Sunday, 31 July 2011

Mary Ellen Smith

Mary Ellen Smith (née Spear, 11 October 18633 May 1933): a forgotten Tavistockian? 

Brian Hicks

Tavistock, Devon…Mary Ellen Smith, born in this country town in 1862, emigrated with her husband to Canada in 1891. When she was widowed in 1917 she took over her husband’s constituency. Her political career prospered and she became, albeit briefly, the first woman in the British Empire, as it was then, to attain a cabinet position, serving as Minister without Portfolio in 1921–2 for British Columbia. Tavistock has yet to acknowledge this daughter’s achievements [my emphasis]’. (From Local Heroines: A Women’s History Gazetteer to England, Scotland and Wales, Jane Legget, Pandora Press, London, 1988)


Jane Legget made her plea in 1988; now over two decades later, the rescue of Mary Ellen Smith from the amnesia of posterity is long overdue. This biographical sketch will attempt that rescue. It is the story of what is a paradigmatic life of an exceptional individual of the late 19th century and early 20th century English-speaking world we have lost, encapsulating many of the fundamental themes of that historical period: social class; religion; trade union and party-political activism; economic vicissitudes; regional differences and divisions; emigration; and the political emancipation of females.

The few brief biographical writings about Mary Ellen Smith that have already been published are at the margins of historical scholarship. As I will show, they are mistaken about when she was born, where she was born and numerous other facts about her life. Jane Legget gives Mary’s year of birth as 1862 and place of birth as Tavistock. The Northeastern Dictionary of Women’s Biography also gives her year of birth as 1862 and place of birth as Tavistock. However, the current scholarly waters are muddied by an article in Wikipedia which states vaguely that Mary was born ‘October 11, 1861 or 1863…in England’ and an article in the Canadian Encyclopedia which states categorically: ‘Mary Ellen Smith, née Spear, politician born at Tavistock, Eng 11 Oct 1863’. Significantly, there is no specific entry for Mary Ellen Smith in the biographical works that are in the mainstream of current historical research such as the Dictionary of National Biography, the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and the Chambers Biographical Dictionary. And even in the country where she had her historically most significant achievements there is no specific entry for her in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

At least there is scholarly consensus as to where, when and why Mary Ellen Smith died: Vancouver, British Columbia, 3 May 1933 of a stroke age 69. The news reached England two days later when The Times gave notice of her death on 5 May 1933. She is interred at Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver alongside her husband Ralph.  

According to census returns and parish registers Mary Ellen Spear was born on 11 October 1863 in Gunnislake, Cornwall to Richard Sleep Spear (born Lamerton, Devon 9 October 1839) and the Methodist Mary Ann Spear (née Jackson, born Tavistock, Devon 28 April 1837) who had only recently married at Calstock on 30 October 1862. Mary Ellen was baptized at the Gunnislake and Neighbourhood Wesleyan Chapel on 4 November 1863. By the time of the 1871 Census, the Spears had moved to Cramlington, Northumberland where Mary’s only sibling William John Spear had been born in 1869.

Richard Sleep Spear was an unskilled labourer, so it was natural for him to have travelled the short distance to East Cornwall in the first half of the 1860s when work in the mines at, for example, Drakewalls and Gunnislake Clitters would have been plentiful during the mid-19th century copper-mining boom. In the second half of the 1860s the copper lodes in the Tamar Valley were becoming exhausted, leading to a marked increase in unemployment for the East Cornwall copper miners. The reason for the Spears move to Cramlington is not immediately apparent because they did not have any close relatives there, and the journey to an area remote from the borders of the Tamar Valley in the mid-19th century would have been arduous and expensive for a poor family like the Spears. However, the facts show that the colliery at Cramlington likely proved to be the lure, as is testified by the 1871 Census and subsequent censuses which record that many Cornish and Devon born miners and their families had become residents of Cramlington.

In June 1865 there was a mass strike at the Cramlington colliery when the owners refused the miners’ demand for a wage increase to bring them into line with other miners in the district. The strike lasted through to December when the owners decided on radical action by importing hundreds of miners from Cornwall and Devon, who by then were hungry for work. Richard Fynes wrote in The Miners of Northumberland and Durham (1873):

‘…On the 5th of December about 300 men from Cornwall and Devonshire, with their wives and families, arrived in Cramlington, and soon the pits ‘hung on’ with the assistance of these strangers. On the 27th of the same month a second batch of 128 men, 111 women, and 248 children, turned up from Cornwall and Devon, and with these the owners had their full complement of men to work their mines…. Thus the strike at Cramlington…. was brought to a termination’.

