A Surplus Woman

On February 26, 1914, The Land of Promise, a new play by Somerset Maugham, opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s West End. It starred Irene Vanbrugh as a spinster who seeks a new life on the Manitoba prairie after the woman for whom she worked as a paid companion dies and leaves her penniless. The subject was topical. Ella C. Sykes, author of Through Persia on a Side-Saddle, was out with a new book, A Home Help in Canada. She had gone undercover to see what genteel Englishwomen could expect if they chose to seek work and husbands in the land of lumberjacks and Mounties. The Royal Society of Arts invited Sykes to give a talk on her findings.

“At the present time,” she said, “it is a matter of common knowledge that in the United Kingdom the women greatly outnumber the men. The reason for this is that the sons go forth to serve the Empire in such callings as the Army and Navy, the Indian Civil Service, and, more than all, in the great Overseas Dominions, while the girls, as a rule, stay behind. Some two or three years ago this state of things was discussed in the newspapers under the heading of “What shall be do with our unmarried daughters?” Many answers were given to this question, but perhaps the only letter that bore practical fruit was that written by the Hon. Mrs. N(orman) Grosvenor, entitled The Million and a Half⁠.”

Caroline Grosvenor painted, wrote romantic novels and advocated ardently for the Empire, then at its apogee, in whose building she felt women of the right sort should play a bigger role, especially since they were in such oversupply at home. According to the 1911 Census,  Britain possessed 1 328 625 “excess females”, not quite a million and half but near enough. Addressing Cheltenham Ladies College in July 1910, Grosvenor declared: “If Canada is to remain British and not be amalgamated with the United States, if South Africa is not to be merely a Dutch colony under the protection of our flag, if Australia and New Zealand are to be strong enough to resist invasion, British women must go and make British homes.”

In that spirit Grosvenor founded the Colonial Intelligence League, recruiting as its president QueenVictoria’s third daughter, Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. Joining her royal highness on the letterhead were such imperial eminences as Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India and Lord Milner, who had lately overseen the pacification of the Boers in South Africa.  The League’s mission: “1. The maintenance of an Intelligence Office which shall estimate the demand for Women’s Work in the Colonies, and bring it into relation with the supply in this country. 2. The establishment in the Colonies of expert Agents who shall investigate local openings and report on them. 3. The establishment in each Colony of Settlements for Women.”

The first settlement, Grosvenor decided, should be in the Okanagan Valley, “The Italy of Canada”, as a correspondent rhapsodized in the Acton Gazette, “where at this moment of writing, the rounded snow peaks of the Rocky “foot-hills” far above lie like gleaming silver in the sunshine, and ripe peaches strew the autumn leaf-covered ground at my feet. Snow and ripe peaches, and in October!” Captivated by the scenery, the Earl of Aberdeen had acquired 13 000 acres in the valley in 1890 but having failed to turn a profit was now selling them off. Grosvenor had the League acquire a small parcel. The Duke and Duchess of Connaught consented to the plot being called the Princess Patricia Ranch after their daughter, and helped with its purchase.

Grosvenor also sought assistance from the Guinnesses, specifically Rupert Guinness MP, the son and heir of Rev. Robert Barber’s patron, Lord Iveagh, and his wife Gwendolen. Rupert and Gwendolen had toured Canada and believed its fertile but empty vastness could use a larger stock of suitably trained British emigrants. It cannot have been coincidence that Robert’s daughter was among the first chosen to help get the “settlement” up and running. Not only did she have the right connections and physical qualities, she had attended Studley Horticultural and Agricultural College.

Studley was founded in 1903 by Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, to provide training for “surplus women in the lighter branches of agriculture”. Greville was heiress to an immense fortune and ex-mistress of the Prince of Wales. A mother of several, including at least one in wedlock, she is said to have been the inspiration for the song “Daisy, Daisy” in which the lyricist dreams of riding with her on a bicycle made for two. She converted to socialism (but kept her castles) when she found her well-meaning efforts to fulfill the obligations of noblesse cruelly mocked for their condescension. As patron of St John’s, Thaxted, she provided a living for its famous “Red Vicar”, Conrad Noel.

Whatever led Margery to Studley, the animals and the people were both a good fit. Contemporaries included Adela Pankhurst, youngest of the suffragette sisters, who was getting ready to emigrate to Australia. On the animal front, Margery distinguished herself as a “dompteuse”, famously taming a bull that had run amok, or so brother Clement would later report.

The Empress of Ireland deposited her in Quebec on July 18, 1913.  By early August she was on the farm, taking orders from Mary Snelus, a surgeon’s daughter the League had hired as superintendent. Snelus had been matron at the British Women’s Emigration Association’s Stoke Prior Colonial Training College. Now 45, she was living in a tent on the property pending completion of the Arts and Crafts house the League had commissioned from O.B. Hatchard, chief architect to the colonial government in Sudan. Margery’s billet was the loft of the recently completed stables which she shared with her sole — at that point — coworker, the first of two Miss Stantons. The second would join them shortly.

