Marius Barbeau


Pathfinders in the North Pacific, 1958, The Ryerson Press and Claxton Printers Ltd., 238 pages. Illustrations by Arthur Price

Pathfinders in the North Pacific by Marius Barbeau, was published simultaneously by The Ryerson Press, Toronto, Ontario and The Caxton Printers Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho in 1958.

The Ryerson Press 1958 catalogue description states: “Discovery and exploration is the theme of Pathfinders in the North Pacific. The author, an anthropologist for the government of Canada, has explored much of this region and has studied its native annals for over fifty years. His fund of first-hand information regarding the area is well-nigh unsurpassed, and his researches have brought to light a great amount of previously unrecorded knowledge relating to the discovery of the Pacific, especially the North Pacific Coast, Bering Sea, Alaska, and the Northern Rockies.

The results of Barbeau’s studies have been published in several books. In this one he enters into a study of historic times with the arrival of the Russians in the Aleutian Islands and Alaska and the coming of Captain Cook in 1778. He also deals with the development of trade with China through the East India Company whose desire for furs – particularly that of the sea otter – made it possible for the English to satisfy their craving for tea, and to develop a taste for porcelain pots, for rich embroideries and chinoiserie and all the wonderful spices and riches of the Orient.

After the Russians and the English came the French, the Spanish, and the American whalers, then the discovery of gold and the further development of the Northland. The story unfolds with the help of ancient chronicles, frequent quotations from logs and journals of sea voyages, and the author’s interpretations of colourful Indian traditions.

Pathfinders in the North Pacific was edited by Joy Tranter and Dr. Douglas Leechman. After a presentation by Dr. Leechamn to the Free Lance Club of Ottawa, the following article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen in December, 1946, “It isn’t a question of can you write. It’s do you write. Writing requires application. Apply glue to the seat of your trousers, glue to the seat of your chair, press firmly together and stick to it until you turn out your story. This was the advice of Dr. Douglas Leechman, instructor in journalism at Carleton College, speaking to the members of the Ottawa Free Lance Club, at a meeting at the YMCA.”

Marius Barbeau was a prolific researcher and writer. A few of his many publications include Jongleur Songs of Old Quebec, interpreted into English by Sir Harold Boulton and Sir Ernest MacMillan, French Canadian Backgrounds, Henri JulienPainters of Quebec, Cornelius Krieghoff.

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Marius Barbeau, 1883-1969, was educated at Laval University and was a Rhodes Scholar, the first from French-Canada (1907-1910). His achievements as an anthropologist, folklorist, and writer with a record for long-sustained activity, won him a doctorate honoris causa, one of the five awarded by Oxford University at the centenary celebration for Cecil Rhodes in 1953. He joined the staff of the National Museum of Canada in 1910 (now the Museum of Canadian History) and made the study of native migrations from Asia into America via the Bering Sea his specialty. His other pursuits belong to the Huron-Iroquois area and to the folklore of New France in America. He assembled over 10 000 Inuit, First Nations and French Canadian and English Canadian folk songs – many of them on old Edison tube records. In 1956 he organized the Canadian Folk Music Society.

Barbeau was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1967 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Barbeau worked in the US and across Canada, in particular with the Tsimshian (meaning Inside the Skeena) in British Columbia in an area south of Ketchikan, Alaska. A Tsimshian myth of an ancient migration from distant lands led Barbeau to speculate that these people had made the journey across the Bering Sea. Anthropologists no longer adhere to this theory; however, Barbeau’s activity and that of his Nishga interpreter and field researcher, William Beynon, helped to preserve many of the cultural traditions of the Pacific Northwest. Barbeau was a celebrated and decorated anthropologist. Barbeau died in 1969. The Canadian Encyclopedia cites the many awards presented to Marius Barbeau:

Prix David, Province of Québec (1925, 1929, 1945)

Honorary Doctor of Letters, Université de Montréal (1940)

Honorary Fellow, Oriel College, University of Oxford (1941)

Parizeau Medal, Association canadienne-française pour l’avancement des sciences (1946)

Lorne Pierce Medal, Royal Society of Canada (1950)

Honorary Doctor of Letters, Université Laval (1952)

Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Oxford (1953)

Canada Council MedalCanada Council for the Arts (1962)

National Award, University of Alberta (1965)

Diplôme d’honneur, Canadian Conference of the Arts (1968)

Companion, Order of Canada (1967)


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Sir John Franklin


Sir John Franklin, Morden H. Long, published by The Ryerson Press, 1930

The recent discovery of both HMS Erebus and more recently, HMS Terror, the two ships of the failed Franklin Expedition 0f 1845-47, has finally solved the 170-year-old mystery as to the final resting place of both the Terror and the Erebus. But what of Franklin and his men? That mystery has yet to be solved.

