July 7, 2015 by auntkatefirmin
Kate and her brothers were not the only cousins in America. Three of the four adult children of her uncle George Henry Berkeley Firmin lived on the east coast of the United States for part of their lives – only cousin Fan remained in England. Both of Fan’s brothers (George and Arthur) corresponded with Kate. Arthur was the youngest of the four and he and Kate exchanged only a few letters so I have transcribed them all and will post the full correspondence as a separate entry.
Arthur does not mention much about his personal life in his letters other than his current state of health and places he has lived – his sister Fan gave a few more details of his life. At the time the correspondence opened in 1947, Arthur was 68 and a recent widower with one son, Berkeley. Arthur had lived in a convalescent hospital in Newark since 1943. Census (and other records) confirm that he moved to Boston around 1899 when he was about 20. His sister, Sarah Kate, was the first of their family to move to Boston, in 1896; however, by 1901 she had returned to England with her husband and family. In 1901 Arthur married Marion Gillis, a Canadian from Prince Edward Island living in Boston. Their only son, Berkeley Joseph Wilson Firmin, was born on 10 February 1904 in Boston; Arthur was in the “shoe business,” according to the birth record. In 1904 the family moved to New Brunswick, Canada, but there are no details given about whether there were better job prospects or if any of Marion’s family lived there, and no records have turned up to shed any light on the Canadian era in the family’s life.
Arthur himself never mentions what he did for a living. In the 1900 census he was a bookkeeper, on his marriage documents he was a clerk, in a 1913 directory and the 1920 census he was a printer at a newspaper. It looks like his employment as a pressman at the newspaper continued through 1940. His 1943 draft registration card provided details including that he lived at 51 Broad Street, worked “occasionally” at the Newark Evening News, and listed his son “Berkeley” as his contact. The draft card also revealed that Arthur was 5’10” with gray eyes, blonde hair, and a “ruddy” complexion. Based on his letters, it was around 1943 that he began to have difficulties with arthritis and moved to the convalescent hospital, which would explain his “occasional” employment.
In 1911 the family visited Fanny in England – on the passenger list for the return voyage they are listed as “Arthur E Firmin,” occupation stated as journalist, “Mrs A E Firmin” and their seven-year-old son, “Arthur,” all supposedly Canadians. If not for the correspondence, I’d be more skeptical about the passenger list matching up to cousin Arthur. By the end of 1912 the family had returned to Newark where they remained for the rest of their lives. There is a border crossing record for Marion in November 1912 so it seems possible that Arthur and Berkeley had arrived first, set up house and were joined by Marion arriving from Canada once they were settled in.
Arthur and Marion were both buried in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in East Hanover, New Jersey, which is a Catholic cemetery. The Gillis family of Prince Edward Island appear to be an old Scots Catholic family, so it may be that Arthur converted when he married Marion.
As an adult, Berkeley Firmin went by Burt. Based on the 1940 census, some time before 1935 he married a woman named Helen Witheredge and they lived with her mother at 58 Second Street in Newark. Burt was a musician and gave his occupation as music teacher. I have not not found any children for Burt & Helen, nor have I found any death information for Burt; Helen may be the Helen Firmin who died in 2001 at age 92.
Like many of the extended family in his generation, Arthur clearly did his best to make ends meet and turned his hand to what work was available. In the 1940 census, he reported that he had completed high school. He crossed the Atlantic in his attempt to find more opportunities but he was not favored by fortune.
For me what emerges from Arthur’s letters is the clear affection for his sister Fan – either despite or because of seeing so little of her once he left England. I find it curious that he did not mention Marion or Burt in the letters, but he did write only the four letters and he put a priority on past history.