Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 6, 2009

Looking For Lollie

The search for self

Genealogy, which has become a passion for many in the last few decades, goes with travel as horse goes with carriage. Google travel + genealogy, look at the results, and you will get a good idea of why it has become an economic force to be reckoned with in the travel industry. Many people (from North America especially) now plan their trips around the proverbial search for roots, and in the process discover a lot about the larger human family.

The orphan

The baby girl who was born in Sheffield, England on August 27, 1881 and then — according to the oral history of my family — was brought to Canada when she was 10 days old, eventually became Florence Jane Sanderson. When she married, she was Florence Fisher. We, her grandchildren, knew her either as Nana or Gramma.

To her friends she was simply Lollie.

Although that was indeed her identity and persona that the circumstances of her life assigned her, she also was someone else — the child of unknown parents in Sheffield. I assume she had a birth name and a birth certificate. I assume there were very good reasons why she was given up.

However, I wonder how exactly she came to Canada, why, and with whom. But most of all, I wonder who she might have become if she had not been transported across the Atlantic to rural south-western Ontario.


Of the scattering of black and white photographs that remain, there are only a few of Lollie as a young person. The one that intrigues me the most is of her on board a ship crossing Lake Erie to Cleveland, Ohio. In those days, passenger service to the United States would have taken this route, and would have been somewhat of an adventure.

The photograph, like Lollie, is incomplete. It has been torn at the top and the bottom, although I don’t suspect that the missing pieces would have revealed much relevant information, but the human eye and mind have the habit of envisioning what is suggested but not fully revealed.

It is a strange photograph in many ways. From the perspective of today of course, Lollie’s costume seems rather bizarre. She makes me think of a pirate with her rakish hat, pantaloon-looking dress, and her be-ribboned shoes. I imagine her humming something from Gilbert and Sullivan. Her pose is deliberate and yet unintentionally evocative. She seems rather off-balance — due in part to the slight roll of the ship-but the effect is enhanced by the unsteadiness of the viewer. There is something slightly daring about her; that look that some young women get when they feel stylish and just a touch remarkable. This is a woman soon to be une femme d’un certain âge all dressed up with nowhere to go, except Cleveland.

I imagine this as just one of the tenuous voyages that Lollie made in her life, looking for something, knowing something that others do not. Her gaze suggests that she sees more than she lets on.

Excellent young ladies

There are some who would say that Lollie, who became the mother of five children (her second last died in infancy), married below her station. Lollie was adopted by Rev. T. C Sanderson, a Methodist minister and his wife and was raised as a proper young lady. In the only photograph we have of her parents, both appear severe, dour, and puritanical. I have difficulty imagining an infant being met with tenderness and warmth by such people although I’m sure Lollie was given a correct upbringing. There appears also to have been some money in Lollie’s family judging from the clothes, and an image of a rather elegant home that apparently belonged to a certain Aunt Maggie. Lollie was also sent to Alma College, an exclusive Methodist private school for young ladies, not the most common experience at that time in what was known not long before as Upper Canada. The school’s art director was a painter of some renown and was even granted a sitting by Queen Victoria in 1985.

A photo of Lollie and a friend from the school shows them seated on a finely-tooled wooden bench, maintaining the required posture and composure of two excellent young ladies. I suspect their education was a classical one in which extensive reading played a key role. Only after her death, did the extent of her reading and correspondence become apparent. It would appear that she was especially fond of history.

The literate Lollie

From the numerous books, carefully annotated in her own elegant handwriting, which she bequeathed to her grandchildren, one gets the impression that the irrevocable events of history marked her psyche. (On the fly-leaf pages of one book she has written an extensive list and description she titled, “These Men Rule the World.”) She corresponded regularly with an “aunt” in the Hebrides and once with the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons in Ottawa. I doubt, however, that for a greater part of her life she had anyone with whom she could share her literary thoughts; books were her silent friends.

Lollie was a quiet, somewhat submissive woman, but had a strong will nonetheless. In retrospect, I can see the displaced child in her. Whether she knew her exact origins is unclear. If she did, she kept the information to herself. She preferred instead the fanciful and common fable that she had been the illegitimate child of royalty, a story she recounted to her granddaughter on more than one occasion. I think Lollie was a dreamer, and probably had every right to be.

Given the date of her birth, we have wondered if Lollie was adopted at a later age as a Barnardo child; sending a 10-day-old infant to Canada in those days does stretch the imagination. During the years of Lollie’s early childhood, the philanthropic organization founded by Thomas John Barnardo — the notable figure of child emigration — sent roughly 30 000 children from England to homes in Canada. The children were usually between eight and 16, not infants as we were told Lollie was. Advertisements were usually placed in local papers announcing the arrival of another shipment of children. Farmers in particular were invited to visit a Barnardo home for a prospective “home boy” or “home girl”. “Unsuitable” children who were small, too slow, or too difficult were often returned to the home as being unsuitable. In looking for Lollie, we have examined the manifests of ships bringing Barnardo children to Canada but of course there would have been no child aboard with Lollie’s adopted name.

Identifying with the outsider

Lollie had a special interest in and respect for native Canadians as one of her father’s last ministries was on an Indian reservation. She also had a soft spot for animals, plants, and dispossessed children. She would occasionally take us for walks in the old “Scottish” cemetery near her home and would make a point each time of stopping at the section set aside for infants who had died well before their time. I can recall feeling so sad for these children who for some incomprehensible reason had all been buried together in a dark corner of the cemetery. Lollie seemed to feel a special bond with them and deemed it important for us as quite young children ourselves to experience vicariously their brief, sad histories.

I remember learning (perhaps from Lollie but I can’t quite remember) that “nature abhors a vacuum” and I am very aware of the tendency of the human brain to process missing details that don’t register on our retinas, a survival tactic handed down to us by our unique evolution. A few notes from a familiar song recall the entire melody. Partial conversations overheard can be extrapolated and their full meaning inferred. A few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle allow us to imagine the whole. I believe we have evolved as mammals who in the interests of psychological survival strive constantly to reconcile ourselves with the past, especially our personal pasts. We are an historical species. Introspection is a genealogical process; it is also the stuff of imagination.

One of the last photographs we have of Lollie is on the occasion of her birthday. She is holding a card of best wishes in her hand. The birth date she is celebrating is correct and precise, confirmed and validated by the 1901 Canadian Census, the first ever to be conducted in this still young nation. Lollie was a real person with a real identity; it is only her first few moments in life that are unsubstantiated. In the photograph she is smiling at the camera, a twinkle in her eye as if she knows something we do not.

In one of her favourite books, Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner and published in 1883, Lollie has marked and annotated a number of passages. One of these says:

“The barb in the arrow of childhood’s suffering is this: its intense loneliness, its intense ignorance.”

Beside the paragraph she has written the single word, “True.”

And on the inside back cover of The Elements of Euclid, one of Lollie’s school books, is written, “Love, marry, trust few. Always paddle your own canoe.”

“The sense of self is not a concept or an idea, it is an essential or core experience in the body, of well-being and aliveness … our sense of self becomes a reference point, the inner place from which we experience ourselves, our relationships, and our world in empathetic relatedness.” — “Parenting and the Transformation of Consciousness,” Thomas Paris

Lollie graduates from elementary to high school. She will then to on to graduate from Alma College, a private liberal arts college for “young ladies”.

Lollie (back row, far right) among other excellent young ladies who graduated from Alma College in St. Thomas, Ontario. The college provided a liberal arts college for women; teaching literature, arts, and music

Lollie was someone who would write to anyone — even the Leader of the Official Opposition of the Government of Canada, Robert Manion.

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