Celebrating 120 Years!

If we look back at some of the achievements of the VWA, we cannot emphasize enough the extraordinary impact this Association has had on the education of women, particularly in the early years when it was especially difficult for women to pursue higher education. (In the nineteenth century, women were not fully integrated into Canadian society, let alone the academic world. Consider there were men and also women who believed university education for women was unnecessary and possibly threatening to the social structure. Remember also women did not get the vote in Canada until 1919, nor were they declared persons until 1929.) Cognizant of all the challenges that faced women, the Association actively encouraged them to attend university, aided them financially whenever possible, and, in 1903, provided them with a "convenient and comfortable home." Moreover, it believed not only in supporting women’s intellectual growth but also in promoting their all-round development. Now, let’s review the Association’s remarkable journey.

Early Days: Victoria moved from Cobourg to Toronto in 1892. There were fourteen women students, seven of whom needed accommodation and finding safe and pleasant places to live proved stressful for them. Moreover, boarding houses seemed to prefer men to women. Aware of their difficulties and concerned for their safety and the quality of their accommodations, Margaret Proctor Burwash (Mrs. Nathanael), wife of Vic’s Chancellor-President and a former teacher, and Margaret Addison, Vic 1889, who was then teaching at Stratford Collegiate began discussing the need for a residence in 1895. Fortunately, there were also other women concerned about this situation, one of them being Lillian Massey. In 1896, her father, businessman and philanthropist Hart Massey, Vic 1844, left $200,000 to Victoria in his will, and probably having been convinced by his beloved daughter, he reserved $50,000 of this sum for a women’s residence.

Formation: The following year in March 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Margaret Burwash and a few influential women met in the Vic chapel with the General Superintendent of the Methodist Church Conference Dr. Carman, Chancellor Burwash, members of the Vic staff and the Board of Regents. The result was the formation of the Barbara Heck Memorial Association. The Chancellor’s wife became president and Margaret Hopkins Cox, wife of Vic’s treasurer Senator George Cox, became treasurer. The Association was sanctioned by the Board of Regents which authorized it to raise money.

Purpose: In a letter "To the Women of Methodism," that started with the salutation "Dear Sister," the women made clear their mission was threefold: to build a residence for women students, to honour United Empire Loyalist pioneer Barbara Heck "the Mother of Methodism in America" by naming the residence after her, and to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, by the advancement of "the future queens of the homes of our Church and land." These early members aimed to raise $25,000 for the cost of land and furnishings for the women’s residence, plus an additional sum as an endowment. (See also the January 1898 issue of Acta Victoriana.) They encouraged the formation of the Victoria Alumnae Association in 1898 believing the Vic women grads could assist with fund raising.

The Residence: Land at the corner of Czar (later Charles) St. and Queen’s Park which had been a cow pasture was finally bought from U of T for $55,000, with the Association having contributed $5,000 and Margaret Cox $10,000 for this purchase. In 1902 the cornerstone of the first residence built for women on the St. George campus was laid. While not completely finished, the following year in 1903, the residence opened with fifty-five female students, forty from Vic. Following some lively discussions, the name of Heck Hall had been rejected, and the residence was called Annesley Hall after that remarkable woman, Susannah Annesley, mother of the Wesleys. Margaret Addison, having insisted on an appropriate salary for her new position as Dean of Residence and having relocated to Toronto, moved into Annesley.

Fund Raising: The Victoria Women’s Residence and Educational Association (its new name - the words Residence and Educational were later dropped in 1912) attracted additional members that included Vic alumnae, wives of professors, and women from Methodist churches who believed in the cause. As you can imagine, fund raising for these women was a constant and for their efforts they received money from across Canada and from Newfoundland, and even from Japan.

In another letter to Methodist women in Ontario, Mrs. Burwash also requested items such as linens, quilts, and feathers for pillows for the residence. In addition, the feisty and formidable members had been visiting Methodist churches in Toronto and sending delegates to Methodist conferences to raise interest in the project and in higher education for women, and, of course, to raise money. As a result, groups of church women ended up furnishing bedrooms, while Eliza Ann Phelps Massey (widow of Hart Massey) furnished the lower hall; Anna Vincent Massey (Mrs. Chester D. Massey, daughter-in-law of Hart Massey, and mother of Vincent and Raymond) the reception room; Margaret Wilson Eaton (Mrs. Timothy) the dining room, Margaret Cox the gym, Vic alumnae the library, and the VWA the other rooms.

