes even more painful - for the Christies, the Stobarts, and no doubt for the Laings (my mother's family) looking on.

Before Uncle Lionel died, he expressed a wish for the two little girls to be educated in England.  This may seem strange to us in the year 2001, because were they not Canadians?  But as my brother Reg points out, in 1918 the view would be different.  First and foremost they were Stobarts, not Christies, and their father's family in England took precedence.

Therefore, in early 1919, Aunt Phyllis departed for England with her husband's coffin and her two little daughters, accompanied by her brother, Gerry Christie, later to become our father. However, when they reached Montreal, Aunt Phyllis, no doubt weakened by grief, also succumbed to the flu, dying on February 27, 1919, so my father was left with his two young nieces. My grandparents went to Montreal to collect the two little girls and my father continued on to England, now with two coffins instead of one.

The children now became the centre of a news making custody struggle between Lionel's mother, Mabel, and Harold and Emily Christie.

As a child I was very much exposed to my grandparents' view of events. The harboured some bitterness, feeling the English court had been biased against them. However, as an adult I have read Aunt Mabel's account of her motivation entititled "Kidnapped" in her book, "Miracles And Adventures" and now see how difficult the situation was from both points of view.

Normandy Church In Studland
Normandy Church In Studland

At that time Aunt Mabel and her husband, Judge Greenhalgh, were residing at Turner's Wood, Hamstead, in London and had besides a summer cottage called "Knapwynd" in Studland, dorset.  It was to the graveyard beside the old Norman church in Studland that the two coffins were destined.

The plans started peacefully enough.  I quote Aunt Mabel:

"With who shall the children live?  I gladly surrender the charge to the maternal grandparents who were anxious to have the children.  I had been asked to stand for Parliament, and I therefore wish to be free of the responsibilities this might entail.  I had beside no desire to begin all over again bringing up a family.  Domesticity is a luxury after which I have never hankered.  Many of us women make it an excuse for busy idleness.  The other grandparents were anxious to have the children, who had lived near them in B.C. and I rejoiced at the decision.  J and I had always been on the friendliest terms with them, having known them intimately in B.C. at the wedding of their daughter."

On their part, my grandparents were, they thought, sore sick of Canada and all its works, and in their somewhat romantic and impulsive manner, they saw retirement in England as a salve, not realising that the England of their youth was gone and to what extent they had become "colonials". They therefore sold out lock, stock and barrel and in 1920 they returned to England with the two children, intending to settle there on a permanent basis.

To quote Aunt Mabel again.....

"Both parties were therefore satisfied, and it was agreed that the new home for the children would be made within a hundred miles of my home in Hampstead to enable me to keep a kindly eye upon their welfare and be responsible for their education, etc. The little party were to occupy the Studland Cottage whilst waiting for a suitable home to be found. But as the grandparents found it dull at Studland, they moved to Bournemouth. And now follows a remarkable story of which only the outline can be given."

According to Aunt Mabel's account, she sensed the Christies' restlessness, for on a visit to them in Bournemouth she reminded them of their obligation to keep the children in England. When she returned to London, she arranged for them to be made wards of the Court of Chancery. She then returned to Bournemouth, only to find the house empty and uninhabited. My grandparents had decamped with their grandchildren. They laid a confused trail but were finally recognised in Honfleur, France, after Aunt Mabel had been forced to engage in complicated legal and publicity activities. There remains in the family archives, copies of the 1920 newspaper article asking the help of the public in locating the children with a picture of the two little girls in sailor suits. after they were found, they returned with Aunt Mabel to Turner's wood. In the subsequent High Court of Chancery hearings, custody was awarded to Aunt Mabel.

Two Little Girls In Sailor Suits

Phyllis and Joan
Phyllis and Joan

My grandparents had decided they could not live in England and Aunt Mabel had decided the girls must remain in England.  Apparently the decision was a close thing.  Aunt Mabel did not know the children and indeed in her words:

"I found myself in the anomalous position of having to fight for that which I did not in my own interests wish to obtain."

It meant her giving up running for parliament.  It would seem the English court thought the girls would have better educational opportunities in England than in "the colonies".

And my grandparents had certainly blotted their copy book.

To add to their unhappy state, all their family belongings and treasures were destroyed in a warehouse fire in Liverpool.  The long term losers were Phyllis and Joan as, no doubt, many of the lost items, such as photographs, had to do with the lives of their parents, Lionel and Phyllis.

What would the decision be today?  Probably, the close relationship between maternal grandparents and children would have carried more weight.  Canadian education would have seemed less problematic.  Also, in this day of much easier travel, some joint custody arrangements would be more possible - i.e. school in England and holidays in the beautiful British Columbia interior.  As it was my grandparents never saw their two little granddaughters again.  In five years they had lost a son, a daughter, a son-in-law and two grandchildren.

Nevertheless, in retrospect, my father said, it was perhaps a blessing in disguise - my grandfather's health had decline, their finances were circumspect and bringing up the girls would have been a long and heavy responsibility.  They returned to Canada and Vancouver, to live out their retirement years.

However, Aunt Mabel, the girls and my grandparents kept their correspondence open while the girls were growing up, and I well remember being read letters from my cousins by my grandmother.

On The Trail Of My Great-Grandparents

Studland, UK:
Studland, Swanage, Dorset, UK

get directions

Bournemouth, UK:
Bournemouth, UK

get directions

Honfleur, France:
14600 Honfleur, France

get directions

High Court of Chancery, UK:
High Court of Justice, Chancery House, 53-64 Chancery Ln, Camden, City of London WC2A, UK

get directions


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