Author: Cameron Shelley

Publication Date: 2016

Edited: 2023



Historic Guelph McCrae Memorial Garden V54P8

Aerial view of McCrae Memorial Garden, taken on opening day in 1946. Construction of 'Bedford Peak' homes on McCrae Blvd. can be seen in the foreground and Brown's junk yard (on the former Gow's Mill property) near the river's edge.

(Photograph courtesy of Guelph Museums (1979.57.16)).


On June 25th, 2015, a bronze statue of John McCrae was officially unveiled.1 The statue sits on the grounds of the Guelph Civic Museum and is surrounded by a garden featuring rows of shrubs and flowers planted to evoke the poem In Flanders Fields. The statue and garden are continuing testimony to the importance of John McCrae and his poem to his home city and country.


This memorial is not the first or only one dedicated to McCrae. Many others of various kinds have been dedicated to him over the years, including stained glass windows erected to his memory at McGill University, Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal and at the University of Toronto, and here in Guelph at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church.2 Four schools have been named after him: John McCrae Public School here in Guelph, John McCrae Senior Public School in Scarborough, John McCrae Public School in Markham and John McCrae Secondary School in Nepean, which opened in 1999.


McCrae House, in which McCrae was born and raised, became a national historic site in 1966 and a public museum in 1968. The House is now also part of the Guelph Civic Museum.3 Next to the McCrae House stands the John McCrae Memorial Garden. This garden was officially opened on August 6th, 1946. Thus, it long preceded both the McCrae House and the new Civic Museum site, and was the first public site dedicated to John McCrae besides his gravesite in France.


Historic Guelph Kodachrome Postcard V54P10

A Kodachrome postcard of the John McCrae Memorial Garden produced in the early 1950's.

(From the author's collection).



The layout of the Garden can be seen from a Kodachrome postcard produced by the Photogelatine Engraving Co. Ltd. of Toronto in the early 1950s. The photo looks into the Garden diagonally from the intersection of Water Street and McCrae Boulevard. Notable in this photo are the low stone walls and gateway formed by pillars on either side. Plaques on each pillar inform the visitor that they are entering the Colonel John McCrae Memorial Garden. Through the iron gates is a path that leads through flower plantings to the John McCrae shrine. Although the trees have grown much in the interim, the format of the garden remains essentially the same today.


The shrine itself is more closely featured in another postcard, also produced by the Photogelatine Engraving Co. Ltd., but from a photograph taken in 1946.4


The shrine sits on a raised dais and features a limestone block with the words, "Lest we forget," carved on it. On top of the block is an open, bronze book with the verses of In Flanders Fields inscribed. At the back of the dais is a low wall featuring urns at either side. In the centre is a memorial surrounded by carved torches and featuring an alcove with an inscription in memory of John McCrae and an illuminated bronze torch in the centre, The inscription reads:


"Erected to the memory of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, Physician, Author, Soldier. Born Guelph, Ontario, 30 Nov. 1872.

Died on active service 28 Jan. 1918. Buried in Wimereaux Cemetery, France."


Historic Guelph John McCrae Shrine Postcard V54P11

A colour lithographed postcard of the John McCrae shrine, from a photo taken in 1946. Note the misspelling of McCrae's name, a not uncommon error.

(Photograph courtesy of the author's collection).


 Historic Guelph McCrae Shrine V54P11

The McCrae shrine from a photo taken shortly after its unveiling.

(Photograph courtesy of the Guelph Public Library Archives, McCrae Shrine, [19-?], (C6- C6-0-0-0-0-880)).


Around the shrine are beds of flowers in which red blossoms are often prominent.


The Garden and the House are well integrated, and visitors move easily from one to the other. It is thus easy to forget that the Memorial Garden was established as a public monument some 20 years before the house was designated as a national historic site. Considering the obvious association between McCrae and his birthplace, how then did the first public monument to him in Guelph happen to arrive in the form of a garden next door?



The answer begins with the early history of Brooklyn, the area of Guelph just south of the Speed River where the McCrae family lived. By the early 1850s, a large block of the area belonged to Henry William Peterson Jr., a prominent citizen and local politician. The Peterson estate and its grand house were known officially as Ulmenwald ('Elmwood') and locally as "Peterson's Grove."5 Its address was 122 Water Street, and it included the land on which the Memorial Garden now stands as well as many acres to the west and south. The Peterson family sold the property to Thomas Joseph Bedford in 1924.

