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Alice Ravenhill: Never Say Die

December 15th, 2016

Copyright © 2016 by Mary Leah de Zwart

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Published by The Ormsby Review Press (ORP)
3516 West 13th Avenue, Vancouver, B.C. V6R 2S3
Editor: Richard Mackie


CHAPTER ONE: A Visit from Francis

CHAPTER TWO: Offering Service to Canada (1910-1926)

CHAPTER THREE: Sixty-seven Years Old and What Next?

CHAPTER FOUR: The Tale Behind the Tale

CHAPTER FIVE: Meeting Mr. Coyote

CHAPTER SIX: Getting it all Done

CHAPTER SEVEN: The Last Ten Years

CHAPTER EIGHT: What’s it All About?


I became interested in Alice Ravenhill when I was working on my master’s degree over twenty years ago. I had a class assignment to research home economics pioneers in British Columbia, and I immediately felt a kinship with Alice Ravenhill. Although she is almost a century older than me, I feel a shared culture.  She reminded me of my grandmother, Kate Elizabeth Butterworth White, who immigrated to Canada from England at about the same time.

I found similarities between the educational ambitions of Ravenhill and my mother, Hilda Mabel White Milligan, born a full generation later. Ravenhill was under her father’s thumb; she could not study or work outside the home until she was thirty. My mother, a bright student, graduated from high school at the age of sixteen but was not allowed to go to university; her older brother went instead. My mother could only afford to go to Normal School and become a teacher.

Ravenhill’s and my life also had comparable trajectories; she had come to Canada in her early fifties after a successful career in England; I started my doctorate program at age 53 after twenty years or more of teaching and government extension work. We had both been influenced by family obligations; her to her brother and nephew as they started a homesteading life at Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island, and me to my husband, as I followed him around Ontario and then British Columbia in his search for a better job.

There have been a few coincidences since I have begun researching Ravenhill’s life. One was a common monarchical sentiment, frequent to their generation of English immigrants, in her family and mine. Ravenhill developed a close friendship with the Duke and Duchess of Albany; the Duke was the third son of Queen Victoria. My own grandmother greatly admired Princess Alice, the Countess of Athlone, who was their daughter.  Granny even named the family cottage at Alberta Beach, west of Edmonton, “Camp Athlone.”

When Alice Ravenhill had tea with Princess Alice in Victoria in 1943, my grandparents were also living in Victoria; I wonder if my grandmother tried to get a glimpse of her idol? These odd things have helped me see Alice Ravenhill as a person, and kept me interested in her for so many years.

I also admired Alice Ravenhill’s commitment to various causes. I have long admired devotion in other people, whether to a religious faith, or an educational ideal, or a human rights principle. Ravenhill persisted in her causes long after her reasonably productive years were over, and although she complained about the pains of aging and her relative poverty, she persevered.

I also felt a common ground of beliefs and values between us.  “Never say die!”  “Keep a stiff upper lip”  “Try, try again.”  These were sayings that I heard as I grew up, just as Ravenhill must have.

The downside to Ravenhill’s work is her early interest in eugenics, a long-discredited form of racism and prejudice. I have heard opinions expressed throughout my life that border on eugenics; and I am grateful that I live in times when these attitudes have at least been discounted if yet to be eradicated.

The difference between her life and mine lies in opportunities. I grew up in a less Imperialistic society where Britannia no longer ruled the waves and where a woman was not controlled by her father and brothers.  I was able to attend university, work independently, marry the man of my choice, and live how I wanted to. Some of the opportunities that have been open to me may be attributed to the work of women like Alice Ravenhill who struggled mightily to find their place in the world.

Despite her own relative lack of opportunities, Alice Ravenhill achieved remarkable things in both England and British Columbia. Her B.C. career is notable for her mentorship of many young teachers and museum educators and also for her three books — Native Tribes of British Columbia (1938), A Cornerstone of Canadian Culture (1944), and Folklore of the Far West (1953) – written against considerable odds just as the Indigenous people of BC were starting to emerge from the hostile conditions caused by Canadian colonialism.

— Mary Leah de Zwart, Vernon, B.C. December 2016.

* * *

Mary Leah de Zwart is a retired teacher and UBC sessional instructor with a strong interest in education and women’s history. An inveterate reader and writer since her childhood in Alberta, she was diverted into home economics education for forty years. She became interested in women’s and B.C. history during her master’s research and explored the subject further in her doctoral studies at UBC, completed in 2003, on the topic of home economics history. She has been interested in Alice Ravenhill since completing her PhD. Her previous publications include two books on home economics education and An Education for Women: The Founding of Home Economics Education in Canadian Public Schools (Charlottetown, 1995, edited with Linda Peterat). More recently she has done articles in BC History, BC Studies, and Geist. Along the way, she took writing courses with a variety of instructors including Eunice Scarfe, Richard Mackie, Caroline Adderson, Stephen Osborne, and Daniel Wood. She lives in Vernon where she researches and blogs about B.C. food history: see http://www.bcfoodhistory.ca/about

Foreword by Richard Mackie

We at The Ormsby Review are delighted to present our first book: Mary Leah de Zwart’s biography of educational pioneer Alice Ravenhill.

Born in England in 1859, Ravenhill lived in England until 1910. During this time, she embarked on a promising career in home economics and wrote a series of books including Lessons In Practical Hygiene For Use In Schools (1907), Instruction And Training In Girls’ Elementary Schools In England (1908), Eugenic Education for Women and Girls (1909), and Household Administration, its Place in the Higher Education of Women (1910).

