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Chapter Eight

December 15th, 2016

What’s It All About?

What have we learned about Alice Ravenhill? How was she shaped by her family background and life circumstances? How did she change her outlook over her lifetime? What is her legacy?

To begin with, Alice Ravenhill needs to be viewed as a product of her times, born into the rising middle class in Victorian England, bound by the conventions of her place in society. The closing words in her autobiography indicate the standards by which she defined herself:

The stream of social life into which I was born has almost petered out. With it has disappeared to a great degree the atmosphere in which I was reared, with its sense of responsibility for the advantages enjoyed, of the paramount duty of serving others, of self-control and reticence, of dignified endurance of reverses, of respect for authority and law, of cheerful self-sacrifice, and of dogged perseverance to gain desired ends.[1]

These points sustained Ravenhill through a magnitude of societal changes, from advances in women’s rights through the trauma of the Great War and on to the Depression and World War Two. The trajectory of Alice Ravenhill’s life exemplifies one of her favourite slogans, “Never say die!” The markers rise each time that she was able to meet her high personal expectations and dive each time that she had to give up and retreat. Her life required at least two and possible three major makeovers.

The first telling event was 1870 when Ravenhill was finally able to go to public school; in 1882 her father broke her engagement for her and refused to let her study nursing; in 1892 she studied for a National Diploma in Health and Hygiene; in 1901 she was truly at the top, chosen to go to North America to complete a Special Report on Home Economics; in 1910 she looked forward with anxiety to the family move to Canada; in 1919 she gave up on home economics after a tough experience in Utah; and then her prospects started to rise again as she became interested in Indigenous arts and crafts.  In old age, which for Ravenhill began around age 90, her life levelled off and she was able to reflect upon her life events.

Class and gender influenced Ravenhill’s early life and some of the decisions she made in Canada. According to Victorian conventions she was subject to the rule of her father, John Richard Ravenhill. His profession as an educated engineer from an established family determined her status in English society. Ravenhill’s mother, Fanny Pocock, was the daughter of a wealthy businessman; not upper-class, but upwardly mobile. It appeared that Ravenhill’s life would proceed much the same as her mother’s had; marry a man with prospects and raise a family. When her father axed her engagement to a man who eventually became a successful surgeon, Alice Ravenhill seemed destined to play the role of family caretaker and spinster aunt. That might have happened, save for her strong personality, bright mind and ability to make long-lasting connections.

When the family fortunes declined and Ravenhill was finally permitted to study health and hygiene, she could fulfil part of her social class mandate to be of service to others. For example, the relationships that she had established with the Duke and Duchess of Albany paved the way for her to enter a prestigious formerly male-only program at the Royal Sanitary Institute. Her interest in home economics was embedded in the Victorian ideal of woman as keeper of the household. At the same time, she espoused the values of the burgeoning public health movement in the 1890s, operating on her stated guiding principle that “Public health means public wealth, mental, moral, and physical, as well as financial.”[2]

At that time in England, nationalism was the prevailing theme of schooling with three main aims: to maintain the greatness and glory of the state; to train for patriotic citizenship and to protect the state from external attach and internal disintegration.[3] Women’s work was Imperial service. This led to Ravenhill’s support of eugenics. Her work in England had made her well aware of the physical and mental repercussions of poor nutrition and living in unhealthy conditions which she transferred to her work in Canada.

When the Great War erupted, accompanied by a rise in patriotism, she focused even more on the homemaker’s Imperial duty and the necessity to preserve the “Imperial Race”. On the continuum of eugenics, it is difficult to say how staunchly she supported the human breeding / sterilization aspect.  Many other well-known public figures also supported eugenics in one form or another.[4]

Ravenhill’s family ties were the strongest relationships in her life, so much so that she gave up what she called a “brilliant career” to move to the wilds of Vancouver Island. Not much has been written about Edith Ravenhill, the quiet, musically-inclined thirteen-months- younger sister who kept to the background and facilitated much of Alice’s success. The welfare and unfailing support of her family was an underlying thread in whatever Alice Ravenhill chose to do. For example, Ravenhill’s unfortunate decision to go to Utah was partly required because the family fortunes had declined after the Great War.

The first few years of Ravenhill’s life in Canada were much more difficult than she had anticipated. The time of pioneering was long past, as were the romantic ideals that had engendered the move of the Ravenhill family to Canada. The cool reception from Canadians surprised Ravenhill. Given the warmth expressed in the United States in 1901 she had expected that her experiences and knowledge would be more valued in Canada. She had to learn that North America was not one but many cultures.

