Women lightkeepers, heroes by the sea: A Co-lab challenge

By Leah Rae

Imagine the solitary life of a lighthouse keeper: working alone in a remote location, throughout the night and during storms, always making sure that the light never goes out. Add to that being a grieving widow, or a person caring for an ailing spouse or young children. Such was the life for Canada’s women lightkeepers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Officially, lightkeepers were usually men but, in reality, the whole family helped to keep the lights going. As the position was awarded for life, when a lightkeeper passed away, someone had to immediately take over. That person was often the lightkeeper’s wife or child because they were already in place and had the knowledge and experience to operate the light. As such, there were several women lightkeepers across the country throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Mary Croft—Discovery Island Lighthouse, Discovery Island, British Columbia

It is possible that Mary Croft was Canada’s first woman lightkeeper. Although she officially became the Discovery Island lightkeeper in 1902, she had already been caring for the lighthouse for five years while her father, the official lightkeeper, was suffering from a long illness. At the time she was appointed lightkeeper, Mary had two daughters and was supporting her own family while also caring for her ailing father. She kept the light on at Discovery Island for over thirty years before finally retiring to Victoria, British Columbia, at the age of 67. She received the Imperial Service Medal in 1934 for her work as a lightkeeper.

Blue typewriting on off-white letter paper.

A letter of recommendation for Mrs. Mary Croft (The lightkeeper’s name was Brinn, not Dunn.) (e011435495)

A colour postcard depicting a large yellow and brown building and a lighthouse.

Inch Arran Hotel and Lighthouse (e011435492)

Denise Arsenault—Inch Arran Lighthouse, Dalhousie, New Brunswick

The Inch Arran lighthouse (sometimes referred to as the Bon Ami lighthouse) was built in 1870. A beautiful salt-shaker style lighthouse, it has a unique birdcage-shaped lantern gallery. It overlooks the Chaleur Bay in New Brunswick and is still in operation as a range light. In the late 1800s, this was a resort destination and home to the grand Inch Arran Hotel. The Arsenault family was responsible for the light for 65 years. In 1913, lightkeeper James Arsenault died, leaving his wife, Denise, in charge of the light. Denise cared for the lighthouse until 1927, when she fell down the slippery lighthouse stairs and broke her arm, leaving her unable to perform her duties.

Maisie Adams—New London Lighthouse, Prince Edward Island

Maisie Adams was Prince Edward Island’s only woman lightkeeper. She operated the New London Lighthouse from 1943 to 1959, having become the lightkeeper after her husband, Claude, died of cancer at age 40. At that point, Maisie Adams was 30 years old and caring for three children between the ages of 1 and 7. She had already been taking care of the lighthouse for the final year and half of her husband’s life, due to his illness. Mrs. Adams lived in a house near the lighthouse and every spring she opened the light for the season and every winter she closed it down after the fishermen had pulled their boats in for the winter.

Handwritten text in blue ink on three pages of off-white writing paper. There are official stamps in the upper right corner of the first page.

A letter of recommendation for Masie Adams (e044435793-058)

The life of a lightkeeper was a challenging one. They dealt with isolation and challenging weather conditions, and needed to be constantly vigilant. Women lightkeepers worked tirelessly and often in solitude. They were not only responsible for the well-being of their own families, but also for the safety of mariners.

Library and Archives Canada holds an extensive collection of documents related to lighthouses and lightkeepers. As part of International Women’s Day on March 8, we shine a light on Canada’s women lightkeepers and invite you to explore a sample of documents and images that illuminate their challenging lives and contributions to maritime life in Canada. We invite you to use our Co-Lab tool to transcribe, tag, translate and describe these digitized records from our collection.


Leah Rae is an archivist in the Halifax office of the Reference Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Madge Macbeth: Writer of everything and anything

By Vasanthi Pendakur

Portrait-style photograph of a woman wearing a lace blouse, jade beads and a diamond pin facing the camera.