In 1905 the Association was even able to set up an endowment fund for Annesley. However, in spite of the women’s considerable successes, their difficulty in raising money should not be underestimated: remember there was that belief, not just on the part of some men but also on the part of more conservative-minded women, that university education for women was a waste and possibly a destabilizing influence on society. Nevertheless, the Association persisted. (It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that the archives reveal it was not unusual for some of the members to pressure their wealthy husbands over and over again for donations.) It also raised money by organizing lectures, readings, bazaars, auctions, musicales, luncheons, and dinners. Having been advertised in the Toronto newspapers, one fund raiser occurred in November 1907 when Charles Currelly, Vic 1898, later instrumental in the founding of the ROM, gave an illustrated lecture in the College chapel, 50 cents a ticket. After expenses that included $6 for a lantern and $1.50 for a carriage, the VWA cleared $95.75 which was used for repairs and a furnace extension.

Other Vic Residences and Student Centres: The Association undertook the renovation and furnishing of the Drynan house for another women’s residence called South Hall, now site of Emmanuel College, and then of other annexes on Bloor and Charles Streets. In 1908 the members decided the men needed a residence, but their assistance proved unnecessary when the next year the Board of Regents received an offer from Chester D. Massey to build one, and Burwash opened in 1913. When there was no space in the residences, the VWA formed a boarding house committee to inspect and recommend rooms off campus. Since the members’ standards were high, not many rooms made this list! Not wanting to ignore the women students who commuted to the Vic campus, in 1912 the VWA furnished a very nice parlour for them that included a Heintzman rosewood piano and then later in 1930 a women’s staff room, also in the College building.

Vic students received a very generous gift in 1925 when VWA member Agnes Euphemia (Pheme) Wood convinced her husband Edward Rogers Wood to donate their home at 84 Queen’s Park, Wymilwood, named after their children William and Mildred, to Victoria for a women’s residence and student centre. Lady Flavelle who lived next door at Holwood in what is now the Faculty of Law at 78 Queen’s Park, undertook its remodeling and furnishing, the results being much admired at its opening. (It is interesting that York University started on the U of T campus in this very Wymilwood, later called Falconer Hall; the Woods built their new home Glendon Hall on Bayview Avenue which later became the first location off the U of T campus of York University.)

Church Union: Among its many projects, the VWA decided to raise funds and at the same time to help Church Union: in 1925 Methodists, Congregationalists, and most Presbyterians, formed the United Church of Canada, and understandably this Union underwent some difficulties. Therefore, in 1929 the VWA invited the women of the three Toronto presbyteries to Vic for tea at Annesley Hall and for tours through "their" college buildings. For three days, the VWA entertained more than 1000 guests. The members may have helped consolidate church union, but they did not benefit financially making only $8.96 after expenses. (Gradually over the years the traditional church connection became less important, and now with Victoria College being non-denominational, many may not be aware of this tie. Of course, the United Church theological college, Emmanuel, founded in 1928, is still part of Victoria University. In 2008, to celebrate Emmanuel’s eightieth anniversary, the VWA made a donation to the College.)

Other Good Works: It must be noted that the VWA did not focus just on Victoria and its students, for in 1907 the Association became a member of the local Council of Women which was and is active in bettering society through addressing social, health, education and political issues. Along with university women, it helped the war effort by working for the University Hospital Supply Committee. It assisted a Chinese woman, Doris Ding, to return to China to teach in a new Chinese university for women; donated to Armenian relief in 1922; and joined the League of Nations in 1925, among other good deeds.

The Committee of Management: Now a word about this Committee, called the executive arm of the VWA: it had eighteen members, six retiring each year, although most remained much longer. Nominated by the VWA and approved by the Board of Regents, these volunteers took over responsibility for Annesley’s furnishings and equipment and for its administration, and then responsibility for the subsequent annexes. The lines between the VWA and this Committee were often blurred because many of the women belonged to both groups. (By the way, in 1920 there was a significant upset that lasted about a year, when the Committee of Management lost most of its power, Annesley was re-organized, and Margaret Addison was moved out, and, no longer Dean of Residence, was made Dean of Women, instead. A massive rebellion ensued, for it was felt that men were meddling in the affairs of the women. Finally, the turmoil subsided when the status quo was restored for a few more years. However, Vic having taken over the finances retained that responsibility. See Jean O’Grady’s book on Margaret Addison.)