 Historic Guelph Thomas Joseph Bedford V54P12

Thomas Joseph Bedford.

(Photograph courtesy of the Guelph Daily Mercury, May 28th, 1947).


Bedford was born in Guelph Township in 1857 and married Mary Jane Hockett in 1885. The 1901 and 1911 Ontario Censuses reveal that the Bedford clan was a large one: Thomas Sr. (b. 1857), wife Mary (b. 1859), and children Elenor (b. 1886), Florence (b.  1887), Francis (b. 1890), Thomas Jr. (b. 1892), Mary (b. 1894), Eva (b. 1895), John (b. 1899), Melba (b. 1901), Frederick (b. 1904), Charles (b, 1905) and Lucy (b. 1908).6 It also notes that the family was Catholic. The Bedford farm lay in Guelph Township just north of the town. In 1913, the farm was sold to the Jesuit Fathers for the creation of the St. Stanislaus Novitiate.7


Bedford was apparently a man of energy and means.8 He served at one time as councillor in Puslinch Township, and was a firm Conservative in politics. He maintained a keen interest in livestock and for many years was a land evaluator for the Guelph Trust Company. In the latter category, he travelled widely throughout the western part of Canada.


The family appears only later in Guelph. In The Vernon City Directory for Guelph, several members, including Thomas and Mary, are listed at 60 Park Avenue in 1924, at 44 Lyon Avenue in 1925, and then at Ulmenwald in 1928. In 1932, their address moved around the corner to 49 Mary Street.


It is not clear what caused the Bedfords to move into town. At a guess, the family farm may not have been able to support the whole clan. Also, Canadians in general were moving from farms into cities. In Ontario, the urban population had risen to exceed the rural population (53 percent urban and 47 percent rural) by 1911.9 In part, this was due to economic opportunities present in cities. The Bedford family certainly found opportunity in Guelph. The family set up Bedford Motor Sales on Quebec Street East (now part of Old Quebec Street), selling Dodge cars, in 1926. The Vernon City Directory for that year lists Fred, John, and Thomas Jr. as members of the business. The 1929 Directory lists Thomas Sr. as President.


Like most Guelph businesses, Bedford Motor Sales was hit hard by the Depression. By 1932, Bedford Motor Sales was no more, and the family worked at other businesses or at casual labour. By 1940, Bedford had retired, and the family may have begun to consider what to do with their property on Water Street.


As the Second World War dragged on, another opportunity appeared. By 1943, the national government was beginning to plan for the end of the war. In particular, it was concerned about providing for the pent-up demand for new housing from soldiers returning from the conflict. In Guelph, the old Ulmenwald estate was ideally positioned for development to meet this need. So, it seems that Bedford was considering selling the property and developers were looking to buy it.


Historic Guelph Employees of the Bedford Motor Sales Co. V54P13

Employee of the Bedford Motor Sales Co., Guelph, taken February 15th, 1929. John Bedford stands on the far right, Fred Bedford third from the right, and Thomas Bedford Jr. fifth from the right.

(Photograph courtesy of Guelph Museums 1979x.00.270).



At around the same time, the notion of memorializing John McCrae was raised. In the 1943 edition of The Torch, the yearbook of the Col. John McCrae Memorial Branch of the Legion in Guelph, H. G. Hewitt talks about a suggestion made in a column of the Guelph Mercury:


"Some months ago, an article appeared in the Guelph Mercury written about the names of the streets in Guelph. In that article, it was suggested that it would be nice if a street was named after John McCrae. The McCrae Legion has acted on that suggestion..."10


The article Hewitt seems to have in mind is March 3rd, 1943, which talks about the development of new streets in Guelph and how they should be named:


"If new streets in Guelph are to be opened or old ones renamed, the names chosen should carry on, as long as that street lasts, some worthwhile association. This is the suggestion made to the Guelph Daily Mercury by one of Guelph's citizens. He suggested that the name might be that of an important battle or engagement in which Canadians participated or will participate in the present war."11


Historic Guelph Original model V54P14

Original model of John McCrae Memorial Garden.

(Image courtesy of Guelph Museums, The Torch, 1944; 2012.43.11).


The article mentions Inkerman and Crimea Streets, named after places from the Crimean War, as well as Vimy Ridge Road just outside the city boundaries. (The latter is now Laird Road and was the site of the Vimy Ridge Training Farm after the Great War.) The article makes no mention of John McCrae.


