Sunday, June 18, 2017

McGill Phys Ed 1928 - and Sin City


In June and July 1928, Edith Nicholson, Assistant to the Registar at McGill University and  Tutor-in-Residence at "The Hostel" for female Phys Ed students, visited London and Paris.

She must have gone on official McGill business, because Edith didn't have any money and neither did her family.

I'm writing a book about Edith, who is my husband's great aunt. It'll take place in 1928, the Jazz Age, the Age of American Prohibition. It'll involved my own grandfather who was Director of City Services.

I'm not sure how to go about writing this story. I have some of Edith's letters and the 1928/29 Hostelights magazine, dedicated to her wise guidance. That's a start.

I also found this article in the the September 14, 1928 Montreal Gazette. "Rise of Physical Education Traced."

That year the McGill Female Phys Ed Department welcoming event was covered by the press with an article in the daily Women's Section of the Montreal Gazette, a section that always featured a sketch of a slim girl in a flapper dress and cloche hat. We all know and love that style.

The article quotes Dr. A.S. Lamb, who was the Director of Phys Ed at McGill back then, and Mrs. J.S. Herriott, the Director the Women's Program.  It also quotes Mrs Walter (sic) Vaugh (Susan Cameron Vaughn, actually) who was acting Warden at Royal Victoria College, the Women's College at McGill and pays tribute to the Warden, Miss Ethel Hurlbatt, who was recovering from a heart attack.

(Hurlbatt soon returns to work and suffers another health setback and then she retired. )

The article goes on to name the teachers in the McGill Phys Ed Department, but it does mention Edith Nicholson, Tutor-in-Residence.

Oh, well. Edith may have stepped out with Miss Carrie Derick, famed McGill professor, (so says a 1927 letter) but she wasn't important enough to get a mention in a newspaper article. I'm certain she was at this event. She arrived from Europe on September 7, 1928.

Not important enough. Indeed, when I visited McGill to check out a few boxes containing the fonds of Royal Victorial College, I found her name mentioned but once.

Letter from England. In France, she attended a War Memorial ceremony and was given the honour of placing a wreath at the grave of the unknown soldier.

And she worked there as Assistant Warden in the 1930's to the 1950's!

She also gets no mention in Margaret Gillett's We Walked Very Warily, about the first women (Donalda's) at McGill.

You see, Edith didn't have a B.A. degree, just a teacher's degree -and a provisionary one at that.  She did have good connections, though. All the Nicholsons did.


I know she started her career at McGill in September, 1920, working in the Registrar's Office. (The Registrar was a Dr. Nicholson, no direct relation, but a member of the Clan, no doubt.)

She had been at Sun Life Insurance during WWI, while volunteering with the Navy League and the YMCA's V campaign.

Before that, in 1915, she had worked at Wesleyan Theological  College, on University. She registered an Italian student who she had converted to Protestantism at French Methodist School in Westmount, under a Dr. Villard. She had worked there from 1908 to 1912.


Dr. Nicholson of McGill recommended Edith visit the Bodelian Library at Oxford while in England - and she did. She got the grand tour of the place.  She spent five full days at Oxford. In June, 1928, they were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first woman's college at Oxford.

Yes, Edith must have gone to Europe on some official McGill business. She went with a Margaret Reid, Isabel Rowat and a Miss Brittain, possibly the same Miss Brittain who was involved with the Montreal Council of Women during WWI.

(It can't be Vera Brittain.)


Why am I writing another book about Edith, after Diary of a Confirmed Spinster,Threshold Girl and Furies Cross the Mersey? Because in 1928, Montreal was Sin City, also famous for being a place where Americans came to party. (The newspapers were full of stories about the increased tourism to Montreal, while never mentioning that it was alcohol luring the tourists.)

In 1925 there had been a public inquiry into police corruption, where the presiding judge, in his final report claimed "Vice spreads its tentacles into every aspect of City Life."

By September, 1928, the same newspaper claimed, the policemen involved in the corruption were still on the job. Either prosecute them or exonerate them, people said.

I read in the Fonds of RVC that there were only four places in the city where these female students were allowed to go, Mount Royal, The Windsor Grill, Morgan's Department Store and the Ritz Carleton.


And, yet, the Gazette article had this in it:


So, what's up?

The Phys Ed Department, Female Side, had students from Montreal, Quebec, every province and 'a few Americans.'

These days, I've read, Montreal is a booming university student with loads of foreign students, one of the world leaders for student-tourism.