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Historicist: The Women’s Home Guard

The women who were prepared to defend Toronto in 1915.

Women learning to shoot at the rifle range at Long Branch. It is not clear if these particular women were actually with the Women's Home Guard. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 981.

On August 20, 1915, 100 Toronto women gathered at the home of Jessie McNab, on St. Clair Avenue, near what is now Winona Drive. Jessie McNab was well-known in Toronto women’s social circles at the time, and over the preceding months her home, known as Dundurn Heights, had been the site of numerous social events, including musical performances and fundraising drives for the Red Cross. On this particular Friday evening, the program included something a bit different: the first military drill of the Toronto Women’s Home Guard.

Toronto women were involved with the Canadian war effort right from the beginning; on the day that Britain declared war on Germany, over 300 Toronto women crowded into the downtown armouries for a lecture given by the St. John Ambulance Corps, with a view to being sent to Europe as nurses. The Toronto World reported that demand was so high that another 300 Toronto women were kept away due to space limitations at the venue.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Toronto already boasted a variety of women’s clubs and organizations based around religions, social causes, or common interests. Many of these groups shifted focus during the war towards supporting the war effort, while many new groups were formed specifically to address new needs and causes that wartime conditions created. Newspapers reveal a variety of initiatives undertaken by women during the first year of the war, including raising funds for the Red Cross, caring for the wives and children of those fighting in Europe, and gathering or making supplies for both the men at the front and displaced refugees. Although projects such as knitting socks or making jam may seem quaint or frivolous through twenty-first-century eyes, these efforts were greatly appreciated by the armed forces and vital to the war effort.

"Women knitting for soldiers," at an unknown location. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 873.

In the summer of 1915, women’s groups became increasingly involved with recruitment drives, as the armed forces were in need of new initiatives to help persuade men to enlist. In July, women helped plan and promote a large recruiting rally at Massey Hall. On August 9, women made up around half of a crowd of 200,000 that attended a Riverdale Park recruitment rally. At Riverdale Park, the Star noted “two gay young ladies, each carrying a small sofa cushion, the ends of which they had opened. And to the astonished and outraged young men standing around, the girls [were] joyously doling out the white chicken feathers that stuffed the cushions… Someone would brush past and quietly lay something white on your lapel. It did not dawn at first what the white thing was. Then when you saw, in the dim light, your single violent impulse was to crawl, on hands and knees, out of the crowd and climb a tall tree. It is a deadly method of attack.”

With the homefront culture beginning to change, it was only one week after the Riverdale Park rally that the Toronto newspapers announced the first meeting at Jessie McNab’s home to discuss the formation of the Women’s Home Guard.

Initial accounts suggest that the meeting’s program was similar to meetings of other Toronto’s women groups during the war. Described in the World as a “patriotic musicale,” women were invited to the home of Jessie McNab at Dundurn Heights for tea, a Red Cross demonstration of bandaging techniques, speeches by various dignitaries including MP William F. Maclean, a meeting with wounded soldiers from the front, and a performance of the band of the 48th Highlanders. The Globe reported that “the object of the Women’s Home Guard is to help in Red Cross work, be of assistance to soldiers’ wives and widows in any way possible, and do work at home along all channels that they can.” McNab’s home on St. Clair Avenue was to be the headquarters and meeting place of the organization. It was also, as only a few of the newspapers initially reported, where the home guard would do military drilling, under the direction of Lieutenant-Colonel James Galloway.

Women holding a bazaar for war aid. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 872.

Although the notion of a German invasion of Toronto may seem odd through today’s eyes, it was not completely beyond the belief of Torontonians in 1915. When asked about the possibility of the new group fighting in combat, Jessie McNab told the Globe “Yes, if necessary for home defense. [We] are ready to do anything that a woman can do.” Laura McCully, one of the initial members of the Women’s Home Guard and soon installed as its treasurer, wrote a letter to the Toronto World which encouraged others to join the group: “Let every available man join at least a defence organization, and let every able woman do likewise. We are not going to meet invasion as did the Belgian woman, should invasion come. We will meet it, gun in hand and self-protected, as our ancestresses met other savages. The place to go is Dundurn Heights… It is time the enemy was taught a lesson. Nothing will go home like the voluntary turning of Canada into an armed camp. Women, enlist now!”