Out of necessity the deracinated Richard Sleep Spear had become a ‘blackleg’ along with the other hungry hundreds. 

Like the majority of working-class females in the 19th century Mary Ellen would have had very little formal education1—the 1881 Census records her occupation as dressmaker (a typical working-class female employment at this time), an occupation which I believe she continued in until her marriage. Mary married coal miner, trade union activist, Methodist, widower and valetudinarian Ralph Smith on 10 February 1883 (which proved to be one of the most puissant events in Mary Ellen’s life). Wikipedia claims that Mary Ellen had been a schoolteacher before her marriage. This is plausible because in the 19th century no formal qualifications were required for an individual to become a schoolteacher. Although Mary Ellen only had a modicum of formal education we must not think of her as being uneducated, because someone with her respectable Methodist background would have been exposed by her parents to much in the way of literature and other edifying arts. According to the Canadian historian Elizabeth Norcross, Mary had a beautiful singing voice, was interested in drama and was an active participant in discussions at home with her parents and visitors which led to her life-long interest in politics and current affairs. These talents and interests proved to be useful foundations for her later political activities.

Ralph Smith was born on 8 August 1858 in the village of Earsdon, Northumberland (not Newcastle upon Tyne as stated by the entries for him in Wikipedia and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography) to Robert Smith, a farmer, and Margaret Isabella Gray. He started work in the local coal mines at the age of 11. He also appears to have had little formal education; however, he was certainly intelligent and ambitious because he gradually moved from working down the mines to various office posts. Also he became involved in trade union politics—in 1889 he was a delegate to the Glasgow Cooperative Congress. Like Mary Ellen he had a Methodist background and this led to him studying theology in his spare time.

At the time of the 1881 Census Ralph Smith had moved to the village of Holywell, Northumberland which is a relatively short distance from both Earsdon and Cramlington. It is not surprising that Mary Ellen Spear and Ralph Smith were to meet in this closely linked area of coal mines and Methodist chapels. We can only surmise about where and when they met, but it is possible that Ralph the theology student was delivering a sermon to the congregation in the Cramlington Methodist Chapel, and that perhaps it was here that these two intelligent working class individuals fell in love leading to their marriage in 1883. Another factor that could have contributed to their affinity for one another is that Mary Ellen and Ralph were both supporters of the Liberal Party. The Liberals were a political party of great electoral importance at this time (the latter half of the 19th century saw four British Liberal Prime Ministers). They had a strong base in Northumberland and they aligned themselves with the interests of working class people. After their marriage Mary Ellen moved to Ralph’s home in Holywell where they had a productive marriage because the 1891 Census records them as resident in Holywell with a daughter Mary Elizabeth (born 1883, Holywell) and their sons Richard (born 1885, Holywell), Robert (born 1886, Holywell) and Ralph (born 1887, Holywell).

The few published biographical works already cited, state that Mary Ellen and Ralph emigrated in 1891. In fact the Smiths embarked from Liverpool for Canada in 1892 on the passenger steamship Vancouver (ticket number 4984) docking at Quebec on 26 September of that year. By the 1870s the majority of immigrants to Canada and the United States went by steamship rather than as ‘steerage’ on merchant sailing vessels. The duration of the voyage had been reduced to between seven and ten days and conditions on these steamships were a great improvement upon the horrendous conditions that had to be endured on the merchant sailing vessels. First and second class cabins were provided. Diseases on-board such as cholera had been virtually eliminated by this time and provisions of good food for the passengers were made. After their arrival in Quebec the Smiths travelled the shorter overland journey to Nanaimo, Vancouver Island on the recently opened (1881) Canadian Pacific Railway, to join Mary Ellen’s parents and brother who had settled in this booming coal-mining community and port after their emigration in 1889. The Smiths life in Nanaimo lasted nearly two decades—in 1911 Ralph and Mary Ellen made the final move of their restless lives when they uprooted from Vancouver Island to the rapidly growing and increasingly prosperous city of Vancouver on the mainland of British Columbia. The period between 26 September 1892 and her death on 3 May 1933 produced the most fertile and fruitful phases of Mary Ellen’s political life, which history will most remember her for.

Coal mining was a growth industry in north-eastern England during the latter half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century.  So neither the Spears nor the Smiths appear to have had an economic motivation for their migration to Canada.  Why did the Spears and then closely after them the Smiths, emigrate?

