Creating their own success on and off P.E.I.

Louise Campbell
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The family tree of Father of Confederation George Coles features generations of self-made men and women

Unlike several of the other Island Fathers of Confederation, George Coles was not a member of the elite and had little formal education. Indeed, it’s quite a jump from being a farm boy to a key player on the national stage. However, through hard work and dedication, Coles certainly became a self-made man.

Starting off, Coles travelled to England to learn the brewing trade, continuing a family tradition. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, while in England he married 16-year-old Mercy Haines and took his bride back to the Canada. Back on Island soil, Coles began selling pipes and silverware he had brought back across the Atlantic. Before long, he had opened a New and Cheap Store in Charlottetown selling imported manufactured goods and liquor. From there, he founded a brewery and distillery, acquired a steam mill that he eventually equipped with imported modern carding machines and became a residential landlord.

Coles also managed a farm that was described in The Islander in 1843 as being one of the best managed and productive on the Island at that time. Further, it was described as “a specimen on a small scale, of what may be seen as the effects of the most scientific husbandry in England.”

Throughout his political career, Coles was a controversial figure; indeed, the only Canadian premier to fight a duel and perhaps the only one to be convicted of assault. As a merchant, he needed the business of the land renters so he was on their side. His self-assigned task in public office, therefore, was to break the power of the landlords and their agents. To address this monumental task, he sponsored responsible government, universal education and a voluntary land purchase act.

Although a Father of Confederation, Coles turned against union once he realized it would not solve the ongoing land tenure issue.

Coles’ public life spanned from 1842 until senility set in by 1870. His premature senility, some thought, was caused by overwork and anxiety, the latter of which was sparked by a wave of arson in the capital city that almost claimed his business premises.

At the time of his death, he was described in one newspaper as “the brightest star that illumines the pages of the political history of his native province,” and another claimed, “No man in this Colony so honestly earned the respect and esteem of its people.” Indeed, he had become a folk hero of Islanders.

George and Mercy Coles had 12 children, with the family tree sprouting to include 27 grandchildren, 35 great-grandchildren, 24 great-great-grandchildren, 29 great-great-great-grandchildren and, at last count, 25 great-great-great-great-grandchildren.

Georgianna Louise Coles, the fifth daughter, married at the age of 21 to Alexander Brown, another self-made man who reaped his fortune on a coffee plantation in India at a young age. Georgianna and Alexander, who became a banker, resided in Charlottetown, first on Brighton Road and then in Fitzroy Hall, a 14-room Victorian House. There they raised their three children Ella Mercy, George Alexander and John Elliott.

Like Coles family members before and after her, indeed to this very day, Georgianna was an active member of St. Paul’s Anglican Church. Described in her obituary as an “estimable woman,” it was said “her earnest endeavours were to be of material assistance in forwarding the work of the Master.”

Obituaries are a prime source of important information for genealogists and tended in past ages to be quite detailed, as you will see throughout this column. Obituaries for men tended to detail their business and political accomplishments while those for the fairer sex focused on family and community service.

The obituary for Mary Victoria Coles, the eighth daughter, did not shed much light on her life, but sure provided details of her death. According to the write-up in The Guardian on May 3, 1900, she took ill at the Bank of Nova Scotia. Thanks to the administration of “restoratives,” she recovered enough to be taken to her home. By the afternoon, though, “it was evident that the curtain of death was falling and the end not far distant.” And finally, “despite all that science and tender nursing could accomplish, her spirit winged its flight at the ushering in of the evening hour.” She left behind her husband, George D. Longworth, and two children, Charles and Minnie.

Moving to the next generation, the aforementioned Charles was revered as a prominent Charlottetown resident and influential business leader. Like his father, he was engaged for many years in the lobster canning and shipping industry. He was a director of the Eastern Trust Company and vice-president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. He was also involved in his church, St. Paul’s Anglican, and was former chairman of the Charlottetown Board of Trustees.

Granddaughter Florence Lois Welsh, daughter of Jane Haine Coles, met her soulmate in Captain Thomas G. Taylor. They were described, in her obituary, as veritable “pals” and, indeed, it was him “with whom she was engaged in pleasant conversation up to the moment that her spirit fled.” Florence was very active in community life, volunteering with the Ladies Auxiliary of the YMCA, the Ladies Aid of the Prince Edward Island Hospital, and the ladies board of the Cundall Home, described in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography as a home for “friendless young women and girls where training in industrial and Christian ways” would enable them to lead useful and respectable lives.

Sadly, one grandson died an untimely death in Vancouver. As reported briefly in the Vancouver media, “With his throat slashed by a razor, George Coles, 50, was found dead in his room here today. Papers left indicated he was a native of Prince Edward Island.” George was the only child of George and Mercy’s youngest son, Charles Haine Coles and his wife, Mary Eliza MacGowan.

Great-granddaughter, Norah Blackwood Longworth, believed life was meant to be lived and she did so to the max. Never married, Norah did not hang out with people her own age, as they were mostly satisfied to stay at home. She had more fun socializing with people 10 to 20 years her junior. Norah loved the horses and spent a great deal of time at the racetrack. When she died in 1995, at age 89, both the P.E.I. Colt Stakes Association and the P.E.I. Horse Owners Association were well represented at her funeral.

