Monday, April 18, 2016

Census Tales and Canadian Suffragettes

A fashion pic from The Montreal Saturday Mirror, shortlived 1913 tabloid funded by stock market types, full  of feminist and Pankhurst-loving features (by Frances Fenwick Williams) and trash talk about French City Hall and a certain irksom tramway deal. (I have no pic of Frances, so I like to think of her as looking like this in sassy hareem pants.)


As any genealogist will tell you, the Canadian censuses are full of mistakes, mistakes made by those who gave the enumerators the info, mistakes by enumerators writing things down incorrectly or too messily to be read, mistakes of transcription in the online databases.

But, this morning, while doing preliminary research for my next project, Untitled, a  play about the relationship between feminist author Frances Fenwick Williams and very old-fashioned (Sir) Dr. Andrew Macphail at McGill, I discovered that Frances was first registered on the 1881 Canadian census as a boy, Francis,

It is hardly likely that even a totally dotty maid servant would get the sex wrong of the oldest child in a household. The enumerator, in this case, had lovely handwriting.

By the next census, Francis was Frances, a girl and she remained that way, through a rather fabulous life.



I've already written a lot about Frances de Wolfe Fenwick Williams, a Montreal journalist who sat on the Board of the Montreal Suffrage Association, who appeared to straddle the worlds of Montreal high society and British bohemia.

She's in both Furies Cross the Mersey (about the British Invasion of Suffragettes to Montreal in 1912/13 and Service and Disservice (about the iffy involvement of the Canadian suffragists in the 1917 Conscription Crisis.

I suspect that Frances, who travelled to England to visit Pankhurst's suffragettes in 1912, was largely reponsible for these suffragettes coming to Montreal in 1912/13, even if the other members of the Board of the MSA loathed and feared Mrs. Pankhurst and her ilk.

In Service and Disservice, I have Frances speak in the first person and she calls herself 'an outlier'.

Well, now I realize she really was.

Frances married in 1909, but the couple parted ways immediately. Being married gave Frances respectability with the suffragists of Montreal, who were very wary of unmarried women, in general. They did their very best to keep these 'excitable' types out of the Canadian movement.


Frances' grandfather was a McGill medical man, which might explain how she got to work for Dr. Andrew Macphail in 1907, helping with his literary publication, the University Magazine.

Her father was a broker in mining, one time official with the Montreal Stock Exchange, so his 1932 obit says.

This might account for her connection with Lorne McGibbon, a financier with interests in mining, who came out of hiding to give a speech in Montreal in favor of Borden's Union Party during the divisive Conscription election 1917. Frances also gave rousing speeches for the cause. It's all in Service and Disservice.

Ironically, the 1881 census claims her mother, Annie de Wolfe, was German. So, Frances' German ancestry might have led to her being so vocal agains the Germans during the war.

I must re-read Frances Fenwick Williams' sassy novels, A Soul on Fire and the Arch Satirist, and articles for any hints about her identity. It is likely she was born an hermaphrodite - and it is possible she didn't even know.

(Well, I had to do this anyway for my play)

All very interesting... if it is true.

 The first Montreal Saturday Mirror, Feb 1913, put Mrs. Pankhurst on the Cover. The Tabloid, created to help bring down French City Hall, lasted only until June, 1913.