Two Selbys on different continents find common ground

A 200-year-old connection between two communities roughly 5,400 km apart might have been lost to the mists of time if not for a serendipitous ticket purchase attempt.

The village of Selby, in the town of Greater Napanee, Ontario, and the town of Selby, North Yorkshire, England recently rediscovered a connection between the two municipalities. Since initially joining the Selbys in conversation, podcasters Tim FitzHigham and John Hastings have continued to work on a unique project that is solidifying the bonds between the communities. On Dec. 10, 2021, FitzHigham and Hastings participated in a Special Session of Council for the Town of Greater Napanee, bringing the two municipalities together in a virtual meeting that included Council members, municipal staff, and schoolchildren, along with their counterparts in Selby, England.

FitzHigham explained to the assembly, “This project started when John and I were commissioned by the Canadian Council for the Arts and the Canadian High Commission in the UK. . . the British Council asked us to come up with a project and the project we came up with was called The Tale of Two Selbys.”

He said that some time ago, a person from Selby, Ontario tried to book a ticket for a show at Selby Town Hall in Selby, England. “It was a mix-up with a ticket. They got in touch with the venue and said, ‘We want to come and see a band that’s on at Selby Town Hall’.” 

However, once the ticket agent figured out that the buyer thought that the band was playing at Lennox Community Theatre in Selby, Ontario, the agent commented wryly to the would-be-concertgoer that it was a long way to come for a show.

“And so we thought this mix-up was just absolutely brilliant,” said FitzHigham, “and I [began by asking council in] Selby, UK, did anyone know there’s another Selby in Canada? And [they] said ‘Well, no, we didn’t,’ and I said, ‘Does anyone know how they’re linked? Does anyone know if they’re linked? Does anyone know why it’s called Selby in Canada?’ And the answer to all these questions was No.”

FitzHigham and Hastings decided that more research was in order. After talking to Selby residents on both sides of the pond, the podcasters managed to find the great-great-great-granddaughter of a man who left Selby in the UK and immigrated to Canada. This man was given a smallholding, which he called “Selby” after the place where he was born.

“And so there was an actual link,” explained FitzHigham, “and that man still has cousins in Selby, UK. So there’s a family in the southern UK that’s related to the woman that we spoke to in Selby, Canada. And the diaries that this man wrote, this lady in Canada still has today… [with stories] about the incredible things that this person and his family went through to found Selby in Canada. There were bears, wolves — there were all sorts of things every single day of his life and yet he stuck with his family — and as you’d expect from someone from Yorkshire, dug in and got on with it, but managed to make something happen out there for his family.”

Selby Abbey in Yorkshire, England is one of the relatively few surviving abbey churches of the medieval period, and one of the biggest. It was founded by Benedict of Auxerre in 1069, some 800 years before the founding of Selby United Church in Ontario. Screen Capture from Google Earth.

Hastings commented, “I found the entire project very rewarding and how both communities immediately jumped behind wanting to really explore this. It was a nice thing to do in the time of lockdown, where community is harder and harder to achieve. It was a nice thing to see the two communities joined by one person going from one place to another many many years ago.”

The virtual meeting on Friday, Dec. 10 was full of mirth, and the developing camaraderie between the two communities was evident.

“The only disappointment I had on this project,” Hastings quipped, “is I made the wild claim that Vikings were involved in the founding of the Canadian Selby. And while it turned out the original founder of the town did have some Scandinavian heritage, I have to say it was a bit of a letdown, because I was really hoping that was going to be the reveal for a nice big dramatic ending. [But] the Vikings stopped wandering the world taking over places about 200 years before the foundation of your town — so… long shot.”

A Councillor from Selby UK laughed that this was a “missed opportunity to dress up”, to which Hastings replied, “I even have one of those Viking helmets! One horn has like the Union Jack and on the other one like the Canadian flag and now it’s just sad in my house rotting.”

The ongoing project has developed close relationships between the two communities, and both are committed to keeping the long-distance friendship alive. Greater Napanee Mayor Marg Isbester said, “From the initial contact, it has been a great learning experience for council, staff, and of course, Selby School.  As a council, we hope to see it evolve into a twinning experience that will benefit all. We can see ‘Zoom pals’ and pen-pals happening… governance education, sports, authors, museums, history, current events; the opportunities are endless.”   

Episodes of FitzHigham’s and Hastings’ podcast, Tale of Two Selbys, are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

Pen Pals from two Selbys

Students at Selby Public School in Ontario had fun learning about their new friends across the ocean and having Google Meets with them. Some shared their observations.

Sarah Dafoe explained that Selby, Ontario was first called Gallagher’s Corners, “It was named after an Irish innkeeper whose last name was Gallagher, and he and his brothers lived in Selby in the 1800s.”

She went on to say, “I learned from my pen pal Isabelle from Selby, England that at their school they have a playground but no monkey bars or slides but each class has a basket filled with skipping ropes, footballs, soccer balls and bean bags. “

Henry Taylor also noted some differences in school life between the two, “[In Selby UK ]they walk or bike to school and play with friends after school. Where we live in Selby, Ontario, we get bussed so that limits how much we get to see friends after school. Even with those differences, I did notice some similarities, for example we play Minecraft in both Selbys (and I love Minecraft!)!” 

“I learned that Selby, England has no hockey,” said Emily Melanson, “they call soccer football, and they call football American or Canadian Football. I also learned that they don’t have much farmland, but we have a lot.”

Mara McCutcheon explained that Selby, England was founded by a priest who saw three white swans on the shore and built Selby Abbey there, “I learned that Selby, Ontario was named by a man named Storr from Selby, England. [We] got to meet a lady on Zoom who was a relative of the man. She grew up in Selby and we saw the schoolhouse where she went to school. She told us stories and read a journal of Mr. Storr.”

 All of the students were fascinated by the different words the English students used to describe everyday items like sweaters/jumpers.

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