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I have spent the last many months, with the help of a great group of Library Science students, transcribing the letters Marie (Maye) Steele wrote to her husband Sam. During the course of their twenty-nine year marriage, they had many opportunities to write letters to each other, due to Sam’s frequent absences from home. They were apart when Sam was in the Yukon heading up the policing of the Klondike Gold Rush; apart again when Sam fought in South Africa during the Second Boer War with Lord Strathcona’s Horse; separated for awhile when Sam returned to South Africa to join the South African Constabulary; lived separately at times in the Canadian cities of Montreal, Calgary, and Winnipeg (with Marie and the children playing catch-up to Sam’s military appointments); and finally apart again when Sam left Canada to lead the Canadian Second Contingent during the First World War. This, as stated, created a lot of letter writing moments!

Something that has struck me as interesting, in reading Maye’s descriptions of her daily activities in her letters to Sam, is the importance of social calls. Whether in Montreal, Calgary or Winnipeg, a significant part of Maye Steele’s life revolved around going for tea, and receiving guests to her home for tea. It reflects, no doubt, the social status Maye enjoyed; while the Steele’s would never claim they were rich, they did enjoy a lifestyle that meant servants were employed to help with the running of the home; young women were employed as occasional seamstresses; and Maye never sought paid employment outside the home.

The social calling seemed at times quite structured; certain days of the week were designated as going out days, while other days were reserved for receiving guests. Maye and her mother had printed calling cards made with their names on them, to be left at the homes they visited. The tea receptions varied in size, and the number of women attending a tea seemed to reflect upon the status of the woman hosting the tea – the greater the number attending the tea, the higher it seems was the social status of the hostess. Maye often comments in her letters to Sam on the slights she feels when she is not invited to a particular tea or home, and conversely reports her pleasure or disappointment at the attendees of the teas she  hosts.

Pictured here is a page from Maye’s ‘calling book’ with a list of names under the heading “calls returned”; other pages in the book list “calls received”. This list of names is from when the Steele’s lived in Winnipeg, ca, 1909, written in Maye’s handwriting and giving nod to the importance of a social ritual that gradually lessened as Canadians faced the reality of an approaching world war.


From Marie (Maye) Steele's calling book, ca. 1909

From Marie (Maye) Steele’s calling book, ca. 1909



After months of failing health, and mostly bedridden days, Sam Steele died at his home in Kent, England on January 30th, 1919, just a few weeks after his 71st birthday. The cause of death was attributed to the Spanish influenza infection that proved fatal for so many people world-wide in 1918-1919. Sam’s health was further compromised by adult-onset diabetes, lowering his resistance even further to this virulent flu virus. His death made headlines in newspapers in England, and throughout Canada, shocking many people who had not known how seriously ill Sam was.

A full military funeral was held at St. John’s Church in Putney, England on February 6th, 1919, and included representatives from Canadian military battalions, the Royal North-West Mounted Police, Lord Strathcona’s Horse, Canadian Machine Gun Detachments, and several branches of the Canadian Army Corps. and Service. Massed bands played, a Gun Carriage procession took place, and honorary pall bearers included a host of Major-Generals and Brig.-Generals.

In the summer of 1919, Sam’s body was brought back to Canada, where a second large and grand military funeral service was held; causing even the tension of the Winnipeg General strike to halt as Sam Steele’s funeral procession wound through the streets of Winnipeg. Sam was buried in Winnipeg’s St. John’s cemetery 0n July 3rd, 1919.

The two Blog photographs, selected from the Steele archives housed at the University of Alberta, show a scene from the Winnipeg funeral procession, and a view of Sam’s headstone at the St. John’s cemetery.


Merry Christmas!


This lovely Christmas card, blank on the inside, was among the Steele papers acquired by the University of Alberta. The sepia photograph featured on the card and labeled “A Canadian Glacier”, is in fact a picture of Alberta’s famous Lake Louise. The words on the card read: “To Greet you with all Good Wishes for a Very happy Christmas and a Bright New Year”, echo my wish for all readers of this post. Cheers!


