Bryan Priestman

Bryan Priestman

Bryan Priestman

When I first arrived in Fredericton in the late 1950s, I was fascinated by the array of street names, particularly one named PRIESTMAN, situated on the South Side atop a hill, now serving as a bustling city artery. It was evident that most street names were drawn from royalty, political heavyweights, and historical figures, but I was curious about who PRIESTMAN was and why a street was named in his honor. I learned from a few inquiries that Dr. Bryan Priestman, a Physics Professor at the University of New Brunswick, tragically lost his life while attempting to rescue a young boy who had fallen into the St. John River on November 11, 1945. The eight-year-old boy, Ronald Dempsey, sadly also perished.

Bryan Priestman

Bryan Priestman
from a 1930s’ composite of the 17-member UNB faculty.
(Harvey Studios Collection, PANB, #P14/84)

Yet, I sought more information. It wasn’t until 1970, a quarter-century after the incident, that I began to delve deeper into the details. I first turned to The Daily Gleaner, followed by the UNB campus, hoping to find individuals who knew Priestman. I was in luck; many of his acquaintances were alive and some still lived locally. By finding the police officers present at the drowning and interviewing former colleagues and students, I managed to reconstruct Priestman’s life story in North America.

Remarkably, I located the other boy present on the bridge that day, Edward McLean, who was 36 in 1970 and coincidentally owned the Carleton Street Barber Shop frequented by Dr. Priestman. We visited the old railway bridge, the site of the accident, an experience that stirred emotions for both of us as he vividly recounted the details. At the time of the tragedy, McLean was only eleven and had no idea who Bryan Priestman was until my unexpected shop visit.

For details of Priestman’s early life in England (he was born in London in 1897), I extensively corresponded with Barbara Priestman, the eldest of his four younger sisters (he had no brothers). Their mother was alive, but their father, Bertram Priestman, a well-known British landscape artist, had passed away in 1951. Per his handwritten will, Bryan bequeathed several of his father’s paintings to the UNB Library and close friends in Fredericton.

After attending a Quaker Boarding School, Bryan proceeded to Cambridge University, earning a BA (honours in Physics) in 1923. He then moved to Canada to attend McGill University in Montreal, securing an MSc in 1926 and a PhD in 1929, both in Physics. Before completing his PhD, he had already relocated to Fredericton, serving as the sole Physics Department at Memorial Hall. In the 1930s, the UNB faculty consisted of only 17 professors, one of them being Dr. Francis Toole, who lived with Priestman in the Old Arts Building. They shared many conversations about education, religion, and politics over breakfasts of apples and walnuts. When Dr. Toole married and moved to 824 George Street, Dr. Priestman took a room upstairs in the same building.

In the early months of 1940, Bryan Priestman, despite his Quaker upbringing’s teachings of pacifism, chose to denounce his past beliefs while continuing to oppose “militarism.” Deciding to serve His Majesty’s Forces, he enlisted in the RCAF. “I’m not going to miss this one,” he declared, alluding to his previous experience during World War One as a Conscientious Objector in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, specially designed for Quakers. By 1943, he had ascended the ranks from Pilot Officer to Flight Lieutenant, and eventually to Squadron Leader. Amid the crucial task of transporting bombers from Canada to war zones, Priestman saw an opportunity for notable war service. By the age of 48, he had successfully navigated 35 bombers from Canada to various battlefields, establishing a record in precision that likely remains unmatched in any Air Force or aviation organization. As per my correspondence with the Departments of National Defence and Veterans Affairs, Priestman was hailed as the pioneering navigator of the North Atlantic. He preserved 24 of his flight plans and 32 of his flight charts, which were subsequently archived in the UNB Library.

This remarkably talented senior officer was known for his modesty, often taking detours down side streets to avoid salutes. He shied away from wearing medal ribbons and badges, and even after his honorable retirement, he chose not to wear his uniform at social events. In the autumn of 1945, he returned to the UNB campus in Fredericton, primed to restructure the Physics Department and reconnect with old friends. Then came Remembrance Day. I endeavored to paint a picture of this day for the introductory scene of my Priestman biography, drawing from all aspects of my research:

On the Sunday afternoon of 11 November 1945, under a clear blue sky, the capital city of New Brunswick basked in a flawless autumn tableau. Earlier in the day, hundreds of residents had congregated at the Cenotaph on lower Queen Street, facing the verdant expanse that parallels the St. John River, honoring the men and women who had sacrificed their lives in two Great Wars. It marked Fredericton’s first peacetime Remembrance Day service in seven years.