Gerda Claremont (Taylor) DeBlois, another great-granddaughter, also stressed enjoying life along one’s journey. She led a very active life until she lost her sight at age 93, enjoying golf, badminton, swimming, bridge, travelling and spending family summers in Keppoch, as she had been doing since childhood. With a strong sense of duty, she held executive positions with the St. Paul’s Women’s Auxiliary, the Salvation Army, the P.E.I. Hospital Senior Ladies Aid and the Belvedere Golf Club. Gerda’s husband, Noel H. DeBlois, a highly esteemed businessman, became president of family-owned wholesaler Deblois Limited in 1958 and chairman of the board of the company in 1964.

Continuing along that family line, Gerda and Noel’s son, Thomas Desbrisay DeBlois, great-grandson of George Coles, was also a prominent city businessman. Following in his father’s footsteps, he served as president of Deblois Likely Ltd. and executive vice-president of DeBlois Brothers Ltd. It appears that Tom was active in both business and community roles. For example, he was president of both the Canadian Grocery Distributors

Institute and the Independent Wholesale Grocers Ltd. Locally, he volunteered with St. Paul’s Anglican Church, the P.E.I. Division of the Canadian Bible Society, the Salvation Army advisory board, the Rotary Club of Charlottetown, the advisory board for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the Charlottetown School Board, the YMCA and the board of governors of St. Dunstan’s University. Truly an accomplished man, Tom was married for 56 years to Mary Gladyce Lawson and was father to Tom, Rob and Peter.

“George Coles is recognized within our family as a Father of Confederation to whom we are related. It is a source of pride that we are descendants of his,” said Rob DeBlois.

Rob’s older brother, Tom DeBlois, remembers hearing a story about Mercy Coles dancing with Sir John A. Macdonald during the 1864 Charlottetown Conference and saving a glove which she wore that evening. Sadly, when the Coles home on Cumberland Street was dismantled, those who were involved were not aware of the significance of the glove and it was destroyed. Rob figures the story was recounted by his grandfather, Noel, whom he describes as a master storyteller.

Like many kinfolk in the generations before him, Rob DeBlois is a successful businessman. In fact, there are probably few Charlottetown residents who have not tasted the baked goods from Buns & Things Bakery, owned and operated by Rob and his wife Elaine (they have two adult children, Elizabeth and Bill). Rob credits much of his business savvy to lessons learned from his father who, in turn, learned a lot about business from his father, Noel, and his uncle, George D. DeBlois who together began DeBlois Brothers Limited in 1915.

“Primarily, I learned to treat staff, customers and suppliers with respect, to be fair and honest in all dealings and to give back to the community in which I work and live,” said Rob. “Any success I enjoy is due to the support received from customers and the hard work and dedication of the people who work with me.”

Great-great-grandson Derek Buntain, from the Victoria Coles line, hangs his hat in many international locales, but he certainly feels very much at home at the Red Shores Racetrack where he races a number of horses during the season. At the 2013 Prince Edward Island Standardbred Horse Owners Association (PEISHOA) awards, Buntain’s horse Malabrigo, who was undefeated in 2012 and earned over $82,000 in her sophomore campaign, was named three-year-old pacing filly and pacer of the year. In addition to racing success, Buntain is an accomplished businessman.

It appears that through the years, Coles’ descendants, like their famous forefather, take their destiny into their own hands and create their own successes — generations of self-made men and women.

Confederation Connections: Finding the Fathers’ Families has been presented in The Guardian over the past several months with the one running in August. It is based on genealogies of the families of the Island Fathers of Confederation, as prepared by members of the P.E.I. Genealogical Society, and sheds light on the descendants. The series is written by Louise Campbell of Louise Campbell Writing Services and is her first foray into genealogy and family history. Linda Harding CG(C) was the lead genealogical researcher for this month’s article on George Coles and his descendants. To give feedback on this series, which is presented in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference, contact the author at louise.campbell@tacsltd.com. For more information on the P.E.I. Genealogical Society project, visit its website at http://peigs2014.ca.

AT A GLANCE

George Coles

1810-1875

Fast facts

The son of a farmer, George Coles became a merchant, brewer and politician.

Politically active for 27 years, Coles was the first, and to many historians the best, premier of Prince Edward Island, initially assuming that role in 1851.

He was a major proponent of responsible government but not in favour of Confederation.

Coles was known to duel to resolve disagreements, was convicted of assault, and spent a month in custody of the sergeant-at-arms because he would not retract a statement he made in the assembly.

After years of hard work toward prosperity, Coles' properties were destroyed in a great fire and his ongoing fear that his business would be targeted by arsonists eventually drove him insane.

His wife, Mercy Haines, was British-born.

Organizations: New and Cheap Store, Anglican Church, Victorian House YMCA Bank of Nova Scotia Salvation Army Eastern Trust Company Canadian Chamber of Commerce Charlottetown Board of Trustees Prince Edward Island Hospital Cundall Home Prince Edward Island Standardbred Horse Owners Association P.E.I. Colt Stakes Association P.E.I. Horse Owners Association P.E.I. Genealogical Society P.E.I. Hospital Senior Ladies Aid Belvedere Golf Club Deblois Likely DeBlois Brothers Canadian Grocery Distributors Independent Wholesale Grocers P.E.I. Division Canadian Bible Society Rotary Club of Charlottetown Canadian National Institute for the Blind Charlottetown School Board Louise Campbell Writing Services

Geographic location: Charlottetown, England, St. Paul Canada Atlantic India Brighton Road Vancouver Prince Edward Island Keppoch Dunstan Cumberland Street

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