Thursday, 13 July 2017

Dames Of The Dominion


In the late nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth century, a small circle of talented women paved the way as Canada's first great female figure skaters. Some entered the scene in the days of 'fancy' skating when intricately carved patterns and showmanship reigned supreme, while others arrived at a time of change, when the focus of the sport's development in Canada was veering away from complex figures and such novel ideas as free skating to music, pairs and fours skating and ice dancing were rising to prominence. Today, we'll learn about the lives of seven pioneering women who carved out the path for the champions that followed.

MAGGIE ELWOOD

In 1869, the short-lived American Skating Congress teamed up with Scottish Canadian brothers Robert and Arthur Hervey. The Hervey's were not only responsible for building covered ice rinks in Boston, Chicago, Halifax, Montreal and Pittsburgh, but also for organizing some of the first competitions for female skaters in North America. Their prize pony was a child prodigy named Maggie Elwood... and though she never achieved quite the level of fame as Mabel Davidson and
Carrie Augusta Moore, she certainly made quite a splash.

Margaret 'Maggie' Helen Elwood hailed from Brockville, Ontario and was the daughter of Irish immigrants James and Mary Jane Elwood. Her father, the local jailer, may have been but the subject of disdain by many local ne'er do wells but at that point in time, skaters from Brockville were regarded highly and were often asked to give exhibitions in neighbouring towns and cities... and young Maggie was one of Brockville's best. First appearing in New York in 1866 when she was but eleven years old, Maggie, her sister Cassie and her brother Thomas were both fine skaters who each performed both solo acts and duets together as well as quartets with other Brockville skaters.


Maggie always made greatest impressions with her audiences. One of her exhibitions was reviewed in "The Republican" on January 22, 1867 thusly: "Maggie, only eleven years old, executes all of the beautiful and graceful evolutions on outside and inside 'edge,' and the hundreds of seeming impossible steps, with the utmost ease, and is, without doubt, the most accomplished lady skater in America. Her efforts on this occasion were crowned with the utmost success, and she received the plaudits of all present. The other persons named are also excellent skaters, but it is not disparagement to their pretensions to say that they are not equal to Maggie. The exhibition has given a new impetus to the efforts of our own lady skaters, and we shall to expect to see science displayed by many even before the close of the winter."

At age fourteen, Elwood was lauded in the "Ogdensburg Daily Journal" when she appeared in the state of New York for an exhibition: "In the multifarious figures of fancy skating her movements are gracefully executed, and her performances so beautiful that the most difficult feats appear easy. The attendance was large and the audience showed its appreciation by frequent applause." On January 22, 1869, Elwood won a competition for female skaters organized by the Hervey brothers in Buffalo, New York, defeating Nellie Dean of Chicago, Illinois. Now with a title to her credit, she seemed ready to take on the world... Or so one would think.

The circuit of competitions and shows organized collectively by the Hervey brothers and the American Skating Congress suffered exactly the same fate that professional skating would suffer over a century later: oversatuation. Rnthusiasm dwindled in the 1870's when many of the biggest stars of that era including Jackson Haines, Callie Curtis and Mabel Davidson went on to Europe. Elwood, who had been paraded around from city to city in her early teens like a child star, faded into obscurity.

In skating as in show business, fame is fleeting and as the old adage goes, everyone has their fifteen minutes of it. The historical record offers few clues as to what happened later in the life of this childhood skating star aside from the fact that she married one Frank Malcolm McCrady in December of 1884 in Brockville. Did she continue skating for the love of it? I like to think that yes, she did... because as Maribel Vinson Owen said, "once a skater, always a skater." However the life of Maggie Elwood turned out, she must have had some some cherished memories of her day in the sun.

SARAH VICTORIA WHITCHER


Born May 24, 1853 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Sarah Victoria Whitcher was the daughter of Charles and Harriet Whitcher and the youngest of five siblings, four of them sisters. Her grandfather was the very first sheriff of Sherbrooke and her father Charles was the area's deputy sheriff until his death in 1895. 

