Sgt. Joseph Harry Watson

Joseph Harry Watson was born on January 22nd, 1871 in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England. Already a family man, Joseph, along with his wife, Mary, and their sons George and Ernest, emigrated to Peterborough around 1907-1908 prior to the start of the war. Joseph and his family moved to Peterborough, settling into a modest house at 173 Douro street in the North end of the city. Between 1909-1912, Watson and his sons began doing freelance work as electricians and painters. However, in 1913, George and Ernest began working as electricians at the Higgins Hardware company store located on 137 Hunter street East, just down the road from their home on Douro street. At the outbreak of the war in 1914, the industrious Watson family had worked tirelessly to establish themselves in Peterborough. Already middle-aged with ten years of prior military service in the Royal Engineers, Watson did not initially follow in the early wave of enlistment that engulfed the British Empire at the outbreak of the First World War. On August 31st, 1915, Watson, at the age of fifty-two, enlisted as a Sergeant (service number 195248) in Peterborough’s 93rd infantry battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Photograph of the inside of Higgins Hardware Company, located on 137 Hunter Street (c.1913). The store operated from 1913-1976. Courtesy of Jon Oldham of Peterborough Museum and Archives.

As with other Canadian families, the war interrupted the home life of the Watson family. At the time of Joseph’s departure to Europe, the family was left with a severely reduced income; as a result, Mary, George, and Ernest moved into a humble house on 577 Division Street. For the next two years, the Watson family tried to make ends meet and reallocated themselves around Peterborough. For instance, according to the 1916 city directory, Joseph’s son, George Watson, began working as an electrician at the Alexander and Miller company. By this time, the family had situated themselves in a modest home in the lower-industrial region of Peterborough, at 250 McDonnel street; indicating an apparent financial struggle within the family as the head of household was away. While not a unique story, the experiences of the Watson family at home nonetheless illustrate the great upheaval of family life caused by the war. The disruptive nature of war in terms of domestic conditions is seldom analysed in depth, and the experiences of the Watson family provide insight into the unexceptional details of a common narrative faced by millions of families during the First World War.
Joseph Harry Watson fought with the 93rd Battalion throughout 1916-1917. Despite being fifty-two years old (nearly seven years above the forty-five-year-old age limit for CEF enlistment) Watson’s attestation papers clearly indicate that he passed his physical exam, making him fit for combat service. This is remarkable given the average age and physicality of the much younger recruits he fought alongside. It can only be presumed that the military experience and wisdom of Watson at his age made him a role-model for soldiers in his unit. Regardless of his physical capabilities, the horrific fighting on the western front took its toll on Watson, though not in the way many might expect. Rather than sustaining wounds from combat, Watson, being at a relatively advanced age, contracted pneumonia from the conditions on the front. Pneumonia, and illness in general, accounted for an astounding portion of casualties on the western front during the war. Having pneumonia, Watson was discharged from military service in late 1917 and sent home. The Watson family, after having their head of household returned to them, moved to an upscale part of town in the west end-300 Frederick Avenue- and tried to return to the normalcy that they enjoyed prior to the war. However, according to the death records of the County of Peterborough, Joseph Watson passed away on November 30th, 1917 from heart failure.  A combination of war stress and the aforementioned pneumonia, coupled with Watson’s age, most likely contributed to what the physician notes as ‘cardiac incompetency’ for some months prior to his death. Watson left behind his wife, Mary, as well as his sons George and Ernest. According to the 1917 city directory, there was also a Florence and Mabel Watson living at 250 McDonnel street, who are presumably Joseph’s grandchildren. Unfortunately, there are no known photographs of Watson. He is buried at Little Lake Cemetery
in Peterborough.

Joseph Watson’s attestation papers, describing his background information as well as his physical assessment and enlistment date. Library and Archives Canada, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 10142 - 16, item number 304439.

The story of Joseph Watson and his family, is representative of the majority of people affected by the events of the First World War. The war took a dramatic toll on the domestic life of millions of people. The disruption of family dynamics, and the financial toll of the war for families back home is a topic often ignored in study. The obvious impediment of the life of the Watson family after Joseph left is apparent in the township records. Joseph Harry Watson is also representative of an often forgotten demographic of older men of whom also enlisted during the war, while also representing a common trend of ex-British immigrants who answered the call of King and Empire.

Research by Sean Hinves and Jordan Stere

Commonwealth Graves Commission. ‘Sergeant Joseph Harry Watson’.,-joseph-harry/.
“Higgins Hardware Company”, 1913. Peterborough Museum and Archives. Balsillie
Collection of Roy Studio Images. Library and Archives Canada. RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 10142 - 16, item number304439.
Vernon Directories Limited. “Vernon's City of Peterborough Street, Alphabetical, Business and Miscellaneous Directory for the Year 1913”. Pg. 267. Digitized by Peterborough Museum and Archives.
Vernon Directories Limited. “Vernon's City of Peterborough Street, Alphabetical, Business and Miscellaneous Directory for the Year 1916”. Pg. 55,59,274. Digitized by Peterborough Museum and Archives.
Vernon Directories Limited. “Vernon's City of Peterborough Street, Alphabetical, Business and Miscellaneous Directory for the Year 1917”. Pg. 55, 280. Digitized by Peterborough Museum and Archives.