Planting Pansies: A Remembrance

Recently I visited the coastal village of Bosham, Sussex, where my Chamberlain ancestors lived out their days fishing, gathering oysters, mending nets, and laundering clothes. I walked around the marshy harbor, past the quay on to Shore Road, where high tides brush the steps of the sea-facing homes. I passed the Millhouse where my Second Great Grandmother Ida Gardner lived with her husband and children. And I stepped quietly on the worn floors of the 1000-year-old Holy Trinity church where my Great Grandfather Archie was baptized in an ancient stone font. As I wandered through the churchyard, brushing my hands against sea-pocked headstones, I noticed something that took my breath away: bunches of pansies dotted the yard, planted seemingly at random. To understand why these pansies meant anything to me requires the telling of another story: how through loss, pansies became a flower of remembrance for my ancestors.

Sisters Ida and Ellen Gardner were young — 10 and 13 years old respectively —when their mother died. Following her death, Ida lived with her maternal grandparents while her older sister Ellen stayed with cousins in nearby Fishbourne. In 1878, 17-year-old Ida Gardner gave birth to a son, Archie. The birth record did not reveal a father. Three years later, Ellen married Percy Chamberlain, a fisherman who was orphaned as a boy and was also raised by his grandparents. During this time, younger sister Ida worked as a laundress, living with her grandmother and son Archie.[1] By 1887, Ida was married to George Brown while Ellen, Percy, and their three children lived in Fisher’s Gate, near Brighton.

1887 was a pivotal year for the Chamberlains. In March of that year the family decided to join themselves to the Mormon faith. On a foggy evening missionary George Miller[2]  baptized Percy and Ellen Chamberlain in the sea near Brighton’s West Pier.  From George Miller’s diary:

Wednesday March the 2 1887 […] then we go to the west pier to meet a man and his wife who wished to be Baptized it being a very foggy night so we baptized them close by the pier in the sea though it was so foggy and dark we was not alone for one man came along just as we were going into the water and ask us if we were going to lurn them to swim but we Baptized them all rite we came out on the street, shake hands and Bid them good by they go for Fishers gate we for Albion Hill.[3]

In the ensuing months, Ellen and Percy determined that they would sell their possessions and emigrate to Utah with their children, Albert, Ellen Rose, Mabel, and infant Robert. When they set sail on the S. S. Wyoming in June 1888, there was one extra family member: their ten-year-old nephew Archie. He was thereafter was known as their son Archibald Percy Chamberlain. In my mind’s eye I can see young Archie pacing the ship’s deck, already missing his mother and grandmother, bracing for new adventure with his new family.

The journey took its toll on the Chamberlain family. Ellen struggled with a persistent illness throughout the voyage across the Atlantic. Too weak to care for her infant son Robert on the journey, she allowed a kind stranger to assist her. As they grew closer to Salt Lake City, Robert also fell ill with fever. The night they arrived by train in Salt Lake City, residents took the ailing family to the Tithing Yard [4]—an open-air, temporary accommodation where incoming emigrants could sleep outdoors and receive provisions and rest. Despite these comforts, Robert died that first night on the straw in the Tithing Yard. They buried the him in a pauper’s area of the Salt Lake City Cemetery.

Tragedy also caught up with Ellen. Doctors determined that her illness was tuberculosis, and she died the following January, six months after the family arrived in Utah. She was buried in the same cemetery, not far from her son Robert. With no headstone to mark their burial place, Percy marked their graves with pansies.

Percy never remarried. His family lived in an area of the Salt Lake Avenues called “the crummies”, and  Percy—far removed from his fisherman days—worked as a gardener. He could often be seen walking through avenues with his sack of gardening tools slung over his shoulder. Many times those walks lead to the cemetery where he cared for the pansies that marked the resting place of his wife and son.

Perhaps he loved pansies for their delicate hardiness, and how they bloomed despite the cold.  Or perhaps he knew that pansies symbolized humility and remembrance. A remembrance of seaside days, gathering cockles in the shallow marshes of Bosham harbour. A remembrance of Ellen and the love of his youth. A remembrance of home and the flowers that bloomed there.

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A collage of the Percy & Ellen Chamberlain Family designed by Clark Chamberlain.

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Bosham homes on Shore Road.

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Great Grandfather Archibald Percival Chamberlain

[1]  1881 England Census, Class: RG11; Piece: 1135; Folio: 24; Page: 9; GSU roll: 1341277, Ancestry.com and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Online publication – Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004. 1881 British Isles Census Index provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints © Copyright 1999 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

[2] Amazingly, George Miller’s great-granddaughter is my neighbor Sydnee Spencer. It was her family that donated his journal to the Church History Library.

[3]  George Miller, 1850-1918. “George Miller papers, 1886-1925”. Church History Library Catalog, Call Number: MS 2816, Image name: MS 2816_f0002_00113.JPG

[4] Fred E. Woods, “The Arrival of Nineteenth-Century Mormon Emigrants in Salt Lake city,” in  Salt Lake City: The Place Which God Prepared, ed. Scott C. Esplin and Kenneth L. Alford (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 2011), 203–230.

 

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