Noted Canadian author, Kildare Dobbs, once wrote that “self-reliance, individualism, and a cheerful willingness to cooperate are special marks of Saskatchewan people. Some may sense isolation, but they are not daunted by it.”, he said. Leonard Corrigan would have all these qualities tested as he faced nearly four years of captivity in Hong Kong.
Leonard Bertram Corrigan was born in Whitewood in Saskatchewan in 1911, the son of Isabelle Hart Corrigan and William Hubert Corrigan. He was the third of four children born to the couple – Nina, Cecilia (who died in infancy), Leonard, and Charles Hubert.
Leonard Corrigan’s ancestors had left Ireland for Canada where some settled in Ontario before heading out west to live in Winnipeg. On his mother’s side, Leonard’s grandparents put roots down in Moosomin, Saskatchewan, where Anthony Hart and his wife, Mary, had pioneered at a time when the railroad was opening up the west. Indians roamed the plains and prairie fires threatened the settlements. The climate was harsh – both winter and summer – and those who came to the west were faced with many challenges. The Riel Rebellion in the late 1800’s brought troops from the east to quell the uprising. Anthony Hart’s business was to provide meat for the soldiers who arrived in Saskatchewan by train to fight Riel and his supporters. A.E. Hart also became fire chief in his community and he and Mary contributed to building the town of Moosomin. Their daughter, Isabelle, would marry William Hubert Corrigan early in the 1900’s.
In 1882, into the mix of soldiers, business people, farmers, and ranchers came a bizarre contingent of the sons of wealthy Englishmen to create “Cannington Manor”. Led by Captain Edward Pierce, who intended to establish an “Agricultural College”, this group also wished to transplant their culture and refinement onto the Canadian prairies. Whitewood became the site of this adventure and soon the mansions were being built with elegant ballrooms, stables with wood- paneling housed the horses to be used for racing, hunting, and polo, and an Opera House complete with a full orchestra was constructed to be enjoyed by the inhabitants of the Manor and the nearby communities of Moosomin and Whitewood.
It was a world which entranced the young Belle Hart in her teenage years. She came to love the life of music and dance and the social outings which took place. Hubert Corrigan was a handsome athletic young man who would also have enjoyed the sporting life offered by Cannington Manor. He would play lacrosse with a winning team, baseball, hockey, and golf – which he played into his senior years. Together they would have been a handsome couple enjoying this elegant lifestyle.
By 1901, however, the new establishment failed when, according to Jane McCracken writing in the Canadian Encyclopedia, the inhabitants found they preferred polo, cricket, tennis, and rugby to farming and life on the prairies. Cannington Manor began to gradually disappear. Recognizing the unique aspect of this prairie history, the site of Cannington Manor has now been made into a provincial park and some of the original buildings have been reconstructed.
The marriage of Hubert and Belle would have been a grand social event. Pictures of Belle at that time show a beautiful young lady in her wedding finery. In 1907, the arrival of baby Nina would change Belle’s life, however. Weighing just two pounds, the baby’s chances of survival were slim until her two grandmothers wrapped her carefully and placed her on the open door of the wood stove in the kitchen to keep her warm. She survived and lived into her nineties.
Cecilia’s birth and death as an infant must have been extremely difficult for Hubert and Belle. It was never spoken about. Leonard and his older sister, Nina, never knew they had a sister until her name was found while tracing the family history. Both were seniors when Cecilia’s existence was made known to them. Learning about her young sister, Nina would say, “Now I can add her name to my prayers”.
By the time Leonard was born in 1911, Belle was facing difficulties as a mother. Not only was she trying to cope with the death of her infant daughter, she may also have been suffering from tuberculosis, staying in Whitewood to recover from this illness. Leonard and Nina began a rather nomadic life of staying with relatives and, when they were older, of being sent off to boarding school. (At the age of five, Leonard was sent to an all-French boarding school in Saint Boniface, Manitoba – probably the only English-speaking child there.)
