“Dear Dr. Barber: - Your very welcome letter to hand this morning, and I am trying to the best of my ability to send you a few lines by return mail. You must excuse my writing as I have not the use of my right hand. I got a piece of shrapnel through the upper part of my right arm.”
This was the beginning of a note from Private John Oakes who was recuperating in Coombe Lodge Hospital in Brentwood, England. The letter, dated Nov. 12, 1916, had been received by his employer, Dr. W.C. Barber, of Simcoe Hall.
For the previous three years, Oakes, a professional gardener, had been employed in Barrie at the private sanitorium which occupied the Burton mansion house formerly known as Springbank. After 1910, when the last members of the Burton family had died or relocated elsewhere, Dr. Barber took the opportunity to buy and expand the grand home located at William and Holgate Streets in Allandale.
The work environment at Simcoe Hall appears to have been rather pleasant. Staff and management alike seem to have enjoyed warm and cordial relationships as John Oakes’ letter attests.
Labouring under unimaginably perilous conditions, day after day, and far from home, John Oakes reported a moment of happy reunion to Dr. Barber.
“I saw Sid Fawcett and my brother in the Ypres district and then I lost them, as we moved the next day. I received a letter from my brother, who has come out of the Somme without a scratch he tells me. Fawcett is with him and quite well.”
Sid Fawcett had been the bookkeeper at Simcoe Hall prior to his enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The young man from Darlington, England had only been in Canada for two years when he enlisted at Toronto in 1914.
Sid Fawcett was relatively fortunate. He survived dysentery, a gunshot wound to the hand and weeks of hot Lysol compresses utilized to treat a serious foot infection. In 1915, he married his hometown sweetheart and remained in Darlington after the war.
And what of John Oakes’ brother? I was curious to know how this Oakes sibling had fared, so I looked him up. This was not the simple task that I had envisioned. There were no less than seven Oakes brothers and all but one of them enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force!
John Oakes Sr. was a gardener from Wilmslow, Cheshire in England. He and his wife, Mary, had two daughters, Emily and Bertha, and seven sons. The boys were named Samuel, John Jr., Arthur, Harry, Albert, Walter and Ernest.
The eldest, Samuel Oakes, a carpenter, was the first to make the bold move to Canada. He and his wife, Elizabeth, arrived in 1911 and settled in Burlington, Ontario. Two years later, Samuel’s parents arrived in Canada and brought with them Walter, Bertha and Harry. By mid-1914, the entire family was back together again.
As the Oakes settled in their adopted land, rumblings of war could be heard back in the old country. Soon, the worst was realized and the Great War began in July of 1914.
Albert Oakes had been the last family member to arrive in Canada. He landed in Canada less than six weeks before the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. Fortunate as he was to have safely made it to this country, he was the first of the brothers to sign up to fight in the war.
Albert enlisted with the 4th Battalion at Valcartier on Sept. 22, 1914. By October 3, Albert Oakes and the rest of the Battalion were sailing for Europe aboard the Tyrolia. February saw the Battalion folded into the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade.
The young soldier found himself in Ypres, Belgium in the spring. The area had been the site of extreme devastation and loss of life the previous autumn. Thousands of men and a new form of industrialized warfare had not led to a decisive win for either side.
The Second Battle of Ypres began on April 22, 1915. The first sign of enemy action was not the forward movement of German troops but the slow advance of a strange greenish-yellow cloud. Thinking it was a smokescreen, some Allied soldiers moved towards it but soon discovered the true nature of the cloud as was described by French Colonel Henri Mordacq, 90th Infantry Brigade.
“...haggard, their overcoats thrown off or opened wide, their scarves pulled off, running like madmen, directionless, shouting for water, spitting blood, some even rolling on the ground making desperate efforts to breathe.”
This was the first major poisonous gas attack of the Great War.
Albert Oakes vanished in the melee that followed in the next twenty-four hours. He was declared killed in action by June 1915 but his remains were never found. His name is inscribed, along with 54,394 others, at the Menin Gate in Ypres. The memorial honours the soldiers who went to war in that area and were simply never seen again. They have no known or marked graves.
Not long after Albert enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, his brother, Ernest Oakes, signed up with the 20th Battalion at Toronto. This was the brother who fought alongside Simcoe Hall bookkeeper, Sid Fawcett.
Both men returned to Canada after the war. Ernest had suffered burns during his service while Sid Fawcett had been shot through the hand, but both came home alive.
Upon hearing of Albert’s death, John Oakes resigned from his position at Simcoe Hall and headed to Toronto to enlist. Next to go were Harry and Arthur who signed on at Burlington in April 1916. Walter joined in September of that year.
Harry and Arthur Oakes of the 164th Battalion both received gunshot wounds and Harry was also gassed. Walter Oakes, of the 1st Canadian Field Ambulance, was the only one of the brothers to come home physically unscathed.
After the terrible loss of Albert so early in the war, the elder John Oakes and his wife, Mary, must have been overjoyed as each of their other soldier sons returned home, one by one.
The younger John Oakes did not return to his position at Simcoe Hall. He continued to work as a horticulturist, despite never regaining full use of his right hand. John Oakes married Gladys Young in 1921 and remained for the rest of his life in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Simcoe Hall ceased to exist in the late 1930s. Perhaps poor economic conditions spoiled the venture, but the Town of Barrie was forced to eventually take the building over for unpaid taxes. The town was very happy in 1940 when the Grand Lodge of Ontario, IOOF, offered to lease the building for at least the duration of the Second World War. Rent was agreed upon as $1 a year, with no taxes to be paid.
The Odd Fellows Home on Davenport Road in Toronto had been taken over by the Ontario Government to house war guests which were primarily displaced British children. The elderly and other residents in need of shelter were moved from there to the former Simcoe Hall in Barrie. This temporary arrangement became permanent when the IOOF purchased the property and a home for seniors has now existed on the site for eighty years.