This Week in Peterborough: 1939

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The Bren gun. (Image Source)

One last peacetime post, before we head into the dark days of World War Two.  And in January of 1939, residents of Peterborough surely knew that the war was coming.  In fact, it looked like conflict, with Mussolini’s Italy rather Hitler’s Germany, might be only weeks away.  However, attempts to forestall that were underway; read on, for that story, various political wrangles at home, and “fights, general bedlam and whatnots” on the ice!

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Peterborough Examiner, January 12th, 1939.

In a January 16th editorial, the Peterborough Examiner wrote of “fresh and encouraging evidence that the danger of war is receding and is less likely than it was a few months ago.”  Of course, with the benefit of historical hindsight, we might be tempted to look ahead to September of 1939 and find the newspaper guilty of wearing rose-coloured glasses.  However, the editorialist was not entirely wrong.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had just wrapped up a conference with Benito Mussolini in Rome, an effort to mediate a growing dispute between Italy and France over the former’s desire to be the dominant power in the Mediterranean Sea (among other things, Mussolini’s Fascist goverment was demanding that the French hand over their colonial possessions in North Africa).

The conference between the two leaders accomplished little of its intended task, but it did seem, as the Examiner noted, to have calmed the war fears somewhat (ironically enough, there were rumours that Adolf Hitler had intervened to tell Mussolini to keep things cordial for the time being).  At the very least, reported the newspaper in a January 16th editorial, the conference had bought a little breathing room:

“Great Britain is apparently assured a substantial period of preparation… Six months or a year from now the British rearmament and defence programs should be so far advanced as to cause Mussolini to ponder very seriously whether Italy had better remain… a satisfied country.”

As it turned out, there were seven months of peace remaining.  And the war would start far from the Mediterranean; Italy, in fact, did not become involved until June of 1940.

In Canada, too, preparations for war were taking place.  Parliament opened this week 77 years ago, and the Speech from the Throne, quoted in the Examiner of January 12th, was blunt in its assessment of what needed to be done:

“The Government have considered that the uncertainties of the future and the conditions of modern warfare make it imperative that Canada’s defences be materially strengthened…”

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A reminder that the Great Depression, too, was still lurking around the place.  (Peterborough Examiner, January 12th, 1939)

Unfortunately, a nasty political spat was impeding those preparations.  Many in the press, and on the Opposition benches, were alleging that a Department of National Defence contract for the manufacture of Bren guns (a type of light machine gun) had been improperly tendered, leading to a judicial inquiry into the matter.  On January 13th, Justice H.H. Davis’s report was tabled in the House of Commons.  Although the judge found no evidence of deliberate wrongdoing into the tendering of the contract, he did recommend that “Purchases of munitions and armaments… be taken out of the hands of the Department of National Defence and entrusted to an expert group of competent businessmen…”  The upshot of all this was that the manufacture of the guns was delayed until later in the Spring, and the outbreak of war in September found the Canadian army short of them.

Meanwhile, just up the road from Peterborough, the word “tender” was also being tossed around, this time by the just-elected Town Council of Lakefield.  The New Year’s elections had seen a 75% turnover among the Councillors, and at their first meeting, they declined to pass the usually-automatic bylaw confirming the Chief Constable in his position for the year.  Citing, per the January 12th Examiner, the accusation that “[Chief Constable Wallace] Hendren did not do the work to the satisfaction of the ratepayers,” the council voted to put the job up for tender, opening the bids to anyone interested.  Applicants would be taking on not just policing duties, but, as the same edition of the newspaper described, the roles of “weed inspector, sanitary inspector, poundkeeper, assessor, collector of taxes, furnace man and caretaker of the Memorial hall.”

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Chief Constable Hendren’s house in Lakefield, as it appears today.  Prior to the Hendrens living there, it was the home of famous author Catherine Parr Traill and her family. (Image Source)

Constable Hendren was, understandably, miffed at the situation — so miffed, in fact, that he submitted his resignation right there at the Council meeting and walked out.  His resignation was not accepted, because the town needed someone to do the job(s) while the the Council hunted for a replacement.  Nonetheless, Hendren did not report for duty the next day, and it took a special meeting of the Council to unruffle feathers and persuade him to continue as Chief Constable until a replacement could be found.  Meanwhile, the Examiner was casting doubt on the reports that Hendren’s performance of his duties had been lacking:

“Interviews with three ratepayers in Lakefield not members of the Council reveals that Hendren’s work has been entirely satisfactory and all three agreed he was the best man for the job.”

As the week ended, Hendren was back at work, although it appeared that the Lakefield Town Council intended to go ahead with the hunt for a replacement.  A January 13th Examiner editorial contained a warning on that front, reminding readers that it was no sure thing “that Lakefield will secure the services of the best man by accepting the tender of one who will do the work for the least amount of money.”  I was unable to discover what came of the tender, but Wallace Hendren was still on the job in late May of 1939.  In any case, the newspaper added, possibly with tongue somewhat in cheek:

“And we are so much disturbed by events the world over that we do not relish this added supply of disturbance coming from Lakefield.”

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Peterborough Examiner, January 12th, 1939.

For those seeking relief from worrisome disturbances at home or abroad, there was, of course, the local winter sports scene.  Usually at this time of year, and this period of history, we are talking about hockey, but there were other athletic endeavours taking place as well.  On January 12th, a women’s basketball doubleheader saw the local teams earn a split: the Canadian General Electric club downed Belleville 22-17, while the Peterborough Orfuns lost 17-11 to Cobourg.  The next day’s paper stated that “the girls dished up plenty of action and good basketball.”

And there was indeed hockey, too.  “Friday 13th was just another day to the Petes as they hit their stride on fast home ice and hung a 5-3 shiner on the Belleville Redmen,” wrote Cec Perdue in the January 14th Examiner.  The game, the opener of the OHA Senior ‘B’ season for the two perennial rivals, was a rough one, too; in the January 16th paper, Perdue noted that Belleville reporters were complaining “of ‘fights, general bedlam and whatnots’ as being the order of the eve.”  “Guess we didn’t see the same game,” added Perdue, although he did concede that there had been a couple of fights, a broken nose, and a possibly dislocated shoulder before the two teams were done.

With the “one year per week” format of this series, it seems like it was only very recently that we were talking about a world war.  Next time, when we look at late January of 1940, we will be doing so again.  Until then, you can read up on the early days of 1887 — interestingly enough, another period when global conflict was looming (that war, however, failed to happen, or at least was deferred for a couple of decades).

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