Chapter One

Surplus Woman

Clement, Margery and Arthur

The second child of Reverend Robert Barber and the former Adeline Guinness was born in October 1887, 30 years shy of the Bolshevik coup d’etat in Petrograd which she came to regard as the second coming. They christened her Margaret Helen, called her Margery and raised her in rectories around East Anglia, deep in the countryside of Constable and Gainsborough. Her father had followed his own father into the pulpit as had two of his six siblings. Anglican soulcraft had been the family trade for generations. It earned the Barbers the status of honorary, if not pecuniary, gentry. Adeline was closer to the real thing. Her ilk was the sprawling Anglo-Irish brewing and finance dynasty whose name she bore. Her grandfather founded Guinness Mahon, the merchant bank. Her father was a partner. At his death in 1915 his estate was valued at £454 219 14s. 3d., $75 million, give or take, in today’s money. Adeline had six brothers, three sisters, mentions in Debrett’s Peerage, and a trust fund. She was, nonetheless, both upright and devout. It was said she knew Robert would be her husband the moment she saw him in his dog collar digging the potatoes of an elderly parishioner. He was a curate at the time and she was staying with his archdeacon, also a Guinness. Their daughter and the sons born before and after her, Arthur Vavasour and Clement, grew up in the world of Rupert Brooke’s Grantchester. They would have known the village. Was there honey still for tea, the poet wondered, and did the Church clock yet stand at ten to three? For the Barber children there was and it did, unless it was Sunday morning and Father was banging on the door to roust everyone up for early communion. Materially, their life was comfortable, safe and free of chores — the household included a butler, a cook, a lady’s maid, a housemaid and a kitchen maid — but all were restless.

Uncles, aunts and cousins supplied plentiful pathways to God, the establishment and mammon. When Queen Victoria died, Clement, a chorister at St. Georges, Windsor, the Chapel Royal, sang “Oh, for the wings of a dove” when they crowned her son, the corpulent roué Bertie. It earned him a medal for which he would be ragged as a young subaltern in the Royal Fusiliers. “What did you get that medal for, Barber?” “Singing in the choir, sir!” He had come home in time for the war after experimenting with emigration.  He could have joined the Guinness bank in Vancouver but found playing the piano in mining camp bordellos more congenial. Scarlet fever rescued him from the mud of Flanders and landed him on the banks of the Nile where he would remain for 37 years.  There he racked up three marriages (the unhappy first of which produced my father) and a second medal, designating him an officer of the Order of the British Empire for “services to the cotton buying commissions in Egypt”. He played and sang amusingly, by ear. His final wife, a piano teacher, frowned on his improvisations. We called her the human pianola. Arthur Vavasour, the eldest, did become a banker. His youth had passed before the Somme could claim it.  He married a general’s daughter who gave him Lavender and Jasmine. Jasmine was lady-in-waiting to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor when they were tidied away to the Bahamas during the war. She stayed on to deliver the babies of Nassau’s poor. By that time, Artie, as his sister called him, had run off with the daughter of Stalin’s erstwhile family doctor. Ekaterina Georgievna Speransky wrote tolerably received crime novels under the nom de plume Kay Lynn, and absconded with the family silver, or so it was said, when Arthur died in 1957. By then he was an object of pity and reproach with a reputation for having been not entirely trustworthy with other people’s money, including his sister’s. As for Margery, she had her own quite separate love affair with Russia. Her infatuation would be with Lenin, though they never met, and the blessings she was convinced he had heaped upon mankind.