Portrait of Madge Macbeth (e010935318)

Madge Macbeth was a prolific American-Canadian writer of short stories, novels, plays, travel books, newspaper articles, and interviews throughout the first half of the 20th century. She was deeply involved with authors’ associations and in theatre, being a founding member of the Ottawa Little Theatre and the first female president of the Canadian Authors Association, a position she held for three terms.

Macbeth was born Madge Hamilton Lyons in Philadelphia, to Bessie Maffitt and Hymen Hart Lyons, on November 6, 1878. As a child, she produced plays and edited her own newspapers. She may have been influenced by her grandmother, Louisa Hart Maffitt, who was one of the first professional American press women and a suffragist.

After the family settled in Baltimore, Madge Lyons was sent to Hellmuth College in London, Ontario, for her education. In her memoir Boulevard Career, she recalled that Hellmuth in the 1890s did not teach Canadian literature and that its curriculum centred on the classics. After completing her schooling, she performed as a mandolinist and vaudeville actress for a few years before marrying Charles Macbeth in 1901.

The couple first moved to Detroit, and then settled in Ottawa. Macbeth instantly loved Ottawa. In her writings, she stated that Ottawa provided a means of satisfying my in-born and unquenchable love of people.” This is certainly true. She became friends with many of the leading lights of Ottawa, including the photographer Yousuf Karsh and Mayor Charlotte Whitton.

Side profile of Madge Macbeth in a black dress and white lace jacket wearing a feathered hat.

Portrait of Madge Macbeth as a young woman in Ottawa (e008406101)

Disaster struck around 1908. Macbeth’s husband caught tuberculosis and later died, her young son became ill, and her mother lost all her money. Writing was one of the few professional careers open to women at the time. As she recounted in an interview with Maclean’s: I began to write…with the deluded idea that it was something I could do at home. Long since I have learned that it is just the place where one can’t write in peace.” At the time, the Canadian market for writing was small. Editors were looking for American or British writers, and in many instances Canadians were confined to advertisements or second runs.

Macbeth began with short pieces in magazines, and had a few early successes with her novels The Changeling (1909), and The Winning Game (1910). This was followed by a dry spell. A helpful mentor at this time was Marjorie MacMurchy, one of the earliest press women in Canada. MacMurchy suggested Macbeth try getting interviews with members of Parliament, because magazines were more interested in public officials than in fiction.

Her luck returned. A Canadian editor accepted a piece she had written, and soon other work followed. Macbeth wrote anything she could get her hands on: advertisements, brochures for the Canadian Pacific Railway, serials, novels, travel books, plays, radio dramas, propaganda (during World War II), newspaper articles, and columns. She wrote under her own name and various pseudonyms, both male and female. Her writing style and subject matter changed from book to book, but most of her pieces were suffused with a strain of humour or satire, and her main characters were usually women. She wrote about marriage, sex, travel, adventure, religion, and political intrigue. Later in her career, she travelled extensively, usually alone, for lecture series or for material to turn into more books.

Madge Macbeth holding a document and looking off to the side.

Madge Macbeth holding a document (e010935329)

Many of her novels focussed on the middle and upper classes. In fact, popular political satire novels, like The Kinder Bees (1935) and The Land of Afternoon (1924), were based on her knowledge of upper-class society in Ottawa. Both were written under the closely guarded pseudonym of “Gilbert Knox.” One of her most popular novels was Shackles (1926), which highlighted first-wave feminist thinking of the time. The novel is the story of Naomi Lennox, a middle-class woman fighting for respect as a writer and for freedom within her church and marriage. The book was highly praised by some and condemned by others for its portrayal of sex in marriage.

Macbeth’s articles discussed similar themes as well as showcased women in the arts, business, education, and suffrage. One article entitled “How much sex should be put into novels?” was published in 1947. In it, Macbeth argued that authors were reporters describing the world around them. She was critical of authors using too much sex in their books, but argued that ignoring it completely was also a disservice to reality and literature. One exchange with a reformer went like this: Why don’t you authors write about nice things?” He complained. … “Do you enjoy uplift books?” I shot at him, “Or do you want them published for the other fellow?

