In July 1885 when his father died, Charlie was 18. His strange cut-off tie in the picture at the top of the chapter hasn’t been explained, and we assume he was doing his teenage rebellion thing.
Four months before that photo, in March 1885, there’s a letter from his Aunt Jane (Hamilton) telling brother Donald that Charlie had unexpectedly passed an examination and they were hoping that he’d be able to join the office (presumably his father’s).
During that summer, when it became clear that Charlie was going to be left pretty much on his own when his sister died, an old family friend took him under his wing.
Archie Boag was born in the same parish of Barony and had known the family all his life. He was 12 years older than Charlie, and had moved to Canada in 1882—initially working for the Mounties, and then under the homesteader scheme in which you paid a small amount to occupy a sector of undeveloped land and would gain title to it if you could show that you’d carried out improvements such as fencing, ploughing, drainage, and erection of dwellings and outbuildings. The scheme applied over much of Canada at that time, and it was a popular move for young British men with ambition but no capital.
It’s not known how Charlie decided to join Archie in Alberta and seek his fortune there too, but Aunt Jane’s comments in March imply that it wasn’t thought of at that time. However it happened, Charlie was 18 and had lost his mother, his father and his beloved elder sister. He was a town boy, with apparently no experience of farming but by the time his sister died he was heading halfway across the world to the very edge of civilisation with only Archie as a contact, and an inheritance worth about £250,000 in today’s money.
Archie Boag had moved in to the north-east quarter of Section 24, Thp 53, Rge 23 in Clover Bar in 1883, and reputedly had the first sheep in the area.
Charlie travelled by ship to New York and took the train to the railhead at Calgary, where he boarded the stage coach for Edmonton (in 1924 he claimed he’d arrived on a Red River cart—the type of wagon so often seen in cowboy films—but as you’ll see, Charlie was fond of elaborating the truth!).
On 5 October 1885 Charlie had obtained entry for his first quarter on the north-west corner of Archie’s, on the north-east quarter of Section 30, Thp 53, Rge 22., and a month later Archie took on another quarter just to the east of Charlie’s. In the Albertan system of survey, a sector is a mile square, and is usually subdivided into quarters half a mile square, or 160 acres.
Over the first three years, he continued to ‘break’ (i.e. clear) his land and increase the amount cropped. By 1888 he’d bought another 240 acres of land and he continued to buy and sell land throughout his life, although he always lived on that first quarter. The land is generally flat and fertile, with trees and a good deal of surface water in streams or lakes (known as sloughs, pronounced ‘slews’). Further south, the vast open plains are ideal for large-scale arable farming, but here it’s considered ideal for mixed farming, and that’s what Charlie did. In 1889 he cropped 19 acres and had four cattle, thirty sheep and forty horses—the horses were an essential part of farming prior to the introduction of tractors.
In 1901, Kelleck Delorm and John Sanderson were living with him and working on the farm. By 1912, he’d hired Adam and Mary Ellen Mark to manage his farming operation. They bought their own land in 1915, and Charlie hired Huntly Routh as manager. Huntly continued to manage Charlie’s farming operation for the remainder of Charlie’s life.
By 1920, Charlie was farming 2.25 sectors (1440 acres). By 1928, this had been reduced to 480 acres.
Horses and Dogs
In those early days, one of the major pests in the area was coyotes, and Charlie brought back Irish wolfhounds with him from Scotland in 1889 in order to control them. Both he and wife Edith were photographed with the hounds—and a collection of dead coyotes draped around them, presumably to demonstrate their effectiveness! The dogs appear in many photographs, and it seems that they weren’t house dogs. Charlie took a neighbour to court in 1907 for killing one of them, and in his evidence, Charlie said that he hadn’t seen the dog for a fortnight beforehand. In 1901, they had a run in with a porcupine, one of them having to have no less than 24 quills removed.
But it was horses that Charlie was best at. In Charlie’s time, horses were an absolutely intrinsic part of farming, and it’s no surprise that he kept lots of them, and became an expert horse breeder. Not only did he breed Clydesdales to pull the ploughs and other farm machinery, but he also bred roadsters (for use in carriages) and racehorses. He’s supposed to have imported horses from the UK, including brood mares, and a string of a dozen polo ponies, half of which died en route.
The list of prizes he won is very impressive; starting in 1890 he featured in the prizewinners at the Edmonton Agricultural Society most years. By 1892 he had 75 mares and a Clydesdale stallion.