 Her father was educated at Tonbridge School, one of those private institutions the English call public, and Magdelene College, Cambridge, to which he won a scholarship but from which he graduated with the class of degree one gets for simply having been there. With the elongated, angular physique he passed to all his children, he listed rowing as his chief recreation. Between ministering to his sundry flocks — he would be a moveable priest, called to and from an unusual number of parishes over the course of his career — he penned two slender volumes. One was a history from pre-Roman times of Chippenham, the Cambridgeshire village where he was vicar when Margery was born. The second was the life of a medieval divine, Abbott Samson of St Edmund’s Bury, composed in the meter of Longfellow’s Hiawatha and drawing inspiration from Thomas Carlyle, the historian, polemicist and convert to deism. Carlyle eulogized Samson in “Past and Present”, an extended jeremiad on the spiritual “inanition” of Britain’s elite in an era of unprecedented affluence for the few and dark satanic mills, or the workhouse, for the many. It was a critique with which the reverend was in sympathy. Jesus’ teaching per the Gospels was meant be taken at face value, he felt, even if, when it came to threading the needle’s eye, Adeline was a bit of a camel. He also compiled what was known in the family as “The Margery Book”, a three volume scrapbook of letters, transcribed and original, with clippings, photographs and annotations to put them in context. It was a labor of love through which he lived his daughter’s adventures vicariously from 1913, when, like her brother, she tried Canada, until his death in 1928. By that time Margery was cheerfully living a hard life east of the Volga with a husband who was falling prey to drink and a baby boy they had named Compra, short for Communist Proletariat. Adeline, less enchanted than her husband with her daughter’s life choices, continued to save her letters home but supplied no exegesis. 

 Volume 1 begins, in Robert’s mostly decipherable hand, “Margaret H. Barber, after having been at the Agricultural College, Studley, Warwickshire, went to Canada in 1913 and worked on the “Princess Patricia Ranch”, Vernon, B(ritish) C(olumbia), a farm settlement for educated women.” She would have been 25.  Details of her life to that point are scant. In 1901 the decennial census found her, aged 13, in Parkstone, Dorset, where she was youngest of 11 boarders at a school for girls started by an Irish-born Anglican priest, Rev. John Going. After influenza bore him off in 1899 the teaching staff consisted of his unmarried daughters. Margaret and Frances taught languages. Ethel taught music. Margery confessed later in life to having considered her teachers the “enemy”. Educating her may have been a struggle, in the classroom at least. The playing field was a different matter. There she was a fearsome hockey player. A studio portrait of the Barber siblings in their teens shows a handsome trio, lean and long of bone. Margery is pouring tea, focused on getting it into a cup while her brothers look out past the camera. She dominates the picture. Next to her, the boys are callow specimens. Clement, in a brief reminiscence to my father after her death, recalled that his sister attended finishing school in Wiesbaden in 1905 where she picked up German, an attainment that would get her both into and out of trouble. She had a gift for languages, or at least for understanding them and making herself understood, particularly if her interlocutors were on the bottom of the social pile. Between Wiesbaden and Studley there is another gap, filled only by a census entry from 1911. That year Margery was counted as one of four lodgers in the house of a Dr John Proctor at the Paddock, Lydd, Kent, her trade given as “clergyman’s daughter.”

 Her cousin Audrey, taken in by Adeline and Robert after the early death of Robert’s brother Richard, was a little sister to Margery when Robert was rector of St. Mary’s, Stoke, across the river Orwell from Ipswich, a post he assumed in 1909. “My earliest memory of her,” Audrey wrote to Clement after Margery’s death, “was when she entered the hall at Stoke carrying a large dying dog whom she insisted must be nursed to life again in the house. This was not approved of! I do remember feeling very much on her side but all I know was that she won and carried the poor animal tenderly away.” To my father Audrey wrote: “She was the most honest person you could possibly find — would never let anyone down and never hurt a fly — gave all away — even her coat etc.! Fantastic with animals and could almost kill anyone who harmed an animal. People were afraid of her as she was very powerful and very strong physically, tho’ suffered from meningitis as a child and acute asthma and eczema — hay fever and all the rest of these nervous complaints — but she rode over it all somehow and was really a most brilliant person in mind, brain and personality — quite unique and, of course, completely fearless. She had a noble, arresting and charming face as a young woman and could have married anyone she chose…M. had masses of friends from all over the world and mixed freely with the very highest in the land and with the lowest to whom her whole life was really dedicated. Yes, her socialist ideas were extreme and were inherited from her father. She loved her dear old Mother but could not get on with her and they lived poles apart in every respect. She was a real Barber not a Guinness, always fiercely for the underdog even if he was a very wicked person. It was her religion.” Richard Guinness, an uncle, would write from his grand estate in Ireland and his collection of steam engines: “I think most of the family admired (Margery’s) determination, whatever they may have thought of her outlook.”

