"British Columbians have always been literate, and they have always been inspired by a sense of their province's destiny." -- Margaret Ormsby

Few other scholars have been so identified with the history of British Columbia as Margaret Ormsby. Published in 1958 to celebrate the B.C. Centennial, her British Columbia: A History was immediately a bestseller--at $4.75 per copy--and it remained the standard reference for several decades until new histories by Martin Robin, George Woodcock and Jean Barman.

Born in Quesnel on June 7, 1909, Ormsby grew up on a Coldstream fruit ranch and attended high school in Vernon. Hers was one of the first graduate degrees conferred by the new UBC History department when she received her M.A. in 1931. As a female academic, she was also a groundbreaker. She received her Ph.D from Bryn Mawr College in 1937, having earned a Bryn Mawr scholarship, but no positions were available in Canada. She taught at a private San Francisco high school until she could join McMaster University in 1940. She overcame departmental discrimination against female scholars at both McMaster and UBC, where she began to teach in 1943. She finally attained the status of Full Professor in 1955. She became Acting Head in 1963, then chaired the department for ten years until her retirement in 1974. She returned to live at the family home in Coldstream, continuing to write. Her local history of Coldstream, published when she was 81, boldly declared her hometown was 'nulli secundus', second to none. Along the way Ormsby became the second female president of the Canadian Historical Association in 1965. She chaired the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and the B.C. Heritage Advisory Board. She was a member of the Board of Governors at Okanagan College from 1980 to 1985. A Margaret Ormsby Doctoral Scholarship in B.C. History was established in 1993. There is a university-level Margaret Ormsby Prize for the Best Essay on British Columbia History. She was long active in the Okanagan Historical Society. She died in her Coldstream home on November 2, 1996 at age 87.

In 1993, a group of graduate students, assisted by the British Columbia Heritage Trust and other historically minded supporters, created the Margaret Ormsby Scholarship project. A fund for donations was established in support of scholarships which celebrate and recognize Dr. Ormsby's contributions, ensuring that the work she pioneered continues. To this end, in 1997 the group officially established the charitable organization called The Society for the Promotion of B.C. History to help administer the fund in association with the Vancouver Foundation.

The lakefront house in which Margaret Ormsby was raised in Coldstream, and where she also resided in her retirement years, was demolished in 2014 after the extensive property had been listed for sale for $5.9 million and sold for an undisclosed sum that summer. Ormsby's will stipulated that the local district should have the first opportunity to purchase her property but the offer made by the town of Coldstream was refused.


Elected Freeman of the City of Vernon, 1959
Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, 1967
Order of British Columbia, 1990
Order of Canada, 1996


History of the Okanagan Valley. University of British Columbia, 1929.
Study of the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. University of British Columbia, 1931.
Bibliography on the Okanagan District (pamphlet). B.C.L.A., 1935. -- compiler
British Columbia: A History (Macmillan, 1959, revised 1971)
A Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia: The Recollections of Susan Allison(UBC Press, 1976)
Coldstream - Nulli Secundus: A History of the Corporation of the District of Coldstream (Friesen Printers, 1990)

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2017] "History of B.C." "Women" "Classic" "Local History"

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
A History of the Corporation of the District of Coldstream
Pioneer Gentlewoman in British Columbia: The Recollections of Susan Allison


Margaret Ormsby: catalyst & mentor

Just over a year ago, in "Welcome to the Ormsby Review"; (September 16, 2016), Richard Mackie provided his memories of Margaret Ormsby, the B.C. historian after whom The Ormsby Review is named. Mostly these referenced his conversations in two fine, old living rooms in the Coldstream Valley, near Vernon, where she lived; on Chintz-covered sofas and comfortable armchairs at her house called Garafine, and at Lake House, his cousin Paddy Mackie's house nearby. Mackie concluded, "Twenty years after her death,The Ormsby Reviewgives us a chance to continue our conversations about British Columbia."; Responses to that article have been considerable, prompting this forum for the opinions and memories of others. - Ed.


by Richard Mackie

My own recollections of Margaret, all from the 1980s and 1990s, prompted more of a conversation than I expected.

