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Inside the Criddle-Vane Saga

The colourful and scandalous life of Manitoba's most eccentric pioneer

The Criddle-Vane family was one of the most unusual pioneer families to ever make its way to Manitoba. In 1882, Englishman Percy Criddle arrived in the province with his wife and four children, along with his German mistress and their five children.

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NEAR WAWANESA — It would make a great TV show, people often say when they hear the story of the Criddle-Vane family.

It was perhaps the most unusual pioneer family to ever break soil in Manitoba. In 1882, Englishman Percy Criddle arrived from London, England, with his wife and four children — and his German mistress and their five children.

Let the fun begin. Percy, who fancied himself an aristocrat and intellectually superior to everyone around him, had less farming skill than Eva Gabor, never mind Eddie Albert, of another TV show, Green Acres. They proceeded to break every trope in the pioneer handbook of clichés, scratching out a farming life on the Manitoba prairie.

Even their homestead, just southeast of Brandon, was on land only a dunderhead like Percy could pick. Someone told him land with wild roses indicated fertility. So he chose poor, sandy soil whose only agricultural value today is as pasture or for an irrigation crop such as potatoes.

You can almost see the Hollywood posters for this imaginary show. A James Garner-type poised in front — or perhaps someone more modern, like Seth MacFarlane from A Million Ways to Die in the West — braving the frontier, with his wife, arms crossed, and their four children trailing on one side, and his mistress, ready to throttle him with a rolling pin, and their five children on the other. Female trouble on the Manitoba frontier!

At least that has been the version going around since 1973. That’s when Alma Criddle, the granddaughter of Percy and Alice Criddle, self-published her book, Criddle-de-diddle-ensis, based on Percy’s diaries and stories handed down in the family. Criddle-de-diddle-ensis, which was the name Percy wanted to use if he discovered a new type of butterfly, broke the silence on the family secret. The Criddles had always claimed the woman living with them, Elise Vane, was a widow, and they had taken her and her children in as servants. In fact, she had been Percy’s lover in England.

This was the version Neil Holliday, professor emeritus of entomology at the University of Manitoba, repeated in a lecture at a Manitoba Naturalists Society meeting in 2005. Holliday mentioned the story because the son of Percy and Alice was Norman Criddle, who became the father of entomology in Western Canada.

However, sitting in the audience that day was Oriole Vane Veldhuis. The usual smiles and snickers went round when Holliday mentioned the "mistress," much to the chagrin of Veldhuis.

She’d been hearing those snickers all her life.

Veldhuis held her tongue but approached Holliday after the class. She can be sharp and irascible and, frankly, in that regard, seems more like a Criddle than a Vane. Veldhuis told Holliday he had the story wrong, and she should know. She was the great-granddaughter of the so-called "mistress."

At the time, Veldhuis was halfway through a 12-year odyssey, researching a book on Elise Vane.

That odyssey began with putting a nameplate on Elise’s unmarked headstone in the Criddle cemetery, located on the original homestead.

Her book, For Elise, released two years ago, is the second self-published book on the Criddle-Vane family. It divulges scandalous new details about the Criddles against the backdrop of the 1880s, when women had few legal rights and when British orphans were being shipped to Canada as servants and farmhands. More importantly, it gives long overdue voice to the invisible woman in the love triangle.

To get a proper picture of Percy Criddle, you have to know the Criddles and Vanes arrived in Manitoba too late in 1882 to put in a crop. That was his first mistake. The family nearly starved to death that winter.

Percy had planned to live in Brandon the first year, but the city was populated by virtually all men, and that meant alcohol abuse and other vices. "Percy decided he was not prepared to raise his children in that kind of environment," said Marg Trollope, a great-granddaughter of the Criddles who lives in Brandon.

On their new homestead, Percy and Alice and an infant basically lived in a closet at first but they were still better off than the others. Elise Vane and her children, and the three remaining Criddle children, were forced to live in a tent until nearly Christmas. A proper house was finally built to accommodate all.

When the next year’s growing season started, it became obvious where Percy’s priorities lay. Tennis anyone?

After breaking the land and seeding his first crop, he built a tennis court. Or at least his children built it. A scythe couldn’t cut grass short enough, so the children got down on hands and knees and cut each blade with scissors and knives. Tennis parties soon arrived and southwestern Manitoba would never be the same. This practise of cutting the tennis lawns — he would expand to three courts — continued for 23 years before Percy purchased a lawn mower.

"He was more interested in having fun" than farming, said Trollope.

"He knew nothing about this kind of living. A lot of immigrants came from farms. Percy knew how to shoot a gun and shoot pheasants but he had no skills. Now he was in the middle of nowhere trying to homestead."

Percy called it St. Albans, in the English manner of giving homes names. But the farm always struggled, and the family never had enough money because Percy would trundle off to Brandon to play poker.

He fancied himself a gentleman farmer and would head off over the fields to catch butterflies. That was a sport among upper-class Englishmen. Percy, ever the Englishman, even had calling cards made to distribute to people, many of whom had never seen one before.

Among his first expenditures was for a harmonium — a pump organ. He would play it and sing, and parties followed.

Percy was a former first tenor at Royal Albert Hall in London in 1873, and he would sing Italian arias to the bewildered neighbours at his parties. (Reviews are mixed. The story handed down is he couldn’t sing that well.) Among the children, the Vane boys seemed to own the singing voices. Edwy and Harry Vane would join to form a trio. Eventually, when the last Criddle house was built in 1906, guests could dance in a circuit down the hallways and through the house. That home had eight upstairs bedrooms, a music/billiard room and a library on the main floor.

"Percy had a real charisma. He wrote music compositions on his own. He had parties and wouldn’t allow anyone to bring anything. It was a great honour to be invited," said Trollope.

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