The Last Presentation of Debutantes

24 January 1958

Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, red letter days on the British social calendar marked royal levées and “drawing rooms” when aristocratic men and women met and socialized with the monarch. Levées, from the French word lever meaning to rise, had their roots in the old tradition of men attending the sovereign when he got up in the morning. To be present when the king used the chaise percée a.k.a. toilet was a great privilege for the up and coming courtier whose future could be made should the royal visage look favourably upon him. Intimacy meant power. Conversely, a courtier’s future could be dashed if he made some unpardonable faux pas, such as pointing and laughing. Like their masculine counterpart, “drawing rooms” were occasions for women to mingle with the sovereign, and became an opportunity for a young girl, or debutante, typically in her late teens, to be lancée, (literally thrown) into high society by being presented to the sovereign. Over time, the distinction between a levée and a drawing room faded.

These highly stylized rituals reached their zenith during the ancien régime in France prior to the Revolution in 1789, though Napoleon was no slouch in the etiquette department either. Courtiers attended every function of French royal life, bodily or otherwise. In Britain, Queen Elizabeth the First apparently mingled with commoners in the gallery at Greenwich Palace during the sixteenth century, with the practice become more regular and formalized by the reign of Queen Anne in the early eighteenth century. But it was during Queen Victoria’s reign that the tradition of presentation parties for young debutantes reached its peak. As anybody knows from watching Downton Abbey, coming out to Society, which had a very different meaning in those days, was a once in a lifetime event for a young aristocratic girl. It marked her emergence into adulthood—a sort of secular, Anglo bat mitzvah. It also marked the start of the social season, which included such events as the Royal Ascot, the Henley rowing competition and the yacht races at Cowes, as well as a constant swirl of parties and receptions. The aim of all these activities was the acquisition of a suitable husband, preferably one with a title.

In republican United States, the lack of a king or queen was only a minor hindrance. Debutante balls and cotillions were regularly held to launch young women into the upper ranks of American society. For those seeking a royal imprimatur, American heiresses with the right connections and heaps of money could be presented at the Court of St. James’s in London. Once presented, they could troll for a suitable British husband who had the right forebears but was short of cash to maintain the family pile.

debutante drawing room 230201888 oj

Notice of a Drawing Room, 23 February, 1888, The Ottawa Journal

Here in Canada, we were fortunate that there was a vice-regal “court” that followed the same traditions as in London. Governors General held levées and drawing rooms just as Queen Victoria did. Indeed, Lord Elgin held a levée in Bytown in 1853 when he visited the town to check it out as a possible capital for the new Province of Canada. By the time of Confederation, the presentation of debutantes to the Governor General was in full swing with “drawing rooms” held in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill.

At one such drawing room held in February 1870, guests were given specific instructions. Sleighs were to enter Parliament Square from the eastern Elgin Street gate, proceed past the East Block and set down guests in front of the Senate entrance which was lit by red lights. Sleighmen were then to exit via the central gates. Parliamentarians with wives and daughters were to enter via the House of Commons door which was lit by green lights. All guests were requested to provide two cards with the name of the person legibly printed, one for the aide de camp at the door and the other for the presentation aide. Presentations would end precisely at 10 pm. In little Ottawa, this was the social highlight of the winter season and received considerable newspaper coverage. More than one thousand people might attend these events. The names of participants were listed in the newspapers complete with descriptions of what the ladies wore and their jewellery.

A whole industry developed to dress ladies attending the drawing rooms, and to provide deportment lessons to the aspiring debutante who was, understandably, stressed about literally putting the wrong foot forward. Girls would practise in the privacy of their bedrooms curtseying before chairs. (For those who need to know, the proper style is to put the right foot in front, left behind, make a deep knee-bend, hold out the right hand, and go down very slowly while maintaining eye contact. Then rise and retire without turning your back on the important personage.)