Sir John Franklin, by Morden H. Long, was published by The Ryerson Press in 1930. It is part of The Ryerson Canadian History Readers series. In this brief biography, only 28 pages in length, Long explores the life of John Franklin, 1786-1847.  While countless books, films, plays, poems have been created over the years, this brief treatise on the life of Franklin was meant for Canadian schools and is written in an entertaining, engaging yet factual tone.

The book begins with the unveiling of a monument to Franklin by  his wife, Lady Franklin, at Westminster Abbey in 1875. This simple act was the culmination of no less than thirty-eight rescue missions sent by the government or private parties to determine the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew.

Franklin first went to sea in 1800. Though his father had wanted him to become a clergyman, young Franklin had been determined to become a sailor from his first sight of the North Sea at the age of ten. He was not to be denied and was assigned to the fighting ship H.M.S Polyphemus as mid-shipman at the age of fifteen. In 1801 he served with Nelson in the Baltic and engaged in the “the most terrible” battles. Although a competent mid-shipman and fierce combatant, Franklin instinctively turned to the work of exploration once the wars were over. He soon shipped out on the Investigator to map the entire seaboard of Australia. There he learned the art of map-making from Captain Flinders, a distinguished explorer.


Erebus and Terror (Copyright Mary Evans Picture Library 10006874/MEP)

Back in England in 1804, Franklin was soon aboard the H.M.S. Bellerophon where he participated in the Battle of Trafalgar. By 1814, Franklin had turned his ambitions again to exploration and he joined an expedition on board the Trent pressing north to Spitzbergen, Norway where they had eyes on the North Pole. While caught in the Arctic ice pack, Franklin showed great bravery and resourcefulness by managing to ward off the grinding ice by protecting the hull of his ship using walrus hide and thick hemp ropes lashed to the side of the vessel. The accompanying ship, Dorothea, however, did not fair as well and Franklin was bound to return home to England accompanying the sister ship.

Franklin participated in numerous overland expeditions in the Canadian northwest between 1819 and 1822, to meet up with other expeditions travelling through the Arctic Ocean. Franklin and his men endured great hardship, famine and near starvation before eventually making it back to England. After an absence of three-and-a-half years, Franklin set foot once again on English soil. For his achievements, Franklin was promoted to the rank of captain and made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also given command of his own expedition which would take him again to the Arctic Ocean.

In this next expedition, in 1825-27, two parties set out to map the Arctic coastline, one led by John Richardson from the mouth of the Mackenzie eastward; the other, led by Franklin, from the mouth of the Coppermine westward. They were to rendezvous and return to England on the Blossom which was to sail in from the Bering Sea. In the spring of 1825, Franklin and his men met up with an old travel companion, George Back, who had made provisions on Great Slave Lake in a camp that Back had named Fort Franklin. During the winter of 1826, Franklin wrote that his men played a variety of winter sport, much like hockey. In fact, Fort Franklin, claimed to be one of the birthplaces of the modern game of hockey. Fort Franklin was renamed Déline, Nunavut in 1993.

By August 18, 1826, Franklin and his team had traced 374 miles of the coastline to the west of the Coppermine but were forced to turn back due to winter closing in. Richardson, on the other hand, had been able to trace nearly 900 miles of the coast eastward from the Mackenzie hoping to meet up with Franklin. Not until a year after his return to England did Franklin realize he and Richardson had been a mere 160 miles apart by August 23, one week after Franklin had abandoned his trek due to bad weather.

This latest expedition, however, was seen as an incredible boon to scientific knowledge and resulted in copious honours bestowed upon John Franklin. He was knighted in 1829 and received an honorary degree from Oxford University. Franklin spent the next eighteen years at sea, six-and-a-half as Governor of Tasmania. In September 1828, he married Jane Griffen, the future Lady Franklin. But , still, he yearned for the “white North.”

