Historic Sites of Manitoba: Tom Naylor’s Skylark (Delta, RM of Portage la Prairie)
By the time he arrived at Delta following the First World War, Tom Naylor had had a rough life. Born on 4 July 1900 in London, England, he was the second child in a family of three. But he probably knew little about his parents, who were either dead or too poor to support him because, at an early age, he was sent to live in an Annie MacPherson Home, run by a charitable organization for needy children. In 1910, Tom was shipped off to Canada with his sister Daisy, a year younger than him, supposedly to get an education and, eventually, start a new life. His older brother George Naylor (1897-1983) had been sent the previous year. Up to 100,000 of these “home children,” as they were called, were conveyed by well-meaning British philanthropists, from the 1870s to the 1930s, to Canada as well as other parts of the Empire. They were viewed not as children to be loved and cherished, but as cheap workers: boys as “farm labourers” and girls as “mother’s helpers”. Many were abused and would bear lifelong psychological scars.
Arriving at the port of Quebec in the company of a Mr. Merry, Tom and Daisy took a train to Ontario, bound for Stratford, where they were probably enrolled in a local school and boarded with a farm family who put them to work. After five years of life as a farm hand, Tom had had enough. In December 1915, at the age of 15, he swore before a magistrate that he was an adult and joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force heading for Europe. At 5' 2", with a fair complexion, blue eyes, and light brown hair, Tom still had a little growing up to do. And he likely did it fast in the trenches. But at least he came back in one piece, returning to Canada, along with brother George (who had enlisted a couple of months after his little brother) at the end of the war.
The veterans travelled west, arriving at Delta around the time that the road was constructed to the lakeshore, in the early 1920s. Taking up commercial fishing during winter, the brothers found occasional work on the farms around Oakland and Portage Creek in summer. Tom picked up odd jobs such as moving the outhouses of cottagers. A little matter of game regulations which prohibited commercial fishing in the summer did not stop him. Every Friday, Tom would peddle fish that he had caught to cottagers and residents, charging 25¢ for enough to feed a family of four. Meanwhile, sister Daisy had found employment as a housekeeper for Dr. Fred Cadham at his cottage on the east side of Delta Channel near the site of the Delta Waterfowl Station. Each brother had his own one-room shack that was pulled by horses out onto Lake Manitoba during the fishing season then brought back in the spring. Tom’s shack, nicknamed “Skylark,” was remembered as having a bed and woodstove, with a small table under a single window. Pots and dirty dishes were usually strewn about the place.
The Naylor brothers lived quietly at Delta for the rest of their lives, neither ever marrying. By the 1950s, Tom had become a fixture, hanging around the Hutchinson general store, or walking down to the public beach to socialize. It was said that Tom “never ventured further north than a fishing shack out on the lake, further east than the Waterfowl Station, further west than the West Public Beach, or off the road into Portage, where his only destination was the Portage Hotel.” George pinched his pennies and had a small Plymouth car which he used, after getting nattily dressed, to drive into Portage each Saturday night. But Tom, at the opposite end of the fastidious scale, bummed rides from whomever was going to and from town, or took a cab. He befriended several of the local young men, who would pay visits to the Skylark to share recreational pursuits, mostly drinking beer, laughing, and listening to Tom play the fiddle. He was a mean player, often exclaiming that “I have tunes in me that’s never been played before.” One fellow would later recall an especially memorable New Years Eve, when Tom convinced him to try a swig from a bottle of liniment to which he, Tom, was partial:
Realizing that the old guy was lonely for company, the locals looked after him as he grew older, bringing him groceries and supplies as he needed them. They came to appreciate his easy sense of humor and gentle nature, learning life lessons that only began to hit home after he passed away. Tom loved kids and was always handing out treats, especially at Halloween, and small toys on special occasions.
In August 1969, while walking along highway #240 south of Delta, Tom was struck by a car and killed. The eccentric home child of Delta was buried in the Portage Hillside Cemetery without fanfare but lives on in the fond memories of several generations, and commemorated by a small dilapidated shack that remains standing as of 2020.
Photos & Coordinates
Attestation papers [Thomas Naylor], Canadian Expeditionary Force, Library and Archives Canada.
Obituary [Thomas Naylor], Portage Daily Graphic, 9 August 1969.
Obituary [George Naylor], Portage Daily Graphic, 6 October 1983.
Obituaries and burial transcriptions, Manitoba Genealogical Society.
This page was compiled using information from Library and Archives of Canada and several of Tom’s friends and acquaintances.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 10 May 2020