Walter Turnbull: Man at the top

Sons and Daughters

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Walter James Turnbull probably had one of the more interesting lives of anyone who grew up in Oxford Mills. His mother, Sophronia Williams, came from a long-established family in the village. She met Alexander Turnbull while living in Kingston, where they married in July, 1895. Their first children were born in Kingston, but when Walter arrived on September 16, 1896, the family had moved to Toronto. Something happened between Sophronia and Alexander, because, by 1901, she and the children were back living in Oxford Mills again, still married, but listed as the Head of the family on the census that year. Alexander remained in Toronto for the rest of his life, working as a time keeper at Massey-Harris.

Walter grew up in Oxford Mills, attending school at Maplewood, and then moving on to the High School in Kemptville. After graduation, he joined the Post Office in Ottawa, first as a clerk in the secretariat branch, and then, when World War broke out in 1914, he moved to the Censorship Office. It was an important move for a young man of 18, but he obviously impressed his superiors. Aside from a term in the Air Force in 1918-1919, Walter rejoined the rapidly expanding Post Office, rising to the position of Director of Public Relations. In 1919, he married Helen Buell Graham of Ottawa, the city where they settled down and raised their two children.

Mackenzie King with members of the party who accompanied him on a visit to Great Britain in August 1941

By the 1930’s, he had caught the eye of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who brought him into the Prime Minister’s Office in 1936. By 1939, he was Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, allowing him to witness some of the most important moments in Canada’s struggles during the Second World War. Working for King involved Walter in some tasks which were rather unusual for a public servant.

When King put his support behind the new documentary film-making arm of the government, the National Film Board, Walter found himself acting as liaison between the PMO and the film makers. He talked about visiting New York in 1939, where a film was being put together on behalf of the Canadian war effort. Although not a man with natural musical abilities, he had to correct the musicians who were recording the soundtrack for the film. “As a person with a tin ear, I found it necessary to direct the orchestra in the playing of “O Canada”, because their tempo was wrong. So here was Turnbull up waving his arms trying to get them what I thought was the correct beat”.

Earlier in that same year, Walter was put in charge of press relations for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their tour of Canada. This involved him in travelling across the country with the King and Queen in the months before the outbreak of war. As Private Secretary of the Prime Minister, Walter also took a role in the Conferences of Commonwealth leaders which took place in 1941 and 1944, events which cemented the ties between the various countries as they found their places in the overall war effort as sovereign nations.

When King met in Quebec City in 1943 and 1944 with British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Walter was there as part of the host delegation, in support of the Canadian Prime Minister, as the three leaders planned for the invasion of Europe, which took place in June the following year.

After the war, Walter continued to serve at international conferences, including the one in 1946 in San Francisco at which the United Nations was formally established. Walter had travelled a very long way from Oxford Mills, and was moving in the highest political and diplomatic circles of his time. He returned to the Post Office after the war, and, in 1946, he was a member of the Canadian delegation to the fourth Congress of the Postal Union of the Americas and Spain held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Closer to home, he represented the Post Office Department at the Universal Postal Union (UPU) conference in New York, organised by the U.N. And, in 1950, he headed the Canadian delegation to the Congress of the Postal Union of the Americas and Spain in Madrid in his capacity as the Deputy Postmaster General of Canada. He headed Canada Post, as we know it, from 1945 until 1957, and was responsible for introducing many technical innovations in the area of air mail service and the mechanical sorting of mail. Even after he retired in 1957, his expertise was called on by Spain and some South American countries, where he reorganised their national postal services.

Walter James Turnbull died in 1987, at the age of 91. Helen had died before him, in 1974. His links to Oxford Mills continue, as his mother, aunt, and two brothers are buried in the Union Cemetery outside the village.

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