The miners from Cornwall and Devon who had settled in Cramlington, Northumbria after 1865 were very unpopular with the locals having broken the strike and having taken many of the locals’ jobs. To the locals they were ‘black legs’ and ‘foreigners’ who spoke a strange language, and the Cornish and Devon men wore jackets and trousers rather than the traditional Northumbrian mining attire of flannels and shorts. They further alienated themselves from the locals by their propensity to whitewash their homes so that these were redolent of the cottages they had left behind. Consequently they were not welcome in the chapels, pubs and even in the Cramlington Co-operative store. This hostile and strained environment likely became unbearable for the trade unionist Richard Sleep Spear and his Methodist wife which probably explains why he, Mary Ann Spear and their 19 year old son William John Spear decided to move to Canada in 1889 (l9th century England was not the cosmopolitan, multicultural and geographically homogeneous society of 21st century England so the divisive nature of dialects, and culturally and geographically separate regions must not be underestimated for that time). Furthermore, the Spears would have read stories in the national newspapers about the mid-19th century British Columbia ‘gold rush’ which portrayed it as a new ‘El Dorado’, and this could have been an underlying factor explaining why they went to Canada.

The reasons for the Smiths’ emigration are probably that they felt bound by close kinship and Methodist ties and because of Ralph’s political interests. For Mary Ellen the wrench of being separated from her father, mother and brother to whom she had very close familial and religious ties gave her a compelling reason to move to Canada. We can reasonably speculate that Ralph Smith’s trade union activities made him unpopular with the Holywell mine owners leading to a situation that he may well have found unendurable. Perhaps also the Smiths succumbed to dreams of ‘El Dorado’? So it was that in 1892 the Smiths had left England for good to enter upon a new phase in their lives in Canada (incidentally, they produced a fourth son John Wesley who was born in Nanaimo on 30 December 1893).

During the early years of their marriage Mary Ellen adopted a passive and anonymous role (in terms of the public gaze at the time and the subsequent gaze of the historian). Before marrying Ralph she had been a typically dutiful daughter to her parents and after her marriage she was a typically dutiful wife and mother until the move to Canada. In this third phase of her life Mary supported Ralph’s trade union activities, and his later party-political activities with the Liberal Party of Canada as his secretary and publicist. (She even gave speeches on his behalf on occasions when he was not available through illness.) In Canada Mary Ellen gradually began her emancipation from the shackles of Victorian conformity that she had left behind in England. Her role became more public—she became a political and social activist in her own right. The first manifestation of this new public role was when she founded the Laurier Liberal Ladies League in Nanaimo, a still flourishing and influential discussion forum for women’s issues within the Canadian Liberal Party. She went on to become a member of the Suffrage League of Canada, President of the Women’s Canadian Club and of the Women’s Forum—all organizations exemplifying her commitment to women’s rights. The breadth of her political and social involvement was clearly illustrated by her membership of the Executive Committee of the Canadian Red Cross; her support for the establishment of the Pacific Biological Station at Departure Bay, Nanaimo (the oldest fisheries research centre on the Pacific coast of the Americas—she was a guest at its opening ceremony in the spring of 1908); her involvement in the protracted campaign for the establishment of the University of British Columbia; her help in establishing factories to employ blind children; and her work to raise money for Canadian veterans of the First World War via the Returned Soldiers Club of Vancouver.

The Liberals won a comfortable victory in the British Columbia election on 14 September 1916. In November of that year Ralph Smith was to reach the apogee of his political career which had hitherto been characterized by more setbacks than successes, when he was named as Minister of Finance in Prime Minister, Harlan Carey Brewster’s Cabinet on 29 November 1916. Alas, Ralph did not remain long to taste this success because he died in office on 12 February 1917 age 58 at his apartment in the city of Victoria, British Columbia following a short illness—he left an estate valued at $31,150 against which had to be offset debts he had accumulated of $23,000. 

It was only relatively late in her life at the age of 53 with the death of her husband that Mary Ellen entered the fourth phase of her life as a fully-fledged female politician. Not only is the year 1917 notable for Ralph’s death but also this was the year that Canadian women gained a limited right to vote. A clause of the Military Voters Act (August 1917) established that ‘women who are British subjects and have close relatives in the armed forces can vote on behalf of their male relatives, in federal elections’. A by-election ensued on 24 January 1918 for the Vancouver seat that Ralph had won in 1916. This was an occasion for Mary to honour the dead husband she loved, it provided a distraction from her grief and above all it gave her the opportunity to further her growing political ambitions. Mary Ellen stood in this by-election to succeed Ralph as a MLA not as a Liberal candidate but as an Independent Liberal (perhaps because she wanted to be seen as independent from her husband?). Mary Ellen Smith was elected with a larger majority than Ralph had had, thus becoming the first woman in the then British Empire to be elected to a parliament. She gave an explanation for her victory in her inaugural speech to the Legislative Assembly on 11 March 1918: ‘Not only did the women of my fair city stand behind me... but the men were there, too’. She went on to outline her political credo in this speech:

‘I like to think that the honourable members of this house welcome a woman into their midst, and extend an olive branch of peace. Not only did I come to ask for legislation in the best interests of the women and children but also legislation for the protection of the best interests of all people of this province.

