Whatever Happened to Mary Janeway?: A Home Child Story




Summer in Goderich


“‘Goderich, the prettiest town in Canada,’ its city fathers apparently taking as true, a compliment paid by visiting royalty in the 19th


August 1900


Mary looked out the train window with anticipation. The town of Goderich was perched on a bluff looking west over Lake Huron, not unlike a robin’s nest high up in a tree branch close to water. She could see some houses, big beautiful houses, and suspected that she’d be living in one of them.

     She was met by Emil, the young boy the McEwen’s had hired to run errands. It was a short buggy ride to the lakefront cottage on Essex Street. A peaked, cedar-shingle roof extending over the main veranda and the bevel-edged, wooden horizontal exterior siding added to its character. Mary thought it was pretty enough to be in a magazine. She was introduced to Sadie, the kitchen girl, and given a cot in the servant’s quarters. There were a few awkward moments at first so she busied herself unpacking what little she owned. Sadie showed her a cupboard designated for the “general servant.”

     She was given her instructions on Saturday morning. Mary followed closely at Mrs. McEwen’s heels as she walked down the hallway, pointing out the small bedrooms. “The first thing you’ll do every morning is empty the chamber pots.” She couldn’t help but cringe. She was then shown the proper way to make beds and told to change the sheets every Monday. “I’d like the bedrooms swept every other day, the others can be done the day in between.” Mary quickly realized she’d be sweeping six days a week.

     “Yes, ma’am.”

     “If you have any questions ask Sadie. She did your job last year. For now, let’s concentrate on the washing since that’s your main job and it will probably take the best part of your day. Follow me.”

     Mary walked silently behind her. The woman’s long grey cotton skirt made a swishing noise as it moved from side to side, brushing the walls as she headed into the kitchen. Sadie looked up and smiled, then continued rolling pastry on the dough board for a raspberry braid she was preparing for lunch. The kitchen was full of good smells that brought back a wave of memories for Mary, memories that weren’t all that pleasant.

     “Fill the copper boiler with well water every night and put it on the stove. That way it’s ready for morning when you light the fire and bring it up to boil. Put the clothes in while it’s heating and grate some Sunlight soap. It’s over here.” She held up a small cornflower-blue granite bowl with a stub of a soap bar in it. “I never have the girls use anything but Sunlight, it’s guaranteed to be a good cleaner.” Mary watched in silence, her eyes occasionally glancing over at Sadie.

     “Once the water is good and hot, you must podge it. You do know what that is, don’t you?” Mary shook her head. Mrs. McEwen reached over and picked up what looked to be an upside-down funnel with holes in it and pushed it up and down in the pot. “This is a podger and what it does is cycle and circulate the water through the Be careful not to touch the water, you might get burned.” Mary looked down at the scar on her right arm.


It had been a cold winter’s night that December, just a few days after the Christmas concert. The wind howled like wild dogs and the drafts through the clapboards made the house cold, damp, and uncomfortable. More heat was needed.

     “Where’s that girl? Get some wood in the stove,” Mrs. Jacques demanded from across the room. Mary never answered. She was sitting on her milk stool by the end of the stove with her head down. “What are you doing there, Girl?” Mrs. Jacques continued to prod. The oldest boy, Thomas, gave her a kick, which toppled her off the stool causing her right arm to fall against the hot stove. At first no one realized that Mary had fainted. With sudden realization, young Daniel screamed for help as he pulled her inert body away.

     “Thomas, run and get the cream quickly,” Mrs. Jacques ordered as she wheeled across the room toward Mary. All Mary could remember when she came to was lying on the floor and Annie putting cream on her right arm, which had blistered from the extreme heat. It was the only time she thought Mrs. Jacques looked frightened. She was a great believer in herbal remedies like poultices, tonics, and hop tea, but even she began to panic when she saw the extent of the burn on Mary’s arm. “Put lots of cream on her, Annie. We don’t want her


     Mary covered the scar with her other hand. “Then you put them through this wringer,” Mrs. McEwen said, pointing to an antiquated hand wringer that was screwed to a nearby table top, with a laundry tub full of water sitting on the floor underneath it. “One rinse isn’t near enough, so you should podge the soap out of them again or put them through two rinses. Any questions so far, Mary?”

     Mary was surprised that she called her by name. “No ma’am, I think I understand.”

     “Good, let’s move on then. After the rinses, put them in one of these wicker baskets and hang them outside. Always start with bed sheets since they take the longest to dry, even on a sunny day.”

