Margaret Smale Gorvett's Story
This page contains an article on the early life of Margaret Smale (Mrs. Lewis
Gorvett) written by A. S. Paragus (a pen-name!) August 3, 1918 for the St.
Thomas (Ontario) Times-Journal.
"A great many years ago, in the year 1839, in fact, and in the month of April, a
little girl was born in the rich and beautiful country of Devon, England. She
was destined, however, not to know much of either the richness or beauty of
Devon, except what she could see with a pair of very merry blues eyes in and
about a tiny cottage at Bideford, a mile from the great wide ocean. For her
parents were extremely poor. They were so poor that the little girl did not go
to school and never learned to write though some nice people taught her how to
read on Sabbaths at the church.
Nowadays a child, even a poor child, can hardly escape an education in England
and a very good one too. But in the 40’s it was not so. That was before the day
of common schools, of reforms, and pensions and compulsory insurance and labor
parties and general philanthropy and factory machinery. For machinery and
factories came in hand and hand with philanthropy and labour reforms although
for a great while it was very hard for the little girl’s parents to see it that
way. These poor people were very much interested in glove making, glove making
by hand. And when factories were set up to make the gloves they felt that the
world was dealing very hardly with them. The packmen need to bring the gloves
ready cut to the mother in the tiny cottage at Bideford. And although the little
girl’s fingers were never taught to hold a pen, they learned to ply a needle as
she sat at the side of her mother stitching gloves. Black kid gloves they were
and every stitch of the white milk trimming on the back must be worked in just
so. In the time the little girl grew nearly as efficient a glove maker as her
mother and sewed scores and scores of pairs of black kid gloves, for the packmen
to come and carry off with them to the city. Then someone thought it would pay
better to make the gloves in a great big factory by machines which would turn
them out more speedily. So then the packmen came no more to Bideford and times
were very pinched and bitter in the tiny cottage.
But there was other trouble beside the glove factory. When she was ten years old
the little girl’s father died and poverty did stare them then, sure enough,
right in the face. There are perhaps a dozen different charities and benefits
now, to help a stricken family or a fatherless child in Britain. But at that
time to be poor was to be poor indeed. Yet the public was not entirely without
mercy. The little girl’s family were now, properly speaking, on the workhouse,
but they let her mother keep her tiny cottage. As for the children old enough to
earn-the little girl and her brother, they were given to the farmers to work out
for their bread, board and clothes. It was a hard lot and what was called board
did not always mean enough to satisfy the hunger of a growing child.
The little girl is now an old lady nearly eighty years old (Mrs. Lewis Gorvett,
of Sparta, Ontario) and when she told me this about not having enough to eat, I
could not imagine it of Devon-Devon which we have always heard was so rich and
"And so Devon IS a lovely country," said the old lady, "if you have means. A
beautiful place to live in. I’d rather live there than here in Ontario, if I had
the means. But in my day there was nothing for the poor man’s family in Devon.
We rarely saw a strawberry. Apples were scarce and the farmers had the very
gates of their orchard guarded with thorns against stragglers." It must have
been very different from Ontario indeed where we have apples lying to waste by
the thousands of bushels. I suppose that even then every apple in Devon had its
cash price, and was guarded accordingly. "After a time" Mrs. Gorvett told me, "I
grew up and married and then it was some easier to live but not so much either.
A taste of bacon, say a quarter of a pound, with a pan of potatoes once a week,
was a great treat for our family and wheat bread rose higher and higher."
"Bideford was near the ocean, you mind I told you. And one of the treats we poor
people used to have was limpets. There was only a certain time of the day you
could get them. They live on the rocks and there for nine hours as long as the
tide is coming in they stick to rocks so tight you cannot budge them. But when
the tide goes out that is your time. They loosen then and you can gather them by
the bucketful. we used to get an old donkey, put some bags over his back and go
down to the shore to gather limpets.
"The shore of the sea was not a gravel shore like the lake has down here. It was
a cobble-stone shore at Bideford with cobbles as big as that box there and blue.
