A Surplus Woman

Clement, Margery, Arthur

On July 11, 1913, Margery Barber boarded the Empress of Ireland bound for Quebec from Liverpool. She was emigrating. The passenger manifest listed Canada as her “country of intended future permanent residence”. Her parents were sad to see her go, but also relieved. Their daughter was 25.  Options for a single woman of her background were limited, but Margery had shown no sign of wanting to settle down and breed. Until recently she had done little to equip herself for anything else. If she did find a husband in Canada, she might at least find herself.

“She had a noble, arresting and charming face and could have married anyone she chose,” her cousin Audrey remembered. She was tall, lean and athletically formidable whether chasing hares with a pack of beagles, bounding up an Alp or wielding a hockey stick. She could be intimidating. “People were afraid of her, as she was very strong and powerful,” Audrey said. From breach birth on, she had never been easy. She had battled meningitis, eczema, asthma and chronic allergies. Today she might also have have been diagnosed with ADHD and put on Ritalin.  Getting her ready for church as a child could be a team operation, requiring the concerted efforts of a governess, a housemaid and the aunt who seemed to be the only member of the family with the magic it took to tame her.  Though obviously clever — she had a particular aptitude for languages, becoming fluent in German at finishing school in Weisbaden — she had been difficult to educate. Teachers, she would confess, were “my enemy”.  Authority tested her patience. The feeling was often mutual. Margery was a rebel. Her cause was whatever underdog crossed her path. She would bring home strays, both human and canine, no matter how ragged and reeking, and demand of her devoutly Anglican parents that they heed the Sermon on the Mount. There were scenes, mostly with Mith, which is what she called her loving but exasperated mother. 

The Reverend Robert Barber and Adeline Guinness exchanged vows on July 30, 1884, at St Saviour’s Church, Pimlico, up the street from 87 St. George’s Square, the London address to which Adeline’s father, Richard Seymour Guinness, had moved his three daughters and six sons (with a seventh in the offing) from Dublin ten years earlier. The couple received 154 gifts, we are told. Richard, who was busy growing the family bank, Guinness Mahon, beyond its Irish base, and who at his death in 1915 would leave an estate valued at £454 219 14s. 3d. — $75 million in today’s money — gave the couple a piano. Sir Samuel and Lady Ferguson (he a politician and poet rated by Yeats among Ireland’s literary giants, she a Guinness aunt), contributed a “large salver”.  Lord Ardilaun from the brewing side of the Guinness tribe was good for a necklace. From below stairs at 87 St Georges Square came a lamp.

Rev. Robert was the eldest surviving child of Rev. Richard, vicar of Riseley, who in turn was the first child of Rev. William, vicar of Duffield and Muggington. And so on, it would seem, back to Adam. Soul-craft was in the blood. Of Robert’s six younger siblings, two of the three boys, Henry and Edward, were also ordained as Anglican priests. The third, Frederick, joined the Oxford Mission to Calcutta as a lay brother. Henry,  father of the aforementioned Audrey, was a prison chaplain. Edward served as Anglican chaplain in Biarritz and Cairo, played soccer for several forbears of today’s professional sides, and was a hit at parties for his comic turns, but also, it was said, a kleptomaniac prone to trousering his hosts’ objets. Frederick cut a dashing figure at Trinity College, Cambridge, and landed a job with Hoare, Miller and Co., a well-connected engineering firm, which sent him to India where the Barber genes kicked in. In Calcutta he moved between the very high and the very low. In 1891, the Viceroy invited him to a ball to meet the future Tsar Nicholas II. His work with the poor destroyed his health.

Barbers c. 1890
Clockwise from front left: Robert, Edward, Rebecca, Henry, Julie with Molly, Gertrude, Frederick. Seated in the middle is their mother, Ann.

Robert attended Tonbridge, one of those private institutions the English call public, from which he won a scholarship to Magdelene College, Cambridge. Ordained in 1879, he would be a moveable priest, called to eight livings before his retirement in 1919.  All were within 50 miles of Ely whose Norman cathedral looms over the fens north of Cambridge and is visible from the village of Chippenham where Robert and Adeline stayed longest and where their three children, Arthur, Margery and Clement, born in 1885, 1887 and 1892 respectively, would spend their formative years. 

