Notes on Norwich’s Weeping Lady Cenotaph

 Marie Avey/Special to the Norwich Gazette

The Weeping Lady cenotaph in Norwich has been the centrepiece of Remembrance Day services in the village for almost 100 years.

The Weeping Lady cenotaph in Norwich has been the centrepiece of Remembrance Day services in the village for almost 100 years.

If Norwichites had been present when King Edward VIII, as King of Canada, unveiled the sculpted Mother Canada (Canada Bereft) memorial figure at the much anticipated July 26, 1936 ceremony on France’s Vimy Ridge, they could be forgiven for a sense of déjà vu – a feeling that they had seen it all before.

Fifteen years previously on Victoria Day, May 24, 1921 the Norwich community had turned out in record numbers to see their native son, Colonel Donald Sutherland, pull the shroud from their own weeping lady memorial to the heroic First World War dead of the Norwich area.

The cloaked Mother Canada figure, part of the Vimy Memorial commissioned by the Canadian government, has long been considered one of the most poignant statues at the French site. According to Canada Post’s Battle of Vimy Ridge pamphlet of April, 2017, she represents a country in mourning as she gazes down at a symbolic tomb at her feet and overlooks the French country side where Canadians fought for peace.

How interesting it is that the Norwich Gazette of May 26, 1921 had written about the sculpted marble figure of the weeping lady recently unveiled at the Norwich High School Memorial Park in the following words:

The whole idea is allegorical. It is a personification of the Spirit of Canada, bowed in grief and sorrow and weeping for her lost sons. This intends to perpetuate the memory of the disastrous results of the Great World War.

How did Norwich manage to obtain and dedicate such a symbolic memorial so many years before the national memorial was unveiled? Archival copies of the Norwich Gazette tell the story.

Actually Norwich was a bit slow in erecting the local cenotaph. Many neighbouring communities including New Durham, had theirs in place by 1919. But those other communities, if they had chosen sculptures, had usually opted for images of angels or soldiers with guns. The idea of a weeping lady was rare if not unique.

Norwich’s timing on erecting its soldiers’ memorial was very much tied up with “the school question”.

The Norwich Public and Continuation School (1896-1974) on Elgin Street was bursting at the seams. There was a need for a high school according to Inspector Paterson, but who was going to pay for all those country students who would want to attend? Norwich village taxpayers were concerned and their school board trustees were stalling.

Meetings in regard to a soldiers’ memorial dealt more with a suitable placement than they did with the actual form of the memorial. But the January 22, 1920 edition of the Gazette reported that a sketch of the proposed monument was shown and that it was to have a figure eight-and-a-half feet high placed on a dais. The whole structure was to be 12 feet high and cost about $1,500. The pedestal was to be of the finest Scottish granite. The top was to be a figure of a woman kneeling as if mourning and placing a laurel wreath on the grave. But where to put it?

Some said a park was needed and that it should be on Stover Street and should include the library and a fountain. Others thought that a site on John Stree. would be appropriate and still others wanted a site by the Otter on Main Street West. Rev. Mr. Holland, the Anglican minister, thought a memorial hospital was the best idea. Hadley Place (the former Cooke family home) was considered but thought to be too expensive at an estimated cost of $18,000.

Many meetings and some heated arguments ensued until final plans were laid. Two influential men should be given credit for the eventual appearance and placement of the memorial.

Capt. (Rev. Dr. J.H.) Barnett, minister of Knox Presbyterian Church had taken leave of his congregation in 1916 to go overseas as a chaplain and had served not only in France but in the English hospitals for wounded soldiers, returning to his Norwich pulpit in 1919. At the 1921 unveiling, he acknowledged that the memorial was his idea and very likely he arranged the ordering of the white marble figure which was sculpted in France. Another version of the same form in a private American cemetery shows the lady wearing a low-cut gown. Presumably Dr. Barnett, later named Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, arranged to have Norwich’s lady given a more modest neckline.

In 1920, Mr. T. M. Cayley, former principal of the combined Public and Continuation School became a clear voice for the creation of a high school and the placement of the soldiers’ memorial on the new school grounds. The fact that the county and North Norwich Township had agreed to partial funding of both the school and the memorial was also helpful. Mr. Cayley led the move to purchase Hadley Place with its five acres of property. The Gazette of January 27, 1921 noted that his genial personality and exceptional success as an educator had made him highly esteemed in the community and suggested that these facts had smoothed the way to the successful combination of school site and memorial.

Victoria Day, 1921 was a big day in Norwich. The unveiling of the memorial and the official opening of the high school were both to be marked. Two indefatigable men, Mr. Forsyth , a popular business man, and Mr. Fairley, the town clerk, were in charge of the day’s programme. Hundreds of spectator lined the driveway to the High School Memorial Park as it was to be called. A regimental band from Woodstock led the returned soldiers as they marched to the site.

Officials made speeches, the dead soldiers were named, the Union Jack was raised, the national anthem and O Canada were both sung. The unveiling was followed by various military exercises, salutes and drills. The Last Post , ending with a last high, long-drawn, heart-piercing note of farewell, was sounded.

And then came the ball games and opening of the food booths with cakes, sandwiches and pies. The evening program included a band concert and Scotch and toe dancing.

Ninety-six years later, Norwich’s weeping lady cenotaph graces the grounds of Emily Stowe Public School having been moved to that site in 1952 when Norwich District High School was built. The names of Second World War war dead have been added and solemn ceremonies have been held there each November 11 for many years.

We are pleased to note that the Norwich Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion recently had some cleaning and restoration work done on the memorial. Hopefully the weeping lady will long continue in her role of perpetuating the memory of war’s disastrous effects.