At long last, Christopher Alexander (C.A.) Fleming, educator and publisher in Owen Sound, Ontario, was embarking on a voyage to the United Kingdom. The year was 1924 when Europe was rebuilding after the war of 1914-18. Roy Fleming, his cousin, had emphatically recommended such a trip after his own in 1903.
C.A. – you know you are rich – you might cease from your labors for two months and take a trip to the Old Country and see these places – see that land of true beauty and sweet traditions – the land of your fathers, which age will never dim. [Letter dated 14 October 1903]
Arranged by the Canadian Weekly Press Association for editors of weekly newspapers, the tour covered Belgium, Paris, and the major cities in the United Kingdom. There were 171 individuals in the party, of whom 101 were associated with some 100 weekly Canadian newspapers. Of these editors, 83 were men and 18 women. Seventy family members travelled with them. Many of the editors were from Ontario, and smaller numbers from the Atlantic provinces and the West. [Davies, “Who’s Who”]
C.A. owned the Daily Sun-Times and the weekly Cornwall Freeholder. His eldest daughter, Lillian, who was 37 and a kindergarten teacher, accompanied him on a trip that became the highlight of her life – especially the garden party at Buckingham Palace.
Over the eight weeks, C.A. mailed letters to the Daily Sun-Times with reports on the social events and the places – the streets, the people, the exhibits and tours. These were dense with descriptions of the farmlands and industrial sites and attentive to points that his Grey County readers would appreciate. He later published his reports as a collection in Letters from Europe.
W. Rupert Davies, of The Renfrew Mercury in Renfrew, Ontario, and former president of the Association, organized the itinerary and meetings with dignitaries and press associations. He published his account in Pilgrims of the Press, in which he explained that this endeavor was to be “an educational tour with the idea, not only of establishing a closer relationship between the weekly editors of Canada and the newspaper fraternity of the Old Land, but in order that we should all get first-hand knowledge of the Mother Country and some of its problems.” [Davies, p. 3] (Davies, who many years later was appointed to the Canadian Senate, brought his wife Florence McKay and their son Robertson – the Robertson Davies who grew up to be a journalist and acclaimed novelist.)
The idea for conducting such an ambitious tour was rooted in a strong sentiment for the British Empire. The elite of the Empire Press Union and the Newspaper Society in England provided full support and likely direction. We might surmise that their motives were to strengthen diplomatic and economic bonds between Canada and Britain. Notwithstanding that Canada had just fought for “King and Country,” Canadians were pressing instead for autonomy and independence from imperial requests.
The party sailed from Montreal, 11 June 1924, on the S.S. Melita of Canadian Pacific Steamship line – an ocean liner newly fitted in 1918. Members of the press party, as C.A. observed, immediately set to writing letters for their newspapers. On the 20th, they arrived in Antwerp to begin their rapid-paced tour that continued non-stop until they departed from Belfast, Ireland, on 26 July. The itinerary took them through Belgium, to Paris, across the English Channel to ten days in London and area, followed by an extensive tour of Britain, four days in Scotland, and one day in Belfast. They met dignitaries and members of the press at every city, had luncheons hosted by newspaper magnates, sipped tea with British royalty, visited countless cathedrals and museums, toured factories and industrial sites, and walked the decks of British naval ships. It was a stupendous effort of intricate logistics involving many modes of transportation and tight schedules, caravans of buses and motor cars, arrival and departure from multiple hotels, sumptuous banquets on a grand scale and numerous speeches. Thomas Cook and Sons handled all the arrangements for accommodations and transportation without a hitch. The travellers must have been gasping with sensory overload (and perhaps a stronger attachment to the United Kingdom) as they boarded the S.S. Montlaurier for Quebec City and home.
C.A. described their days of activities often with additional detail on anything involving machinery or connected to Canada. I’ve selected four days: The battlefields in Belgium, the British Empire Expedition, the royal garden party in London, and C.A.’s personal day in Logierait, Scotland.
Battlefields in Belgium
The tour passed through Belgium and France, where trenches, craters, concrete defences, mines, barbed wire and other detritus marked the countryside. Belgians praised the bravery and sacrifice of the Canadian soldiers at a ceremony in Brussels to place a wreath on the grave of an Unknown Soldier. In Malines, the press party entered the venerable 15th-century cathedral of St Rombold, which C.A. observed as having been “shamefully abused” in the war. The people of Malines had rebuilt the cathedral walls, but C.A. could see “hundreds of shot holes … in the beautiful dome.” Near the borders of Belgium and France, they visited the battlefields “swept clean of trees” [Fleming, p. 16] and the German front lines marked by “scattered cement.” But, observed C.A., “the fields are practically all levelled out again and under cultivation.” Scrap steel in large piles along the farm lanes was one reminder of the years of war. Outside Ypres, they saw where the future site for the Canadian memorial. To C.A’s. regret and that of many others, there was not enough time to visit Passchendaele or the cemeteries at Cambrai where soldiers of the 147th Battalion from Grey County were buried. [p. 18]
Arriving in England
Reaching Dover on 29 June and delivered to two hotels in London, they were given a detailed program for the next ten days. They were to see the Parliament buildings, Westminster Abbey, the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, shipping on the Thames, the grand fleet at Weymouth, and the airdrome at Kenley.