Perhaps Bedford had made the original suggestion, or simply read the same article and considered the matter. In any event, he approached the local Legion with the object of donating some property for a John McCrae memorial:


"Creation of the Colonel John McCrae Memorial Garden... began when the executive of the Colonel John McCrae Memorial Branch Number 257 of the Canadian Legion, British Empire Service League was advised that Thomas Bedford had donated to the branch a lot near the cottage where Colonel McCrae was born."12


The Legion officially took on the project at a meeting in May 1943.13


No one seems to have asked Bedford what gave him the idea or why he made the donation, so we can only speculate about his reasons. As it happens, Thomas Jr. had volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1916. There is an attestation paper on  March 4th, 1916 for, "Thomas Joseph Bedford," resident of Guelph Township, birthday October 7th, 1892, with no previous military experience.14 This record is clearly in error; it must refer to Bedford's son, Thomas James Bedford, born on October 7th, 1891. This error suggests that the officer recording the information was not being too careful. Curiously there is also a conscription record on October 15th, 1917 for, "Thomas James Bedford," resident of Guelph Township, birthday October 7th, 1891.15 On it, Bedford Jr. is recorded as having served three months with the 55th Battery. The 55th Battery was an artillery unit formed in Guelph in the spring of 1916, trained at Camp Petawawa over the summer, and sent overseas in September of that year.16 Bedford Jr. is not listed with those who shipped out with this unit.


This odd situation may be explained if Bedford Jr. joined up and trained with the 55th Battery in the summer of 1916 but did not travel overseas with them. The reason for this result can only be guessed at. One possibility is that he was needed to help run the family farming operations. With labour shortages occurring on farms nationwide, farm work was acknowledged as a reason for young men to remain at home and support the war effort by raising food.


The conscription notice in 1917 may be explained by the error in recording Bedford Jr.'s name and birthdate on the attestation form in 1916. To the officer in charge of summoning conscripts in Guelph, "Thomas Joseph Bedford," and, "Thomas James Bedford," were two different people, the latter of whom had never presented himself for military service.


We may surmise that the Bedford family supported the war effort. That they also felt a need to display this support in public is suggested by the fact that the family name, "Bedford," appears on the Honour Roll of the Order of Service for the dedication of the Guelph Cenotaph in 1927.17 This notation appears to signify that the Bedford family had helped to fund that monument. So, the Bedfords also had a history of supporting the construction of public memorials to Guelph soldiers.



In any event, Thomas Bedford donated a parcel of land adjacent to the former McCrae house (then occupied by Elizabeth Mowat Nind). The parcel measured 50 x 140 feet. The Legion formed a committee, chaired by Ivan Glover (Head Gardener at the Ontario Reformatory), to design a suitable memorial and solicit funds necessary for its construction. Their initial idea was to clear out the trees, level the ground, and install a tablet dedicated to John McCrae and his poem in the centre, surrounded by flowers and shrubs.18


Their plans quickly outgrew their space. First, part of the lot was to be used for a boulevard leading south from Water Street, which the Legion sought to name McCrae Boulevard (they were successful). The road allowance then left less room for the memorial. Second, the Legion hoped to integrate the garden with the McCrae House-converted into a museum-at some future time.19 The McCrae House was situated on a lot much deeper than 50 feet, so a smaller garden would make it difficult to realize that goal.


With these issues in mind, the Legion approached Bedford with a request to enlarge his donation. However, Bedford had sold the remaining property to Joseph Wolfond, a local developer. Mr. Wolfond agreed to donate some land adjoining the original lot, bringing the total size to 100 x 125 feet. Furthermore, he agreed to clear away the trees so that landscaping could proceed as soon as possible.20


The initial plan for the Garden envisioned the shrine standing in the middle of the lot. The basic features of the final design were present, although the shrine was initially placed in the centre and the stone gates faced Water Street.