Dean Addison retired in the spring of 1931, and with over 220 women students in residence, more changes came, and by 1932 the Board of Regents had hired a warden to take over from the Committee of Management. This Committee functioned from December 1902 to June 1932 when it merged into the Women’s Council which was eventually disbanded in 1952. During those years the Committee had only three presidents, Margaret Burwash (1902-13), Mrs. R. N. (Mary Jane Crossen) Burns (1913-30), and Mrs. A. E. (Florence Warner) Lang (1930-32) who presented reports to the VWA. Among its members had been Lillian Massey Treble, daughter of Hart Massey, his daughters-in-law Susan Denton Massey (Mrs. Walter Massey), Anna Vincent Massey (Mrs. Chester Massey), and then after her death, Chester’s second wife, Margaret Phelps Massey. There is a very moving tribute to this Committee and its outstanding work in the VWA records of April 26, 1933.

A New Era: No longer involved with the administration of the residences and the student centre, except in an advisory capacity, the VWA members followed the suggestion of Margaret Addison and their president Maud Brown and found a new role for itself as a link between Victoria and the parents of the students. Therefore, in 1933 the VWA decided to invite the mothers of first-year students to join the organization. In order to recruit new members, it hosted a reception in October which they advertised in the newspapers. This eventually became the annual October Open House for Vic parents and friends to meet the professors and tour the College. Then in the fall of 1994 Victoria began to hold "Open Vic." In October of the following year, the VWA took part in U of T Day, in the Clubs Tent, King’s College Circle, and after that it ended its participation in any open house.

In 1952 the VWA raised almost $2000 through several teas and by private subscription in order to furnish the Copper Room in the new Wymilwood at 150 Charles Street West. The VWA which held meetings in this new building continued to present afternoon programmes; some included reports from students and whenever possible music which had always been important to the Association. The VWA expanded its membership base in 1965 by inviting men to become part of the Association, and meetings were held at least once a year in the evenings so that they could attend. However, these evening meetings were discontinued when attendance declined. Celebrations for the anniversaries have been held over the years, but the most important one occurred in 1997 for the 100th when a dinner, special lectures, and a fund-raising evening with Mary Lou Fallis starring in Primadonna on a Moose took place.

Contemporary Times: Now, having realized that there is a need in the community for informative and entertaining lectures that do not involve a significant time or financial commitment, the VWA feels confident in continuing to offer several lectures during the academic year, usually by Vic or U of T staff and faculty who willingly donate their time and expertise. The Association is very grateful for their generous participation.

Through these afternoon programmes, the April luncheons, the annual newsletters, and the invitations to the parents of first-year students, the VWA maintains its role as a liaison between Victoria and the alumni, friends and relatives of past and present students, and members of the public. Of course, it also continues to raise money for bursaries for Vic students, women as well as men, in financial need. Current VWA members and donors, some of whom joined in the 1960s, have been very faithful in their interest and unstinting with their time and money.

Since the VWA has had a long history of involvement with student centres at Vic, we were pleased to contribute $5,000 to the expanded student centre on Charles St. West. We also decided to honour two families who were very important in the early history of the VWA: the Masseys and the Burwashes. It was Hart Massey's legacy of $50,000 for a women's residence at Vic in 1896 that inspired the formation of the VWA in 1897. As we mentioned above, Massey women also volunteered for the Association. Margaret Burwash was the VWA's first President, serving from 1897 to 1912. Her husband Nathanael was Vic's Chancellor-President. We were delighted when Rick (Massey) Somerville, Hart's great great great grandson, and Donald Burwash, a proud descendent of Margaret and Nathanael Burwash, accepted our invitations to become Honorary Presidents in 2011.

For 120 years, through many transformations, the VWA has remained flexible and has been able to adapt to Vic’s changing needs. No matter what the required transition, the Association has remained committed to Victoria and Vic students. We look forward to continuing our service with dedication, loyalty, and honour for many more years.

(The history of the VWA is much richer and more complex than the overview above. The Vic archives, Ethel Granger Bennett’s 1967 history of the VWA, Anne Ford’s A Path Not Strewn with Roses: One Hundred Years of Women at the University of Toronto, 1884-1984, Dr. Chaviva Hošek’s "Women at Victoria" in From Cobourg to Toronto, Dr. Jean O’Grady’s 2001 biography of Margaret Addison and her 1996 "A History of the Victoria Women’s Association," and Prof. C. B. Sissons’ A History of Victoria University have all been useful in this presentation.) 

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