Children are strangely absent from most history books. To find out about their lives we have to delve into memoirs and fiction, as well as old photographs.
Those of us who heard hand-me-down stories from parents and grandparents were the lucky ones.
Certain games and rituals came to Canada with different immigrant groups. Many had their origins in folklore.
In this, our Port Alberni Centennial year, let’s take a look at some of the games children enjoyed back in the early days of the settlement. Would it surprise you to learn that some games have survived, with a few changes, right into the present century?
Many children’s activities had their time and place, especially in the school yard. There was a season for marbles, another for skipping games. Hopscotch had many variations.
Children had to be inventive, to improvise with what was at hand. Pebbles, shells, sticks, homemade tops, kites and hoops were popular playthings.
I remember my mother (born in 1899) talking about a game of jacks, played with knuckle bones, and her doll made from an old stocking.
Children’s lives were often tightly controlled, and play was one of the ways they could reverse or challenge the rules imposed on them. Who was going to be the teacher today in the game of school? The boy who played father today was often baby tomorrow in imaginary families.
Play time was often training, or modeling, for adult roles: shopkeeper, doctor, nurse, policeman. Of course, chores always came first.
Community picnics usually featured a tug-o-war, games with bats and balls, swimming, jumping, and various kinds of foot races. Sack races, egg and spoon races and three-legged races were popular variations, with the winners usually rewarded with a ribbon.
Sproat Lake was, of course, a very popular site for these gatherings. School sports days were highlights of the year.
In the early days, school concerts and dances brought the entire community together, adults and children enjoying these very special occasions.
Trevor Goodall wrote in his Memories of the Alberni Valley: “Old time dances were held to celebrate almost anything! The music was a fiddle, accordion or banjo.”
An account from a history of Beaver Creek School describes the first Christmas concert held there in December 1892 when Ethel Dunkerley (later Mrs. Stanley Bayne) was teacher: “Rehearsals for the Christmas concerts were started weeks before the date. About a week prior to the concert the chairman of the school board would put up a stage in the one-room schoolhouse.
“Just before the concert night a large Christmas tree was trimmed with decorations made by the pupils. In the early years candles were placed on the tree. However, in the interests of safety, candles were not used after one memorable concert when the tree caught fire by the lit candles and the blaze was quickly extinguished.” [Beaver Creek School, 1887-1965]
Mary Carswell Collinge, who arrived in Port Alberni in 1911, wrote about tobogganing in a letter back to Scotland: “There has been heavy snow, then frost, and now all the boys and girls are tobogganing. It’s great fun. There is a gradual hill for over half a mile up from our tent, and we can see them coming flying down starting off sometimes with half-a-dozen boys, and scattering two or three on the way, landing them into the soft, deep snow at the side of the road. They shake themselves like young puppies, and scramble off for another go.”
This was the winter of 1912. [From A Lady of Paisley in the Alberni Valley, published by the A.V. Museum]
At birthday parties, children enjoyed games like tag, blind man’s buff, oranges and lemons, London Bridge is falling down … most of these centuries old, brought from Britain and passed down through many generations.
Hobbies were another big interest, but more on them at another time. We hope you will share memories with our historians, at firstname.lastname@example.org. The community archives, in the Alberni Museum, are open every Tuesday and Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Meg Scoffield is vice-president, Alberni District Historical Society, with a special interest in social history.