Later on, Charlie bred racehorses, and several were very successful. Ben Ara won five grand championships and seven first prizes, and Ben-a-Chie also won prizes. Ben More won the Edmonton Derby, and Ben Lomond was traded for six grade Percherons (working horses). All were out of Rosebud III, a mare that he bought from England—supposedly from Lady Meux. There’s a photograph of a foal called Lady Meux, so it’s certainly possible.
By 1924, horse breeding was his main business. He had 75 mares, mostly from Montana which he put to a Clydesdale stallion.
He built three houses on his original quarter. The site is ideal, being on a slight rise which commands an excellent view over the whole of the county, and is well drained. The first, completed in 1886 was 26 ft × 22 ft. The second, started three years later, was considerably more substantial. In 1906, he was one of the first in the district to have a telephone. It survived until 1922, when it was knocked down, all except the back porch which was retained as accommodation for farm hands.
The third, built at the height of his wealth in 1912, was—and is—an imposing redbrick mansion, built in the arts and crafts style, complete with central heating and electricity, and became the focus of social life in the area. It had a wide veranda on three sides, with an enclosed conservatory at one end. A basement, accessible by stairs under a trap door by the kitchen housed the boiler (furnace) and generator, together with coal and food stores. The ground floor had a large hall with open staircase and gallery, a living room, dining room, kitchen, scullery and office. The next floor had bedrooms and bathroom. The top floor was a single space in which Charlie had two billiard tables and a piano, and was used extensively for entertaining.
To celebrate its completion, they had 40 guests in 1913, with three-legged races and high tea.
It was clear that from the outset, Charlie had a good head for business, and was prepared to make the most of all the new opportunities in this nascent state. He was interested in other property development right from the start—in 1885, he joined a syndicate to form a cemetery company, though nothing came of it. In 1892 He offered Edmonton some land he owned as a site for their fire hall, but it wasn’t accepted. In 1895, he offered some of his land as a market site for Edmonton, but again it was not accepted.
In 1894, he built a hall in nearby Fort Saskatchewan for general use; the upper floor was used as a public hall. He sold it in 1898.
At some point, he bought 13,000 $1 shares in the Lucky Jim mine in British Columbia, close to where David became a miner. It’s possible the two facts are connected, but there’s no evidence for this. He was also a shareholder in the Fort Saskatchewan Industrial Exhibition Association, for which he organised the Light Horse section and a steeplechase in 1909. He was a part owner of the Yale hotel in Edmonton.
In 1909, Charlie became involved with negotiations about the laying of the Grand Trunk Railway. It was planned to have stations at Clover Bar and Ardrossan, but not one at Hortonburg, Charlie’s nearest village. He reached an agreement that if the locals put in the grade for a side track, the railway would put in a station. It became Bremner’s siding, and Hortonburg changed its name to Bremner. It became a significant settlement in the 1920s, with two grain elevators and a good number of shops, but by the 1960s it had pretty much ceased to exist. Today the railway has gone, but there are a few houses and a golf driving range still in existence, and the name is still very much part of the local geography, and appears on maps, including Google Maps.
In 1910, he became a shareholder and board member of the Mountain Park Coal company, money for which was raised through Hampy in Edinburgh. The head office of the company was in Edmonton. Charlie became managing director in 1911 but in 1922 but fell out with the Scottish syndicate shareholders and resigned. Charlie’s letter of resignation to Colonel Mitchell (the representative of the Scottish financiers) says lots about his personality.
I prefer to get off the M.P. Board before the smash comes. I have no intention of offering my services for the coming year.
No old Country Chairman or Director can run out to Canada, put in a day in Toronto and imagine he can pick off a contract. I have made friends with practically every official of the G.T.P., C.N.R. and C.P.R. friendship goes a long way in this country, a damn sight further than it does in the old country.
No Col. Mitchell, I spoke plainly to Col. Lindsay, when I said the proposition was too big for a man of Dunn’s stamp. M.P. will go under, as smallness and meanness will never pull a big proposition thro’ in this country.
He was also a shareholder in the Northern Alberta Exploration Company, which was the first to explore the oil sands of northern Alberta that are such hot property today. In 1924 he became a director of the Maple Leaf Oil Company, and negotiated with the Canadian National Railway to buy oil and gas from them.