Among the papers of Flora Steele, Sam and Marie Steele’s oldest child, is this wonderful sketch of Ogopogo, the lake monster reputed to live in Okanagan Lake, British Columbia.

The provenance of the sketch is unclear, except that it was drawn by a Mr. William Park of Vancouver, B.C. and given to Flora. As an adult, Flora was increasingly interested in the realm of mystique and became an avid student of philosophy, ancient cultures, religion and poetic expression. She was also a friend of Roger Pocock, an early NWMP Officer, adventurer, and friend of her father’s, who had travelled through the Kootenay region of B.C. in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s. Sources suggest that Ogopogo was first seen by the First Nations people of the region in the late 1800’s, and since Roger spent time with the First Nations people while in the area, it is possible he heard tales about the lake monster. A reasonable guess might be that it was Roger Pocock who introduced Flora to Mr. Park and his Ogopogo drawing; Ogopogo seems like a topic that would have interested both Roger Pocock and Flora Steele!

There is no date given for the drawing, but early reported sightings of Ogopogo by non-natives were in the 1920’s, and the name ‘Ogopogo’ originates from a 1924 English music hall song, so an estimated date for the sketch is 1926.




A Famous Sister

Roger Pocock, a friend of the Steele family and whose papers were received with the Steele papers at the University of Alberta, is a fascinating individual in his own right. Adding to what makes Roger interesting, is the fact that he had a sister who was a very well known stage actress of her day. Her name was Lena Ashwell (nee Lena Margaret Pocock).

Lena, born in 1872, was raised and educated in Canada, and went on to study music at Lausanne, Switzerland and at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England. She decided to pursue an acting career, and had her professional debut in 1891 in “The Pharisee” at the Grand Theatre, Islington. Over the next twenty years, Lena starred in a variety of theatre productions, including several Shakespeare plays. She played Portia in a 1900 production of Julius Caesar and Emilia in a 1902 Lyric Theatre production of Othello. In 1906, although continuing to act, Lena took up theatre management, and from 1907 to 1915, ran her own theatre, known as the Kingsway.

During the First World War, Lena began organizing companies of professional actors, singers and entertainers to perform for allied troops stationed in France, and by the end of the war, there were twenty-five of her companies performing for troops in Europe. For her effort, Lena Ashwell was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

Married to and divorced from fellow actor Arthur Playfair, Lena married Sir Henry Simpson (obstetrician to the Royal family) in 1908. Sir Henry was the surgeon present at the birth of Queen Elizabeth II.

After the war Lena Ashwell formed the Once-a-Week Players, later known as the Lena Ashwell Players, and produced drama at the Century Theatre, London, from 1924 to 1929. Her autobogioraphy, “Myself a Player” was published In 1936. Lena Ashwell died in March 1957.

Letters to and from Lena Ashwell exist in both the Roger Pocock papers, and the Steele family papers. In the scrapbooks Roger kept to detail his experiences and writing, are many clippings, playbills, and photographs paying tribute to the career of his famous sister. Attached below is a scanned playbill from the Roger Pocock papers of his sister Lena Ashwell’s performance in “Marguerite” playing at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow (October 1904).




I came across this unique photo-card recently in the Steele papers housed at Bruce Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta. It is a lovely sepia-toned photograph of Sam Steele’s son Harwood walking down a country road in Vaudreuil, Quebec with his cousins. The photograph is mounted on a card stock with a pretty coloured maple leaf design on one side, the word ‘Canada’ written beneath the leaf, and a small calendar for the year 1908 attached to the bottom left corner of the card. The card, as the added calendar suggests, was sent to Sam and Marie Steele from Marie’s brother Gus and wife Marie (parents of the aforementioned cousins) as a New Year’s greeting card. On the back of the card is written: “Sam and Maye, With sincere wishes for a bright & happy new year, Gus & Marie”.

