Butler, Wilfred Joseph

Wilfred Joseph Butler

Wilfred Joseph Butler


Birth: 12th February 1895 Wilfred Joseph Butler

Wilfred was born on 12 February 1895 in Croydon, Surrey, England, the fourth of five children, Richard, Rose, Edward, Wilfred and Peter. When he was born, his father, Richard, was 46 and his mother, Elizabeth, was 35.


Emigration: 19th April 1913 Wilfred Joseph Butler

Wilfred emigrated to Canada with the intention of farming there.


Military Service: 15th Jun 1916 Wilfred Joseph Butler

Wilfred enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force with which he served in both Europe and Canada.


Death: 12th July 1924 Wilfred Joseph Butler

Wilfred Joseph Butler died on 12 July 1924 in Kenora, Ontario, Canada, as the result of an accident at Backus Brooks Mill in Kenora.


Wilfred, like his younger brother, Peter, was born into a relatively affluent family.  At the time of his birth, his father had risen to become Chief Engineer Inspector of Machinery with the Admiralty – and was later to rise higher.  As such, the family lived in some style at “Brinscall” a substantial house opposite Mayow Gardens in Lewisham, Sydenham in London.

“Brinscall” – 91 Mayow Road, Sydenham
“Brinscall” was located quite near Mayow Park, Sydenham picture in this postcard from my father’s collection from this time.

At the time of the 1901 census, it was quite a large household and, apart from the family, included two servants one of whom was a nursemaid/domestic by the name of Louisa Devey.  The name Louisa comes up a number of times in the collection of postcards I hold, but by the 1911 census we find another Louisa, but whose surname was Worsley. Peter talked to me about having a “nanny” and recalled that she brought him and his older brother Wilfred downstairs to be “inspected” by their father before dinner.  I could not help but get the impression that it was very much a “children should be seen but not heard” sort of household.

His mother Elizabeth died in 1902 when she was only 42. Wilfred was just 7 years of age.  According to her Death Certificate, granular kidney is given as the cause, a condition she had suffered for 10 years. 

In December of the same year Wilfred’s grandmother Jane Butler passed away at his uncle William’s house in Devonport in Devon, where she had lived for a number of years. She was 93.

I had understood from my father that Peter and his brothers had all been sent to school in Belgium at an early age, but as his older school-age brother Edward was still at home at the time of the Census in 1901 this does not seem to have been the case.  Perhaps the decision, later, to send Wilfred and Peter to school in Belgium resulted from their father’s improving financial circumstances.  His eldest brother Richard who was shown in the Census as a mechanical engineer’s pupil later became almost as renowned a Marine Engineer as his father.

Wilfred’s father Richard remarried in  1907 Ethel Emily Northcott Cottell who according to the 1901 Census was a near neighbour in Mayow Road.  Ethel was aged 38 and had never married. Richard was 50.

From his Canadian Expeditionary Force records, of which more later, we learnt that he suffered from a bout of typhoid fever when he was nine which may explain how “poorly” he looks in some of the photographs we have of him.

Wilfred and Peter – 1906
Saint Francis-Xaverius Institute Bruges, Belgium

No record exists of Wilfred’s early education but he may have attended the Whitgift Public School in Croydon as his younger brother Peter did.
They later were both sent to boarding school in Belgium, the Saint Francis-Xaverius Institute in Bruges, to complete their education.
Although the dates of his attendance there are unknown, we do have a copy of a postcard dated 12 Feb 1907 his step-mother-to-be  Ethel sent to him, with the following message:

“Dear Wilfrid, I sent you a Calendar Blotter this week which I think you will find more useful than postcards. Every letter you send is forwarded to Mittie & she hands them on to May, so you see they are well read!! Father put £1.0.0 into your Bank Book as usual on 12th Feb. This postcard is soon printed. Parliament was only opened on 12th & in heavy rain. The mackintoshes spoil the effect.”

On the front of the postcard, she added  “Best love to Peter”.

In these days of real-time communication, it’s hard to believe that over 100 years ago this postcard of the Royal Procession for the Opening of Parliament was printed and posted on that very day.

As can be seen from the following postcard to both Wilfred and Peter, someone who showed a particular fondness for them both was Ethel’s niece, Hildegarde Slock-Cottell “Hilda”.

With best Easter wishes from Hilda – 17 April 1908
Wilfred – Undated but probably around 1910

I can find no record of Wilfred in the UK Census of 1911, so I presume he may still have be finishing his schooling in Belgium.

