“The Half-Shilling Curate:” a true story of love, war, and Chilliwack

After finding a life-time’s worth of letters, Sarah Raey set out to learn her grandfather’s story

When English-born Sarah Reay reached out to the Chilliwack Museum from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean for information on her great-great grandfather, A.C. Wells, she says she wasn’t quite prepared for the response she got back.

Her inquiry came after boxes and boxes filled with thousands of letters, private writings, newspaper clippings, school reports, mementos, and certificates belonging to her paternal grandfather, Herbert Butler Cowl, were discovered in the family home in Wales.

It had all been saved by his mother, Lillie Townsley—the only granddaughter of Allen Casey “A.C.” Wells—who Reay says “hoarded everything.”

Inspired by the recorded history in front of her and the planted idea from a friend, Reay says she made the decision to put her grandfather’s incredible story to paper—with permission from her mom (her father had previously passed away)—so it could be shared and enjoyed before it was lost forever.

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“My grandfather was a very private man,” said Reay, who added she always found him enchanting. “He had a very husky and magical sounding voice … and I always enjoyed watching him.”

But having died when she was only six-years-old, Reay says prior to her research, the only knowledge she had of her grandfather came from her father, his son, who it turned out, “only knew a handful of facts,” and most of which didn’t include his father’s war stories or his parents’ love story.

Sarah Reay shows a picture of her grand parents as a young couple, prior to the war or being married, that was published in her novel, “The Half-Shilling Curate: A personal account of war & faith 1914-1918” (Sarah Gawdin/The Progress)

But five years later, after a lot of research and much writing, Reay published her grandfather’s story as a novel, The Half-Shilling Curate: A personal account of war & faith 1914-1918 in 2016, which is now in its second printing.

“He never considered himself a hero,” said Reay. “But I think he’d be tickled pink (about the book).”

Elbows-deep in all of the tangible parts of her family history that she could locate, Reay explains how she was able to follow the trail left in her grandfather’s letters and an inscription from the back of a heirloom gold watch across the world and all the way to Chilliwack.

“I emailed the Chilliwack Museum to learn if they had any information about A.C. Wells and got back a beautiful email that said something along the lines of, ‘Looking for information on A.C. Wells in Chilliwack is like going to Rome to look for information on the Pope,’” she continued with a chuckle.

Although the Chilliwack museum got its official start in the local police station in 1958, when it was moved to the Evergreen Hall in the early ’70s, it was named the Wells Centennial Museum, as the family has been prominent within the community since its start, more than 150 years ago.

Ordained as a Wesleyan Minister in July 1914, Cowl—who was the British-born son of Canadian Lillie (Wells) Townsley—joined the army forces as a Chaplain when war broke later that year: at only 28-years-old, he was one of the youngest Chaplains in the British Army, and the only one to be awarded the Military Cross for his actions on the Anglia, which was the first hospital ship lost in the First World War due to enemy action.

“He was severely wounded in France in the trenches,” said Reay.

Even though he had removed his white collar, which was a target for snipers, Cowl was injured when shrapnel tore through his jaw and throat and lodged next to his voice box, which required immediate surgery.

Boarded on the hospital boat Anglia as a “cot case” from Calais to Dover, Cowl jumped into action when the ship struck an enemy mine just off the coast.

Photograph consists of a view of men, dairy cattle and buildings of the Edenbank Farm of the Wells family at Sardis. Photo courtesy of the Chilliwack Museum and Archives [1982.051.042]

Believing in his strength as a swimmer, Cowl went down with the ship to ensure he could help as many to safety as possible. And when he finally surfaced after the ship sunk, he handed another passenger his life raft because he thought the other’s need was greater than his own.

“He was just so selfless,” said Reay. “Through it all, his faith never faltered,” and neither did his love for May Townsley, Lillie’s only daughter, whom he’d been exchanging letters with for years.

After he was injured in the war, a telegram was sent to May alerting her to his condition, and with her family’s permission, May travelled to Cowl’s side and the two were married in 1916. Returning to preaching, the Cowls never left England, and Reay was the first British family member to step foot on Canadian soil since the parting of May Townsley almost a hundred years previous.

In 2000, the year after her father died, Reay made her first trip to the area to meet her Canadian cousins—something her father had always dreamed of doing—and see where her family history got its beginnings.

This year, she and her family made a fourth trip across the pond to visit Chilliwack and the surrounding area. “I really love it here,” she said on the steps of the Chilliwack Museum while looking around downtown. “It’s got such a special feeling.”

Copies of the book can be purchased online through Chapters.ca, Amazon.ca, or through Reay’s website, HalfShillingCurate.com.


@SarahGawdin
Sarah.Gawdin@theprogress.com

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