Family Stories from Our City’s History

Elizabeth Irving Family Bible

This New Testament belonged to the Irving matriarch, Elizabeth Dixon Irving. It is one of many Irving and Briggs family Bibles in the New Westminster Museum and Archives collection. Four generations of the family lived at Irving House on Royal Avenue. Built in 1865, the house still stands and is one of the oldest intact houses in the Lower Mainland.

According to family legend, Elizabeth Irving obtained this Bible in 1872—the year her husband, Captain William Irving, died. Did it give her comfort in those early days as a widow?

Like the other Bibles in the museum’s collection, it lists family births, marriages, and deaths on its blank pages. This particular copy, however, only includes information about four family members. The first page of handwritten notes has the dates for Elizabeth and William. The second page records the birth of a daughter, also called Elizabeth, and her husband, Ernest Spencer. None of the other four Irving children are listed.

That the book includes the elder Elizabeth’s death tells us that this genealogy was filled in after she passed away. Elizabeth died in January, 1922, aged 90, in Portland, Oregon.

Missing from this information is that Elizabeth remarried in 1887 (or 1889, according to another Bible in the collection). Her second husband was Anthony George Ryan. Ryan was originally a gardener. He was also considerably younger when they married (she was in her fifties while he was about 38).

Elizabeth divorced Ryan nine years later. A clipping in a family scrapbook says he had squandered away her money—her investments around Portland, Oregon, had made her a millionaire. Ryan, however, blamed Elizabeth’s family for driving a wedge between theme. Court papers tell a more sinister story: He repeatedly verbally abused her, and once woke her at midnight to threaten her a gun.

An alcoholic, numerous guardians watched over Ryan during his last years. In 1904, even Elizabeth requested the courts appoint him a guardian. Ryan still owned one-third of a farm he shared with Elizabeth, the only property they bought together after their marriage. Ryan died on the last day of May, 1913.

William Allison ‘Death Plaque’

A next-of-kin memorial plaque like this commemorates those who died serving in British and Empire Forces during World War I. It is about the size of a CD and came with a brief message from King George V.

Around a million of these were sent to families in 1919 and 1920. Parents or wives could display these so-called ‘Death Plaques.’ They were also known as the Dead Man’s Penny, the Widow’s Penny, or even the Death Penny, as they were made of bronze.

The New Westminster Museum and Archives has a number of these plaques in its collection, donated by descendants of the soldiers. Each plaque reminds us of young people who died during the Great War. They are also reminders of the anguish families must have felt upon receiving one. Long after the war ended, newspapers remained filled with announcements of deaths, as wounded soldiers died from their injuries or infectious diseases.

This plaque commemorates William Roderick Allison who died on February 24, 1919, months after the end of the war. The former bank clerk was born in New Westminster in 1897. He worked at the Bank of Montreal in Port Coquitlam.

He enlisted in the Canadian Infantry at 19, along with his two brothers. His unit was immediately sent to Ypres, Belgium, and he fought at Passchendaele.

Allison was wounded in France in September, 1918, two months before the end of the war. He was run over by a truck, suffering chest wounds and a fractured right arm. He lived on for a few months at a hospital in Derbyshire, England. With his compromised health, he caught influenza and later pneumonia. He was 21 when he died.