By 1844, the Admiralty was considering another Arctic expedition. Franklin, backed by The Royal Society, was appointed its commander. The two ships, Erebus commanded by Franklin and Terror, commanded by Captain Crozier, were equipped with strengthened hulls and engines with screw propellers in addition to sails. Each had a complement of sixty-seven officers and men and was stocked with provisions for three years.

The expedition set sail May 24, 1845. On July 26, they encountered a whaler in Melville Bay and except for a band of wandering Inuit, these were the last humans to see the officers and crew of this fateful expedition.

Sir John Franklin died June 11, 1847. Only traces of the remaining crew have been uncovered since then until the discovery 0f Erebus off King William Island, in 2014, and Terror in 2016. Monuments erected in Franklin’s honour depict the burial of the commander by his crew among the hummocks of the Polar packthat vast and wandering grave.


Morden Heaton Long, 1886-1965, was Professor of History at the University of Alberta. He was born in Brantford, Ontario and was educated at Woodstock College and obtained his B.A. in 1908 from McMaster University. He was Rhodes Scholar for Ontario, 1909-1912, and received his B.A. in Honours School of Modern History from Oxford in 1912 and an M.A. from Oxford in 1923. He taught history at Victoria High School in Edmonton, Alberta in 1913 and lectured at University of Alberta, becoming a full professor in 1935 and head of History in 1946. Morden Long was a member of the Historical Sites and Monuments Board and was chair of the Geographic Board of Alberta. He was also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Morden Long died in Edmonton in 1965.

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Blodwen Davies



Paddle and Palette, by Blodwen Davies, was published by The Ryerson Press, 1930

Paddle and Palette: The Story of Tom Thomson by Blodwen Davies was published by The Ryerson Press in 1930. The notes for this 36-page sketch of the artist were taken from an upcoming biography of Thomson that Blodwen Davies was in the midst of writing.

This 5 x 8 paperback publication was the first in the series of chap-books featuring Canadian Artists. The Ryerson Press published a series of these profiles of Canadian Artists over the course of the following years. This book contains several colour images of Tom Thomson’s work including “The West Wind”, Northern River, The Drive, The Jack Pine, and November. The accompanying notes about the paintings were prepared by Arthur Lismer.




Tom Thomson’s The West Wind Many pictures are merely a reproduction of nature — a copy of a scene. This one is different. It is an interpretation of something we have experienced ourselves. We know our country through our interpreters. The poets, painters and musicians: they present aspects of life which we feel, but cannot express for ourselves. This picture is an expression of what we feel about the beauty of Canada. It is a symbol of Canadian character — sturdy, vigorous and direct. (notes by Arthur Lismer, image Courtesy The Art Gallery of Ontario)

Tom Thomson drowned in 1917, three years before the creation of The Group of Seven. In her biography, A Study of Tom Thomson: The Story of a Man who looked for Beauty and for Truth in the Wilderness, also published by The Ryerson Press in 1937, Blodwen Davies set out to portray Thomson as a man who inspired many of the artists he knew and worked with in Toronto in the early 1900s. A.Y. Jackson said of Thomson at that time  that “he was naively unaware of any significance in his work other than the personal.  He did not realize he possessed a large store of knowledge he was not using.”



Tom Thomson’s The Jack Pine Few pictures by Canadian artists have, to an equal degree, the quality of design and pattern and colour so eloquently manifested here. The artist thinks of big things first — and the design in this picture is the biggest thing in it. It is like a symphony of music. All the instruments are playing a part, and none is out of harmony with the whole. In music we must wait to hear all the movements played before we can grasp the whole, for music moves in time. In a painting we see it all at once, and, according to what we bring to it, we grasp its meaning. The theme of a painting is a movement in space. The upright lines of the tree trunk give it serenity; the horizontal lines of the shore supplement this and give it strength; the rounded masses of the hills repeat the circular rhythm of the foliage masses, giving movement and powerful rhythm to the whole composition. (notes by Arthur Lismer, image courtesy of The National Gallery of Canada.)

Thomson never lived to witness the birth of The Group of Seven. Yet he is widely credited with influencing a new creative art movement that was to take hold in Canada. It is a wonder that those around him at the time were inspired to feel nature the same way Thomson did. How many budding young artists were not willing to live the simple woodsman-life that Thomson knew and loved?

