What’s in a Name? The Evolution of Joan Peebles

This week’s blog comes to us from Kendra Lennie. Kendra is a Vancouverite and cannot remember a time when she was not fascinated with the past, from obsessing about medieval Britain to prehistoric fossils and dinosaurs. Kendra was exposed to Scottish culture at a young age through her grandparents who emigrated from Scotland to Vancouver in the 50s. She is currently finishing a bachelors of science (in evolutionary biology and ecology) with a minor in history at Simon Fraser University.
This blog was the result of research undertaken for History 448 ‘Scots in North America’.

Angusta Peebles Jr. was a woman of many names. Born to Scottish immigrants, Angusta and Peter Peebles on January 8, 1899 in New Westminster, she was known to her close friends as ‘Brownie’. She graduated from the provincial normal school in Vancouver BC, and at the age of 15 was offered her first scholarship when her vocal ability was recognized at a church carol service. Recognition of her talent did not end there. In 1923 she won the Hudson’s Bay Company’s gold medal at the first British Columbia Music Festival, and from there her career took off.  Throughout her life Brownie made many decisions that not only appeared for the benefit of her career but also expose her as a modern woman. She never appeared to let fame go to her head, and always maintained a connection with her local community and Scottish heritage.

Lennie3

“Brownie Peebles as a young woman,” item IHP14335-013.

Once it became apparent that Brownie was destined for success she decided to take a stage name. The story goes that her stage name Joan was inspired by the medieval heroine Joan of Arc, a highly intelligent and independent woman. Brownie spent time studying in Chicago as recipient of the Florence Hinkle Voice Scholarship. During her schooling in Chicago she maintained a constant correspondence with her father, receiving letters from him almost daily throughout the summer of 1923.  After Chicago she was awarded another Scholarship, this time from the Eastman school of Music in New York.  While at Eastman she met a young vocalist from Pennsylvania named Norman Oberg. The two married, but this in no way impeded Brownie’s career. She graduated from the Eastman School of music in 1927, a mezzo-contralto capable of operatic performances as well as singing independently in concert.

 

Brownie1

Carmen costume with New York Metropolitan Opera “Double Portrait of Brownie Peebles,” item IHP14335-022.

Between 1927 and 1929 Brownie performed throughout Canada and the United States, both operatically and in smaller concerts. On July 16, 1929 the first concert was held in Norton Hall in Chautauqua, New York, and Brownie was there. She continued to sing at Norton Hall for 15 seasons. Throughout her career she worked with symphony orchestras and opera companies in New Westminster, Boston, New York, Toronto, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Brownie maintained the connection to her Scottish heritage in her song choices for her independent concerts, many of which included Scottish and Hebridean folk music. She also participated for three seasons in the Banff and Lake Louise Scottish Music festivals. She was renowned for her portrayal of the lead role in Carmen, and Brownie was reputedly the first woman to play her as a clever intellectual woman rather than a feeble-minded gypsy girl. Before retiring Brownie made recordings for the Radio Corporation of America of the music in Carmen, but in no way did this signify the end of her involvement in the musical community.

Brownie2

“Brownie Peebles carrying a basket,” item IHP14335-009

At the outbreak of the second world war Norman Oberg was called back to work in a factory in Pennsylvania, and in 1942 Brownie retired from opera and joined him. Norman rose to be a manager for the steel corporation he worked for, and he and Brownie remained in Pennsylvania until his death. Not content to be idle in her retirement, Brownie taught piano and vocal lessons in Pennsylvania for over 30 years. As well as teaching young people with talent, Brownie recognized the benefits of speech therapy and helped children and youth with speech impediments such as muscular dystrophy. While in Pennsylvania she maintained correspondence with her sister Jane Murie, who, upon her death, left the vast majority of her wealth and estate to Brownie. Many of the letters mention how dear a sister Brownie was and how entertaining Jane Murie found her letters. Brownie appeared to be a kind and witty individual who helped people find their voices both figuratively and literally.

Brownie4

“Brownie Peebles dressed as a fairy,” item IHP14335-036.

During her life Brownie came into contact with some of the most distinguished individuals of the time both in music and in general. One newspaper article recounts a story of Miss Peebles singing for her friend Mrs Thomas Edison at her bird, tree, and garden club. Brownie’s humor comes through as she adds details about another visit to the Edison household involving her sitting on the arm of the chair while singing directly into the ears of “the great Edison” himself due to his deafness.

