A stellar day
It is March 12, 2021, one day before the 99th birthday of Joyce Hilborn. The circumstances are unusual. At Willoughby Manor, a retirement home on the outskirts of Niagara Falls, Ontario the Covid-19 pandemic has all but shut the premises. Usually there is one designated visitor, by appointment, and everyone is masked and keeps six feet apart. On this Friday, at the height of the third wave of the pandemic, no visitors are allowed, just a birthday card, a birthday cake and an iPad sending a video feed to the far-flung children attending the virtual birthday partyRobin (Southampton ON), Michael (Sarasota FL), Kathryn (Sundre AB) and Karen (Ridgeway ON).
I think you’ll agree that a 99th birthday is worth celebrating with a book. Here’s how it came about.
It all started on March 31 with email from Joyce’s younger sister Mavis Dodd in Australia. Then Mavis’ daughter Margaret Yelavic sent me a pdf of “Childhood Memories”, Mavis’ account of her life in England up to 1937. Mavis had written out this history in 2002; Margaret typed it up.
I was astonished by “Memories”38,000 words in 54 pages. With Mavis’ permission I excerpted 17,000 words to form Chapter 3, where you can appreciate the extraordinary detail of her recollections.
Mavis’ other daughter, Liz Dodd, mentioned in an email on March 28 that Clare Oxby had sent her a copy of a history which Clare had compiled in 2019. (Joyce’s mother was an Oxby.)
When I had in hand both Mavis’ memoirs and Clare’s history I realized that I could combine them to make a biography of my mother. And I could add on a series of articles from Hilborn Family Journal.
By April 22 I’d decided to go ahead. I told mum and she said she hoped the book would be “all true”, and I assured her it would be.
This book focusses on Joyce Hilborn (1922- ) of Niagara Falls, Ontario and her immediate ancestors, the families Hilborn, Jobber, Cole and Oxby. Some of these branches in the family tree are well known, others less so.
Hilborns were well researched by Hilborn Family Journal, the newsletter I published in Montreal from 1978 to 1986. I used articles from the Journal in chapters 4 through 9. (For details see Appendix C, Sources.)
Jobber is Joyce Hilborn’s maiden name. Not a lot is known about the Jobbers of Willenhall, Staffordshire. We do have some facts about Joyce’s father Thomas and his time in a mental hospital, thanks to Mavis (Jobber) Dodd’s “Childhood Memories”see Chapter 3. Margaret Yelavic sent a Jobber family tree (see Appendix B).
My information is similarly scanty for Cole, my paternal grandmother Winifred’s maiden name. My sources are a talk with Aunt Peggy (Margaret Cole 1916-?) in 2002 and a chart of Cole ancestors by “John A.” of Wigan. Winifred’s father William Cole ran a restaurant in London and her brother Bill was in the car rental business in Bedford. Bill found Winifred a house in Bedford after the Blitz bombings forced her out of London.
Oxby, on the other hand, is a family connection beautifully traced by Dr. Clare Oxby, Affiliated Researcher at the Institute for Social Anthropology, Bern, Switzerland. For research into her greatgrandfather Henry Oxby, who is Joyce Hilborn’s maternal grandfather, Clare used U.K. census and Salvation Army recordssee her “Oxby family: sea-faring heritage and Oxford stopovers” (2019), an invaluable source.
In 1994 Clare, then living in Perugia, Italy, sent me two short biographies, of Henry Oxby and his son Edward Rome Oxby. With those I was able to build a family tree, “Descendants of Henry Oxby, 1859-1936”. (His daughter Lilian married Thomas Jobber, father of Joyce and Mavis.) We are indebted to Clare for illuminating the Oxby story.
In terms of the Joyce Hilborn story, it is notable that her grandparents, Henry and Amelia Oxby, were dedicated members of the Salvation Army. The Army’s founder, William Booth, sent the couple to Melbourne, Australia for a two-year stint, 1884-1886. Over a century later, Joyce chose to commemorate Henry and Amelia’s service by having a Salvation Army officer preside at the funeral of her husband, William Roy Hilborn in January 2000.
Mavis Dodd mentions Henry Oxby in “Childhood Memories”. To her, he was “Grandpa”, “so tall, wearing a black homburg hat over his silvery hair”. Thanks to Mavis, we know quite a bit about daily life in Wednesfield, a suburb of Wolverhampton, in the 1920s and 1930s. (It’s pronounced “Wencefield”.)
And also thanks to Mavis we have records from the Oxbys’ time in Australia, in the 1880s. She wrote, “I was able to obtain from the Archives Department of the Salvation Army in Melbourne, photocopies from The War Cry, which they had marked to show when Staff-Captain Oxby and his wife were mentioned”.
The next major find was the photograph album started by Lilian Oxby, Mavis’ and Joyce’s mother. It is 41 pages and holds 289 photos, from a turn-of-the-century church outing, through Lilian’s years in college, teaching in Weston-on-the-Green, meeting Thomas Jobber, to a post-war holiday in Wales.
On April 25 Margaret Yelavic wrote, “I am the keeper of Lillian’s precious photo album. Today I have taken some photos using my iPhone.” Her close-up photos of the album make a great contribution to illustrating this family history.
The existence of the album explains how Mavis was able to learn the story of her family. She wrote, “I absorbed all this family history from Grandma [Amelia Oxby], when we turned over the photographs in her shoe box, and from asking many questions of Mother [Lilian Oxby], when I became the keeper of the photograph album she had started at the back of her college specimen needlework book. The needlework book had many sheets of black paper in it, so it was ideal for the purpose. The needlework specimens, of seams, hems, darns, corners, and mitreings, were so fragile and cobwebby, that I couldn’t believe that she had done them.”
Mavis sent Joyce a draft of “Childhood Memories”, and the two exchanged comments on the draft, some of which appear in Chapter 3. Joyce was as amazed as I was by Mavis’ powers of recollection. She wrote, “You have a terrific memory for some things, names etc., some of which I recognise. But how are you able to remember things from age 3?" Mavis replied, “It was an eventful childhood for me at that time, age 3 in 1929 when Dad was at home, then he wasn't, also diphtheria, when I was 4, move house at the age of 5, so with the help of photographs, I remember very well.”
Perhaps there will be more. Back in 2002 Mavis wrote to Joyce, “Margaret is very pleased that I have started to write memoirs properly, she helps me with the printing, and so on. The ending appears to be abrupt, but the story goes on with High School Days, when I relate what happened when I got off the bus at the other end. Now I am busy with ‘Working Days’.”
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