You could say that Sarah Victoria was destined to become a skater from birth, as she was named after another skating enthusiast, Queen Victoria. Skate she did. Whitcher was so popular a skater in her heyday that she was in retrospect referred to as "Canada's Barbara Ann Scott Of The Gay Nineties" by newspaper reporters. 



Sarah Victoria would work on costumes for months in preparation for the lavish skating carnivals at Rideau Hall where she would skate 'in the circle' for her hosts Earl and Lady Dufferin. Her nephew, Wilfred Whitcher, recalled, "It was wonderful to see the way she would weave one foot ahead of the other along the ice under her long skirts". In a May 23, 1953 article in "The Ottawa Citizen", she admitted that her skating days were "a long time ago. It was Lady Dufferin who asked me. I loved to skate when I was a girl." 

If you were paying attention to the publication year of that last article, it won't come to any shock to you when I tell you that Sarah Victoria lived to be one hundred and three! Can you even imagine?! In her hundred plus years, this skating centenarian not only lived through Confederation and two World Wars, but also worked in the head office of the old Quebec Central Railway, was an active worker in the Women's Missionary Society, packed bales to be sent to the Prairies and was a devout member of St. John's Anglican Church, avid reader and seamstress.

Sarah Victoria lived out her golden years in the three-story Elizabeth Residence For Elderly Women in Ottawa. On her hundredth birthday, she received a cablegram from Queen Elizabeth II, flowers and best wishes from Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and one hundred oranges from Mayor Charlotte Whitton. She celebrated her one hundred and third (and last) birthday at a tea party with Canada's then Governor-General Vincent Massey.

How incredible it must have been for Sarah Victoria to see how figure skating progressed over the course of a century! Not many people have that luxury in life. One thing that was clear in learning a little about this woman after combing through a handful of old clippings was the fact that her memories and passion for the sport never faded even slightly.

"Lady On Skates", a nineteenth century watercolor by Frances Anne Hopkins

ANNIE EWAN


Trading card of a skater from Montreal. Courtesy the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

The youngest Alexander and Katherine (Kate) Ewan's four children, Annie Louise Ewan grew up in the St. Antoine Ward of Montreal during the late nineteenth century in a well-to-do Scottish Presbyterian household. Her father was a selling agent for the prestigious Merchants Manufacturing Co. of Montreal, which manufactured cotton shirts, muslin, cheesecloths and window shades. He was also one of the founders of The Almonte Knitting Company. By the time she was twenty, Annie, her brother and his wife were all regulars at the Victoria Skating Club on Drummond Street, which was the home base of Louis Rubenstein and the one of the biggest hubs of Canadian figure skating during that era. When the Earl Grey Skating Club was founded in 1908 after the dissolution of the Victoria Skating Club, Annie became a respected member.

The Victoria Skating Rink on Drummond. Photo courtesy the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec

Her biggest (and only) claim to fame as a figure skater came in 1905, when she defeated four other women to win the Minto Challenge Cup, later recognized by Skate Canada as the first official Canadian women's figure skating championship in history. The March 14, 1905 issue of "The Ottawa Journal" noted, "The first annual competition for the Minto Challenge Cups took place last evening... There was a large attendance, including the Governor-General and a party from Government House... The first and tedious part of the programme was over until after 11 o'clock, after which some very pretty exhibitions were given in the 'free skating'. The band of the Ottawa Engineers was in attendance." No account of Annie's winning effort was provided.

We don't really know a lot about Annie's life aside from the fact that she and her sister lived out their days as "spinsters" in the family home with their widowed mother. Perhaps they occasionally told stories over dinner of that time that Annie won the Canadian women's figure skating title. We'll never know!

