Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Little Bit of Explosive Local History

Not quite Abbey Road, but sometimes the most dull and dreary little crossroads has a big story behind it.

This is a sleepy corner I pass every few days on my way to play tennis in a nearby community. I have to be careful, because it is also where the High Road meets the Low Road and the Railway Tracks and some drivers do crazy things there, like forget to stop or signal.

These days, there's nothing but a few bungalows, a bunch of farmer's fields and a slew of fast-food outlets between where I live and where I play tennis, but one hundred years ago there was a large community there built around a factory, a munitions factory.

I learned this last week. I binge-watched Foyle's War on Netflix, about WWII, and one of the episodes was about a girl who got killed working in a munitions factor.

I mentioned this to my husband saying, "I guess it was dangerous to work in those factories," and he replied, "One of those blew up near our house, in WWI."


"Yes, at Dragon."

"Where the heck is Dragon?" I asked.

"In-between here and Rigaud," he said. "It's long gone."

So I looked up the story online.

Sure enough, Dragon was a company-town that sprung up in 1907 near here, around a hosiery factory, Curtis and Harvey.

When war broke out that company started making munitions and the facility, worth 3 million dollars, blew up one day in 1917, on August 18th, to be precise, at 7 a.m. in the morning.

There were many explosions that morning, "shaking the area like earthquakes," as different sections  of the munitions factory caught fire and exploded.

Employees' homes farther away also caught fire, and even some local farm houses.

"The village of Dragon looks like a volcano had opened it up,"said the AP newspaper report the next day. "The ground for a mile around is strewn with melted metal and boilers, machinery, etc."

(For all I know a piece of shrapnel landed in a nearby forest, and it's still  in my backyard today.)

According to newspaper reports, 350 men (and women?) worked in the area affected. When some men ran out, military policed tried to stop them, it was reported.  Some of these workmen jumped an electric fence to safety

According to one account, the munitions plant was made up of 150 small buildings (or just a dozen or so, if you believe another source) I guess for this very reason.

 (Lots of secretiveness around these places back then. Hard to get information, I imagine.)

 The first explosion was in the building that contained nitric acid, but all the buildings, a dozen or 150 or in-between, were razed in the explosion.

The first reports said 17 to 25 men were killed.

War is hell, I guess. (This is a very Foyle's War style story, featuring the IFFY and secretive side of wartime activities on the home-front. And who knows what the 'real' story is: but then, sometimes an explosion is just an explosion.)

There was a note of true heroism, as well, if you want to believe what you read.  A train was parked at Rigaud, a mile or two away, and the engineer was ordered to stay there but word came that there were three railway cars filled with explosives near the fire, so the engineer took matters into his own hands and rode the engine down to the fire and hooked up the loaded cars and got them away safely.

The area in 2008 from the Hudson Historical Society website.  

The factory was where that winding river, La Raquette, meets the railway tracks.

There's no mention of this explosion in the Nicholson Letters from WWI, Not Bonne Over Here.

In 1917 father Norman was working on a dam in  La Loutre, pretty dangerous work.

In 1918  Norman was working at Rand Drill in Sherbrooke, as an inspector at a munition's plant.

And, before that, around 1910,  he had worked as an inspector on the TransContinental Railway as it was being built in Quebec and Ontario. One time, near Cochrane, Ontario, he was almost hit by a boulder that was being blown up to get it out of the way for the new tracks.

In the era, it was well-known that railway work was exceedingly dangerous, even for young men, but Norman was 60ish.

I guess, for Norman, getting blown up was always a worry.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

All Voters are Considered Equal, but some More Equal Than Others (Circa 1913)

The 1922 bi-lingual Committee struck to win the vote for Quebec women.

All men are created equal, but some more equal than others.

It's Orwell from Animal Farm and the line is emblazoned on my brain, probably because we studied the book in the 9th grade when I was 14, a very impressionable age.

I wasn't alone, the line caused a buzz at school, almost as much buzz and the bare boobs in the BBC production of Casanova.

That line applies very much to my current project, Furies Cross the Mersey, an ebook that I've just published on Amazon about the British Invasion of Suffragettes to Montreal in 1912/13.

THAT I didn't learn about in school. No one did. Up until a few years ago, I didn't know when Canadian women got the vote.

The suffrage movement in Canada was basically censored in high schools back in the 60's.  Well, it still is.

Our Canadian history book, Canada Then and Now only had a few female characters: Marguerite Bourgeoys, Laura Secord, Jeanne Mance. There was a bit about Bodicea in the Canadian Reading Development Series we used.

