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Jun 10 2006 Saturday

By Dr. Mary Anderson, Saturday June 10, 2006

Little Ruby was a lot like her name- beautiful, charming and precious.

She was only nine years old in 1888 when her father, Isaac McQuesten, died "unexpectedly," leaving his wife with six children between two and 14 years old and liabilities nine times higher than the worth of his assets. Some say he killed himself because of his bankruptcy. Regardless, there were no social service benefits available in those days.

It's not melodramatic to say that Ruby was sacrificed for the family cause.

Ruby was not only a pretty child, she was articulate, scholarly and artistic, with a loving and caring nature.

After Isaac's death, her mother, Mary Baker McQuesten, assessed the children for their potential to restore the family to its previous solvency and social status. She saw promise in both Ruby and and six-year-old Thomas. But Ruby was a girl and these were Victorian times. Her career choices and income potential would be limited, so the expectations fell upon Thomas, who was more likely to end up in a lucrative profession.

Mary decided that Ruby should train to be a teacher and at age 20, the young woman took a position at the Presbyterian Ladies' College in Ottawa. For eight years, she endured long hours of teaching, homesickness, a drafty old school, failing health and meagre pay, most of which she sent home to pay for Tom's education.

Ruby and her brother Calvin, the eldest son, were kindred spirits, and she often confided in him about her home sickness and how much she missed the family. In spite of her poor health, her letters were always cheerful, affectionate and witty, full of interesting comments on lectures, books, religion or the progress of one of her paintings. She was an accomplished artist and her work was reviewed as exceptional.

There was a young man, David Ross, whom Ruby met in Ottawa. His mother was the principal at Ruby's school and his sisters were teachers there. He proposed to her in 1906 when he was 24 and Ruby was 27, well past marriageable age by Victorian standards.

David popped the question while visiting Ruby and her family on a Muskoka holiday, but Mary McQuesten would have no part of it. David was too young, she said, had not established himself yet, and his financial prospects were not good. Not only that, Mary railed, but David was irresponsible and dishonourable to his mother and sisters for even thinking of marriage himself while they were busy working to support themselves- "his mother a poor worn-out looking woman."

As for his plan to go out west as a surveyor, build a log cabin for his mother, sisters and wife, adopt the orphaned children of one sister and begin homesteading... completely unacceptable. It did not suit Mary's sensibilities and high hopes for her children. Ruby's appeals to her mother fell on deaf ears.

Mary put an end to the relationship and extracted a promise that they would stay apart for two years, failing to mention that it would be exactly two years before Tom began earning a salary and Ruby's contributions wouldn't be as vitally needed.

Ruby's health continued its steady decline. Letters home to her mother and brothers chronicled the course of her illness: the initial outbreak of "grippe" at the school, the recurring episodes, the early diagnosis as bronchitis. In 1907, just as Tom graduated from law school, she had to give up teaching.

Despite the promise she'd made to her mother, Ruby and David had continued their relationship in secret. When Mary found out, she was furious. She claimed "heart trouble" and laid the blame directly on Ruby's already frail shoulders. Guilt was a powerful force in the family, and duty and self-sacrifice were the models or moral behaviour, especially since Mary herself had made so many sacrifices for her children, Whitehern and her missionary work at MacNab Street Presbyterian church.

In Mary's defence, the family was in dire financial straits at the time and there was no relief in sight. She worried constantly about losing Whitehern and the medical bills were relentless.

Ruby's bronchitis was finally diagnosed as tuberculosis and she was sent to a sanatorium in Calgary, later to another in Muskoka. Edna suffered a mental breakdown and was sent to Montreal for treatment. Daughter Mary was receiving regular treatments in Toronto for a skin condition on her face, and mother Mary had health problems herself.

Mary's claim to a weak heart seems to have been a matriachal last resort to keep the money coming in. Her real reason for objecting to Ruby's marriage was likely the unspoken one- that Ruby's income was needed to put Tom through school. He was the family's only hope for relief from its desparate financial woes. This was especially true since Calvin, physically disabled and mentally fragile, hadn't yet established himself financially and Ruby, on occasion, was also sending money to him.

Ruby McQuesten is a doubly tragic figure of sacrifice. She was sent away from her beloved home and family to earn money for Tom's education. She was denied marriage, and gradually sickened and died of tuberculosis.

Tom was always grateful to his sister and felt responsible for her situation. He eased his conscience by visiting her regularly when she was ill, and rented a cottage for her on the Mountain during her final months. Ruby remained cheerful to the end, dying in 1911 at the age of 31. She is buried in the family plot at Hamilton Cemetary.

Tom never married and devoted his life to the "city beautiful" and "social gospel" ideals of the early 20th century. As Mary had hoped, he was the one to restore the family's social position, if not its wealth entirely. The Hon. Thomas B. McQuesten, MPP, is celebrated as the builder of parks and bridges in Hamilton and throughout Ontario, notably Gage Park, the Royal Botanical Gardens, McMaster University, the Queen Elizabeth Highway, the Niagara Parkway, the Rainbow Bridge and many other works.

Ruby, who made it all possible, remains in relative obscurity, the sacrificial virgin in a Victorian drama.

Adapted from The Life Writings of Mary Baker McQuesten (1849-1934): Victorian Matriarch of Whitehern submitted by Mary Anderson.

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Copyright 2002 Whitehern Historic House and Garden
The development of this website was directed by Mary Anderson, Ph.D. and Janelle Baldwin, M.A.
Please direct questions and comments to Mary Anderson, Ph.D.

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