A trip to the movie theatre was a place for boys to meet girls and girls to meet boys - a place for relationships to begin that would last a lifetime.
When motion pictures were invented it’s doubtful even Thomas A. Edison knew what a great social magnet this new phenomenon would be. In 1909 movies were still in their infancy. Films were usually short, choppy, dimly lit affairs that lasted less than an hour, but the public was fascinated by them as they are now and clamoured for more.
It was in this time and context that movies finally arrived at the North Sea coast port of Whitley Bay, Northumberland, England. A trip to the movie theatre was a night of adventure and whimsy. It was a place to meet new people. A place for boys to meet girls and girls to meet boys. A place for relationships to begin that would last a lifetime. One such relationship began on a warm summer evening shortly after the movie theatre opened for business.
Everybody walked to the movies. This was a working class town and the automobile was still a luxury item reserved for the upper class. It would be another 10 years before mass production would make one available to just about everybody. Besides, Whitley Bay was a small town and easy to get around in by foot.
Jane Alice Shields and her friend, Annie Mavin, were walking to the cinema. It was their first experience with the new marvel and they giggled at the prospect of seeing their first film. They were hurrying along with many of the young people of their village. Walking directly behind them were two young men who obviously wanted their attention. “Hey there lassie, how would you like some company at the movies?” Willie Whitelaw could have said to Jane Alice in his Scotch English brogue. “We sure know how to pick out the cute ones,” his friend, Tommy Harris might have said.
The pair continued making smart remarks and hoping to get the girls’ attention right into the movie house. Jane Alice and Annie found good seats but their suitors found seats right behind them. The foolish comments and flattery continued. When the picture ended the girls walked out with the boys in close pursuit. Willie caught up with Jane Alice and asked if she would like to be walked home. That’s the equivalent of being asked out on date in today’s society, but Jane Alice wanted a little more from Willie. “You have to walk Annie Mavin home too if you want to walk with me,” she said. Tommy Morris had parted company right after the movie. Willie now had himself two girls.
Annie lived a few doors down the avenue from Jane Alice and Willie kept his promise, walking her to her door before returning to Jane Alice outside her home. As Willie was saying goodnight, he asked Jane Alice if he could meet her at the theatre the next weekend. She consented and a relationship that would cover two continents and three countries was on its way to unfolding.
This weekly meeting continued for over a month. Jane Alice was ‘walking out’ with a man, becoming an item. Her mother wanted her to carry on a proper relationship. “If you are walking out with a young man,” she told her daughter, “then you must bring him over to meet us.”
The following Sunday Willie was invited to 4 o’clock tea. He met Jane Alice’s family and told them of his plans to be a shipwright in this shipbuilding town. They approved of him and their formal courtship began. Most courting in those days consisted of walking along a promenade near the sea and watching the gulls along the shoreline. Jane Alice and Willie would also take small side trips when the tide was out to the St. Mary’s Island lighthouse, a very popular and romantic spot for young couples. They enjoyed the lovely flowers and watched the waves roll in. They probably stole a kiss or two when they thought no one was watching. The courtship turned into love and that led to thoughts of marriage, but money was always a burden for young people and the couple was no different. Jane Alice worked in a grocery shop in the village. Willie had worked through his apprenticeship and was now a journeyman shipwright at the shipyard in Tynemouth close by. But there wasn’t always enough work and the young couple wondered how they would make ends meet.
Meanwhile, Willie’s two brothers Jim and Jack, had travelled to British Columbia, Canada. They urged Willie to come too. There was plenty of work and a high demand for carpenters in the region around Vancouver and New Westminster on the Pacific seacoast. Many people from Europe were coming to settle in this beautiful part of Canada.
Willie was undecided. He did not want to leave Jane Alice since they had just become betrothed and were making marriage plans but the opportunity was hard to set aside. After talking it over Willie said he would go to Canada for one year, work hard, save his money and send for Jane Alice when he had enough for her passage. Travel was by ship and train during the first quarter of the century.
He set off on his journey half way around the world. Jane Alice made plans for their wedding while she waited for his call. She began to put together a trousseau, gathering small household items plus her clothes and her wedding gown. It was made of light grey satin and had been hand sewn by her mother. Sewing was a tradition that carried on for generations in the Whitelaw family. In those days large round fruitcakes were used for wedding cakes. Her mother made that too, carefully wrapping it in cheesecloth and old newspaper to keep it moist. When Willie’s wire arrived she was ready for the journey of a lifetime.
The night she left for Liverpool and an awaiting ship Jane Alice’s father gave her a highly prized possession, a beautiful porcelain tray trimmed with a pewter frame. It was a keepsake worthy of a trip to a new world. She kept it with her always to remind her of home.