By the 1960's there had only been one book written about Canadian Suffragists and is a 1940 Master's Thesis by an American, Catherine Cleverdon - and she used newspaper accounts.

She didn't interview any former suffragists alive at the time.

The Cleverdon book and one other from 1989 (by McGill student Carol Bacchi, who soon moved to Australia to teach) is still what most scholars refer to when they write about the Canadian Woman Suffrage Movement.

But, very lately, the Internet has changed all that.

Anyway, this famous Orwell line applies to my story because  in 1913 the elite ladies of Montreal started up a Montreal Suffrage Association, but any new members had to be approved  by two members of the Executive, most of whom were clergymen and McGill Profs.

I know for a fact that my husband's great Aunt Edith Nicholson didn't join, her name isn't in the membership book in the archives at Montreal City Hall. But, then, she was all for the militant suffragettes. She said so in a letter home. (Edith is a character in Furies Cross the Mersey.)

Ironic, no? Wanting women to have universal suffrage, but not allowing most of them to be part of the process of  winning it?

There are reasons for this, of course. This being one:

It's all in my story, every detail.

When the Montreal Council of Women decided in 1912, shortly after Mrs. Pankhurst came to speak in Montreal in December, 1911, that they'd spin off a Suffrage Association (against their by-laws, by the way) they resolved to hold a public meeting.

In December, 1912 they held that 'public' meeting, but it wasn't very public. If they were being honest they would have admitted "We are going to hold a public meeting for all our good friends."

Here's the notice. Does it sound that anyone can attend? No.. but that's the way they wanted it.

So, when this Beatrice Forbes Robertson spoke, on December 12, 1912, she spoke only to a group  of Protestant Leaders.

Odd, because in her speech she said that POOR WOMEN ESPECIALLY NEED THE VOTE.

Read Furies Cross the Mersey on

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Carrie Derick, Census Mistakes, and Stories Maybe Missed

I found Miss Carrie Derick, the subject of my story Furies Cross the Mersey, on the 1901 Canadian Census, listed as a lodger.  Misspelled Cary Derick.

She is listed as a university lecturer, making 1000 a year, a very good salary. Her sister is a teacher, so also works.

I can't tell the street, but it is in St. Antoine Ward. (No doubt near McGill.)

She is not living with her boss :) Dr. Penhallow, who is listed a a lodger somewhere else.

LODGER. Hmmmmmmm.

On the 1901 census, Penhallow is listed with a woman, Sarah, a year or so younger with the same last name. Wife? Sister.

 If Penhallow wasn't married then it puts a little bit of a different tint on the relationship he would have had with Carrie Derick, doesn't it?  Or maybe he wasn't the marrying kind.

Let's see if I can find if Penhallow had a wife.


His Wikipedia page doesn't mention a wife and it says he 'allegedly' had a mental breakdown in 1909, Yikes! That really changes my story, well, if the story were about David Pearce Penhallow, but it's about Carrie Mathilda Derick.

Derick took over for Penhallow when he had this breakdown, doing his job for three years, but then she didn't get the post in 1912 when the post was filled.

 The  new Chair of Botany, a Professor Lloyd,  made 3,000 salary.

In 1901, a Louise Derick lives with Carrie Derick, very likely her sister.

In my story, which takes place in 1911/12/13, Miss Carrie Derick has a housekeeper. In 1911 she lived on Bishop and was making 2,000 dollars a year.

I know, because her 'uptown' address is indicated on the minutes of the Montreal Local Council of Women and in many other places.

This Bishop address could have been a boarding house too, but I chose to make it a comfortable home. She's 49 in 1911, after all. And making 2,000 a year.

She didn't get on the 1911 census which, to me, suggests she lived on her own and just wasn't at home in June 1911 when the Census Man came around. At a boarding house, the landlady would have given her name most likely.

Carrie Derick

In 1901, university lecturer (and lab demonstrator) Carrie Derick, lodged with a few other 'teachers' and another university lecturer, it seems, a man, James Henderson. At least she was getting the same 1000 dollar salary!  In 1900 she gave a report under the auspices of the National Council of Women saying that teaching was a 'bleak' profession. She had plenty of friends in the biz.