The work that Mary Ellen was involved with in her new role as a MLA was predominantly related to women’s rights2. She introduced in 1918 a Minimum Wage Bill to establish a minimum wage for women and girls (the Bill became law setting a minimum wage for women over 18 of $12.75 a week; however, in practice this law proved ineffective); she campaigned successfully for the creation of minimal social welfare for ‘deserted wives’ (the Deserted Wives Maintenance Act 1920); she was instrumental in the introduction of a state pension for women (the Mothers Pension Act 1920); and she championed laws aiming at the protection of women in the workplace (the Nurses Act 1921 and the Act Regulating Night Employment for Women 1922). These were all significant legislative improvements for women at a time when they were not even recognized by the Canadian Constitution as ‘persons’.  

Although not directly involved in the campaign to establish ‘personhood’ for Canadian women, Mary Ellen did fulminate poetically against this absurdity in a speech to the Ontario Women’s Association, as reported in the Border Cities Star newspaper on 9 May 1928:

‘The iron has dropped into the souls of women in Canada when we heard that it took a man to decree that his mother is not a person’.

The campaign succeeded in its aim on 18 October 1929 when the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of London overthrew the ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada on 24 April 1928 which had stated that women were not ‘persons’. Henceforth, Canadian women acquired the legal right of being ‘persons’; this meant that there was no legal impediment to them holding a political office, they could attend university and they could practise a profession.


Throw one’s hat into the ring,To. To enter a contest or to become a candidate for office. There was a custom of throwing one’s hat into the ring as the sign of accepting a pugilist’s challenge. (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, sixteenth edition, revised by Adrian Room, Cassell, London, 1999)

Mary Ellen Smith was re-elected as a MLA for Vancouver in the election of 1 December 1920. On this occasion she stood as a member of the Canadian Liberal Party and increased the personal majority she had secured in 1917—this was in stark contrast to the overall performance of the Liberals who only won the 1920 election by a slim majority. By now Mary Ellen’s political career was nearing its zenith. It was during this period that she attained the position that history will most remember her for.  On 6 January 1921 John Oliver, the 19th British Columbian Prime Minister, who was anxious to accommodate this by now formidably ambitious and electorally popular female offered her the appointment of Speaker with the proviso that her aspiration to wear a hat in the Chamber would be honoured—as an article in The New York Times 8 January 1921 observed with a mixture of awe and wry humour:

‘Mrs. Smith will be the first woman Speaker of a legislative body in the world….Among the privileges accorded the Speaker of the House are those of keeping her hat on in the Chamber…While Mrs. Smith was a member of the House last year the Speaker was called upon to decide whether the woman member should remove her hat when addressing the chair, and decided that all heads must be uncovered when addressing the Speaker’.

Mary Ellen wanted far more than a pyrrhic victory permitting her to wear her hat in the Chamber. She saw that the office of Speaker would frustrate her ability to advocate new laws, so she declined the offer and demanded a Cabinet post. Eventually and shrewdly John Oliver acquiesced, appointing Mary Ellen as Minister without Portfolio on 24 March 1921.  This unprecedented news spread quickly because The Times announced her appointment to English readers on 26 March and by 2 April it had spread to the State of Victoria, Australia when her appointment was reported in the Melbourne-based Argus, which pertinently described ‘Mrs Ralph Smith’ as an ‘Attractive speaker, with great charm and character’. In becoming the first woman to hold a Cabinet position in the British Empire Mary Ellen was eight years ahead of the more celebrated west country daughter and Labour Party MP Margaret Grace Bondfield (born Chard, Somerset 17 March 1873; died Sanderstead, Surrey 16 June 1953) who was appointed Minister of Labour by Ramsay MacDonald in 1929, and thus became the first woman to hold a Cabinet position in Britain. Mary Ellen’s time in the upper level of British Columbian politics did not last long because she resigned from her post on 19 November 1921 (most of the published biographical works about Mary Ellen state that her tenure lasted from 1921 to 1922). The truth was (as John Oliver had intended) that the post of Minister without Portfolio was an office without power for as Mary Ellen had eloquently realized by the time of her resignation speech ‘…a cabinet minister without portfolio is as a fifth wheel on the political coach, a superfluity’.