“Some day they will know what I mean,” Tom Thomson is credited with saying when his work was questioned or ridiculed. Years later, we retrace his steps in the Algonquin Region and never cease to be amazed by the splendour of the changing seasons in the northern woods of this country.

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Blodwen Davies, 1897-1966, was a Canadian journalist who began her writing career as a newspaper reporter in Fort William, now Thunder Bay, Ontario. Ms. Davies spent her early years in Montreal, with summers in Longueuil, where she absorbed a deep sense of the history of Quebec. She later moved to Ontario where she “delved into the historical records of Upper Canada and developed a keen interest in the artistic and cultural life of the day.” Davies was keen to meet and learn more about The Group of Seven and published Painter and Palette in 1930 and A Study of Tom Thompson: The Story of a Man Who Looked for Beauty and Truth in the Wilderness in 1937. Davies is considered one of Canada’s outstanding “social historians” and is the author of several books on Canadian historical events and personalities. After a brief time working in the US, Davies returned to Canada and settled in Markham, Ontario where she continued to write. Blodwen Davies died in 1966 in Cedar Grove, a community just outside Markham at the corner of Reesor Road and 14th Avenue, which is now, fittingly, within the newly formed Rouge National Urban Park.

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Percy Wyndham Lewis


Anglosaxony: A League that Works, by Wyndham Lewis, published by The Ryerson Press, 1941

Wyndham Lewis was a painter, writer, activist and self-proclaimed rebel. He was born on his parents’ yacht off the coast of Amherst, Nova Scotia in 1882. His mother was British, his father American. They separated when Lewis was ten and he subsequently lived in England where he attended Rugby School and the Slade School of Art. He spent much of the early 1900s travelling and studying art in Europe.

Lewis published his first work about his travels in Brittany in Ford Madox Ford’s The English Review in 1909. By 1912 he had exhibited three paintings in the Post-Impressionist exhibition of 1911-1912. Here he came to the attention of the famous Bloomsbury Group with whom he soon disagreed. Lewis, along with such notables as Ezra Pound, is credited with forming the avant-garde art movement vorticism in 1914. Vorticism was short-lived though, mainly due to the out-break of the First World War.


Wyndham Lewis, photo by George Charles Beresford, 1913

It was essentially an art movement that rejected landscapes and nudes in favour of more abstract geometric shapes and style. The most important output of this movement was Lewis’s literary magazine Blast.

4 T

A Canadian Gun-Pit, 1918. The National Gallery, Ottawa

During the First World War Lewis was an artillery officer and eventually a war artist creating paintings for Britain and Canada. His A Canadian Gun-Pit (1918) painted from sketches he made on Vimy Ridge hangs in the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Lewis continued to paint after the war and produced mainly portraits but soon turned more to writing. He became increasingly more belligerent as he published criticisms of the likes of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. In 1931 he published Hitler, Man of Peace in which he proclaimed Hitler a “man of peace” whose party members were threatened by communism. By 1937, however, on a trip to Germany with his wife, Lewis changed his attitude and condemned the man in his 1939 book, The Hitler Cult.

Angloxaxony: A League that Works is a short essay published by The Ryerson Press in 1941. The 1941 catalogue of The Ryerson Press states that Anglosaxony is, “A highly stimulating discussion of ideas which underlie the present war. Mr. Lewis considers “Democracy” an expression of the Anglo-Saxon character, a thing which cannot be separated from Christianity or backgrounds and standards of a very special type. The Anglo-Saxons are considered to be the English-speaking nations and to include the countrymen of Roosevelt as well as the subjects of King George.”

Reviews of Anglosaxony: A League that Works include one by  T.S. Eliot: “Mr. Lewis…is the most fascinating personality of our time.” There is also this quote by Herbert Read, “Mr. Lewis … is a brilliant protagonist, by far the ablest pamphleteer of his generation, by far the most active force among us.” (Herbert Read was a contemporary of Wyndham Lewis and a frequent contributor to T.S. Eliot’s literary magazine The Criterion along with other notables such as Luigi Pirandello, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, E.M.Forster, W.B. Yeats as well as Wyndham Lewis and W.H. Auden. It is interesting to note that despite their differences, Read had rather kind things to say about Lewis in this instance.