When writing about Peter, I had thought that he was the only one of the boys to have any interest in farming.  It appears now, however, that Wilfred was too. In any event, on 19th April 1913 (only two months after Peter left for New Zealand), we find him travelling to Canada.

RMS Teutonic – White Star Line / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

According to the Passenger List of the RMS Teutonic on which he travelled, his intended occupation there was  “farming at present”.  Interestingly, he is also said to have worked on a farm previously – something I didn’t know.
But, from this extract from a postcard his stepmother Ethel sent to Peter in July 1912,  it seems he too had a practical introduction to farming:

 “Wilf goes off on Monday to a farm near Southampton. I take him down. He will soon learn what work is if he never learnt before.”

At this point, after what seemed innumerable searches of both Canadian and UK records, I had almost made up my mind that the trail was too cold.  This changed, however, on receipt of what has turned out to be a treasure-trove of photographs in an old family album uncovered by my niece, Judy Ward-Butler.  Amongst these are a number of Wilfred – including this very indistinct one of him in uniform with his brother, Richard and wife, Christina.

Richard, Christina and Wilfred
London, 1919

Little did I realise how much I was to learn about Wilfred just from this single photo.
Now that I knew that he had served at some time during World War I and knowing how good the military records are, I believed I would track him down in no time at all.  How wrong I was.  I could find no record of his being in the British Army at all.
At which point I finally decided that I needed some help and enlisted (no pun intended) Google’s help.  After a number of false starts, I finally found “Doing my Bit” a website focussing specifically on Military and Family History Research.   Anyway, to make a short story no longer than it ought to be, within two days I had this answer to my plea for help:

“Thanks very much for the photo, the large insignia is difficult to make out but when I get home later today I will check my reference books to see if I can find something that might match.
What I can tell you is that this Corporal served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He’s wearing a 7-button tunic with stand up collar and what appears to be a maple leaf on his collar. He’s also wearing a single wound stripe just above his left cuff. This would date the photo to no earlier than 1916 and so 1919 might be accurate.”

Although, my “Doing my Bit” benefactor, Steven Clifford, hadn’t been able to trace a Wilfred Butler, his confidence that he had served in the CEF was enough to put me on the right track again.  Anyway, after trawling through what appeared to be hundreds of Butlers on Canada’s excellent WWI Personnel Records database, I found one with the right birth date – who, for whatever reason, had signed on as “John”.
And that there is no doubt that he is our Wilfred is confirmed by the details of his birthplace and next-of-kin in the copy of his Attestation Paper below:

Copy of Page 1 of “John” Butler’s CEF Attestation Paper

But the Attestation Paper is only one of the wealth of documents that make up his  Service Record ( all 118 pages of it) from which I’ve been able to glean more than just his time in the services.

As shown on his Attestation Paper, Wilfred enlisted on 15th June 1916 at a time when not surprisingly the flow of volunteers in Canada had virtually dried up and the prospect of conscription loomed.  But, unlike many young French-Canadians who saw the conflict differently, enlist he did.   According to his service record, he was employed as an engineer at the Muskoka Cottage Sanitorium in Toronto prior to his enlistment, so perhaps ” his family’s engineering gene” out-ranked his farming one.

I wonder, too, whether he was assigned to the #1 Construction Batallion because he had given his occupation as a “Stationary Engineer”? Although there is no record of his having completed any formal training in engineering, his experience was such as to qualify him for at least one engineering role after the war.

In the brief record that follows, Wilfred is shown as joining the CRT (Canadian Railway Troops) in September 1917.  In my ignorance, I hadn’t known that there was such a unit or realised the contribution they made or the number of men involved.  In fact, at war’s end, it comprised 19,000 personnel who had built 1880 kilometres of broad gauge railway line and 2275 kilometres of narrow gauge line during their wartime service.  I am grateful to Bruce F. MacDonald for this information garnered from the comprehensive account of the unit he published in his article “Canadian Railway Troops” to be found at this website CRT, and highly recommend it.

But back to his record, from which I have been able to compile the brief timeline of his service with the CEF that is shown below.  From that, it transpires that his 6 months of active service in France was interspersed with some 18 months in England, primarily in hospitals where he was treated for ongoing respiratory problems as well as a serious wounding in September 1917.
And in the end, it was his respiratory condition that led to him being invalided back to Canada in September 1918 and where he spent the next two years – also in a hospital as either a patient or an orderly.
He was formally discharged on 31st October 1920.

