The Baby Behind the Brand

-Sarah Reid Hedberg-

In the small coastal town of Killyleagh, County Down, Ireland, there lived a family. This was Baby James’ family. His parents decided to leave Ireland for Canada. Why? We don’t know. It was 1829 or 1831, before the tragic Potato Famine of 1845-52.


187 years ago, Baby James was sleeping, crying, cooing and burping in Killyleagh, County Down, in the North of Ireland. Then he and his family, Mother Mary, Father, Sister Eliza and Brother Sam, got on a ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean.


When Baby James left his home in Killyleagh, his family had 25 miles to go to Belfast, the closest large port. Perhaps they took a wagon. They traveled with friends, the Kelly’s. They boarded a ship and set out for sea, aimed for Quebec.


The ships of 1829 were not the “coffin” ships of the later desperate trips made during the Potato Famine. Ships in 1829 were well supplied for, usually. Yet this was 187 years ago. Beds were made of straw. Weather whipped up without warning.  Evidence “The Mary,” an 1831 sailing ship from Cork: the captain recorded that one man died from a fall, and six children died “from the want of proper attention being paid to them, their parents being sea sick. “


Baby James made his first international trip when he was two months old on a ship. Our first child made his first cross-border trip when he was two months old in a station wagon. Nothing to compare, we’d rightly say. Except that babies then and now need constant feeding, patting, changing, and soothing. Mother Mary was 43 when she had Baby James. Was she more tired than when Brother Sam was born? Was Baby James solace or burden to her in all the demands of packing up home in Ireland? Maybe on the ship she sang him ballads. Maybe. Sweetness is possible even in a story of great loss.


It is recorded that Baby James’ family met with tragedy. Father died. He was buried at sea. Mother Mary, Baby James, Sister Eliza and Brother Sam landed and made their way, with the Kelly’s, to Kingston.  


Five years later, on August 13th, 1834, Mother Mary died of cholera at age 48. The dire fact was that five-year old James, Sister Eliza and Brother Sam were now orphans. They were taken in by the Patterson’s, also Irish, who lived at Clergy St. W and Division.


Later, the Pattersons and the orphans moved to the end of Gore Rd, the one off Hwy 15. Their house was and remains a long way back, in the country.  Perhaps it was here that young James fell into a hole one day. Perhaps he was a clumsy teenager. Perhaps the field held potholes, or gopher holes. In any case, he tripped and broke his hip. One leg was permanently shorter than the other. A boot was made with a seven inch platform that he wore the rest of his life.


Sister Eliza married William Patterson, an ancestor of Brigadier General Bill Patterson, still living in Kingston. Brother Sam moved to the States. Young man James met Christiana Conklin. Her mother had also come from Killyleagh, County Down, perhaps a bit of home that James’ was drawn to? Her father was an upholsterer. We don’t know if James joined her father’s business or started his own. But we do know that Christiana encouraged James, in his twenties in 1854, to buy the tavern at 254-256 Princess Street. He converted it into a furniture shop and made the furniture and coffins on the second and third floors at the rear.  They were married on September 2nd, 1856 in St Mark’s Anglican Church, Barriefield.

Christiana and James lived above the shop at the front and ate in the dining room in the basement. It’s now a musty basement with a dirt floor and rodent traps, barely tall enough for my ten year old to stand in.

A bit of wallpaper that lasts suggests, hopefully, it was completely different in the second half of the 19th century. James and Christiana had twelve children. The six boys built the furniture and the coffins and the six girls upholstered and lined coffins.  James died in 1900, about seventy years old. His children were running the business, with their mother.


From Baby James crossing the sea as an infant, to the orphan Boy James in Kingston, to the entrepreneur James, James Reid became the head of a large family business. Perhaps in his dreams he heard the hiss of the wind at sea or the silence when he called for his parents. In any case, he went from a diminishing family of his own to siring a large one. He bound his family together with making and selling furniture and coffins. He went from the vagaries of immigration to the stability of staying put. He knew early the familiarity of death. With his family he made a fruitful life in its midst.