She gives her religion as Anglican, or Church of England. The Derick's of the E.T were of Dutch and German background.  She likely spoke German because she attended the University of Bonn.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Furies Cross the Mersey

About the British Invasion of Militant Suffragettes to Canada in 1912

Starring Emmeline Pankhurst
Barbara Wylie
Caroline Kenney
Carrie Derick
Octavia Ritchie England
Frances Fenwick Williams
Robert Borden

and the ladies of the Montreal Local Council of Women

Friday, September 12, 2014

Foyle's War, Moral Ambiguity and Binge Watching British TV Shows

Barbara Wylie, British Suffragette who came to Canada in 1912 to stir up trouble. What British character actor could play her, when they dramatize my book Furies Cross the Mersey.   Maybe a big star like Emily Blunt? :)

Last year my sister-in-law recommended the British TV show Foyle's War with Michael Kitchen to me, but when I checked on Netflix it wasn't there.

Too bad, I thought at the time, and then forgot all about it.

Well, the Foyle's War is there now on Netflix.  (I heard it first on Twitter.)

I've been looking for a good television program to binge on; I can't bear to watch some of those gritty shows like Breaking Bad, the ones my husband likes, too violent for me - or should I say too graphic.

And I'm up to date on Downtown Abbey and I have watched Parade's End from last year one too many times.

So this Foyle's War on Netflix  is just what the doctor ordered.

It has all those Brit character actors we know and love, from Pride and Prejudice in 1995 to Parade's End last year, and I can finally put a face to all those BBC Radio 4 drama voices.

And the first few episodes featured attractive young new talent that has gone on to greater film fortune, like James McAvoy and Emily Blunt.

Anyway, Foyle's War is a detective drama (not usually my favourite genre) in an historical period piece framework. WWII era.

And it is a program that has every right to be aired on the History Channel, because the show goes out of its way to tell the smaller,unknown stories of WWII, that is, in between the highly improbable murder mysteries that always have two or three seemingly separate incidents in a small city come together at  the end,

Anti-semitism is explored a great deal, for obvious reasons, but one aspect of this topic doesn't ring me as true.

At least one episode had ordinary citizens engaged in passionate debates about the plight of the Jews in Europe.

Everyone of my parent's generation I talked to about this over the decades, asking them, for instance, why they allowed boatloads of Jewish refugees to be turned away from Canadian shores, every one said "We didn't know. No one talked about it."

Passionate parlour discussions, pro vs con,  might have been a good thing back then. It's when otherwise good people turn a blind eye that horrible things happen.

I wonder what my grandchildren will hold me accountable for in 30 years as in "Why didn't you..." There's so much to choose from. "Why didn't you save the birds, the bears, the planet," is a pretty good guess.

Well, Foyle's War, the  ITV drama does deal with shades of gray, moral ambiguity - almost every episode.
The Guaranteed Milk Bottle, a relic from 1910 era Montreal, when pure milk was important. My story Furies Cross the Mersey tells about the Milk Stations of the era.

I have reached episode 11 already, in just two days, in between editing my 1912 story about the Montreal Suffragettes, an untold tale rife with moral ambiguity, Furies Cross the Mersey.

It's hard to film a period piece in Canada, even if anyone wanted to.

We don't have any old places.

Vankleek Hill in Eastern Ontario is a good place to film a 1910 era story that takes place in a country town.

The Mile End area of Montreal  is also from 1910 era, it was a new suburb back then.

But the area around Dominion Textile and the Lachine Canal  that was a bustling industrial center in 1910, now looks like a bombed out war-zone, or it's been gentrified.

(Anyway, to make my suffragette story marketable, I would have to turn it into a detective story, with zombie suffragettes solving murders, sending messages to modern citizens through tablets and smartphones. )

And, as has been well-documented,  the grand homes on Sherbrooke, the center of the Golden Square Mile in 1910 Montreal, have mostly been torn down. That process started in the 1930's and reached its peak in the 1970's, with the destruction of the Van Horne Mansion. (Sir William Van Horne, a Governor of McGill Univeristy, figures in my story.)

 Soon I'm going to have to find another new television show to watch if I keep up this pace.

Maybe I should be out doing something to change the world for the better rather than binging on TV serials. What a concept!

Oddly, a new series of the Foyle's War is coming out in 2015, 13 years after the first one.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The 100 Percent Hero? Doesn't Exist.

My temporary cover for Furies Cross the Mersey, by book about the Montreal Suffragettes. It's full title is Furies Cross the Mersey: the Very Ugly Story of 1912.

All the history talk these days is about this Franklin Expedition and the boat they found.  This will enhance our Arctic Sovereignty, the government is saying. And it is apparently a great exercise in 'nation building.'

What? Is this about all about oil, agaaaaaain?

Anyway, a funnier and more interesting article, from the Huffington Post, came my way yesterday.

 It was about saving printer ink (that extremely expensive commodity, even more costly than oil, although some inks are made with petroleum distillates, I think.)

Apparently, if everybody chose to use certain unfrilly fonts, enormous amounts of printer ink would be conserved.

