Snow-shocked Corbets made success of their new life in Canada
Thursday 17th September 2009, 4:41PM BST.
ALTHOUGH not having direct experience of leaving Guernsey, Christian Corbet has charted the history of his family’s move from the island.
He still returns today to his ancestral home, and said he usually gets back every two or three years.
‘In the past visits have been busy meeting family, making news friends and even having fine art exhibitions.’
The Corbet name is well-known in Guernsey, in large part due to the field that was donated to the island by Christian’s great-grandfather’s second cousin, Jurat Wilfred John Corbet OBE.
The Corbet family left the island for Canada on 22 March 1913.
Their departure was announced in the Guernsey Advertiser and Weekly Chronicle as “100 Persons Departing for Canada”.
Among the other surnames of people leaving for a new life were Waterman, Soloway, Hibbs, Parson, Lihou, Le Maitre Falla, Meager le Reverend, Savident, Mauger and Mahy.
Leading the Corbets was Christian’s great grandfather Wilfred, Wilfired’s father Alfred John Corbet and some of his other children.
They were joined later in the year by Alfred’s wife Irven Miriam (nee Foss) who brought their youngest daughter Phyllis with her.
Christian later found out that before mother and daughter left, Irven took Phyllis to all the beaches and cliffs so she would remember the island.
The move, perhaps unsurprisingly given the scale of the journey and the transport available at the time, was not an easy one.
During the journey they encountered icebergs that had come down from Newfoundland and Labrador, and ice slush and floes also threatened the travelers.
Two stops were made in order for the ship to redirect position, and this led to a longer journey than expected.
According to Christian, the family’s reasons for leaving Guernsey were twofold.
‘I was told by my great great auntie Phyllis Yorke (nee Corbet) that her parents were concerned about the development of World War One and fear of occupation of the isle,’ he writes.
‘However my second great grandfather also realized that he could almost triple his wealth by moving to Canada.’ He retired following his move to Toronto – at the age of 48.
But he could hardly have been considered poor when he reached Canada, owingto the legacy he had received from his father, Christian’s third great grandfather, Jean Thomas Corbet.
Jean Thomas and his father owned two quarries, Catelain and Corvee, and employed over 15 men at one point.
When growing was at an all time high in the late 1880’s Jean Thomas sold off the quarries and moved his profits into growing tomatoes, flowers and melons.
He encouraged all his sons into the growing trade, emphasising that melons were most important.
Only his sons John Henry and William (who became known as the Melon King) took a great interest and went into the trade full-time.
Christian’s great-grandfather Alfred John Corbet was more of a creative sort, and he became a carpenter specialising in hand furniture and carved doors of the type featuring elaborate fruits and floral designs.
Jean Thomas gave to his sons a large part of their inheritance to help set them up in their business and Alfred took his share to live rather comfortably both in Guernsey and then in Canada.
Once in Canada Alfred invested in a great deal of real estate which faired him well both from monies he inherited early in 1896, a year after his mother’s death, and another large sum on the death of his father in 1926.
Christian said that when the family arrived in Canada what struck them most was the amount of snow.
‘They were shocked to see snow’, he writes. ‘This is something they never imagined would stay on the ground for long periods of time.’
But despite the snow they settled in well.
Another aspect of the weather that the family didn’t like was the humidity, but the warmer summer weather helped with their city garden.
And what also helped with the settling down was that another line of Corbet’s from Guernsey had emigrated at about the same time, so Christian’s family did not feel alone.
There were also a large number of people from the UK living in Toronto and Canada in general at that time.
The winters were colder than they were accustomed to, but even so Christian said the decision to move to Canada more than lived up to expectations.
They profited from the favourable exchange rate, and this enabled them to buy a large house in the city.
There was only one child in the family home at that time, Christian’s great-great aunt Phyllis.
She went to a local school, and Christian said she took her studies seriously and enjoyed the faster pace of life compared to Guernsey.
It was not hard for the grown-up children to find jobs, and the family always said afterwards that their quality of life improved.
But even so, they still longed for Guernsey and never forgot their roots.
Even so, only one of them ever made it back here for a visit – that was Phyllis, who returned in 1966 to see family and revisit her ‘roots’.
As for the rest, in those days intercontinental telephone communication was rare, so the family kept in touch with their family and friends in the island through letters, many of which are still in Christian’s possession.
It was Christian’s interest in finding out more about his family that drove him to visit Guernsey, and he said he has discovered many more family members in the island than he had expected.
While a lot have the surname Corbet, other descendants and family names include Roussel, Foss, Bichard, Ozanne, Le Prevost, Lenfestey, ‘and seemingly every other old Guernsey name’.
Once contact is established, he keeps in touch online via email, on MSN as well as with postal mail.
During his visits he has noticed how the island has changed, and in particular he said he is amazed at the new buildings in St Peter Port but admires the heritage buildings moreso.
But he notes that in his ‘family parish’ of the Vale ‘things are generally the same…so to speak!’
When he’s not here he misses the Vale Church and the friends he has made there during his trips. ‘I also miss visiting my family grave and paying my respects to my ancestors which means a lot to me’.
In this four generations photograph is, clockwise from top, Jean Thomas Corbet (1836-1926), his son Alfred John Corbet (1864-1937), on his lap Alfred John Corbet (Christian’s grandfather, 1922-1989) and his father Wilfred John Corbet (1893-1971). The photo was put together using two pictures at the suggestion of Guernsey photographer T. A. Grut and was created to celebrate the arrival of Jean Thomas Corbet’s first great-grandson.
Jean Thomas first posed for his part in the picture at Grut’s studio in Guernsey. He then rang Canada, wired money over and requested that Alfred arrange a sitting with a photographer in Toronto to do a three person arrangement. The photo from Toronto was sent back to Guernsey and the two images were pasted together and made into four large oval photocompositions fitted behind convex glass. This artistic work was said to have cost Jean Thomas £375, or three times that in Canadian dollars at the time.
Christian said he has heard that Jean Thomas was so happy with the portrait that it was the first time he cried since his wife died in 1895. But since he was nearly blind he never really saw the full likeness he was so clever to have commissioned.