Soon after Margery’s arrival, the peripatetic Ella Sykes, now a member of the League’s executive committee, stopped by to see how things were getting on. “Miss S(tanton) and Miss B(arber),” she reported were “splendid girls. They take their work seriously and the settlement will be a success if we can keep up their standard.” Snelus described their daily routine in a note to the committee dated September 3: “The girls get up at six o’clock. During the very hot weather, they rose at 5 a.m. and worked later in the evening, taking two hours off in the afternoon. Miss S. brings in the horse, attends to her wants, cleans her stall, etc., then brushes out the rig house (our living room) and tidies generally. Miss B. milks the cow at 6.30, feeds the fowls, and so on. I rise at 6.30, light the fire, make the breakfast for 7.30…Then the girls go to the garden, irrigate or cultivate, thin root crops, or mow alfalfa or corn, till 12 o’clock, when I call them for dinner, before which there are animals to attend to again. After dinner more gardening, or business such as going with the rig for sawdust or for foodstuffs and so on. At 5 milking, feeding, wood to collect and chop, etc. Supper about 6.15, washing-up. And to bed early, as I can assure you we are all very tired.”

The idyll did not last. Another committee member, Lady Sybil Grey, a noted marksman and equestrian who would be wounded as a Red Cross nurse in Russia in 1916, visited in October. Margery and the Stantons were making a good impression in the neighborhood, she said, but Snelus was getting crosswise with the locals Grosvenor had recruited to guide the project and protect it from the neighborhood’s patriarchal skeptics, of which there were many. Not everyone was entranced with the League or its scheme. “The Lack of Intelligence League”, The Victoria Colonist had called it in an editorial questioning whether “young English girls” should be “picking berries”, work, the writer sniffed, more appropriately reserved for “the yellow man”.

There was muttering that the ladies had been seen in trousers. Grosvenor and her committee responded with two directives: skirts were to be worn at all times and the orders of the superintendent were to be obeyed. The latter command seems to have been aimed at Margery.  According to minutes of the committee’s meeting of April 2, 1914,  Grosvenor “reported letters in which Miss Snelus states that she could no longer cope with Miss Barber and asked permission to dismiss her. The chairman had conferred with Mrs Barber who agreed to her daughter being dismissed but begged that this might not be made public in Vernon…Mrs Grosvenor and Mrs Barber had written to Miss Snelus agreeing that Miss Barber might take home help work in the neighborhood if a suitable opening could be found, or otherwise she should go to her (Guinness) relations in Vancouver.”⁠

Her father mentioned none of this in the Margery Book, recording simply that she moved to a nearby farm, Midmar, as “home help” for its owners, the Middletons.  If she sent her parents a letter with her side of the story, it did not make it into the journal.

A letter that did make it read:  “I am just as happy as I can possibly be, I keep the house clean, do washing up and washing cloths. “Ma” cooks and I do heaps of outside work. It’s just lovely. I’ve had all the cows to myself in the evening during hay-time, ten to milk, and I feed the calves, pick and pack fruit and take to Vernon. Have a lovely little horse to ride. “Ma” has given me a beautiful riding skirt (cowgirl’s), shirt, hat and gloves to match. I get up at 3.30 but we alter the clocks and call it 5.30 so it isn’t so very early.” The reverend added that his daughter would often ride into Vernon after milking the cows — a journey of “seven miles” — to take communion “in her hobnail boots”, hitching her horse to a rail outside the church.

The Middletons gave her time to play. “A trip to the Rockies with the Stantons!” she wrote in August. “We camped there in a tent for a week and I did a climb with a guide, a real good rock climb but quite different from the Moine (Mt. Blanc range) — jagged, crumbling stuff that gave way in your hands, the tops like knife edges right along, just foot room and then sheer down on either side. He said Mount White was a “nice little rock climb” and the hardest I could get him to suggest. Went nine miles the night before, slept at hotel, did it next morning and walked back to our camp in the evening. I enjoyed it very much. I have become an avid fisherman…The only blow is being away here with the war on.”

By early autumn she was on a ship back to England. Robert wrote:

“She suddenly turned up at home (St. Mary’s, Stoke, Ipswich) one Sunday night, very hungry, with a few pence in her pocket, having crossed the Atlantic in steerage. Here she had a strange experience — a tussle with a man who was beating his wife. Margery was passing with a pitcher of water with which she was scrubbing or cleaning up (such exercise being an antidote for sea sickness) when she saw this man thus engaged. She threw the water over him. He turned upon her. They formed a ring and there was a stand-up fight in which Margery was victorious.”

Marjorie Cook, whose parents attended St. Mary’s, would write in 1965 that she “quite clearly” remembered the return of the Rector’s “mad daughter”. “She caused a stir in the parish because she was reputed to speak German fluently and also had actually lived in Germany!  This in a time when the owners of dachsund dogs were immediately suspected of being spies you can imagine put her and her poor parents quite beyond the pale.”