Throughout her career, Macbeth was deeply involved with authors’ associations and in theatre. Not only was she the first female president of the Canadian Authors Association, but she held the position for three terms, a record at the time. She used the position to promote Canadian literature and continually supported younger writers. As well, her interest in theatre led to the founding of the Ottawa Drama League, later the Ottawa Little Theatre. Her stated goal with this project was to wean children from cheap movies, to give them a knowledge and love of good dramatic literature.” Macbeth pestered MPs for support until the project came to fruition. It is now one of the oldest theatre companies in Canada.

Large group of men and women standing in front of the entrance to a building.

Group portrait of the Canadian Authors Association (e008406116)

Macbeth’s work was very progressive, but elements of her writing show her Victorian upbringing. While her subject matter was enlightened, her books tended to fit into the conventions of the time. She supported fledging writers and was proud of supporting herself and creating space for other women to do the same. At the same time, she wrote articles arguing that women had forgotten their domestic responsibilities, and called spinsterhooda half baked life. She wrote as a member of her class, and some of her language would not be used today. These contradictions are symbolic of her long career and the changes that took place in society from her Victorian upbringing to her death in the 1960s.  Boulevard Career ends with a discussion of how much society, and Ottawa in particular, had changed over her career, especially for women. Her writing and her life were part of this change, half in the future and half in the past.

Macbeth donated her papers to the National Archives in 1958. The fonds includes manuscripts of many of her novels, copyright information, and correspondence on a number of topics, including Macbeth’s lecture series, her involvement with the Ottawa Drama League, and her work with the Canadian Authors Association. The fonds also comprises diaries, scrapbooks, and a large collection of photos of Macbeth over her life. These photos show her dramatic side and her love of the theatre. The fonds gives us insight into her long career and ensures that her work will be remembered.

Side portrait of Madge Macbeth wearing a pale patterned cape.

Portrait of Madge Macbeth wearing a cape (e010935313)

Additional resources


Vasanthi Pendakur is a project manager in the Online Content team at Library and Archives Canada.

From the Lowy Room: A Scroll of Serendipity

By Michael Kent

One of the most exciting aspects of working with rare books is the story of the individual items in our collections. The life an item had before finding its way to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) can be fascinating, and is sometimes as interesting as the content of the work itself. In some cases, the story of an item can share amazing parallels with the work itself. One such example is a scroll containing the Biblical Book of Esther. This scroll is now housed in LAC’s Jacob M. Lowy Collection.

A colour photograph of a handwritten Hebrew manuscript on parchment completely rolled out across a table, approximately seven feet in length. Also on the table is the protective metal casing that originally housed the manuscript.

The Megillah of Esther unrolled in the Jacob M. Lowy Room, located at 395 Wellington, in Ottawa, Ontario. Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada

This scroll is handwritten in Hebrew in a format suited for ritual use as part of the Jewish holiday of Purim. The story of how it ended up at Library and Archives Canada was passed down to me through an oral history from previous curators of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection. It is a story too good not to share.

When I show the scroll to visitors, they are instantly struck by its damaged metal case. People often exclaim that it looks like it has gone through a war, and in fact it has. As the story goes, a British soldier found this case sticking out of the rubble of a bombed-out building in continental Europe at the end of the Second World War. Upon discovering that the case contained a scroll, the soldier decided to keep the item as a war souvenir. Later in life, that soldier would move to Canada and bring the scroll with him.

The next chapter in the story of the scroll took place after this soldier passed away. As it has been recounted to me, the soldier had no children, and his neighbours volunteered to clean out his apartment. Through that process, they discovered the scroll, recalling that he had previously shown it to them. Recognizing it was an item of value, they decided to find a home for it. As chance would have it, these neighbours had a relative who worked at the then-National Archives. They sent the scroll to this relative, who passed it off to an archivist. Several years later, the Jacob M. Lowy Collection of rare Judaica was donated to the National Library of Canada. The decision was made to transfer the scroll to that collection so that it would be housed with other Judaica.

So why do I feel that the story of the physical scroll mirrors the story contained within? The answer comes from a unique aspect of the Biblical Book of Esther as one of the two books from the Hebrew Scriptures that does not mention God. The traditional rabbinic explanation to textual oddity is that the name of God was left out of the book to highlight the hidden nature of the miracle contained within the story. It is a story of a series of small and unlikely worldly events that culminate in the survival of the Jewish people.