ELEANOR KINGSFORD

Born on May 31, 1886 in Toronto, Ontario, Eleanor Agnes Letitia Kingsford was the eighth child of Rupert and Alice [Kingston] Kingsford. Her father was a lawyer; her grandfather a noted Canadian historian and engineer. When Eleanor was six, she moved to Ottawa to live with her grandparents. Inspired by Lady Minto, the wife of the Governor-General, Eleanor joined the Minto Skating Club in its early years. She learned her first figures from a German coach Lady Minto had brought to Canada to teach at the club. In 1905, she was among the five competitors who competed for the very first Canadian women's title at the Minto Skating Club. Teaming up first with Philip Chrysler, she won the silver medal in the pairs event at the 1911 Canadian Championships. The following year with Douglas Nelles, she became a Canadian Champion in pairs skating. She also took home the women's titles in 1912 and 1913 and as part of the Minto Four won the Connaught Cup in 1914.

Ormonde Haycock, Lady Evelyn Grey, Eleanor Kingsford and Philip Chrysler

Competing for the Ellis Memorial Trophy in Boston in February 1914, she rejected the invitation of Adolf Hitler's future confidant Jaochim von Ribbentrop. Quoted in Janet Uren's book "Minto: Skating Through Time, 1904-2004", Eleanor recalled, "The most interesting memory of that trip was the snubbing of Von Ribbentrop, who being in Ottawa on some mysterious business at that time had joined our party. Even then I disliked him, and it must have been quite a shock to one of the 'master race' to have someone who dared to skip his waltz."

Her competitive skating career effectively ended by the start of World War I, Eleanor married Captain John Crawford Law and moved to Toronto. In just two years, she became a mother and a war widow. After returning to Ottawa for a time, to make ends meet she moved to Europe with her daughter Margaret and spent several years teaching and giving exhibitions in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France and the skating resorts of Switzerland. She returned to Canada on the S.S. Excalibur in March 1940, narrowly avoiding the German Occupation of France. She lived out the rest of her years quietly in Ottawa, passing away on December 11, 1975 at the age of eighty nine. Her gravestone in Beechwood Cemetery bears the epitaph "Champion Skater Of Canada".h

MURIEL GALT GEMMEL

Born in 1892, Muriel Julynn Maunsell was the daughter of Brigadier General George Maunsell and Henrietta Lucretia Maunsell (Austin) of Ottawa. Not only was her father a senior ranking officer in the Canadian military, her Irish grandfather was as well. Maunsell grew up in Rockcliffe Park, the most affluent of Ottawa neighbourhoods with her parents, brothers Harbert and Terrance and a British maid named Jannie Landsdown. From a young age, Muriel wanted for very little but wanted desperately to be a successful ice skater.

Joining the Minto Skating Club as a teenager, she quickly rose to prominence as one of the club's most accomplished skaters and by 1913, at the age of twenty one, she was already making people take notice. The January 22, 1913 edition of "The Ottawa Citizen" noted that a "skating party given by the president of the Minto Skating Club, Major-General Mackenzie, was a most enjoyable affair and was largely attended by the members of the Minto Club and their friends. The ice was in excellent condition, despite the mild weather, and during the course of the evening a wonderful exhibition of skating was given by Mr. Arthur Heid. Miss Muriel Maunsell, who is one of the most graceful skaters of the club, also gave a short exhibition, which was greatly admired. Supper was served in the club rooms at 11 o'clock, the tables being prettily arranged with red carnations and red shaded candelabra."

The following year, the well-to-do twenty two year old became the first officially recognized Canadian women's champion (according to the Skate Canada's records), beating Montreal's Jeanne Chevalier and taking home the Rubenstein Cup with her fancy figures and flashy footwork. That same year, Muriel was also part of the fours team (along with Eleanor Kingsford, Ormonde B. Haycock and Philip Chrysler) that took home the Connaught Cup. The March 25, 1914 "Montreal Daily Mail" also noted that Maunsell was in attendance at the Minto Club for a fancy costume ball later that winter with waltzing, chariot races, a shovel race and a supper in the tea room. Sadly, the cancellation of the Canadian Championships and international competitions in the following years due to World War I effectively put an end to Muriel's competitive skating career. She would never compete again.