While I don’t know the circumstances around the picture being taken, it feels like an end-of-summer (or early fall) photograph to me; the children are dressed in their finery and perhaps returning home from a party or Sunday school. Harwood is on the far left wearing a dark suit and cap, while two of the children are riding in a small wagon being pulled by a young goat. One cousin is riding a tricycle, a baby is being carried by her nurse, and two young girls clad in fancy dresses and hair bows are walking along the road. The pastoral photograph captures a lovely scene from the past, and almost makes one wish they could be transported back into that time and place to be a part of this pretty scene.

On a light note, someone has written “Les Chevaux” (The Horses) 1907 beneath the photograph – perhaps this is an inside joke reference to the goat as horse. The photograph is scanned below – Happy end of summer to everyone!


Les Chevaux

Report Card Time!

For many Canadian students, the end of June means the school year is winding down, summer holidays are around the corner, and there is probably a report card being sent home.

This was certainly the case for Flora Steele, Sam and Marie Steele’s oldest child, attending Havergal College, a Catholic boarding school for girls in Montreal. Flora remained in Montreal to attend school, while the rest of the family (her father, mother, sister Gertrude and brother Harwood) moved to Calgary where Sam Steele was the commanding officer of Military District No. 13 (Alberta and the District of Mackenzie). There are many letters written between Calgary and Montreal during these school years (ca. 1907-1909), and Flora, though a good student and eager to please her parents, is often overwhelmingly homesick and in her letters home, pleads to be allowed to return to Calgary (at least for all her holidays).

She does come to Calgary on most holidays, but because her grandmother and family on her mother’s side live in the Montreal area, her parents are occasionally able to convince her that she can stay put and enjoy her school breaks with her extended family. The cost of having Flora in boarding school was a major item on the Steele family budget, and the associated costs are discussed often in letters sent between Sam and Marie. Both Sam and Marie, however, want Flora to be well educated; a Catholic education was important to Marie, whereas Sam was always more concerned that Flora be learning her subjects well, particularly French.  School report cards issued from Havergal College were sent directly to Sam Steele, so there was never a question of parents not receiving the information.

A portion of one of Flora’s report cards appears below; this one being sent in December 1909, indicating work done in the fall term. It is interesting to note the subjects taught at the school; there is a broad range of material taught (including many that are no longer commonly found on school curricula). Euclid, for example, is geometry, and it appears that students could choose their own schedule from among a long list of proffered courses. The report card indicated the number of girls taking a particular course, and the standing of the individual student within that course. Flora has done very well, although her standing of 12th out of 19 students in French may have concerned her father.

Also shown below is a photograph of Flora taken in Montreal during her Havergal College school years.

Happy holidays to all the students enjoying a break from report cards (and Euclid!) this summer!

Havergal College report card

Havergal College report card


Flora Steele

Flora Steele

Harwood Steele, Sam and Marie Steele’s son, was a military man (served in both World Wars I and II), a writer, lecturer, and historian. He was also involved in maintaining his family’s records, and was very protective of his father’s legacy and image. The Harwood Steele fonds, received at the University of Alberta alongside the records of Sam Steele and other family members, is diverse, extensive, and interesting for the many letters written, manuscript drafts saved, and activities documented. Scanned below is a letter Harwood received from former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1976 replying to a letter sent from Harwood congratulating Mr. Diefenbaker on his appointment as a member of the Companions of Honours.

John Diefenbaker

John George Diefenbaker, born at Neustadt, Ontario in 1895, served in the army for World War I, and completed his law degree at the University of Saskatchewan in 1919. He succeeded George Drew as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1956, and formed the Tory government in 1957. The Liberals were returned to power in 1963, although Diefenbaker remained in politics, winning a final election in May 1979. He died in August, 1979.

