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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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During the time Percy and Elise were having children together, Percy met Alice Nicol and carried on relations with the two women for several years. "That’s what Englishmen did," Veldhuis said.

In fact, the philandering Percy didn’t tell Alice about Elise and their five children until after the wedding. In fact, he continued conjugal relations with Elise right up until the nuptials. Elise’s last child with Percy, named Cecil, was born April 19, 1875 — seven months after the wedding. Percy’s first child with Alice, Norman, was born May 14, 1875. The births were 25 days apart. "It’s unreal how much power a man could have back then. It’s just unreal in today’s life," said Veldhuis.

Alice may have had thoughts about calling off her marriage when told about the other women and children, but she was now pregnant by Percy, too. "In the 1880s, if the guy had a mistress, if his wife got wind of it, she’d pretend it didn’t happen because that’s the way British women are. They don’t see what they don’t want to see," maintained Veldhuis who, although a Vane and German on one side, is also a Criddle and English on the other.

Today, of course, Elise would have been Percy’s common-law wife, and he would share legal responsibility for the children.

Meanwhile, Elise’s family thought the world of Percy. Her parents’ trust was probably the biggest mistake in the whole affair. Perhaps they worried Elise would never marry. She was 27 when she had her first child with Percy.

"History from the underside is what I call it. It was very depressing, doing research and finding out what Percy had done to this educated woman," said Veldhuis.

Little is known about what happened in the next eight years. Veldhuis said Percy had moved on from Elise. There must have been some child support from Percy and perhaps his mother, as Elise and the children didn’t starve to death. "She wasn’t the only wife abandoned in England. Lots of guys did that," said Veldhuis.

During those eight years, Alice had four children, Percy’s mother died, and Percy went broke. He was 40, and Elise was 44, when he decided his future lay in the New World.

The most-asked question is why did Elise accompany him to Manitoba? Veldhuis maintains Elise was an excellent seamstress who could have supported herself and the children without Percy. As well, the eldest daughter, Minnie, was in her early teens and could have already gone to work as a domestic.

Veldhuis speculates Alice refused to go to Canada without servants and believes Percy had to trick Elise into joining them, possibly promising farmland for Elise’s sons.

Her theory is problematic on a number of fronts, and no one I talked to on either side of the family, or people who read the books and have followed the story, agrees with Veldhuis. The majority believe Elise had very little choice but to go to Canada because she couldn’t support a family on her own.

Percy was her child support. She may have also thought it important the children have a father figure in their lives.

The other question is, why did Percy take them along? The law didn’t require it. It was during a period when nearly 120,000 British children born out of wedlock, called British Home Children, were being shipped to Canada to become servants. This would undoubtedly have informed some of Percy’s treatment of the children.

Criddle descendant Trollope, a real estate agent in Brandon, believes either Percy finally showed a shred of human decency, or Alice refused to let him abandon his children. But Veldhuis makes a compelling argument Percy didn’t treat the Vane children as equals, but more like British Home Children.

It was on the boat to Canada Alice and Elise met for the first time. The stories handed down by Criddle descendants is the women got along well, and home-schooled the children together. However, there was no question Alice was the female head of the household.

The Vane children learned they would be treated differently as soon as they started the 10-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. They, along with Elise, travelled in steerage. The Criddles didn’t travel first class — they couldn’t afford it — but did travel intermediate class.

The Vane children were also told their last names were no longer Criddle but Vane, and they could no longer address Percy as their father but as Mr. Criddle. Their living arrangement would be regarded as too scandalous if people were to know the truth.

The Criddle children were also better-dressed than the Vanes. (Alice’s family back in England would send boxes of clothes and books only for the Criddle children. Her family was quite successful: Her father and a brother were lawyers and another brother was an Egyptologist.)

Alice and Percy Criddle would have four more children together in Manitoba, bringing their total to eight, not counting the five Percy had with Elise.

The linguistic analyst claimed Alice was very extroverted and said whatever came into her head. That doesn’t jive with accounts. Most people think a woman like that wouldn’t last five minutes with Percy. Percy needed to be the centre of attention, and any wife would be pushed to the background. Indeed, Alice almost never left the farm.

The Criddles maintain Alice was the peacemaker who smoothed things over with the children when Percy flew off the handle, which he often did. She was well-educated and could reputedly speak seven languages, but — despite developing scurvy along with some of the children in the early years — still pulled the plow on occasion.

Veldhuis paints a different picture. She disputes claims Alice was a polyglot, and says the Vane children were treated like slaves, and Alice shares responsibility for that.

In some letters discovered by Veldhuis, she maintains Alice was condescending toward Elise. Veldhuis found one incident in particular where Elise’s oldest daughter, now grown up and living in Brandon, sent clothes for her mother to wear. Veldhuis discovered Alice took the clothes for herself.

While Criddle descendants concede Percy had many faults, they maintain Alice was a kind, gentle lady. If Percy and Alice were such rotten people, why did the Vane and Criddle children turn out to be "all gentle people," as Trollope puts it, and productive members of society?

Another controversy is Percy’s odd nickname for Elise. He called her "Dutchman." Veldhuis maintains Dutchman was a name Percy probably used to keep him and Elise separate from their past lives as lovers. But Veldhuis also says it was cruel and derogatory. The Dutch, to Britain, were regarded as an enemy and to call someone Dutch was a slur. The "man" part seems an insult to her femininity.

The Criddle family denies this. That’s a lot of cruelty to practise day in and day out to someone who lives under your roof. No one knows why Percy called her Dutchman. Alma Criddle, in Criddle-de-diddle-ensis, maintained "Dutch" is a derivative of Deutsch, meaning German, which Elise was. "It was a fun nickname," said Trollope. The children called her Mamma Dutchy, or Hucky.

And so the book goes. Veldhuis maintains the Vanes were victims of abuse because they were worked so hard and received so little in return — not so different than the British Home Children.

"They were indentured servants. They never got paid," she said.

But the Criddles aren’t so sure. "Percy was hard on all the kids," said Trollope. Two people who live in the area of the original homestead and are familiar with the Criddle-Vane story, said if the Criddles were guilty of abusing their children with hard work and little reward, then Child and Family Services would have to seize half the kids growing up on rural Manitoba farms in the late 1800s.

However, Gary Everard, 73, a great-grandson to Elise, and cousin to Veldhuis, thinks his cousin is spot on. "I think Percy was using people," said Everard. "The impression I got was Elise was the worker and Alice was the lady."

Everard feels vindicated by Veldhuis’s book. His late aunt, Mona, the granddaughter of Percy and Elise, always referred to Percy as "an old devil."

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