Go West Young Man


This is Reginald Ralph Pelly. The photograph is dated 10 August 1915 and as you can see from the maple leaf on his collar he was in the Canadian army. Initially reading the name as Pilly from its envelope we could not find anyone by that name. However we did find attestation papers for R R Pelly on the Library Archives Canada website and that’s where our story begins. Thanks to Tony McGarry, one of our volunteers. for his research into R R Pelly.

The Canadian WW1 attestation papers, dated 4 May 1915 in Calgary, Alberta, provide clues to a fascinating story starting with his place of birth as being Surrey on the 7 July 1887 and his next of kin being a Mrs Shadbolt of Ashtead. But the most fascinating piece of information is that his occupation is “Cow Puncher”. A cow puncher is what we would nowadays call a cowboy. Finally the papers also tell us that he has spent five years in officer training and that he signed his name as Rex R Pelly. The “5 years Officers Training School”may refer to the Officers Training Corps which operated in most UK public or grammar schools before the First World war.


R R Pelly’s Canadian attestation papers. Source: Library and Archives Canada’s Website

How and why did Pelly end up in Canada? To explain this we need to look into his family history. Reginald Ralph (he signed himself Rex) was born in Bletchingley, Surrey in 1888 (not 1887 as recorded on his Canadian attestation papers). The Bletchingley baptism registers confirm this and also that his father Frederick William was the vicar in this parish. A search of FreeBMD shows that his parents, Frederick William Pelly and Fannie Maria Nares were married in 1884 in Kingston, Surrey.

At the time of the 1891 Census he is living with his mother and an older and younger sister in Bulmer, Essex. His father is not listed. Interestingly his older sister Vera is recorded as being born in Qu’appelle in Canada. This is a town in Saskatchewan. By the time of the 1901 census it is likely that Rex is at a boarding school (mis­recorded as Richard we think). His youngest sister is living with her mother (now Mrs Shadbolt) and stepfather; his older sister is also at a boarding school.

What happened to their father Frederick? A search of Ancestry and FreeBMD came up with no death or probate records. Divorce was ruled out too. So as is often the case we resorted to a Google search for Frederick William Pelly and found his obituary in the Catholic University Bulletin dated 1898. The obituary tells us a great deal about Rex’s father and ancestors including that the former Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company was a relative. We find that Frederick was involved in the establishment of St John’s College, Qu’appelle (where sister Vera was born) and was the public schools examiner for the Northwest Territory. He was also a lecturer in the diocesan seminary in Manitoba.

Frederick obviously returned to England before 1888 because this is when Rex was born in Ashtead. By 1889 the family had settled in the parish of Walter ­Belchamp in Essex and it was here that Frederick became involved in the strikes of 1889. His position in the parish became untenable and he returned to America this time to take up the rectorship of St Andrews, Greenville, Connecticut. It was while in Connecticut that Frederick converted to Catholicism in 1896 and shortly afterwards was invited to lecture at the Catholic University. He sadly died two years later of pulmonary consumption.

The obituary also records that Fannie Pelly was the daughter of Sir George Strong Nares, a famous arctic explorer. So is it any wonder then that Rex ended up in Alberta, Canada working as a cowpuncher? His family had connections there and with a grandfather who was an arctic explorer it’s not surprising that the wonderlust was strong in Rex ­ which indeed led him back to fight for his country.

And what of Rex’s time in Canada? Fortunately the 1906 Census of the Northwest Provinces is available free on the Library Archives Canada website. We find Rex listed as a “hired man” having arrived from England in 1905. He is working for William Brown a rancher in Gleichen, Alberta, who had emigrated from Scotland in 1889. At the time of the 1906 Census William Brown had 48 horses, 30 milk cows and a herd of 530 cattle.

Pelly 1906

1906 Census of the Northwest Provinces



A typical cow-puncher of the Canadian West. Toronto: Rumsey & Co., 1528 Queen St. West. Toronto, Canada, 1910. Reproduced Courtesy of Alberta University CC by NC


1909 View of Gleichen Looking East Along Main St.  Reproduced Courtesy of Alberta University CC by NC

Pelly’s movements between 1906 and 1915 are not entirely clear. He is recorded on the 1911 census age 22 living with his mother and stepfather in Ashtead. Later that summer however he is heading back to Canada and is listed as a mechanic on the ship’s manifest.

It would seem that Rex Pelly returned to western Canada and then enlisted in the Canadian army in 1915. There are two medal cards on Ancestry for Reginald Pelly. The first has him as a Corporal in the 30 Battalion, Canadian Infantry number 4465557. The second card records him as being in the Machine Gun Corp (att) General Service Calvary. The Gazette records Pelly being promoted to a Temporary 2nd Lt. The Queens (West Surrey Regiment) 19 October 1915.

The War Diaries of the 2nd Machine Gun Squadron make mention of Pelly joining them in August 1916. In February 1917 he came back to England to have his appendicitis out. In a report dated 4 May 1917 from Lt Col W E Lawrence Commanding Machine Gun Corps (Cavalry) Training Centre he states “Lieut. R R Pelly , owing to ill health I consider that he is not ever likely to become fit for overseas service . He joined the Training Centre on 14 March 17 and has been on Home Service and in hospital. He is now in a convalescent hospital. “ Ten days later Pelly was sent a letter requesting that he relinquish his commission and was granted an honorary rank of Lieutenant. Pelly requested a gratuity but because his disability was not due to a war injury this was refused. There is a letter on file from R R Pelly to the War Office dated 16 April 1928 stating “I have been ordered by my doctor to stop work … I have a wife and two children to support.” Once again the War Office, on the 24 April 1928, refused the gratuity.

Marriage and post WW1
Pelly married Annie Sweeney in 1917 and we know from his letter to the War Office in 1928 that they had two children. A search on FreeBMD tells us that they were Rosemary and Mervyn. In 1928 the family were living in Finchley. After this they drop off the radar. We know that Rex travelled from Madeira to Plymouth by boat in April 1955. The next record we have is of his death on the 24 November 1960 at Maidenhead Hospital. His residence was in Bourne End, Buckinghamshire. Annie survived him.

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