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Monday 25 September 2023

The death of little Willie Dilworth

© Christian Cassidy, 2023

I participated in a tree planting at St. John’s Cemetery in the North End on Saturday. St. John’s is the oldest non-Indigenous burial ground in Western Canada dating back to the Selkirk Settlers. 

Twenty new trees were planted to replace many that have been lost, and soon will be lost, primarily to Dutch Elm Disease. One of the trees I helped plant was atop this grave. The headstone was badly worn but seemed to read “__lie Dilworth aged 11 years, 5 months”. I confirmed with the cathedral that the first name was William Dilworth who died July 31, 1899.

Here is what I could find about the life and death of Willie Dilworth.

Willie was the son of Barbara Dilworth. She was born around 1853 to Mr. and Mrs. William Stevenson, early settlers in the Headingley area. She married William Dilworth in 1872. 

William Dilworth came from Ontario and settled in the Portage la Prairie district in the 1860s. He and his brother John were jailed for a time by Riel’s men during the North-West Rebellion.

The couple lived for many years near Headingley before moving to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

1891 Census of Canada, Library and Archives Canada

The above entry from the 1891 census shows the Dilworth family in Saskatchewan. At the time they had seven children ranging in age from three, little Willie, to Isabella aged seventeen. (It is likely that they had one more child after this.) 

Interestingly, this census entry does not include Mr. Dilworth and Mrs. Dilworth is not listed as being a widow.

This could mean that Mr. Dilworth lived elsewhere (perhaps for work) and was counted in the census at that location, that they were separated (which is not very likely in those times), or that she may have been widowed by then and the "M" for married instead of "W" for widowed was made in error.

I could find no information about the death of William Dilworth Sr.. This notice in the Prince Albert Times suggests he was alive in 1892 as he lost a lawsuit against a Thomas O. Davis and his land was sold as a result.

The first sign of the Dilworth family in Winnipeg comes in the 1899 street directory, the data for which would have been compiled in 1898. Barbara Dilworth is listed as a widow living in a house in at 156 Bannatyne Street near the Red River (now demolished.) . 

Winnipeg Free Press, August 1, 1899

On July 31, 1899, Willie, along with one of his older brothers and a couple of friends, went swimming in the Assiniboine River near the junction with the Red.

The group had climbed up to the deck of the CNR bridge which crossed the Assiniboine River, at what is today known as The Forks, to get dressed. Willie, according to one of the three news articles about his death, tripped on his shoelace and fell into the river below. He struck his head on the woodwork on the way down and never resurfaced. 

Emergency crews were summoned and it took until 2:30 in the afternoon for them to find his body. 

Mrs. Dilworth was working in Headingley as a nurse at the time of the accident. A telegram informed her of the tragic news and she immediately returned to Winnipeg. Willie's uncle John, who lived in high Bluff, also came to Winnipeg.

All three of Winnipeg's daily papers wrote about Willie's death, though none wrote about the funeral or had any follow-up stories about him. One source, the Morning Telegram, mistakenly wrote that Willie was to be buried at Brookside Cemetery.

 Winnipeg Tribune, January 29, 1938

The Dilworths continued to live at 156 Bannatyne for a couple of years. By 1903, Barbara had moved to a house on Ross Avenue as the number of children still living at home dwindled. In 1916, census records show that she was living with her daughter Sarah and her family at 263 Chalmers Avenue.

Barbara appears infrequently in street directories through the 1920s and 1930s at different addresses. The year before her death she was living in apartment 7, Victoria Court, 471 William Avenue.

Barbara Dilworth died on January 22, 1938, in Winnipeg at the age of 85 and is buried at Headingley, Manitoba. She was survived by her remaining seven children.  

Morning Telegram, Aug 1, 1899

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