Not only was Brownie a local opera star, she gained fame and reputation throughout Canada and the United States for her singing and acting abilities. She was a woman who knew that women as a group were not feeble, and many who were viewed as feeble simply needed to learn to use their voice. In 1974 Joan (Angusta) “Brownie” Peebles moved back to her hometown of New Westminster. She Died at Royal Columbian Hospital in 1991 at the age of 92.

Kendra Lennie

Sources:

New Westminster Archives, Peebles family Fonds, IH 2007.151 C.2, “personal papers.”

All images New Westminster Archives, Peebles Family Fonds.

 

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Developing a City: Scots Kinship in Nineteenth Century Victoria

This week’s blog post comes from Theresa Mackay. Theresa is a second generation Scottish-Canadian currently completing her Master of Letters in Scottish history through the University of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland. She is Associate Faculty at Royal Roads University, Executive Director of the BC Museums Association, and runs Larchgrove Marketing Group, a tourism consulting company for projects with Scotland in their soul.

Located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, the city now known as Victoria, British Columbia, saw permanent settlement of Scots as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Founded as a trading post and fort location for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in 1843, Scottish settlers were drawn to the location by promises of HBC employment and land ownership. Hailing from cities such as Inverness and Edinburgh, and departing from HBC recruitment centres such as the Orkneys and the Hebrides, Scots emigrated to Victoria; some for adventure and others in search of a better life.

By 1858, seven years after HBC Chief Factor and son of a Glasgow merchant, James Douglas, had established himself as the first Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island, five hundred Scots and Europeans lived on the traditional territory of the Coast Salish First Nations. The main surge in emigrants to Victoria came that year with thousands of various ethnicities arriving to seek their fortunes, driven by rumours of gold on the mainland of the colony of British Columbia. In six weeks, 225 buildings were constructed in Victoria, including hotels, saloons and retailers, in order to service the transient gold-seekers stopping for supplies; the settlement’s population quickly ballooned and the landscape responded. [1]

Sir_James_Douglas

Sir James Douglas, the son of a Glasgow merchant.

Although one of the smaller ethnic groups, Scots in Victoria were a force in local politics, community leadership, and business. In addition to Governor Douglas and the preponderance of Scots-born HBC workers, many Scottish emigrants such as Dr. William Fraser Tolmie, Robert Rithet, and Roderick Finlayson held influential, high-profile positions. Victoria was on its way to becoming a city led by Scots and with this came the founding of Scottish associations, clubs, and societies for the purpose of assisting Scots immigrants and connecting with others from their culture, mainly through dinners, celebrations, and sporting events.

The St. Andrew’s Benevolent Society (SABS) was just such an association. It was founded in early 1860 and later that year it organized a St. Andrew’s dinner for 120 people at the Colonial Restaurant on the east side of Government Street. With many distinguished guests in attendance, including Governor Douglas as the SABS Honorary President, it was touted as the “largest public dinner ever given in the Colony.” The event went long into the night with more than 24 toasts, including one to “The Ladies” responded to by “Mr. Pendergast,” suggesting that women were not in attendance as honoured guests, or at least not invited to speak. [2]

Fort_Victoria_watercolour

Watercolour painting depicting Fort Victoria, 1860. Title: S.W. Bastion of the Fort with 12 Nine-Pound Guns No. 3 by Sarah Crease (1826-1922)

Three years later, the Caledonian Highland Society of Scotland was the model for the formation of the Caledonian Benevolent Association (CBA) and within six years their Annual Dinner celebrating Robert Burns was “the largest in the Colony” with “their banquets [being] noted for the harmony and good taste which invariably prevail.”[3]

In addition to the socialization of Scots through events, the purpose of both the SABS and the CBA was a charitable one aimed at supporting Scottish immigrants, suggesting that members desired a strong and healthy Scots community in Victoria. Similar mandates caused the two groups to merge in early 1870, forming the St. Andrew’s and Caledonian Society (SACS). Later that year they held a St. Andrew’s dinner at the Oriental Restaurant on Yates Street. Tickets were three dollars each. [4]

CBA Burns Dinner

The Caledonian Benevolent Association began holding annual “Burns’ Anniversary” dinners in Victoria in 1864. Source: Daily Colonist newspaper 1865-01-21.