The committee hired architect A. C. Burnett of Toronto to refine and finalize the design. Sharp Brothers Cut Stone Co. of Hamilton was hired to construct the shrine while William Parker of Guelph was hired as the general contractor.21 Mr. Parker built the stone walls around the site and laid the foundation for the shrine22 and Samuel Nelson of Dundas made the bronze plaques and fittings.23 Unfortunately due to the turmoil of the war, limestone from Indiana and Queenston for the monument and bronze for the fittings would not arrive for another year.24


The Guelph Horticultural Society volunteered to arrange the plantings and the Legion set out to raise $10,000 dollars to cover costs. Many noteworthy persons contributed to the fund:


"Among the patrons were Premier George Drew of Ontario, former Guelph mayor; Dr. Edward Johnson, manager of the Metropolitan Opera and formerly of Guelph; Brigadier K. S. Torrance, honorary member of the branch; Col. J. B. Maclean of Maclean's Magazine; Dr. H. O. Howitt, a personal friend of Colonel McCrae; W. P. Gamble, Dr. N. C. Wallace, C. L. Dunbar, K.C., J. E. Carter, J. D. Higinbotham, A. H. Bazett, Dr. F. H. C. Baugh, a fellow doctor with Colonel McCrae in France; Miss M. F. Bliss, who nursed Colonel McCrae in France before he died; A. E. Worswich, R. W Gladstone, member of parliament for Wellington South; Leslie Hancock, former member of the Ontario Legislature for Wellington South; R. B. Robson, former Guelph mayor; Col. G. Hedley Basher, Superintendent of the Ontario Reformatory and Mrs. McCrae-Gilroy, wife of Scotland's Clan McCrae of which Colonel McCrae was a member."25


The City of Guelph also contributed $3,000 and the federal Board of Historic Sites and Monuments made a grant of $1,000.26


Their efforts began to attract wider interest. For example, the Toronto Star published an article about it, noting that aptly named Guelph blacksmith Al Smith had made the wrought-iron gates for the entrance. It also showed a photo of committee vice-president Charles Vince pointing out the fine stonework of the gate pillars.27



At last, the Garden was ready for its official dedication. On August 5th, 1946, a parade of veterans of three wars (Boer War, World Wars I and II), accompanied by Sea Cadets and Boy Scouts, formed up in St. George Square and marched to the site on Water Street, led by the Guelph Pipe Band and the Veterans' Pipe Band.28


At the site, a ceremony was held that began with singing of "Land of Hope and Glory," followed by speeches from local Legion president J. Creighton Sanders. Next, there were readings from scripture and prayers of dedication led by Rev. E. Brillinger rector of St. James' Anglican Church.


Historic Guelph View of McCrae Shrine V54P17

View of the McCrae shrine in the Memorial Garden.

(Photograph courtesy of the author's collection).


At that point, the shrine, which had been covered by a large Union Jack, was unveiled. Sharing the dais were Rowland Fell, President of 123 Branch of the Canadian Legion, Guelph Mayor Gordon Rife, and the Hon. Ian Mackenzie, federal Veterans Affairs Minister. Mr. Fell recited the words of In Flanders Fields, followed by two minutes of silence and the Reveille. Afterwards, Guelph Mayor Gordon Rife introduced Minister Mackenzie, who spoke of the continued relevance of John McCrae. The Minister praised In Flanders Fields for helping to inspire people to oppose Nazi oppression in World War I. He described Col. McCrae as a prophet whose words expressed the love of liberty that Canadians hold dear. The Guelph Daily Mercury reported:


"Mr. Mackenzie said he came to the dedication as official representative of Prime Minister King and the Canadian government to express, 'The reverence and admiration of our whole nation for the man whose undying fame is commemorated-not only in this lovely monument of stone-but in the heart of every Canadian.' Seldom in the history of mankind has a single mortal succeeded in a few short lines in expressing the highest sentiments of a whole people, as did John McCrae."29


At a banquet in the local Legion that evening, feature speaker John Fischer of the C. B. C. raised the matter of McCrae's relevance for the future. In an atomic war, he predicted, suffering would occur not only overseas, as in England and France, but in Canada itself, "And, our country would get it straight on the chin."30 Happily, Canada has so far avoided that fate. Hopefully, though, the Memorial Garden will continue to evoke reflections on Canada's role in future armed conflicts and not only those of the past.



The Memorial Garden has continued to be a favourite with postcard makers since its dedication. My own favourite is the imaginatively coloured one produced in the late 1940s and published by Valentine-Black Co. Ltd. of Toronto. By framing the shrine and its flanking torches in the background between the two, spiky gate pillars, the picture suggests that the posts themselves take the form of torches, though of a less formal sort. It is a kind of 'rhyme' that I imagine John McCrae would have appreciated.