In January 1918, Muriel married George Frederick Galt, a prominent merchant of the tea importing firm G. F. and J. Galt, and moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Galt was definitely a man of considerable means. He was president, vice-president or director of Blue Ribbon Limited, the Northern Trusts Company Limited, Great-West Life Assurance Company, the Canadian Fire Assurance Company, the Canadian Bank of Commerce, the Advisory Committee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northern Mortgage Company, the Manitoba Bridge and Iron Works. During the First World War and a member of the Canadian Government War Purchasing Commission. At sixty three years old at the time of her marriage, Galt was almost forty years Muriel's senior. If Muriel Maunsell, "one of Ottawa's leading society ladies" as described in the January 11, 1918 edition of "The Montreal Gazette", was looking for a distinguished older chap with buckets of money, she most definitely found him. Galt was a widow, having had five children with his first wife, Margaret, who passed away in 1915, and with Muriel, he fathered two more: a daughter named Patricia and a son named Thomas. Thomas, like his grandfather and great grandfather, too went on to serve in the military as well as acting as director of Sun Life, Bank Of Montreal, Canadian Pacific, Sun Life UK and Textron Canada. You get the picture.

What makes Muriel's story so interesting is that with her wealth and social standing, she could have easily walked away from figure skating and never looked back. However Muriel, according to the 1947 edition of "The Ottawa Journal", was the founder of the Winnipeg Skating Club in the twenties, predecessor to the Winter Club of Winnipeg. That said, a 1909 edition of "The Bellman" (Volume 7) evidences the fact that the Winnipeg Skating Club was in existence long before Maunsell even won her national title, let alone moved out west. Jim Blanchard's book "Winnipeg 1912" explained that in 1912, the Horse Show Amphitheatre was flooded in winter and a skating club was formed. Blanchard noted, "If a competent instructor was secured, Mrs. Robert Rogers and Mrs. Morton Morse had promised to donate prizes for waltzing and simpler figures." He also noted outdoor skating was common on the Assiniboine River near Osborne Bridge, so perhaps Muriel's contribution to the history of skating in Winnipeg came in the form of being a pioneering coach at the club. Sources don't seem to tell us one way or the other but we do know that she played an important role in the history of skating in Winnipeg.

In April 1928, Muriel's husband George died. She remained in Winnipeg and remarried, this time to Robert Morley Gemmel, former manager of the head office of the Bank Of Nova Scotia who had spent some time managing the bank's Winnipeg branch. The July 1, 1931 edition of "The Winnipeg Tribune" described their marriage thusly: "Given in marriage by 'her father, the bride was attractive in a pale delphinium blue chiffon frock and she wore a large transparent black straw hat trimmed with a flat blue flower on the trim. A corsage of pansies and forget-me-nots was worn." Following a honeymoon at a fishing camp in the Laurentians, Muriel (who now went by Muriel Galt Gemmel) and her second husband took up residence in Ottawa. Her second husband passed away of a heart attack at the age of fifty six on October 1, 1937 and Muriel lived out the rest of her days in the city where she was raised, passing away at her Ottawa home on February 26, 1967.

RUTH WHITMORE


Born November 24, 1911 in the town of Haileyburg (now Temiskaming Shores), Ontario, Ruth Constance (Forrest) Whitmore was the daughter of Scottish bank accountant William Melville Forrest and Ruth Helene (May) Forrest. Ruth and her brother Douglas were raised in New York, then moved to Jarvis Street in Toronto. Ruth first attended Brown Junior Public School before switching to the Bishop Strachan School, which had a class schedule which allowed more flexibility for her to pursue her passion... figure skating.

