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A Purpose Filled Life – The Bill White Story
Part One – In the Beginning

Throughout the last few years I have delved deeply into the fascinating stories of significant pioneers here in the Pass. It takes a huge amount of research but in the end I find I have created nice profiles of special human beings and their contributions to our community.
The multi-part columns I have done on Frank Wejr and the Kerr family (2018), Gunter Koci (2019) and Aneila Plonka (2021), each took me down the harsh road of immigration and revealed what these amazing people endured in their search for a better future. For the life of me I cannot imagine what it must be like to leave your country and everyone you know and love behind, most times never to return.
I have, once again, been invited into a pioneer’s world to learn about their story and legacy, one that I will share with you through the next few weeks. This legacy maker’s name is William White of Bellevue and his journey, now 94 years long, is a fascinating one and one in which his important role in the Pass needs to be shared.
For William’s ancestral origins we must travel back in time to Heath Hayes near Staffordshire in England. There the beginnings of the White legacy were started by Bill’s grandmother Mary Ann Ironmonger who married William Charlton in 1878. She was 23 at the time and went on to have three children with William before he passed eight years later at the age of 42.
It seems that this scenario of the man passing early in a marriage was to become a significant part of this families’ early legacy. Two years after William’s passing Mary Ann married George Pidgeon White and thus began the White family tree. Again the spectre of early loss reared itself in Mary Ann’s life with the passing of George White at the age of 55 in 1907. When she was widowed for the second time eight White children that had been born, including Bill White’s father Alfred in 1898. Three years later, in 1910, Mary Ann packed up her family and immigrated to Canada, coming here to Hillcrest Mines. Try and picture that journey, if you will, and right across Canada no less.
If we back up the story a bit, we find that one of the three children that Mary Ann bore with William Charlton was their first child, Annie Amelia Charlton. Her story’s significance has to do with the fact that the man she married in 1900 was Leonard Clarke the son of coal miner Daniel Clarke. By 1912 Leonard and Annie Clarke had had six children and Leonard chose to leave their home in Manchester after having been invited by his brother Daniel to Centerville, Iowa. Incidentally, Centerville started mining coal using horses to hoist it to the surface in 1868. Apparently that visit didn’t work out and Leonard left shortly after to come to Hillcrest to join his mother-in-law Mary Ann and her family and find work in the mines here.
As I indicated before, premature deaths changed the course of the White family history several times and the Hillcrest Mine disaster played a huge part in the direction of the next generation. Leonard Clarke was killed in that June 19, 1914 disaster and left Annie Amelia with those six children back in England.
I was able to dip into Leonard’s background story using a great resource called the Hillcrest Mine Disaster database, created by Belle Kovach and her sister Mary Bole. It shows that he immigrated to Canada in October of 1912 on the ship “Canada” and landed in Frank, with his occupation listed as a chimney potter. A year later he accepted his brother’s invitation and travelled to Iowa and as I indicated earlier returned to Hillcrest to be with the White family there. The research and detail that has been poured into this amazing database is second to none and everything is cross referenced.
The next of the White family to be impacted by Hillcrest was Mary Ann’s daughter Lily White who was born in 1891. Lily married George Hicken in the Anglican Church in Hillcrest in September of 1912. George was the second oldest of twelve children born in Staffordshire to Levi and Eliza Hicken and George and Lily had been married only 21 months when Hillcrest took him.
Mary Ann (Charlton) White’s first born son, Samuel Charlton, was Lily’s step-brother. Samuel had sailed on the Empress of Ireland in March of 1910 and came to Canada to work at the Hillcrest mine. Just one month prior to the explosion that took his life, Samuel married Margaret Nason in the Hillcrest Anglican Church. The Empress of Ireland sank in the Gulf of St Lawrence four years after he sailed with it. It went down just three weeks before Hillcrest blew up and took 1,012 passengers with it. The news of this, Canada’s worst maritime tragedy, somewhat overshadowed Canada’s worst coal mining tragedy.
From all this we see that Samuel Charlton was a brother-in-law to both Leonard Clarke and George Hicken and that their loss had a huge impact on the family, as it did with every Hillcrest family.  The Hillcrest database reveals one more tragic piece of family information. Leonard Clarke’s wife, Annie Amelia was a cousin to Samuel Ironmonger and Charles Ironmonger, two other victims of the Hillcrest Mine disaster. The connectivity to all this stunned and saddened me.
The family portrait picture in this column was taken circa 1905 and depicts the broad cross section of ages of the nine Charlton and White children. Annie Amelia Charlton is not in the picture, as she was married and was 26 years old with three children at the time of this picture.  Bill White’s father Alfred was seven years old and is at the bottom right in this important family portrait.
Moving on to Alfred (Fred)White chronologically, we find that he was raised in Hillcrest and eventually he and his bride Elisabeth had five children- William (Bill), Allen, Richard, Betty Anne and Gloria. Bill was born in Hillcrest in 1927 and shared a few simple memories of his time growing up there with me. Of course there was softball, baseball and hockey and Bill said that the hockey arena was open air, which meant a lot of snow shoveling at times to clear the ice. Kids back then played a lot of outside games and he mentioned a few like Ball in the Hole and Run Sheep Run.
Bill also shared an unusual story with me. He said that Hillcrest had a lot of bats flying around and that they had this kids’ trick. They would put a rock in their hats and throw their hat up into the air and the bat would attack it. It is a fact that back then little brown bats were very common and it is so sad that they are rarely seen now.
Bill told me that in 1938 his first job, at 11 years of age, was helping to put water lines in Hillcrest. Apparently his father overheard a contractor sitting in the bar lamenting about how he needed some help with his trenching machine. Fred said, “ I got a boy that can do that” so Bill’s summer holidays that year were  spent reattaching trenching buckets on that cantankerous contractor’s digging machine.
The story that really astounded me about Bill’s early life occurred when he was 14 years old. Apparently he and his father Fred heard a radio broadcast out of Vancouver that resonated strongly with him. It was an urgent plea for young boys needed as riveter helpers at the West Coast ship yards. How Bill responded to that plea gave me my first glimpse into this man’s strength of character. The story is so profound in nature that I will be breaking away from Bill’s life story to share it with you in detail next week as to where he went and why.
I will preface how this remarkable story of a unique Canadian contribution to the Second World War effort went down by telling you a bit about Bill’s involvement. When Bill White decided to seize the opportunity to be part of this massive war effort he bought a ticket on the train to Vancouver. He said that when he got on the train at Hillcrest it was full of serviceman heading for the West Coast. When they heard that this fourteen-year-old boy was heading there to do his part for the war effort they treated him like royalty. I can tell you that what Bill inserted himself into in 1941 was an industrial mobilization in maritime construction of such magnitude that in all my years of war history research I have never come across a more profound and important Canadian  war story.

 

Authors Note:  So as I said next week I will take you through Bill White’s journey as a young man into the world of ship construction in a time that I doubt we will ever see again. Be sure to join me to learn about this remarkable story.

Combined Charlton and White Families circa 1905

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The remarkable Mary Ann (Ironmonger) White - passed at 82 in 1941

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Fred with Bill White Bill White Archive photos

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Combined Charlton and White Families circa 1905

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