While many wanted the social cachet of being presented to the Queen or Governor General, some saw the whole rigmarole as excessive or a waste of time. As early as 1863, the satirical magazine Punch called the Queen’s Drawing Room “The House of Detention for Ladies.” In 1896, an American debutante said in the press that “it was vulgar to come out. Boys never come out.  What is the reason of it all, I should like to know? Isn’t it really to announce to the world that we are a marriageable age and that we are on the market? It is perfectly intolerable. I think we are like victims decked out for sacrifice.” Instead of spending thousands on dresses and dinner parties, she asked her father to give her the money to start a business.

By the time of the more egalitarian 1950s, the idea of being presented at Court seemed out-of-date. In November 1957, Buckingham Palace announced that presentations of debutantes would cease the following year and would be replaced by garden parties. This would allow the Queen and the Prince of Edinburgh to meet a wider range of people in a less formal setting. The announcement was widely applauded. “The selection of the privileged few [had] become increasingly difficult and even invidious” said one newspaper. The news led to so many girls applying to be presented that additional presentations had to be laid on in 1958 to accommodate everybody. The last presentation of debutantes in London occurred in July 1958 with the Queen Mother officiating as Queen Elizabeth was ill. The last debutante presented was a Canadian, twenty-year old Sandra Seagram.

debutante oj 17-1-58

Full page advertisement for Le Bal des Petits Souliers, 17 January 1958, The Ottawa Journal

The Buckingham Palace announcement led Vincent Massey, Canada’s Governor General, to also end the custom of debutante presentations in Ottawa which by this time had long left the formal environs of Parliament Hill, and replaced by a charity event held at a major hotel. The last official presentation of Ottawa debutantes occurred on 24 January 1958. Five young girls were presented to Governor General Massey in the context of gala charity dinner and ball hosted by La Ligue de la Jeunesse Feminine (the League of Feminine Youth). The event, held at the Château Laurier Hotel, was called Le Bal des Petits Souliers (the Ball of the Little Shoes) with funds raised going to buy shoes for underprivileged children living in Ottawa, Eastview, Hull, Pointe Gatineau and Aylmer. Called the Fiesta Espanola, the Château was Spanish territory for the evening. Tickets were $15 per couple.

Guests at the Fiesta entered through a wrought-iron portico where they were met by life-sized mannikins of toreadors and ladies wearing mantillas. The ballroom was decorated in red and yellow—the national colours of Spain with wide streamers radiating from the central chandelier which was lit by tiny red lights. The head table was decorated with black lace fans and red carnations. Other tables boasted centrepieces made of straw baskets filled with lemons and red carnations. In the corridor outside of the ballroom, guests could go shopping for Spanish handicrafts, refresh themselves at a Spanish-style café equipped with small tables and umbrellas, or try their luck in the games’ alley. Usherettes were dressed as Spanish dolls in colourful costumes.

The evening started with a reception where the Governor General was welcomed by the president of the League and members of the organizing committee. Later, seated at the head table with the Governor General Massey and senior members of the League, were the Spanish Ambassador and his wife, Mr and Mrs Eduardo Propper de Callijon, and Mr and Mrs Lionel Massey. Lionel Massey was the Governor General’s nephew and Secretary. Lionel Massey’s wife Lilas was acting chatêlene of Rideau Hall as the Governor General was a widower. The five lucky debutantes were: Miss Isabel Larrabure, the daughter of the Peruvian Ambassador, Miss Louise Brisson, Miss Pierrette Larocque, Miss Pierrette Vachon, and Miss Catharine Woollam. Each girl was given a fan of white Spanish lace with red carnations and streamers courtesy of the League.

the debutantes oc 25-1-58

The Debutantes,(left to right) Miss Pierrette Larocque, Miss Catherine Woollam, Miss Pierrette Vachon, Miss Isabel Larrabure, and Miss Louise Brisson, The Ottawa Citizen 25 January 1958.

Spanish-themed entertainment was put on during the evening with Don Quixote, alias comedian Roger Aucouturier, making an appearance with his pantomime horse Rocinante to poke fun at Ottawa. Lively Spanish dances were also performed by a troupe of dance students while a group of “non-so-little boys in berets and short pants” staged a comedic chorus. Dance music was supplied by Fred Quirouet and his orchestra. A strolling guitarist played Spanish tunes throughout the evening. At the end of the night, Mr and Mrs J.A. Roy of 351 Nelson Street won two airline tickets to Madrid in a charity draw.

