August 21, 2017


19° C, A few clouds

Full Forecast

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.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/8/2014 (1108 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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.

Shot of Clan Back Row: Cecil, Edwy, Mr. Criddle, Stuart,  Middle Row: Else, Evelyn, Julia, Mrs Criddle holding Alma, Maida, Beatrice,  Front Row: Norman, Talbot, Harry Kohler Photo.


Shot of Clan Back Row: Cecil, Edwy, Mr. Criddle, Stuart, Middle Row: Else, Evelyn, Julia, Mrs Criddle holding Alma, Maida, Beatrice, Front Row: Norman, Talbot, Harry Kohler Photo.

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.

Oriole Vane Veldhuis wrote the book for Elise in hopes of clearing the name of her great-grandmother, Elise Vane.


Oriole Vane Veldhuis wrote the book for Elise in hopes of clearing the name of her great-grandmother, Elise Vane.

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?

The Criddle-Vane homestead prior to being torched in June.


The Criddle-Vane homestead prior to being torched in June.

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.

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.

Alice and Percy Criddle at their homestead in 1909.


Alice and Percy Criddle at their homestead in 1909.

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.

A recreation of Percy Criddle's sand-green golf course.


A recreation of Percy Criddle's sand-green golf course.

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.

An early photo of Else Vane and Percy Criddle.


An early photo of Else Vane and Percy Criddle.

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.

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 Criddle wasn't told about Percy's relationship with Elise until after they were married.


Alice Criddle wasn't told about Percy's relationship with Elise until after they were married.

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.

Marg Trollope, a great-granddaughter of Percy Criddle, and her father, Paul Criddle.


Marg Trollope, a great-granddaughter of Percy Criddle, and her father, Paul Criddle.

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?

Gary Everard, a great-grandson to Elise Vane, says Elise was the worker and Alice Criddle was considered the lady.


Gary Everard, a great-grandson to Elise Vane, says Elise was the worker and Alice Criddle was considered the lady.

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."

It is about 300 pages into For Elise one finds an act of unequivocal cruelty that forever damns Percy. It is when Percy won’t let Elise attend the wedding of her eldest daughter, Minnie. There is no explanation given. It may be he was embarrassed by how Elise’s looks had deteriorated. That’s not a reason but may explain how his mind worked. One can only imagine the heartbreak for Elise.

A Percy Criddle exhibit at the Sipiweske Museum in Wawanesa shows Criddle with his telescope.


A Percy Criddle exhibit at the Sipiweske Museum in Wawanesa shows Criddle with his telescope.

Elise aged rapidly after arriving in Manitoba. Veldhuis maintains she lost her looks due to illness and because the Criddles overworked her. Several years after settling, Elise contracted a lengthy illness that almost took her life, and she never fully recovered, said Veldhuis. It caused her hair to thin to the extent she took to always wearing a bonnet. In two family portraits of the Criddles, Elise is barely recognizable as the woman Percy fell in love with, and she seems to be hiding her face.

Both Criddles and Vanes have nothing but condemnation for her exclusion from her daughter’s wedding.

"It’s just heartbreaking. I cried when I read that," said Trollope. Added Patricia Jacquest, another Criddle descendant now living in Souris, "I don’t know how you justify that treatment."

"That was Percy, the aristocrat, the snob," said Trollope, a founding member of the Criddle-Vane Homestead Committee that started and looks after the Criddle-Vane park.

Percy, who would weasel money out of Elise, also committed a grave injustice by virtually leaving the Vane children out of his will. A couple of Vane girls received $100 each, which is the equivalent of about $2,000 today adjusted for inflation. Edwy, his oldest son with Elise, received a mere $50. Yet without Edwy, the Criddles would never have survived. Edwy was the leader and cornerstone among the children who made that farm run.

Injustices in a will can run deep within families, and this one has endured for generations. The rest of the estate — it was either $10,000 or $18,000, it is not legible on the original document Veldhuis secured — was left to Alice and six children. Alice died less than a month after Percy, so it went to the six children — he had left two Criddle daughters out of his will because they married husbands he didn’t approve of. (Only four of the eight Criddle children ever married, possibly because they didn’t want to risk their father’s wrath.)

Even so, the Vanes were never entirely servants, or never entirely family. That surfaces in Percy’s diaries.

He doesn’t say a lot about family members, but after Elise died in 1903, he showed a rare display of emotion, in an entry excerpted by Criddle-de-diddle-ensis.

"The first time in at least 40 years that I am without a birthday greeting from Elise," he wrote, using her real name for the first time since they’d left England.

"My memory keeps going backwards and forwards over the 41 years of changes and vicissitudes through which we have travelled together. On every side too here, I see a thousand things to tell me of her work and doings — and how steadily and quietly she laboured for the general good."

