The death of Edwin Trevail

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This is a true story from Tillsonburg’s past about the death of a young 16-year-old man!

Edwin Trevail’s family came from a long line of Travails who were tenant farmers from Kestle, Cornwall, England, growing food for landlord/masters. Charles Avery Trevail was born in 1829 on the farm with 14 other siblings. The farm was a good size but not big enough for the eight boys that lived, so Charles and brother Philip decided to come to the Canada about 1850. Philip got land in Usbourne Township, Huron County.

Charles wasn’t very interested in farming, so left Philip heading south to Bayham Township in Elgin County working as a labourer. He married (about 1860) Lizeanna Roc, who was already an ‘old maid’ at  22 years of age! They set up housekeeping in a one-storey framed house but didn’t stay long, moving to Tillsonburg when it became known that E.D. Tillson was hiring men for his mills, construction work, stores and many other businesses.


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In Tillsonburg the children started coming – Edwin, the eldest was born in 1862, then, David, Mary and little Amasey who was sickly and didn’t even live 4 months.

Edwin went to school in town, which was completed when you turned 14 years of age. That was when a boy became a man and was treated as such. His father secured Edwin a position at Tillson’s brickyard. Edwin would have been so proud, as the money was good and they were treated well, even if it was extremely hard work.

The brickyard was in the ravine east of today’s downtown mall where Stoney Creek now runs under asphalt parking lots and streets. The furnaces were in a building at the north end of the ravine by the railroad tracks (Bridge Street). You could stand at the back of the Presbyterian Church (Avondale United) and look toward the Sinclair mansion on Lisgar Avenue and see all the drying racks for the bricks.

By 1878 the clay in Tillsonburg was used up, but Tillson had found other land with the right kind of clay and bought that property. Edwin was working in one of those clay pits, carving sections from clay banks. Some men pounded wedges on the top of the bank and other men with picks worked below to undermine the bank. They watched carefully for the cracks and when the clay started to crumble or sag the bottom men got out fast.

June 6, 1878 was a beautiful day, sun shining, yet cool enough it didn’t get too warm in the pit. The men were working as usual; Edwin with his pick was in the pit undermining the clay section, while the men above drove the wedges in to start the process. But that day there was no advance warning! Suddenly the bank gave way! Edwin turned to run, but before he could escape several hundred pounds of clay struck him down on the small of the back and hips, crushing him to the ground, breaking his right thigh bone and splintering the left leg below the knee. A doctor was found, and Edwin was probably taken to his home as there was no hospital then.

The newspaper reported, “The doctors could not help him and he died the same evening in great agony.”

Edwin Trevail was 16 years old, a young man doing a man’s work to help support his family. There were no ‘teenagers’ back then. You were an adult. Expected to do adult work, get married and start a family. That is the way it was.

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