This Week in Peterborough: 1901

QUEEN VICTORIA -  1819 - 1901

Queen Victoria in 1900. (Image Source)

By the time we arrive in late April, 1901 had already been a sad year for Britain and the constituent nations of her Empire, including Canada.  On January 22nd, after a reign of nearly 64 years, Queen Victoria had passed away at the age of 81.  The Peterborough Review for that day described the town’s reaction to the news:

“As soon as the news of the sad event reached Peterborough bells began to toll, and flags were hoisted at half-mast.  These public tokens of mourning were nothing at all compared to the sincere sorrow felt and expressed on every hand.  Few there were who had known any other sovereign as ruler of the British Empire.  All had read and heard so much of the Queen as a ruler, as a mother, as a woman, that she seemed closer to all her subjects than any living person outside their own particular relatives and members of their own family.”

Click on, for requiems for Queen Victoria, a case of body-snatching in Peterborough, and a new local business!

Late April of 1901 saw the Boer War raging on in South Africa, although its nature had changed.  Following British successes in 1900, the conflict had become a guerrilla war, with the Boers relying on ambush tactics while the British pursued a policy of scorched earth, martial law, and other such pleasantries in an attempt to end the fighting.  The sporadic nature of the fighting meant that it drew less attention in Canadian newspapers than it had the year before, but it was still big news.  The April 23rd Peterborough Review quoted Lord Kitchener, later to achieve great fame during World War I, on the subject of what residents might face if they resisted:

“Lord Kitchener has issued a proclamation to the effect that any resident in the martial law districts… found in arms, inciting to fight, aiding the enemy or endangering by covert act the British forces, will be tried by court-martial and be liable to the most severe penalties.  Such persons may be shot.”

The Boer War, however, was not the only conflict receiving mention in the Peterborough newspapers of the day.  On April 23rd, the Peterborough Examiner reported on clashes between Chinese and Russian troops near Mukden (now known as Shenyang).  The fighting was part of the winding down of the Boxer Rebellion.  Although both Britain and the United States had been involved in putting down the Rebellion, Canada had not, which probably explains why stories about it were relatively few and far between in the Canadian papers.

In Canada, meanwhile, there was a still a great deal of mourning going on for the late Queen, and plans were being made to memorialize her on her birthday, which was coming up on May 24th.  It would be, in fact, the first time the holiday was officially celebrated as “Victoria Day” — previously it had been simply the Queen’s birthday.  In the April 22nd Examiner, Mayor T.H.G. Denne promised the townspeople “a celebration that would outdo anything of the kind ever held in Peterborough.”    In the meantime, the new monarch was King Edward VII, who was already 59 years old when he took the throne.


“Waiting for the body-snatchers.” A cartoon from the Times of Richmond, Virginia, April 8th, 1900.

The center of local attention this week in 1901, however, was an interesting trial taking place down at the courthouse.  A certain William Patterson, a medical student at Queens University in Kingston, was on trial for grave robbery and offering an indignity to a human body.  He had been arrested at Belleville in late February in the possession of the recently-deceased corpse of Mrs. Margaret Sheehan, who had been buried in Peterborough’s Roman Catholic cemetery just a couple of days before.  The defense argued that Patterson had not actually removed Mrs. Sheehan’s remains from their resting place, but had acquired the body elsewhere in the sincere belief that it had been legally and legitimately donated for medical research.

Finding cadavers for medical work at this point in history was indeed a bit problematic, and various sorts of dodgy behaviour were likely to result.  A few posts ago, we discussed the workhouse in Waterloo that was having difficulty acquiring tenants out of fears that, should they die while in residence, their bodies would be used for research without their consent.  So cases like Mr. Patterson’s were probably inevitable.


Peterborough Examiner, April 19th, 1901.

In any case, William Patterson was acquitted of the charge of having exhumed Margaret Sheehan’s body himself, as he was proven to have had a solid alibi for the time in question.  However, he was convicted of offering an indignity to a body, which the judge described as “an offence of a very serious kind and of considerable importance to the public at large.”  Patterson was sentenced to pay a fine of $200 – a considerable sum in those days – or a year in prison, and chose to pay the money.  The identity of the mysterious gravedigger was still unknown.

And finally, Peterborians were continuing to enjoy the spring and look forward to summer, and bicycling in particular was growing as an outdoor activity.  The newspapers were full of ads for Crescent, Columbia, Scotsman, and other popular bike brands.  Furthermore, the town was welcoming into existence a new bicycle store and repair shop.  The business, owned by F.W. Vanderwater, was located on George Street between Simcoe and Charlotte.  And it was not merely a bicycle store!  It was not unknown in those days for businesses to diversify, often in unusual ways, simply because their proprietors had some useful contacts.  And so it was with Mr. Vanderwater, as the April 20th Examiner explained:

“As a side line Mr. Vanderwater carries a stock of the very latest sheet music, and has made arrangements to be supplied with the very latest publications, immediately upon their being issued.”

The newspaper closed the article by noting that “[h]is many friends will wish him success in his enterprise.”


1899 Crescent Bicycle ad. (via Ebay)

Next time, we will look at 1902, and what should be the very end of the Boer War!


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