     Mary had hoped her job would be more than sweeping, washing, and making beds, but she soon realized there was a distinct pecking order among servants. Just before Mrs. McEwen left the kitchen, she handed Mary a blue-and-white stripe dress and cotton pinafore.

     Sadie could tell that the “new” girl was overwhelmed and felt sorry for her. She got a little closer and whispered, “I was scared too when I first started. Maybe you can have my job next summer. I’ve already given my notice ’cause I’m leaving at the end of the month.” She paused and grinned, “I’m getting married this fall. Working in here isn’t so bad and the pay is better.” She smiled and went back to her pastry board. Mary didn’t need to be reminded that her job was paying $5 less.

     The next day, the Sabbath, meant little or no work was permitted. Mrs. McEwen told the girls that they were welcome to go to church provided they sat at the back. Sadie had already offered to take her into town to show her around and Mary thought it sounded like a lot more fun than listening to a minister’s sermon.

     “Let’s go into town first and save the best for last,” Sadie said, tossing her apron over the back of a chair. She couldn’t wait to get out of the kitchen.

     “What’s the best?” asked Mary.

     “You’ll see,” she grinned and grabbed her by the arm. The two girls headed in the direction of Goderich’s famous octagon-in-the-square known as the Court House Square, which was actually round. A rumour had spread that the town had accidentally been given the plans for the city of Guelph — an interesting theory but not

     They walked through the park, past the post office, a green grocer advertising a dozen apples or oranges for fifteen cents, and a second-hand shop, all with “closed” signs in their windows. At the west end of the square, Mary saw an impressive sign on top of a building that read “G.N. Davis.” He was a dealer in hardware, stoves, tinware, and general house-furnishing goods and his store was referred to as the Stove Depot. As they continued round the square, she could see several hotels, livery stables, and carriage shops in the distance.

     “You’ll notice that none of the stores have verandas,” said Sadie, as though she were an official tour guide. Mary shrugged. Sadie continued, “Some folk say a store collapsed after a heavy snowfall a few years ago so other shopkeepers were afraid and tore them down.

     “We could go that way,” Sadie pointed in a northerly direction, “if you’re interested in seeing the jail.” Mary shook her head. “It’s a strange-looking building. It gives me the creeps to think that bad people live so close by. They’ve had two hangings there,” she whispered. Mary looked skeptical. “Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of the Black Donnellys?”

     “No, who are they?”

     Sadie headed for a bench under a large tree in the park, sat down, and patted the seat beside her. “An Irish family by the name of Donnelly lived not too far from here. They had seven boys and one girl named Jenny. They were very bad, all of them,” she paused, “except for the girl. James, the father, killed a man and the local authorities posted a $400 reward for anyone who would bring him to the Goderich jail. They never got him but he turned himself in. He was very mean and so was his wife Johannah. Everybody was afraid of them.”

     “What happened?”

     “He ended up going to prison in Kingston and when he got out, he came back. Eventually the local people ganged up and hunted down the family. The men that killed the Donnellys were all Irish, all Catholics, just like the Donnellys, and were some of their closest neighbours. It was called the Donnelly massacre and they all got killed except three brothers who didn’t live in town,” Sadie said dramatically.

     “Do you think anyone has ever escaped?” Mary asked, showing more interest in the jail than the Donnelly family.

     “I think they’ve tried but no one’s ever done it. The walls are huge. I heard that they’re something like two or three feet thick.” Sadie chattered away. “I wonder what the food would be like, probably not great but at least it’d be free.” She laughed at her own joke and jumped up. “Come on, Mary, we’ve got a lot more to see.”

     “Do they have a library here?”

     “Yeah, it’s the next block over on Lighthouse Street, but it wouldn’t be open today.”

     “Do you ever go there?”

     “No,” Sadie hesitated, “I don’t like to read.” Mary sensed she was uncomfortable and wondered if Sadie knew how to read. Not everyone had the opportunity to go to school, and nothing more was said.

     “Come over here,” she said impatiently, grabbing Mary’s arm. “Have a look in the window.” The girls moved closer to the glass, cupping their faces with their hands to block the sun. “Hannah’s Bakery is the best! Now you won’t get the full effect today, so you’ll have to use your imagination. But honestly, you have to walk past on a workday. I swear you can smell the hot-cross buns a block away. They’re six cents apiece and worth every penny.” Mary was starting to feel hungry, which reminded her that it had been a while since they’d eaten.

