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Victorian Aristocracy on the Prairies

Cannington Manor tennis courts
Cannington Manor tennis courts, 1894 (University Archives and Special Collections, University Library, University of Saskatchewan, MSS C555/2/14.20)

According to some information I found recently, Saskatchewan’s Cannington Manor Provincial Historic Park is supposed to be haunted. Apparently, a woman in an old, 1880s-style dress has been seen on occasion blocking the doorway of one of the rebuilt period-piece structures, preventing visitors from entering. Then she disappears without a trace. Not far away, in the Anglican church graveyard, people in nineteenth-century attire have been noticed wandering about aimlessly and speaking indiscriminately. They disappear after a short while, also. Whether these occurrences are real or not or just stories, sightseers visit the historic site in the southeast corner of Saskatchewan each year from Victoria Day to Labour Day. Not to see the ghosts, though. Well, maybe not.

So, what is Cannington Manor?

Enter Captain Edward Michell Pierce, an English gentleman--a wine merchant by trade in his home country--who lost his fortune in a bank failure, and came to Canada with a dream of creating a Victorian aristocracy on the prairies revolving around agriculture. In 1882, thirty-seven miles south of the newly-incorporated village of Moosomin, Pierce built a log farmhouse for his wife and eight children in the Assiniboia region of the North West Territories (before this area of Canada was renamed Saskatchewan more than 20 years later). Pierce quickly established an agricultural college to teach English gentleman how to farm. He called the settlement Cannington Manor. Pierce also co-founded the Moose Mountain Trading Company, which supplied the community and surrounding area with assorted goods.

Pierce advertised his college in British newspapers and his pupils--called Remittance Men--came. For 100 pounds a year, they were given room-and-board, and lessons on farming. However, it was the blind leading the blind. Pierce didn’t know much more than his pupils did about farming. Besides, these pupils--almost all being bachelors --were from the British upper classes and the last thing they wanted to do was get their hands dirty. Good Lord. They were out for a good time. Eating up the money sent by their rich families, they embarked instead on other activities that were soon set up on the site, such as tennis, cricket, polo, fox hunting, and horse racing. However, there were some middle-class families that did settle in the community and they were the ones who took farming seriously, few and far between as they were.

In 1884, my great-grandfather Arthur Percy Wyatt, his wife, and three children left Somerset County, England to homestead in the Broadview area, about 70 miles as the crow flies northwest from Cannington Manor. My ancestors took up wheat farming and worked hard. They didn’t have it easy. I wonder what they must’ve thought of these Englishmen living the good life down the road from them?

Captain Pierce died in 1888. By this time, the 2,600-acre Cannington Manor community had grown to 200 residents, and included an Anglican Church, a hotel, a land titles office, a general store, a dairy, a school, a sawmill, a town hall, a flour and grist mill, a meat-packing plant, a blacksmith shop, a carpentry shop, two cheese factories, and several residences.

Two mansions were constructed during Pierce’s time. The first was a frame-built one called the Humphrys/Hewlett House. The other was a grand, two-story, 26-room limestone monstrosity called “Didsbury,” established by brothers Ernest, Billy, and Bertie Beckton, and named after the wealthy Manchester, England suburb where they grew up in.  Others knew it simply as the Beckton Ranch.

The three fun-loving Becktons came to the Territories with money. Lots of it. Both sides of their family made their fortunes in the textile industry, and when their maternal grandfather, Matthew Curtis, passed on in 1887, he left the boys with more than enough money to purchase land on the prairies and to build Didsbury. The mansion was the most beautiful house for hundreds of miles around. It had a gabled roof and a large veranda. Inside stood a billiard room, ballroom, servants’ quarters, hand-carved fireplace mantles, expensively-framed oil paintings, and Turkish carpets. Behind the mansion was a stone bunkhouse for the workers, kennels for the foxhounds, and fieldstone stables that flaunted stalls made of mahogany with brass nameplates for the thoroughbred horses. All this splendor while surrounding prairie homesteaders like my great-grandparents were barely cutting it on the bare essentials in their sod houses.

Cannington Manor racetrack
Cannington Manor racetrack (Canadian Public Domain)

In the 1890s, Cannington Manor, not too unlike England, had its own class system inside the community. There were the young bachelors; the upper class families; and the true homesteaders who did the actual work.  Leaderless since Pierce’s death, the English Utopian community began to deteriorate. The young bachelors took to drinking and chasing women, including trying to make out with some of the wives.

One thing that the middle and upper-class British failed to comprehend was the importance of harvesting their crops once they were ready. Usually in late-August or early September. My family background--both sides--is prairie farming. Sudden frosts can hit almost without notice. So, when the crops are ready for cutting…you’re supposed to get them off. Pronto! The Cannington Manor group, sometimes, had other priorities once the crops had matured, such as a horse race to watch and bet on or participate in a tennis match. Or, maybe, a play was scheduled in the town hall. Or there were poetry or glee club meetings to attend.  And we can’t leave out their famed foxhunts, complete with top boots, breeches, red riding jackets, and a generous shot of liquor to give them a good jolt. Subsequently, the crops would freeze, then end up rotting in the fields.  That’s if they ever had planted the seeds in the first place. Oftentimes, they had trouble getting around to doing that in the spring, what with all the activities at their disposal.

In their spare time--we’re talking the bachelors mostly--the Cannington young men enjoyed a good game of roughhouse rugby. After a few years, they joined a group of men from Moosomin and formed the Moosomin-Cannington Combines. Together, they won the 1891 Western Canadian Rugby Championship by upsetting a strong Winnipeg squad. One of the stars on the team was Bertram Tennyson, a nephew of Alfred Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign.

As the 1890s drew to a close, the upper class families saw the writing on the wall and began to move away, taking the vital cash flow with them that had kept the community afloat. By 1900, when the CPR line went around Cannington Manor by six miles to the south, the 18-year English Victorian experiment on the prairies was over. The rail line might as well have been 100 miles away. In the age of horse and buggy, this was devastating. Add to that, a series of droughts, falling grain prices, and a late-1890s world-wide depression. Most of the families returned to Great Britain while a few of them--the working class with the agricultural experience who had toiled for the rich families--did stay and farmed, and did see better days when the rains, better grain prices, and the automobile came. Some of their descendants remain in the province today and still farm.

What was left of the site was abandoned for over 60 years until 1965, when the Saskatchewan government provided funds to refurbish the remaining structures and established Cannington Manor Provincial Historic Park. At a decent cost ($9 family, $4 adults, $1 students), sightseers can now view the grounds, the renovated buildings and meet the “period dress” guides who answer your questions about the community that failed in its attempt to combine their limited knowledge of farming with the “English Gentlemen” style of life.

My father, Jack Wyatt, was a grandson of the Arthur Percy Wyatt mentioned earlier who had come from England with nothing but a dream. Unlike those at Cannington Manor, my great grandfather Arthur’s dream was within reach with some hard word that required getting his hands dirty. He and his descendants made it happen. Back in the 1980s, my parents and my dad’s sister, Ruth, took the time one afternoon to visit the Cannington Manor site. They didn’t see any ghosts, by the way. But returning to the car after the tour, my Auntie  Ruth said to my parents, “I’m sure glad we’re not related to that lazy bunch of Englishmen.”

Me, too, Auntie Ruth! We were raised better than that.


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