Only three days after the group’s formation, 100 women participated in the Toronto Women’s Home Guard’s first drill on August 20. Although there is ample evidence of Ontario women participating in military drill instruction prior to the First World War, it had not generally been undertaken with a sense of necessity, and several of the Toronto dailies described the first day with a sense of amusement. The Telegram described the women as an “awkward squad… recruits attired in muslin frocks, recruits in middy blouses, recruits in airy summer blouses.” The News noted that several of the women mistook left and right, and “did funny fantastic jumpy things when the command ‘change step’ was given.” A curious but largely supportive crowd gathered to watch. Despite the group’s attire and inexperience, drill-master Lt.-Col. Galloway was extremely impressed with the recruits, with the Telegram reporting him saying that “he had never seen a body of men so quick to learn their drill.”

Seeing the men off as they leave for war. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 824.

A week later, Galloway gave an interview to Helen Ball, a regular columnist for the women’s pages of the News. Galloway took this opportunity to heap praise onto the Women’s Home Guard and on Jessie McNab in particular, and to acknowledge that the group’s good work and skill tended to quickly erode any negative impression that members of the public might have, saying “I have seen people go up there just to laugh at the women drilling, and before they left, they wanted to be recruits.” Regarding the social implications, Galloway said “it has interested a lot of girls who never thought of doing anything before. It will do them good, physically, mentally, and morally… Some men have said to me, ‘but how can you have anything to do with it? There are suffragettes in it.’ I don’t care whether there are suffragettes or not. They are organizing for service [and] that’s all that matters.” He also noted the movement in Britain towards women taking work in munitions factories, saying “it may be the same here later, and it is important to be organized and ready for anything.”

Despite the endorsement of some politicians and military personnel, the Women’s Home Guard was not officially organized by the armed forces, and thus did not receive any funding. Women paid fifty cents to join, and had to pay whatever transportation costs they needed to get to and from Dundurn Heights. All the early meeting and drilling activities took place at Jessie McNab’s home, with sections of her private property reserved for a variety of purposes. One corner of the land was reportedly reserved for fencing instruction, to be conducted by Laura McCully. McNab also announced plans to set aside five acres of her property for the establishment of a rifle range, although it is not clear whether this actually happened. Newspapers suggest that such a facility would have been convenient, so as to spare shooters the trip to the shooting range at Long Branch, which had already seen some use by other women’s groups in the spring of 1915.

The group’s momentum continued through August, as the Women’s Home Guard drilled twice a week and frequently met to discuss further plans. On August 25, the Globe reported that 300 women turned out for drilling at Dundurn Heights, noting that “[they can] ‘form fours,’ ‘quick march,’ or ‘stand easy’ as well as any man, and better than some men. They are going to shame the shirkers.” Less than two weeks after its formation, plans were announced in the Star to provide riding instruction with the view towards forming a women’s cavalry corps. Plans were also underway for official Women’s Home Guard uniforms, which consisted of a khaki Norfolk jacket, with matching blouse, skirt, and cap. Not every recruit necessarily got a uniform, however, as McNab noted that “each volunteer buys her own suit and equipment, as the Government is not helping us at all.”

On August 25, the Women’s Home Guard opened up a recruiting tent downtown at City Hall, across the square from the men’s recruiting tent. Laura McCully told the Star that 200 new recruits were signed up on the first day, bringing the group’s total membership up to at least 700. The size of the group was already too large for all the members to simultaneously drill at Dundurn Heights, as the previous night’s movements had forced women into the streets. The Star reported that the group was trying to secure permission from the City to hold their drills in public parks.

(Above: A photo of Jessie McNab from The Evening Telegram, August 28, 1915.)