On 9 August 1923 The Times reported that ‘Mrs Mary Ellen Smith, the first woman to be elected a member of a British Parliament and the first British woman Cabinet Minister [sic], has arrived in London on a visit.’3 Mary Ellen had returned to England on a tour as a representative of the Dominion’s Immigration Department to encourage potential immigrants to Canada—an extension of her work as a member of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (founded January 1900 in Montreal as a women’s patriotic support group to promote the British Empire). The slogan on her touring car echoed Lord Kitchener’s slogan during the First World War: ‘Canada Needs You’. The itinerary for the tour involved visits to over 100 cities, towns and villages. Wherever Mary Ellen went the message that she had for the crowds who turned up to listen to her was: ‘If you are able to work hard and want work, you may safely look to Canada as a land of promise, promise coupled with fulfilment’. At a time when England was not proving to be the promised ‘home fit for heroes’, Mary Ellen’s words were likely to have been tempting.

During the remainder of her tenure as a MLA Mary Ellen Smith did briefly become the first woman in the British Empire to hold the office of Speaker when she was appointed Acting Speaker of the Legislative Assembly on 22 February 1928. As Mary Ellen sat in the Speaker’s Chair wearing her homespun tatting beret, it was for the first time in history that the incumbent of this office had been given the appellation of ‘Madam Speaker’, establishing a precedent that has endured throughout the parliaments and legislatures of the English-speaking world—from 1992 to 2000 Dewsbury’s own Betty Boothroyd was an heir to Mary Ellen Smith. Mary Ellen was defeated in the British Columbia election of 18 July 1928 which saw the Liberal Party removed from power and also signalled her retirement from active national politics at the age of 63—she was the Canadian delegate at the International Labour Organization Conference in Geneva 30 May–21 June 1929, and for the last few years of her life she held the titular office of President of the British Columbia Liberal Party. 

That a woman born in ‘provincial’ England at a time in history when most women were ciphers in the shadows of men, went on to estimable feats in the political arena of the ‘New World’ is remarkable. Now is the time for Gunnislake to acknowledge this daughter’s achievements. There is a case to be made for Tavistock to adopt this East Cornish daughter of West Devonian parents.  For the future it is to be hoped that there will be a definitive biography of Mary Ellen Smith, placing her in the mainstream of historical scholarship where she surely deserves to be.

On Tuesday 15 January 2008 at the Tavistock Methodist Church I had the privilege of listening to Gerry Woodcock's eloquent, panoramic and erudite Presidential address to the Tavistock and District Local History Society. The general subject was 'The A to Z of Tavistock Worthies'. It was Gerry's brief and tantalizing reference to the elusive Mary Ellen Smith which ignited my curiosity about her. I thank Dr Ann Pulsford for providing the catalyst which transformed my curiosity into the writing of this essay. Last, but not least, I thank Kate for her generous forbearance far and beyond the call of the connubial. To the sedulous reader who has got this far I plead mea culpa. The errors and omissions of facts, and any specious interpretations in this essay are solely mine.


1It has been suggested that Mary Ellen was a pupil at Tavistock Grammar School. Tavistock Grammar School in the 19th century was not a coeducational school. Moreover, by the age of six she had moved to Cramlington, Northumbria. The evidence militates against the possibility that she was ever a pupil at the Russell Street site.  

2There was a less wholesome facet of Mary Ellen Smith’s political beliefs and actions because like many of her contemporaries she was a eugenicist who embraced the ideas promulgated by Sir Francis Galton, FRS (16 February 1822–17 January 1911). She popularized her eugenicist ideas in an article by ‘Mrs Ralph Smith’ in the Vancouver Sun, 6 April 1918 and gave vociferous support to punitive laws enacted against indigenous people and oriental immigrants to British Columbia—laws that, in particular, were aimed at the prevention of miscegenation, or what Mary Ellen Smith described in demotic terms as ‘race motherhood’ which aimed at the preservation of a ‘white British Columbia’. She introduced The Women’s and Girls’ Protection Act 1923 which outlawed marriages between white females, and indigenous or oriental males. Mary Ellen was also a vigorous advocate over a period of decades of sexual sterilization laws for British Columbia, which finally came to fruition with the passing of An Act Respecting Sexual Sterilization on 7 April 1933, just under a month before she died.

Furthermore, her eugenicist views were in contradistinction to the political credo Mary Ellen Smith espoused in her inaugural speech on 11 March 1918.

3Mary Ellen crossed the Atlantic for a private visit to Gunnislake and Tavistock in 1911.


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