For a girl of such pedigree, Restella Jane Ratsey’s gravestone seems forlorn, standing in the shadow of the chain link fence over on the north side of Little Dutch Church burial ground on Brunswick Street.
An empty Crown Royal bottle lies nearby. So does a lid for a Tim Hortons cup, along with a blanket and pillow for someone who beds down under the stars.
Her plain headstone looks water-stained, even though it bears no date of birth or death, and therefore no inkling of how long it has stood there, commemorating the life of a girl who, some long-ago stone mason wrote, was “Foster Sister To Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal of England And Daughter Of Mr. R. Ratsey Of Her Royal Naval Yard.”
I knew nothing about her — of her dad and her royal connection, or even that she lived in Halifax — until Craig Ferguson filled me in.
I wrote about Ferguson the other day in this space: he’s a film producer, the possessor of a black belt in Brazilian ju-jitsu, as well as a rooster named The Dude, who cock-a-doodle-dos in a coop in Ferguson’s backyard, which happens to be just around the corner from mine.
In the way things work in this big-enough-for-a-symphony-too-small-for-adultery town, Ferguson, unbeknownst to me, also maintains a Twitter feed, Dead in Halifax (@deadinhalifax), that I’ve been checking daily since it launched last month.
So we have a common interest. The other day Ferguson reminded me that we met for the first time inside Camp Hill Cemetery, where a mutual friend introduced us.
That’s not surprising. We’re both smitten by graves, cemeteries and what has been known since medieval times as momento mori, reminders that we are only on this earth for a short time.
His obsession is still on the new side.
“I was scared of all of this stuff,” Ferguson said. “My wife recently reminded me that I wouldn’t even walk through cemeteries.”
Now when he has a few minutes he jumps on his bike and pedals down to one of Halifax’s many graveyards where he wanders around looking for something that catches his eye.
“It’s a form of exposure therapy,” he says. Although that’s not exactly true.
A few years ago he, his wife and their two daughters took a vacation in Malta, which, he says, is like stepping into a time machine.
Near their hotel was a series of Christian catacombs where it was possible to just reach out and touch ancient skeletons.
“I found it oddly compelling, the uncertainty, the inevitability,” he told me, “the same things that are so compelling to other people.”
Cemeteries, he decided, are just “museums of people.” Once that question was settled, the writer in him — now executive producer of the Hope for Wildlife Halifax television series; Ferguson has also been a journalist for Global Television — found stories everywhere he looked.
For a time he and Chris Helland, a tatted-up, surf board-riding religious scholar at Dalhousie University, tried to launch an Anthony Bourdain-like television series about death rituals around the world.
Now Dead in Halifax is where you see what has caught his attention. He always seeks a story line: big-picture stuff like how humankind’s attitude towards death has changed over the years.
But also those individual sagas that can be glimpsed in a few succinct words on a gravestone, or some other reminder of life and death.
Sometimes what he sees just piques his interest. Then he does his own digging, unearthing something startling that you and I surely didn’t know.
A marker in Holy Cross Cemetery, for example, led him to the story of Johnny Power, an 11-year-old boy from the north end who went missing in the woods around the Northwest Arm, 98 years ago last month.
His Twitter followers have also learned that Charles Lawrence, the British officer responsible for the expulsion of the Acadians, is buried in a crypt near the front of St. Paul’s Church. And that above that crypt is a pew reserved for the province’s lieutenant-governor, who now happens to be an Acadian whose ancestors were deported by the very man who lies buried beneath him, on those formal occasions when he attends service there.
They would learn about headstone carvers from New England whose designs grace the gravesites of Halifax.
They would, as I did, read the story of Restella Jane Ratsey, who turned out to be the daughter of a shipbuilder from the Isle of Wight.
Her mother, though, was for a time a wet nurse in the nursery of Buckingham Palace. There Jane Ratsey breast-fed Queen Victoria’s daughter, Victoria, princess royal — born within weeks of her own daughter Restella — who would go on to become empress of Germany, queen of Prussia and mother of Emperor Wilhelm II.
Ferguson’s research showed that the mother had to perform this duty while standing, “out of respect” to the surrounding royalty, and that she may have been fired for “baby-talking.”
In any event her husband left England in 1843 and found work in Halifax’s Royal Naval Yard. A year later, their daughter Restella died of “malignant scarlet fever.”
By Ferguson’s reckoning she was just three at the time.
It’s a sad story. But thanks to Ferguson we now know enough to go up to the Brunswick Street cemetery some day, to pick up some of the litter around her gravestone and pay our respects.