The Fate of a Cornish Miner

It is like a mist, history is. The comings and goings of the myriad of individuals who populate our world is significant to them and their kin. But, as time goes by, as family members die, and when a family’s future is not guaranteed by the issue of progeny, that person’s history dies out very quickly.

Sometimes, as I process the records of the men I research for the 18th Battalion I come on a story that hooks me. It draws me in, and my curiosity leads me to try and find out more.

One such case involves Private Percy John Matta, regimental number 53257 of the 18th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).

His service record gives us a connection from his birth on 4 September 1892 until his death on or about 30 September 1955. These two dates are connected by the life of this man and we will take some time to investigate this man’s life in an effort to remember him and to acknowledge that the flow of his life was unique and his existence bears remembering because there is an almost certain chance no one else has thought about this man. It appears he may have had a son but no known children seem to be connects to him, save for one reference in the Canadian Archives.

His ending indicates circumstances for this once young and vital 22-year old attestant to the 18th Battalion were not in his favour.


Matta passed through Quebec in 1913 on his way to opportunity elsewhere and that opportunity was in Norther Michigan. We do know he emigrated to Canada in 1913 entering Canada from Calumet, Michigan, a possible reference to him living there as there were copper mines in that area and on 28 October 1914 he attested at Windsor, Ontario. He was a miner which would be consistent with his place of birth, Cornwall, England having come from a region that had recorded mining activity as early as 2150 BC during the Bronze Age. Given his trade we cannot be certain if he was practicing it before he enlisted but he put enough store in it that he listed it as his “Trade or Calling” instead of using the catchall term of “Labourer”. He had 2-years’ experience with a Territorial Regiment in England and his physical properties where not specifically unique, but he was 3-inches taller than the average Canadian soldier at this time. He listed his religion as Methodist, but some records created later in his service show he was a member of the Church of England.

His pre-deployment service from October 1914 to April 1915 shows a clean record with no gigs against his record. He also did not achieve and increase in rank indicating that he did not show any leadership potential during his initial training.


Now that Private Matta was a member of the 18th Battalion and overseas he trained with the rest of the Battalion as the 2nd Division and its component units prepared for active service on the European Continent, or “overseas” as the BEF and the Colonial Forces of the Empire Army called it. Marches, platoon unit maneuvers, company exercises, battalion schemes, brigade level exercises, and then divisional training occupied Matta’s time.

But now that he was home, his once clean record becomes a bit tarnished. He is Absent Without Leave (AWL) on 7 June (5-days), 2 and 5 August, 3 September for a total of 9-days, losing the requisite $1.10 he would have earned as punishment for being AWL. As his father, Jasper is listed as living at Penwithick, Saint Austell, Cornwall, a (by today’s standard’s) 8-hour train trip one-way it is not likely that after the first absence that he was able to visit his family at their home. No firm information points to his activities during his absence but it was common for soldiers from the Home Country to use the proximity of the camp at West Sandling to visit relatives they had not seen in years.

As the summer began to wain the men of the 18th had experienced 4-months of training and the preparations for going overseas began to rise, along with the expectations of the officers and men of the 2nd Division for the chance of action.

Private Matta, along with the other members of the 18th Battalion embarked at Folkestone 14 September 1915 as part of “A” Company. The Battalion arrived in France and was, withing days, in Belgium and then into the front-lines for their rotation of duty from there, to brigade reserve, then divisional reserve as they began their active war service.

Private Matta’s experience as a miner eventually resulted in his transfer to the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company effective 12 January 1916 and he served with that unit until 2 May 1916 when he was admitted to No. 2 Canadian Field Ambulance for “shell shock”.

His medical case file records from Ramsgate on 20 June 1916:

“Complaint – Pains in right lower chest, headaches, buzzing noises in ears, sleeplessness, general weakening, slurring speech, perspires a great deal, tremor in hands and muscles of face, appetite poor.

History – no history of previous illness.

Present Condition – went to trenches in Sept. 1915, was exposed to heavy shelling at Hill 59 [Hill 60]. A mine was exploded near patient, was thrown into the air, was unconscious for half-hour, all of patient’s clothing on left side was torn into shreds, was rendered deaf for some time, became nervous, lost control of himself for days, couldn’t anything in his stomach, felt weak and trembled all over, suffers from insomnia, heada and profuse perspiration, appetite poor, lost over 20 lbs., slow [illegible] and stammers in speech, reflexes active. Heart and lungs negative. Heart action ordered.”

One of the treatments indicated was an Else[i] Water Bath and over time the report shows slow improvement until on 24 August 1916 the attending doctor notes, “Patient says he feels fit. Slight stammering. Report to Medical Board Monday 28/8/16.”