Some twenty readers of The Ormsby Review emailed me and or left unsolicited comments. Their memories and photographs span a century. Their much-appreciated recollections can be divided into the main phases of her life:

  1. Parents and childhood.

Letter to her father. Canadian War Museum.

Ormsby Review contributor Mike Sasges of Merritt drew my attention to the Ormsby family documents and photographs at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Sasges informs us that George Ormsby's medical certificate for the 30th Regiment, B.C. Horse, dated August 1914, indicates that Margaret Ormsby's Anglo-Irish father was among the first volunteers to enlist in the Great War. Born in Ireland, Ormsby was thirty in 1914, an Anglican, and a resident of Lumby, a village fifteen miles east of Vernon.[1]

The War Museum has a poignant letter from young Margaret - born 1909 - to her father in the Canadian Army. Dated 1914 or 1915, it is written on her father's letterhead, Geo. L. Ormsby General Merchant Lumby, B.C. She thanks him for a bracelet he had sent her. Her father must have kept her letter folded together with his medical certificate on the Western front. The two documents show the same crease lines.

The War Museum also has a photograph of George Ormsby in the trenches in about 1915. The accompanying text reads:

George Ormsby, circa 1915.

George Ormsby of the 15th Battalion holds a Lee Enfield rifle and wears a kilt cover over his Highland uniform.

This photograph was taken with Ormsby's own camera, sent to him by his wife.

It was illegal for soldiers to have cameras because of the fear that photographs could fall into enemy hands.

The lack of a helmet indicates it was probably taken before the spring of 1916.

Meanwhile, a sour note intruded. I heard from a former colleague of Ormsby's from the UBC history department in the 1970s. "She liked to intimate that her family had links with the distressed Irish gentry,"; he said, "then I found out that her father was a grocer in Marpole and then Enderby.";

But there is no reason why even a member of the distressed Irish gentry should not work as a grocer - or even in his actual occupation of hardware merchant.

Mike Sasges also sent a photo from the War Museum of George and Maggie Ormsby and their children Margaret and Hugh in about 1919. The accompanying text reads:

Ormsby famiy, circa 1919.

As indicated by the wound stripe on his uniform, this photograph was taken some time after 1918, following the completion of Ormsby's service.

Ormsby served with the 15th Battalion for more than a year before being wounded by shrapnel during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

A second daughter, Catherine, was born after this photograph was taken. The family developed a fruit farm near Vernon, British Columbia, in the Okanagan Valley on land purchased through the Soldiers' Settlement Act.

More details of Margaret's young life came from Howard Hisdal, chair of the history department at Okanagan College in Kelowna:

I read Margaret Ormsby's book, British Columbia: A History several decades ago and found it fascinating. I found some photographs of her in the Vernon archives and use one of her as a May Day princess in 1921 in my lecture on the history of Camp Vernon....There were two photographs for two consecutive years. She was princess twice but never queen.

Hisdal continues:

George Ormsby briefly joined my regiment, the B.C. Horse as it was then called, in August 1914 but attested for overseas service on November 10, 1914 with a different regiment. He must have been eager for action and willing to go as an infantryman.

As an older soldier he moved ahead rapidly to the rank of sergeant. It is quite normal to push ahead mature men into the senior non-commissioned officer ranks, especially in high casualty conditions.

Sgt. George Lewis Ormsby served for eighteen months in the trenches, was gassed twice, and wounded by shrapnel on September 26, 1916. That would have been in the later stages of the Battle of the Somme, when the Canadian Corps was sent in. The 15th Battalion took part in an attack on Thiepval Ridge that day just west of Courcelette.

Orsmby healed somewhat from the shrapnel wound, but was no longer fit to carry a pack. While recovering in hospital in England he developed chronic bronchitis and was invalided home to British Columbia in 1917 and eventually discharged on February 21, 1918. That is probably near the date of the photograph judging by the size of the young Margaret. He was in Canada in June 1917 so it could have been earlier.

I was able to access Sgt. Ormsby's complete military file from the database on the Library and Archives of Canada website. If you want to see his file access the database and type in "Ormsby."; He is the third one listed.

