Scandal when Lady Aberdeen drinks tea with servants

Lady Aberdeen, social reformer and Canada’s first feminist—before that term was even coined. McCord Museum, MP-0000.25.935.


Ishbel Maria Couts Marjoribanks Gordon, Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair, was not governor-general, as Saturday Night states, but possibly it was just that she was considered the power behind the throne. The governor general was her husband, Lord Aberdeen, a social crusader like his wife. Canada’s first aristocratic feminist, Lady Aberdeen (1857-1939) did not endear herself to the social establishment by her efforts to promote women’s rights, democratic attitudes, religious and ethnic tolerance, and more esteem and power for workers. She fought bitter opposition from the medical establishment to create the Victorian Order of Nurses and was instrumental in establishing the National Council of Women in Canada.

From Saturday Night, October 26, 1903:

While Lady Aberdeen was Governor-General and reigned in Rideau Hall [1893-98], if reports current at the time were true, it was her custom to treat her servants with about the same degree of cordiality and intimacy as she showed to her guests. The ladies of the Capital, when they heard that the occupant of Rideau Hall occasionally took five o’clock tea with her servants, predicted disaster amongst their own domestics as a result.

When Lady Aberdeen, in Montreal and elsewhere, took it upon herself to champion the cause of the servant girl, those who understood the problem in this country better than the reformer who was only sojourning here, were much offended, and said to one another that it was all very well for a women who had a retinue of thirty or forty servants and attaches, to make fantastic rules, but the women of Canada who struggled along with one domestic, or perhaps had two or three, would find it impossible to live up to such an expensive and impractical ideal.

Many of Lady Aberdeen’s efforts to establish societies to prevent something or to force people to do something, were practically failures, but the movement she set on foot in Ottawa [the formation of associations or unions for servants] seems to have taken root. They now have an organization consisting of the kitchen ladies of the Capital known as the Houseworkers’ Association, and at the present moment it is struggling to make itself felt in a way which will doubtless make its ex-vice-regal patroness glow with pride.

It has been so difficult to obtain female domestic help in the city that Hon. Mr. Blair, Minister of Railways, has consented to the employment of Chinese servants at his private residence. This has so scandalized Union No. 1 of the Amalgamated order of Cooks, Chambermaids and Laundresses that a resolution has been adopted protesting against a Minister of the Crown having aught to do with the “heathen Chinee.” It is said that they will distribute a circular in all the leading cities of Canada in which their wail will be set forth, relying on the trade and labor associations to take the matter up and do the rest.

It is not a cheering thought to the householder that before long the walking delegates of servant girls’ unions will be going from house to house making the none too content occupants of the kitchen more unsettled, and enquiring into the rules, regulations and habits of the people whose dinner is on the stove. It is hard enough now to obtain competent household help, but if unions of this sort ever become popular, the last vestige of discipline and contentment will disappear from those who have the peace and well-being of the family so much in charge. If the ranks of the labor unionists are recruited in the way proposed, the leaders of the organizations representing workingmen should have enough foresight to see that nothing but disaster to their own cause can possibly result by added social discontent of the new movement.




Rescued by the Aberdeens

Earlier, the Aberdeens shocked society by inviting a divorcée to a state dinner, as Saturday Night reported in December, 1893:

The Aberdeens have shown their good sense once again in inviting the wife of the Hon. Geo. E. Foster to the state dinner at Rideau Hall. This is the first state dinner to which Mrs. Foster has been invited. Hitherto because she had been divorced in the United States prior to her marriage to the present Finance Minister, the doors of Rideau Hall have been closed against her. While cabinet ministers who were not only corrupt, but notoriously immoral, and politicians of the same stamp, have always been welcome at the vice-regal residence in New Edinburgh, poor Mrs. Foster has been rigorously excluded.

Coming from the Aberdeens whose Christianity or piety is probably much more substantial than that of the nifty and fastidious people who turn up their noses at Mrs. Foster, the welcome now accorded will be doubly valued.


Unfamiliar Canadian history stories 094


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