     They continued on and came to a place where there were no homes, just a little hill that led to the beach below. Sadie ran down with Mary close at her heels, and to her delight there was the lake — Lake Huron. Other than when she crossed the ocean to come to Canada, the closest she’d ever been to water was the Thames River and the quiet little pond beside the gristmill when she lived in Innerkip.

     “I told you I saved the best for last,” Sadie explained, breathless. They walked along the town beaches watching picnickers and Sunday strollers enjoy the warm mid-afternoon sun. Sadie ran to the water’s edge, plunked herself in the sand, and took off her shoes. Mary followed close behind like a duckling with its mother. Both began to wade in the cool water. It felt so good.

     Mary knew she’d be happy in Goderich, if for no other reason than being so close to the water. She picked up some shiny beach glass and a few interesting stones, weathered smooth from time, and pocketed them. They’d end up in her faded red tea caddy, the one she’d found in the hayloft while living on the farm, along with her other treasures.

     They went as far as the lighthouse and Sadie pointed out the bluffs high above them. “You wouldn’t believe the view from there. And if you’re lucky you might see a steamer squeeze through the breakwater into the harbour. They come in quite often.” It was getting late so she suggested they head “home.” Mary hadn’t really thought of Goderich as home and was a bit anxious about tomorrow morning, her first day on the job.

     Her day began at seven, making beds and emptying the chamber pots. Mary was no stranger to this chore; she’d done it for the past eight years. As far as she was concerned, it was the worst job. Sadie had shown her the privy, tucked behind a large oak tree in the back corner of the yard. She also had explained that the servants were accustomed to going down to the lake to bathe. Mary was familiar with privies but washing in the lake was new to her and seemed strange at first.

     Cleaning and laundry took the whole day and Mary was exhausted when she went to bed that night. Her muscles ached but it was a good tired. After a couple of days, she got into a routine and was able to get her work done a little sooner. At first Mary had been afraid that if she finished too quickly, another chore would be waiting for her. But Mrs. McEwen assured her that if her tasks were properly done, she was free for the rest of the day. That alone was her incentive to work hard.

     She celebrated her sixteenth birthday, if you could call it a celebration in a house full of strangers. She’d been there exactly one week. Mary finished her chores early, which meant she had time to walk into town. Her licorice was long gone so she treated herself to one of her favourite candies, a pound of buttercups, which cost ten cents and a package of spearmint gum. She never chewed more than half a piece at a time to make it last longer.

     She walked down the escarpment and along the beach, reflecting on past birthdays. This was one of the better ones. Mary was determined to make the best of her situation. The people were kind enough and her surroundings were beautiful. The outdoor work of hanging up the clothes proved to be the best part of her job so she always took her time. She was happier than she’d ever been in the past eight years.

     Sadie was a friendly girl and Mary was glad they’d met. She thought she seemed young to be getting married, but perhaps was a bit envious as well. She looked wistfully across the lake and wondered if there was a fellow out there somewhere for her. She hoped so. She closed her eyes, turning her face in the direction of the warm gentle August breeze, and wiped a strand of hair out of her eyes. She thought a great deal about her future. It made it easier to bury the past. She hadn’t given up hope that someday, somehow she’d meet her brothers and sisters again.

     Since Sunday was a day of rest, all kinds of preparation had to be done the day before. It meant having to do two days’ work in one. But it was Mary’s favourite day of the week — a break in her routine that gave her a chance to walk along the beach with Sadie. Newspapers and magazines were put away, and people were encouraged to read only “Sunday” things, things that had to do with a person’s Christian faith. Mary could never figure out why God would object to anyone reading a good book or writing a letter to a friend.

     On her half day off that she had earned after working for two weeks, she went into town to browse in the second-hand store and buy a milk-chocolate nut roll. Then she headed to the beach to walk barefoot in the sand. She watched a family of five having a picnic under the shade of a tree, a dog chasing a stick, and a young couple strolling hand-in-hand down the shoreline toward the piers. Mary was amazed at how quickly she had adapted to her new place. It felt as if she’d been there longer than a few weeks.

     Sadly, at the end of August she had to say goodbye to Sadie and the little town of Goderich. Mrs. McEwen offered Mary a temporary job in her London home because her dining room girl had come down with a fever. From the train window she watched the harbour, the tall wooden grain elevators, the piers, breakwaters, and break wall grow smaller and smaller. Mary knew she would miss this picturesque little town and more than likely would never return.