Our City, Our World: Britannia on the Prairies

Manitoba's history built on foundation provided by settlers from the U.K., who came here seeking better lives


Advertise with us

Before closing with a small postscript -- mail me a revised New Testament, please! -- young Scotsman William Lothian's long letter to his family described the often-lonely immensity of his new home.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe:

Monthly Digital Subscription

$4.75 per week*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.


Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/04/2012 (4046 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Before closing with a small postscript — mail me a revised New Testament, please! — young Scotsman William Lothian’s long letter to his family described the often-lonely immensity of his new home.

“It’s a monotonous process, this travelling over the vast Prairies, all so much alike,” the 24-year-old wrote in the fall of 1881.

“After you go miles without being able to catch the glimpse of civilization, you begin to realize what it is to be alone on the vast extent of rolling Prairies.”

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Pat and Tony Kennett actually moved here from England twice. Winnipeg had ‘just gotten into our blood,’ says Pat.

At the time, Lothian was taking a pioneer version of a long weekend, travelling 180 kilometres from his job at the sawmill at Riding Mountain to the new farm near Pipestone he and his brother James were clearing.

“Jim and I always said we would like, if possible, to go ahead of civilization, to go where settlers would be sure to follow,” wrote William to his family southeast of Edinburgh.

“And we came near enough to having our wish as we were, you may say, the first to settle on the Pipestone, and I was the first white man to sow grain in that part of the country, and Jim was the first to put a scythe in the ripe corn.”

On his trek, William encountered only spotty homesteads, some of them slovenly and makeshift, and several other Scottish settlers making their way west. He writes about devouring copies of the Glasgow Herald and makes note of the large English contingent in Rapid City, where a Mr. Whelms managed an English immigration scheme and a Mr. McIntosh ran the sawmill.

“I believe there will be a big immigration from the Old Sod next year, at least I hope so,” he concluded. “If the right kind would come out here, they would do well, and they are just what the country needs.”

Since the arrival of the Selkirk settlers 200 years ago, immigrants such as William Lothian have represented the province’s political and business elite. British stock, even the poor crofters cleared off Scottish farms or the urban working classes from the north of England, came to dominate the province — its elected posts, its civil service, its banking and business class, its grain trade, its social institutions such as the Manitoba Club.

Federal immigration programs favoured British settlers, who often arrived better-educated, got better jobs, lived in wealthier neighbourhoods and prospered more quickly than other immigrants by virtue of being the most desired. William Lothian may not have imagined it while camped out on the bluffs one cold October night on his way home to his half-cleared farm, but he was typical of the British newcomers who ran the province for generations.

Lothian would go on to have four children, serve on the Royal Commission on grain pricing and shipping, report for the Brandon newspaper and return to England as an immigration emissary.

After the Selkirk settlers, a steady flow of English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish immigrants arrived to take up skilled trades in Winnipeg or farm in rural Manitoba.

But an even larger influx of people of British and Irish heritage migrated west from Ontario. They arrived in Manitoba with a bit of money and education, a generation or two better-established in their new country. That includes businessman James Armstrong Richardson, Winnipeg’s first mayor Francis Cornish, police chief (and early advocate for regulated prostitution) John McRae and thousands of others who claim roots in the British Isles.

In spite of their ubiquity, there are only spotty data on the number of British and Irish immigrants who came to Manitoba in the early years and where they settled. Numerous studies exist of Ukrainian, Russian and Polish immigrants and their impact on the North End and on the expansion of the West.

But little has been written about the group that so completely dominated Manitoba’s establishment until Stephen Juba became Winnipeg’s first Ukrainian mayor in 1957.

The Archives of Manitoba could not provide a breakdown of immigration data for most of the province’s history, but historians agree Manitoba was, at its heart in the beginning, a largely British creation.

“The clearly stated preference pre-1900 was still for the British and the Ontario-born,” wrote historians in Manitoba 125, A History.

“These made up an ever-growing majority, enough to set a solid cultural base for the province well into the next century — Protestant, conservative and very British.”

Two hundred years after Lord Selkirk arranged for the Sutherlands and Mathesons and McGilvrays and others to settle on the banks of the Red, British immigration has slowed to a trickle.

A little more than 100 Englishmen and women arrive in Winnipeg every year, and even fewer Scots and Irish.

That makes Adrian Trimble a bit of an anomaly, even more so because the young graphic designer’s parents chose to settle in Steinbach, arguably a town with limited connection to Manitoba’s British heritage.

