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Manitoba History: Cool Things in the Collection: The Canon Wilmot Collection

by Wayne Chan
University of Manitoba

Number 82, Fall 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Much has been written about women and the home front during the two world wars—from their entry into the workforce to their volunteer efforts. What is sometimes overlooked, however, is the perspective of women with young families, who may not have been able to work outside the home and had limited time to devote to volunteer activities. It is of interest to understand how they managed with day-to-day life during wartime, with their husbands away from home, and how they dealt with issues like maintaining long-distance relationships, raising children alone, and coping with changes in family dynamics. The Rev. Canon Laurence F. Wilmot Collection housed at the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections offers some unique insight into these issues for one Winnipeg family during the Second World War.

Wilmot family, June 1942 (L to R): Laurence, Jr., Hope, Hope Fairfield (on lap), Laurence, Sr., and Louise.
Source: UMA, Laurence F. Wilmot fonds, PC 132, Box 1, Fd. 5

Laurence (Laurie) Frank Wilmot was born in 1907 on a farm near Clanwilliam, Manitoba to Thomas Herbert Wilmot and Fanny Campbell. He graduated from St. John’s College in 1931, and was ordained deacon in the same year and priest a year later. In 1932, he married Edith Louise Hope Littlewood, a schoolteacher from Winnipeg. They had three children: Laurence Sydney, Francis Mary Louise, and Hope Fairfield. After serving as rector for a number of congregations in rural Manitoba, Wilmot became a chaplain in the Canadian Army in 1942 and was eventually transferred to Italy, where he served as chaplain to the West Nova Scotia Regiment. He was awarded a Military Cross for his role in evacuating the wounded during the Canadian offensive against the Gothic Line at Foglia River. After the war, Wilmot became Central Western Field Secretary for Christian Education for the Anglican Church. In 1950, he was appointed Warden of St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba and served in this capacity for 11 years. Wilmot then studied at Oxford University for two years and wrote a thesis for which he received a Master’s degree in philosophy from the University of Manitoba in 1963. He remained in England for four more years, serving as Sub-Warden at St. Augustine’s College in Canterbury. After spending two years receiving training in clinical pastoral care at hospitals in Texas and Washington, D.C., he returned to Canada in 1969 when he became chaplain at Whitby Psychiatric Hospital in Whitby, Ontario. Wilmot retired in 1972 and came back to Winnipeg, where he completed a second Master’s degree in history at the University of Manitoba in 1979. His wife became ill during this period and Wilmot fully retired to care for her, until her passing in 1986. In his retirement he published three books: Whitehead and God: Prolegomena to Theological Reconstruction (1979), St. John’s College: A Documentary (2001), and Through the Hitler Lines: Memoirs of an Infantry Chaplain (2003). He remarried in 1995, at the age of 87. Laurence Wilmot died in 2003.

Laurence Wilmot’s first wife, Hope (née Littlewood), was born in Newburgh, Ontario in 1905. Her family came to Manitoba when she was six. She was raised and educated in Winnipeg, and graduated from Kelvin High School. She then attended Normal School, where she received her teacher’s training. Hope subsequently taught in rural Manitoba as well as in Winnipeg until her marriage to Laurence Wilmot in 1932. The couple moved to Pilot Mound, Manitoba, and then to Swan River four years later. When Laurence became an army chaplain in 1942, the family moved to Winnipeg. After her children grew up, Hope went back to school and earned a BA in 1963 and a BEd in 1969, both from the University of Manitoba. When the couple returned to Canada in 1969, Hope taught at the special adult school at the Whitby Psychiatric Hospital where her husband was chaplain. In 1984, Hope was elected an honorary fellow of St. John’s College. She died two years later.

Jody Perrun, author of The Patriotic Consensus: Unity, Morale and the Second World War in Winnipeg, [1] found the Wilmot fonds to be an invaluable resource and cited the collection extensively in the chapter on family separation in his book. [2] According to Perrun,The papers of Laurence (Laurie) Wilmot, a chaplain from Swan River, Manitoba, who served with the West Nova Scotia Regiment in Italy, are an important source of primary evidence for an inquiry into how separation affected families, for two reasons. First, his work as a regimental chaplain entailed regular counselling to men with domestic problems and his comments offer insight into the difficulty of maintaining morale during a period of prolonged separation and high anxiety...Second, Wilmot’s papers contain a set of wartime letters exchanged with his wife Hope, who spent much of the war in Winnipeg. This particular collection is unique because most servicemen in combat units, lacking storage facilities, were unable to preserve significant volumes of correspondence from home. As an army chaplain, Wilmot usually had the use of an office or caravan where he could keep his papers. Laurence and Hope Wilmot wrote to each other almost every day during a two-year separation that lasted from September 1943 until the end of the war in August 1945. [3]

Most of the wartime letters between Laurence and Hope Wilmot used the standard Armed Forces Air Letter forms seen here.
Source: UMA, Laurence F. Wilmot fonds, MSS 122, Box 7, Fd. 2

