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Thesis - essays on the McQuestens and lifewriting by Mary Anderson
Timelines - a chronological list of events in the McQuesten family and corresponding historical events

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Jan 1 2000

One morning in the Spring of 1971 I was taken down to the offices of the Parks Board in Gage Park. There I was shown three large carton boxes full of family papers found at "Whitehern". . . . I worked for nearly two years, deciphering the old-fashioned handwriting of the 19th century and collating and arranging over 8000 handwritten pages. (Mary Harrington Farmer, Bailey Memorial Lecture, October 15, 1976)

Mary Baker McQuesten's life writings are listed in the Calendar of McQuesten Papers at Whitehern, Hamilton (1973), "Section 8, The McQuesten Family of Hamilton: Correspondence 1871-1961." It was prepared by Mary Harrington Farmer and provides a brief description of each letter. The complete "Section 8" contains approximately three thousand pages of writings (660 letters), the largest portion being Mary's letters to her children when they were away from home. It also contains some of the public addresses that Mary wrote and presented to the Presbyterian missionary societies at her church, MacNab Street Presbyterian Church, and throughout Ontario and Western Canada.

The Whitehern archive of writings consists of personal letters, school essays, wills, eulogies, sermons, church correspondence, missionary addresses, business correspondence, some diary and journal writings, and two unfinished book manuscripts. The catalogued material is on microfilm at Hamilton Public Library and at the Archives of Ontario. Other portions of McQuesten papers are at the Archives of Ontario and at the Presbyterian Archives. There is also a large library at Whitehern, as well as photographs, paintings and engravings, which have been catalogued and are an important resource for study. The writings reflect the family's broad cultural and professional interests in law, politics, education, medicine, the clergy, religion, journalism, art, architecture, literature, industrial development, missionary work and social reform. Many more letters and writings are on microfilm and microfiche in process of being transcribed or in boxes being catalogued. At some time a full bibliographical record will need to be made to fully catalogue the material. Only then will this valuable resource become fully available for research. As of May 2002 the archive is being digitized. Phase One of this digitization project includes all of Mary Baker McQuesten's letters. As of March 2003, Phase Two will include Rev. Calvin McQuesten's letters and writings, as well as those of other family members and friends.

For my Ph.D thesis, time and space forced me to be selective in my use of the letters, and so I used only a relatively small portion of the material at Whitehern. Of the approximately 650 letters extant in Mary's hand, I selected 148 to represent Mary's "life writing" for the thesis. This selection reflects Mary's mature period from her marriage at the age of twenty-three (1873), the birth of her seven children (one died in infancy), her widowhood and impoverishment at the age of thirty-eight (1888), to her death at the age of eighty-five (1934). My selection enables an autobiographical study of Mary and a cultural study of Hamilton and of Ontario for the Victorian period.

The archives of the Whitehern National Historic Site, are preserved on site at 41 Jackson Street West, Department of Culture and Recreation, City of Hamilton. Whitehern (originally named Willowbank) was the McQuesten family home for one hundred and sixteen years from 1852 to 1968. Dr. Calvin McQuesten, Mary's father-in-law, purchased the stately home in 1852. Three generations of McQuestens lived and died at Whitehern. There were no heirs or successors and, in 1959, the three remaining children, Mary, Hilda and Rev. Calvin prepared a bequest agreement leaving their stately home to the Board of Parks Management of the City of Hamilton with the provision that Hamilton would assume ownership after their deaths, which occurred finally with the death of Rev. Calvin in 1968. One of the terms of the bequest is that Whitehern be preserved intact as a "period piece." Consequently, the site is unique since nothing was dispersed; it is complete with all family possessions, including the family's life writings, dated from 1819 to 1968. Furthermore, because the family became impoverished in 1888, very little was changed at Whitehern from that time, except for some redecorating and upgrades such as electricity and indoor plumbing. Even the garden has been maintained as nearly as possible in its 1930's state which Thomas and his mother had altered with the help of Tom's associates, the team of H.B. Dunington-Grubb, landscape designers (seeW7933). The Whitehern Museum brochure describes the estate: "The collection is unique, demonstrating the fine taste of a cultivated family in Canada for a period of over 100 years" (3). Whitehern is a virtual time capsule.