A member of Toronto's Granite Club, Ruth became fast friends with Cecil Smith and was a regular in the club's carnivals in the twenties. In June 1929, her father passed away with heart failure, leaving her future in the sport uncertain. Despite the financial strain on her family, Ruth attended the 1930 Canadian Figure Skating Championships, where she placed second in the junior women's competition behind Mary Littlejohn. She returned the following year and became Canada's junior women's champion, defeating Veronica Clarke of the Toronto Skating Club and Frances Fletcher of the Winnipeg Winter Club. Following her victory, she focused her attention on carnival skating, forming a trio with Cecil and Maude Smith and making her rounds skating in club shows in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. The March 22, 1933 issue of "The Ottawa Citizen" raved, "Those who saw these three young ladies in the carnival at Montreal pronounce their act as the most beautiful they have ever seen offered on ice."
Retiring from the sport in the mid thirties, Ruth married Norman Whitemore in 1946 and moved to Regina, Saskatchewan. There, she founded the Travelling Art program at the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery and volunteered at St. Paul's Anglican Church. After her husband passed away in 1984, she travelled around the world with her best friend. Ruth passed away on October 23, 2014, just one month before her one hundred and third birthday, making her arguably the longest living Canadian junior women's champion in history. Her obituary in the Regina Leader-Post read, "Just before her 100th birthday, she moved to Heritage House in Wintergreene Estates... Although her mind remained sharp until her death, her health failed over the past year. She faced her inevitable end calmly, reassuring her children she was at peace. She was a woman of grace and style who met every challenge with good humour and determination. She was well read and very open minded, welcoming generations of friends to her home."

MARGOT BARCLAY WILKINS

Photo from the collections of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. Used for educational purposes. 

Born in 1905, Margot Barclay Wilkins was the granddaughter of prominent Presbyterian minister Reverend Dr. James Barclay. Raised in downtown Montreal, Quebec, she took to the ice at the Montreal Winter Club with her sister Louise. In the twenties, she was one of the club's most successful female skaters. Although her biggest claim to fame was the 1928 Canadian senior women's title, she actually excelled in four disciplines.

With partners Aidrie Main and Marjorie Annable, Margot Barclay Wilkins was a repeat winner of the similar 'ladies pairs' title at the Winter Club's competition and as an ice dancer, she finished in the top three countless times at the club's weekly waltzing competitions. Among her ice dance partners were Reginald Wilson and fellow Canadian Champion Norman Gregory. In addition to singles, similar pairs and ice dance, she was also part of the Montreal Winter Club's fours team in 1931, which consisted of two sets and siblings: Margot and sister Louise and Richard and Hamilton, the Bolton Brothers. She was judged by Canadian skating pioneer Louis Rubenstein himself. She also took on an active role producing the Montreal Winter Club's annual carnivals while she was still competing. Retiring from the sport in the early thirties, she married, became a mother and later moved to Maine. where she sadly passed away on September 11, 1996 at the age of ninety one.

Considering the height of Margot's skating career was in the twenties, the fact that her story interweaves with two of the biggest names in women's skating in the nineties is nothing short of fascinating. When Josée Chouinard won the first of her three Canadian senior women's titles in 1991 in Saskatoon, television commentators erroneously announced that she was the first Canadian women's champion from the province of Quebec. Her daughter Diana Wilkins-Bell called the Montreal Gazette to correct the grievous mistake. In a February 11, 1991 article, Wilkins-Bell explained, "My mother is a very modest woman. She wasn't that upset. She just wondered how they could make such a mistake... How often do you get to be the champion of your country, after all? I don't care if it's in basket-weaving; it's an accomplishment that shouldn't be forgotten." I can't agree with Ms. Wilkins-Bell more! However, the first woman from Quebec to win the national women's title was actually Annie Ewan.

In addition to the Josée Chouinard connection, Margot Barclay Wilkins also knew Nancy Kerrigan quite well. In March 1931, Margot skated a solo as the "Lampmaker's Daughter" in a fantasy based around "Aladdin" in the Montreal Winter Club's annual show. She also skated fours with her sister and Bolton's in a "Static Of The North Land" act in the second act. Also in the second act was "The Snowflake Chorus", which consisted of, according to the Montreal Gazette, "Miss Audrey Joyce, Miss P. Bate, Miss Nancy Kerrigan, Miss Margaret Main, Miss K. McConnell, Miss N. Baillie - directed by Miss Phyllis Daniels and Miss Doris Gales." You read that right! Thirty eight years before Olympic Silver Medallist and U.S. Champion Nancy Kerrigan was born in Woburn, Massachusetts, Canadian Champion Margot Barclay Wilkins skated in the same show as (a) Nancy Kerrigan in Montreal, Quebec.

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