Ronald Dempsey, aged eight, and Edward McLean, eleven, from Barker’s Point—a quaint village across the river from Fredericton—had intended to arrive in time to witness the Legion parade. They opted for a well-known shortcut over the railway bridge that crosses the Saint John River, just below the Cenotaph, but arrived too late; the parade had already proceeded to Officer’s Square for disbandment. 

Bill Thorpe Walking Bridge
Bill Thorpe Walking Bridge

Remaining “over town,” Dempsey and McLean adventured into the “jungle” (a now-cleared woodland area between the Federal Building and the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel), a favored haunt of the town’s vagrants. Their explorations led them to an unopened quart bottle, carefully wrapped in brown paper. Intrigued by their discovery, they decided to take it home to show their parents, and with McLean carrying the bottle, they headed back towards the railway bridge—their shortcut home.

Around four in the afternoon, when they reached the bridge, several other people were also there, not for a shortcut, but for a leisurely Sunday stroll (given that gasoline was still rationed and few people drove cars). Despite the lack of pedestrian provisions on the bridge and regulations against walking the railway ties, one particular hiking enthusiast, who had used the bridge before the war, was there, having only returned to the city in early September.

Bryan Priestman had just left his residence at 824 George Street, ambling along the “Green” towards the bridge. His maroon R.C.A.F. beret was snug over his slightly curly, light brown hair, with a blue scarf tucked into his worn blue jacket. He had missed the morning ceremony at the Cenotaph, instead scheduling his day around an afternoon trek to the Devon side of the river, careful to remember his early evening dinner invitation at the home of Edith McLeod, 610 Queen Street (the Registrar at the University of New Brunswick).

Taking a break from the restructuring tasks of the Physics department at U.N.B. campus, Priestman found solace in the brisk air. He was able to fully immerse himself in the stunning autumn colors and the swift flow of the swollen river beneath him – a truly refreshing sight. Back in the 30s, he would often skate on this very river with his dear friend Robert Cattley, a Professor of Classics. Always up for a light-hearted challenge, he enjoyed trying to recall his school-taught Latin in Cattley’s company. Once, as they were lacing up their skates for some leisurely fun, a group of co-eds breezed past, their skirts billowing in the wind. With a chuckle, Priestman turned to his friend and said, with a captivating smile spreading across his light-skinned face: “Aliquot puellae!” This Latin phrase can potentially be misunderstood as “Quite a few girls!” or “Some girls!” – with the latter interpretation being linguistically incorrect.

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During the warm summer months, Priestman would often accompany his friends to the boat club, situated near the Robert Burns monument on the “Green.” From there, they would paddle their canoes either towards “the islands” or up the Nashwaak River. Their provisions, including hot dogs, buns, and baked beans, would be purchased from a store that graciously accepted any unused items for return, considering their party size would often vary. The day would be spent swimming, playing games, singing, perhaps reciting poetry, and engaging in spirited discussions, culminating in an unhurried return home in the evening light, their canoes aligned in a peaceful procession.

The very same railway bridge that he now approached had often served as a trail for his runs and hikes on the Devon side. Accompanied by Cattley and Malcolm MacPherson, a Professor of English and a current British Member of Parliament, they typically chose the railway tracks for their exercise. Other people, who didn’t share their enthusiasm for fitness through jogging, were often amused by the sight of two quintessential Englishmen and a Scot voluntarily exerting themselves to the point of breathlessness. Therefore, in the 1930s, they often opted for the relative privacy of the tracks where they could run without encountering any mockery. The uneven spacing of the ties, however, proved to be a hindrance to both their running and walking. For years, he and Cattley playfully considered writing a letter to both the CP and CN railways, asking them to adjust the ties to accommodate their running routines. For now, Priestman’s low, black shoes were gradually becoming accustomed to the part of the trestle that stretched from the rail towards the girders.

