by Sam McBride
Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters’ mother, Bertha, was the youngest daughter of Col. John Hamilton Gray, a household name in Prince Edward Island because of his role as host and chairman of the historic Charlottetown Conference in 1864.
Bertha went by several names in her life. She was registered as Roberta Hamilton Susan Gray, but known as Bertha in the community, Bertie or ‘B’ to her sisters, Zarig to her children, and Dally to her grandchildren. She enjoyed introducing herself as a Daughter of Confederation, inheriting a playful, eccentric nature and tendency to strident opinions from her father, which she in turn passed on to her son, Fritz. Her reverence for the British Empire, her old-fashioned ideas and wariness towards the United States are understandable in light of the fact she was only two generations away from the Revolutionary War. In contrast, her husband Fred, who was 10 years older, was three generations away. Her generations were long in years because her father was 51 years old when she was born, and his father Col. Robert Gray was 64 when his youngest son John Hamilton Gray was born.
The wedding of Bertha Gray and Fred Peters on October 19, 1886 was a highlight of the closely-knit P.E.I. social scene, bringing together families whose paths crossed many times in the past. Even before Bertha was born, Fred’s sister Carrie Peters was Margaret Gray’s best friend.
Like her father and grandfather, Bertha was a voracious reader with firm opinions, such as the superiority of English private schools. As a result, she insisted her children attend private schools in England even when the family could not afford it.
Bertha had six children, four of whom died before her. She had no qualms about her favourite child, which was Gerald, born in 1894. Gerald`s fraternal twin brother, Noel, who had a slight but noticeable mental disability, was Bertha`s least favourite child. The first tragedy in the family was the death of her six-year-old daughter Violet Avis Peters in 1905 as a result of catching fire from being too close to a fireplace in the family home in Oak Bay near Victoria, B.C. In May 1916 Bertha learned that reports that son Private John Francklyn “Jack” Peters of the 7th B.C. Duke of Connaught battalion was a prisoner of war were inaccurate, and he was presumed to have died at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Just a couple of weeks later she was devastated to learn that son Lieutenant Gerald Hamilton Peters, also serving with the 7th battalion, had died in a hopeless charge by Canadian troops to recapture Mount Sorrel near Ypres which had been captured the day before by the Germans. In November 1942 she was notified that her son Capt. Frederic Thornton “Fritz” Peters had died in a plane crash near Plymouth on his way back to England after leading an extremely hazardous attack on Oran harbour in the Allied invasion of North Africa. She was astounded when a U.S. delegation of senior officers and brass band came to Nelson to officially present the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross to her as Fritz`s next-of-kin, but the Victoria Cross — the highest honour for valour in the British Commonwealth and Empire — came to her in the mail. The British government downplayed her son`s Victoria Cross because the action in Oran harbour was a sore point in relations with French forces when they rejoined the Allies in the fight against the Nazis following the Allied conquest of French colonies in North Africa.
Bertha spent the last 30 years of her life residing with her daughter Helen Dewdney`s family in the West Kootenay region of southeastern B.C., first in New Denver, then Rossland and Trail, and finally in Nelson, where she died in July 1946 at age 84, crippled for the last decade of her life as a result of falling down staircase, but still sharp as ever mentally. She impressed her grandchildren by regularly winning cash prizes for crossword puzzle contests sponsored by newspapers. She could look back on an eventful life, from meeting the Canadian Fathers of Confederation at her P.E.I. home as a toddler, through six years as a Maritime premier’s wife, a decade amongst the leaders of Victoria society, five years in frontier Prince Rupert, and then three decades in small West Kootenay communities, including two world wars that took the lives of three of her sons.
BELOW, from top left: Bertha, Ted and Helen in a 1920s staged scene of an automobile (in fact, none of the three ever owned or drove a car); Bertha at the time of the U.S. DSC presentation in 1944; and (from left to right) Helen, Bertha, Dee Dee and Eve.