They were hard enough to get over. "How did we eat the limpets? We put parsley
with them and made them into a pie. They’re lovely that way. You prepare them by
boiling, when a little snail-like thing comes out of the limpet. "Once when we
went down to the shore to gather limpets we found a shipwreck. Shipwrecks are
common enough all along the sea coast of England. A big cargo of grain had gone
down and there was split barley in quantities being washed up on the beach. It
was a windfall to us and we changed our mind about gathering limpets and made
for the barley. But when we got down to the beach, there was a foreign seaman
there, that couldn’t speak a word of English, and he drew his knife for killing.
"No he didn’t mind our getting the barley. That wasn’t the trouble. he was
afraid we were coming to do him some harm. The vessel was a French one and
although the English had no was on with the French, we weren’t the Allies we are
now. and besides there were wars all over Europe at the time and everybody was
suspicious when cast on a strange shore. By and by the interpreter came down
from Bideford and he made things straight and we went home with all the barely
we could carry.
I wanted to know what had finally decided them to emigrate to Canada. "Why the
living in Devon got so high we couldn’t possibly stand it. The very last bushel
of wheat my husband bought before he left the old county was $3, and his weekly
wage was only $2.25. My mother and brother had come out before and my brother
offered to lend us money to come with. So we took it and came. My oldest boy was
nine years old when we came out. "We weren’t long coming. It had taken my
brother three months but we got to Quebec in a few days, for steam boats had
come in use in the mean time.
"And was it as nice as you expected here?" "No, No, indeed, it was not. For a
time I would have given anything to get back to Devon again. But I got over that
and now Canada is home to me.
"You see, we had been led to believe it was such an easy country here, nothing
to do to get along at all. But I found I had to work very hard – just like as a
man I worked when we came out, to pay off our debt and all. But then, there was
a good in time. Besides I was blessed with excellent health." And she is yet.
Hard as were the times in Devon, it must be very healthy spending a childhood
there by the sea. Very rarely does one meet such an active and alert old lady at
the age of eighty. When I first saw her she had just come up with her
grandchildren from a ramble to the lake, a good mile distant, and her step was
light and nimble and her smile as unwearied and jolly as a young girls’. What
must it be to be young and nimble at eighty. Moreover, Mrs. Gorvett still works
much as a young person. It pleased her to go out picking raspberries in the
large berry patches this year. And it is safe to say she made a much higher
record than many young and ambitious farmerettes might aspire to. "I could pick
the whole day long, right through the heat." She announced with some just pride,
"and earn my dollar and seventy cents per day right along, I earned some twelve
dollars picking strawberries." I wonder how many of us will be able to do as
great a stunt at eighty?
The one part of Mrs. Gorvett’s narrative that has perplexed me some was the fact
that wheat in England was three dollars a bushel in 1869. If it had been ’56 one
would not be surprised, for at that time of the Crimean war, wheat went very
high even here. But although England had managed to keep out of the European
struggles which occurred between the Crimean war and ’69, she could not help
these continental wars affecting her markets. There were five great strifes
during those few years which concerned both Europe and the New World. In these
years the kingdom of Italy was created and Prussia took Schleswig- Holstein from
Denmark. Poland had one of its tragic convulsions and France a war with Mexico.
What probably affected the wheat market in England as much as anything was The
American Civil war. At any rate the thing that concerns us now is that in even
so great a war as has been at present with England knee deep in trouble from the
very first, she has been able to keep her people with all their hardship (and
this hardship those who have returned say we know nothing about) from the
extreme food shortages Mrs. Gorvett’s story reveals. When there was wheat in the
world to be had England managed to procure it through the intrepidity of her
seamen and the quickened transportation facilities of these later days, and in
spite of submarines. And the English people have had their bread at as cheap a
rate as we who raise the wheat, and with wages far higher that two an a quarter
per week as well. Meanwhile, the fact that the world had wheat for England this
war shows plainly that Canada has risen to greatness since 1869.
In the face of these bettered conditions for the poor of even a country hard
spent in the throes of a universal war, who will say the world, in spite of its
horror of inhumane strife is not slowly, slowly creeping up to better things."