And, if Canadians chose to use American style spelling, a great deal of printer ink would also be saved.

I thought this was especially funny, because I just finished my book Furies Cross the Mersey  and 90 percent of my errors, according to the Word Spell Check Program, were English spellings...

Here's the first bit of the first chapter of the story, to show you what I mean. Of course spell check doesn't catch typos.. and that's my next task.....I print the pages out in draft to save on ink.

And I don't have any colour ink in my printer.

July 1912.

I am trying to picture in my very modern mind’s eye how it all might have unfolded way back when in July 1913. In Montreal, Quebec, where I now live, but in the era of shirtwaist suits, Model-T Fords and suffragettes. 

The Post-Edwardian era, the Pre-WWI era, the post-Laurier Era in Canada.  

The era BBC Radio Four has recently referred to as  The Birth of Now.

But first I envisage a be-speckled woman, past middle age, seated in an armchair by the window in a small parlour, 100 or so kilometers away in farm country. 

The woman seems tall and solidly built yet trim, with a strong, attractive neck over narrow sloping shoulders; there’s a gentle spray of silver in her mahogany brown hair;  her eyebrows are pronounced and arching over a perfectly oval face; she has a nose too large that is slightly hooked, a straight slash of a mouth with nice full lips, and more than a mere spark of intelligence in her large wide-apart, almost doleful brown eyes.

She is sitting alone in the reception room of a relation’s small house in a remote corner of the Eastern Townships of Quebec.  In Clarenceville, Quebec to be specific.

Her gaze is turned toward the picture window looking out onto the street.

The armchair where she has parked her posterior is part of a three piece walnut parlour suite purchased from the 1900 Eaton’s catalogue, a plebian set displaying the generous curves and elaborate carvings popular back in the day. 

The suite still has its original upholstery, a floral motif in French silk, with large hairy dark gold blooms on a still invigorating fuchsia background.  

10 years with the same home d├ęcor is not a long time in the country where things move so slowly.

The woman vaguely notices that the material has faded in a few places, despite great efforts by the housekeeper to shade it from the sun with thick brocade drapes drawn over the picture window that faces West onto the town’s main street.

This afternoon the drapes are pulled wide open for the woman’s pleasure.

She, herself, is draped rather conservatively, in a bottle green linen dress in what would be described on the era fashion pages as ‘a smart and serviceable style.’

The top or ‘waist’ is in the ‘mannish’ style, but ‘in a slightly decorated way’ not nearly as severe as the mannish shirtwaists worn by younger working women, these days, as a symbol of their emancipation. 

There’s even a touch of lace at the top of the bodice. 

The sleeves are three quarters and turned up and if in readiness for some kind of hard work.

The skirt is without buttons, pleats, French knots, or scallops.

The dress is probably new, there’s no fading at the hem or thinning at the elbow.

This is an outfit that attracts no attention at all, nor does it detract from the woman’s carefully curated persona.

She has chosen to wear dresses like this from instinct. 

As a professional woman, of a certain age, there are no instructions manuals to show her what to wear. 

She is the pioneer, after all, a one-off of sorts, a kind of five-leaf clover of her sex.

A cup of black tea in an exquisite green and gold cup has been placed by her beside a stack of magazines on a two-tiered side table from the same turn-of-the-century Eaton’s catalogue.

The woman is spending this summer afternoon catching up on her reading: The Botanical Gazette; the Record of Science; the Journal of the Microscopial Society. 

So, she is a scientist! And a lady scientist, at that!


This is my introduction Miss Carrie Derick, M.A.  who, in July 1912, had just been turned down for a the post of Chair of Botany at McGill University.

 She was a remarkable woman in many respects, but her story isn't all light and roses.

 She was an exceptional achiever and as Education Chair for the National Council of Women she had a profound influence on schooling in Canada for decades to come.

But she had some very iffy ideas and she was, like so many, a strange contradiction.

In March 1913, when my story closes with the launching of the Montreal Suffrage Association, she gave a scary speech at the Montreal YMCA about eugenics.  

It was reported on in the papers.

In her speech she quoted a popular study, Jukes/Edwards, that 'proved' that unsocial behavior was inherited. (It was printed in the 1911 Ontario Hygiene Reader.)

This was a woman who fought for women's rights, and yet she couldn't see that this nature/nurture study was seriously flawed.

I had no choice but to include the speech in Furies Cross the Mersey.

Of course McGill University was eugenics central in Canada back then. 

