Monday, May 9, 2011

Stories from the Graves

In loving memory of John Fingal Smith. Born Prince Edward Island 1846, died Cranbrook, BC 1936. A faithful lover for 18 years and a devoted husband for 31 years.
The story connected to this grave has crisscrossed my life for several decades. In the late 1960s, I had a job filing government publications at UBC's Woodward Biomedical Library. One of the pamphlets that caught my eye featured a cover photo of Mrs. Fingall Smith. I had frequently heard her name in family stories, and had often wondered if she could be real. In our family when a story included a person with such a name, who knew? A key element, in my father's version of her story, was that Mrs Fingal Smith was President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Society of BC. This fact agreed with the contents of the pamphlet.

In the early 1900s in the town of Cranbrook, my grandfather, Thomas Jackson Brown, and his brother Robert, were renowned for the quality and quantity of their dandelion wine. My grandfather would get it started in the springtime, and then leave it in glass carboys for several months. In the years between 1912 and 1919, he was often away from home for long spells working as an engineer supervising the repairs to the CPR tracks and bridges. Brother Robert was a bachelor, working as a CPR agent at Crows Nest, and he visited often. He usually got his socks darned by my grandmother when he did. They would be so worn out, she would tell us, they could have served as spats.

One time, Thomas Jackson Brown arrived home after a lengthy absence, and discovered that the latest batch of dandelion wine was a bit fushionless. He added a bottle of whuskee.His brother Robert, on a separate visit, had come to the same conclusion. With neither brother consulting the other, each had added a bottle of whiskey. 

Many months later, Mrs. Fingal Smith visited, a visit that was not out of the ordinary. After all, she lived nearby on 14th Avenue, near Baker Street, and even though she was a generation older than my grandmother, they shared a love of music. They often took turns playing on my Grandmother's piano, brought over from her family home in Co. Down.

On one of these visits, Mrs. Fingall Smith declared that she was feeling a touch liverish. My grandmother, without thinking, proffered her usual solution: Would you be after having a bit of tonic, then

After a small tot of the much-fortified dandelion wine, Mrs. Fingal Smith put one hand on her chest, and announced, I can feel it doing me good. The various versions of the family story are not in total agreement about the final tally of glasses, but they do agree that after a while Mrs. Fingal Smith said she was starting to feel quite queer.  Something odd seemed to have happened to her legs, and her head, and everything was suddenly spinning.One of the nearby children was immediately dispatched to fetch Mr. Fingal-Smith, who arrived post-haste with his horse and carriage to cart his dear wife home. 

That was the sum total of what I knew about Mrs. Fingal-Smith until the spring of 2003, when I was at the provincial archives in Victoria. A record of the enigmatic inscription on her husband's grave made me curious enough to visit the graveyard in Cranbrook. Could this inscription be for real? A faithful lover for 18 years and a devoted husband for 31 years? Initially, I had read this with my late 20th century sensibilities, guessing that the couple had ceased being lovers after eighteen years of marriage, but I could not have been more wrong

Adelaide Bailey was born in San Francisco in 1857, the first-born child of Benjamin Bailey and Sarah Margaret Paterson. The family was swept into BC on the wave of the gold rush and consequently young “Addie” grew up in Yale, a small town in the Fraser Canyon. By age seventeen, she had qualified as a school teacher and subsequently taught in Fort Hope, Yale, Lytton and Fort Steel.

She was a young, tall, angular woman when she taught at Fort Steel, and John Fingal Smith lived in a house in the next block to her cottage. In no time at all, he was smitten, likely by her physical fearlessness, her lively intelligence and her forceful personality. It is said that he made porridge every day for breakfast, and took a hot bowlful of it to her every morning. 

Teaching was her passion, and Addie knew full well that if she married John, she would have had to give up her career. The fifteen live children that her mother gave birth to may also have had something about her decision to defer marriage. Regardless of what the reason may have been, when Addie was forty-seven years old, and well past her child-bearing years, she and John finally did get married in 1905 - after an eighteen year courtship. 

Marriage did not turn Adelaide into a slave to convention. Before their marriage, she had been known to come to school with one buttoned boot, and one laced book, oblivious to the disdain of at least one fashion-conscious  pupil. After her marriage her fashion sense extended to wearing feather boas. She was also known for frolicking with twelve year olds in the Cranbrook pool, where she belatedly learned to swim. She was in hot demand with teen-agers who took turns squiring her around the ice rink. 

Her opinions were as firm after her marriage as they were before. If her husband had to play the bagpipes, which apparently he did, then he had to play them outside the house. History is silent about the opinions of the neighbours. It would seem that Adelaide sided with Oscar Wilde on the matter of bagpipes: Thank god there is no odour. After waiting for eighteen years to be able to marry, having to have his bagpipe playing relegated to the outdoors was probably a small price for John Fingal Smith to pay.

Thirteen years after the death of her much beloved husband, Adelaide Fingal Smith moved to the Coast, and died in 1949 in the company of her sister, Mrs. Sinnot of White Rock. She was buried in the Surrey Centre Cemetery, where the inscription reads: Susan Adelaide Smith 1847-1949.

It may be that our family story is true and that my grandmother did get the teetotalling President of the Christian Temperance Society quite drunk, but what is equally interesting as well as more important is that Adelaide Fingal Smith lived her entire life as a progressive and independent woman. She was one of BC’s finest pioneering teachers. She not only had a successful career, but also found love in her life, and lived to enjoy it on her own terms. I raise a glass to her, of water, perhaps.


  1. In my imaginary dinner - where I get to invite people like Einstein, Jesus, Buddha and anyone else that I would love to chat with - I would now include Miz Adelaide Fingal Smith. What a lovely portrait of a woman who lived large. Thanks Sharon.

  2. Adelaide is my great grandfather's sister .... it is believed she did not marry, not because she did not want children but rather she wanted a career and married women were not permitted to teach. :)

  3. Thanks Betty - I included both reasons, with the second one being a "maybe". It got it from another researcher. I hope this is okay. Adelaide sure seems like one heck of a fine woman!