The stiff, black leather boots that encased Ronald Dempsey’s ankles also struggled with the awkward spacing of the railway ties. In an attempt to ease his walk, he positioned his feet on the wooden guard rail or beam, which was attached to the ties with large, protruding bolts. Although McLean admired Dempsey’s innovative approach, he didn’t share his friend’s courage and chose to remain in the center of the tracks, carefully clutching the brown-wrapped bottle, a few feet ahead of Dempsey. The boys ambled along, occasionally glancing back at the man in the maroon beret who was about halfway across the bridge. Eventually, they reached the last pier on the Devon side.

In an instant, the peaceful ambience was shattered by an eerie silence that arrested McLean’s attention. Spinning around, he realized with horror that Dempsey had tumbled through the gap between the wooden guard rail and the steel girder, plummeting 30 feet into the river below. In a rising state of panic, McLean yelled out to Bryan Priestman, “Ronnie’s fallen off the bridge!” The agile figure of the forty-eight-year-old Priestman sprang into action. Quickly discarding his gloves, shoes, beret, scarf, and jacket onto the flat part of the steel girder, and instructing McLean to fetch help, he dove fearlessly from the towering height. In mere seconds, he had reached the boy, his arm locked securely around Dempsey’s body. But then a brief struggle ensued and both figures vanished beneath the icy water, never to reemerge alive.

Edwin Irvine, who currently resides on Gibson Street, and the now-deceased Everett Mitchell, who were nearing the bridge from the Devon side, were the first to sense that something was amiss. They noticed the two boys heading towards them, heard a splash, and then saw one of them sprinting past, shouting something indistinct. The two men rushed further onto the bridge to investigate but saw no one in the water. Shortly afterwards, a soldier arrived, having been alerted about the accident by McLean and subsequently contacting the police. When a police car arrived, Bryan Priestman’s clothing was examined for identification, but a light blue cigarette case was the only item found in his jacket pockets.

The following morning, as thin shards of ice detached from the river’s banks, search parties composed of City and Royal Canadian Mounted Police and local residents resumed their efforts from the previous afternoon. It was around this time that Dr. Bryan Priestman’s absence from his home and his desk at the U.N.B. Campus was noted. His friends hadn’t been alarmed when he failed to show up for dinner the previous evening; it wasn’t out of character for him to ignore social commitments or arrive late. His inclination to pursue each endeavor with thoroughness, whether intellectual or physical, often led him to neglect other responsibilities.

As night fell, the official search was called off for the second day due to the encroaching darkness. However, the boy’s step-father, Joseph Murray, and three friends from Barker’s Point, Junior Dunbar (still living in the village), Jack Howland, and George McIntyre, persisted in their efforts. At 8:30 PM, their grappling iron hooked onto the boy’s clothing, bringing the two bodies to the dark surface of the water, a mere nine feet from the Devon shore, near the Irving oil tanks and close to where the accident had occurred. They had possibly been snagged on the twisted metal of the old railway bridge that had collapsed during the 1936 flood, preventing them from drifting further.

Police Inspector William Hughes later stated, “It was the most tragic sight I have ever seen, the two bodies clasped together.” (One observer noted a faint smile on Dr. Priestman’s face.) The same sentiments were echoed by a young policeman, Constable C.M. Barchard (now Deputy Chief), who kept watch over the bodies after they were brought to shore, waiting for Coroner Charles Mackay, M.D. Ronald Dempsey’s arms were tightly wrapped around the professor’s neck; Bryan Priestman had his arms around the boy’s body. Dempsey was missing one boot and the other was untied, suggesting that Priestman had attempted to remove the boots in an effort to save the boy more easily. Another noticeable detail was that one of the boy’s knees was driven into the man’s groin.

Dr. Priestman’s body was taken to Memorial Hall, where it lay in state until the funeral. His grave at Forest Hill Cemetery is marked with a small, unassuming stone that reads, “Greater love hath no man than this.” Ronald Dempsey was laid to rest in Sunny Bank Cemetery on the North Side of Fredericton.