The one constant figure in the young lives of Nina and Leonard was their grandmother, Mary McIntosh Hart. Mary Hart was born in the year of Confederation, 1867, and facing the challenges of life on the prairies, she became a strong and forceful presence for the young Corrigans. Mary was widowed in her forties and by the time of her death – just short of 100 years – she had been a widow longer than she had been married. She had a no-nonsense approach to life and, while Leonard was developing into a dare-devil, carefree young boy, he knew that when he stayed with her in Moosomin, he had to do as he was told. She would be the stabilizing force in his life. She was a woman of many interests which included politics (Sir Wilfred Laurier stayed at her house when he traveled through Saskatchewan) and she played an active role in the development of the town of Moosomin. She loved hockey and followed the game all her life. When the town council of Moosomin waffled on building a new arena, Mary challenged the civic leaders to do the right thing and then successfully rallied the local ladies to raise money for the venture by holding bake sales, craft displays, and bazaars. She read the newspaper every day, tended her large garden, and remained active well into her nineties. When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip travelled by train in Canada in 1959, Mary Hart presented the Queen with a white baby shawl when the royal couple had a stop-over in Moosomin. She explained to them that her grandmother had made a similar one for Queen Victoria while a member of the royal household.
The Corrigan family would be complete with the arrival of Charles Hubert in 1915. By this time, Hubert was travelling throughout Saskatchewan on business. Saskatchewan and Alberta had become provinces in 1905 and many settlers were arriving to take up land grants and homesteads in these new districts. Looming ahead, however, was the prospect of war in Europe and Leonard’s father would enlist in the South Saskatchewan Regiment, along with his brothers-in-law, Anthony Jr. and James Hart. Tony Hart would become a casualty of the First Great War in the Battle of Ypres at the age of 18 years. His body was never found and his name is written on one of the walls near the Menin Gate. Jim Hart would go on to become Colonel-In-Chief of the South Saskatchewan Regiment and would also play a part in the organization of the Royal Canadian Legion in Canada. Hubert went overseas with the Army of Occupation and so was still in Europe after the battles had ended.
Belle was left at home with three young children. It appears that Nina was sent to school in Manitoba where her talent in music was nurtured. Leonard’s whereabouts are sketchy but mention is made in family stories of his time spent with his great-uncle, Austin McIntosh (where he nearly burned down the barn on the family farm). Leonard was always impressed by his great-uncle who was very inventive and managed to tap the natural gas on his property for use on the farm. (His gas holdings continue into the present.) He also had the first piano west of Winnipeg in his home. Nina remembered the piano with its heavy, sturdy legs supporting the square grand structure. For Leonard, this must have been a time of boyish adventures, staying with relatives and enjoying the freedom from parental restrictions.
By the 1920’s, Hubert, Belle, and the children had moved to Swift Current, Saskatchewan, where Hubert was named Post Master. They moved into an elegant house on First West and Belle became part of the social and musical circles in the town. Leonard and Charles (Chuck) were enrolled in school and many sports activities. Both would become excellent hockey players and golfers, as well as baseball players. Chuck would also become a noted track and field athlete in high school setting provincial records which lasted for decades in Saskatchewan. The competitive environment at home was encouraged by Hubert who began managing and coaching baseball and hockey teams in Swift Current. For Leonard, sports were an escape from the strictures of school and the pretentiousness of his mother’s social whirl, which he disliked. Hockey became the major interest for Chuck and he would go on to play in the professional leagues, including one season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Chuck was his mother’s favourite while Leonard continued to search out adventures and hi-jinks, creating great tension between mother and son. During these years, Nina continued her pursuit of music in Manitoba and then later went to Toronto where she studied music with some of the leading musicians of the day. She was involved in a chorus led by Sir Ernest MacMillan and played in the homes of members of the Art and Letters Club in Toronto. A heady time for a young musician.
Leonard did not have a stellar scholastic career. He was always very tall for his age and had acquired a reputation as a mischief maker – sometimes with good reason. Years later, his children would speculate that he was naturally left-handed but schools of that day insisted that children be made to write with the right hand. Perhaps this accounted for his impatience and frustration in the classroom. At the same time, it would have added to his natural ability as an athlete in both hockey and golf. He loved to read, however, and his father had an excellent library in the Corrigan house. Magazines and periodicals of the day brought material written by the top authors of the 1920’s into Leonard’s world – an interest that continued all his life. He loved books and paper and words and writing and these would become his education.
In Grade Nine, he was sent to Campion College, where the Jesuits had a reputation for straightening out the less-motivated scholars. Life in Regina didn’t change Leonard’s attitude to school and, while he respected many of the teachers, he didn’t do well there. It didn’t seem that his intelligence was in question, only that he couldn’t seem to stand the structure and confines of a school situation. He went back to Swift Current to go to high school there.
At Swift Current Collegiate, he met and began to date Gladys Voldahl, a bright and outgoing fellow student, two years his junior. While Leonard was uncomfortable mixing in the social circles (probably a throw-back to his mother’s advanced interest in all things social), Gladys was popular and loved to be with friends at dances and other fun-filled events. Leonard left the Collegiate before he had finished high school but their relationship continued.
