Already an officer at 21 years of age, Lieutenant Shearman Godfrey Bird was going places. He was one of 15 children born to Episcopalian minister, Rev. Godfrey Bird Jr. of Essex, England. His grandfather before him had also been a respected clergyman, and his siblings were rising stars in government, the military and the architectural world.
In 1856, young Shearman was just about to begin his own illustrious military career with his first posting to China. He accompanied the Royal Engineers on an expedition to support British interests in China ahead of what eventually became known as the Second Opium War. England’s appetite for opium was increasing and they demanded that all Chinese ports be opened for trade with Britain, pushed for the removal of duty fees, asked that all treaties be written in English and supported the expansion of the near slave-like coolie service.
The British had never been allowed to enter the City of Canton, and all trading had to be done outside its great walls, but an incident involving the boarding of a British boat by Chinese marines was just the reason the Brits had been waiting for. They blasted the walls and invaded the city.
Things were bad in Canton, and as the story goes, the young English officer, Bird, was involved in the noble task of evacuating women and children from the sieged city when he met Amoi Chun. Amoi was a 17-year-old girl from a middle to upper class family – a princess some say – and the officer was smitten.
Two years after their meeting, Shearman Bird married Amoi and the couple moved to safety in Hong Kong. In 1863, Amoi, who was by then a mother of two, was baptized in the Anglican faith. Three more of the Bird children were born in Hong Kong.
By 1862, Shearman Bird had resigned his military commission. He supported his family by working in the office of the Surveyor General in Hong Kong, but left to join the architectural firm of Palmer and Turner where his brother, Sotheby Bird, was employed.
It was not that unusual for British military officers or traders to take a wife in the foreign land where they were mainly occupied. In fact, many already had another wife and family at home, as was the case with more than a few Hudson Bay Company men and their Indigenous families in northern Canada. What was nearly unheard of was bringing that foreign wife and their mixed-race children back to Britain with them.
Shearman Bird was not a well man. His health was not good – although we do not know the exact nature of his ailment – and it forced him to uproot his family and return to England after a decade away. In 1867, the Birds left China and none of them ever returned.
Whether British society was unkind to them, or the cool damp English weather was simply unsuitable for Shearman’s health, the Birds sailed away once again, and landed in Canada this time.
Shearman Bird set himself up as an architect and surveyor in the Town of Barrie. His office was listed in the Barrie newspapers of the early 1870s as being opposite the Queen’s Hotel, in the Boy’s Block. His place of business would have burned down in 1873 when that entire roughcast and wood frame block went up in flames.
Young and bright, but chronically ill, Shearman Bird kept himself very busy. By 1872, he had eight children and had just completed a lovely family home on the corner of Peel and Sophia Streets. It was obviously a love letter to his possibly home-sick bride. Complete with Asian-inspired pagoda style roof lines and finials, and a little traditional tea house beside the stream along the edge of the garden, Sans Souci was meant to be a place to relax, entertain and raise a family.
Sans Souci, the name Shearman chose for his home, means carefree. Somehow, his dreams of a tranquil life there were not to be. Not long after completing work on St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, late in 1872, Shearman took ill again and never recovered.
At only 38 years of age, Shearman Bird left a young wife and newly built house full of children, when he was struck down by pneumonia on Jan. 27, 1873. His funeral service was conducted at Trinity Anglican Church by long-serving Rev. Morgan, and his remains committed to the ground there, but likely removed in 1879 when burials began at Barrie Union Cemetery.
The three eldest children were sent to family in England to be educated after that. Somehow, Amoi, who was known in Barrie as Amy Laura, carried on and raised the younger five alone at Sans Souci. The Bird children thrived and did well for themselves. Ernest became a manager with the Bank of Commerce, Charles was a doctor and Edith a nurse, Elizabeth married a barrister and Eustace became a talented architect himself.
Amoi/Amy lived in widowhood for over 50 years. When the children grew up and moved away, Amoi found Sans Souci too big for her alone, at times, and Eustace built her another house next door. This Tudoresque home at 88 Sophia St. E. still stands today, as does Sans Souci.
Amoi filled her later years as volunteer in the service of her adopted church. Her love of flowers and gardening led to widespread landscaping, tree-planting and terracing of the Trinity Anglican grounds. She was also responsible for the campaign that resulted in the installation of a memorial window to the late Rev. Morgan who had served the community for so many years, and had officiated at her husband’s funeral so long ago.
One day in 1922, while shopping downtown, Amoi Bird suffered a stroke and was brought back to Sans Souci, to rest. She was 83 years old by then, mother of eight, grandmother of 17, and great grandmother of four. Amoi Bird was also a world traveller, a perhaps unintended breaker of societal and racial barriers, a staunch supporter of her church, a charitable community member and a strong lone parent to a large brood of children.
A week later, a second stroke reunited her with Shearman, and she was buried with him at Barrie Union Cemetery on Sept. 15, 1922.