Sunday, 1 April 2012

Alfred Burrows

I was fortunate growing up to have known my paternal grandfather, Alfred Burrows - the only blood grandparent I knew, the others having passed away before I was born.  He passed away in 1982 when I was 13 and he was 92.  My middle name is in his honour.  Looking back, I wish I had been more interested in his very long life. 

I knew some of his back story - born in Victorian England, farm labourer who moved to Australia in his twenties to be near his sister who married and Australian lad, served in WW I with the Australian cavalry (the 12th Light Horse Regiment) serving mostly in the Middle East and Northern Africa.  Back to the U.K. where he worked for a spell in the mines in Wales and presumably met his Welsh wife.  Then he emigrated to Canada in the 1930's with some of his brothers and where he worked as a farm labourer.  During the second world war, he served in an outfit called the Veterans Guards of Canada as a guard at prisoner of war camps and, he said, as a horse riding instructor.

He talked a little about his war experience, but not a lot.  I remember one particularly amusing story of him being on a ship in the Dead Sea and his mates jumping of the deck into the water.  Not knowing how to swim, he didn't want to join the fun, but his friends cajoled and teased him into finally taking the plunge.  So, in he went, and amazingly he kicked his way to the surface and began swimming like he'd been doing it all his life, not realizing that the concentration of salt in the Dead Sea is so high that it increases buoyancy by a lot.  Several months later they were again shipping out to a new area and again weighed anchor in a somewhat less salty ocean.  Emboldened by his experience in the Dead Sea, he did not even hesitate to jump in with his comrades.  This time he sunk like a stone and was saved by a vigilant friend.

I wish I had asked my grandfather more questions about his life, but being a kid, I was more interested in other things - my beloved Montreal Expos, playing sports, girls (eventually), television and many other things that seem trivial in comparison.

My wife is an avid genealogist, and for a brief couple of weeks, I became infected by the disease.  I was amazed by how many on-line resources were available for researching family history.  In just a couple of hours surfing on the Australian and Canadian archives sites I was able to find all kinds of interesting documents, including Alfred's enlistment papers with the Australian armed forces and the ship manifest for when he and his family emigrated to Canada.  This in turn led me to his mother's name and other records that allowed me to go back a couple of generations earlier than him.

Amazingly, I went back to the Australian national archives again recently and found that Alfred's entire service record was now available on line.  This was a revelation.and it helped fill in a lot of information about his service.  A particularly cool item in his file was a letter written in his own hand to the army after he had come to Canada in the 1930s asking if he could claim his war medals since his children, seeing other veterans wearing their at Remebrance Day festivities, asked him about his.  I know his request was granted because those medals now hang proudly in my family room.

My next task is to try to track down his service record for WW II.  I'll b,log about this enterprise in the future.

I am moved by how important our family history is in shaping who we are today.  I am amazed how my family moved from poverty and years of servitude to a relatively well off middle class family.  I would encourage those of you who are interested to do a little research into you family history.  You'll be amazed at how quickly you can down through the generation.

My wife has a great blog on genealogy that I encourage you to read.  Because she is currently battling cancer, she hasn't been posting a lot lately, but her past posts are informative and are infectious in their enthusiasm for the field.


  1. Hi Geoff - what a great "A" post. My sister did as much of our family history as was available.
    I support anyone reading this to interview all living relatives, particularly the old ones...I have been journalizing my mother's live story and it is truly amazing.

    I look forward to reading more about your research into your grandfather's past.

    Jenny @ Pearson Report
    Co-Host of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

    1. Good luck with your own chronicling, Jenny. You are absolutely spot-on about interviewing family members, and more importantly committing their stories to paper. Now that both my parents have passed away, I realize that while I know about the broad brushstrokes of their lives, I have very little detail in terms of dates and the sequence of various events. I assued my parents would be around a lot longer than they actually were and now, of course, it's too late. Glad you're ahead of the game.