When I look at the scroll, I too see an item that survived through a series of small and unlikely event. That the original owner would house it in a strong protective material. That the item would survive a bombing. That it would end up in a visible place. That a soldier would stop to investigate it and decide it was worth saving. That his neighbours would volunteer to clear out his apartment after his death. That those volunteers would carefully examine the apartment’s contents and seek a proper home for the scroll. That they would have a connection at the National Archives. These unlikely occurrences come together to form a powerful story of survival and a fantastic journey for this scroll that brought it to LAC.

While I am in no place to offer spiritual reflections on the survival of this scroll, the serendipity is remarkable. This story, and others like it, highlight the powerful past the items in our collections have. These stories go far beyond the written word, and I am always humbled to learn and share them.


Michael Kent is curator of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection at Library and Archives Canada.

An update from Kigali!

By Alison Harding-Hlady

In February 2020, my colleague Karl-Xavier Thomas and I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, where we are both guests of the Rwanda Archives and Library Services Authority (RALSA). As we approach the end of our second week in Kigali, it is hard to believe that our time is almost half over! After months of preparation, we have packed so much into the first two weeks. RALSA invited us to train their staff of three librarians and four archivists in best practices and international professional standards. A small but mighty staff, they are keenly aware of their responsibilities and obligations as the national library and archives, and anxious to implement the best standards they can, not only to properly manage and describe their own collection, but also to provide guidance and assistance to other memory institutions across Rwanda. Representing the library side, I have been focusing on cataloguing (my own specialty), but I am also answering questions and helping them to develop policies on everything from administering the national ISBN program to digital rights management to generating the library’s social media content. It has been interesting for me, coming from a large institution where different aspects of our collection and services are managed by different sections and large teams, to see a handful of people striving to do it all here. They are ambitious and incredibly hard-working, and every day I admire and respect them even more for what they are trying to accomplish.

A colour photograph of archival materials on bookshelves.

Part of RALSA’s archival collection. Photo credit: Karl-Xavier Thomas

As part of our work here, RALSA has also invited librarians and archivists from across Rwanda to attend a four-day conference in Kigali, where Karl-Xavier and I will be giving the same training we have delivered over the last two weeks to a bigger audience. It is an opportunity for us to meet and make connections with many of the professionals working in the field in this country, and for them to learn and develop their skills so they can better serve their clients and collections. Although I have always felt that my work has value and have always been proud of what I do, it is special to be able to see the immediate impact of my knowledge and expertise. I really do feel that I am making a difference here, helping professionals across Rwanda learn to better describe and provide access to their collections. These are lessons that they will be able to continue using long after I have returned to Canada.

Another interesting activity that was part of the cultural exchange was participating in Umuganda, the countrywide community clean-up day. This takes place on the last Saturday of every month and is mandatory for all citizens between the ages of 16 and 65. People gather in their villages and neighbourhoods to work on a project that improves their local community. The idea is to make things a little bit better each month than they were the month before. The day that we joined in, people were clearing brush from around newly planted trees, and digging out a drainage canal that was overgrown with weeds. Following the work, the members of the village gathered for a meeting where news and reminders were shared, and members of the community were able to raise issues of concern. I was struck by how respectful the tone of the meeting was, how all members felt free to stand and express themselves, and how they listened to each other and reached solutions together.

I feel that what we are accomplishing here is in the spirit of Umuganda, in a small way. We too are bringing what we have to share, contributing it to the community, and leaving things a little bit better than they were before.

A colour photograph of an office building.

RALSA is moving to a custom-built facility next year, but it currently operates out of several rooms on the top floor of this office building in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo credit: Alison Harding-Hlady


Alison Harding-Hlady is the Senior Cataloguing Librarian responsible for rare books and special collections in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

 

Women’s hockey: She shoots, she scores!

