Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks was born on 15 March 1857 the fifth of seven children in a prominent Scottish landowning family. Her father was a partner in a brewing business as well as a Liberal MP. She spent her childhood on the family estate in Invernesshire and in London, receiving her education from governesses and tutors. Her father opposed her attending the newly-founded Girton College for women at Cambridge University. In 1877, she married John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, Earl of Aberdeen; they had five children (four of whom survived into adulthood), dividing their time between London and Aberdeenshire.
Lady Aberdeen was an active social campaigner with an interest in encouraging emigration to the British Empire. To that end, she established the Onward and Upward Association to help domestic servants take correspondence courses. In 1883, she became the first president of the Aberdeen Ladies’ Union which, among other things, sponsored young women emigrating to Canada. She also became head of the Women’s Liberal Federation, supporting women’s suffrage. In 1890, the Aberdeens toured across Canada, and bought a homestead, the Coldstream Ranch, in British Columbia which, later, would become recognised for pioneering commercial fruit growing in the region.
In 1893, Lord Aberdeen was appointed governor general of Canada. Once settled there, Lady Aberdeen quickly became engaged in planning social events, in support of her husband, and for her own philanthropic concerns.
When the Liberal Party returned to power in 1906, Lord Aberdeen served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, until 1915. Lady Aberdeen continued her programme of social reform in Ireland, pioneering the Women’s National Health Association and becoming active in efforts to improve children’s health and preventing the spread of tuberculosis. After retirement to their home in Scotland, the Aberdeens continued to be involved in various social causes. They also wrote a memoir together - We Twa. Lady Aberdeen died in 1939, five years after her husband. For further information see Wikipedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, or Undiscovered Scotland.
Twenty or so years after her death, The Champlain Society, Toronto, published The Canadian Journal of Lady Aberdeen, 1893-1898, as edited by John Saywell. All 600 pages, including a 100-page biography, can be found online at the website of the University of Toronto (although navigation through the pages is a bit rudimentary). Here are several extracts.
24 December 1893
‘We had our first service in our dear new little wooden chapel to-day. The men have been working night & day to get it finished by Christmas Day & they have done it. H.E. read prayers this morning & this evening Mr Winfield took the evening service. It is quite simple of varnished pine wood, a dark red drugget on floor, dull red & green windows & chairs for seats. We feel already that it will make all the difference to us. H.E. has put it up entirely himself, although the Government offered to pay, but we wanted no questions about this asked in Parliament. It will cost about $2000 (between £400 & £500) & then there is the little organ to come.
A busy evening preparing Christmas presents & stockings. A white blanket coat trimmed with red makes an excellent costume for Santa Claus to make his rounds - but Archie’s dog “Lady” thought I was a burglar & growled vigorously.’
25 December 1893
‘Such a horrible muggy day for our first Canadian Christmas. Yesterday & to-day it has been thawing vigorously - & in the space of a few days there have been differences of temperatures of 60°, which are rather trying. Great lamentations over no skating or snow sports for to-day.
We had a delightful home-like service in the new Chapel, conducted by Mr Winfield, who pending the time that he gets a charge is to be appointed chaplain & tutor to Archie & Marjorie in Latin & English Literature. We are very fortunate in finding him here ready to hand - he is an Oxford man & took orders in the English Church - was in W. Africa, the Bermudas, New Brunswick & then here in connection with the Reformed Episcopalian Church a small body seceding from the Anglican church on account of High Church doctrine. It is supposed that there is not much in the way of ritualistic practices, but v. High Church teaching. Mr Winfield has latterly felt it utterly unsatisfactory to belong to a Church without a past & without a future & so resigned his charge & has joined the Presbyterian Church. But he reads the English service in new chapel quite willingly. He is a cultured man, & is v. fond of children having one little boy of his own of eight. He is a great admirer of H.D.
The children had a day of games with Cosmo in their company all day. We went over to the Cottage to see Carry this afternoon - it was raining though it had begun to freeze again - & it was ridiculous to see the rain freezing as it fell & making it quite difficult to shut one’s umbrella.
Marjorie has made a lot of wonderfully neat Christmas presents this year - & has sent 15 home & given twenty here. She made a little bookcase for me & a printed maple leaf almanack for her Father - & lots of pretty little things for people in the house. Archie carved a ruler for me very well, & made a little model cottage covered with birch bark & thatched with straw as a letter box for his Father.
For the staff we had some enamelled maple leaf brooches & pins made by Birks which were eminently successful. Lord Ava was most lavish in his presents all round. We had a Christmas tree decoration for the dinner table to-night which looked well, with the Irish silver-gilt potato rings.’
30 December 1893
‘Photograph of all our party taken this morning on garden steps - first in furs & then in blanket coats by Topley. Luncheon at 12 then off with children to Assault at Arms given by Governor-General’s Foot-Guards at Opera House. This regiment a militia regiment which excites Capt. Kindersley’s ire inasmuch as it has adopted a uniform v. nearly resembling the Coldstream Guards. One man, Sergeant-Major Morgans, an old soldier from home did wonderful sword feats cutting a piece of lead two inches thick right through with one blow - cutting a stick hung on two loops of paper, suspended on two razors without cutting the paper & so on - a good deal of fencing & sword & bayonet encounters which greatly amused children.’
10 December 1894
‘First-rate lecture this afternoon in connection with Montreal Women’s Club by Dr James Cameron on the deformities & ill health caused by improper postures adopted by children in sitting & standing. Drawing room to-night - about 300 to 400 people - very pretty ceremony & all well carried out - held in Art Association Rooms lent us for purpose. Veils & feathers worn as a rule. This is the first time there has been a Drawing Room held here for many years & it has caused much discussion.’
