Past, Present & Beyond – The Lady on the black horse: Pt. 1

Barbara Roden wraps WWI, women's rights and Ashcroft all together into another interesting historical highlight.

I was going to include something about Mabel Stobart in my most recent piece about World War I, but the more I read about this fascinating woman the more I realized I couldn’t just give her a paragraph.

She was born in Woolwich, England in 1862, and from an early age showed a spirited independence that chafed against the restrictions placed on women at that time. Her early life was conventional: she married a Cornish granite merchant, St. Clair Stobart, had two sons (Eric and Lionel), and lived a prosperous, middle-class lifestyle which allowed her to indulge in her passion for sport: she was a three-time Cornish champion in women’s singles tennis.

A series of unfortunate investments cost the Stobarts most of their money, but the family regrouped by moving to South Africa, where they ran a 6,000 acre farm and Mrs. Stobart set up a successful trading post. By 1907 the family fortune had been restored and the Stobarts decided to return to England. Mabel went ahead with the boys; but during his journey home St. Clair fell ill and died.

Rather than retire to a quiet life of widowhood, Mabel threw herself into the women’s suffrage movement. She also took an interest in world events, and in 1910 became alarmed by what she saw as an inevitable European war on the horizon. She founded the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps, which would be able to provide medical aid and supplies to wounded men on the frontlines of battle (and which would also, she hoped, advance the cause of women’s suffrage by showing that women were every bit as capable as men on the field of battle).

Soon a group of 50 women were being taught first aid, anatomy, hygiene, stretcher-bearing, and how to operate an ambulance, despite a good deal of opposition from those who did not see war as a fit place for women.

Mabel’s opportunity to prove the naysayers wrong came in October 1912, when the first Balkan War broke out. In 1911 she had married Judge John Greenhalgh (although she kept her former surname), but she felt that her place was helping on the frontline during wartime. She led her all-woman group – which now included female doctors – to Sofia, Bulgaria and then to the war zone in Thrace, to which they transported all their equipment, which included an X-ray machine. They set up a makeshift hospital and for five weeks the team performed surgeries and amputations, and nursed wounded and sick soldiers. It’s estimated that the Corps treated some 700 soldiers, and only lost one.

Of her experience in the Balkans Mabel wrote afterward, “It is my belief that the co-operation of women in warfare is essential for the future abolition of war; essential, that is, for the retrieval of civilization.”

But what does all this have to do with Ashcroft, you may ask? By the time of the First Balkan War Mabel’s younger son, Lionel, had come to Canada to manage three ranches owned by his uncle (Mabel’s brother): the Gang Ranch at Clinton, the Perry Ranch at Cache Creek, and the Harper Ranch at Kamloops. During his many visits to Ashcroft on business Lionel would have had dealings with Harold Platt Christie, who was the Government Land Agent from 1905–19.

The Christie family lived in a home at 612 Brink Street (which is still there, looking much as it did more than a century ago), and Henry’s daughter Phyllis – a pretty, vivacious, and artistic girl – threw herself into the town’s social life when she returned from finishing school in Europe in 1912. Soon after that Lionel – five years older than 20-year-old Phyllis – became a regular guest at 612 Brink, staying overnight on many occasions, and in 1913 he and Phyllis became engaged.

So it was that in 1913 Mabel Stobart travelled to the province with her eldest son Eric to see Lionel and meet her prospective daughter-in-law. Lionel met them at the train station in Kamloops and gave them a tour of the province, taking them as far afield as Vancouver Island. While in Ashcroft Mabel and Eric stayed at 612 Brink with the Christies, who also played tour guide; Mable noted in her journal that “We were staying with the C’s and the next day they and their daughter P[hyllis] took us to their mountain ranch in the Marble Canyon.”

Mabel returned to the area in March 1914 with her husband to attend the wedding, which took place at St. Alban’s Church on March 10. A week later she gave a lecture, illustrated with lantern slides, at the Community Hall in Ashcroft about the experiences she and her team had had in the Balkans. “As this lecture will be very interesting and instructive a large attendance is anticipated,” noted R.D. Cumming in The Journal, “and it is not every day that a treat of this kind comes to Ashcroft.”

The lecture was a great success. “To listen to a story of actual experience so amusingly and vividly told is not only a pleasure but it is educating as well . . . The views were splendid and every phase of warfare and medical attendance to the wounded was shown most clearly.” All proceeds from the lecture were, at Mrs. Stobart’s request, donated to the Lady Minto Hospital in Ashcroft.

Mabel Stobart might reasonably have felt, at home in England after Lionel’s wedding, that she would never again see a battlefield. She was by now 52 years old, and a quiet and comfortable life beckoned. In August 1914, however, the European war she had foreseen in 1910 commenced; and within a few short months Mabel Stobart faced the very real prospect of being shot by the Germans as a spy.

To be continued

Barbara Roden

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