While the 1958 edition of Le Bal des Petits Souliers was the last presentation of debutantes to the Governor General made in Ottawa, the tradition staggered on in other cities for a few more years. In Montreal, Governor General Massey greeted 28 debutantes at the annual St Andrew’s Day Charity Ball held in early 1959. The Artillery Ball in Toronto, where the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario greeted debutantes, was continued for another year. The last official provincial presentation of debutantes in Canada occurred at Nova Scotia’s St Andrew’s Day Ball held in 1965.

Notwithstanding the withdrawal of regal support, the tradition of debutante balls continues to this day, especially in the United States, but also in Canada. The most prominent ball is New York’s biennial International Debutante Ball that began in 1954.  This is an invitation-only event for the daughters of wealthy, well-connected New York society families. The daughters of U.S. presidents have been invited as have carefully chosen debutantes from Canada and other countries. Candidate debutantes are selected by previous debutantes and must be accepted by a committee. They also have to be able to afford the presentation fee of US$22,000. While the Ball has traditionally been held in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the event moved to The Pierre while the Waldorf-Astoria undergoes a major renovation.

Since 1994, Ottawa has had its own fairy-tale ball where teenage girls and boys can pretend to be princesses and princes for the evening. Sponsored in part by the Austrian Embassy, the Viennese Winter Ball is held annually in March. In addition to fostering a love of Austrian culture and ball-room dancing, the Viennese Winter Ball raises funds for charity. Single tickets will set you back $400. $5,000 will purchase an eight-guest corporate table. Discount student and young adult tickets are available for as low as $150. Teenagers aged 16 to 18 years of age eager to participate must apply and write two short essays, the first on why they want to participate in this year’s ball and the second on themselves—their community service, charity work, goals and interests. The Ball Selection Committee will then review and interview the applicants, and invite them to a dance practice. (Apparently, kids practise waltzes, fox-trots and polkas for weeks leading up to the big day.) Twelve debutantes and twelve “cavaliers” will be chosen. The dress code is a white, full-length formal gown for the girls, with white comfortable shoes. Complementary long-white satin gloves will be provided. Hair and make-up must be neat and polished. The boys must wear a black tuxedo with a white shirt, black bow-tie, cummerbund and formal, wrist-length, white gloves. Their hair must be trimmed. Unlike debutante balls one hundred years ago, the Viennese Winter Ball is open to all Ottawa youth. For those unable to afford it, financial assistance is available.

Sources:

Montreal Gazette. 1966. “Day of Debutante Ends In Halifax,” 7 March 1966.

Ottawa Citizen, 1863. “Drawing Room Days,” 17 July.

——————, 1870. “Levee & Drawing Room at Parliament House,” 25 February.

——————, 1896. “A Debutante Revolt,” 10 November.

——————, 1957. “Debutante Parties Out,” 19 November.

——————, 1957. “Reaction Is Favorable To Presentation Ban,” 19 November.

——————, 1958. “Debs Storm Palace For Last Party,” 6 January.

——————, 1958. “His Excellency Receives Debutantes At La Ligue’s Annual Charity Ball,” 25 January.

Ottawa Journal, 1887. “Queen’s Drawing Room,” 22 March.

——————-, 1958. “Debutante Ball,” 24 January.

——————, 1958. “Five Debutantes Make Bows to Society Presented to Governor General at Ball,” 25 January.

——————, 1958. “Two at Ball Win Trip to Spain,” 25 January.

——————, 1958. “Annual La Ligue Ball Aids Hundreds of Needy Children,” 25 February.

——————, 1958. “Debs set For Last Royal Fling,” 15 March.

——————, 1958. “Canadian Girl Last of Royal Debutantes,” 18 July.

Viennese Winter Ball, 2019. https://www.viennesewinterball.ca/.

 

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The Canadian Historical Dinner Service

18 June 1898

When John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, the 7th Earl of Aberdeen (later 1st Marquis of Aberdeen and Temair) was appointed Governor General of Canada in May 1893, few Canadians would have known that they were effectively getting two governors general rather than one. Lord Aberdeen’s wife, Ishbel, the Countess of Aberdeen, was not the traditional, self-effacing Victorian wife, content to live in the shadow of her illustrious spouse. While she fulfilled her expected roles of mother and hostess, her real passion in life was improving the lot of the poor, at home in Scotland, or wherever her husband was posted.

