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Historicist: “Amateur Historians” and “Housewives”

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Image of Mary Agnes FitzGibbon from Transaction No. 13.


In a flowering of historical consciousness, legions of Ontario men and women collected and published primary documents, fought to preserve historical landmarks, and wrote frequently well-researched books and articles. Although later derided by some as “amateur historians” and “housewives,” Donald Wright notes in his Ph.D. dissertation, these passionate hobbyists were the historical establishment in an era before history became a profession institutionalized in university departments.
Sarah Anne (Vincent) Curzon and Mary Agnes FitzGibbon, both well-respected historians, were dismayed by the inadequate representation of women within the province’s existing local historical organizations, like the York Pioneers, many of which only offered secondary or auxiliary membership to women. Believing women to be particularly suited to the task of teaching the lessons of history and celebrating Canada’s Loyalist past to the young, the pair sought the endorsement of the Pioneer and Historical Association of Ontario for the formation of—in Curzon’s words—an independent, “distinctly women’s historical society [that] could do valuable patriotic work in Toronto.”
Seventeen women convened on the Canadian Institute on Richmond Street on November 19, 1895, at the initial meeting of the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto (W.C.H.S.T.) in order to appoint officers and pass resolutions as the first step toward formalizing a constitution and bylaws. The Society’s intentions, as its constitution later enshrined them, included: “The encouragement of a study of Canadian history and literature: the collection and preservation of Canadian historical records and relics: and the building up of Canadian loyalty and patriotism.”
The society’s stated aims weren’t that different from other, male-dominated groups in the late nineteenth-century historical movement in Ontario. Its over-arching mission was to cultivate the growth of loyalty and patriotism of both Canadians and newcomers through an acquaintanceship with the country’s past. But the founders also believed, Beverley Boutilier writes in Creating Historical Memory: English Canadian Women and the Work of History (UBC Press, 1997), “that historical activism was a means by which women could assert a collective civic identity as citizens.”


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Image of Lady Edgar from Transaction No. 8.


The creation and success of the W.C.H.S.T. had a great deal to do with Curzon. Selected as the Society’s first president, she has been called “a true heroine of Canadian history” by Boutilier. From a prosperous middle-class background in Birmingham, England, Curzon came to Toronto in the 1860s with her husband, Robert. As her husband’s profession progressed from bookkeeper to failed pickle merchant to government employee, Curzon’s financial situation stabilized. This allowed her to return to writing poetry, drama, and essays, which she’d pursued in her youth in England. Shocked to hear educated Canadians casually say that “Canada had no history,” she turned to history. Curzon composed articles for the leading magazines of the day, recounting stories of pioneers and United Empire Loyalists in a conscious effort to “awaken,” Boutilier says, “the dormant spirit of patriotism that she associated with citizenship and national development.”
In the mid-1870s, Curzon worked on a play about an everyday Canadian woman who thwarted the American advance in the War of 1812. When Laura Secord: The Heroine of 1812 (C. Blackett Robinson, 1887) was finally published—at her own expense—the best-selling book almost single-handedly ensured Secord’s place in Canadian mythology. In addition, the book’s copious appendices of historical documents established Curzon as a historian of authority. She was frequently invited to speak before predominantly male audiences of the Ontario historical movement.
By that point, Curzon had also established her credentials as one of Toronto’s leading women’s rights activists—calling for greater property rights for married women, and for university co-education. While the new historical society was never an overt platform for promoting women’s rights (nor did all of its members agree with Curzon’s brand of reform), Curzon saw a close relationship between history and politics. As Boutilier notes, Curzon helped form the W.C.H.S.T. in order to teach “women to see themselves as historical agents and to understand the full scope of their duties as female citizens.”
In its early years, the Society’s regular meetings took place at 3:30 p.m. one Saturday each month, and provided a forum for women to prepare and present papers on historic topics for an audience of fellow women. The best of the presentations were re-printed in the Society’s Transactions, a journal published irregularly between 1896 and 1934. In addition, the Society’s members took part in the Pioneer and Historical Day at the Ex, and other historical exhibitions.
Membership in the Society—which cost fifty cents per year until 1913, then one dollar until 1928, and two dollars until at least the 1960s—grew quickly. By 1897–1898, there were 193 members, including the wives of geologist J.B. Tyrrell, lawyer E.B. Osler, and chief librarian James Bain, among many others.
The biographies of a selection of W.C.H.S.T. members—those who succeeded Curzon as president—reveal the Society’s aims, activities, and values over time.
When Curzon retired as president in 1897, she was replaced by Lady Edgar (Matilda Ridout). From a prominent Loyalist family, Lady Edgar’s grandfather had been surveyor general of Upper Canada and her father had been the first manager of the Bank of Upper Canada. After marrying James David Edgar in 1865, she dedicated her life to raising their nine children and to supporting his political ambitions in the federal Liberal Party. Once he’d been made Speaker of the House in 1896—leading to her elevation to become Lady Edgar—she was afforded the free time to dedicate to local philanthropic causes and she assumed a leadership role in the National Council of Women of Canada and the W.C.H.S.T.
It was only after her children had grown that she, in her mid-forties, revealed “the literary talent with which she was so amply endowed,” as a sketch in Transaction No. 8 put it. Ten Years of Upper Canada (William Briggs, 1895) was based on correspondence between her grandfather and his sons; a later book, A Colonial Governor and His Times (Messrs. Longmans, Green & Co., 1912), focused on a branch of her family in Maryland.
With a growing reputation, she was commissioned to write a biography of Sir Isaac Brock for the Makers of Canada series. The resulting volume appeared in 1904 and was praised by the history community and the press. The Montreal Standard attested that “for accuracy and completeness of information…and for beauty of style, it has seldom been surpassed.” She’d written all but three chapters of a book on an ancestor of her husband’s—based on sources held at Windsor Castle—when she died in England in 1910.