The John McCrae Memorial Garden was the first public monument, besides his gravesite, dedicated to the memory of Guelph's most famous citizen. It continues to do good service, pleasing the eyes of visitors and dignifying his memory. I imagine that Thomas Bedford was also pleased. He died on May 27th, 1947, less than one year after the memorial that he had conceived had been realized.31



  1. Chris Seto, "McCrae Statue in Guelph to Connect Future Generations with Past," Guelph Mercury, June 25, 2015.
  2. Bev Dietrich, "In Flanders Fields and John McCrae: Keeping the Faith for Those Who Died," Guelph Mercury, April 30, 2015.
  3. Bev Dietrich, "John McCrae and McCrae House: Keeping the Faith for Those Who Died," Historic Guelph 45 (2006).
  4. Cf. The Torch Year Book - Vol XIII, (Guelph: Colonel John McCrae Memorial Branch, 1946), p. 32. 2012.43.13, Guelph Civic Museum,
  5. Leanne Piper, "'Ulmenwald': The Lost Peterson Estate," Historic Guelph 47 (2003).
  6. 1911 Census of Canada. Accessed May 23, 2015, URL: http://automatedgenealogy.comicensus I l/ View.jsp?id=51410. 
  7. "Chronological Survey Contains Interesting Lot of Information on Happenings Since 1871," Guelph Evening Mercury and Advertiser, July 20, 1927.
  8. "Thos. Bedford dies Tuesday; 12 Survivors," Guelph Daily Mercury, May 28, 1947.
  9. Population, Urban and Rural, by Province and Territory (Ontario), Statistics Canada. Accessed September 3, 2015, URL: http://www.statcan.gc.caltables-tableaux,/sum-som/l0l/cstOl/demo62g-eng.htm. 
  10. The Torch: Year Book - Vol X, (Guelph: Colonel John McCrae Memorial Branch, 1943), p. 21. 1981.42.26, Guelph Civic Museum.
  11. "Street Names Should Carry Associations," Guelph Daily Mercury, March 3, 1943.
  12. "To Unveil Shrine 'Lest We Forget,'" Guelph Daily Mercury, August 1, 1946.
  13. "Plan Memorial to Famed Guelph Author," Guelph Daily Mercury, May 10, 1943.
  14. RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 583-39, Item number 33905, Library and Archives Canada.
  15. RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 583-38, Item 33904, Library and Archives Canada.
  16. H. S. Longhurst, The History of the Fifty-Fifth Battery, C. F. A. (Hamilton: Robert Duncan & Co., 1919).
  17. Order of Service: Unveiling the War Memorial, 1927, 1981.268.1., Guelph Civic Museum.
  18. "Tablet and Rose Garden Will Perpetuate Name of Colonel John McCrae," Guelph Daily Mercury, May 10, 1943.
  19. "Col. McCrae Memorial Garden Soon to take Definite Form," Guelph Daily Mercury, May 12, 1944.
  20. "Proceed with Plans for McCrae Memorial Garden," Guelph Daily Mercury, September 17, 1943.
  21. The Torch: Year Book - Vol. XI, (Guelph: Colonel John McCrae Memorial Branch, 1944).
  22. "Welcome Women to Legion Branch," Guelph Daily Mercury, April 19, 1945.
  23. "To Unveil Shrine 'Lest We Forget,'" Guelph Daily Mercury, August 1, 1946.
  24. "Building of Shrine Delayed, Plan Dedication Next Spring," Guelph Daily Mercury, November 16, 1945.
  25. "To Unveil Shrine 'Lest We Forget,'" Guelph Daily Mercury, August 1, 1946.
  26. Untitled clipping from Ivan Glover's Scrapbook, 1946. Guelph Civic Museum, GCMM 1996.X.4.1.
  27. "Memorial Garden to Keep Faith with Flanders Poet," Toronto Star, August 1, 1945.
  28. "McCrae Shrine Dedication is Impressive Ceremony," Guelph Daily Mercury, August 6, 1946.
  29. "'Flanders Fields' Inspired Mankind," Guelph Daily Mercury, August 6, 1947.
  30. "'Pray for Canada' in Next World War," Guelph Daily Mercury, August 6, 1947.
  31. Thanks to Kathleen Wall of the Guelph Civic Museum for assistance with research for this article.