In the letter to Harwood Steele, Diefenbaker writes:

From my boyhood, Sir Sam Steele was always one of my heroes. His participation in maintaining law and order in the Yukon Gold Rush was lived and re-lived as I chatted with the late Maj. P.W. Pennyfather, who served under your late father as an N.W.M.P. in Dawson City. I have often said that Sir Sam Steele has never been given his rightful place as one of Canada’s greatest. 

It is our hope at Bruce Peel Special Collections Library that making the Sam Steele papers available for research will help restore Sam Steele to his rightful place in Canadian history, along such notable persons as John Diefenbaker himself!




Upon his return to Canada from England in 1907, Sam Steele was appointed commanding officer of Military District No. 13 (Alberta and the District of Mackenzie), with headquarters in Calgary.  While Sam moved to Calgary to assume his position, his wife Marie and the three children remained in Montreal to allow Marie time to prepare for this move across the country. She wanted to see her mother relocated with her younger brother Frank; prepare their eldest daughter Flora for boarding school in Montreal; and consider what she should bring for the new home in Calgary. Her quandary was that furniture could be purchased at a much better price in Montreal than in Calgary, but that would mean dealing with the expense and hassle of arranging to transport the furniture by train to Calgary. Adding to her frustration was that the furniture store her family always shopped at, Morgan’s department store, was not giving her the credit arrangements she had always enjoyed. After many letters written to Sam about what to do, meeting with people at Morgan’s, and checking frequently with CPR about what costs would be covered for moving their furniture, Marie arrived at a decision. She wanted to purchase the furniture in Montreal, not only because it was cheaper, but also to prevent people in Calgary from knowing the exact price of their purchases (which she said they would know if she shopped in Calgary), and she wanted to find a store other than Morgan’s to benefit from their business. In the end, Marie purchased the furniture from Labelle department store, a competitor of Morgan’s, and one owned by a French Canadian family.  Scanned below is the list of items Marie finally purchased, along with the prices she paid.




(I so wish I could buy an oak dining table for $23.00, a five piece dining room suite for $45.00, or a brass bed for under $42.00). I like too how Marie (or Maye as she is called by Sam and family), signs off this letter to Sam: “Your own tired weary wife, Maye”. Happily, the furniture was put on the train to Calgary, and the Steele family settled there until 1910 when Sam accepted the command of Military District No. 10 in Winnipeg, and the family faced another move.

Very shortly after the conclusion of the Second Boer (1899-1902), Sam Steele was intent on commissioning a monument to honour those men of Lord Strathcona’s Horse who had been killed in action during this war. An artist he consulted with, and whose designs he considered, was the French-Canadian artist and sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert. Hébert, well-known at this time for his public monuments, wrote to Sam Steele on the 28th of February, 1902 from Paris, France regarding his designs for a commemorative Lord Strathcona Horse statue. He sent three sketches of proposed statue designs for Sam to consider, with a brief explanation of his design ideas. Hébert writes in his letter to Sam that he can “take charge of the whole work” for the cost of about $5000.00 and cautions Sam against wanting marble: “regarding the cold weather of North West (Calgary), I consider that bronze would be preferable by all means.”

All three sketches are included with the Sam Steele archives housed at the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library at the University of Alberta. I have scanned one of the three designs (Number 2) below as an example of Hébert’s design ideas.

Proposed Lord Strathconas Horse sculpture

Proposed Lord Strathconas Horse sculpture

About this particular design, he writes: “group life size, a soldier lying on the back of a wounded horse, firing still.”

It appears that Sam, in the end, did not commission Hébert or any other artist to create his monument to the fallen Lord Strathcona’s Horse soldiers, but there is an interesting after note to this story. In 1911, Louis-Philippe Hébert was commissioned by the South African War veterans of Calgary to design a South African War memorial statue which was unveiled at Central Memorial Park in Calgary, Alberta on June 20th, 1914. A photograph of the 1914 sculpture appears below.



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