Can you imagine sitting unstrapped on an old candle box nailed to the cowcatcher of a 60 ton train travelling at roller coaster speeds down 2800 feet of a Rocky Mountain slope toward the Kicking Horse River below? I can’t.
But the spirited Lady Agnes Macdonald would not be dissuaded and accomplished this feat in 1886. She described the experience as “There is glory of brightness and beauty everywhere, and I laugh aloud on the cowcatcher, just because it is all so delightful!”
Lady Agnes Macdonald was the second wife of Canada’s first prime minister Sir John A. Macdonald, also known as one of the Fathers of Confederation. She was her husband’s confidante and frequently sat in the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons where she enthusiastically transmitted messages to Sir John A. using sign language for the deaf and rallied against his political opponents. Following a particularly heated debate in 1878, the then Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie reported, “Lady Macdonald in the gallery, like the Queen of the day, stamped her foot and exclaimed, ‘Did ever any person see such tactics!!’”
In her second year of marriage, 1869, Lady Agnes gave birth to little Mary Theodora, or Baboo as Sir John A. affectionately called her. Mary was born with hydrocephalus or water on the brain, leaving her physically and mentally challenged, unable to walk, care for herself or speak clearly. Her parents openly loved her and accepted her; she could be seen sitting next to her mother in House of Commons listening to her father’s debates in Parliament. Sir John A. gave her a typewriter, opening up a means of communication with his daughter. Inevitably much of the supervision of Mary’s daily needs still fell on Agnes, a load Lady Macdonald carried for the next fifty-one years.
As befitting the times and her devout commitment to public service and charity, Lady Agnes worked tirelessly in organizations alongside women of different religious affiliations. She used her influence to spearhead a massive bazaar that raised $5,000. This allowed the rector who opposed such money-making schemes to pay off the debts of the St. Alban’s Anglican Church. She steadfastly visited orphans and destitute women when they were ill. She’d read to them and provide for them. She lent her leadership skills and social position to the Ladies Protestant Benevolent Association of Ottawa’s ten year effort to fundraise and build a new orphanage. In 1884 Lady Agnes began her long tenure as the first directress of the Ottawa Protestant Orphan’s Home. In addition to these duties, she spent time instructing and reading to the children.
Lady Agnes had a talent for scribbling and kept a diary covering about seven political years in which she offers insight into her domestic world, her love for her husband and her opinions about significant political events. She used her diary to keep track of her extensive reading of biography, history, travel accounts, religious texts and magazines. She published three sketches about her travels, the most notable being “By Car and by Cowcatcher”. And she published three political sketches, the most notable being “A Builder of the Empire”, an 1897 sketch that pays tribute to her husband.
Lady Macdonald is considered one of the Mothers of Confederation for her commitment to building a nation that turned 150 years old on July 1st of this year. I believe she was a remarkable woman: confident, adventurous, intellectually curious, passionate and strong-minded. Yet under the formidable and dour exterior beat the heart of a kind and caring woman.
‘By Car and by Cowcatcher’ published in Murray’s Magazine, 1887. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, Nov. 2015
‘Agnes, The Biography of Lady Macdonald’ by Louise Reynolds
Transcript of Lady Susan Agnes Macdonald’s diary July 5 – July 14 1867
Photo Source: Library and Archives Canada