Other shareholdings included Refineries Distributors Ltd., Edmonton, Salmon River Gold Mining and Milling Company, and the Edmonton Aircraft Company which operated an Avro 504K between Edmonton and Calgary charging $40, but the rotary engine covered the single passenger in castor oil, so it failed …
Charlie had time to visit British Columbia for several months in 1887–1888, only a couple of years after moving in, and he returned to Scotland for seven months in 1888–1889, so he must have been able to employ people to look after the place in his absence.
When he married Edith in 1893, they honeymooned on Vancouver Island.
In 1901, they travelled to England, staying in the Charing Cross Hotel at the time of the census. Donald was stationed in Dover at this time and didn’t take up his position with the City of London Police until the following year, so this may have been a one-night stop between brothers. In 1910–1911 they visited Scotland for around six months.
In 1914, they took a holiday in California for three months. In 1915 they travelled to Scotland again.
Charlie knew Archie Boag all his life, and they remained firm friends to the end. They must have made a contrasting couple; Charlie (like all his brothers) was well over 6 ft tall and well built. Archie was small and wiry, and 12 years older. Together with another homesteader, Billy Fielders, they got up to all sorts of scrapes. Billy, like Archie, had been involved in the Riel riots of 1885, and had apparently shot an Indian. The best known story was the occasion when they rode three abreast up the steps of the newly-completed Edmonton House hotel in 1891, hitched their horses to the bar and stayed for a three-day bender. The hotel was next to the Edmonton railway station, and has survived, although the road has been raised, engulfing the original steps. We visited the hotel in 2011 and suspect that the atmosphere hasn’t changed much. Although the building is listed as historic, and is in good repair, the interior has probably not changed a lot since 1891, with its pervasive smells of cigarette smoke, stale beer, and unwashed humanity. We ventured inside only briefly. But there are lots of others. Like the time when Archie bought a new pair of buckskin breeches in Fort Saskatchewan that were too tight. Celebrating the purchase in the bar, Charlie suggested soaking them in water to stretch them, which he did, and was able to get them on. Unfortunately they were both drunk and fell asleep, and by the time they woke the leather had shrunk again, and the breeches had to be cut off in order to restore the circulation in Charlie’s legs!
In 1893, Billy became more than a friend, when Charlie married his sister Edith. They were married in Billy’s house Fairholme, and had a honeymoon on the west coast. Although he was 12 years older, Archie didn’t marry until 1898, when he married Annie Adamson from Scotland.
Charlie and Edith never had children, but enjoyed breeding horses and dogs, and travelled a good deal too.
In 1894, the Edmonton and District Old-Timer’s Association was formed, with Archie and Charlie as founder members.
In 1895, Charlie was injured when his horses shied at a cyclist. One horse disappeared, and his buggy was damaged and written off. Charlie was only slightly injured.
In 1898, a shorthorn bull, owned jointly by Charlie and Archie, was killed on the railway and buried by the section gang. The lads needed evidence in order to be able to claim from the Canadian National Railway, so they dug up the carcass in order to retrieve the brand mark. They also removed the ring from its nose. Of course the story got about that two crazy Scotsmen had dug up a bull just for the ring in its nose …
In fact, stories grew around Charlie. It’s still widely believed that he was Lord Bremner, a remittance man sent out from Scotland with a regular remittance from his family to keep him out of trouble. It’s hard to say where this came from, but he certainly put it about that one of his brood mares had come from Lady Meux, who was his sister—and he called one of his foals Lady Meux in her honour. (Actually, Lady Meux was married to the owner of a large brewery and was painted by Whistler. She was a noted beauty, and had previously been a high-class courtesan.)
In 1898, Charlie was a charter member of the Edmonton Club, a sort of gentleman’s drinking club. One of the rules was that dogs weren’t allowed in the club; Charlie took a dislike to this rule and took his horse into the bar, which it kicked.
The Board of Governors took objection to this and asked Charlie to write an apology. Charlie obliged, by writing—to the horse. Charlie remained a member until his death.
Another story, undated, tells of a young girl being taught to ride by Charlie. His dictum was ‘If I see air between you and the saddle, I’ll shoot!’ She also reckoned he imported fighting cocks, though whether this was another of Charlie’s wind-ups, it’s hard to know.
In 1922, Charlie, who gave his hands Saturday afternoons off, invited them up to dinner. Since Edith and the cook were away, Charlie cooked it himself, serving up half a mallard duck each with all the trimmings, followed by apple pie.