By Ellen Bond

In January 2020, the Canadian men’s team won the gold medal against Russia at the 2020 International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior Championship. It was a hard-fought competition with millions watching from all over the world. This is any Canadian hockey player’s dream: winning gold at an international championship and hearing your national anthem at the end of the game. Meanwhile, only a few days earlier, Team Canada played against the United States of America (USA) in the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship with, by comparison, almost no one watching.

Unlike basketball, which has different sized balls, and volleyball, which has different net heights, hockey is the same game for men and women. Yes, women play “non-contact” hockey, but the ice surface is the same, the puck size and weight are the same, and the nets are of equal height, width and depth. Both men and women began playing hockey in its infancy (men in early 1870s and women in 1890s). This begs the question: Why did men’s hockey continue to grow and develop, while women’s hockey had a great start but then failed to gain the same attention?

A black and white photo taken outside with women in long skirts.

A group of women gather to play hockey in 1906, Ottawa, ON (PA-042256)

When I was young, all I wanted to do was play hockey. I remember watching my brother play with lots of other boys out on the ice. They would divide the ice up with long hoses across the blue lines to make up three smaller ice surfaces. I wanted to be out there, but girls were not allowed. That changed in the late 1970s when we moved to Campbellford, Ontario. One day in early fall, a man came to our door and asked my dad if he wanted to coach the girls’ hockey team. He said yes and, at the beginning of grade eight, I started playing organized hockey.

A sepia photo of a girls’ hockey team with Campbellford Minor Hockey written on their sweaters.

My championship team the first year I was allowed to play hockey. My dad is on the right and my brother is kneeling in front of him. I’m in the top row, third from the left. (Photo supplied by the author.)

This made me wonder: If women, like men, started to play hockey in the late 1800s, why wasn’t I allowed to play hockey prior to our move to Campbellford, when we had lived in a moderately large city?

A black and white photo of a woman dressed in a skirt to play hockey outside.

“Queen of the Ice.” A woman stands on ice wearing figure skates and holding a hockey stick, 1903. (C-3192610)

The Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA) claims the first women’s hockey game took place in 1891 in Ottawa, Ontario. At this time, the University of Toronto (U of T), Queen’s University and McGill University had women’s hockey teams, but they had to compete behind closed doors. Men couldn’t watch and the only men allowed inside were the referees. In 1914, the first women’s provincial championship took place in Picton, Ontario. There were six teams involved, including some of the university teams. In 1921, U of T defeated McGill to win the first Canadian women’s university championship. These teams and others helped the game grow steadily but unevenly in the 1920s and 1930s.

Then women’s hockey just stopped growing. Maybe it was because hockey was “too rough for girls,” as Clarence Campbell, President of the National Hockey League, argued in 1946. Maybe it was because communities prohibited people from watching women play hockey. Maybe it was because of beliefs that watching women play hockey was too frivolous or that women took the game too seriously. Or maybe, as Wayne Norton suggests in his book Women on Ice: The Early Years of Women’s Hockey in Western Canada, it was because in 1923 the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) voted NOT to give women official recognition as hockey players. In their book, Too Many Men on the Ice: Women’s Hockey in North America, Joanna Avery and Julie Stevens propose that Canada’s participation in the Second World War led to the decline of women’s hockey. Many women took on factory jobs when the majority of men went to fight in the war, leaving them little time to play the game. Whatever the reason, for decades it was hard for women to play a beloved game and this meant that many girls and women never had the opportunity to play hockey.

A black and white photo of a woman as a professional hockey player.

Miss Eva Ault. When men headed to Europe in the First World War, women got their first chance to play professional hockey. Eva Ault became a fan favourite, but when the war ended so did the careers of the first female pros. (PA-043029)

A black and white photo of a women’s hockey team lined up with the butt end of their sticks on the ground and dressed in their team uniform.

Women’s hockey team from Gore Bay on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, 1921. Names available in the record. (PA-074583)

I had the opportunity to play hockey from grades eight to thirteen, both in my community and at my high school in Peterborough, Ontario. I was also fortunate to have varsity teams to play on at McMaster and Queen’s universities. This was the closest I ever got to playing professional hockey. We were provided with equipment, ice time for practices and games, and transportation to all our games. At McMaster the entire budget for our team was less than the men’s team spent on sticks alone, but I had the chance to play varsity hockey for my university and to play with and against some of the best players in the world.

