William James Savage: History Through Poetry
By Richard Hughes
The arts community of the Quinte area has long featured a wealth of talented musicians, actors, painters and writers. Their performances and works have contributed so much to our richness of life and have brought many hours of entertainment. One has to wonder, for all of these individuals and groups whose works have made their name well known across the region, how many other very skilled and talented people have kept their “light under a bushel,” only known and appreciated by their own families.
One glowing example was recently brought to light by the great-grandson of William James Savage whose poetic works had gathered dust on a shelf for almost 100 years. The story of Savage, which is now being revealed thanks to his descendants, is truly amazing and his works of poetry are equally fascinating, both in their style and content.
Who was William James Savage? In many ways he was a very average person of the Victorian age – born in Norwich, England in 1879, he left school at the age of 10 and went to work. Savage married in 1902 and with their first child, the young family emigrated to Canada in 1906. His devotion to his new country and the enduring love of his homeland led him to enlist in the military for service in the First World War at the age of 37.
But Savage was by no means an average person. Through his whole life he closely observed his physical surroundings along with the people and events that crossed his path and these clearly impressed and touched him so deeply. While some would write their observations and opinions in a journal or diary, Savage showed a distinct creative nature by putting his observations on paper in poetic form.
His writings began with stories from his childhood in England, his family, teachers, local farmers, the adventures of a young boy, all set out in colourful, poetic terms. Of his school days he wrote:
“ ‘Twas there I went and in its turn arithmetic I had to learn.
Geography and grammar too were tasks allotted me to do.
Those days with pleasure I recall we’d climb upon the old school wall
Eat berries from the laurel shrub as if we’d been deprived of grub.
The sweetest apples we could find were situated just behind the picket fence”
What was life like for the Savage family when they arrived in Belleville in the early 1900s? Savage wrote about searching for employment:
“He read the want ads one by one until one caught his eye
Which at the bottom bore these words “No Englishman need apply.”
“His paper then he laid aside, and wandered down the street
The people looked him up and down, who he would chance to meet.
Two men stood by a hotel door, whose noses and faces were red
And just as he was passing by, one to the other said
“Another god durned Englishman, whose just arrived in town
To get work that we should have and keep the wages down.
They never work in England so they ship them out of there
And dump them down in Canada to be a nuisance here”.
But Savage was not deterred by this negative reception as he wrote in 1915, singing the praises of Belleville:
“I am happy and content for some pleasant times I’ve spent
In old Belleville since I claimed it as my home”.
During these days, Front Street was the busy, dynamic centre of the community and this could not escape the keen observations of Savage as he strolled the length of that street, commenting in such colourful terms on each and every business and the people he would encounter. He starts at the Upper Bridge:
“Now, there is Moore who has monuments, marble and stone
For those who have left us for regions unknown.
Fitzgerald cleaning and pressing next door,
Will patch up your trousers if they should be tore.
Next there is a laundry run by two brothers called Lem,
If your garments need washing, just take them to them.”
This vast collection then remained with Savage for almost 50 years until his death in 1964. Ultimately, they were placed in the care of the Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County. The next chapter in this amazing story occurred in 2019 when Robert Presland of Ottawa was searching his family history and noted that great-grandfather, William James Savage, had gone off to the First World War at the age of 37. This intrigued him; he wanted to find out more about this person.
Through his family, he learned that his great-grandfather had written extensive poetic works and these were preserved at the Community Archives. Mr. Presland contacted the Archives and was able to obtain copies of the handwritten documents. Amazed at what he found – not just poetry but a first-person, eyewitness to his great-grandfather’s life 100 years ago. He undertook the transcription of the “sometimes tortuous handwriting” of his great-grandfather’s works and ultimately, he published them. His book, William James Savage Walk With Me, From 1890 to World War Poetry and Prose, presents, in 161 pages, almost 50 stories of Savage’s life from early days in Norfolk, England, through the First World War and daily life in Belleville, with Savage’s distinctive sense of observation and good humour flowing through his own poetic style.
This book is available at the bookstore of the Hastings County Historical Society in the Community Archives, 2nd Floor, Library Building and online at hastingshistory.ca, 161 pages $15.
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