The McQuesten papers have been researched for their historical and political content for two biographies of Thomas B. McQuesten (1882-1948) lawyer and politician, and most prominent member of the family in the twentieth century. The first biography is written by Roland Barnsley for the series "The Canadians": Thomas B. McQuesten (1987). The second is by John Best: Thomas Baker McQuesten: Public Works, Politics and Imagination (1991). John Best also produced a video based on his research which is available at Whitehern. The Dictionary of Hamilton Biography Volumes I-IV, edited by Rev. Dr. Thomas Melville Bailey, contain entries for family members and friends and associates. The writings have also been researched and discussed in various lectures by Mary Harrington Farmer, Dr. Laurel Braswell-Means, and myself. My focus for the thesis is on the literary and cultural value of the letters as life writings, a topic which has not yet been explored.

After some consideration, I decided to use complete letters rather than selected fragments because the complete letter provides a truer picture of family dynamics, of the social scene, and of the day-to-day lives of a Victorian community. I have included extensive annotations to the letters which sometimes contain fragments of other letters to provide a narrative or thematic continuity. The annotations also give the reader some idea of contiguous events of a personal or historical nature which might contextualize the circumstances described in the letters. The annotations also contain some biographical details about Mary's close friends, neighbours, and prominent or interesting people. I have provided photographs and a genealogical table to assist the reader in identifying the characters from three generations of the extended McQuesten family.

The letters and documents in the Whitehern archive exist in their original handwritten form and on microfilm. Many have already been transcribed, when time and funds have been available, under the diligent supervision of the curatorial staff at Whitehern. In checking for accuracy, I find that the transcriptions are, for the most part, true to the originals, but I have made corrections or filled in the blanks where necessary. I have also transcribed many of the letters myself and know what a monumental task it presents, especially when inkblots or folds in the fragile paper render some parts illegible, or when microfilm is blurred. In those cases where parts of originals are illegible, missing, undated or incorrectly dated, we have added blanks or dates (if known) in square brackets.

As in all personal correspondence, some letters are quite formal and carefully composed, while others are informal and hurried, in which case punctuation and/or spelling have been sacrificed. The letters have been transcribed to retain their original spelling and punctuation; however, where corrections or interpolations have been made to make sense of the letter, they also appear in square brackets, or if minor they have been made silently. Mary's letters are very densely written to economize on paper, so she used dashes to indicate paragraph breaks. I have used these dashes as indications for divisions into actual paragraphs with indentations. The marginalia which appear on many letters and even on the envelopes are impossible to reproduce here, but have been noted when significant. For purposes of consistency, I have standardized the initial presentation of each letter so that numbering, dating, letter headings and salutations are more easily accessible for reference purposes. In making any of these editorial decisions or alterations, I have followed the lead of Robert Halsband, who advises: "We as editors should at least clean, frame, and light them [the letters] for all to see and enjoy" (Halsband "Editing" 139).

The numbering bears some explanation. I have provided the Whitehern catalogue number of each letter or document in the upper left hand corner of the presentation. However, since I collected the letters from various parts of the archive, the numbers are not always consecutive. In the annotations to the letters, I have provided lists of letter numbers which are relevant to the subject matter. These lists are by no means exhaustive and there may be others in the archive. Many more letters have subsequently been added to this site and the "search function" will reveal these. The letters are chronological, and we have divided them into four groupings by date with page headings to indicate same. The obvious gaps in dates between some of the letters are unavoidable and result either from the lack of extant letters because they were destroyed, or because Mary's children were at home and writing to them was unnecessary.

In presenting this relatively small collection of life writings from the vast archive at Whitehern, it is my hope to stimulate interest in further research. The present work is not an exhaustive historical analysis; in fact, I have sought to break from that conventional approach by taking a more literary and cultural view of the material and to make it inviting to various disciplines. The letters and documents from Whitehern provide a more intimate appreciation of the McQuestens' past lives, of the events and experiences they felt compelled to record, and of the form in which they are recorded.

In making this selection, I am aware that I have imposed, to some extent, my own interpretation on the text of these writings; however, I do so in full recognition that mine is only one interpretation and that there may be others. Although my sense of encroachment and voyeurism is strong, I have attempted to deal with the material as objectively as possible. I rationalize my uneasiness with the consideration that the family carefully preserved these writings and appreciated their literary, historical and cultural value and expected, or even hoped, that someday the value of their collection would be recognized. The sheer quantity of epistolary material in the archive at Whitehern provides a rich source for future research in many disciplines.

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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.

Hamilton Public Library This site was created in partnership with and is hosted by the Hamilton Public Library. Canada's Digital Collections This digital collection was produced with financial assistance from Canada's Digital Collections initiative, Industry Canada.