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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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He could definitely be a misanthrope, however. He was better-educated than other homesteaders and looked down on them. He had relations — people were amused by him — but then he would be very cutting later, sometimes hilariously so, sometimes shockingly. Those comments come through in his diaries.

He wrote in them virtually every day — from January 1883 until two weeks before his death in 1918. (At age 76, he contracted a skin disease called erysipelas that affected his vision. While groping his way up the stairs, he was gripped with paralysis and plunged down. He never recovered.)

His diaries comprise four volumes weighing at least 41/2 kilograms. They make up 1,219 pages, with about 500 words each on single-spaced pages. It’s an extraordinary account of pioneer life in Manitoba from the province’s most eccentric pioneer.

"I think all the other farmers around here laughed at them but they’re the ones in here. They weren’t run-of-the-mill," said Marguerite Cory, the curator of the Sipiweske Museum in Wawanesa, which has a permanent exhibit of the Criddle-Vane family. It also has an extraordinary online exhibit.

This is in addition to the Carberry Plains Museum in Carberry that has three watercolour paintings by Percy’s artist mother, Mary Ann Alabaster Criddle. The paintings were discovered in the attic of the Criddle-Vane home when it was abandoned in 1960. The main exhibit, of course, is the Criddle-Vane homestead, which was declared a provincial park in 2004. Unfortunately, the home burned down in June, a suspected case of arson. Several buildings still exist, and there is a walking trail with information signs. The two museums and provincial park make for an interesting road trip for any Manitobans wanting a one-day "stay-cation" this summer.

Another reason for the family’s fame came from the children’s work in the sciences. Both Criddles and Vanes were early naturalists who made a significant impact with their research. Norman Criddle, a shy, sickly youth, would became the founder of entomology in Western Canada. Norman published more than 160 scholarly articles on Manitoba butterflies and insects, and painted hundreds of pictures of Manitoba’s flora that had never been recorded before. His two illustrated books on prairie farm weeds for the federal government became literature in every rural classroom on the Prairies.

Harry Vane’s experiments with hybrid roses drew public attention and interest from horticulturalists. He also developed, with Norman, a powder that helped control grasshoppers. Stuart Criddle studied gophers, moles and other small animals. He was always experimenting with grafting lilies and eventually had a lily named after him.

They took after the old man. Percy set up a weather station and kept records for Manitoba from the early 1880s. The weather records were continued by family long after his passing.

The Vanes and Criddles were terrific at sports, too. It was a trait that they worked hard but played hard (although the Vanes worked harder.)

In sport, Maida, Stuart and Talbot Criddle won tennis tournaments locally and in Winnipeg. Edwy, Harry and Cecil Vane were great football players, and Cecil was also a wrestler of note. Edwy continued the tradition of building tennis courts and hosting lawn parties after he left the homestead to start his own farm.

Percy even built a golf course at St. Albans, starting with four holes.

Like the tennis courts, the sand-green course added to the social and sports culture of the area. People from all around would drop in for a round. The children became excellent golfers. Norman and Stuart Criddle, and Harry Vane, would regularly win tournaments in Brandon. There is a story Evelyn Criddle entered a golf tournament in Pine Ridge Golf Course in Winnipeg. He arrived carrying his four clubs in a burlap sack, much to the snickers of the other golfers with their leather bags. Evelyn proceeded to wipe the smiles off their faces by nearly stealing the tournament.

And the golf tradition has continued through subsequent Vane and Criddle generations. Percy Criddle, the grandson of Percy, built a golf course on Vancouver Island, where he lives, called Glen Meadows.

Veldhuis, a retired teacher and United Church minister like her husband, offers a different account of the Criddles. She alleges Percy and Alice Criddle were cruel and abusive masters, and that Elise and her children were victims of abuse.

Veldhuis begins her story with previously unpublished details about the lives of Percy and Elise before they crossed the Atlantic.

