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Family Portraits


This is a portrait of my Great-Grandfather, William Slee, painted around 1924 by his artist grandson-in-law, Ernest Sampson. Ernest has placed him in his favourite setting, a garden, and entitled it, “The Ancient Perennial”.

Mom’s older first cousin, Ethel, married an artist who had emigrated from Liverpool to Canada, Ernest Sampson. (Not only was he from Liverpool, he had attended the same art college as John Lennon and Paul McCartney many years before. In my Beatlemania days I thought this remote connection was pretty cool. Actually, it still is, in my mind.) He co-founded a commercial art firm, Sampson-Matthews in Toronto in the early part of the 20th Century.

The company at one time or another employed various members of the Group of Seven and Charles Matthews donated a number of paintings to the McMichael Gallery. Ernie accompanied the Group of Seven on painting trips, often in Algonquin Park.
According to my cousin, Richard Slee, in the 1970s, Ethel was rummaging through her garage while Richard was with her, and came across Ernie’s paint box. When she opened it, she found a small double-sided canvas painted by A.Y. Jackson, one of the Group of Seven. Jackson had asked Ernie to take the picture out of the backcountry for him on one of these trips. Ethel showed it to Charles Matthews (the business side and surviving partner of the firm) and asked if it was worth anything. He sawed it in two (back to back) and sold the two paintings on her behalf, which he didn’t think were particularly good for $10,000 apiece.
William and Margaret Slee England 1867

Newly-married William Slee and Margaret Taylor in 1867. My great-grandparents in England.

The heads of this clan, my great-grandparents, William and Margaret Slee, came to Canada with their young family from a small village in Northwest England, Kirkby Stephen. I was curious about the reasons for their departure from England and had assumed that it was for economic opportunity. That may have been the case, but a few years ago I learned that there may have been another more pressing reason.

Several years ago the above-mentioned cousin who carries the family name visited Kirkby Stephen and stopped at a pub. He was enjoying a visit with the locals until they learned his last name. The only person who would speak to him at that point was a travelling salesman who informed him that my great & great-great grandmothers had been leaders in the temperance movement that had bought up the bars in Kirby Stephen and shut them down!
I was amazed! After all, this was over 100 years and a few generations later. However I later read in a PD James novel that the longevity of feuds in parts of England can last hundreds of years. So what’s a mere 100!

William and Margaret Slee brought their four children to Canada in 1880. While William Slee, a carpenter by trade, built their home at 457

Kirby Stephen 1879

Taken in Kirby Stephen in 1879, shortly before the emigrated to Canada. My Nanna’s handwriting.

Ferguson Avenue in Hamilton, Margaret and the children stayed with Uncle Johnny (Slee) in Doon, Ontario, near Kitchener.* My grandmother, Katie, was almost 5 when they came to Canada. Another child, Willie, was born in Canada the next year. Sadly, he died of a head injury at the age of 9, when a large dog knocked him onto the sidewalk.

William and Margaret Slee made sure their two boys and two girls had a profession. My grandmother was a milliner, her sister a dressmaker. I believe the older son was a lithographer, and the youngest an engraver. At the turn of the century my grandmother was earning $300 a year, according to the census.
This is a bare bones outline of the beginnings of the Slee family in Canada. They remained devoted to the Mother Country while making the most of the opportunities of their chosen land. Dick Slee, the oldest, took his family to England around 1914, and my Nanna returned for an extended visit with an aunt in 1927-8. I have Nanna’s journal from 1897-1903, which has given me an intimate look at the Slee family during this six-year period, a treasured possession.
On this Canada Day, I pulled out Nanna’s Bible, given to her at the time of her marriage  by Gore Methodist Church, Hamilton, Ontario, in 1905. She has pasted into the back a typewritten speech written and delivered by her older brother, Dick, on the occasion of their parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, August 24, 1917. He wrote:
We look back with sympathy and pride on the courage and resolution which inspired you in the flower of your manhood and womanhood to sever the many ties and fond associations of  your early life, and to uproot the tree to put forth leaf and flower anew in the great land beyond the seas. We are proud of our ancestry and the traditions of our people, and truly thankful that our destinies have been cast in this favored land .

Dick Slee’s full tribute to William and Margaret Slee on their 50th wedding anniversary as it appears in Nanna’s 1905 Bible.

*Interestingly, Harold Slee, Uncle Johnny’s descendant sold his farm to Conestoga College. The Doon Campus sits on the farmland I visited as a child.

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