British Empire Exhibition
Chest out and head up, Britain hosted the British Empire Exhibition on 220 acres at Wembley outside London from April to October in the years 1924 and 1925. It was a show of strength to encourage imperial trade and lift spirits. Fifty-six of the Empire’s 58 territories (dominions and colonies) participated in a grand display of produce, manufactured goods, mineral wealth, and arts and crafts.
C.A. made a beeline to the Canadian building where he knew the person in charge – Alex Tolmie of Kincardine. Tolmie took C.A. and three other Ontario visitors on an inside tour of the Canadian exhibits. C.A.’s account was a report on the natural resources and industry that Canada was promoting for trade and investment. This list will barely convey C.A.’s interest and pride in the mineral section – nickel from Sudbury, silver from the Keeley Mine near Cobalt, and several other minerals from Ontario and Quebec. “Queen Mary,” he remarked, “is one of the best posted women in the world on Canada and its resources especially its mineral wealth.” [p. 32] Also on display was fine furniture from Ontario: C.A. recognized a bedroom suite from a manufacturer in Kincardine. All kinds of apples were on display. Dairy products were kept in a Canadian-made refrigerating plant. Panoramas captured the grandeur of Niagara Falls and the splendour of the Prairies. C.A. was very interested in the show of the Canadian Paper Mill for making newsprint. The displays of other participants at the Exhibition he found to be “trifles and trinkets.” [p. 34]
Canada is not running a huxter’s shop, nor a catch penny booth, but a real exhibition to demonstrate in no uncertain way the resources and potentialities of the Dominion and so demonstrate to all the world that we have first class goods in wonderful variety to sell and that we have a great country to live in. [p. 34]
C.A. may not have known that Prime Minister Mackenzie King had “allotted over one million dollars to the exhibition.” [Clendinning]
The Royal Garden Party
All fine and good, but the “event of a life time,” as C.A. phrased it [p. 44], was the royal garden party at Buckingham Palace to which 10,000 had been invited. That Saturday afternoon of July 5th the men in morning dress and the women in their finest afternoon frocks arrived at the palace. Guards directed the Canadians to the royal lawn, where they were joined by a full contingent of royalty. The entire press party was presented to King George V and Queen Mary, who shook hands with the leaders and chatted with others as they passed down the line.
We were directed to a beautiful lawn quite close to a door of the palace that opened into the grounds, and there, were lined up by provinces. Presently the Royal Party came out, the King and Queen, Princess Beatrice, her daughter, the Queen of Spain, her two lovely daughters, the ex-King and Queen of Portugal, Princess Maud, Princess Patricia and some others. [p. 43]
Everyone proceeded to the grounds to mingle with the elite of London and Empire and partake of the trays of sandwiches, cakes and other sweets.
North to Scotland
On 9 July, the press party left London to tour England, stopping at Warwick Castle, Torquay, Exeter and Bath, South Wales, Liverpool, and Chester. Many went to York, but C.A. and Lillian turned north to Dumfries, Scotland. C.A., as he travelled north by train, noted the change in the farms from fields of hay and pasture land to an increase in potatoes, turnips, hoe crops, and grain and that the “south of Scotland had as great a percentage of cultivated land as the counties of Grey, Simcoe and Dufferin.” [p. 58] C.A. was now on the trail of his ancestors, beginning with his mother’s people, the Robertsons in Kirkmahoe. While Lillian stayed with relatives, C.A. went on to Perthshire, homeland of his Fleming forebears, changing trains often to reach Ballinluig. He stayed the night in Pitlochry, six miles north, and the next morning rose at 6 am. C.A. went first to the Killiecrankie pass in the rugged Grampian Hills to see where the Jacobite Viscount Dundee defeated the English forces of William of Orange, a point of pride for all sons of Perthshire. In mid-morning his driver took him south along the Tummel River to Logierait where C.A. walked the sites that his father, John, knew as a boy – the Presbyterian church, the spot in the river where the ferry used to cross, the school, and Kirrandrum, near Ballinluig, where the Fleming family had lived before emigrating to Canada West in 1843.
C.A. hastened back to Ayr, arriving at 8 pm that evening. He and Lillian spent the Sunday with the Davidson family and on the next day re-joined the press party in Edinburgh for further touring of the Lake Region and Glasgow. On 26 July, they left Belfast on the Canadian Pacific’s S.S. Montlaurier.
Did editorial opinion in the Daily Sun-Times change at all as a result of the trip? We doubt it: C.A. was a staunch Liberal politically and more nationalist than imperialist. Did the tour strengthen bonds between Britain and Canada, or Canada and the British Empire? Not significantly, other than increased fondness for the monarchy. Mackenzie King continued the push for Canadian political and diplomatic independence. In 1926, the Balfour Declaration defined Great Britain and the dominions to be “freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.” [Kesterton, p. 193] But for the members of the press party — for C.A. and Lillian — it was the trip of a lifetime.
Clendinning, Anne. (n.d) “On The British Empire Exhibition, 1924-25.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web . (Accessed 8 December 2020)
Davies, W. Rupert.(1925) Pilgrims of the press, the story of the tour of the Canadian weekly newspaper editors and their wives to Europe in 1924. British Whig Publishing Company: Kingston
Fleming, (1924) C.A. Letters from Europe: The story of the tour of Canadian Weekly Editors in Europe in the Summer of 1924, Owen Sound.
Kesterton, W.H. (1967) A History of Journalism in Canada, Toronto: The Carleton Library: McLelland and Stewart (reprinted)