Wyndham Lewis left England two days after the Second World War began and wound up in Canada, at the Tudor Hotel in downtown Toronto. During this time, Lewis continued to paint portraits and at the same time concentrated on his writing. He met prominent Canadian artists A.Y. Jackson and Charles Comfort in 1939 at a dinner hosted by the headmaster of Upper Canada College.

Lewis did not enjoy his time in Canada during the war years referring to Toronto as “this sanctimonious icebox”. George Woodcock, though, claimed,” A. Y. Jackson was almost alone among Canadian painters in trying to make Lewis feel welcome in the country of his birth.” Lewis wrote a fictionalized account of his time living in Canada in the dilapidated Tudor Hotel in Toronto, before it was destroyed by fire in 1943. It was entitled Self-Condemned.


Both Hands, by Sandra Campbell, with the portrait of Lorne Pierce by Wyndham Lewis.

 Lewis’s influence can be felt in a number of ways. In the early 1940s, Lewis was introduced to Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan’s theories of the global village were influenced by Lewis. Canadian author Sheila Watson was also impacted by Lewis as she published her dissertation on the artist in the early 1960s. Her book The Double Hook (1959) is considered the first Canadian contemporary novel. Lewis painted a number of portraits while in Canada, most notably, Marshal McLuhan and Lorne Pierce, editor of The Ryerson Press, used on the cover of Sandra Campbell’s exhaustive and highly readable biography, Both Hands.

Lewis and his wife, Froanna, moved back to England in 1945. By 1951, Lewis was completely blind, though he continued to write up until his death. He is now considered a major British artist and writer of the twentieth century. Wyndham Lewis died in 1957.

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Nellie L. McClung

Sowing the Seeds in Danny

Sowing Seeds in Danny, 1908, The Ryerson Press

Nellie L. McClung’s first novel, Sowing Seeds in Danny, was published by The Ryerson Press in 1908. This was followed by The Second Chance, 1910, The Black Creek Stopping-House, 1912, Purple Springs, 1921, and Painted Fires, 1925.

Sowing Seeds in Danny is the story of The Watson family, Irish immigrants newly transplanted from Ontario and settled in Manitoba. Pearlie Watson is an imaginative, clever little girl, twelve years old, who is the mainstay of the family. Her story continues in The Second Chance and concludes in Purple Springs.





The Black Creek Stopping House

The Black Creek Stopping-House, 1912, The Ryerson Press

“To the Pioneer Women of the West, who made life tolerable, and even comfortable, for the others of us; who fed the hungry, advised the erring, nursed the sick, cheered the dying, comforted the sorrowing, and performed the last rites for the dead;

 The beloved Pioneer Women, old before their time with hard work, privations, and doing without things, yet in whose hearts there was always burning the hope of better things to come;

 The godly Pioneer Women, who kept alive the conscience of the neighbourhood and preserved for us the best traditions of the race;

 To these noble Pioneer Women of the early days, some of whom see no more, for they have entered into their inheritance, this book is respectfully dedicated by their humble admirer.”

 This is the dedication to the 1912 edition of The Black Creek Stopping-House and Their Stories by Nellie McClung.

The Black Creek Stopping House was a refuge for new immigrants, weary farmers and travellers on the Prairies. In this book, McClung pays tribute to hard work and the hard life of making a homestead in the West.

The Second Chance, 1910, is a “further account of Pearlie Watson. And she is the same comical, honest, motherly, warm-hearted, unexpected, effective, and altogether delightful little Irish girl that made one’s heart grow warm and brought smiles to one’s face every few minutes. Her experiences as she grows into womanhood, and the way in which she makes the numerous Watsons transform that run-down farm, “The Second Chance”, are worth your while – and we know if you read this book you’ll want to pass it on.”

Purple Springs, 1921, is the third and concluding book in the story of Pearl Watson, the young Irish immigrant whose life out West in the early 1900s is delightfully told by McClung and in many respects mirrors her own life story on the Prairies.

In Painted Fires, 1925, Nellie McClung “carries the reader into wider areas of human experience, introduces more and more characters, strikes a higher note than Mrs. McClung had hitherto reached as a fiction writer. Painted Fires is a moving tale of the Canadian West, with its polyglot population, its opportunities for the incomer from other lands, its amazing development and quick transformations.

 Mrs. McClung knows her West and she knows human nature. This strong captivating tale of hers will make its appeal to a multitude of delighted readers.”

