I’m the Shell,
The Dark’ning Shell!
My smoke-clouds shroud Dominions where my red rain
Far beyond the seven seas,
On the mountain and the plain,
Hearts are shrunken to the lees,
Souls are withered for the slain.
I am the Shell!
My dread reverberations echo over hill and dell,
Where the grey-haired Mother sits,
Fearful that the sock she knits,
Will never reach the boy whose face before her vision
And the widowed matron sews
While her strained eye overflows,
As the toddler by her chair
Gazes ‘tranced at her despair,
Awed by the blighting tragedy of which he is the heir.
From “The Shell”, by A.C. Stewart.
Published in Canadian Poems of the Great War (1918).
At the age of ten, Norma Bayntun lost her mother Cassie. Tetanus, according to the death certificate, with miscarriage listed as a “Remote or Earlier Pathological or Morbid Condition.”
Just over two months earlier, soon after the declaration of war, her father had enlisted. The year was 1914.
And on March 24, 1916, Norma became an orphan. She was twelve years old.
Saanich Archives has captured her father’s story through the Saanich Remembers World War One Project. Corporal Andrew Henry Bayntun was Killed in Action and buried at Menin Road South Military Cemetery in Belgium. In June 2016, Military Researcher Steve Clifford visited his grave as part of the Project, placing a commemorative certificate from the District of Saanich (British Columbia). Corporal Bayntun resided in the municipality before the war, on Alder Street.
After his death, his young daughter remained in the care of a Mrs. William (Constance) Block of Victoria, who had been receiving military separation allowance payments on Norma’s behalf. Corporal Bayntun’s mother died on James Island a few months later.
For Norma, this latest tragedy was one of many that would mark her life. The arm of war, it seemed, had a long reach — even if it was indirect. What began with the unimaginable pain of losing both her parents under the shadow of the First World War became a heartbreaking tale of history repeating itself. Of death. Of lives cut short.
At first it seemed she had disappeared from the record; project researchers were not able to locate any information as to her life after the war. For years, I wondered what had become of that orphaned girl. I tried to find her. But after exhausting my usual research sources, I still came up empty. And for a little while, I’m ashamed to admit, I forgot about her.
That is, until I saw a familiar name pop up on Twitter.
I recognized Bayntun right away. Within seconds the story came back to me. And with it, my questions about Norma. I wanted to believe she’d gone on to lead a full, happy life. What I needed was some kind of confirmation. To know it hadn’t been all bad. And so, I put out a call for help. Someone out there had to know how to track her.
I am grateful to Sidney Museum and Archives for taking up the challenge. If not for the combined efforts of their Executive Director and one of their determined volunteers, Norma’s story would have remained lost to history. For her to be forgotten forever would have been the final, greatest tragedy of all.
Even if the story is not a happy one. Far from it.
Corporal Bayntun’s Attestation Papers indicate that Norma’s guardians, William and Constance Block (sometimes written as Black), were at one point during the war living at Rosebank Lime Co. in the Langford/Colwood area. As far as I had been able to determine, the trail ended there. Though the contact address on file changed a fair number of times during those years, it was always somewhere in the Greater Victoria area. And yet, there was no sign of them in the 1921 Canadian Census.
What I hadn’t uncovered was that the Block family moved to Roseburg, Oregon in 1921. The last mention of Norma (last name incorrectly spelled “Bayntum”) was in a September 1919 article in the Victoria Daily Times: “Soldiers’ Orphans to Strew Flowers — Children Whose Fathers Were Killed in Service Will Line Pathway of Prince to Queen Victoria Memorial.” She was the only child listed from her school, Girls’ Central.
By this time, Norma would have been fourteen.
Strewing the flowers for the Prince on his way to officiate the laying of the foundation stone of the Queen Victoria Memorial Statue was described in the article as an honor for the “school children whose fathers were killed serving their King in the Great War.”
On April 15, 1921, a Norma Beryl — now with the last name Black — married Arthur Cecil Hancock; William Black of Rosebank Lime Co. witnessed the union. Her new husband was a driver, and a resident of 280 Burnside Road. The marriage certificate records her age as 16 — confirmed, one could argue, by the loopy signature style more reminiscent of that found on a school notebook than a marriage registration.
Official records don’t tell us whether their marriage was a happy one or not. But they do tell us it was short.
A year and a half after that day at St. Andrew’s in Victoria, it was over. Just as complications from childbirth contributed to her own mother’s death, Norma died with the arrival of her child while still nearly one herself. Her death record shows her age as 17, while the obituary in the Daily Colonist lists it as 18.
One final tragedy came after Norma’s passing. Her daughter Gwendoline (also known as Ena) died in 1935, only 13 years old. According to Ross Bay Cemetery records held by the Old Cemeteries Society, the cause was miliary tuberculosis.
Arthur Cecil Hancock went on to marry twice more. (In a twist of fate, his third wife was also named Norma. Interestingly, her mother had died when Norma was about two; while her father served overseas in WWI, she remained in the care of an elderly couple for six years.) Arthur died in 1977 at home in Lake Cowichan and was survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren.
Norma Blanche Bayntun (also known as Norma Beryl Black and Norma Beryl Hancock) and daughter Gwendoline are interred in the same, unmarked plot in Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria.
Half a world away, Corporal Bayntun’s headstone rightfully displays the maple leaf, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tends his grave. His death — representing another lost son in the Great War — arguably changed the course of his daughter’s life.
Now that I have finally, with a lot of help, found Norma and shared her story, I will seek out her final resting place and pay my respects. I have been to Ross Bay before. Just a couple of months ago, in fact; I could have walked right past the grave without realizing it. Nearly one-hundred years have passed since she died. Maybe there’s a way to ensure Norma and Gwendoline are commemorated, remembered. It’s the least they deserve. A headstone. A bronze plaque. Something.
The next person shouldn’t have to look so hard.
Again, I am grateful to the Sidney Museum and Archives for picking up the trail where I hit a wall. If not for them, Norma’s fate would have remained a mystery. Most of the images used here were originally found by the Sidney volunteer. The original research has been deposited with Saanich Archives as Norma, her father, and her husband were all residents of the municipality. My thanks also to Yvonne Van Ruskenveld of the Old Cemeteries Society for finding Gwendoline’s cause of death; the death certificate has not, as of this writing, been digitized by BC Archives and so the Old Cemeteries Society records were critical in finding the last piece of the story.
One thought on “Tragedy’s Heir”
Thank you, Sonia, for this poem and providing its background and context.
– I find it meaningful.