Lord and Lady Aberdeen LAC

Lord and Lady Aberdeen with (left to right) Dudley, Marjorie, George, and Archibald, Topley Studio-Library and Archives Canada, PA-027852.

Both she and her husband were progressive socially and politically, with links to the Liberal Party. Back in Scotland, she had founded charitable organizations aimed at improving the education and health of working-class women. When her husband was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the mid-1880s (and again prior to World War I), it was hard to tell who worked harder. Sensitive to growing Irish nationalism, Lord Aberdeen favoured Home Rule while his Countess worked tirelessly for Irish economic development, and better health care and housing for Irish poor. A Sinn Féin (Irish Nationalist) newspaper called her “the real governor-general of Ireland.”

In Canada, Lady Aberdeen continued her social crusading ways.  Immediately upon her arrival in the country, she launched the National Council of Women and was elected its first president, a position she accepted on the proviso she be considered an honorary Canadian. This was not some sinecure. She took the lead in making the Council a reality. She had already been elected President of the International Council of Women at the Chicago World Fair, a position she was to hold for more than thirty years. In 1897, she started the Victorian Order of Nurses in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, criss-crossing the country to drum up support and donations. She and other leading Ottawa ladies also worked hard to establish a public library in Ottawa, though this campaign didn’t bear fruit until some years after she and her husband had left Canada.

Charming, persuasive and an excellent orator, Lady Aberdeen’s effectiveness was also due to her willingness to use her high social position and contacts to her advantage. Needless to say, she irritated men who thought the role of the wife of a governor general should be limited to official hostess. Some saw her as bossy, sticking her aristocratic nose into things that weren’t her concern. One Halifax newspaper fumed that “we expect our Governors General to so govern their own families as to keep them out of mischief.” A New York newspaper said she was “too clever and too advanced for Canadians” and that she was “too much interested in movements.”

During Lord Aberdeen’s five-year appointment, the couple tirelessly crossed the country meeting and greeting Canadians of all types. They had a particularly strong connection with British Columbia where they had a large ranch. The Aberdeens are credited with launching the Okanagan fruit industry on a commercial scale. Lord Aberdeen, already extremely popular among Canadians of Scottish and Irish extraction, endeared himself to French Canadians by speaking French, and promoting French culture and heritage. It was he who started the practice of speaking in both official languages at public gatherings in Quebec. He also spoke Gaelic when he visited Nova Scotia. (There were so many Gaelic speakers that there was an attempt in the mid-1890s to make Gaelic Canada’s third official language.)

Aberdeen dinner plate

Dinner plate, Parliament Buildings and Ottawa River by Martha Logan (1863-1937), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia.

In 1898, Lord and Lady Aberdeen took leave of Canada. His last speech in the Senate was on 13 June 1898 when he prorogued Parliament. It was an emotional affair for all concerned. After the Governor General had concluded his valedictorian speech, people adjourned to the drawing room of the Senate’s speaker. There, Lady Aberdeen was given a farewell present, the gift of senators and members of parliament. The Honourable George William Allan of the Senate and Mr. Frank Frost, the Liberal MP of Leeds North and Grenville North made the formal presentation of a 204-piece formal dinner service. Speaking on behalf of everyone, Senator Allan said that the dinner service was a “memorial to their esteem and affection in recognition of the signal devotion of Her Excellency [Lady Aberdeen] to the promotion of all good works in Canada and [her] invariable kindness to the members of the Dominion Parliament.” He noted that the painted plates were the work of the Women’s Art Association of Canada and was hence “most suitable for presentation, both because it is purely Canadian and because it is the result of efforts of Canadian women, in whom Your Excellency has always shown the deepest interest.”