He is boarded at Folkestone on 31 August 1916, and it is determined that he will be fit for duty after 8 weeks physical training.

And with that, Private Matta begins the next stage of his military service.

But 8 weeks was never going to be enough time as Sapper Matta passed through several of the support units in England from that date until 12 June 1917 a Medical Board was held at Cowborough which reported his present condition thusly:

“Soldier looks debilitated; Mentally affected. Replies to questions at times with difficulty; Attitude is one of nervous tension; Easily excited; Seems to doubt himself; Recalls past events very poorly; Speech sluggish though normal, he states, previous to enlistment. Pulse rate 120. Man shows more or less constant muscular tremors.”

From this Board it is determined that he is not fit for any duty with the CEF and is to be discharged with the expectation that he can currently work to 50% of his prior prewar capacity and that, though a pensionable disability, Matta should expect the disability to “materially decrease in 6 months.”

With that Matta is assigned to the Canadian Discharge Depot and embarks for Canada on 10 July 1917.

There is an odd entry in his service file showing that he was sent to a convalescent home at Military District (MD) 13 in Calgary, Alberta on 21 July 1917. This is unusual as men who enlisted in one Military District, in Matta’s case MD 1 (London, Ontario), where generally returned to their place of enlistment.

Sapper Matta was discharged at Guelph, Ontario on 12 February 1919 and it is noted on his papers that he expects to live in Hamilton, Ontario and can be reached by mailing the General Post Office (GPO). Oddly, his last pay certificate shows he is reachable via General Delivery at Windsor, Ontario.

For his service he had earned the British War Medal and Victory Medal.


His service record indicates some aspect of disconnection from society as the Canadian Government had trouble finding him. A record of the Canadian Government trying to send him his British Victory and War Medal on 25 November 1921 shows the medals were returned. Again, on 11 September 1922 the Government attempted to unite this man with his well-deserved medals and once again they were returned. At the time Veteran Affairs had his address as General Post Office, Toronto, Ontario.

It appears that Matta left Canada at some time after he was discharged (1919) and returned to England via Halifax in 1922 as there is a record of filling out a declaration for his return from overseas. His Declaration of Passenger to Canada filled out at the Canadian Pacific Agency at Charing Cross, London, England indicated he was now a sign writer with employment with a firm called Walter’s Sign Company and that, though he had lived in Toronto, Ontario on Yonge Street, his intention was not to live permanently in Canada. He identified as a member of the Church of England.

In 1924 Matta did marry an Ellen Beatrice Letourneau (b. 1905-d. unknown) on 16 July at Toronto, Ontario. She was 11-years his junior and the marriage license shows him residing at 64 Sorauren Avenue, Toronto, Ontario. He was still a signwriter and one wonders why his Declaration indicated he was not planning to stay in Canada. Did he try his luck in the United States and return to Canada later? He did find a partner and became a husband. A check of the 1923 Toronto Vernon’s Directory finds no company doing business as Walter’s Signs.

A decade passes and Percy John Matta now appears in Sydney, Australia. There is a record of him entering the country on aboard the SS Bendigo on 10 July 1934. This document records his arrival and there are no other details to help with his future intentions or opportunities in Australia. The SS Bendigo was a one class P&O passenger ship that operated the England to Australia route via the Suez Canal. We to know that there is no Ellen Matta on this ship and no search for her by her married or maiden name on the Australian passenger lists come up empty.

Less than a year later the SS Balranald arrives at Sydney on 16 April 1935 with Matta aboard. This time it appears that he stays in Australia. The manifest shows him as a 42-year-old sign and scenic painter and he country of last permanent residence is England and that he will be making Australia his permanent residence.

Not two-weeks pass and Matta’s personal circumstances seem to be under some stress as several news articles from May 1935 indicate behaviour of a man of limited means as he is arrested for sneaking aboard a train:




In the Northam police court yesterday morning, before Messrs. H.C.S. Colebatch and G. Christmass, J’s.P., Percy John Matta was charged with having on the night of April 29 ridden on the engine of the Kalgoorie express between Perth and Northam.

Mr. J. Lush, assistance station master at Northam stated that on the arrival of the express on Monday night the driver reported that a man had travelled on the tender of the engine for some portion of the journey from Perth. At about Coates Siding the vacuum brake had operated suddenly. When they train crew investigated they could not find the cause of the trouble, but evidently the brake had been coupled up again and later the driver had seen a man on the tender. He (Mr. Lush) had reported the incident to the police but for a time the man who had left the tender could not be found. He was finally discovered in a compartment rather disheveled and blackened by coal and was arrested.