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Image of Mrs. Forsyth Grant from Transaction No. 23.


By that time, Lady Edgar had already given up the presidency of the W.C.H.S.T. to Mrs. Forsyth Grant, the daughter of a Lieutenant Governor and a descendant of Sir John Beverly Robinson, one of the leading Loyalists who settled Toronto. She married Captain William Forsyth Grant of Her Majesty’s 82nd Regiment in 1882. The couple spent a number of years travelling the world, during which time she wrote her Life in the Sandwich Islands (Hart & Company, 1888) as well as magazine articles. Upon their return, she became involved in educational affairs and philanthropy. For fourteen years, she was president of the W.C.H.S.T., where she often shared first-hand childhood memories of the city’s formative political and social events in which her esteemed family had played a part. She died after a long illness in late 1923.
Although Miss Mary Agnes FitzGibbon served as president for only six months before her death in May 1915, she’d been instrumental in forming the Society with Curzon. She’d been on the executive board continuously since its formation, serving for many years as corresponding secretary. Born in Belleville, FitzGibbon spent a good deal of her childhood with her grandmother, author Susanna Moodie, and, during an extended visit to England, with her great aunt, historical writer Agnes Strickland. After returning to Canada, she became very interested in the history of her grandfather and hero of the War of 1812, Colonel James FitzGibbon. Her biography of him, A Veteran of 1812 (William Briggs, 1894), was popular enough to merit a second printing in 1898. “An eloquent speaker, sympathetic and with a strong sense of humour,” according to Transaction No. 14, FitzGibbon’s “patriotism as a flame enkindled that of others.” In addition to her historical involvement, FitzGibbon founded the Women’s Welcome Hostel, where the Society held its meetings and stored its relics for many years.
As the published writings of these women indicate, women historians of this day, Wright writes, “echoed many of the themes of their male counterparts.” The papers presented by the membership of the W.C.H.S.T.—which were the focal point of the early meetings—examined politics, the United Empire Loyalists, and the War of 1812 from a pointedly whiggish perspective, celebrating the achievements of their own ancestors. Their works were frequently based on documentation—like correspondence or personal journals—handed down through the family. There were presentations on topics like “The Battle of Queenston Heights,” “Three Years Among the Ojibways, 1857-60,” and the “Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Charles, Lord Sydenham.” There were also papers on local history topics, like K.M. Lizars’ “The King’s Mill on the Humber,” and EV Neclands’ “Old Toronto Streets and Landmarks.”

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Image of Sara Mickle from Transaction No. 27.

Most importantly, there was an ample number of essays that followed Curzon’s model with Secord, and described the experiences or perspectives of women participating in historical events.
For example, the “Recollections of Mary Warren Breckenridge,” recorded by her daughter, Maria Murney, recounted the Baldwin family’s 1798 arrival in Toronto—calling it “a dreary, dismal place” without a “church, school-house, or in fact any of the ordinary signs of civilization.” Other similar papers included M.V. Tippett’s “Reminiscences of Hannah Ingraham,” a Loyalist born in 1772 who died in 1868, and Mrs. Forsyth Grant’s “Gleanings from the Journal of Miss Anne Powell, 1785.” In one paper on the War of 1812, the presenter’s female ancestors arrived home “just in time to save the house from being ransacked by the [American] soldiers.”
An underlying theme was that women were historical agents and that in their particular sphere—the home and domestic work—they were playing an integral role in nation-building. While men might march on the battlefield or shape the nation-state in the political realm, women played important and complementary roles as wives and mothers. FitzGibbon and the W.C.H.S.T. agreed with Curzon’s idea that “home-making as a peculiarly feminine form of nation-building.” Moreover, the W.C.H.S.T.’s papers demonstrated the women’s sphere as worthy of study.
The Society’s Transactions, which chief librarian George Locke called “splendid work,” were well-regarded for their educational value and were distributed to libraries and universities across North America. The Society likewise began with the support and encouragement of the broader historical community. Those holding honourable memberships included historians Dr. Henry Scadding and W.D. Lighthall, authors Charles Mair and Gilbert Parker, and poets Charles G.D. Roberts and Bliss Carman. University professors, who continued to consult with the amateur practitioners in local history societies until mid-century, regularly guest lectured at the W.C.H.S.T. in the 1920s and 1930s.
But as the pace of the professionalization accelerated, credentials, advanced degrees, and teaching positions at universities became the price of admission to a narrowing definition of what constituted “real” history work. Women in the early twentieth century were increasingly marginalized as practitioners of history. For example, the University of Toronto didn’t appoint women to tenured history positions until the 1960s.
Like other historical organizations of the era, the W.C.H.S.T. had also taken an interest in commemoration and preservation. The Society’s efforts initially focused on small artifacts, heirlooms, and documents, such as an original deed for land granted by Pontiac to a Lieutenant Abbott in 1765. Assembling and collecting artifacts, however, proved troublesome for the Society in the absence of permanent quarters. Originally housed in a room in the provincial Education Department’s building, they were moved first to the Women’s Welcome Hostel, then a member’s house and, eventually, into storage at Pickard’s Warehouse while the Society raised money for a permanent home.
Miss Sara Mickle, who had inherited enough wealth to dedicate her life to social causes, was instrumental in expanding the scope of the W.C.H.S.T.’s preservation activities. A member of the executive from 1897 until her death in 1930—including the last fifteen years as president—Mickle lead the Society’s involvement in advocating against the encroachment of a streetcar line and real estate development on the grounds of Fort York in the first decades of the century. She and the Society were further instrumental in efforts to save the old fort as a historic landmark, and sponsored lectures and children’s activities on the ground.