Aberdeen Fish

Fish plate, Cytherea gibbia, Halymenia ligulata by Lily Osman Adams (1865-1945), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

Lady Aberdeen was surprised and genuinely touched by the magnificent gesture. She responded without notes, saying that she was “overwhelmed” by the splendid gift. She added that the parliamentarians “could not possibly have chosen anything that [she and her husband] could have valued more,” and that it held “a special value to [her], being handiwork of those Canadian women workers with whom [she had] so many cherished associations of affectionate sympathy and co-operation for common aims and common works.” She concluded by saying that during every festive event, the plates would remind them of their stay in Canada.

The dinner service had its origins in an idea championed two years earlier by Mary Ella Dignam, the founder and president of the Women’s Art Association of Canada (WAAC) as a way of celebrating the 400th anniversary of the John Cabot’s journey of discovery to North America in 1497.  Sixteen Canadian women artists were jury-selected to paint images of Canadian places of historic importance as well as examples of Canadian flora and fauna on the 204-piece, ceramic dinner service.[1] Dignam hoped that the Dominion Government would buy the service, which was called the Cabot Commemorative State Service, for use at Government House (Rideau Hall) for state banquets. The selling price was $1,000 (roughly $30,000 in today’s prices).

Aberdeen soup

Soup plate, Entrance to Fort Lennox, by Clara Elizabeth Galbraith (1864-1941), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

In an interview that appeared in The Globe newspaper in 1897, Dignam credited a Mr. Howland (most likely Oliver Aiken Howland, an Ontario politician and future mayor of Toronto) as coming up with the idea of commemorating the event with a historical work, and a Mr. Thompson with the suggestion that the work take the form of a state dinner service. However, Dignam was the person who brought the idea to fruition. In addition to honouring Cabot and equipping Rideau Hall with a distinctively Canadian dinner service for state events, Dignam hoped that the work would help establish ceramic art as a “permanent industry” in Canada.

The inspiration for a Canadian state dinner service appears to have come from south of the border. In 1879, the wife of then U.S. president Rutherford Hayes commissioned a state dinner service for the White House featuring American flora and fauna. The plates were designed by the American artist Theodore R. Davis and were produced by a company in Limoges, France. While this American service may have provided the model for the Canadian dinner service, Dignam was adamant that there was no resemblance between the two services except for their intended use. The American plates were designed by one man and decorated in one factory, whereas the Canadian plates were the designed by many female artists and were made across the country.

Aberdeen dessert

Dessert plate, Redcurrants by Alice M. Judd (18?-1843), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

After being selected through a competition, the sixteen artists bought commercially-produced, plain white, ceramic “blanks” produced by Doulton China of England for $6.60 a dozen. Dignam promised the artists at least $60 less ten percent for twelve pieces of original ceramic art, on the assumption that the service would be sold for $1,000. The rest of the funds raised would go to cover other expenses such as postage. If the service didn’t sell, the artists were on the hook to find buyers for their creations.

Each place setting consisted of a soup plate, fish plate, dinner plate, game plate, salad plate, cheese plate, dessert plate and a coffee cup and saucer. Each plate and cup had its own unique design. A ceramics committee of the WAAC provided a collection of pictures and sketches of Canadian historic sites, Canadian game animals, fish, shells and ferns for the inspiration of the artists. Artists were assigned plates to design, paint and fire. For example, Mrs Egan of Halifax and Miss Whitney of Montreal were assigned the game plates, with the former painting large game birds and the latter small game birds. On the rim of the game plates were painted the food favoured by the species shown in the centre. On the back of every plate was a special red logo of the shield of the WAAC surmounted by rendering of Cabot’s ship, the Matthew, with the dates 1497-1897 underneath.

Aberdeen saucer

Saucer, Jewel weed by Anna Lucy Kelly (1849-1920), Canadian Museum of History, Wikipedia

The artists had only four months to complete their designs and fire the plates. Working in isolation from each other, the full dinner service was only seen in its entirety when the ceramics committee assembled it for inspection. The Cabot Commemorative State Dinner Service went on public display at the Pantecnetheca (116 Yonge Street) in Toronto in July 1897. It was subsequently displayed during the British Association meeting held in Toronto the following month, and at the headquarters of the WAAC where Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Prime Minister, and Lady Laurier inspected the pieces. The dinner service then travelled to other cities for public viewing.

