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Uncovering the past

British woman makes genealogical discovery in local archives

special feature: Community Collaboration

Part of a special feature that illuminates the synergistic relationship between individuals, communities and community organizations and Memorial, with a focus on Memorial’s supporting role to community-led work.


By Kristine Power

Academic research is not new to Cate Wood-Willis, but her recent international research trip to Memorial’s Queen Elizabeth II Library, is personal.

Cate Wood-Willis
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“Literally in a moment of boredom while doing my PhD, I typed a name into the internet and it led to this,” she said, gesturing at a stack of yellowed letters.

Ms. Wood-Willis is from England; she is completing her PhD in the Faculty of Management, Bournemouth University. Until recently, she believed her maternal ancestry hailed from New Zealand and Scotland.

When she typed the name of her great great-grandmother, Zela Druscilla Tait, into the search bar, was distinct enough to produce an exact and surprising result. Ms. Wood-Willis landed on the Grand Banks Genealogical and Historical Data website and found a reference to her great-grandmother in the 1909 will of Claudius Watts.

This paragraph in particular caught her attention:

“I give and bequeath to my two granddaughters, Mary Lilias Norris, wife of William Norris of Invercargill South Island, New Zealand, and her sister, Zela Druscilla Tait, now residing in Christchurch Canterbury, New Zealand, they being the daughters of my daughter, Zela Druscilla, by her husband, William Tait, both of whom have long been dead, two hundred and fifty dollars each for their own special use and benefit free from the control of husband or any other person or persons whomsoever, but should Zela D Tait predecease me and leave no child the bequest to her of $250 shall be null.”

‘Feeling of belonging’

Claudius Watts, born in Carbonear in 1811, is Ms. Wood-Willis’ great-great-great grandfather. Claudius Watts’ father, Henry Watts, originally came from West Country, England, to work for his uncle’s firm, G & J Kemp & Co.

A letter addressed to Claudius Watts.
Photo: Archives and Special Collections

“To discover this link to Newfoundland was absolutely amazing,” said Ms. Wood-Willis. “This whole new world opened up and this great feeling of belonging to something that you knew nothing about and it is so special.”

After more research, Ms. Wood-Willis learned the Archives and Special Collections Division of Memorial University Libraries had the Watts’ family papers, more than 1,200 letters and 5,000 pages of cursive writing from 1837-1905 that were donated to Memorial University by Frances (Watts) Winsor, the great-granddaughter of Claudius Watts.

“Just yesterday, I was holding a letter in my hand that belonged to my great-grannie.” — Cate Wood-Willis

In an interesting twist, Dr. Blair (Watts) Winsor, an assistant professor in Memorial’s Faculty of Business Administration, is the son of Frances Watts, and so Ms. Wood-Willis recently met a living member of the Watts family in St. John’s.

She says she hasn’t stopped reading the letters since their discovery.

“It’s revelations, its roller coasters, its happiness, its sadness,” she said. “You start to live with these people as if they are still alive. Just yesterday, I was holding a letter in my hand that belonged to my great-grannie. She wrote the letter and it was so strange to see her handwriting.”

From left are Cate Wood-Willis, Michaela Doucette and Linda White at Archives and Special Collections.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“The sheer volume and scope of these letters makes them very unique,” said Linda White, archivist with Memorial University Libraries. “Also, they are between family members and there is such intimacy. These letters have something for everybody – they cover business, medical realities, politics and even gossip.”

The day-to-day life that the letters describe is harsh, grueling and often treacherous. The shipping trade and childbirth proved fatal to various members of the family;  many died young.

“The letters teach you big lessons about how cosseted we are in our own lives with regards to employment, health care and health generally,” said Ms. Wood-Willis. “For these people, it was about survival.”

‘Whole fabulous world’

Ms. Wood-Willis is continuing to immerse herself in the world of the Watts’ family letters by assisting in their transcription from scanned digital files. There are 6,735 digital files and three meters of textual files in the collection.

“I feel like it is a giving back to the archive,” she said. “I want to say thank you for the kindness I received in the archives. They have been so welcoming to me.”

Transcribing the letters is connecting Ms. Wood-Willis to a family and a place of which she still has much to discover, she says.

“It’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle and it has opened up a whole fabulous world.”

For more information about this archival collection at Memorial University Libraries or to schedule an appointment to see these materials, please contact Linda White via email or call (709) 864-4074.

Ms. Wood-Willis has created a blog about the Watts’ letters. You can read more here.


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