Treasured correspondence opens a window to Stratford's past

A June 3, 1922, letter from Walter S. Allward, the designer of Stratford's war memorial, to George Kay, the treasurer of the memorial committee. Stratford-Perth Archives

This letter from Allward is one of the 50 treasures from the collections at Stratford-Perth Archives being celebrated this year 2022 as we mark our 50th anniversary.

Discussions on a suitable soldiers' memorial, led by local chapters of the IODE, started almost as soon as the First World War ended in 1918. By 1920, a group had come together to form the soldiers war memorial committee. Working with the Stratford Chamber of Commerce, they collected $19,000 of the $25,000 needed to build the memorial from citizens of Stratford and North Easthope, Downie and Ellice townships. The rest of the cost of the memorial was covered by grants from the municipal councils.

When Canadian sculptor Walter S. Allward's winning design was announced, it was described as "imposing and highly artistic . . . the central idea of the memorial is the supremacy of right over brute force. On either side of the figures will stand pylons, and the figures are of two men, one representing spiritual man, head high in the air, triumphant after his conflict with the figure representing brute force, who is shrinking down an incline to the valley.

The figures will be of heroic size, about eight or nine feet in height and with the base will reach a height of possibly sixteen feet. The memorial’s horizontal dimension will be upwards of 18 feet . . . in the central space will be the legend: They broke the sword and brought peace to our land.”

Memorial committee treasurer George Kay carefully filed his records from the beginning of the project right up until the unveiling of the memorial in November 1922. Kay and Allward were regular and cordial correspondents. They discussed contracts for construction, along with arrangements for payments to Allward for his design work as one would expect, but Kay also described the difficulties of finalizing the list of names of the war dead from Stratford and surrounding townships that would appear on it along with updates about his family.

Kay was certainly taken with Allward’s design. He wrote to another correspondent that “Mr. McPherson and I were invited to inspect the completed model of one of the two figures to be erected . . . The figure which he has completed is that of ‘Defeat,’ which he said he had tackled first as being much the more difficult of the two, owing to the dejected posture and aspect of the brute.

It is about eight-and-a-half feet high and Mr. McPherson and I thought it a very satisfactory representation of a most unlovely character, and we quite believed Allward when he said that during the later stages of its creation he suffered severely from ‘the blues’ due solely to enforced association with it. The ‘Victory’ figure will, of course, be a complete contrast, and we feel sure that the final result will be a Memorial of which Stratford citizens will always be proud.”

Walter Allward Stratford-Public Archives

Water Allward Plaque Photo: Fred Gonder

On Nov. 11, 1921, Kay wrote to Allward: "Let me congratulate you most sincerely on your success with the big memorial, and extend my very best wishes for its successful outcome. The work will no doubt occupy you for a long time to come, and I trust it will, when completed establish your reputation universally and for all time."

Kay was referring to perhaps the most important commission Allward received – the monument to all Canadians killed in the First World War, located at the site of Canada’s victory during the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France. This project would occupy the artist from 1921 to its unveiling in 1936.

On May 31, 1922, Kay sent Allward a cheque and again wished him "complete success of the great undertaking." Allward acknowledged receipt of the cheque and Kay’s letter on June 3, stating he was sure he would want to come back to Canada. "Certainly I will (underlined twice for emphasis) want to see the Stratford memorial as soon as I can."

A couple of months after the Stratford memorial was unveiled, Kay wrote to Allward that "the people generally seem greatly pleased with the work, and while there are a few who would have preferred something more conventional, we hope that their appreciation will grow when they have time to think out the meaning the figures are intended to convey. Personally, I think it is beautiful, and I was touched to see the groups of people who lingered about it for many days after it was unveiled. For at least a month whenever I passed that way, by day or evening, there were people about it, and it is still heaped with wreaths and flowers, and I feel that in erecting a local shrine to the fallen we have filled a want which was deeply felt."

These records relating to the war memorial truly open a window to our past. There are descriptions of dances held to raise money, copies of the draft lists of names to appear on the memorial and, of course, Allward and Kay’s own correspondence. The letters from family members offering details of the lives of the local people who died in the First World War sent in response to published lists of names to be included are especially moving. Source : Reflections: Stratford-Perth Archives

The volunteer-led Allward Memorial Project has created a wonderful series of videos exploring Canada and the First World War, the war memorial movement in general and Allward’s work in Stratford. They are available on the Archives’ website at Allward-Memorial-project

* Click on one above.