While the dinner service was highly praised, Mary Dignam was unable to persuade the Dominion Government to part with the $1,000 needed to cover the costs of production. So, Dignam approached Lady Edgar, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, who put her in touch with a number of senators and members of Parliament. More than 150 senators and MPs put up the required $1,000 in a private subscription to purchase the dinner service to honour the Canadian achievements of Lady Aberdeen.

The dinner service, now called the Canadian Historical Dinner Service, went home with Lord and Lady Aberdeen and took up residence in their home, Haddo House, where it was stored in a specially-built cabinet. The dinner service, which is now owned by the National Trust of Scotland, resides there to this day. In 1997, part of the service was exhibited at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, now known as the Canadian Museum of History, for the 500th anniversary of John Cabot’s journey to North America.

Sources:

Duncan, March 2015, “An Irishman’s Diary on Lady Aberdeen,” The Irish Times, 3 March.

Elwood Marie, 2018. “The Cabot Commemorative State Service for Canada, 1897 – A History,” Canadian Museum of History, https://www.historymuseum.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/cadeau/caint02e.shtml.

—————–, 1977. “The State Dinner Service of Canada, 1898, Material Culture Review, Vol. 3, Spring, https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/MCR/article/view/16955/23046.

Globe (The), 1897. “Chit Chat,” 15 April.

—————, 1897. “The State Dinner Set,” 23 July.

—————, 1897. “Chit Chat,” 8 October.

—————, 1897. “Ceramic Art,” 4 December.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1997, “Exhibits celebrate unusual art objects,” 8 September.

Ottawa Evening Citizen (The), 1898. “A Farewell to the Aberdeens,” 14 June.

[1] Lily Osman Adams, Jane Bertram, M. Louise Couen, Alice M. Egan, Clara Elizabeth Galbraith, Justina A. Harrison, Juliet Howson, Margaret Irvine, Alice Lucy Kelley, Margaret McClung, Hattie Proctor, M. Roberts, Phoebe Amelia Watson and Elizabeth Whitney.

The Passing of Lord Tweedsmuir

6 February, 1940

Since Confederation in 1867, twenty-nine individuals have held the position as Governor General—the Monarch’s representative in Canada. The current incumbent is Julie Payette. Although most have been forgotten, the names of some continue to resonate today. Lord Stanley of Preston (1888-1893), a hockey enthusiast, is remembered for the Stanley Cup, the trophy he originally awarded in 1892 to the top amateur hockey team in Canada, and now the symbol of North American hockey supremacy. Similarly, Earl Grey (1904-11) is known for the Grey Cup, the trophy he commissioned in 1909 for the champion team of Canadian football.

Lord Tweedsmuir, Canada’s Governor General from 1935 to his death in 1940, is also worthy of remembrance. Scottish by birth, Tweedsmuir is perhaps better known as John Buchan, the novelist. He was created 1st Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield by George V on his appointment in 1935 as Canada’s Governor General. Buchan was the author of more than 100 fiction and non-fiction works, the most famous of which is The Thirty Nine Steps, a novel about a German spy ring in Britain at the outset of the Great War that he wrote in 1914. In 1935, the book was made into a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It has been remade at least twice, the latest in 2008 for television by the BBC. Tweedsmuir is considered by many to be the father of the modern spy thriller.  While he was Governor General, he somehow found the time to write three books—the novel The Island of Sheep, a biography of the Roman Emperor Augustus, the manuscript of which is housed at McGill University, and his memoirs, which were published posthumously.

Thirty-Nine Steps

Book Cover of The Thirty-Nine Steps, First Edition, 1915

Tweedsmuir was passionate about Canada, and all things Canadian. In turn, he was much loved by Canadians across the country. He was the first Governor General to be appointed after the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931 that effectively gave Canada its independence from Great Britain. Reflecting Canada’s changed status, he was made Governor General by King George V on the advice of the Canadian Government of R.B. Bennett rather than by the British Government. A staunch supporter of Canada’s new autonomy, he was keen to foster the development of a distinct Canadian nationalism at a time when many in Canada still looked first to Britain for leadership. He earned the ire of Canadian imperialists by insisting that the first loyalty of Canadians was to Canada and its King, rather than the British Empire. He was also the main promoter of a Royal Visit that saw King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth come to North America in 1939 not as King and Queen of Great Britain but as King and Queen of Canada.