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Photo of Colborne Lodge, High Park, by Bobolink from Flickr Creative Commons.


In the 1920s, under Mickle’s guidance, the W.C.H.S.T. pressured the city to restore Colborne Lodge, which had sat empty in High Park and fallen into disrepair ever since the Howard family moved out in 1890. Having researched and presented papers on the subject, Mickle was called upon in 1927—after the city refurbished the building’s exterior the previous year—to supervise the restoration of the interior and the installation of furnishings to replicate a typical household of the 1830s.
“I am sure the people of Toronto will never appreciate the work and thought Miss Mickle put into Howard House,” one W.C.H.S.T. member noted at the official opening on November 15, 1927. “She looked after everything from the drains to having Mrs. Howard’s feather flowers cleaned.” A W.C.H.S.T. committee looked after Colborne Lodge until the Toronto Historical Board assumed responsibility in 1969.
Since 1901, the Society had been raising money for a permanent home. Despite fundraising efforts being distracted by Red Cross campaigns and project-specific initiatives like Colborne Lodge, about $4,250 had been raised by 1931. Space offered in Allan Gardens and the Art Gallery of Toronto proved unsatisfactory, as did a proposal to unite with other women’s groups to construct a new building. Finally in 1955—when the memorial building fund had grown, in cash and securities, to about $30,000—a building at 11 Cawthra Square was purchased. The choice of location was unpopular with some members as it was isolated from public transit and required a great deal of renovation. The society moved again in the fall of 1967 to 153 Spadina Road.
The W.C.H.S.T.’s fortunes dwindled following the Second World War, when membership fell to seventy-six. Perhaps, as more opportunities opened to women in teaching and research positions within the academy, the urgency of an organization like the W.C.H.S.T. lessened. With dues and fundraising efforts no longer enough, the organization became increasingly reliant on loans from the memorial hall fund to cover basic operating costs—despite the objections of some members. While Stella M. Cook’s 1970 history of the Society makes reference to annual events, like tea at Colborne Lodge, there is no indication whether the presentation of historical papers continued or how regularly the meetings occurred.
Although the Society has no present-day web presence—indicating that its activities have been wound up—the Society’s legacy lives on with graduate scholarships at the University of Toronto, York University, and Queen’s University, and a donation of $100,000 to $999,999 was made in their name to the University of Toronto between 1995 and 2003. Their papers are deposited at the provincial archives in the mid-’90s.
But in the first half of the twentieth century, for the women of the W.C.H.S.T.—as the Dictionary of Canadian Biography notes of Mickle—”history was not simply a vocation; it was a public-spirited pursuit and an expression of the desire of her generation of native-born, upper-middle-class women to play a role in the formation of Canadian identity” through the practice of history and preservation of heritage landmarks.
Other sources consulted: “Sketch of the life of Mrs. W. Forsyth Grant,” Transaction No. 23; Beverly Boutilier, “Women’s Rights and Duties: Sarah Anne Curzon and the Politics of Canadian History,” in Beverly Boutilier and Alison Prentice, eds., Creating Historical Memory: English Canadian Women and the Work of History (UBC Press, 1997); Stella M. Cook, Seventy Years of History, 1895-1965 (Transaction No. 29) (Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Toronto, 1970); Lady Edgar, “Sketch of Mrs. Curzon’s Life and Work,” Transaction No. 2; and Donald A. Wright, The Professionalization of History in English Canada to the 1950s Ph.D. Dissertation (University of Ottawa, 1999) (later published as The Professionalization of History in English Canada (UTP, 2005)).

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