Thomas and Minnie Davis

Another piece of the Davis family jigsaw falls into place around Dick Davis and scant memories heard in my grandparent’s house. It begins with Dick’s father Thomas, and again with emigration. Thomas was the second eldest brother of my grandfather’s generation, born in 1865 at the Boggaun farm. He emigrated to Canada in 1886 when my grandfather was four years of age. Some six years later Minnie Gillmor from Dromahair emigrated to Toronto, and Thomas and Minnie were married there in 1893.

Minnie and Thomas Davis, possibly on their wedding day 1893.

Thomas, like his uncle and namesake who had emigrated from the farm in 1861 (see earlier blog), was an Orangemen of a conservative mind, and both carried these concerns into their new lives in Canada. As Thomas was preparing to leave County Leitrim his Orange Lodge became engaged in what would be a twenty-year-long opposition to the Home Rule Bill, which Unionists saw as a threat to their position, giving greater autonomy to the Irish parliament. The nation of Canada was only thirty years old when Thomas arrived. It was a turbulent time. The previous year saw the military defeat of a major insurrection of native peoples in the North-West.  One of the leaders of the rebellion Louis Riel was tried and executed for the killing of Thomas Scott, an Irish immigrant and Orangeman. Scott was seen in Ontario as a martyr while the outcome of the rebellion, particularly the execution of Riel increased Anglo-Francphone tensions.

Thomas Davis first settled in Barrie some 40 miles north of Toronto before moving to the city where he was married six years later. At that time, he was a tradesman, a painter. Minnie Gillmor with her assistant, Mary Sweeney, left Dromahair for Toronto in 1891. It is possible that Minnie’s emigration was driven by some defining incident or perhaps an independent streak which was out of step with the times. Minnie, with Mary arrived, in Toronto with funds in reserve and it is possible that these helped Thomas move into a career in journalism, writing for The Mall and The Empire among others, and then later to set up a real estate business, Thomas E. Davis and Co, which he ran for twenty years.

Thomas and Minnie were probably acquainted before they left Ireland. Thomas’s family would have known the Gillmor family and frequently visited their general shop in Dromahair.  However, Minnie was some 6 years older, and a match would have been seen as inappropriate. In addition, the Davis family at Buggaun were of farming stock with little notable wealth or pedigree, at least within their Protestant community, and Thomas would not have been considered a suitable match for Minnie.  When Thomas emigrated, the two may have kept up some form of communication. As a tradesman it is unlikely that he would have been able to afford the fare back to Ireland to see Minnie. The steerage fare to Ellis Island during these years was approximately half the yearly wage of an Irish labourer, not including the transport and expenses at either end.

Mary Sweeney, who after emigrating with Minnie, lived the rest of her life with the Davis family.

Minnie’s family background is interesting. In 1850 her parents Robert and Mary Ann Gillmor had emigrated to Cascade, Iowa, in the United Sates along with Mary Ann’s sister, Sarah and her husband, the Rev John Bates, a Baptist minister. The Gillmor family converted to the Baptist faith. Iowa was seeing large numbers of European families arrive at that this time following the earlier ‘Black Hawk Purchase’ when the government forcibly took over native lands after their defeat under their chief Black Hawk. The Sauk, Meskwake and Ho-Chunk native peoples were forced to give up all rights to the lands for the equivalent of around 11cents an acre.

The Irish colonists settled around Cascade, a small settlement of about 400, setting up a homestead and a farm in difficult and unfamiliar conditions. Stuart James, Minnie’s eldest brother, and his sister Ann were born in Washington Township near Cascade. The family ultimately decided to return to Ireland, possibly after news of the death of Mary Ann’s father.  With continued immigration driving up Iowa’s land prices, the sale of their farm and homestead turned a tidy profit.

On returning they settled in the townland of Cleen just outside the village of Dromahair. Stuart went on to establish ‘S.J. Gillmor’ a general merchant shop in Dromahair, where my mother, Ena Davis, later worked work in the 1940s. The family joined their old church.  Drumlease Parish Church records show their unusual adult baptisms in 1878, when Minnie was nineteen.

Minnie Gillmor Davis

Whether her parent’s experience of emigration and return impacted the young Minnie is speculation. However, when she emigrated across the Atlantic to Toronto Old-World traditions were easier to ignore and in 1893 Minnie and Thomas married. On their marriage certificate Minnie and Thomas are shown as being the same age, perhaps consigning the thorny issue of Minnie’s age to Old-World history. Mary Sweeney would remain living with the family throughout her life, helping to raise their family. She outlived Thomas and Minnie and continued to live in the family home after their deaths and she is buried with them in the family plot.

The global economy was turbulent during the early years of the 1900s, and similarly Toronto was going through cycles of boom and bust, with high employment compounded by returning WW1 soldiers. Thomas’ real estate business rode these choppy waters. Despite renting out multiple properties at one point, at the end of his life it was said that Thomas’ only property was the family home.

A photograph of Dick Davis taken from his 1998 Memorial Service booklet.

Minnie clearly had an independent streak and became a woman of some substance. As her family grew, she became a noted writer and poet, according to her obituary. She used the name ‘M. Gillmor Davis’ or Mrs Gillmor Davis’. In 1912 she penned the noted patriotic WW1 sone ‘Fly the Flag’ and also ‘The Old Homestead’.

Their family household would have been an interesting place to grow up and develop. Their first son, Richard “Dick” Davis was born in 1894 when Thomas was still a painter.  He contracted TB at an early age, permanently damaging one knee and rendered him ineligible for service in WW1. He developed different sensibilities to his father, earning a Masters in Economics and Sociology. Dick began his working career with the YMCA. He then led the Canadian Youth Commission and went on to become the Executive Director of the Canadian Welfare Council, an NGO which influenced social policy development in Canada. He also held Adjunct Professorship in Social Work at The University of Toronto. Dick married Margaret Svendsen, originally from Oslo, Norway, who became a recognised child psychologist in her own right. They had one son Eric and one grandson Reade, both of whom became professors.

Despite his father’s lifelong involvement in conservative politics, Dick was strongly shaped by the economic depression of the Interwar years and became somewhat more left-leaning In his politics, with a strong commitment to social justice and robust social programs. For his contributions to the field of social welfare in Canada, Dick received two honorary PhDs and was awarded with the Order of Canada.



Print pdf version here.

Dick and Margaret Davis had one son Eric and one grandson Reade, both of whom became professors. Dick had two brothers and a sister; his eldest brother Stewart barely survived WW1 nerve gas but returned home to become a professional football player with the Toronto Argonauts. Like his father he later moved into real estate and then into his father-in-law’s coal business. He had a family of four. Dick’s sister, Kay worked in the Admissions Office of The University of Toronto and never married. His youngest brother, Alf, after a university education followed Dick into the YMCA. He was married twice and had one child.

It is interesting to note that in the above mentioned North-West Rebellion, Louis Riel, one of the leaders, was a descendant of Jean-Baptiste Riel dit L’Irlande born in Limerick, who emigrated to Canada around 1700.

Thanks to Reade Davis and Des Gillmor for the benefit of their research and review.

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