He also worked hard to foster Canadian unity, travelling extensively across the country. In one trip in 1937, he journeyed more than 12,000 miles, visiting people in every part of Canada, including the far north, a part of the country that entranced him. Instead of the elites, Tweedmuir met with ordinary Canadian citizens of all backgrounds; he was an ardent supporter of Canadian multiculturalism. Reflecting his love of literature, he established in 1936, with the encouragement of his wife, the Governor-General’s Awards for literature, creating awards for the best English fiction and non-fiction writing. The awards subsequently expanded to cover seven categories, including poetry, drama, translation, and children’s literature (text and illustration) in both official languages.

Tweedsmuir

Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada, 1935, Author unknown.

Sadly, Tweedsmuir died a relatively early age of sixty-four. At about 9am on Tuesday, 6 February 1940, he “took a weak turn,” and fell heavily in his bathroom at Rideau Hall. He hit his head against the edge of the bathtub, and suffered a concussion. Initial press releases regarding his health were upbeat. Four physicians, two of whom were specialists from the Montreal Neurological Institute, reported a “steady improvement” in Tweedsmuir’s condition. They also stated that he was resting comfortably, and that he was conscious. In reality, however, Tweedsmuir’s condition was grave. Even prior to his fall, he had been in frail health. He had gone to New York the previous autumn for a complete medical, and had declined an offered extension of his term as Governor General on health grounds. The evening after his fall, Prime Minister Makenzie King went to Rideau Hall to check personally on the Governor General’s condition. Although King spoke to the doctors, he was not permitted to see Tweedsmuir. The Governor General was put under 24-hour medical surveillance, with updates on his condition reported regularly to an anxious Canada. The telephone switchboard at Rideau Hall was manned around the clock. With his condition deteriorating, doctors performed an emergency trepanning operation on Tweedsmuir to reduce intracranial pressure.

On the Friday after his accident, he was taken to Montreal on a special three-car train, attended by five physicians. Arriving at Bonaventure Station, he was carried from the train on a stretcher, his head swathed in bandages, and driven by ambulance to the Montreal Neurological Institute. The entire fifth floor was set aside for him, his doctors, Lady Tweedsmuir and one of their sons, the Hon. Alastair Buchan.  The Neurological Institute, considered one of the finest in North America, was built in 1933, and was attached to the Royal Victorian Hospital. Dr Meakins, the Hospital’s chief physician, and Dr Wilder Penfield, Canada’s leading neurosurgeon, as well as Lieut.-Colonel Dr Russell, another neurosurgeon, performed a second trepanning operation on the fading Governor General. Briefly, he appeared to rally, but he suffered a relapse. After a third trepanning operation, which lasted four hours, Lord Tweedsmuir, died at 7.13pm on Sunday 11 February, 1940. He had never fully regained consciousness. The proximate cause of death was a pulmonary embolism due to a clot that had formed in his leg. However, a post mortem revealed that he had suffered a stroke that had caused acute swelling of the right side of his brain. His left side has also been paralysed.

News of his passing was taken hard by Canadians. Prime Minister King described Tweedsmuir as “Canada’s adopted son.” The Ottawa Citizen said that the Governor General had “won the hearts of every person in this great Dominion in an unbelievably short period of time.” The newspaper added that Tweedsmuir was “at once a statesman, an able administrator, a wise politician, a popular novelist, a scholarly biographer, a skilled historian, a clever soldier, and a masterful poet.”

A special funeral train brought Tweedsmuir’s body back to Ottawa, where it laid in state in the Senate chamber. His coffin was escorted to Parliament Hill by representatives of the Governor General’s Foot Guards and the 4th Princess Louise Dragon Guards—the two household regiments. The closed casket was draped with the Union Jack. On top of it rested Tweedsmuir’s official Governor General’s hat and sword. At one end laid his medals and honours on a black satin cloth. A wreath of carnations from his wife rested at the foot of the bier. Officers of the Governor General Foot Guards and the Princess Louise Dragoon Guards, with their head bowed and their swords reversed, provided a ceremonial guard. Over fourteen thousand men, women and children solemnly filed past his bier in two lines to pay their last respects during the short public visiting period. Many were kept waiting outside in sub-zero temperatures for a chance to enter the Centre Block.