3 February 1896
‘Some doubt has been expressed as to whether our historical fancy dress Ball should proceed because of the mourning. But as it is fixed for a month after Prince Henry’s death, as its being put off would not only entail loss not only on the tradesmen but on the guests who have gone to a good deal of trouble in ordering their dresses, & as postponement to after Lent would be very precarious seeing the state of political affairs, we think there can be no doubt about its going on. It is to be on the 17th, the last possible day before Lent, & now people are fairly interested in it. At the outset, the project had a good deal of cold water dashed at it - there was not time - people would not dress - people had not the money & so on. Then when we arranged with Montreal costumiers to provide dresses for gentlemen from $5 to $10, wigs & shoes extra & to give designs for costumes for ladies free, leaving them to have them made up, there came the political crisis. The costumiers came & took rooms at Ottawa & sat there & waited, but no one came - everybody was at the House.
Dr Bourinot, the clerk of the House of Commons (and a great authority on constitutional history), has been my mainstay. He suggested all the personages we might represent and their characteristics & has entered into the whole affair with enthusiasm. To tell the honest truth, we started this idea of having a Ball representing the outstanding periods of Canadian history, with the hope that it might lead to the young people reading up a bit & that it might divert Ottawa gossip at least into past times, away from all the painful & humiliating episodes of the present political situation & the everlasting discussion of hockey & winter sports varied with Ottawa society scandal. It was a sort of forlorn hope, but actually it appears to be succeeding - the last fortnight has made a great difference & now you hear everyone anxious to trace out the lineage & deeds of General this & Admiral that & of Madame la Marquise or the others. We had a meeting of the ladies who have undertaken to organise dances representing the various periods last Saturday & ascertained their views on various points. I enclose a copy of what we have put in the papers on this point.’
26 September 1896
‘Here again after another week of “progress” as it is called, through Ontario - that is, being bucketed from one place to another by night & going through the round of being received at the station, addresses presented, a procession round the town, reception at the Fair grounds, an attempt to go round the exhibits in the midst of a huge crowd, a long luncheon with nothing possible to eat, & visits to various schools, hospitals, convents & other institutions. We live our days to the tune of God save the Queen, from the moment the train stops till it departs, & one sometimes wonders inwardly whether the moment will not arrive when instead of keeping up an inane smile, we will not seize someone & turn then round & shake them or do something desperate to make at least a change.
I fear this is all horridly ungrateful, for everybody has been most kind & people have vied one with another to see who could do most for us. I think there has been a general desire to show that the feeling of the country was not with Sir Charles in his attack on H.E.
The long talked of debate come off last Monday evening, just when we were leaving. Everybody was prepared for a long evening of it - the old gentleman made a carefully prepared speech & kept himself mostly within bounds & was only pulled up twice, by the Speaker for speaking disrespectfully of H.E. Capt. Sinclair who was present, thought he spoke better than Laurier, who seemed rather taken unawares. Several of the Liberal leaders were ready with speeches, but when Laurier sat down, no one on the Opposition side got up & to the amazement of everybody, the debate collapsed. Neither Foster, Haggart or Ives were even present & the Conservative party generally had made up its mind not to support their leader in this. So he has made rather a mess of his great constitutional question. It seems rather a pity that the opinions of some of those most interested in the matter & also the despatches to & from the Colonial Office should not be put on record so as to ensure the same line being kept for the future. But doubtless there is safety in allowing the subject to drop now & we at least may be amply satisfied with the result.
Our tour this week comprised Peterborough, Stratford-on-Avon, Goderich, Tavistock, Brantford, Woodstock & Lindsay. The Shows have been very good & the fruit superb, especially the apples over which the proprietor of Coldstream is apt to linger considerably. The English market is found to be far away the best & for the best apples from Goderich they have been getting 17/- a barrel.
The local authorities are not quite sufficiently alive to the danger of crowds trying to converge on one centre & we have had several escapes from accidents owing to platforms etc. being not sufficiently strong. At Peterborough the platform was fairly stormed & it collapsed - it was not high, & no one was hurt, not even an old gentleman of over 90 who was precipitated down. At Stratford we had to pass from the Rink (where the addresses were presented & where there was a great crowd, although it was but 9.30 a.m.) back to our carriage across a wooden bridge some 20 feet high. The crowd got flurried & would not move on - more & more came pressing on from the Rink & the bridge began cracking & swaying in horrible style with all these people on it. However the cracking frightened them on happily in time - next day another platform began to crack & at the evening reception at Goderich, the crowd became utterly unmanageable & fought with the militia who had been brought in by Capt. Wilberforce’s request to help keep the passage way. The mayor sent for the police & threatened to arrest any more who gave trouble, but there was great discomfort & the poor wretches who struggled through to the so-called “reception” & to present addresses looked decidedly dishevelled & irritable. The Irish gave a nice address there about Home Industries. To make things better, the electric light went out & we finished our entertainment by the light of a single oil lamp. The militia did very well that night. We were ensconced in a retreat consecrated to Mr Walker of Walkerville’s whiskey & ale. It was bitterly cold for two days & I have succeeded in bring back a baddish cold. H.E. has kept very well, I am thankful to say & we have slept on the car throughout, the Grand Trunk kindly lending us another car. At Tavistock I found myself suddenly announced by H.E. to make a German speech at 9 a.m. without any meditation, as he had been told that the inhabitants were mainly German. I don’t believe.’