Summary of CEF Service – John Butler

Although a couple of the reports in his record suggest that his medical condition was related to his military service I can find no mention of an invalidity pension of any form.

But of all the papers, the one that I found surprising – and intriguing – was, as you will read, the change of address of his “Intended place of residence” in the “Proceedings on Discharge” section.

Copy of Page 1 of CEF “Proceedings of Discharge” Form – John Butler

Initially, this was given as The Pines, Paparoa, Auckland, New Zealand, which was where my father, Peter, lived and farmed at the time.  Peter had made no mention of any such partnership arrangement if that is what it was to be, but perhaps he just didn’t want to talk about what I assume must have been a great disappointment to him.  As you may remember from Peter’s post, he travelled to and through Canada on his way back to New Zealand from his visit to England in 1920.  Could he, either on his own behalf or that of his family, have made the trip to dissuade John from what he eventually did.

And what was that, you ask?

Well, in at least two of the papers included in John’s Record of Service he gives his address variously as 191 Palmerston Avenue, Toronto; 69 Hazelton Avenue Toronto; or PO Box 609, Kenora, Ontario – one of which, the Palmerston Avenue address, is the one used on the Discharge paper.
The addresses meant nothing to me – not least because they were just that – addresses. But having got this far in the quest, I wasn’t about to let the trail go cold again.  Having had no success at all in finding him in the 1921 Census – and I still haven’t – I tried looking at death records, prompted to some extent by the handwritten “Deceased” entry on his Discharge form.
And, yes, I did find a Butler who died on that day in a terrible accident in a paper Mill in Kenora, Toronto,  but, according to the newspaper report of the accident, his name was Stanley Butler and his mother’s name was Mrs James Russell – who with his stepfather lived close by. The report of the Coroner’s Findings was no help either, other than to add to my confusion about his name by recording it as Stanley Joseph.

So, says Norm, it couldn’t possibly be him.

How wrong was I?  In a Toronto Street Directory of 1921, I found that 191 Palmerston Avenue was occupied by a Jas. Russell and that, in the following year, 69 Hazelton Street was occupied by yet another Jas. Russell.  But the clincher was to find a copy of his Veteran Death Card (shown below) that confirmed that Wilfred Joseph and John (or Stanley) was the same person.


Copy of Veterans Death Card – John Butler. These records were kept by the Canadian Government in Ottawa at Tunney’s Pasture (a Government-owned site) that was originally a “farm”, so records from this site were stamped “Farm Records”.

In the absence of any record in the 1921 Census of Wilfred, further exploration of the Toronto Directories seemed called for and turned out to be justified.  From these, I learned that Wilfred (aka Stanley) lived and worked in Toronto in 1923 and 1924 as an Engineer at the Toronto Hospital for Incurables.   In 1924 he moved to 69 Hazelton Avenue, an address he shared with James and a William Russell, who I later learned was James’ eldest child.  According to the Directories, William worked as a Pressman with one of Toronto’s daily newspapers, “The Evening Telegram” from 1922 and was still with them as late as 1953.
James who was living at 191 Palmerston Avenue in 1920, moved to 288 Garden Avenue in  1921 and to 69 Hazelton Avenue in 1924.  And it was this address that was given in the newspaper article reporting Wilfred’s death.  In the Directories, James occupation is shown as a labourer from 1922 to 1924 and as an Elevator Operator for “Ideal Bread” from 1925 to 1928.  Both James and William moved to 488 Bloor Avenue in 1928.
Mrs Russell doesn’t rate an entry in any of the Directories but presumably, she was with James wherever he lived.

In the end, it was the Garden Avenue address that provided the link I needed to identify “Wilfred’s” Russell family in the 1921 Census.  From this I discovered that James and Barbara (nee Barrowman) were both born in Lanarkshire in Scotland, married there in 1903 and had two sons, William and John before emigrating to Canada in 1911.  Their first daughter, Jennie was born soon after their arrival in Toronto in 1911 and Agnes in 1914.

A copy of the transcribed entries from the 1921 Census appears under Evidence below.

The elder son, William, married a Toronto girl, Daisy Forbes, in 1927 and continued to live there whereas the rest of the family moved to the United States in 1929.  According to the US Federal Census of 1930, they rented a property in Manhattan.  Whereas James’ occupation is recorded as an elevator operator (as it had been in Toronto) the three children had become involved in the theatre, Jennie and Agnes being recorded as actresses and John as an usher.  I wonder whether the girls learned their craft in Toronto and then, at what must have been the height of the Great Depression, opted to try their luck “on Broadway”!