She arrived in Liverpool the following day, this young woman who had many doubts about this long journey all by herself, wondering if Willie would still be in love with her. This was the heyday of the steamship and the great ocean liner. No record is known of what ship she sailed on, but it no doubt was like the great ships of the time. Powered by huge boilers and brawny men who shovelled coal into them, they plied the Atlantic regularly taking up to 10 days to cross to North America. From the seacoast she travelled to Montreal where she was booked on the Trans Canada Railway. A trip to the coast from Montreal could take five to six days through some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere.
Willie was at the station to meet her when Jane Alice arrived in Vancouver. Her doubts about his intentions vanished when she saw him and he saw her. They went to his brother Jim’s house in New Westminster, where Willie lived. These were prim and proper times, and no unmarried woman would sleep in the same house as her fiancé if Jim’s wife Maggie could help it. She would not allow Jane Alice to stay there and made arrangements for her to sleep at a neighbour’s home instead.
Jane Alice and Willie wasted no time, however. They were married the very next morning at the Sixth Avenue Methodist Church in New Westminster. Willie wore a single-breasted suit with vest while his bride looked beautiful in her grey satin, handmade wedding dress. The wedding took only a few minutes, but the celebration lasted on into the night. It was held at Jim and Maggie’s house and all the neighbours and friends of the groom attended. Willie was 25 years old and Jane Alice 22. It was 1912.
Soon after their marriage they acquired a small plot of undeveloped land close to his brother Jack and his wife Bella. Jack and Willie cleared the land and used the lumber from the trees they removed to build a small two room cottage. Most of western Canada was still in the pioneering stage. The work was hard, but it was rewarding. Jane Alice always told people she helped build their house by pounding in some of the nails.
A year later their first child, Doris, was born to the young couple. They were happy and proud parents who loved their new life. Most of the people there were British making the transition from England much easier. For the customs of the times were the customs of England.
In 1914, on March 28th, Jane Alice gave birth to her second daughter, Isabelle. It was the year that World War I started in Europe. Willie was overcome with patriotism for the homeland. He felt he had to do his duty and return to England where the British Navy was desperate for shipwrights, but he would not leave Jane Alice alone again, nor his two little girls. They would be able to stay in England with Jane Alice’s family that would provide for them if anything happened to Willie during the war.
They stayed for three years while the war raged on land and sea. The technology of the time probably kept them from harm’s way. Aeroplanes were in use as part of the war machine but their range was limited and their weapons inaccurate. England was a safe haven on its side of the Channel.
During this time Willie and Jane Alice also had another daughter, Alice, born to them on British soil. Doris also started school in England but Isabelle was too young for the classes. She would walk to school with Doris each day and cry when she had to go home. After several days of much crying the teacher said she could stay too. The sisters formed a bond as they went off to school that would stay with them all their lives.
When the war ended Willie wanted to move his family back to Canada where opportunity still knocked and the frontier spirit was still prevalent. The family settled in Burnaby, British Columbia. A fourth daughter, Marion, was born in Burnaby completing the family. Willie was fond of saying in his later years that he always wanted a maid, that’s why he had four daughters and named them as he did: M.A.I.D. for Marion, Alice, Isabelle and Doris.
The need for more money to support his expanded family brought them back once again to New Westminster. There they prospered as Willie found as much work as he needed and continued to hone his skills as a carpenter, but the wanderlust hadn’t ceased.
Annie Mavin, Jane Alice’s friend, had married a Scotsman named Allen Robertson and moved to the United States settling in Minneapolis. The city was a boomtown in the early 1920s sitting at the hub of upper Midwest agriculture and providing a home for flour mills, railroads and other burgeoning industries following the “war to end all wars.” They urged Jane Alice and Willie to move to Minneapolis where work was plentiful and the town a good one to raise a family in. Minneapolis became the Whitelaw’s permanent home.
Jane Alice is remembered as a loving, caring wife, mother, grandmother and friend to all she knew. She made friends quickly and had an easy going, understanding manner that she passed on to her four daughters. She looked after their needs and taught them the skills that had been taught to her. She loved life and she loved adventure. She got both during her 51 years and raised a proud family at the same time. She lived long enough to see her first granddaughter, Jean Stern, born to Joe and Doris Stern who met and married in Minneapolis. She saw her daughter Isabelle meet and marry Stan Larson, too. Both couples have had a loving relationship that has lasted over 60 years, a legacy of her devotion to Willie.
Willie continued to work as a carpenter until he retired in his 60s. After that he worked on special projects for his children and got to know all six of his grandchildren. He was quick with a smile and a story. He liked everybody and everybody liked him. Willie became active in senior citizen programs and had been a campaigner for expanded benefits for older people. He died at the age of 80 and is remembered in the thoughts of all those who knew him. The love between Willie and Jane Alice spanned a time that changed the world. They left behind a legacy of caring that continues to this day.