On 16 March, Charlie attended a farm auction to buy livestock. The auctioneer refused his bid, saying that his money was ‘no good’. Despite that, Charlie was in good spirits. Later that day, he went into the bathroom of their house and committed suicide with a revolver.
There were no apparent warning signs of trouble, and it seems completely out of character. Charlie was flamboyant and had a temper, but there is no evidence of an argument that might have caused him to take his life in the heat of the moment. And if it was a calculated act, it’s a cowardly way out—and whatever else was said about him, no-one had ever accused him of cowardice.
There seems to have been a conspiracy of silence about the whole affair.
The newspapers didn’t record it as suicide—it was simply a sudden death. If Edith spoke of it, it wasn’t recorded. Charlie’s surviving brothers, Donald and Hampy, never acknowledged the suicide, and their family was unaware of it until we located the Bremner House website.
So what drove him to this? Looking at his probate, it’s clear that while he wasn’t insolvent, his assets didn’t exceed the value of his property by much. Virtually all of his shares were considered to have no commercial value, and a debt he owed to his brother Hampy of $10,500 was written off—presumably because Hampy knew that Edith would be left with very little to manage on otherwise.
Among all the tall tales and rumours, there’s been no suggestion of marital infidelity; when he died, Edith bought two adjacent plots in the Edmonton cemetery, and although she didn’t use the second one, it’s not the action of someone who was experiencing domestic tension.
One explanation that seems feasible is that he was suffering from manic depression. His highs seem to have been memorably high; maybe his lows were very low, and for some reason this one was particularly low.
Or maybe there was a diagnosis of a terminal illness?
Donald and Hampy had retired to Sussex, England, and lived in the same village. Donald assembled a huge amount of work on the Bremner family tree and simply recorded Charlie’s death, failing to mention his suicide at all.
Astonishingly, the coroner considered an inquest unnecessary, so there is no documentation to show what caused him to take his own life.
Indeed, the whole conspiracy of silence—newspapers, wife, brothers and even the coroner—leaves one with the feeling that maybe there was something to hide. Whether there’s anything left to discover at this late stage seems unlikely, but I don’t think we’ve got to the bottom of this yet.
Charlie was such a colourful character, it’s easy to forget the huge contribution he made to the district in taming the wilderness. A lad from the City with a relatively privileged upbringing, he’d travelled half way round the world on his own at the tender age of 18, having lost most of his family to illness, learned his trade and worked very hard to make a success of his ranches and, his other business ventures. Of all the family, he was the one that inherited the best of his father’s entrepreneurial genes.
He worked hard, and was entitled to play hard.
He is remembered as one of the Pioneers, and his tools were donated by his widow to the Northern Alberta Pioneers’ and Old Timers’ Association.
Charlie is buried in the Edmonton Centre cemetery, Section F, Block 55, plot 05. His headstone is simple and dignified, and Archie Boag is buried only a few yards away.
He is also remembered on the family memorial in the Glasgow Necropolis, Epsilon 265, along with the other members of his family. The adjacent plot is now empty, but belongs to the Hamilton family with whom he grew up.
Edith kept in touch with her Scottish brothers-in-law and their children, living first in Edmonton, then with her sister, Mrs H. C. Wilson in Victoria, and finally returning to her home town of New Brunswick, where she lived on until 1963, dying at the ripe old age of 97, and being buried next to her brother, Billy, who’d ridden up those steps with her future husband all those years ago, and had died in 1941.
His large house was sold to the Schroter family who occupied it for many years with little alterations. It passed to the Nielsens in 1988, then in 2004 it was bought by Strathcona County. In 2009 it was given historic building status and it is being sympathetically restored to public amenity standard for use as a history resource centre, wedding venue and so on.
In 2011, David and Sue were treated to a formal reception when they visited. We’d heard about Charlie’s ghost—apparently a local plumber refused to return after a gauge glass on the boiler splintered while he was looking at it, and a chair was moved (although he was alone in the house) to prevent him going upstairs. We felt no tingles down the spine, but were impressed with the quality of the house, and the very friendly atmosphere. Perhaps Charlie approved.
There’s a more detailed timeline, assembled from information supplied by the wonderful Jane Ross, retired Curator, Western Canadian History at the Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton, and researcher for the Bremner House project.
The maps of his landholdings were kindly generated by Strathcona genealogical researcher David Drader.