Two of those players were Margot (Verlaan) Page and Andria Hunter. Both of these athletes wore the Team Canada jersey at World Championships. I played with Margot for three years at McMaster. She was our captain and the best player out on the ice. At the time, this was the highest level of hockey Margot could play. She went on to play for Canada at the IIHF World Championships in 1987 (not sanctioned), 1990, 1992 and 1994. From 2000–2007 Margot coached Canada’s IIHF and Olympic women’s hockey teams. Margot is now Head Coach of the Brock Badgers Women’s Varsity Ice Hockey Team. Andria and I knew each other from living in Peterborough and because I was a counsellor at Camp Quin-Mo-Lac when she was a camper. Living in a small town, our paths crossed numerous times. I asked Andria what it was like when she first played hockey. Here is her story, in her own words.

I first started playing hockey in 1976. At that time, it was not very common for females to play. I was fortunate to play in Peterborough when girls’ hockey was just taking off. There were many small towns that had no female hockey at all at that time. I played in a boy’s house league my first year, but after that I was always able to play girls’ hockey.

When I was a kid, it was always my dream to play university hockey, because that was the highest level at the time; there was no national team, and certainly no World Championship or Olympics. I was very fortunate that some major changes in women’s hockey happened at an ideal time for me. I went on to play university hockey in the USA on a hockey scholarship; I was one of the first international female players to receive a women’s hockey scholarship in the USA. I also had the opportunity to play for Team Canada in 1992 and in 1994! I have always thought that if I had been born just five years earlier, I may have missed these amazing experiences.

I played at the University of Toronto as a graduate student between 1990 and 1996. During these years, the program went through a tumultuous period of transition. In 1990, our team kept our equipment in a small locker and our games were only three fifteen-minute periods with one flood. Then, during the 1993–94 season (when I was away from U of T playing hockey in Switzerland), the women’s hockey program was almost cancelled. There was a big rally that helped to keep the program alive. When I returned from Switzerland the next year to play for U of T again, women’s hockey had been upgraded to a high-performance sport. We now had two-hour practices four days a week, and no longer had to keep our equipment in a storage locker!

I played in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) when it was in its infancy. We had an enthusiastic owner when I played for the Mississauga Ice Bears who arranged for us to play at the Hershey Centre [now the Paramount Centre] and we even had our own dressing room there. Unfortunately, we just did not get enough fans to allow us to play in such an expensive venue so, after two seasons, the team moved to Oakville.

Since my retirement from the NWHL in 2001, women’s hockey has continued to grow. It is certainly much more socially acceptable for females to play [now] than it was when I was a kid. The skill level has increased, as players get more development opportunities. The quality of the coaching, the level of competition, and the amount of ice time at the grassroots level, are certainly contributing factors. The number of teams at the university level in both Canada and the USA and the amount of resources for these players has continued to increase as well. It is unfortunate that women’s hockey still struggles to attract fans and that there are limited professional opportunities for women’s hockey players today. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of employment opportunities for women in coaching positions.

A black and white photo of a women’s hockey team. The women have team sweaters on and are holding their hockey sticks.

Team portrait of Queen’s University women’s hockey team, 1917. Some names are available in the record. (PA-127274)

Like Andria says, girls today have many opportunities to play hockey. Teams are available in many communities across Canada. Girls can aspire to play varsity hockey at many Canadian universities, to play in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in the United States, and to play in many European countries. They can dream about playing for their country at the Olympics and in the World Championships. Elite players from Canada and the USA played 3-on-3 games during the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend in St. Louis, Missouri, showing their skills to million of fans. As the game continues to grow, competition between countries will increase and maybe the NHL will offer a women’s professional league to play in. The future is bright for the young girls of today who yearn to play hockey. Margot, Andria and I gained many life lessons from playing hockey growing up and we are so excited for the girls of today and the opportunities that await them playing the great game of hockey.


Ellen Bond is a project assistant with the Online Content Team at Library and Archives Canada