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COVER STORY: The compelling life and tragic death of J.T. Hewitt

Wedding Bells - James Hewitt and Gwen Neate were married in St. Clement’s Anglican Church in Lynn Valley on June 7, 1916, just days before Jimmy returned to war duty. - North Vancouver Archives collection
Wedding Bells - James Hewitt and Gwen Neate were married in St. Clement’s Anglican Church in Lynn Valley on June 7, 1916, just days before Jimmy returned to war duty.
— image credit: North Vancouver Archives collection

At first glance, there wouldn’t seem to be any connection between a gala 1916 double wedding, boxing matches in North Van, the first passenger plane ride in Western Canada, a pioneer Lynn Valley family, the Battle of Passchendaele, Neates Coffee, Warner Bros. Pictures, Paul Henderson’s 1972 goal and Remembrance Day 2012.

But then you don’t know the compelling life (and death) story of James Thomas “Jimmy” Hewitt Jr.

Life is full of unpredictable events. During wartime even more. So it was with the life of Jimmy Hewitt. Today you can view his name engraved in marble on the cenotaph just east of Lonsdale in Victoria Park. This is the story behind the name.

Hewitt was born in Cobourg, Ont., on July 8, 1881, to mother Sarah and father James Thomas Hewitt Sr. and grew up in Toronto. In his early 20s, Jimmy (and wife Victoria) set off for Winnipeg where he became “sporting editor” of the Winnipeg Telegram. They moved on to Vancouver in 1907 and his position as head of the sports department at The Vancouver Daily Province, a post he held until enlisting to go overseas in 1915.

As kids, Jimmy and brothers Art, Fred (later a sports editor in New Orleans, Chicago and San Francisco) and Billy (sports editor of the Toronto Star) were involved in boxing. Jimmy turned to refereeing the sport and he appeared inside the ring at the North Vancouver Club on Esplanade on several occasions.

The Vancouver World of Feb. 6, 1908, reporting on the previous evening’s card, termed the main bout a “tame 10-round scrap.” Hewitt was the referee. When it ended, he announced, “‘Gentlemen, neither of the men has done any good hitting, but [Bob] Ritchie has done all the leading and he gets the decision’… The gentle criticism that the referee ventured was equally deserved.”

Tragedy hit Jimmy on July 5, 1911, when his then-28-year-old wife, described as “a young woman of much talent and [who] possessed a kind personality” died suddenly after a short illness. Few of us can imagine that situation.

Fortunes turned a bit brighter less than a year later. In those days, there was cut-throat rivalry between Vancouver’s four dailies – The World, The News-Advertiser, The Sun and The Province – so it was Hewitt’s scoop of the year when he got to be the first person in Western Canada to ride as a passenger in an airplane on April 24, 1912.

The Titanic sinking still dominated the news but The Province gave Hewitt space for a 1,522-word story detailing the flight from Richmond’s Minoru Park. It began, “Billy Stark, the Vancouver aviator… succeeded in accomplishing the first passenger-carrying flight ever accomplished in Western Canada. He carried the sporting editor of The Province with him to a height of about 600 feet and remained in the air for about eight minutes during which he travelled about five or six miles. After this he took his pretty little wife up with him for a similar jaunt through the atmosphere.

Both flights were negotiated without a hitch notwithstanding that the Curtis biplane which he used was not built for the passenger business and in spite of the fact that a strong gust of wind was whistling across the Lulu Island flats and made the feat rather perilous for all hands.”

When the Great War escalated from its 1914 beginnings, Jimmy, age 34 and a mere 5’3”, volunteered to join the war effort on Sept. 8, 1915, in Victoria. An item in the Toronto Star said, “He helped to organize and train ‘The Bantams,’ the brave little fellows of diminutive size whose lion-heartedness and patriotism more than made up for their deficiency in height.”

By this time he must have met 22-year-old Gwendoline Emily Neate of Lynn Valley’s influential Neate (often spelled Neat) family because he arranged to return to North Van for their wedding while on leave in 1916.

John and Mary Louise (Pywell) Neate were North Shore pioneers.  John arrived in rural Lynn Valley in 1907, the year the City of North Van carved itself out of North Van District (and the very same year the Hewitts turned up in Vancouver). In 1908, Mary came from the U.K. with the children: Ethel, Gwen, twins Lillian and John (Jack), Kathleen, Dorothea and Frank (who founded Neates Coffee in 1945 and whose grandson started JJ Bean in 1996).

The Neates built a home on Westover Road. There was no house address of course. (It became 1895 later.) Westover Road was in the boondocks. Not for long, not with the Neates, Frommes, Duvals, Westovers and others around. Soon St. Clement’s Anglican Church was being built on a lot costing  $150 on what is now Church Street, officially opening on Easter, April 18, 1909, with 100 people in attendance.

The Lynn Valley Ratepayers Association was formed in February 1909 as Neate (for years a school trustee and the ratepayers’ president) helped press the BC Railway Co. to extend its car line to Lynn Valley. His day job was as a carpenter (he helped build Lynn Valley school and the original Second Narrows Bridge) and later as caretaker at the District hall.

On June 7, 1916, Lynn Valley’s wedding of the year at St. Clements joined not only Lieutenant Jimmy Hewitt and Gwen Neate but also Gwen’s younger sister Lillian and Fred Keates. The front-page story in The North Shore Press noted, “After the ceremony a reception which later resolved itself into a dance was held in the Institute Hall.” The Province’s lead social-page story reported the church “was crowded to its utmost capacity… while many were unable to obtain admission.”

Tragedy was 17 months away. During the last days of the infamous rain-sodden Battle of Passchendaele on Nov. 11, 1917, exactly one year before the Great War ended, it was reported that Jimmy was killed “while leading his company in a charge.”

Gwen never remarried. A stenographer at North Shore Ironworks from 1914-20 and then in 1925 and for the rest of her working life with various film companies in Vancouver (including Vitagraph and Warner Bros.), she died in her sleep at Beacon Hill Lodge in West Van on June 8, 1983, 67 years and a day after that gala Lynn Valley wedding.

And you wanted to know where Paul Henderson’s winning goal against Russia fits into the story? Foster Hewitt – whose trademark “He shoots, he scores” was only supplanted in 1972 by those wonderful five words, “Henderson has scored for Canada” – was the son of Jimmy Hewitt’s brother Billy.

I’ll be happy if it rains on Sunday. Standing in the cold and wet during a Remembrance Day service makes those long-ago wars more real. And it hides the tears that are sure to flow.

This is episode 470 from Len Corben’s treasure chest of stories – the great events and the quirky – that bring to life the North Shore’s rich sports history.

Piecing together a 100-year-old story is a challenge. Thanks to three always-helpful people for their assistance with this one: War veterans historian Julie Clements, North Van historian Dick Lazenby and North Van Archives reference historian Daien Ide.

 

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