2. Personality as a colleague.

Provided by John Bosher.

One former colleague of Margaret's at the UBC history department was not impressed by her as a co-worker, as a person, or as a professional historian.

"I was surprised to see that Margaret Ormsby is being honoured with a publication using her name,"; wrote the same person who disparaged her father's occupation and background. "She was a tricky person to deal with, blowing hot and cold, and with a proprietary view of B.C. history. In the 1970s she reminded me of Queen Victoria in her later days.";

He gives some idea of what Margaret was up against and how pleased she must have been to retire to her comfortable family home. In my own experience, the "proprietary view"; accusation is usually levelled at someone whose main crime is possessing a superior knowledge of some topic.

A more public-spirited endorsement came from John Bosher:

Congratulations on your initiative in launching the Ormsby Review! As Margaret Ormsby was a colleague of mine, and head of the department of history at UBC when I was teaching there many years ago, I find this project very interesting. Margaret would no doubt be delighted to be remembered. I will be glad to assist in any way I can, certainly by reviewing any books you may care to send along.

Another historian and Ormsby reviewer, Ian Kennedy of Comox, informed me that his friend, the editor Gordon Elliott, had "worked on herBritish Columbia: A History and on the Centennial Anthology in the years leading up to 1958 whenthey were published.";

Legal historian Hamar Foster, retired from the University of Victoria, also remembered Margaret. "I had to deal with Ormsby in 1967 when I was Prof. George Shelton's research assistant for a book he was editing, British Columbia and Confederation. She was quite formidable.";

Margaret has recently been recognized as one of the first women to hold a permanent job in a history department at a Canadian university - at McMaster University in 1940.

Nancy Jonovicek

Nancy Janovicek of the University of Calgary relayed a shocking anecdote. "Idid not meet Dr. Ormsby,"; Nancy wrote, "but always tell my women's history classes thather first office was a desk in the women's washroom. I'm pretty sure it's in Creating Historical Memory - probably in the introduction.";[2]

I consulted Dr Google for the origins of this appalling story. A search for "Margaret Ormsby history washroom"; will yield half a dozen recent published references to the washroom story. As the story spreads, it has changed slightly; sometimes she was given a desk, sometimes merely a table in that washroom at McMaster.

The source of the story is an article by Alison Prentice in Journal of theCanadian Historical Association in 1991. Prentice, now retired to Victoria, based it interviews at Ormsby's home on Kalamalka Lake in June 1990:

"Women faculty were thought of as difficult,"; Margaret Ormsby admitted. "But,"; she added, "a woman had to be difficult in order to survive."; This academic's first working space, when she managed to obtain a job in a Canadian university in 1940, was a table in the ladies' washroom. The head of her department apologized that the department "had no offices for women faculty.";[3]

For her 1996 obituary of Ormsby, B.C. historian Jean Barman added that she "considered the only place where men and women were truly equal to be the UBC faculty club dining room.";[4]

3. Impact on students.

The greatest number of correspondents wrote with their recollections as her student. "Your recollections of visits to that fountain of learning and wisdom are wonderful,"; reflected historian Barry Gough of Victoria. "I, too, have pleasant memories of this famed historian, especially from being in her History 426 Modern Canada class, arguably the finest undergraduate course on the History syllabus at UBC.";

Historian Barry Gough at the Great War plaque at Victoria High School.

Surrey historian Mary Carlisle agreed. "By the way, I had the good fortune of taking Margaret Ormsby's course (1960-61), although I was too young to appreciate it,"; she wrote. "I do remember her as a very knowledgeable person and she always dressed well, a pleasant change from the former Oxford types who just threw an academic gown over their rumpled suits before a class.";

Historian Michael Hadley also had gracious memories. "First of all, congratulations on your initiative in launching The Ormsby Review. Margaret Ormsby was a formidable character when I was an undergraduate at UBC in the early 50s, though I passed only briefly through her department.";

Others provided only quick responses. "Great interview with Margaret,"; commented the antiquarian and rare book seller David Ellis of Vancouver. "I had her for a prof in Arts 1."; "Iwas a student of Margaret Ormsby while at UBC,"; wrote Ian Kennedy of Comox. And John Bartlett of Princeton lamented that he just missed her: "My first year in Honours History was the year Margaret Ormsby retired - my loss.";

4. Impact on scholarship.

Ormsby's influence was felt at the provincial level through her magisterial British Columbia: A History (Macmillan, 1958) and in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys through her local histories and articles.

