James Clement Welch (1871-1962) emigrated from England to Canada in 1886, the year of Vancouver’s incorporation as a city — and the year of Clement’s 15th birthday. By the time he was in his mid-30s, he would lead what would become, arguably, his greatest legacy: the Vancouver (Amateur) Operatic Society. But that period was still 20 years in his future and nearly a continent apart from where he initially settled with his parents: in the still-tiny, recently-christened Canadian national capital.
Clement arrived on our shores with his parents, Thomas (ca1836-1920) and Mary (ca1843-1925); the family settled in Ottawa. Thomas took on the organist’s job (and for a few years, that of the Choirmaster) at St. Alban’s the Martyr Church (Anglican; today the church is known simply as St. Alban’s).
It isn’t clear what exactly Clement did for the first few years after his family moved to Canada. Chances are, he did what most teens do: got some sort of training (judging from what came later, I’m guessing that included some accountancy training; I know for certain only that he graduated from Ottawa Normal School in 1894), and likely went through typical teenage rites of passage.
In 1896 (when he turned 25), however, Clement started his first full-time, professional job as a teacher in Ottawa’s public schools. His teaching career spanned 1896-1906 and from what I could find in Ottawa press reports, it appears that he spent most of his teaching career working at the same school.
1895-96 was a red-letter year for Clement, as he would begin a second career (simultaneous with that as teacher) — one that would feed his great passion for choral music. By that year, St. Alban’s Church had scaled back the responsibilities of Clement’s father, Thomas, from Organist/Choirmaster to just that of Organist. The new Choirmaster chosen by St. Alban’s was Thomas’ son, Clement! Two years later, the powers-that-were at St. Alban’s must have been pretty pleased with themselves for this personnel decision. The Ottawa Journal gushed: “[Clement Welch] is a great worker, and the boys esteem him highly — no small thing, mark you, for choir boys are difficult cattle to handle and to get such results as does Mr. Welch needs much tact and a peculiarly endowed temperament” (Ottawa Journal 30 Sept 1899).
Clement married Mabel Burtch (1875-1901) also in 1895. Their eldest child, Velma Ann Maud (1896-1925) and a boy was born to the pair, named Clement Bentley (1899-1974). (1)
Clement’s and Mabel’s marriage was destined to be very brief. Mid-way down a long, bleak column headlined the “Death Roll of 1901”, the local newspaper noted that “On Oct. 5th, Mrs. J. Clement Welch died at her residence…” (Ottawa Citizen, 2 Jan 1902). It seems that Mabel died of septicemia — although the circumstances under which she contracted it are unknown to me.
Taste of the West Coast
In July, 1903, Clement took himself on vacation from a probably uncomfortably hot and humid Ottawa for the mild west coast air of North America, specifically (according to local press clippings) San Francisco and Victoria. No mention was made of him stopping at Vancouver, but it’s possible that he spent some time there, too.
In 1904, Clement married his second wife, Minnie Ernestine Budd (1879-1970). Welch brought the two kids from his first marriage (Velma and Bentley); Minnie and Clement also had a son together, Thomas Kenneth (1905-1988).
Clement received a teaching promotion in July 1906 — which took effect in September. He was appointed to the position of musical director of all Ottawa public schools. The starting salary was $900 per year (Ottawa Journal, 6 July 1906). Furthermore, when September rolled around, he received a further promotion to become “relieving principal” and that as of one year later, he would become a full principal of a four-room school. His teaching career seemed to be taking off in an administrative direction. (Ottawa Citizen, 7 Sept 1906).
Interestingly, the September 1906 press report would prove to be the final such pertaining to Clement in Ottawa. Probably during the Ottawa winter of 1906-07 (not the best of seasons in the nation’s capital). Clement decided to pack it in with school teaching there and head for the west coast with his family. They arrived in Vancouver sometime in 1907.
After the Welchs rolled into Vancouver, one of Clement’s priorities was to become connected with a local Anglican church. One of the nearest congregations to where they were living at the time (842 West 7th Avenue) was Holy Trinity Anglican (at 10th Ave. and Pine Street; no longer at that location). Apparently, the Welchs became members there and it wasn’t long before he was invited to become the Choirmaster. As had been the case at St. Alban’s in Ottawa, Clement quickly developed a very positive reputation as leader of the choir at Holy Trinity.
For his first 10 years in Vancouver, Clement was kept busy with music at Holy Trinity and with his non-musical vocation. He maintained a non-musical career (like his teaching career in Ottawa) simultaneous with a musical one. When he left the teaching profession and came to Vancouver, he left it for good, never (to my knowledge) to return to it. When he arrived in Lotusland, he immediately took up an accountancy career. Initially, he operated as a “book-keeper”, presumably freelance, working out of his home. In the 1910s, he served as accountant to BC Market Co.; in the 1920s and ’30s he was accountant to the Vancouver Medical Association Credit Bureau; and in the 1940s and ’50s, before retiring, he was a “collections specialist”.