  Studley Horticultural and Agricultural College was founded in 1903 by Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, heiress to an immense fortune and mistress of the Prince of Wales for whom Clement sang when he became Edward VII in 1902.  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 (another East Anglian village), she provided a living for its famous “Red Vicar”, Conrad Noel. Her purpose in founding Studley was to provide training for “surplus women in the lighter branches of agriculture”, “surplus” being then the term of art for middle and upper-middle class “gentlewomen” who failed to find husbands. The manpower demands of Empire had created a chronic mismatch between the genders — by 1911, the United Kingdom was said to possess 1 328 625 “excess” females — and while working class women could work, marriage and breeding were the only completely acceptable occupation for their supposed betters. Losers in the game of marital musical chairs, involuntary or deliberate, faced the prospect of becoming “distressed gentlewomen” — another disparaging phrase was “maiden aunts” — with no one to keep them. When, near 40 and far from home, Margery did finally get married to one Pyotr Shikunov of Tashkent, her father wondered wistfully, if cryptically, whether things might have turned out differently. “Was the child of nature always fancy free?” he wrote on a scrap of paper loosely inserted in the final leaves of the Margery Book. “Was there not an ideal uncle who because he was an uncle was impossible? Was there not an attractive youth who became a notable spiritual Father?” It is easy to imagine the family’s growing agitation about Margery’s future as she pushed into her twenties unattached. Did Adeline canvass the Guinnesses for ideas? Cousin Rupert, in line to become 2nd Earl of Iveagh, and his wife Gwendolen shared Daisy Greville’s enthusiasm for helping the right sort of young woman escape redundant spinsterhood by training them to grow things. Perhaps they suggested Studley. Whatever took Margery there, the animals and the people were both a good fit. Contemporaries included Adela Pankhurst, youngest of the suffragette sisters, who, having irritated her family, was taking a break from the cause. On the animal front, Margery distinguished herself as a “dompteuse”, taming a bull that had run amok, or so Clement would later report.

Studley produced the kind of young woman the Colonial Intelligence League for Educated Women was seeking when it acquired a 15 acre tract 180 miles east of Vancouver and called it the Princess Patricia Ranch. The princess in question was the daughter of the Duke of Connaught, Victoria’s seventh child, then Governor General of Canada, who gave the project his blessing. The League, launched in 1910, was concerned with finding ways in which “surplus women” could make themselves useful in the colonies, especially South Africa after the Boer War when it was felt the place would benefit from more inhabitants of British stock. The League’s founder, the novelist Caroline Grosvenor, toured western Canada in 1911. She came home brimming with ideas for a sort of on-the-ground kibbutz that would help women emigrants make the jump from “comparative leisure and independence here”, as she put it, to “the life of hard work and service over there”. It would be the first of many such settlements, Grosvenor enthused. They would not only “open up enormous possibilities to women themselves” but would “help to keep British possessions loyal to the flag.” In a breathless dispatch from the metropolis, the Calgary Herald of May 28, 1913, informed its readers: “Canada as a home for educated women will be much in the public eye for two days in June — 23 and 24 — when a great bazaar in aid of the farm settlement of the Colonial Intelligence League will be held in Grosvenor House by kind permission of the Duke of Westminster. H(er) R(oyal) H(ighness) Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, the king’s aunt, will open the bazaar and a number of very important people are helping either as patronesses or organizers and saleswomen…The idea of this settlement in the Okanagan valley, BC, is that women trained in minor agricultural arts, such as poultry rearing, bee-keeping, vegetable and fruit growing, should go out and learn to apply their knowledge in Canada.” 