Ravenhill’s stellar English reputation helped her obtain speaking engagements and work with the Women’s Institute, and it was even more useful in calling up support for Indigenous arts and crafts. Although her English connections seemed distant, for example, Ravenhill’s request to Sir Michael Sadler to advance the cause of Indigenous art education, they were so enduring that any request from her was viewed seriously.

Another factor that helped Ravenhill was her age. Her interest began when she was well beyond menopause and she did not receive the same criticism that a younger woman might have been subjected to. This enabled her to develop meaningful relationships with men such as Anthony Walsh, Noel Stewart and Clifford Carl, all forty or more years younger than her. It also meant that she was given some breaks on account of her frail physical health. In her associations with Walsh and Betty Campbell Newton, Ravenhill hoped that she had found a protégé, someone to carry on her work.

She regretted that she had found no one to carry on her work in England, although this point is debatable. Up to the present day King’s College London continues to offer a Health and Society programme which bears some similarity to the home economics program that Ravenhill started in 1908.

As for the BC Indian Arts and Welfare Society, it continued on under the leadership of some of the people Ravenhill had mentored. The Native Voice, an Indigenous newspaper also bore signs of Ravenhill’s legacy. It had started in 1947 under the editorship of John Beynon. Upon Ravenhill’s death in 1954, the following acknowledgment appeared in the newspaper: “The Native Voice to which Dr. Ravenhill subscribed to and supported expresses sorrow on behalf of the Natives of B. C. and its staff on the loss of this beloved and devoted friend of the Indians.”[5]

In Victoria, Ravenhill made many decisions based on the notions of class that she had brought with her from England. She was an inveterate namedropper, especially of the Royal Family with whom she did have a slight acquaintance. The selection of the initial members of the Committee for the Furtherance of Indian Arts and Crafts revealed Ravenhill’s belief that class mattered in Canada as much as it had in England; she invited people to join on the basis of their perceived social standing and religion, preferably Anglican.
This approach did not work well. For example, Major Llewellyn Bullock-Webster had agreed to be the first President of the Committee, but with social ambitions of his own, he had no real commitment to Indigenous arts and crafts. Ravenhill was willing to cut some people slack, but not the ones she thought were dead wood. Eventually, after several disappointments in the people she had chosen, Ravenhill came to accept that commitment counted more than class or position in society.

Alice Ravenhill has been an object of mild curiosity for several scholars, often for her interest in eugenics, one of many societies to which she belonged in England.[6]  She has been called a “home economist by default,” who inexplicably moved to Canada on the whim of her family.[7] In fact, the decision makes sense when viewed as part of Ravenhill’s deeply held belief in the importance of the family as the backbone of society. To have refused to go would have been a denial of a very important part of her values system.

Scholars have sometimes questioned Ravenhill’s motives for becoming involved in Indigenous arts and crafts, describing her almost complete lack of interest in the subject up until 1926 as “strangely at odds with other aspects of her interests.”[8] But there is no contradiction here. Ravenhill had no opportunity to be involved in any Indigenous concerns before the W.I. asked her to find them some appropriate designs. Her English life was mainly devoted to establishing herself as a professional female in several male-dominated fields. Even then, Ravenhill often took on projects without much background knowledge: she herself recalled that an early rival once commented that Ravenhill “was the best example she had ever met of knowing very little but of deliberately giving the impression of knowing a great deal.”[9] Alice Ravenhill was aware of this shortcoming: “Then and always I was and am acutely alive to the serious handicap of the insufficient groundwork from which I suffered.”[10]

As it was, Ravenhill spent three years finding designs before feeling sufficiently confident to pass on information to the W.I. and they, as is well known, had moved on to another interest. Continuing her study of Indigenous culture was appropriate for Ravenhill in several ways: the Museum was reasonably accessible, her brother’s friend Willy Newcombe was available as a mentor, and she was not a quitter.

How interested was she in Indigenous art education? Probably more so than people would suspect, given her background in early childhood education and her interests in literature and culture. She could also not have missed the obvious racialization of Victoria and the need for a response to it. In her autobiography she had noted the treatment of Black Americans in her U.S. travels in 1916-17.[11] As one who continually supported the underdog, an interest in the welfare of Indigenous peoples aligned with her deeply held beliefs in fairness.