Vancouver Operatic Society
By the start of the Great War, Clement was inspired to start the group that became the Vancouver Operatic Society (it was known for the first year or two of its existence as the Patriotic Operatic Society) (2). Their first production, in May 1915, was George F. Root’s The Haymakers. Later that same year, they followed up with the first in a string of Gilbert & Sullivan comic operas: Patience (1915, 1921). This was followed by The Pirates of Penzance (1916), and The Yeomen of the Guard (1917). The G&S series was broken by producing Jones & Hall’s The Geisha (1918) and The Country Girl (1920). After that, the Society produced Tanner & Nicholls’ The Toreador (1921) and The Mikado (1922).
For the first several years (1915-22), Society performances were almost invariably held at The Avenue Theatre (at Main and Georgia). However, The Cingalee (1923), The Rebel Maid (1924), and The Arcadians (1925) were performed in the “old” Orpheum Theatre on the west side of Granville Street. Proceeds from the performances of wartime productions went to support soldiers fighting in Europe. Proceeds from post-war productions supported local charities.
1926 marked the end of Vancouver Operatic Society productions, although it died with more of a whimper than a bang. There were no announcements of its demise in the press. But, J. C. Welch continued to put up comic operas and light musicals with various other groups.
North Van Operatic Society and Kiwanis and Kiwassa Glee Clubs
A North Vancouver Operatic Society was formed in 1926, with Clement conducting. That year, they performed Florodora. In 1927, Welch teamed up with the Maple Ridge Glee Club in March to produce Iolanthe at Hammond Theatre in Maple Ridge and at the end of the year, partnered with a musical bunch at the YMCA to produce the musical, Tulip Time, for five nights at the Avenue Theatre. In February 1929, Welch again led the North Vancouver Operatic Society in producing Planquette’s musical, Rip Van Winkle at the Lonsdale Theatre. He led the North Shore Operatic Society in 1930 in a production of a pre-Christmas Gilbert & Sullivan offering of The Gondoliers.
Clement had been a chartered member of the Vancouver Kiwanis since 1919. He quickly became involved with the Club’s music side. He organized a Kiwanis minstrel show in 1921, ’22 and ’23. That was followed by a series of annual musical comedies: Pung Chow of Po (1925), Pickles (1926), The Prince of Pilsen (1927), The Attached Attache (1928), The Firefly (1929), The Chocolate Soldier (1930), A Country Girl (1931), Florodora (1932), The Geisha (1933), The Chimes of Normandy (1934), The Red Mill (1935), The Wizard of the Nile (1936), The Toreador (1937), The Arcadians (1938), and A Runaway Girl (1939) (Vancouver Sun 24 June 1939).
In 1941, Welch retired form leadership of the Kiwanis Glee Club (The Province 3 Oct 1941). He turned 70 that year. He spent some of the time during his post-Kiwanis Glee Club years auditing the books of the women’s division of the Kiwanis, the Kiwassa’s and leading their Glee Club (The Province, 7 May 1948). Most of the Kiwassa productions were presented for a limited audience, typically just for Kiwassa Club members.
In 1945, Welch retired from the Choirmaster’s role at Holy Trinity after 35+ years. He led the Kiwassa’s Glee Club from about 1948 until at least 1954. There is no press report of him retiring from the position.
Clement Welch died on January 26, 1962 at the age of 90.
(1) Velma was born Velma Ann Maud Welch. She trained for a nursing career for a period starting in 1916, but ultimately left that course uncompleted due to ill health. Later, she spent some time with the Vancouver News-Advertiser and as society editor of the Vancouver Sun. She married Harold Robert Milner Potter in 1919 in Calgary. She spent a couple of years in Banff as a corespondent for a number of western Canadian newspapers. She died in Calgary in 1925 “after an extended illness”. She seems to have taken a new middle name at some point after marrying Potter and became Velma Albirdie Welch Potter. Following a funeral service in Calgary, her remains were interred in Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery as Velma Potter. (My thanks are due to Robert of WestEndVancouver for his help tracking Velma).
(2) There was at least one previous Vancouver Operatic Society in the city before J.C. Welch’s group was founded in 1915. A Vancouver Operatic Society seems to have been started in 1895 with the production of Dorothy. That group seemed to peter out within a couple of years, however, finishing with The Chimes of Normandy in 1897. Nothing more of the Society was evident in press reports until 1910, with the production of H. M. S. Pinafore at the Vancouver Opera House. This society seems to have fizzled by 1911, however, after the staging of The Mikado.
There was at least one amateur group that followed on from J.C. Welch’s Society after it died ca 1926. This next Society had service club origins similar to that of the Kiwanis Glee Club. It started life in 1950 as an arm of the Lions Club and was known as the Central Lions Operatic Society. However, before long, the name was changed to the Greater Vancouver Operatic Society. This group seems to have been the longest-lived of all, lasting, according to one authority, from 1948-1992 (although there is evidence in press clippings that this organization endured until as late as 2001).