Robert was a gardener. His sweet peas, cauliflower, cabbage and rhubarb won prizes at the Chippenham and Snailwell Horticultural Society annual fete. He collected butterflies and moths, liked to sketch and could give a serviceable lecture on astronomy if need arose. Audrey remembered him as “an austere scholar who used to knock loudly on people’s bedroom doors to get them up for church.” To Clement’s son Stephen, he was “a very lovable and quite unworldly man”. His writings included a children’s guide to the catechism, a history of Chippenham from pre-Roman times and a life of Abbot Samson of Bury St. Edmunds, a 12th century prelate, composed in the meter of Longfellow’s Hiawatha. In his preface to the 1 000-line poem, Robert thanked Lord Iveagh, another Guinness beer baron, for his “generous patronage”.

He also kept a journal of his daughter’s adventures beginning with her departure for Canada. In it, he transcribed Margery’s letters home, supplying commentary and pasting in newspaper clips, photos and the correspondence of others for context. The three volumes he filled before his death in 1928 were known in the family at the Margery Book. They, and Margery’s letters to her mother and siblings after 1928, are the primary source for this story.

Adeline left fewer traces than her husband. That seems to have been the way with Guinness women of her generation.  Their male siblings went into the family racket, acquired titles and stately homes, and worried about their daughters getting hitched to gold-diggers. Adeline’s niece Lucy fell in love with a starving Hungarian artist at finishing school in Munich. They were kept apart for seven years. Only when he began receiving commissions from European royalty was he permitted into the clan. Men of the cloth, on the other hand, got a pass. If Guinness girls couldn’t land rich boys, reverends were an acceptable alternative. And, to be fair, there was more to the dynasty than the pursuit of wealth and status. It had a missionary wing — the Grattan Guinnesses — along with a strong tradition of philanthropy and deep ties to the Anglican Church of Ireland. There is no reason to suppose Adeline felt she might have done better when she married Robert even if her ambitions for him may have been a little more expansive than his own. She might pass through the eye of the needle more easily than her brothers, but she was by no means penniless. The 1911 census found a butler, a cook, a lady’s maid, a housemaid and a kitchen maid in the Barbers’ employ. 


Uncles, aunts and cousins offered Margery and her brothers broad avenues to God, the establishment and mammon.  “I remember Uncle Bob with delight when we watched the procession from the Ritz when ‘Mr. Guelph’ as he called him was crowned, or buried, I forget which,” Margery would write. Uncle Bob was Robert Darley Guinness, Adeline’s eldest brother, High Sheriff of Warwickshire, proprietor of Wootton Hall. Mr. Guelph was Queen Victoria’s eldest son Bertie, Edward VII. The Ritz was the Ritz. Uncle Gerald’s stately pile was Dorton House, a Jacobean gem surrounded by Rothschilds in the Vale of Aylesbury. Uncle Eustace’s seat was Green Norton Hall near Towcester. Uncle Richard entertained Rudolf Valentino and Artur Rubinstein at his place on Great Portman Square. Uncle Benjamin’s addresses included Washington Square in New York and Carlton House Terrace in London. He sat on the boards of the New York Trust Company, Lackawanna Steel Company, Kansas City Southern Railway, Seaboard Air Lines, Duquesne Light Company and the United Railroads of San Francisco. At outbreak of World War I,  he saved the German bank Henry Schroder and Co., of which he was then senior partner, from seizure by the British government.  On the morning of August 4, 1914, he hurried Baron Bruno Schroder, the bank’s chairman, down to Whitehall. Within half an hour, the appropriate strings pulled, Schroder, who owed his title to the Kaiser, emerged a British subject.

When Queen Victoria died, Clement, the youngest of the siblings, was a chorister at St. George’s, Windsor, the Chapel Royal. He sang at Mr Guelph’s coronation. 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 from Canada in time for the war after his own stab at emigration. Guinness relations had offered him a position in Vancouver where they were investing in vast tracts of land while lubricating the locals with their stout. He found playing the piano in lumber camp bordellos more congenial than getting rich as a member of the family firm, and came home, his boat crossing paths with Margery’s on her way out. 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 ended when he was caught in bed with his sister-in-law) 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. He was my grandfather. His final wife, a piano teacher, frowned on his improvisations. We called her the human pianola.