The wartime correspondence of the Wilmots often reflected common concerns of the era. For example, many servicemen feared that their young children would not remember them after they had been absent for several years. Hope Wilmot tried to allay those fears in her letters to her husband. Writing about their youngest daughter, she says, “It is remarkable how real you are to her, one would gather from her attitude that all she had to do was run to the next room and see you...I think this is lovely dear...they do not feel an awayness from you except in the matter of sight and sound and touch...which of course is a pretty big except, but you are very much beloved, and the children are right up to date on all your doings, and very enthusiastic about you in their conversation, and there certainly won’t be any strangeness when you come home...” [4]

Excerpt from letter 225, Laurence Wilmot to Hope Wilmot, 3 September 1944.
Source: UMA, Laurence F. Wilmot fonds, MSS 122, Box 7, Fd. 2

The stress felt by many women in having to manage their families without their spouses during the war is also evident in the Wilmots’ correspondence. In her letters to Laurence, Hope frequently expressed the loneliness and strain that she was under, caring for the children on her own and also dealing with her aging parents. This was compounded in August 1944, when her mother suffered a debilitating stroke. In addition to worrying about her mother’s prognosis, Hope was also afraid that she would be expected to care for her. She writes,

I do not know what Dad’s real plans are...I am hoping that I shall not be alone to meet whatever this responsibility turns out to be, because Dad simply does not commit himself to anyone, and I have no way of knowing what he will expect of me...I just know, that on the whole, the fact that I have a family of three active children, with lots of work attached, is ‘defensively’ ignored, and I have given up mentioning my responsibilities...but just try to meet things as they come, and simply do what I have to do, without explanation or excuse... [5]

Laurence tried his best to give support and advice from a distance:

The [letter] regarding your mother’s condition has made me a little anxious regarding your relationship and arrangement at K.R. [the home of Hope’s parents on Kingston Row in St. Vital, where Hope and the children were then living]... I do not think it is wise for you to attempt to care for your mother in her present condition. I realize the difficulty your dad is working under and I suppose it is very difficult to obtain any one to care for one in her condition – but if your mother comes home he will simply have to have someone... I am a little afraid that you are being caught in a pincer movement of your common sense and your emotions. Your dad is in a difficult position and will be inclined to lean more on you than he should. If you try to shoulder the whole load you will only help (I fear) to bring about the collapse of the whole arrangement. [6]

Other letters show Hope’s worries over her son’s misbehaviour, which she ascribed to the absence of his father and the instability of their living arrangements, echoing commonly attributed causes of the rise in juvenile delinquency during the war. [7], [8] The Wilmots’ correspondence also frequently touched upon matters of faith and spirituality.

Letter 264, Hope Wilmot to Laurence Wilmot, 7 September 1944.
Source: UMA, Laurence F. Wilmot fonds, MSS 122, Box 6, Fd. 10

The Wilmot collection was donated to the University of Manitoba by Laurence Wilmot in 1995 and 1996, with the final instalment donated by his second wife, Grace Nunn, in 2004. The fonds consist of 7.9 m of textual material and other material, including 346 photographs, 43 audio cassette tapes, and 5 audio reels. The collection is divided into seventeen series, which cover much of Laurence and Hope Wilmot’s lives, from the 1920s until their respective deaths, and a significant portion of the collection covers Laurence Wilmot’s service in the Second World War.

Of main interest here is the second series, which deals with Laurence Wilmot’s personal correspondence, and in particular, Boxes 6 and 7, which hold Wilmot’s wartime correspondence with his wife, and her responses. Box 7 also contains excerpts from Wilmot’s diary on days when he wrote to his wife. The extant correspondence is extensive, consisting of dozens of letters. What is noteworthy from an archival standpoint is that both sides of the correspondence have survived. The Wilmots also carefully numbered each letter to make them easier to refer to in their replies. Of related interest is Box 2 which contains Hope Wilmot’s diary for the 1942-1943 period, as well as correspondence to her from family and friends. [9]

Notes

I would like to thank Shelley Sweeney, Head of the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, for her suggestion to write this article. I also thank Mark Vajcner (University of Regina Archives and Special Collections) for reviewing the manuscript.

1. Perrun, Jody. The Patriotic Consensus: Unity, Morale, and the Second World War in Winnipeg, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014.

2. Ibid., Chapter 6: Responses to Family Separation, pp. 185-214.

3. Ibid., pp. 188.

4. University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections, Rev. Canon Laurence F. Wilmot Collection, MSS 122, PC 132, TC 84, Box 6, Folder 9, Hope to Laurence, letter 236, 5 August 1944.

5. Ibid., Box 6, Folder 10, Hope to Laurence, letter 264, 7 September 1944.

6. Ibid., Box 7, Folder 2, Laurence to Hope, letter 256, 12 October 1944.

7. “Facing Ugly Facts,” Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 18 May 1944, p. 6.

8. “Juvenile Delinquency Not Yet Alarming in City, Report Says,” Winnipeg Free Press, 16 December 1944, p. 7.

9. Wilmot fonds, MSS 122, Box 2.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 9 November 2020

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