Alice Ravenhill has been criticized for endorsing the idea of the “Indian” as a dying race, and for an unrestrained appropriation of Indigenous designs. These concepts are intertwined with the notion authenticity. Ravenhill initially took up the cause to ensure authenticity, first for the Women’s Institute hooked rug designs, next for her own handicraft sales, and then for the sake of the provincial curriculum that included Indigenous peoples but gave teachers no resources. As has been already discussed, the term “authenticity” is laden with meanings, usually reflecting more of the outsider’s expectations than the insider’s motives.[12] Therefore, what counts as authenticity may be more of a question of quality than of origin.

How much did Ravenhill believe that her work was preserving the culture of a dying race? The two publications for which she is best known, Native Tribes of British Columbia (1938) and A Cornerstone of Canadian Culture (1944) express some of her motivations.

In the introduction to Native Tribes, Ravenhill gives several reasons for studying the subject: to understand the “backward” condition of Indigenous peoples as defined by Diamond Jenness;[13] to make amends for ignorant misunderstandings and actions by newcomers[14] which included the introduction of diseases, economic exploitation and denial of Indigenous languages; and to “arouse a keener realization of the remarkable artistic endowments of the North-west Coast tribes.”[15] In the introduction to A Cornerstone of Canadian Culture, she asks for recognition of the valuable qualities of Indigenous peoples such as resourcefulness in a restricted environment, ingenuity, keen observation, marked originality in artistic gifts and cooperative and organizing abilities.

Ravenhill’s rationale is more specific in the goals of the Society for the Furtherance of Indian Arts and Crafts.  One reason given in the First Annual Report for reviving the “latent gifts of art, drama, dance and song, as well as certain handicrafts” was “cultural: to preserve for Canadian culture by such revival certain forms of Primitive Art unique in character, consequently an asset of definite value to both nation and Province.”[16]

Ravenhill was in good company with her belief that it was important to preserve Indigenous culture: Emily Carr has also been described as having an increasing sense that the past was forever gone for the Indigenous peoples of British Columbia.[17] Considering that these two women lived in Victoria in the same era, it is somewhat odd that we have no concrete evidence that they ever met, although Ravenhill once proposed that Carr should become Honourary President of the Society.[18] Willy Newcombe, Ravenhill’s mentor, was also Emily Carr’s handyman. Perhaps one reason was Ravenhill’s loose association with the Victoria Island Arts and Crafts Society, a conventional institution that, to Carr, “ached with horridness.”[19]

A second point to discuss is appropriation, as exemplified by Ravenhill’s use of Indigenous designs in her needlework that she sold in various Victoria shops, in the legends that she found in the Provincial Museum and incorporated into Folklore of the Far West, and in the larger assumption that she had the right to preserve designs of a “dying race” for future generations of Indigenous children.

Appropriation on a simplistic level means taking over another’s belongings; on the cultural level, Young and Haley state, “Subject appropriation occurs when members of one culture (call them outsiders for the sake of brevity) represent members of other cultures (insiders for the sake of convenience) or aspects of insiders’ cultures.”[20] An example of subject appropriation is Archie Belaney, better known as Grey Owl, an Englishman who passed himself off as a full-blooded Indigenous and wrote about Canadian First Nations peoples.

Cultures, according to Young and Haley, do not own subject matter. The fact that someone outside the culture knows about it does not stop the insiders from knowing about it. When Noel Stewart wrote that he made legends really live, he would have been, according to the perspective of Young and Haley, helping his students see themselves through someone else’s eyes. Similarly, for Ravenhill to increase awareness about the number of versions in existence of a given legend (as in the case of Folklore from the Far West) justifies her work.

Perhaps The Tale of the Nativity is the most problematic in terms of appropriation, as pointed out by LiLynn Wan, for “promoting indigenous authenticity through the single most important legend of Christianity… gone largely uncontested.”[21] Yet The Tale was also one of the Society’s most successful publications.

Gloria Jean Frank, in a BC Studies article entitled “That’s my Dinner on Display” describes an incident in a First Peoples exhibit at the Royal British Columbia Museum in which she observes a student group being taught to use Indigenous designs for food art. “Surprisingly, I am not resentful, for I realize that these people are not stealing ideas. They are innocently trying to bridge two cultures.”[22]

Alice Ravenhill also tried to bridge cultures throughout her life but without the results that she desired:

My ardent hope that my experience… might be placed at the service of my new country was never really realized, for reasons personal and public, but always to my deep regret. Across the border conditions were different and the times more ripe; but so powerful is nationality that, though glad to share what I could with friends in the States, I would so much more gladly have served Canada.[23]

In fact, Alice Ravenhill did make a difference in Canada.  She was able to gather people together and start a movement in Indigenous art education the effects of which echo to the present day. She functioned best through energetic intermediaries such as Anthony Walsh, Noel Stewart, and Clifford Carl. She expected everyone to sacrifice as much as she had; she knew the value of a personal letter (she wrote over one thousand for the Society in the first eighteen months of its existence); she knew how to encourage, discourage, prompt, mollify, tease and placate.