Arthur Vavasour, the eldest, took fuller advantage of his connections and became a banker in London. His youth had passed before the Somme could claim it.  He married and divorced a general’s daughter who gave him Lavender Jane and Jasmine. Their mother was lady-in-waiting to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor when they were tidied away to the Bahamas for World War II. Jasmine stayed on to midwife the babies of Nassau’s poor. By that time, Artie, as his sister called him, had run off with the daughter of Stalin’s family doctor. Ekaterina Georgievna Speransky had a thing with CP Snow, wrote 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. 

Which brings us back to Margery and her voyage to Canada. She was heading to Vernon in the Okanagan Valley, a garden spot some 200 miles east of Vancouver where an organization calling itself the Colonial Intelligence League for Educated Women had acquired 15 acres for “a farm settlement…to enable women of outdoor tastes and training to gain experience of local conditions.”

Openings for Educated Women in Canada, a paper the redoubtable Ella C. Sykes delivered in February 2013 to the Royal Society of Arts in London, provides context. Sykes, an army chaplain’s daughter, was author of Through Persia on a Side-Saddle.  More recently she had gone undercover to see what genteel Englishwomen could expect if they decided to seek work and husbands in Canada, an option so topical that Somerset Maugham wrote a play about it. The Land of Promise opened at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End on February 26, 1914, starring Irene Vanbrugh as a penniless spinster who seeks a new life on the Manitoba prairie.

“At the present time,” said Sykes, “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 wrote romantic novels, painted and advocated ardently for the Empire, then at its apogee, in whose building she felt the right sort of women should play a bigger role, especially since they were in such oversupply at home. Addressing Cheltenham Ladies College in July 1910, she 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 League, recruiting as its president Queen Victoria’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 pacified 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, where they can be trained for local conditions.”

The first settlement, Grosvenor decreed, should in the Okanagan Valley, “The Italy of Canada”, as a correspondent waxed purple 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 in small parcels. Grosvenor had her League acquire one. 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 and his wife Gwendolen. Rupert was the son and heir of Robert’s patron, Lord Iveagh, one of the richest men in England. Rupert and Gwendolen had toured Canada, and believed its fertile but empty vastness might benefit from a larger stock of suitably trained British emigrants. The couple was very much taken with the Okanagan Valley which Rupert called “one of the finest beauty spots I have ever seen.”

It was therefore no 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, and was at a loose end.

Studley was founded in 1903 by Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, to train “surplus women in the lighter branches of agriculture”. Greville was heiress to an immense fortune and mistress of the Prince of Wales for whom Clement sang when he was crowned 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. When she found her well-meaning efforts to fulfill the obligations of noblesse cruelly mocked for their condescension, she converted to socialism (but kept her castles). 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 famous 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 Clement would later report.

The Empress of Ireland deposited her in Quebec on July 18, 1913.  By early August she was in Vernon, taking orders from Mary Snelus, a surgeon’s daughter the League had hired to superintend the ranch. 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 newly 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 inspect. “Miss S and Miss B,” 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.” 

On the farm in Canada

The idyll was illusory. 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.

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. In response, Grosvenor and her committee issued two directives: skirts were to be compulsory at all times and the orders of the superintendent were to be obeyed.

When the committee met in April 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.”

Robert mentioned none of this in the Margery Book, noting simply that his daughter 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. 

What did make it was this:  “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.” A clearly impressed papa added that his daughter would often ride into Vernon after milking the cows — a journey of “several miles” — to take communion “in her hobnail boots”, tethering her horse 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. Her father 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.”

NOTES (Click back button to return to text.)

The Million and a Half. Based on the 1911 Census, the US was said to possess 1 328 625 excess females.
The Empress of Ireland collided with a Norwegian collier at the mouth the the Saint Lawrence. Of the liner’s 1,447 passengers and crew, 1,012 drowned.
Mary Snelus was let go herself soon afterwards. She would marry locally and move to California, where she died in 1925. The ranch project was mothballed and finally abandoned after the war.