Percy was born Nov. 21, 1844, the only child of Harry Criddle and the former Mary Ann Alabaster. Percy’s father died when he was 13 and left the family without money. His mother was an artist, having more than 60 artworks on display in London during her career, including 11 in the Royal Academy of Art. She also painted portraits of rich Londoners.

Norman Criddle, the eldest son of Percy and Alice Criddle, said at his father’s funeral Percy was "spoiled." He might have added "rotten."

Veldhuis believes the spoiled Percy was already getting into trouble with women at age 16, and that may have been a reason he was sent to school in Heidelberg, Germany. However, Criddle descendants maintain Percy had merely been sent to Germany to study music under German masters. Either way, Veldhuis maintains the studies didn’t go well. She could only find documents proving Percy took a single course.

In Manitoba, Percy claimed to have some schooling in law and medicine. Accounts from Criddle descendants say he served as amateur doctor and lawyer to other homesteaders who couldn’t afford to pay for professional help in Brandon. According to his son, Norman, Percy did so without charge. Veldhuis could find no documented proof. She maintains Percy was a fraud and never had the education he claimed.

It will become clear there are two portrayals of Percy. In the Criddle version, he’s a kind of Basil Fawlty of the Prairies; the stuffy, hot-headed character made famous by comedian John Cleese of Monty Python fame. In Veldhuis’s version, he’s a cruel and heartless chauvinist and a parenting nightmare along the lines of Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest.

In Heidelberg, Elise was an excellent student and attended school for the upper-class daughters in Germany. She studied German literature, grammar, music and art, in a German education system superior to that in England. Elise was also a talented painter. The cover of For Elise is believed to be her self-portrait.

We can see Elise was a pretty woman. Alma Criddle, in Criddle-de-diddle-ensis, described her dark hair as "a coronet." She was likely shy and introverted. Veldhuis hired someone with training in linguistics analysis to study the writing of Elise, as well as that of Percy and Alice Criddle, and she concluded Elise was also kind and thoughtful. Percy, meanwhile, was nothing but confidence, which must have seemed attractive to Elise. (This is not taken from the linguistics analyst. Veldhuis asked the analysis of Percy not be used for this article.)

Elise’s family, the Harrers (Vane is a name Percy made up for her when they immigrated to Canada, possibly taken after a family friend, Lord Harry Vane), lived kitty corner to where Percy was staying. They knew English and soon Percy was a friend of the family, and soon after that, he and Elise started to show interest in each other.

In addition to being several inches taller than Percy, who was short, Elise was also four years older.

Being older, and with Percy being in a foreign country with a foreign language, would have given Elise some advantages in their relationship. Veldhuis doesn’t see it that way. She thinks it was more the case Percy, even at age 16, was the proverbial fox in the hen house. "Men don’t care about age as long as they have someone to make out with," she said.

They were engaged within two years. Percy was 18, and Elise, 22. But in Heidelberg, they needed the government’s approval to marry, and the government turned them down not once, but twice, because it didn’t believe Percy could support his bride.

Percy had returned to London but continued a long-distance relationship for about four years. Then Elise became pregnant. The pregnancy changed everything.

During her term, she moved to London, perhaps so her family wouldn’t find out. Veldhuis suggests Percy may have promised to marry her to persuade her to move. From later letters from her family, it is clear the Harrers assumed she was married to Percy.

Elise would have six children with Percy out of wedlock, the first one dying after eight months. One of Veldhuis’s goals was to find a marriage certificate for Percy and Elise, either in Germany or England. That would legitimize their relationship and erase the "mistress" stigma. She never did. Regardless, Veldhuis maintains an engagement was considered as good as a marriage in Germany. But if that’s so, why did the government twice deny them a wedding?

Elise had a residence in London near where Percy ran a wine shop, his vocation, but they did not live together. The Criddle family maintains Percy’s mother kept up a relationship with the children and likely helped them financially. By all descriptions, he was a poor businessman. He spent freely as if part of the leisure class but didn’t have a talent for making or managing money.

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