Nine badass women you won't see in history books
From discovering aquifers to chronicling the past, these outsiders redefined the Island in their own, unique ways.
These are the women who did things their own way, often in a leading role. While you may have heard of the more famous women like Emily Carr and Cougar Annie, the lesser-known residents and travellers on this list similarly lived, explored, and left their mark on the Island.
1. Evelyn Penrose
Evelyn Penrose possessed a special gift. From a young age, her father had taught her how to divine water. She could find aquifers without the use of divining rods and even estimate the depth of water with accuracy.
From her home in Cornwall, she took her water finding skills around the world. In the 1930s she visited the Okanagan where she found water for orchards. She traveled to California to divine for oil. The signal for oil was so strong it made her sick.
She eventually made her way to Vancouver Island where she not only found water but could find minerals by pointing at a map. In her autobiography, Adventure Unlimited: A Water Diviner Travels the World she claimed to be able to locate almost anything, including illness in the body and wanted criminals.
You can read more about her here.
2. Frances Macnab
When journalist Frances Macnab arrived in Victoria harbour aboard the Empress of Japan in 1897, the evening light set the harbour in a serene calm. The scene transfixed her. She thought to herself, “What a heavenly spot to live in!”
Once she landed and met the locals, however, her opinion changed: “With Vancouver Island itself I was greatly disappointed, though many people tried to persuade me of its advantages.”
The Englishwoman traveled to BC across the continent on the CPR railway to gather information for her 369-page book entitled British Columbia for Settlers: Its Mines, Trade and Agriculture. As one of few female journalists in the British Empire, she had written similar books in other locations. She possessed amazing recall and a writer’s eye for detail.
Land speculation, it seems, stood near the top of her list of reasons for not liking the Island. She stated speculators “only intended to screw as high a price as possible out of the purchaser, but their influence in the Government was sufficiently strong.” (Some things don’t change.)
The drinking water situation in Victoria has improved now, but when Macnab visited, she called it “a disgrace and a constant menace to health.” Water was in abundance, but she claimed, “only the energy and enterprise is lacking to bring this much-needed blessing into Victoria.”
She lamented the poor roads and other infrastructure, including bridges that were “known to be unsafe, and only one vehicle at a time is allowed upon them, and that at a foot pace.” When an old-timer told her Victoria was the “London of the Pacific,” she “marvelled that no rumours of the existence of San Francisco had reached him.”
Macnab would continue by steamer to Port Alberni to examine the gold mines there and Nanaimo to the coal mines. After Nanaimo she took a canoe ride to Cowichan with two Indigenous guides. The two men “accidently” guided their canoe onto rocks and claimed she would have to pay more for them to continue. She was having non of it. The world traveler was accustomed to these types of schemes and held firm until they finally brought her to her destination. Despite this she thoroughly enjoyed the canoe trip and seeing the Island’s natural beauty.
3. Norah Drummond Davis
Artist Norah Drummond Davis, famous for her scenes of wildlife around the Banff area, arrived on the Island with her two Airedale dogs between the two world wars. She lived in a small cabin in Sydney, and her two dogs pulled a cart full of paints and brushes around town. When these dogs got too old, she shot them. Then got two more to take their place.
4. Agnes Deans Cameron
Born in 1863 in Victoria, Agnes Deans Cameron was the kind of teacher children feared but respected. She became a teacher at 18 years old and trained in Comox and Vancouver before returning to Victoria four years later, eventually becoming the first-ever female principle at South Park School.
Quick to the whip, she thrashed disobedient children. When one rebellious student complained to his father about a particularly bad beating, she doubled down in a letter to the editor in the local rag about the incident. “I whipped him severely,” she said. “Just as severely as I possibly could.” Despite this, many students said she was a great teacher.
She held firm to her beliefs. Eventually, she lost her job over defending children accused of cheating on an exam. After which she became a freelance journalist and traveled to Chicago to report on America’s industrial success. Two years later, she became the first non-Indigenous woman to travel up the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean. There she met with the Inuit and found them marvellous. She condemned the racism of the settler society and any thoughts of superiority. Back in Victoria in 1912 she fell ill with appendicitis and died after a few days after the operation.
You can read more about her here.
5. Hannah Maynard
Born in England Hannah Maynard immigrated to Canada with her husband, Richard in 1852. In 1858 Richard struck gold on the Fraser River, and the couple moved to Victoria in what was then the Colony of Vancouver Island.
Hannah Maynard used her photo-taking skills around town. Throughout her career, she photographed almost every resident in the city, from street vendors to the Lady Douglas, Governor Douglas’s wife, and became recognized throughout Canada for her work which she displayed in her studio downtown.