A copy of the transcribed entries from the 1930 Census appears under Evidence below.

Satisfying as it has been to be able to identify the family that befriended Wilfred and confirm that Barbara Russell could not have been his biological mother, questions still remain that I doubt I’ll ever get answers to.  Some of which are:

Why did Wilfred decide to use another given name?
What led him to change the intended place of residence on his discharge papers and not travel to New Zealand?
How and when did he meet the Russell family?
What led him to adopt Barbara Russell as his mother?

But for now, other than one last photograph, that’ll just have to do for Wilfred Joseph Butler.  An intriguing but ultimately sad tale.

The gravestone marking Stanley WJ Butler’s burial place in the Lake of Woods Cemetery, Kenora, Ontario, Canada.



Census Data – Wilfred Joseph Butler


Wilfred in an Officer-like Trench Coat – Undated



Wilfred Joseph Butler
b: 12 Feb 1895
Certified copy of Birth Certificate (dated 3 March 2005) held.
  • 12 Feb 1895 - Birth - ; 10 Bartley Road, Croydon, Surrey, England
  • 1901 - Census - ; 91 Mayow Road Lewisham London England
  • Death - Y
Stephen Butler
- 26 Jun 1863
Richard Jago Butler
11 Dec 1848 - 4 Mar 1931
Jane Jago
1809 - 18 Nov 1902
Wilfred Joseph Butler
12 Feb 1895 -
Peter Greetham
20 Sep 1830 - 21 Apr 1883
Elizabeth Ann Greetham
1 Oct 1859 - 19 Aug 1902
Rosina ("Rose") Ann Nibbs
Abt 1837 - 30 May 1883
Family Group Sheet - Child
PARENT (M) Richard Jago Butler
Birth11 Dec 1848Plympton, St Mary, Devon, England
Death4 Mar 1931 17 Wynnstay Gardens, Kensington South, London, England
Marriage9 Jul 1907to Ethel Emily Northcott Cottell at Church of Our Lady and St Philip Neri, Lower Sydenham, Lewisham, London, England
Marriage13 Dec 1879to Elizabeth Ann Greetham at Parish Church Of St John, Battersea, Surrey, England
FatherStephen Butler
MotherJane Jago
PARENT (F) Elizabeth Ann Greetham
Birth1 Oct 185922 North Kent Terrace, Woolwich, Kent, England
Death19 Aug 1902 Brinscall, Mayow Road, Sydenham, London, England
Marriage13 Dec 1879to Richard Jago Butler at Parish Church Of St John, Battersea, Surrey, England
FatherPeter Greetham
MotherRosina ("Rose") Ann Nibbs
FRose Greetham Butler
Birth15 Apr 188126 Cologne Road, Battersea, England
Death23 Mar 1954Victoria Hospital, Deal, Kent, England
Marriage18 Oct 1906to Reginald Francis Butler at ChristChurch Parish Church, Ealing, Middlesex, England
MEdward Butler
Birth6 Apr 1888Battersea, Surrey, England
MWilfred Joseph Butler
Birth12 Feb 189510 Bartley Road, Croydon, Surrey, England
MCuthbert "Peter" Butler
Birth24 Mar 1897Croydon, Surrey, England
Death25 Jan 1972Public Hospital, Whangarei, New Zealand
Marriage19 Apr 1927to Mary Somner at St Francis Xavier''s Church, Whangarei, New Zealand
MRichard Jago Butler
Birth16 Feb 188027 Cologne Road, Battersea, England
Death5 Sep 1956Duart Avenue, Prestwick, Scotland
Marriage4 Jun 1907to Christina Edith Whereat at The Church of the Sacred Heart, Norton Road, Hove, Sussex, England


Sources and citations

Copy of Birth Certificate – Wilfred Joseph Butler
Transcript of Passenger List – RMS Teutonic
Copy of CEF Discharge Certificate – John Butler
Transcript of 1921 Census of Canada – Russell Family, 288 Garden Avenue, Toronto., Ontario
Newspaper Report of 16th July 1924 on Accident involving Stanley Butler – Credit: “Kenora Miner and News”
Copy of Report of Coroner’s Findings – Stanley Joseph Butler
Transcript of 1930 United States Federal Census – Russell Family, West 144 Street, Manhattan, New York, USA