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 Nellie McClung, 1873-1951, was a novelist, women’s rights activist, teacher, social worker, politician and member of the politically active Famous 5. She was a member of the Dominion War Council in 1918 and the only woman representative at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1938. Nellie McClung was the first woman on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Board of Governors and was also active in the Canadian Authors Association founded in 1921 and responsible for initiating the Governor General’s Awards in 1938. Nellie McClung was elected to the Alberta legislature as a Liberal MLA for Edmonton and served one term from 1921-1926.

As a member of the Famous 5 or the Valiant 5, Nellie McClung, along with Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Irene Parlby and Louise Crummy McKinney, petitioned the government in 1928 to answer the question of whether the word “Persons” in the BNA Act of 1867 included women. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it did not, and therefore, women could not be appointed to the Senate of Canada. The British Judicial Committee of the Privy Council overturned that ruling in October, 1929. While none of the Famous 5 were ever appointed Senators, the Canadian Senate, in October 2009, voted to make the Famous 5 “Honourary Senators”, 80 years later, almost to the day. Statues acknowledging the efforts of the Famous 5 are displayed in both Calgary and Ottawa.


Model of the The Famous 5 representing Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Irene Parlby, Louise Crummy McKinney and Emily Murphy. Sculpted by Barbara Paterson, photo by Marc Mennie, Famous 5 Foundation.






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Black Beauty

Black Beauty

Black Beauty, published by The Ryerson Press, 1921

The Canadian edition of Black Beauty by Anna Sewell was published in 1921 by The Ryerson Press. It is the iconic story of a horse and the inhumane way some animals are treated by their owners. Written between 1871 and 1877, the book was first published by Jarrolds Publishers in 1877.

The Ryerson Press Fall catalogue entry for 1923 reads, “Black Beauty is one of the greatest stories for children that has ever been written. It is a book that will be loved by every boy and girl who knows and understands animals. They will read with genuine emotion the history of Black Beauty, the coal-black horse with the white star on his forehead. There is an intense human quality about the account of Black Beauty’s trials with cruel masters and his joy when he is able to serve a good master. And the story is told with a beautiful simplicity of style which makes it easy for the child to understand. This best-loved of children’s books is delightfully illustrated by Katharine Pyle, well-known illustrator.

Anna Sewell (1820-1878) was born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England and lived the remaining years of her life in the village of Old Catton just outside Norwich. An accident at an early age left her unable to walk any distance without crutches and she was used to being transported by horse and buggy. As a result, she developed a love of animals and horses in particular and the manner in which they were treated by their owners.

As Anna Sewell travelled through Europe she came into contact with many of the writers, artists and philosophers of the day through her mother’s work as an established writer of children’s religious books. The dedication to Black Beauty reads, “To my dear and honoured Mother whose life no less than her pen has been devoted to the welfare of others, this little book is affectionately dedicated.” Over the years, it is safe to say that Anna Sewell herself has inspired many young readers to dedicate themselves to the welfare, affection and humane treatment of animals and horses in particular.

Anna Sewell’s health declined in later years and she was confined to her bed in Old Catton, a village outside Norwich. She wrote Black Beauty between 1871 and 1877 dictating the last few chapters to her mother who transcribed her words for her. The book was published 6 months before her death in 1878. Although Black Beauty is now considered a children’s classic, she originally wrote it for those who worked with horses. She said “a special aim [was] to induce kindness, sympathy, and an understanding treatment of horses” (Wikipedia)

Anna Sewell died April 25, 1878 at the age of 58. She is buried in a small Quaker burial ground in Lammas, Norfolk where a plaque commemorates her final resting place.


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Robert W. Service

Robert Service

Robert W.Service, 1909

I have no doubt at all the Devil grins

   As seas of ink I splatter;

Ye Gods, forgive my “literary sins” —

   The other kind don’t matter.


From Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, Robert. W. Service, 1912





Robert W. Service, 1876-1958, was a British-born poet and writer who came to Canada at the age of 21. Service is said to have written his first verse at the age of six while still living in Scotland. By the time he came to Canada, he had several poems to his name. A number of these were published in 1900 in the Victoria Daily Colonist while Service was working as a store clerk in Cowichan Bay, B.C. Service also worked briefly for a bank in Victoria, B.C. before being transferred first to Kamloops, B.C. then to Whitehorse, Yukon in 1904, and finally to the Dawson, Yukon branch of The Canadian Bank of Commerce. By the time Service arrived in Dawson the Klondike Gold Rush was over. Still, he met many of the old-timers (sourdoughs) and heard many of their stories that inspired his verse.

