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Manitoba History: Oral History: Life in the Brandon Gaol

by Ms. Jo Ann Tymchak
Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 9, Spring 1985

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

For some years now, the Manitoba Historical Society has actively promoted oral history; and it is happy to be able, through the Documents and Archives section of this issue of Manitoba History, to make many members of the general public aware of the new emphasis on oral history at the PAM. Recently two readers of this magazine contributed items that reveal a couple of the benefits of conducting interviews. Excerpts from them are printed below.

In the first item, Mr. Pax Crawley of Minnedosa unintentionally reminds us that written documents can be lost, and that oral testimony then becomes the only evidence on just how or why something occurred. In the second, Ms. Jo Ann Tymchak of Winnipeg has used conversations with her mother and her aunt to tell us that “ordinary” people, who likely would not think of writing their memoirs or an autobiography, may have had extraordinary and interesting experiences that others can he made aware of only through interviews.

Brandon Gaol

My Grandfather, George Mathieson, was in the army in the early part of World War I. He joined the 45th Battalion, 1st Canadian Military Reserve which took him overseas. During a battle in 1916 he was wounded which caused his capture. After two years as a prisoner of war in Switzerland, he returned home to Brandon. His status as veteran brought him the privilege of getting a civil servant’s job as a guard at the Brandon Gaol. By my Grandfather’s time the Gaol was a detention centre for persons sentenced to two years less a day, although from time to time more hardened criminals were housed for several days en route to Stoney Mountain Penitentiary. He married in 1921, had three daughters, and by 1928 was promoted to Governor of the Gaol.

In May of 1928 George, wife Joan, daughters Charlotte (6), Alice (5) and Georgina (2) moved into the residence. Until 1936 these three little girls grew up in Brandon Gaol where they lived in the ground floor apartment. My mother was Charlotte (Fraser), and in talks I have had with her and my aunt Georgina (Wolfe), I’ve learned a good deal about their unusual early life.

The residence, as it was called, was huge in comparison to what the family had known before. There were four bedrooms, a kitchen/ pantry, a dining room, a parlor with a fireplace, and indoor plumbing. From the front door to the entranceway that led to the guard room offices was a hall which was about 40 feet long. Outside there was a summer house to play in when it rained. The lawns were great for playing ball in the summer and the steps in winter became a slide. The gardens were large with many varieties of flowers, shrubs and trees. Charlotte says

My sense of security and safety grew with me. There was a sense of peace in this fenced-in property. The quiet, once evening fell was only broken by the few people outside the grounds, the street cars (later buses) which passed, a few automobiles, or a prisoner singing in his cell, usually ‘Red River Valley.’

The most typical question put to the girls by school chums was “Aren’t you afraid living in that strange place?”

As far as I [Charlotte] was concerned there was nothing to be afraid of. My parents were never far away and the on-duty guards were only a few steps away. We also took the usual ribbings from the other children, even close friends, often being called ‘gaol-birds’ which bothered us not at all.

The Mathieson sisters enjoyed a prestige that no other children in their city had.

After a thorough screening some inmates became trustees. These trustees were like the Mathiesons’ servants. These men ended up spoiling the sisters. They carried wood and coal in for the stoves, carried out the ashes and other garbage and washed and polished all the floors including the long hallway. The polisher was a brick placed inside a wooden box covered with carpet and pushed by an attached wooden handle.

I [Georgina] remember my sister Alice and myself climbing aboard the backs of the men while they washed the floors. One trustee would often push me up and down the hallway in a wheelbarrow, while another helped me to learn to ride a bike.

Grandmother called the women prisoners “the girls” rather than mention any names. These girls would beg for things to do and so she had them do our ironing and mending. Says Charlotte

One girl in particular showed me how to darn. She would tell me over and over again, hoping I would never forget, ‘There is no shame in a mend or darn but there is in a hole or a tear.’ To this day I am still the best darner around and am very proud of my skill.

The girls received from the prisoners, both male and female, much attention and some love ... Smoking was not allowed except on holidays but quite often prisoners attempted to get tobacco.

Once I [Charlotte] saw and reported to my dad than an Indian lad had received a package of tobacco over the fence. Later in the dais when he passed me going to dinner, he said ‘I’ll get you for that.’ Believe me I was afraid for quite a while.

There was another incident of attempted tobacco smuggling.

When I [Georgina] was quite young I remember a prisoner handing me a note. He wanted me to go to the store for tobacco. Off I went but on my way back Dad caught me and took the tobacco away. Dad told me to go tell whoever it was that I could not get any.

This prisoner spent a day and a night in what the girls came to know as the black hole. Grandfather put him in there for involving his youngest daughter in a scheme, not for wanting tobacco.

On the day of a prisoner’s release a guard would bring them to the kitchen. Here grandmother would give them her good-bye lecture. Then she would hand them one or two dollars from her own pocket, and wish them well, hoping all the while she would not see them return, unless it was for a visit.

In May 1936, four prisoners escaped from the jail.

I [Georgina] remember watching Dad and Charlotte running after these men. Charlotte had a big stick in her hand. They never did catch up to them though.

Following the escape and recovery of the prisoners George Mathieson was replaced as Governor. The family moved from the residence to a house on 1st Street.

I remember [says Charlotte] feeling very safe and secure in the old building and somewhat the reverse in the wooden house we moved to. Cars and trucks and other noises to which I was not accustomed became a new part of our lives.

Grandfather continued to work at the gaol as a guard until he retired in 1951.

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