"I still have copies of her big B.C. book,"; wrote book dealer David Ellis. "Rarely requested now, unfortunately."; Brian McDaniel, a lawyer in Duncan, recalled that "Margaret Ormsby's British Columbia: A History was the first book in my collection which now numbers in the hundreds. I even remember my Dad getting it in Ocean Falls during the centennial year when I was ten. I am sure it is authoritative, but Bowering and Barman are much better reads.";

Michael Hadley added that, "In later years I read her British Columbia: A History with great pleasure. I would have had little sympathy with the 'quantifier' at UVic who dismissed it.";

When my own family moved in 1968 to B.C. from Edmonton, my parents were given Ormsby's book as a welcoming present. They lent it to me in 1981 and I have never returned it!

John Bartlett reminded me of the value of Ormsby's local work. "Her early work with the Okanagan History Society is still of great value... Best wishes to all associated with this new project.";

Barry Gough reminded me that her colleagues and students did, in fact, honour her contribution shortly after her retirement in 1974.

"A festschrift was published for her,"; Gough wrote, "a testament to the esteem held by her many fellow historians. I was pleased to be included. The Ormsby Review will continue the legacy, and thank you for launching it.";

Davic Stouck

Unexpectedly, I heard from literary biographer David Stouck, whose teaching assistant in the English Department at SFU was Margaret's younger sister Catherine. "Cathy Marcellus was the name of Margaret's sister,"; he wrote. "Cathy was very proud of Margaret, but turned out - as a senior citizen - to be quite a good scholar herself. She was an excellent teaching assistant, for example.";

5. In retirement

When I knew her, in the 1980s and 1990s, I had no idea that so many of her ex-students and colleagues made regular pilgrimages to Garafine, her house on Kalamalka Lake near Vernon. She was far from stranded or isolated at her lakeside house and orchard in B.C.'s interior, and I was not the only one to make the trek.

Historian Keith Ralson and his wife Molly, and sometimes their son - now Hon. Bruce Ralston, MLA - visited regularly. Keith, a respected labour historian, had been a student researcher along with Gordon Elliott on British Columbia: A History.

Another visitor was Alison Prentice, who learned the McMaster washroom story. Patricia Roy, Barry Gough, and Cole Harris also dropped in to see her. I introduced some of own contemporaries to her, including Daniel Clayton and Daniel Marshall.

"Ivisited her and dranksherry in her home in Vernon with my editor and friend Gordon Elliottwhen we were touring BC 'researching' our Pub Book,"; wrote Ian Kennedy.

Garafine, Ormsby's house on Kalamalka Lake near Vernon.

Art historian Martin Segger of the University of Victoria also got to know her in the 1980s and passed on these stories:

I served for some years on the British Columbia Heritage Advisory Board, as a cross appointment from the Board of the B.C. Heritage Trust. Margaret was a member of the former. Both boards made an effort to meet in locations around the Province. On a couple of occasions while meeting in the Okanagan we dropped by for tea. She was a great host and raconteur.

However, one of my best memories was a meeting in Prince George. We went out to visit the alleged original (archaeological) site of Fort George. This required a river trip in an open boat, from which we had to wade ashore. Margaret wasn't too keen on that so two volunteers jointly hoisted her on their shoulders to make the ship-to-shore transfer. We were all greatly amused, but no one more so than her!