The accused, who pleaded guilty to the charge, stated that he had missed the train at some station, the name of which he did not know, and had clambered on to the engine when it was in motion. He had purchased a ticket.

A fine of 10/- with 4/- cost was imposed.”

Northman Advertiser. 1 May 1935. Page 2.

Kalagoorie Express

From the details of the news clipping, it appears that Matta got on an eastbound train near or about Perth and was travelling east when he was discovered. It cannot be established why he travelled from Sydney to the western extreme of Australia, a linear distance of 3,291 kilometers. It is possible that he was attempting to find sign painting work in the Perth area or, perhaps, a foray back into mining as there was several mining concerns in the region.

After this incident Matta is not seen again until 1955 and with tragic consequences.

Twenty years had passed and the Australian News Paper Archives show no news clipping, passenger list or any other document pertaining to Percy Matta. His is but a living ghost to history and his whereabouts and experiences are lost to the void of time.

Given his war experience one could surmise that the pattern of his life was formed by his PTSD and perhaps after forty years of suffering he had had enough.

His body was found by some boys playing cricket in a park. His neck had been cut and a razor found nearby.

An article in the Monday 3 October 1955 (page7) Melbourne Argus asks:

Do you know this man?

BALLARAT, Sunday: Two boys playing cricket at Victoria Park on Saturday, found a dead man’s body, with his throat cut, and a razor nearby.

A British passport in a coat pocket was in the name of Percy John Matta, 63, signwriter, an Englishman.

It was last stamped at Detroit, U.S.A.”


But Matta’s death did not go completely unnoticed as the wheels of government bureaucracy churned and eventually his service file was updated with the words “Deceased Between – 30-9-55 and 1-10-55” in red pen on his Proceedings of Discharge form. A Veterans Death Card was issued and it recorded the cause as “Hemorrhage caused by wound in throat (suicide).” And that his next-of-kin was a Mrs. J.D. Matta, a daughter-in-law, residing at 26 [Drayton] Avenue, Toronto, Ontario.

Obviously enough information was known of Matta in Australia to deduce his identity and the connection between him and living members of his family. It is not known by the author if Percy Matta had any children with Ellen Beatrice LeTourneau but it is likely that he had at least one son from that marriage who he kept in contact with.

He is buried at the Ballarat New Cemetery in Ballarat City, Australia.

Another veteran dies tragically. His life but a whisper in time. He once was a whole man. At 22 when he enlisted probably full of the vigour and possibilities of youth. He certainly seemed to have the energy and gumption to go to where he thought the opportunities where. He traveled to Canada, then the United States, back to Canada, then to England, France, and Belgium. Back to England. To Canada. Then to England again. To Canada… and so on.

His service, though not exceptional leading to medals of valour and mentions in despatches, was an important part of the war effort. He was part of the team that realized victory at a cost we are still trying to understand.

Perhaps someone will take the time to read this and think upon him.

Perhaps someone will visit his grave and thank him for his service.

Perhaps someone will say a silent prayer to him.

[i] The term “Else” is an interpretation of the handwriting. No reference to this named treatment was found by the author.

8 thoughts on “The Fate of a Cornish Miner

Add yours

  1. What a sad story. I read it with interest ( as always). By all accounts, just a very ordinary man who was likely scarred horribly by that awful war. And now, reading about him, makes him extraordinary as a historical figure. Thanks for finding and acknowledging these men.Sent from my Bell Samsung device over Canada’s largest network.

  2. Very poignant to hear of this story – thank you so much for all the brilliant research. Am writing from west Cornwall. Many miners from here emigrated to Canada in the years before WW1. We are gathering together their stories and recently wrote about Josiah Mitchell who also joined the 18th Battalion
    Hopefully this all helps to remember these men who gave so much – everything in fact.
    An interesting point – Ballarat was a famous gold mining town and many Cornish miners emigrated there in the 19th century. Perhaps this is why Matta was drawn back there – what a tragic story.

    1. Susan I am so pleased with your comment. I’m currently working so I won’t have time until later today or tomorrow to take a look at your article but thank you so much for reaching out to me I was particularly interested to look at the activity at my blog because today the majority of people have been from England and I suspected from the Cornwall area. This is very exciting for me and has really made my day.

      1. So glad we have made this connection, Eric. Will look forward to corresponding with you. Congratulations again on such a brilliant piece of research.

  3. So pleased that we have made this connection, Eric! Congratulations again on such a brilliant piece of research. Look forward to corresponding- Susan

    1. Susan, feel free to reach out to me about any of your research involving soldier of the CEF. I am at ebd.edwards [at]

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