Bryan Priestman gravestone

At the end of 1945, a plaque commemorating Priestman was installed in Memorial Hall by the UNB Veterans’ Club, though it was later moved to the Memorial Student Centre, now known as the Alumni Building. On October 24, 1946, the UNB Journal of the Air aired a Bryan Priestman Memorial Broadcast on Radio Station CFNB. Participants included Dr. Francis Toole (fellow professor), Squadron-Leader W. Munro (fellow airman), and students Robert Lawrence, Douglas Rouse, and Dalton Camp. The fifteen-minute recording now resides in the UNB Library Archives. During the war, when Priestman was flying from Halifax to England, he would set his flight direction by the “carrier wave” of CFNB, a frequency of 550,000 kilocycles, serving as a “home” signal for him until the antenna could pick up another wave.

In 1946, Bryan Priestman was posthumously awarded two medals: a gold medal from the Royal Canadian Humane Association, a rare honor granted when an act of bravery has cost the hero their life; and a bronze medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, which came with a monetary grant. In 1952, Lord Beaverbrook delivered the medals to Bryan’s mother in England. In 1977, Bryan’s three surviving sisters, Ursula, Erica, and Monica, returned the medals to Fredericton to be permanently housed at UNB.At the end of 1945, a plaque commemorating Priestman was installed in Memorial Hall by the UNB Veterans’ Club, though it was later moved to the Memorial Student Centre, now known as the Alumni Building. On October 24, 1946, the UNB Journal of the Air aired a Bryan Priestman Memorial Broadcast on Radio Station CFNB. Participants included Dr. Francis Toole (fellow professor), Squadron-Leader W. Munro (fellow airman), and students Robert Lawrence, Douglas Rouse, and Dalton Camp. The fifteen-minute recording now resides in the UNB Library Archives. During the war, when Priestman was flying from Halifax to England, he would set his flight direction by the “carrier wave” of CFNB, a frequency of 550,000 kilocycles, serving as a “home” signal for him until the antenna could pick up another wave.

In 1946, Bryan Priestman was posthumously awarded two medals: a gold medal from the Royal Canadian Humane Association, a rare honor granted when an act of bravery has cost the hero their life; and a bronze medal from the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, which came with a monetary grant. In 1952, Lord Beaverbrook delivered the medals to Bryan’s mother in England. In 1977, Bryan’s three surviving sisters, Ursula, Erica, and Monica, returned the medals to Fredericton to be permanently housed at UNB.

In the early 1950s, the York-Sunbury Historical Society proposed the idea of naming a street in honor of Bryan Priestman. According to minutes from their meetings and press reports, the Society tenaciously pursued this memorial idea until it finally came to fruition in 1956. Today, it remains the only street in Fredericton named after a local hero.

The University of New Brunswick also sought to establish a fitting memorial that would respect Priestman’s humble character, rather than a grand monument. Consequently, “The Bryan Priestman Memorial Lectureship” was established, marking the university’s first lectureship. Beginning in the academic year 1951-52, eminent authorities from various natural or social sciences have been invited to the campus each year. These guests spend several days at the university and deliver three formal addresses known as “The Bryan Priestman Memorial Lectures.” At the 1970 lecture, 1,000 copies of my biography of Priestman were made available for a nominal fee, with all proceeds benefiting The Lectureship Fund.

Remembrance Day in 1995 commemorates both the 50th anniversary of the Priestman-Dempsey tragedy and the 25th anniversary of the publication of Bryan Priestman by the University of New Brunswick. While it’s fortunate that all 1,000 copies of the biography have been sold, it’s regrettable that no reprints have been made as of yet. However, the UNB Library Archives will uphold its tradition of hosting a small Priestman Exhibit throughout November. Memorabilia from the UNB Physics Department and my personal collection will be showcased in this display.

Whenever I stroll or drive down the bustling street named after him, I find myself reflecting on Bryan Priestman. I feel gratitude toward the York-Sunbury Historical Society for their persistent efforts to honor a local hero. Perhaps Francis Reginald Scott, a Rhodes Scholar, Canadian Poet, and close friend of Priestman during their years at McGill, encapsulated it best in his 1954 elegy. His poignant and metaphorically rich lines remind us that Priestman, the Englishman who adopted Fredericton as his home, lived and died guided by his creed, his faith, and his upbringing.

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