Just as the Women’s Home Guard seemed to be poised to take another leap forward, however, problems emerged within the organization. On August 30, Laura McCully, who had been one of the group’s most vocal members, suddenly tendered her resignation as treasurer of the group. McCully cited problems she perceived with Jessie McNab having too much individual control of a group which, by this time, had reportedly reached 1,000 members. In an interview with the Telegram, McCully was quoted as saying, “In sending in my resignation, I merely wished to enter a protest at the present procedure of [the Women’s Home Guard’s] president. Many of the members feel that its most vital questions should be decided by the entire membership.” McCully stated her intention to remain involved as a recruiting sergeant, expressing dedication to the cause and declaring great pride in what the organization had thus far achieved. She stressed that “my action, as I have said, in resigning as treasurer, was simply a protest against Kaiser-like methods under the British flag.”

McCully’s accusations of McNab immediately resulted in a schism within the group. Those loyal to McNab told the Globe that “it’s Miss McCully who wants to be the Kaiser.” McNab herself fired back with a passionate reply, attributing the lack of an executive to the brevity of the organizations’ existence, and her inability to ask certain people to join such an executive, on the grounds that they were out of town. She referred to McCully’s words as coming from a person “who wanted to run things and was angry because she could not.” However, McNab also expressed a belief that as the founder and host of the Women’s Home Guard, she was entitled to a certain degree of control of the group, quoted in multiple newspapers as saying that “any person who says that I, as promoter, cannot form my own executive can go and take a holiday.”

Despite McCully’s stated intention to remain involved with the Women’s Home Guard, McNab reportedly barred her from Dundurn Heights, believing that McCully was undermining the work and effectively telling women not to enlist. A police guard was requested the next day at the City Hall recruitment tent in case a more serious conflict broke out, although such a presence evidently proved unnecessary.

Laura McCully, wearing her Women's Home Guard uniform. From The Evening Telegram, August 27, 1915.

In an effort to fix the rift in the administration, Toronto Mayor Tommy Church convened a meeting at the city council chamber to work towards establishing a formal executive of women who could steer and co-ordinate the efforts of the Women’s Home Guard. Along with the existing organizers, invitations were extended to other groups which were taking an interest in the Women’s Home Guard, including several other women’s groups, as well as the Citizens Recruiting League. The Citizens Recruiting League’s chairman, Dr. Norman Allen, told the News that “the former leaders had zeal but not discretion,” and that “the movement was a fine thing if placed in the right hands.”

Although McNab and McCully claimed a truce in the press, relations between the two appear to have remained strained. On September 7, simultaneous meetings were held at Dundurn Heights and at McCully’s house on Kenilworth Crescent, in Kew Beach. McCully explained that her Kew Beach meeting did not constitute a succession movement, but was simply offered as a secondary site to spare some women the expense and the long journey, noting that “the girls find that it costs them 15 cents to go to Dundurn Heights, and it is not pleasant to go without one’s dinner before three hours of drill.” McCully also expressed a grand dream of making the Women’s Home Guard a national movement with meetings held across the country, and a corps totalling 30,000. She may have been inspired by accounts of women’s home guard movements in other Canadian cities in the summer of 1915, including those in Winnipeg, Hamilton, and Montreal.

McCully’s concerns about McNab’s desire for control of the Women’s Home Guard may have been well-founded. The Women’s Home Guard held an election later in September and set up a temporary steering committee, with the women electing Lt.-Col. Galloway as chair and McNab as vice-chair. This arrangement appeared to work until McNab briefly fell ill, and the committee approved certain expenditures in her absence. McNab reportedly refused to relinquish any control of the group, and informed Galloway that she refused to accept the position of vice-chairman.

A photo from the City of Toronto Archives, taken at the Toronto armories, with a caption identifying these women as sharpshooters. Some of these women may well have been members of the Women's Home Guard. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 642.

It appears that McNab then attempted to leave the Women’s Home Guard and reorganize another group on her own terms. McNab is left out of most newspaper reports of the Women’s Home Guard that autumn, as the group continued to drill regularly at a variety of city parks and school grounds. One article suggests that McNab continued to hold regular drills at Dundurn Heights, but without Lt.-Col. Galloway.

Reports of the Women’s Home Guard grow fewer and briefer through the autumn, and it appears that the goodwill of the Toronto press began to evaporate. Whereas earlier articles had been supportive of the Women’s Home Guard, editorials began appearing which criticized and mocked the group.