How can Alice Ravenhill inform our present-day lives?  She demonstrated how to live a long life well. I wonder if I would have liked her, if we had been lucky enough to meet. I might have found her relentlessness annoying, and I would have admired her conviction and spirit.  I would need to have known her over her lifetime so that I would not think her a crank.

I might have felt about her like I felt about my grandmother sometimes: get over your English life, you’re in Canada now!  Alice Ravenhill did get over her English life and become committed to being a Canadian.

In the closing words of her autobiography, Alice Ravenhill asks a remarkable question, considering all of the upheavals that she lived through in her life: “Are we one and all prepared for the self-control in speech and action essential to the practice of tolerance and goodwill to our fellow men [sic], regardless of habits, methods, and not least, colour?”

I don’t know.  Are you?

[1] Ravenhill, Memoirs, p. 222.

[2] A. Ravenhill, The teaching of hygiene, American Kitchen Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 3, 184-189. Cited in M.G. Smith, Alice Ravenhill: International Pioneer in Home Economics, Illinois Teacher, Vo. 22, No. 1, September/October, 1989, p. 12. Ravenhill used this expression in various writings.

[3] Smith, ibid.

[4] See http://eugenicsarchive.ca/discover/players for descriptions of many famous Canadians in the first half of the twentieth century from provincial premiers to writers to presidents of universities who believed in eugenics.

[5] “Dr. Alice Ravenhill Dies in Victoria”, The Native Voice, Vol. 8, No. 6, June, 1954, p. 8. http://nativevoice.bc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/5406v08n06.pdf.

[6] C. Dyhouse, Girls growing up in late Victorian and Edwardian England ( Routledge: UK, 1981,  p. 93)

[7] C. Daniels and R. Bayliss, “Alice Ravenhill, Home Economist, 1859-1954, Westminster Studies in Educatio,Vol. 8, pp. 21-36 (1985).

[8] S. de Leeuw, Artful Places: Creativity and Colonialism in British Columbia’s “Indian” Residential Schools (PhD diss., Queen’s University, 2007).

[9] Ravenhill, Memoirs, p. 72.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See Memoirs  p. 119 for a description of a horrifying “Jim Crow” incident that Ravenhill witnessed in Washington, D.C.

[12] Handler, op. cit.

[13] Native Tribes, p. 9.

[14] It must be noted that Ravenhill did not use the word “newcomers.”  For the sake of clarity, this word appears to be the most appropriate one in the discussion of this topic to distinguish between indigenous people and immigrants from the rest of the world after 1492 A.D.

[15] Native Tribes, p. 10.

[16] First Annual Report of the Committee concerned with the Revival of Indian Tribal Arts in British Columbia as a Contribution to Canadian Culture, LAC 9575 41203 [c. 1941].

[17] G. Moray, Unsettling Encounters: First Nations Imagery in the Art of Emily Carr (UBC Press, Vancouver, 2006, p. 341).

[18] AR to D. Millar, 13 February, 1942, Add. Mss. 1116, Box 1, BCA

[19] E. Carr. Emily Carr Omnibus / Introduction by Doris Shadbolt (Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 1993, p. 765).

[20] Young, J. & S. Haley, “’Nothing comes from nowhere’: Reflections on cultural appropriation as the representation of other cultures”, in

[21] Lilynn Wan, “’A Nation of Artists’: Alice Ravenhill and the Society for the Furtherance of British Columbia Indian Arts and Crafts”, BC Studies, no. 178 (2013), p. 64.

[22] G.J. Frank, “`That’s my dinner on display’: A First Nations reflection on museum culture”, BC Studies, no. 125/126, Spring/Summer 2000, p. 178.

[23] Memoirs, p. 179.

2 Responses to “Chapter Eight”

  1. I am very interested in learning about Ravenhill’s life in England, although it is not central to my discussion. If you have any information you can share, please contact me at maryleah(at)shaw.ca

  2. Humphrey Barclay says:

    From ca. 1873 my 4gts aunt Jane Barclay lived in what I believe to be the Ravenhills house at Forest Rise in Walthamstow. The Ravenhills moved out I believe in 1871 (Memoirs).

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