Among the very important people lending their lustre to the bazaar was Cousin Rupert’s Gwendolen. Coincidentally or not, Margery was soon on a boat to help get the ranch started. On July 11 she boarded the ill-fated Empress of Ireland in Liverpool bound for Montreal. Operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway, the liner would sink the following May after colliding with a Norwegian collier in the Saint Lawrence river, taking 1 012 passengers and crew down with it. Margery’s appointment was with a different destiny.  She was safely ensconced on the farm outside Vernon by August when Ella Sykes, a member of the League’s executive committee, reported meeting her there along with Miss Snelus and Miss Stanton. Snelus, previously matron at the Stoke Prior Colonial Training College run by the British Women’s Emigration Association, had been appointed superintendent. She was 26 when she crossed the Atlantic that April, down on the passenger list of the RMS Arabic as a “domestic”. Stanton, 23, and Margery, 25, were to be her farm hands. Sykes told the committee: “I jumped at Miss Snelus’ offer to put me up in her roomy tent. The well-built stable was used as the living room, Miss B. and Miss S. sleeping on the hayrick when fine, and in the loft when wet. Miss Snelus cooked at a stove in the open, and water was laid on to a stand-pipe with tap — a great convenience. The house was well on its way to completion, English-looking in appearance…The whole land was laid out in alfalfa which has made it difficult to make a vegetable garden as the roots grow so deep, but Miss Snelus has got 1/4 acre plot near the irrigation flume and has roots, lettuces, peas, beans and so on. She had invested in some Wyandotes and ducks on the day of my arrival, also two hives of bees. I think she has done well with horse and rig, as Gipsy is a strongly built mare and will be useful with the horse cultivator…Miss S. and Miss B. are splendid girls. They take their work seriously and the Settlement will be a success if we can keep up their standard.”  Snelus described the trio’s daily routine in a note 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 bucolic idyll was short-lived. Lady Sybil Grey, a formidable marksman and equestrian whose father had been Governor General and who would be wounded working as a Red Cross nurse in Russia in 1916, stopped by in October to see how things were coming along. Margery and Stanton were doing well, making a good impression in the neighborhood, she reported, but Snelus displayed a deficit of tact and judgment and was getting crosswise with the local committee the League had recruited to guide the project and protect it from neighborhood’s patriarchal skeptics. In the latter regard, the committee was not entirely successful. There was muttering that the ladies on the ranch had been seen working in trousers. This led the executive committee back in London to issue two directives: skirts were henceforth to be compulsory at all times and the orders of the superintendent were to be obeyed. Margery, it would seem, had been giving Snelus grief. Snelus certainly thought so. She wrote to the committee complaining that she could no longer cope with Miss Barber and asked permission to dismiss her. This was was granted but a replacement could not be found. Margery stayed well into 1914. Snelus herself was out by July after Caroline Grosvenor came over to see for herself what the trouble was. The “girls” were in open revolt, the accounts were a mess and locals who had sneered about the Colonial Unintelligence League from the outset were feeling smug. It was time for a reboot.

Margery moved to a nearby farm, Midmar, as “home help” for its owners, the Middletons. They hailed from Aberdeen and were no doubt well aware of whatever had been going on at the Princess Patricia. Their son, Morrice, then 30, was District Horticulturalist for the BC Department of Agriculture, but Margery’s interest, at least as communicated to her parents, lay elsewhere. “I am just as happy as I can possibly be,” she wrote in the first letter her father chose to include in the Margery Book. “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 — a journey of “several miles” — to celebrate communion in her hobnail boots after milking the cows, tying her horse outside. She also had time to play. “A trip to the Rockies with the Stantons!” she wrote in August, Miss Stanton having perhaps been joined by family. “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.” The Guns of August were already thundering.

One Sunday night the doorbell rang at the rectory at Stoke and there, unannounced, was Margery, “very hungry, with a few pence in her pocket”. She had sailed home in steerage, a journey not without incident in her father’s proud retelling. She had come upon “a man who was beating his wife. Margery was passing with a pail 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.”  

Margery in Canada