Gladys Voldahl was the second child of Nels and Jessie Voldahl who had come to the Braddock area near Swift Current to homestead. She had an older sister, Florence, and a younger brother named Clare. Nels had been a teacher in North Dakota when he and Jessie decided to join the Watson family, Jessie’s parents, on the drive north to Saskatchewan where there was a promise of land. Nels had lost part of one arm in a hunting accident as a young man, so farming must have been a challenge for him. In fact, after a few years on the land, he had decided to return to the United States to study law with his cousins. Tragically, he suffered an attack of appendicitis and peritonitis and died before his family could get him to the hospital in Swift Current. Jessie was left a very young widow with three children. She decided not to return south but instead stayed with the Watson family at Braddock. And, although her father and brothers helped her with the homestead, she was forced to sell the farm. She apparently got very little money for her property when the debts and lawyers fees were settled and she had to move her family to Swift Current and find a way to make a living. She was a talented seamstress and this became a way for her to keep her family together. Tragedy struck again when young Clare died, possibly in the great Influenza epidemic which was being experienced all around the world. Jessie would later marry Hugh McDonald, a member of one of the farm families that she had come to know in the Swift Current area. Hugh had served with the 209thSouth Saskatchewan Regiment during the First World War in France. Their marriage took place in the early 1920’s. Gladys’ older sister, Florence, would later marry Jack Murphy, one of the men who was involved in the construction boom in Fort MacMurray and projects in the western provinces in the 1930’s.
While Gladys continued her education at the Collegiate and graduated at the age of 16, Leonard began working in the Post Office and the two began an intense courtship over the next few years in which the post box #1313 played a big part. This was a fictitious box where the two would exchange letters almost every day – usually with Leonard apologizing for his behaviour the previous night and Gladys obviously agreeing to forgive him and take him back. This became a life-long pattern. Leonard must have found it easier to write about his feelings than to actually say them out loud.
Neither of the two sets of parents seemed to approve of this match. At one time, Leonard decided to do what many young men at that time were doing – ride the rails to British Columbia to see if there was any work. He discovered there wasn’t and came back to Swift Current and the Post Office. He seemed always to be up for a challenge and for adventure. Before he turned twenty, one of his friends asked Leonard to go to Ireland with him. Leonard agreed and then decided to continue on a tour of Europe. The travel bug seemed to have been encouraged by his parents who probably hoped that this might discourage the romance between Gladys and Leonard. However, when he returned from his travels, Leonard asked Gladys to marry him. Their love affair lasted through many ups and downs until her early death by cancer in 1979.
At age nineteen, Gladys discovered she could play the piano by ear – never having taken a lesson and never learning to read music. She must have exhibited some musical talent earlier because her step-father, Hugh McDonald, had rented a piano for her to start lessons. Before she could begin, however, she returned home from school to find the piano was gone. Those were economically tough times on the prairies and it was likely too expensive for Gladys to have music lessons. (Years later, when Gladys was asked to play at a function for a local service organization, she realized the piano in their club room was the one that was almost “hers”.) Music became important to both Leonard and Gladys and he decided to take up the saxophone so the two of them could play together. They formed a small dance band to play in Swift Current.
By the time they married, they had also started to play golf together – both were enthusiastic and competitive. Trophies and prizes began to accumulate in their home as both were winning local tournaments. It was another activity that the two of them would do together for the rest of their lives.
In 1934, Patricia Eleanor Corrigan was born. Relations between the young couple and the senior Corrigans had not been good and the problems accelerated with Patricia, known as Paddy, as to who would guide her life. Belle is reported to have said to Gladys, “Give us Paddy. You can have other children.”. Still dreaming of becoming a back-stage mother (or, in this case, grandmother) of a concert pianist, Belle hoped to mould Paddy into a world-class artist. She had tried and failed with Nina, who was recognized by her teachers as being gifted, but whose personal life and the constant interference from her mother derailed her career. Later, when the war had ended, Nina left for California and became a rehearsal pianist in Hollywood for movie stars in the 1950’s.
The senior Corrigans moved to Ontario shortly after Paddy’s birth and Gladys and Leonard settled into their domestic life. When Paddy was about three, her father took her on the train from Swift Current to Toronto – a rather unusual move for a young father in those days.
