William Henderson Gray

William Henderson Gray, born in 1887 in Scotland immigrated to Canada in 1909, fleeing an unhappy marriage and his first child. Settling in Winnipeg, Manitoba, he worked for various companies as a driver and mechanic. He met Sarah Fowler there, and the two became involved. William was unable to obtain a divorce from his first wife, and so lived with Sarah as his common law wife and their four children were considered illegitimate under Canadian law.

In 1914, William signed up to serve in the Canadian Army and was sent to France. In October 1916 while fighting with the 43rd Battalion, he received wounds to his left arm, head as well as gunshots to both legs. Like many wounded soldiers, William was stranded in No Man’s Land, sheltering from gunfire in a shallow depression before evacuated thirty-six hours later. His wounds were tended to at an advanced field dressing station and he was evacuated to England. He was sent back to Canada, where he remained in hospital for five months and his right leg was amputated.

William’s disabilities made supporting his family nearly impossible and like many First World War veterans he applied for a soldier’s pension. However, as his common law marriage to Sarah was illegitimate, William was unable to claim that she and their four children were his dependents. Furthermore, William’s first wife demanded, as his legal partner, that she receive his pension allowance, despite his pleas for a divorce.

It was not until 1927 that William was able to obtain a divorce and marry Sarah, therefore making their four children legitimate and eligible for pension. However, William continued to lobby the Board of Pension Commissioners of Canada due to the fact that the children were only allowed pensions from the date of their parents’ marriage, and not for the ten years beforehand. In Manitoba, the Legitimation Act decreed that illegitimate children were considered legitimate from the time of their birth if their parents’ eventually married. Section 27-C of the Pension Act also stated that children born before the pension was awarded would still be pensionable from the date of their births.

Despite their strong legal arguments, William and Sarah’s children never received back pension. Their youngest son Robert was killed in the Second World War, and Sarah was hospitalized for severe depression. William himself continued to go in and out of hospitals as his kidneys failed, and relied on his pension for the rest of his life. He died on April 19, 1956.

Click here to access William Gray’s military service file at Library and Archives Canada

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