In early December, the Women’s Home Guard took Jessie McNab to court. According to a sworn affidavit from Galloway, McNab refused to comply with a request from the group’s executive for the money that she had collected in Women’s Home Guard membership fees. Eventually, she relented, but not until the court fees had eaten up much of the money. Nevertheless, a December article in the Star announced that the group now had a new drill hall at 33 Richmond Street West, measuring 60 by 90 feet. “A first aid class will meet one night, drill squads two nights (Mondays and Thursdays), a signalling class a fourth night, and a class for Red Cross work on a fifth night.” The article also promoted the many other ongoing activities of the Women’s Home Guard, including providing help for soldiers’ wives, bandage rolling, knitting, and the donation of 500 jars of fruit to a nearby convalescent hospital.

A cartoon from the September 12, 1915 Toronto World, after some of the Toronto newspapers began running pieces which mocked or ridiculed the Women's Home Guard.

Despite this somewhat optimistic state of affairs, the Women’ Home Guard then disappears from the Toronto newspapers, with no formal announcement of its dissolution or definite indication of its fate. Later that winter, some newspaper articles suggest that the Women’s Home Guard was folded into another group, the Women’s Volunteer Corps, who similarly co-ordinated a variety of women’s wartime projects. In 1916, these activities included medical training, support for soldiers’ families, and creating a register of women who were available to do the work of men, thus freeing men for military service.

Jessie McNab remains an elusive figure. For a few more years there are notices of social events held at Dundurn Heights, but once these stop her fate does not appear to be known, suggesting that she either died or relocated to another community. Laura McCully’s life is better known, as she had already achieved some measure of fame in Toronto as a poet and promoter of feminist causes before the war began. Shortly after her involvement with the Women’s Home Guard, however, she apparently fell on hard economic times, which were compounded by mental and physical health issues. She was in and out of hospitals from 1916 until her death in 1924 at the age of 38. Several newspapers ran obituaries for her, with the Globe calling her “a vivid poetic personality,” and writing “she left a memory that will be treasured for her versatile and sensitive mind, her broad and tender sympathies. The outbreak of the Great War 10 years ago stirred Miss McCully’s patriotism and she bent her energies for some time in furthering the cause of Canada as she saw it, and more particularly in recruiting men, and in organizing the Women’s Home Guard.”


Additional material from: The Globe, July 30, August 19, August 21, August 24, August 26, August 27, August 28, August 31, September 1, September 2, September 3, September 6, September 7, September 8, October 6, 1915, July 10, 1924; The Mail and Empire, August 21, August 24, August 27, September 1, September 3, 1915; Ian Hugh Maclean Miller, Our Glory and Our Grief: Torontonians and the Great War (University of Toronto Press, 2002); The Daily News, August 19, August 23, August 24, August 26, August 27, September 2, September 8, September 10, September 14, 1915; The Toronto Daily Star, August 10, August 19, August 25, August 27, August 28, August 30, August 31, September 1, September 3, September 4, September 7, September 8, September 14, November 8, 1915, December 3, December 7, December 14, 1915; February 1, February 29, 1916, July 9, 1924; Pat Staton, It Was Their War Too: Canadian Women in World War I (Green Dragon Press, 2006: Toronto); Kori Street, Toronto’s Amazons: Militarised Femininity and Gender Construction in the Great War, MA Thesis, Department of HIstory and Philosophy, University of Toronto, 1991; The Evening Telegram, August 16, August 19, August 21, August 24, August 26, August 27, August 28, August 30, August 31, September 2, September 3, September 4, September 9, 1915; The Toronto World, September 6, 1914; January 2, August 5, August 14, August 17, August 18, August 21, August 24, August 25, August 26, August 27, August 31, September 1, September 12, September 15, September 17, September 20, September 25, October 8, December 4, December 6, 1915, April 15, 1916; Barbara M. Wilson, ed., Ontario and the First World War 1914-1918: A Collection of Documents (The Champlain Society, 1977: Toronto).

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