Naval historian Michael Hadley emerged from the undergraduate anonymity of UBC to meet her at last. "I had the pleasure of meeting her personally only once - at a reception for Fellows of the Royal Society of Canada at the University of Victoria. I recall our conversation over a glass with great fondness, and wish I had known her earlier.";

But not all recollections were so positive. My cousin Paddy, who cordially introduced me to Margaret in the mid 1980s, in private was less polite. He felt she had a proprietorial attitude to Coldstream history. He found her Coldstream: Nulli Secundus (Friesen, 1990) dull. He thought she had relied too much on the dry documentary record and not enough on local historians and old-timers like himself with their vast and lively store of anecdotes, genealogical connections, tittle-tattle, and scuttlebutt. She was too much of a professional historian for his liking.

He retaliated by gossiping about her. He told me several times with considerable relish that Margaret's father, George Ormsby, had been "blackballed"; for membership in the orchardists' and ranchers' Kalamalka Club because, as a hardware merchant, he was "in trade.";

So much for the integrity and contribution of a married man with two children, wounded at the Battle of the Somme.

This all came back to me when Paddy's friend Frances Hill of Grindrod dropped me a line. "I met Margaret Ormsby once when Paddy gave a tea for her. I have never in my life met a more totally boring person. Of course, Paddy being always the complete gentleman never let on that he felt the same. We talked about it afterwards.";

Toad, Wind in the Willows.

Finally, lawyer Joe Simpson of Duncan responded to my anecdote that Margaret Ormsby served hot buttered toast to visitors at Garafine for tea at 4 p.m. with a memory based on Kenneth Grahame's classic The Wind in the Willows (1908):

I've enjoyed dipping into the ongoing stream of Ormsby reviews etc & also enjoyed your own contribution to the latest BC Bookworld. Your passing reference there to buttered toast suddenly transported me back to my early days in N. Ireland when our primary school class, aged around eight yrs, was assigned as reading material the book Toad of Toad Hall, and 56 years later I still can recall with some considerable relish Toad's musings about the delights of hot buttered toast. If memory serves me right, poor Toad was temporarily imprisoned at the time, and such small luxuries were denied him. Such literary poignancy!


All the messages indicate that the conversation initiated by Margaret on her veranda and living room above Kalamalka Lake has continued.

The fragments and anecdotes still arrive. As Alice Munro wrote, "We can't resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking any stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging onto threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life"; (The View from Castle Rock, 2006).

But instead of just two people talking and sharing stories, the conversation now involves hundreds of contributors and thousands of readers. Some 200 people have provided essays, book reviews, and books to this online journal named for a great communicator about British Columbia.

[1] http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/wp-content/mcme-uploads/2014/08/e-20000013-002.jpg

[2] Beverly Boutilier and Alison Prentice, editors, Creating Historical Memory: English-Canadian Women and the Work of History (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1997).

[3] Alison Prentice, "Bluestockings, Feminists, or Women Workers? A Preliminary Look at Women's Early Employment at the University of Toronto,"; Journal of theCanadian Historical Association (1991), pp. 231-258. The washroom quote is at p. 258.

[4] Jean Barman, "Margaret Ormsby, 1909-1996: Doyenne of BC history,"; UBC Reports 42: 19 (November 14, 1996), p. 5.


Richard Mackie, Prado Cafe, Vancouver. Christine Wong photo, 2017.

Richard Somerset Mackie has twice won the province's top honour for historical writing about British Columbia, once for his book on early fur trading and again for his study of logging on Vancouver Island. His classic Vancouver Island study Island Timber, went through five printings and has sold 10,000 copies.From 2011 to 2016, Mackie was associate editor and book reviews editor at the UBC-based academic journal BC Studies, greatly enhancing its vitality and appeal. In September of 2016, he accepted a new position as editor for The Ormsby Review. He worked in BC archaeology between 1976 and 1984, then studied mediaeval history at the University of St Andrews and history and historical geography at the universities of Victoria and British Columbia, where he obtained a Ph.D in 1993."; Richard Mackie's Mountain Timber: The Comox Logging Company in the Vancouver Island Mountains (Sono Nis 2009) is the sequel to Island Timber, concerned with Comox Logging's later and higher fortunes in the densely-forested valleys and lakes of the Vancouver Island mountains. For Home Truths: Highlights from BC History, Mackie and Graeme Wynn, assembled an anthology of articles drawn from BC Studies (1968 -2012).

[Ormsby Review 2017]