Paddy was later told that during a stop-over in Chicago with a few hours to kill, Leonard heard there was an open-air concert by Lily Pons that wasn’t too far from the train station. So, off they went to hear this great artist sing. There was such a crowd that, when they moved from one spot to another, Leonard lost track of Paddy. He searched quite awhile and then decided to go back to the spot where they had originally been standing – and there was Paddy! They had just enough time to get back on the train and continue their journey.
Paddy had another story from that same trip. She vaguely remembers seeing a picture in a Toronto newspaper that told the tale of a little girl from the prairies who went out to play in the rain because she had never seen rain before. This was the time of the “Dirty Thirties” when drought had consumed the prairies. Paddy was that girl.
Where was Gladys during this time? One can only speculate that it was too expensive for both she and Leonard to make the trip – or that she had chosen not to go, given her feelings for her mother-in-law – or that she had not been invited!
By the late 1930’s, Europe was in turmoil as Hitler began his campaigns. By the time that England had become embroiled in negotiations for peace – and the efforts failed – Canadians were beginning to consider what might be expected of them in the event that war became a reality. Leonard’s family had a strong military background and a sense of patriotism. It seemed only logical that Leonard would end up joining the South Saskatchewan Regiment where his father, uncles, and his father-in-law had already served.
In 1939, while King George and Queen Elizabeth were touring Canada, Paddy was staying in Winnipeg with her grandparents and remembers clearly being taken to the train station where she saw the Royal Family and ran alongside the train on the station platform. Her mother, Gladys, was in Swift Current awaiting the birth of her second child. On May 7, the day the royal train went through Swift Current, Shelagh Mary Corrigan was born – and her mother missed the whole spectacle of the royal visit.
By August of 1940, Leonard had joined the South Saskatchewan Regiment with the rank of Second Lieutenant. In 1941, he was sent to Farnham, Quebec for training, then on to Kitchener, Ontario as Conducting Officer for the draft in Regina, Saskatchewan. Following a leave of absence, he was sent to Victoria for further instruction.
“I have a strong recollection of our going to Victoria in the summer of 1941, the time our Dad was going to Officer Training School at Gordon Head. The ship over to Vancouver Island was very exciting for me. I’ll always remember the huge staircases with their shining oak railings and thinking that the ship was really huge. The one war reference made was the time on deck when I was told that enemy submarines might be in the water. When I asked what they looked like, I was told that the periscopes were like broomsticks – so I spent the rest of the voyage looking for broomsticks in the water.
When I think of Victoria, I think of Cadboro Bay which was where our cottage was. I remember playing on the beach where there was an area of large rocks and stones. The water would roll through the area and leave behind all sorts of little sea creatures. I remember being somewhat frightened by the large crabs sunning themselves on the rocks. I remember, too, there being large spiders on the ceiling and in the corners of the walls in the cabin and pulling the covers over my head in case some of them dropped down on me. Revisiting the area in 2003 brought back some memories but, of course, all the cabins down near the water were long gone. The scene there was as inviting as it had been 61 years earlier.”
“I don’t remember any discussion between my parents about Dad joining the Army. But then, it was typical in those days not to speak about these things to children. There was not much discussion about the possibility of war, particularly where I might hear about it.
After being in Victoria, we went to Winnipeg. By this time, Dad had transferred to the Winnipeg Grenadiers and was going to be shipped off somewhere – although no one said where. Mom and Dad may have had some pretty difficult moments trying to decide what to do as far as I was concerned. Grandma and Grandpa Corrigan would no doubt argue that I could get a better education in Winnipeg, living with them. When the decision was made to have me stay in Winnipeg and go to school at St. Mary’s Academy, it must have been terrible for my mother to have to leave me with my grandparents knowing the bad feelings that existed between them and Mom. Again, these were not things discussed with a child. When Dad left, Mom took Shelagh and went back to Regina to be with her mother, Jessie McDonald. She couldn’t stand being with Grandma Corrigan.
I don’t have a strong recollection of my first year of school. I was back and forth to Winnipeg so many times that it’s hard to sort out which experiences were my earliest. I do know that it was quite an adjustment, to go to St. Mary’s Academy in Winnipeg. The big concern, as I recall, was the necessity of wearing the black uniform with the stiff white collar and cuffs everyday with long black stockings and black shoes. The one time we wore something different was on gym days. We wore long- sleeved white shirts underneath a black jumper with the same long black stockings and black shoes. I do recall leaving the apartment on Spence Street in a rush one day and putting on brown shoes. I was sent home on the streetcar because such a mistake was not to be countenanced!”
The war years had begun.