“When we first heard the name of the town, my dad was thinking ‘They’ll have great sausages and great beer!’ ” quipped Trimble, now 21.

Trimble’s family had considered leaving their West Wales home for some time before they arrived in Manitoba in 2006. The country had become expensive and crowded, with very steep university tuition and little chance of getting a job upon graduation.

“And the weather’s terrible,” added Trimble, who is preparing to attend university this fall.

His family was able to bypass the six- or seven-year wait to immigrate because his dad, a truck driver, secured a job with a Steinbach trucking company through the provincial nominee program.

What struck Trimble immediately as a 16-year-old immigrant was the same thing that struck William Lothian — the endless flat.

“There are very few places in Europe that are this flat for so long,” said Trimble. “That’s the first thing you notice right off the bat.”

That, and real seasons.

“It goes from very white to very grey to very green,” he said.

He spent his first summer here biking between his new home and a summer job at the Superstore in Steinbach, where customers would ask him to keep speaking because they loved the sound of his accent.

— — —

The first white baby to be born in Manitoba was born to an Orkney woman in 1807, according to the Manitoba Historical Society. In what might be the province’s most woeful tale, the woman, whose name is unknown, disguised herself as a man and stowed away on a Hudson’s Bay Co. ship to follow her fickle lover to Canada. In his journal, fur trader Alexander Henry recorded the baby’s birth on Dec. 29, 1807 at his trading post at the mouth of the Pembina River. Mother and child returned to Scotland the following summer, leaving a mystery in their wake.

Normally, though, the starting point for Manitoba’s long history of British and Irish immigration is pegged on the arrival of the first batch of Selkirk settlers in the summer and fall of 1812. Mostly from the Orkney Islands, the Scottish Highlands and Ireland, the group began a series of lurching attempts to create a permanent, self-sufficient river-lot settlement in what’s now north Main Street and West Kildonan. Several hard winters, crops that failed and often-violent conflict between the Hudson’s Bay and the North West companies, forced many of the early waves of settlers to abandon the project.

“It was ‘Try, try again,’ ” said George Hamilton, whose great-great-great-grandfather is John Sutherland, originally from Caen in the far north of Scotland and sent over with relatives in 1815 at the age of seven.

“Lord Selkirk tried three settlements before he got a successful one.”

For many local descendents of the original settlers, the precise reason their ancestors chose to make the risky voyage to Manitoba is murky. As Hamilton said, it’s almost as though family lore doesn’t begin until the date of arrival in the new world.

The Highland Clearances, where tenant farmers were forced from their homes in favour of more lucrative agricultural practices, left many Scots landless, and big families with several boys exacerbated the problem. Migration into industrial urban centres was an option, but so was emigration.

The promise of good, free land and a degree of autonomy are likely what spurred people to leave, said Hamilton, who still farms part-time and works in agribusiness.

Some, like Catherine McGilvray, spoke only Gaelic, and it was a struggle to get schools and churches established and contend with floods, fires and the enmity of the Métis and the North West Company. Growth was slow, supplemented by former fur traders who took up land in the settlement.

By 1832, the settlement had only 1,200 people, and there was the occasional exodus to Ontario and the United States.

By 1997, though, one estimate held that 15,000 people could trace their lineage back to the roughly 45 original settlers who remained in the colony after 1817, proving farms could thrive on the Prairies, sparking Canada’s expansion west and founding Winnipeg.

In many cases, children of the original settlers moved farther into Manitoba as the colony expanded. Bill Matheson, president of the Lord Selkirk Association of Rupert’s Land and a descendent of original settler Alexander Matheson, is preparing to plant the 138th crop on land near Stonewall where Alexander Matheson’s son and grandson homesteaded in the 1870s.

As the descendents drive through Winnipeg or travel the province, their family history is all around them, in monuments and church cemeteries and most notably, in street names such as Polson, Matheson and Pritchard.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Immigration from Great Britain to Winnipeg has slowed to a trickle, which makes graphic designer Adrian Trimble and his family a bit of an anomaly — especially since they ended up settling in Steinbach.

“There’s a temptation to think of it as my history,” said Hamilton, who has recently started to really study his Selkirk roots.

“But this is Manitoba’s history.”

The slow success of the Red River settlement didn’t open the floodgates of British immigration. Instead, there was a slow and steady flow throughout the 19th century, sped up by economic booms and railway construction and slowed in decades where grain prices were low.