By the time Vancouver Island joined Mainland British Columbia in 1866 and the province joined Confederation in 1871, the resident population of Victoria – now the capital city – had swelled to 3,270 [5]. Colonial society was in full swing with residents, regardless of ethnicity, enjoying outings organized by the SACS, including the “annual gathering” at the Caledonian Grounds on Cook Street, with foot races, dancing competitions, and a “grand lottery” for ladies only. [6]

In 1889, the Sir William Wallace Society (SWWS) formed and added to the city’s social calendar, focusing on organizing parties and sports gatherings such as Hogmanay celebrations and Highland Games. Its original membership numbered more than fifty, suggesting that some SACS members may have belonged to more than one Scots association in the city. [7]

SWWS Halloween Dance

The Sir William Wallace Society organized parties such as the “Grand Halloween Concert and Dance” in 1891. Source: Daily Colonist newspaper 1891-10-28.

By 1891, with a population more than five times that of twenty years earlier, those born in England and China outnumbered those born in Scotland, and immigrants with Scottish-born mothers and/or fathers were significantly less than England-born.[8] These numbers suggest that those who identified as Scottish were a smaller ethnic group and as a result may have felt the need to exert their Scottishness through organized ethic associations in a way that made other cultures aware of their existence and their difference.

The SWWS responded in August of that year by joining forces with the BC Scottish Pipers’ Association to organize the “Grand Gathering and Games” with a variety of contests including “Best Dressed Highlander in Full Highland Costume.” [9] This and other public expressions of Scottish ethnicity combined with the prominence of Scots leadership in Victoria suggests that Scots felt vindicated in proudly displaying their culture.

Victoria_from_cathedral_tower,_BC,_1897

Victoria inner harbour in 1897 said to be taken from “cathedral tower,” likely the tower of Christ Church Cathedral.

As a “city led by Scots” with organized associations flourishing at the end of the nineteenth century and a full social calendar as a result, Scottish emigrants to Victoria created a proudly Scottish community. Whether in the hopes of a better life or the allure of a new frontier, Scottish settlers to Victoria never left their culture far behind.

Theresa Mackay

Sources

[1] Terry Reksten, More English than the English: A Very Social History of Victoria (Victoria, 1986), p. 64.

[2] Daily Colonist newspaper, 1860-12-05, p. 3.

[3] ibid., 1869-01-16, p. 3.

[4] Daily British Colonist newspaper 1870-12-01, p. 2.

[5] The 1871 census counted “White Race”, “Col’red Race” and “Chinese Race” only. Census of Canada 1665-1871 Vol IV (Ottawa, 1876), p. 376.

[6] Daily Colonist newspaper 1879-06-24, p. 2.

[7] ibid., 1889-04-25, p. 1.

[8] Country of birth: England 3,869; China 2,080; Scotland 1,166. Immigrants with Scottish-born mothers and/or fathers: 4,310. Immigrants with England-born mothers and/or fathers: 12,416. Census of Canada 1890-91 Vol 1 (Ottawa, 1893), p. 332.

[9] Daily Colonist newspaper 1891-08-09, p. 4. The Daily Colonist newspaper (also known as The British Colonist, The Daily British Colonist, and other variants), various editions from 1860 onwards.

 

Pleasure and Pain in the Okanagan Valley: the Adventures of Lord and Lady Aberdeen

We are thrilled that our inaugural post comes from Professor Marjory Harper, Chair in History at the University of Aberdeen and Honorary Professor at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands. Professor Harper has written many books and articles on the history of Scottish migration around the globe, including migration to Canada. Her most recent publication, Scotland No More? The Scots who Left Scotland in the Twentieth Century (Edinburgh, 2012) was in 2013 awarded the Frank Watson Prize by the University of Guelph, and short-listed for the Saltire History Prize. This book includes interviews of Scottish settlers to the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. Her new book Migration and Mental Health: Past and Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, will be out early 2016.

Tucked away behind the imposing mansion house of Haddo, stately home of the Aberdeen family for centuries until it came under the care of the National Trust for Scotland, is the Canadian Hall, a visible legacy of the family’s troubled love affair with British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Haddo Hall

Haddo House, Aberdeenshire [image courtesy of the author]

The connection was forged in 1890, when Ishbel and John Gordon, Earl and Countess of Aberdeen, made their first trip to Canada. It continued through the 1890s, when for five years Lord Aberdeen was Governor General of Canada, and ended in 1920, when they finally severed their links with the Okanagan. The story centres initially around Ishbel’s determination to purchase a property in British Columbia which could be managed by her wayward brother, Coutts Marjoribanks. An archetypal remittance man, Coutts was at that time failing spectacularly in the management of his father’s ranch in North Dakota.