On 14 February, just over a week after his collapse at Rideau Hall, Tweedsmuir was given a state funeral at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Wellington Street. Three thousand servicemen lined the route of the funeral cortege. His coffin was brought to the church from Parliament Hill by car. After the service, it was conveyed to Union Station on a naval gun carriage pulled by 60 ratings from the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. The chimes on the Peace Tower were muffled. Some 50,000 people packed every inch of the short route to the train station—a solemn counterpoint to the joyous throngs that had filled Ottawa’s streets the previous year when the King and Queen had visited the capital. Millions more listened to the funeral service broadcasted over CBC radio. Schools across Canada were closed to permit children to attend memorial services. Provincial legislatures closed, while municipal governments held remembrance services. Even Mammon took notice of Tweedsmuir’s passing, with the Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver Stock Exchanges either closing early or pausing for two minutes of silence.

Following the ceremony, Lord Tweedsmuir’s body was conveyed to Montreal for cremation. His ashes were returned to the United Kingdom, and buried in accordance with his wishes in Elsfield Church in Oxfordshire, England. Until the arrival of the Earl of Athlone, Tweedsmuir’s successor, some months later, Sir Lyman Duff, Canada’s Chief Justice, fulfilled the duties of the Governor General as Canada’s “Administrator.”

Today, Tweedsmuir is remembered in Canada by a provincial park in British Columbia, the John Buchan Senior Public School in Toronto, and streets named in his honour across the country. In Scotland, his life and works are kept alive by the John Buchan Society and the John Buchan Museum in Peebles. In 2015, he was named one of fifty Scottish heroes who changed the world.

 

Sources:

Hitchcock, Alfred, 1935. The Thirty-Nine Steps, Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k4v7vUIm4Ws.

Pearson, Stuart, 2015, Great Scottish Heroes, John Blake: London.

Queens’s University Archives, John Buchan: 1st Barn Tweedsmuir (1875-1940), http://archives.queensu.ca/exhibits/buchan.

The Governor General Of Canada, 2015, Lord Tweedsmuir, 1935-1940, http://www.gg.ca/document.aspx?id=15420.

The John Buchan Museum, 2015. The John Buchan Story, http://www.johnbuchanstory.co.uk/.

The John Buchan Society, 2015. http://www.johnbuchansociety.co.uk/thesociety.htm.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1940. “Steady Improvement In Governor-General’s Condition,” 7 February.

————————, 1940. “Report No Change In Condition Of Lord Tweedsmuir,” 8 February.

————————, 1940. “Anxiety About Lord Tweedsmuir Continues,” 9 February.

————————, 1940. “Lord Tweedsmuir’s Condition Has Improved,” 10 February.

————————, 1940. “Beloved Viceroy Gone,” 12 February.

————————, 1940. “Canada’s Grief Expressed By Prime Minister,” 12 February.

————————, 1940. “Governor-General’s Death Ends Life Of Fine Achievement,” 12 February.

————————, 1940. “Lord Tweedsmuir, The Man,” 12 February.

————————, 1940. “State Funeral To Be Conducted In Ottawa, Internment In Britain,” 12 February.

————————, 1940. “Plans For Nation’s Tribute Are Complete,” 13 February.

———————–. 1940. “More Than 14,000 People Reverently Pass Through Hallowed Halls Of Parliament,” 14 February.

———————–, 1940. “Farewell Tribute Of Nation To Viceroy Is Heartfelt, Inspiring,” 15 February.

———————-, 1940. “Canada Pauses In Tribute To Loved Viceroy,” 15 February.

Images:

Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada, 1935. Author unknown, Bilan du Siècle, University of Sherbrooke.

The Thirty-Nine Steps, First Edition, 1915, Wikipedia.