Benjamin Henry Sear was overseas serving in the First World War when Kate Sear and their two boys moved to McRoberts Avenue. When he arrived home from war, wounded, the family tried to get back to normal, but Benjamin was very ill, and his time on McRoberts was painfully short.
Army life was very hard on Private Benjamin Sears. He first joined the British Army in 1884 when was 16, following his older brother Frederick into the 1st Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment. Frederick, who seems to have been an excellent administrator, was already a Sergeant and he vouched for Benjamin who signed on for “long service” – a term of 12 years. Frederick Sear’s first rank was “Boy”, which was truly what he was – he stood just under 4-foot 11-inches tall when he attested. Even though (or perhaps, because) he had already worked for three years as a bricklayer’s assistant, he weighed just 74 pounds. Within a year in the infantry, he became a Private, his first and last promotion.
Despite his slight physique, the medical notes in the UK, Royal Hospital Chelsea Pensioner Soldier Service Records show that Benjamin was a healthy young man until the 1st Battalion was sent to India in 1889 to reinforce the demands of British Imperialism. There he suffered regular illnesses: “Ague, climate” noted the military doctor over and over again, “recommend Quinine.” He got measles, and dysentery.
Possibly worst of all, Benjamin got syphilis and gonorrhea, which were both extremely common in the British forces and barely treatable in the days before antibiotics. According to the article “Sexually transmitted diseases and the Raj” by J. Basu Roy published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections (1 February 1998, http://sti.bmj.com), over half of all British service men in India were being treated for STIs by 1895, a rate far higher than that found among local soldiers in India.
In 1895, the 1st Battalion was sent to the northwest border territory of India as part of the force to break the siege of the Chitral Fort. It was April, and still winter in the region with deep snow, but the British Army succeeded in crossing the mountain pass, defeating the local forces and reclaiming British dominance in the area. Benjamin Sear apparently participated in the fighting – but soon after the Relief of Chitral he was hospitalized again in Chitral and finally discharged as medically unfit, diagnosed with infectious connective tissue disease. He was just short of his promised 12 years of service.
Returned to Britain, Benjamin seemed to regain his health. Living in London, he became strong enough to resume work as a labourer and, in 1901, to marry Kate Sear, daughter of a Battersea boat builder. She was 22 and had probably never known her sweetheart as a soldier. He was 33, also living in Battersea. They married on April 21, 1901 at St. Mary le Park Anglican church. His sister Laura and Kate’s father, Benjamin Taylor, were the witnesses.
Benjamin and Kate Sear were people who endured ongoing hardship, but they also seem to me like people who took action when things were tough. When their eldest son Benjamin Frederick Sear was born on January 27, 1905, his family lived at 55 Camera Square in Chelsea, according to the baptismal records of St. Luke Parish, Chelsea, London. Local history there records this area as a dreadful slum and in 1907 the Sears decided to seek out something different for their family. Like other poor Londoners, they made a plan to emigrate, hopeful that they could build a new and better life in Canada.
The family of three arrived in St. John aboard the steamship Lake Erie. According to the Passenger List, they had $15 and were headed for Toronto. Benjamin was almost 40 and Kate almost 30, their baby just two years old. Benjamin found work as a labourer and they moved into a house at 2 Creemore Avenue in the Regent Park area, where there were only two houses listed in the 1908 Might’s Directory. After a few years, the family moved to 76 De Grassi Street, where Albert Harry Sear was born on November 12, 1912.
When war was declared in 1914, it seems like Benjamin Sear could have avoided further military service. But in 1915, he made himself a bit younger on his attestation papers, did not mention his medical discharge from the British Army, and was judged fit to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. An experienced soldier, he soon found himself on the front lines in France. Participating in the Fighting for Mouquet Farm during the Battle of the Somme, he was wounded in the face by a shell on September 16, 1916.
Recovering from the loss of his eye in England, Private Sear was put on light duty. But by December 1917, he was quite sick. The army decided to send him home and he was discharged without a pension as both medically unfit and overage.