She abandoned her home economics career to immigrate to Vancouver Island, aged 51, to join her brother and his family at Shawnigan Lake.

Following her nephew’s death in the Great War, she and her sister and brother moved to Victoria where, in her sixties, she finally regained her English momentum and embarked on a new career as a champion of Indigenous rights and author of books on Indigenous art and culture.

She came to B.C. at a time when, she remarked astutely in 1941, Native people were regarded as nothing more than “cumberers of the ground” – meaning that Indigenous people and their “Indian Reserves” were seen as a hindrance, obstruction, and encumbrance to the settlers’ use of the land and its resources.

Beginning in the 1920s, from her home in Victoria, Ravenhill made friends and vital allies with the small staff at the B.C. Provincial Museum, including Willie Newcombe, Betty Newton, Arthur Pickford, Ian McTaggart Cowan, and Clifford Carl.

Between the wars she put her considerable organizational and literary abilities to use as a champion and advocate of B.C. Indigenous rights, arts, and crafts, and in the process continued what she had done so well in England: to speak and lecture publically, organize like-minded people, and write books.

In 1940, she co-founded the Society for the Furtherance of Indian Arts and Crafts in British Columbia, a role in which she mentored teachers like Anthony Walsh of Inkameep and Noel Stewart of Lytton — who in turn championed young Native artists like Francis Jim Baptiste (Sis-hu-lk) and George Clutesi of Alberni.

In this role, she shepherded and championed the publication of Meet Mr. Coyote (by Noel Stewart, 1941) and The Tale of the Nativity (by Anthony Walsh, 1942).

In the process, she incurred the resentment and obstruction of the Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa; she might have been a gadfly to the DIA, but she and the Society had the satisfaction of enlisting the support and admiration of two members of the Group of Seven, Arthur Lismer and Lawren Harris.

Ravenhill acted as a one-woman unpaid Native Studies Department in the 1930s and 1940s, writing three books: Native Tribes of British Columbia (1938), A Cornerstone of Canadian Culture Title: An Outline of The Arts and Crafts of the Indian Tribes of British Columbia (1944), and Folklore of the Far West with Some Clues to Characteristics and Customs (1953).

Models of clarity and accessibility, all three books were written at a time when the universities and institutions of BC displayed little, or more often no, interest in Indigenous art, culture, or history.

Together, these books introduced a general reading public to the Indigenous people and artistic traditions of B.C.

The carver Bill Reid considered Ravenhill’s A Cornerstone of Canadian Culture as essential inspiration. He was effusive with praise for this elderly Englishwoman for her basic and pioneering analysis of Northwest Coast artistic designs, which he used in his own work.

Ravenhill also wrote her autobiography, Alice Ravenhill: Memoirs of an Educational Pioneer (1951).

11 Responses to “Alice Ravenhill: Never Say Die”

  1. Daniel Ravenhill says:

    It is great reading all your research. I have been researching my family tree. Alice was my 1st Cousin 4x removed. My 3x great grandpa was his brother. It is great to have a female heroine in the family. It is so difficult to find information about my female relatives. This has been a fascinating read.

  2. John Allan says:

    Hi Mary. I have long been a fan of Alice Ravenhill. She knew and worked with an old family friend Tony Walsh who was a Christian brother an art educator. What an amazing versatile, creative, hard working woman she was…who gave up one productive life to do the laundry and cooking for a brother!
    Our GVPL does not carry your book. Where can I get it from? Thanks john

    • I have read about Anthony Walsh and found him to be an amazing person.
      I hope to continue to work on Alice Ravenhill again and perhaps publish it.
      Ravenhill is not popular these days for several reasons – she was an ardent eugenicist in her early days, she was English and not quiet about it(!) and she alienated a few people.
      I admire Ravenhill for so many reasons, and I think she should receive the acclaim she deserves.
      Thank you for your email.

  3. Verna Miller says:

    Hi Mary, it was just brought to my attention that you published this. Congratulations! Can you please tell me how get a copy.

    • Mary Leah de Zwart says:

      Hi Verna
      I don’t have a hard copy at the present – it is only on line. Nice to hear from you!
      Mary Leah

  4. Dear Mary,

    Thanks for your reply – I will update once I have located ( presently going from index of deceased memorial inscriptions on line & picked up on possible historic links after highlighting TPP -Martha Pocock died 1881 aged 77 yrs & a Thomas Pocock died 1889 )



    • Allan Collier says:

      I wanted to get a hard copy of this excellent research on Alice Ravenhill.
      Is that forthcoming soon?

      • Mary Leah de Zwart says:

        To date I do not know of any plans to publish a hard copy of “Never Say Die”. Perhaps it will be possible in the future.
        Mary Leah de Zwart

  5. Mary Leah de Zwart says:

    This is very likely Alice Ravenhill’s grandfather. It would be interesting to see a photograph of the tombstone, if there is one.

  6. Dear Mary,

    I lighted on your book & website somewhat by accident- I am researching some of the deceased buried in Brockley & Ladywell cemeteries -SE London , England and came across the name Thomas Pike POCOCK ( 1801-1885) who is buried here and wondered if he was the same TPP related to Alice Ravenhill?


    Mike Guilfoyle
    Vice-Chair Foblc

    • Carl Thompson says:

      Hullo Mike – Just came across this when researching my wife’s family. Thomas Pike Pocock is indeed the grandfather of Alice Ravenhill 1850-1954 – or should I say, she is recorded in our “Family Tree” as being such.

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