Bank clerk by day, raconteur by night, Service would recite many of the popular poems of the day (Casey at the Bat, Gunga Din) at local establishments and church venues. Prompted by one town official to create his own tales, Service was said to have overheard some bar-room chatter and the phrase “A bunch of the boys were whooping it,” came into his head. The Shooting of Dan McGrew was the result.

Later, after overhearing the tale of a prospector having cremated his claim partner who had died out on the trail, Service wrote The Cremation of Sam McGee to the delight of the locals.

In the spring of 1907, Service sent a bundle of his verse to his father who was now living in Toronto along with a cheque to cover expenses and asked his father to find a printer to publish the works.

William Briggs, Book Steward of the Methodist Book Room (as The Ryerson Press was then known) agreed to publish the work and Songs of a Sourdough and Ballads of a Cheechako by Robert W. Service were published by The Ryerson Press in 1907 and 1909 respectively. These works have been reprinted dozens of times over the years.

The following letter written in December, 1908 depicts a shrewd yet keen Robert Service outlining his plans to his publisher.


Service letter 7th Dec 1908

Dawson, Y.T.

7Th December, 1908

To William Briggs, Publisher


Dear Sir:

            I beg to acknowledge receipt of your letters enclosing 1 royalty cheques up to 30th Septr. I was gratified at the returns, and must thank you for the splendid way in which my book has been handled.

I have Mr. Walker’s letter offering me a 15% royalty on my next book, to be published at your expense. I agree to let you have the publication of it, on the condition that the copyright is in my name, and the retail price of the ordinary edition shall be one dollar. Also I retain the right to terminate the arrangement by giving the customary notice.

I have decided to call the book “THE BALLADS OF A CHEECHAKO.” A cheechako is the very reverse of a sourdough, and means a new-comer. It is taken from the chinook jargon, and is a widely known term out here. My reason for choosing this title is that the book will really be a sister one to my first one, and the two will sell concurrently, and the sale of the one will help the other. The only weakness is in their order. The cheechako one should come first, but I will get over that in a small preface. I think that those who possess the one will want to have the other too, and thus from a business point of view I will be fortunate in my choice of a title. But apart from that I think I would have used it, as it is odd and characteristic, and to the Western mind means a great deal. Some day I hope to publish both books in one volume, but that will not be till they have ceased to find a ready sale in their individual form.

I would like it if you could have a characteristic cover design for the new book, something typical of the North and bold and striking. I would also like to suggest that these ballads be printed in a smallish, clear type, with generous margins. I want to see them printed as “Vividly” as possible.

If I hold the entire manuscript till it is completed it will be the end of February before it leaves here. But I think I will send you the bulk of it by the end of January, and I can send you the few remaining poems that complete it when I return the proof sheets. There will be a lot of time lost in transit of the proofs, so that I think it would be a good idea if I sent you all I had done up to the end of January, and during the interval between the dispatch of the manuscript and the arrival of the proofs I would have time to finish up the remaining poems which I could leave to your proof-reader to correct. This will be a gain of a month, and I would like if the book could be on the market by the end of May.

I am going to write Messrs Stern & Co. by this mail to find out if they desire to handle it in the States. I expect there will be a big demand for it as a souvenir book at the Alaska-Yukon Exhibition, next summer. You might be able to sell a large number of the Canadian issue there, if you have any agents in Seattle. It is worth while keeping in view.

Yours very truly

Robert W. Service

Please let me hear from you as soon as convenient


Robert Service continued to write verse and with the royalties was able to quit his banking job and relied solely on his royalties for the rest of his life.

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William Briggs published Service’s first novel, The Trail of ’98, 1911 and The Ryerson Press continued publishing Robert W. Service into the 1930s. The volumes of verse include Rhymes of a Rolling Stone, 1912, The Pretender, 1914, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, 1918, The Roughneck, 1923, and The Collected Poems of Robert W. Service, 1932.

Robert W. Service moved to Paris, France and married Germaine Bourgoin. They had one daughter, Iris. Robert Service died in Lancieux, Cotes d’Armor, France in 1958.

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