Privates in the Army received low wages and perhaps to make ends meet, Kate had moved her boys from their home at 50 Clinton in Deer Park, to 110 McRoberts Avenue, probably renting rooms from the Huggett family who lived there for many years. When Benjamin arrived back in Canada, partially blinded and still ill, he was fortunate enough to get a job inspecting shells at Canada Foundry. The couple moved north on the street, going up to Fairbank where they took a small wood-frame house at 413 McRoberts Avenue.
However, by the summer of 1918, Benjamin was even more seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. Everything they had worked for was now at risk, but Kate Sear was clearly a resourceful person. As her husband worsened in hospital, without publicly funded medicine to help him and no recognition from the military, Kate got a job at a munitions factory to keep body and soul together. Then she started a campaign of her own for what she knew was fair and right.
She appealed to the newly formed Great War Veterans Association (GWVA) for assistance and found sympathy and, even better, concrete help from the Earlscourt GWVA and community leader Charles T. Lacey. The Association provided some immediate cash relief for the family and Lacey successfully advocated for Benjamin Sear to be transferred to the care of the provincial Invalided Soldiers’ Commission, where he could be treated at the Base Hospital while receiving pay.
Benjamin Sear’s kidneys were failing, and the Toronto Daily Star also took up the cause, with headlines reporting on his condition, his family’s plight and any sign of a shift in bureaucratic policy. Everyone involved could see that a solider who had been good enough to fight and suffer wounds at the front was good enough to received a pension. But the army and the government were not ready to help.
It was a problem the GWVA was fighting on a national scale. Writing on behalf of the organization in the May 1, 1919 issue of Maclean’s Magazine, journalist and war veteran George Pearson commented, “We do not believe a man should draw a pension merely because he was overseas. That is graft.
“But, however much we may deprecate any raid on the public treasury for ourselves, even those of us who want nothing from the Canadian Government or people for ourselves, are insistent that men who have been badly disabled and dependants who really need assistance, should receive something that is less a pension than a salary. The blind for instance. Or consider the case of the men made insane by war. Are they to be exposed to the brutalities of the average civilian or military institution? Or the soldier’s widow struggling to bring up her little brood? Is the pittance of a pension that would force her to work and keep her children from school justice to her dead soldier? Nothing less than an income sufficient for her to remain at home and send her children to school would be plain elemental justice in such a case.”
There apparently was no “elemental justice” for Kate Sear. At the beginning of August, Benjamin Sear died in hospital, which also ended his invalid soldier pay. The Toronto Star reported on his funeral on August 10, 1918. A long procession of veterans, friends and family went to his grave site in Prospect Cemetery, where the man who had given so much of his life to military service was laid to rest at 3 p.m., with full military honours.
“The long funeral procession, including a large representation from the Earlscourt Great War Veterans, a unit from the 2nd Battalion Canadian Garrison Regiment, as well as the firing party of thirteen and six pall-bearers from the same unit, led by an officer representing headquarters, wound through Earlscourt to the strains of the funeral march, rendered by the Royal Air Forces band, to Prospect Cemetery, where the Last Post was sounded and the volleys over the grave announced the entrance of another “happy warrior” into the “Homeland.””
When their father was buried in 1918, Benjamin Sear Jr. was 13 and Albert Sear was only 5. Kate moved her boys again, to 513 McRoberts Avenue. The 1921 Census lists them renting four rooms in a house that was shared with a couple named William and Sarah Stevenson. Sixteen-year-old Benjamin’s $500 per year income was supporting the family. He did not – as the Maclean’s writer thought was only right – have the opportunity to complete more schooling than his father had. However, he did learn a skilled trade as a steam-pipe fitter, and later Albert followed him into plumbing work. By the late 1920s, the family was able to move to a house of their own at 103 Blackthorn Avenue. It was surely a small victory for them. They had not been overseas, but they were also the survivors of war.