Canadian Hall at Haddo [image courtesy of the author]

Canadian Hall at Haddo [image courtesy of the author]

Ishbel Gordon was a formidable personality. Born in London in 1857 and raised in a strongly political household, she is probably best remembered as a campaigner for women’s occupational, social and political rights at home and abroad. Not least among her achievements was the establishment of the Victorian Order of Nurses in Canada in 1897, and for 43 years she was President of the International Council of Women.

Ishbel Gordon on her wedding day

Ishbel Gordon on her wedding day [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

Coutts Marjoribanks

Coutts Marjoribanks [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

The Aberdeen’s first trip to Canada was undertaken partly on doctor’s orders, to allow Ishbel, a Gladstonian Liberal, to recover from nervous exhaustion following the party’s split over the issue of Irish home rule. Towards the end of their three-month visit, they traveled west on the recently-opened CPR to its terminus at Vancouver, and thence by ferry to spend a day in Victoria. Ishbel’s impatience to reach the island was due to her long-anticipated rendezvous with the Scottish theologian Henry Drummond, a family friend who had probably been her lover since at least 1884.

Gusiachan, BC

Guisachan, Inverness-shire [image courtesy of the author]

Back on the mainland, the Aberdeens consulted with George Mackay, a Scottish engineer who had once built roads at Guisachan, Ishbel’s father’s Highland estate, before emigrating in 1887 and establishing real estate companies in Vancouver and the Okanagan. At Mackay’s urging, they bought a 480-acre ranch near Kelowna, which they renamed Guisachan. Coutts was duly installed as manager and – since Guisachan is Gaelic for ‘place of the firs’ – the driveway was lined with rows of Scottish fir seedlings (which rapidly died).

Guisiachan, BC

Guisachan, BC [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

It was another year before the family visited their new property. Their timing was impeccable. Having chartered a special train to take them on the branch line from Sicamous Junction to Vernon, they arrived in time to see Guisachan take twelve prizes in the district’s inaugural agricultural show, before Coutts escorted them down the lake to the Kelowna property. Ishbel was captivated to find ‘mountains looking more like the Inverness-shire mountains of my youth than any others we had seen in Canada’, and she and Johnnie duly instructed Mackay to make another, much bigger purchase at the northern end of the valley [1]. This was the 14,000-acre Coldstream Ranch, the running of which was given to Coutts.

During their five years at Rideau Hall, the Aberdeens relished any opportunity to exchange the pomp and ceremony of office for the freedom and tranquility of the Okanagan. But they were equally determined that the properties should become economically viable through subdivision of the existing cattle ranges into fruit ranches, a development which they believed would benefit the local community as well as themselves. To that end, irrigation systems were installed, and a jam factory was established in Vernon, while small-scale investors who were enticed out from Scotland commemorated their homeland by naming their properties after familiar Aberdeenshire landmarks.

Jam factory

Jam factory [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

Coldstream, BC

Coldstream, BC [image courtesy of Lord Aberdeen]

Perhaps the rapid demise of the Guisachan fir trees was an omen, for sadly, the Aberdeens’ dreams were never fulfilled. For more than a decade they contended with Coutts Marjoribanks’ persistent incompetence, the jam factory’s fraudulent manager, a costly infrastructure, low prices for produce, and all the problems associated with pioneering a new enterprise in an unfamiliar, arid environment.

Eventually, after repeated warnings from accountants and agricultural experts that mismanagement and excessive expenditure were bringing the ranches to the brink of bankruptcy, they sold Guisachan in 1903 and incorporated the Coldstream property, in which Johnnie remained a shareholder until 1921.

In one sense, the Okanagan experiences are encapsulated in Ishbel’s gloomy epitaph when the family finally relinquished their interest in Coldstream. The years came and went, and the golden age predicted always receded. “The results of our investment in BC have been very sad,” she wrote in 1921 [2]. Yet the pain was not without gain, at least for the valley into which they poured their capital and energy. For it was Lord Aberdeen’s visionary pioneering that launched the transformation of the Okanagan into the fruit and wine basket of western Canada, a status it retains to this day.

Marjory Harper, University of Aberdeen

Sources:

[1] Through Canada with a Kodak, by the Countess of Aberdeen (Edinburgh, 1893), new edition, with introduction by Marjory Harper (Toronto: UTP, 1994), p. 166.

[2] John Campbell Gordon, 1st Marquess of Aberdeen, ‘We Twa’: Reminiscences of Lord and Lady Aberdeen (London: Collins, 1925), pp. 90-1.