There's no such thing as a 100 percent hero - if you don't want to white-wash history.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Timing is Everything, When it comes to life (and publishing)

Marion, second left, at McGill Normal School in 1905, I know because she wrote about taking this pic in a letter home. She hated the final print, said the pretty girl at left chose it.

Timing it is everything.

Earlier, I wrote a post on this blog, comparing the lives of Nella Last (a Lancashire homemaker) and my grandmother Dorothy Nixon (a Colonial Brit in Malaya but born in County Durham) and I showed how five little years difference in their births, 1890 and 1895, made a HUGE difference in their lives, despite their similar circumstances.

That's because of  WWI.

I can make the same case comparing Carrie Derick, and Marion Nicholson Blair (my husband's grandmother) who both figure in my NoCumentary (half fiction have facts) Furies Cross the Mersey, the story of the Canadian Suffrage Movement in 1912.

(I'm in the final stages of editing the book and hope to put it up on Kindle when the movie Suffragettes with Carrie Mulligan and Meryl Street is released.)

The entrance hall to one of the tony row houses in the Prince of Wales Terrace on Sherbrooke. Principal Peterson lived in one of these stunning homes so I have Carrie Derick sit here waiting for a meeting with him after she's been told that the position of Chair of Botany isn't hers. 

Carrie Derick was born in the Eastern Townships (ET) of Quebec. Like many of  the smart and ambitious women of her era, she went to Normal (Teachers) School.

She excelled at academics, so upon graduation she got a post as a principal in a school in a country town.

But the idea of this dead-end existence didn't sit well with her and she enrolled in college at McGill University in 1883, one of the first women students,  and won the gold medal with the highest marks ever, and went on to study in Europe and get posts at McGill, first as lecturer, then as as Assistant Prof and later, in 1912, she became Canada's first ever female full professor.

Furies Cross the  Mersey tells her story along with the story of Montreal's 'inert' suffrage movement.

Professor Derick was the leading suffrage advocate in the city and in 1913 she was appointed President of the Montreal Suffrage Association. Well, she appointed herself.

(The odd term 'inert' was used in the Gazette to describe Quebec's suffrage movement, in a 1913  article about the launch of the  Montreal Suffrage Association. I have little doubt that was Derick's own term.)

Marion, too, was offered that hellish job as principal in a small rural community upon her graduation from McGill Normal School in 1906. I have the letter.

The District Commissioner says some of the young students are rough, but he knows she can handle it.

She turns the Principalship down. (She's already witnessed a fistfight between an older student and a principal at her first job.)

Marion's family doesn't have the money to send her to McGill as a Donalda, but that doesn't matter. By 1906 there's an immigration boom in Montreal and a growing need for new teachers in the city.

As early as just 5 years before, in 1900, getting a job as a teacher was an iffy proposition. Derick, herself, wrote in a 1900 National Council of Women Report that teaching held bleak prospects for ambitious young women.

 "However, it must be said that the teaching profession is overcrowded, and the prospect cheerless. Teachers are overworked and underpaid and there is comparatively little hope of advancement for even the best trained and most talented Canadian woman teachers." 

The Nicholsons, Norman and Margaret, Edith and Marion and some relation or neighbour, 1910 circa.

As it happens, most Donaldas, despite their BA's from McGill, ended up as teachers, usually principals, but in the city.

Even as late as  the 1930s'  teaching was about the only option for McGill's female graduates who had to or wanted to work.

Men with the same degree went into the professions, but the women graduates didn't have the contacts these men had.

What's extremely ironic, those women who received diplomas in homemaking at Macdonald College had more career options as the century progressed as the industrial fields opened up

They had practical training..

Here's something else ironic: today in the Guardian online newspaper is an article about a man who wrote a WWI book about his ancestors from information found in box.

My Ancestors Live in a Box about Duncan Barrett who has just published a book called Men of Letters:


10 years, when I found the Nicholson Family Letters in an old trunk, I got some publicity in the West Island Gazette, but no one has been interested since.

My husband's ancestors are women, though and, worse, they are English Quebeckers. Few people want to promote this kind of history in Canada, I guess.

Except me.

Or maybe I went about it badly. I got the publicity, put the letters on a website (that got a lot of traffic from schools) then wrote four books.

Threshold Girl - about Flora Nicholson's year at MacDonald Teacher's College, with a social welfare theme.

Diary of a Confirmed Spinster: About Edith Nicholson's lost love in 1910.

The Nicholson Family Letters, from 1911 to 1913 edited.

Not Bonne Over Here, the WWI letters.

And soon Furies Cross the Mersey, a much more complex story, about the Montreal Suffrage Movement and Professor Carrie Derick's very bad year, 1912, at McGill.