One of the problems with self-published books is they don’t usually have editors, and that’s obvious in For Elise. One publisher who rejected the manuscript told Veldhuis, For Elise is so black-and-white in its portrayals it almost defies belief. The book is also overly long at about 500 pages, and the material could have been organized better, although so much research material would have challenged even the most accomplished writer.

Veldhuis outside Criddle's bug house. Percy fancied himself a gentleman farmer and enjoyed catching butterflies.


Veldhuis outside Criddle's bug house. Percy fancied himself a gentleman farmer and enjoyed catching butterflies.

Veldhuis has also written it as creative non-fiction. She tries to get inside Elise’s head and puts her thoughts in italics. For the most part, this is effective, allowing her to finally speak. However, there are places where it can be misleading, like when Elise speaks Veldhuis’s theory Percy promised farmland for her boys to persuade her to immigrate. That’s only speculation but a reader can mistake it for fact. As someone in academic circles said, For Elise should not be considered the authoritative book on the Criddle and Vane families.

As well, Veldhuis ignores most of Percy’s diaries. She believes the letters she obtained trump them. Her argument for doing so — that diaries aren’t reliable because they only portray the writer in a positive light — isn’t convincing. The diarist is bound to reveal things both intentionally and unintentionally about him or herself.

For example, while flipping through Percy’s diaries, Louis Riel’s name leaped out on one page. It was an entry from 1885, the year Riel led the Northwest Rebellion. Criddle admitted to not knowing much about Riel but viewed him as a threat to the British Crown in Canada. He wrote he hoped Canada would act like the Americans for once and shoot Riel and his aboriginal supporters on sight. It’s typical Percy.

One of the difficulties in being a history detective is figuring out what can be blamed on the mores of those times, as well as the circumstances and conditions in southwestern Manitoba, versus how much blame rests with individuals. Other husbands may have been just as controlling as Percy.

"Englishmen were the king of the castle and women were like their possessions almost," said Marguerite Cory, curator of the museum in Wawanesa. "Englishmen thought they were so superior to women."

In her defence, Veldhuis said she was writing for the Vanes, not the Criddles. "I didn’t write the book to be vindictive. I wrote it for my family to recover. A social worker said to me, ‘You’re recovering from a third-generation trauma,’ " Veldhuis said.

Around Wawanesa, the book by Alma Criddle is sometimes dubbed The Gospel According to the Criddles, and Veldhuis’s book is The Gospel According to the Vanes.

Even so, For Elise, which won the Margaret McWilliams Award for local Manitoba history, is remarkable. It sold out its first print of 1,000 copies, and is well on its way to selling out the second print of 1,000. That’s pretty good for a local book and very good for a self-published one.

Veldhuis looks at the remnants of the Criddle family home that was recently torched.


Veldhuis looks at the remnants of the Criddle family home that was recently torched.

What sets the book apart is Veldhuis’s research. It is breathtaking. Veldhuis, 80, made three trips to Germany and two side trips to England to uncover lost documents and make contact with Criddle and Vane descendants. She lived her great-grandmother’s life for 12 years. While her interpretations can be questioned, few would have gone to such lengths. It became a massive retirement project but also a commitment to her family to set the record straight. Veldhuis said what needed to be said: That is, the Criddles wouldn’t have survived without the Vanes. The Vane children were more solidly built and knew how to work with their hands. The Criddle children were well-educated and went on to have extraordinary careers, but they were effete when it came to farm work.

Percy tried to avoid manual labour at all costs, sitting in his library reading up on botany or astronomy or whatever seized his brain at the time, while the children did the work. Percy may have been the straw that stirred the drink but the Vanes set down the glass and poured it.

Elise was Percy’s first wife. We see that now. If it’s any consolation, entomology professor Neil Holliday stopped referring to Elise as "mistress," after his encounter with Veldhuis. He began referring to Elise as Percy’s "former common-law wife."

Elise raised beautiful children. She did the age-old thing immigrants do: She sacrificed herself so her kids could have a better life. Edwy, her oldest son, eventually left the Criddle homestead and became a much-admired farmer in the area.

Even today, four generations later, Vanes and Criddles socialize with each other.

Gary Everard played baseball with Paul and Dave Criddle, grandsons of Percy and Alice. Everard used to hunt with Dave Criddle, who has since passed away. Everard worked with Paul on restoring the buildings and the grounds at Criddle-Vane Homestead Provincial Park. Other Vanes and Criddles also worked together to make the park a reality.

The Criddles agree Elise didn’t get a fair shake. She was a dedicated, hard-working woman, and she raised her kids to be responsible adults.

"The Criddle got all the glory, the Vanes got nothing," said Trollope. She applauds Veldhuis for making the correction and heaps praise on the book, even if she doesn’t agree with all of it.

Read more by Bill Redekop.


Advertise With Us

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective January 2015.

Photo Store

Scroll down to load more