She eventually taught her husband the trade and he became a famous landscape photographer as well. Photography in the 19th century took time and patience. She was one of the first to use back lighting from angles. In photo development, Maynard would play with multiple exposures and overlap photos to create surrealist art that was far ahead of the time. After the death of her child her art became more abstract.
In her later years she was the official photographer for the Victoria Police Department. She died in 1918 and was buried at the Ross Bay Cemetery.
6. Mary Ann Croft
When the Discovery Island lighthouse keeper became too ill to continue with his duties in 1899, the federal government scrambled to find a replacement. The answer to their problems, however, was already solved. The keeper’s daughter, Mary Ann Croft had been performing his duties for years.
With these unofficial years in account, she is thought to be Canada’s first female lighthouse keeper. She would continue to keep the lighthouse at Discovery Island for 30 years, and in that time life’s events passed while her family lived a secluded existence on the craggy and broken islets off the coast from Oak Bay.
She raised and supported two daughters. Her husband was, according to one of her superiors, “worthless in sorry sense of the word,” and spent time in hospital. In 1919, and thinking about retirement, she enquired into what her pension would be in a letter to Ottawa:
“This is the case shortly put, as I do not believe in long and tedious stories. I think that after 23 years’ service in such employment as the Lighthouse Branch, a person is due for some rest and something to make that rest free from worry for whatever few years that may be left.”
“I could make an appeal a mile long about the desolate situation of the Lighthouse Keeper in bad and stormy weather, but you know the coast, and you know the circumstances as well as I can tell you, if indeed not a good deal better.”
“I hope you will be able to convince those warmly housed gentlemen at Ottawa that when 23 years are taken out of a woman’s life in a lighthouse, she is about due for a recognized and guaranteed rest.”
The reply came with a denial of any pension. She was forced to work until she couldn’t handle the duties at age 67. She did receive a medal and eventually a small pension and could look at the lighthouse from her residence in Victoria. Three years later she died.
7. Phyllis Munday
Back in the days when some of the mainland’s coastal mountains remained unmapped, Phyllis Munday and her husband hiked Mount Arrowsmith on Vancouver Island. From the top they spied a mountain thrusting beyond the others across the Salish sea. They dubbed the mountain Mystery Mountain.
They explored the area at the head of Bute Inlet and bushwacked up to a glacier. Mystery mountain would not give its peak so easily, and after a few attempts, getting within 60 feet of the summit, they were forced to turn around.
This didn’t matter to Munday. She wasn’t a peak-bagger. She was in it for the journey and was happy just exploring the area of what would become BC’s tallest peak—Mt Waddington. “We didn’t go into the Waddington country just to climb one mountain and run out and leave it,” she wrote. “We went into the Wadington country to find out all we possibly could about glaciers and mountains and nature and everything about the particular area—completely unknown before we went into it—so that we could bring out the information for the interest of other people as well as ourselves.”
Munday began climbing mountains in North Vancouver at 16 years old. She met her husband while in the mountains and took their newborn child into the mountains as soon as she could hold her head up. With over 200 peaks climbed in her lifetime, Munday still wanted more when arthritis forced her to stop. In her eighties she still did lots of walking—just not in mountains anymore. She died in 1990.
8. Gilean Douglas
Similar to the more famous Cougar Annie, pioneer and writer, Gilean Douglas, was born in 1900. When her father died in 1916, she received a handsome inheritance. Three years later she worked as a reporter for the Toronto Star. She had relationships with several men at the same time. In 1921 she married her first husband, Slim, who took her last name, at her insistence.
The relationship didn’t last, Slim disappeared, and she assumed he was dead. When she married another man again in 1929, Slim reappeared and they started back up again only for both men to leave her a short time later. A few years passed, and she met another man. They moved into a remote cabin near Hope, BC where she authored Silence is my Homeland, an award-winning book. In 1947 her cabin caught fire and her life was uprooted.
She eventually moved to Cortes Island where she spent the final forty years of her life. She became widely known on Vancouver Island for her column in the Victoria Times Colonist. She would continue to publish ten books of poetry and prose. In 1993, two days after publishing her last book, she died at home.
9. Rosemary Neering
Much of the research for this article was done with my copy of Wild West Women written by Rosemary Neering. Neering was born in England in 1945 and has spent over thirty years in British Columbia. Her impressive list of publications includes over forty titles, many of which are award winning (including Wild West Women). She writes non-fiction for all ages with a focus on history and exploring the lives of ordinary people. She’s been a freelance writer since 1981 and lives in Victoria. You can read her work here.
Know of other notable yet obscure women we should have included? Please tell us in the comments below!
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