Manitoba sidestepped some of the major waves of immigration that battered the continent. The province didn’t get many Irish newcomers during the potato famine in the mid-1800s. They went to the United States, Quebec and Ontario, mostly. And in the last 20 years of the 1800s, just after the Lothian brothers arrived, when wheat prices were low and much of the farmland bought up by speculators, immigration to Manitoba declined precipitously.


— — —


Things turned as the century did.

According to University of Winnipeg history professor Ross McCormack, one of the few to make a study of Winnipeg’s English immigrants, the period from 1900 to the start of the Great War marked a mini-boom in immigration from the Old Sod.

The period is best-known for the arrival of Ukrainian, Polish and Jewish settlers, who would eventually change the anglophile nature of the province.

But the waning of the British Empire and the economic boom of the Victorian age also prompted thousands of English and Scottish families to take a chance in Winnipeg.

They tended to be working-class people from big cities, but those with skills in demand.

“They came for the opportunity to have good, steady work,” said McCormack.

Many Englishmen lived in Transcona and Weston, near the CN and CP rail yards where they worked. Many Ulstermen found work at Eaton’s — Timothy Eaton was from Northern Ireland — and rose up through the ranks into management, while British women found work in Eaton’s garment factories.

Like many immigrant groups, they formed their own ethnic enclaves. Elmwood, for example, across the river from factories where many British immigrants worked, had a very English character, according to McCormack. They supported mutual aid societies, stopped off at English boarding houses while they got on their feet, built a booming Anglican church and married among themselves.

Even Adrian Trimble had some distant relatives in the U.K. who came to Winnipeg in the early 1900s to work on the railroad. The couple had no children, so Trimble can’t claim any long-lost cousins in Manitoba, and they retired in the U.K.

According to data from the federal government, Manitoba saw another British immigration boom in the mid-1970s.

In 1974 and 1975, more than 2,700 people arrived from England and Scotland — not a huge total, but significantly more than in previous years.

That’s when Pat and Tony Kennett immigrated to Winnipeg for the second time.

The couple first came over in the late 1960s, thanks entirely to happenstance.

Kennett, then finishing up his teaching certificate, went on a whim with a friend to a recruiting meeting in Bristol where representatives of the Manitoba government were desperate to woo teachers. Kennett had never really thought about leaving the U.K. — like any 20-something, he’d barely thought beyond graduation. But the friends figured Manitoba made sense because they could get jobs and university credit for their British teaching credentials — two birds with one stone.

Kennett and his friend arrived in late August just before Winnipeg’s final summer long weekend, and, again, it was the bright prairie vastness that struck him.

“The blue sky and no rain,” he said. “The blue sky seemed to stay forever. Oh God, it was absolutely beautiful.”

A few months later, after doing the long-distance thing for several months, Pat Kennett followed Tony to Winnipeg and, wearing a miniskirt in March, married him, with the couples’ seven friends as witnesses.

Pat, who grew up in Devon, quickly got a job as a telemarketer, but only lasted three days, stymied by all the Ukrainian pronunciations that filled Winnipeg’s phone book.

“This silly little English girl couldn’t get any of the names right,” she said with a laugh.

Five years on, with one son and another on the way, the couple did what they had always planned to do — return home to England.

They bought a house in England and Tony got a new teaching job, but the U.K. was in the grips of economic turmoil, thanks in large part to the oil embargo that drove up the price of everything, including houses.

Besides that, Winnipeg had “just gotten into our blood,” said Pat. The couple hated the rain, missed Manitoba’s real seasons, its outdoor life, the roots they had already put down and the friends they’d made.

“We just looked at each other and we said ‘We think Canada is home,’ ” said Pat.

“I just became part of what it is to be Canadian,” said Tony.

Now though, immigration from the British Isles has slowed to a trickle.

Only about two per cent of the province’s immigrants, perhaps 200 or 300 people, come from the U.K. and Ireland every year.

Unlike the British immigrants before him, Adrian Trimble didn’t expect Manitoba to be a mini-U.K. even though his people formed the genesis of the province. He said the family kept an open mind and expected an adjustment when they arrived.

“Without a doubt it’s better,” he said. “The way I perceive it, there’s more opportunities in Canada for young people.”

Trimble and his sister are planning to stay in Manitoba for the near future, and his parents are pondering doing a typically Canadian thing — retiring to British Columbia.


Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us

United Kingdom