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Eva-Marie Kröller (UBC)
This biography draws on extensive collections of family papers in private possession along with archives in the public domain. The conceptualization of the project draws, among others, on family studies and the study of transnational mobilities. The research is supported by a grant of the Hampton Research Fund and a Standard Research Grant of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
The McIlwraith family originates in Ayr, Scotland. Like other enterprising imperial families, its members fanned out across the British empire and the United States from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. As proudly Scottish members of the British empire and as citizens of North America and Australia with an extensive network across the Atlantic, the Pacific and the North American continent, the McIlwraiths lived complex transnational lives. The primary purpose of this project is to tell the stories of talented individuals across three generations, to illustrate the support or challenges they received from their extended families and ethnic groups in pursuing their careers, and to look at the transformations of their familial, ethnic, and professional identities under varying circumstances.
The material has been provisionally organized into five chapters, each focused on an occupation in which several family members left their mark, although they had not necessarily been trained for it: (1) the naturalists, (2) the writers and editors, 3) the scholars, (4) the entrepreneurs, (5) the politicians. There is frequent overlap between these categories, and the biography will pay close attention to these.
The Canadian branch begins with Thomas McIlwraith I (1824-1903), a trained cabinet-maker, who emigrated to Canada in 1853 and settled in Hamilton, Ontario as a coal-merchant but became better known as a distinguished amateur ornithologist. He is a central figure in Chapter One: the Naturalists. Thomas’s brother Andrew I (1831-1891), a draftsman, pattern-maker, bookkeeper, and industrialist, followed him to Canada. Between 1857-60, Andrew kept a detailed diary that records lyrical impressions of the Ontario countryside throughout the seasons and documents his own interest in butterflies.
One of Thomas I’s children was Jean Newton McIlwraith, the first to feature in Chapter Two: the Writers and Editors. As a spinster in her forties, she began a career as reader and editor for Doubleday, Page Publishers in New York, meeting many contemporary American and Canadian authors while working on their manuscripts. She befriended her employer, Walter Hines Page, appointed US ambassador to the Court of St James in 1913 by Woodrow Wilson. Like her uncle Andrew who had to look for work elsewhere during an economic depression, Jean was able to draw on her family’s networks to gain the necessary introductions in the United States and to make herself a formidable presence in her chosen profession.
Like Jean, her niece Dorothy McIlwraith (1891-1976) experienced qualms about the United States’ delay in entering WWI when she too entered the New York publishing world, and among her unpublished writings is a sketch outlining a Scottish-Canadian’s identity for her many American colleagues who were puzzled about it. Dorothy eventually became editor of the pulp magazine Weird Tales between 1940 and 1954, before returning to Canada in retirement. At a time when it was exceptional for a woman to be editor-in-chief of any publication, she was a respected and well-paid publisher of science-fiction authors like H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, and Joseph Payne Brennan.
Dorothy’s brother Thomas T. F. McIlwraith married into the American Knox-Child family. This connection brought a third literary personage into the picture, Philip Child (1889-1978), a novelist, poet, journalist, settlement house worker and professor of English. Educated at the University of Toronto; Cambridge University, and Harvard University, he served as an artillery officer in WWI. His published works include the Governor-General’s Award winning Mr. Ames Against Time (1945). Child and McIlwraith were childhood friends and fellow students in Cambridge before Thomas married Beulah Knox.
Dorothy was extremely close to her younger brother “T. F.” (1899-1864), who dominates Chapter Three: the Scholars. Following service in WWI and studies at Cambridge enriched by exceptional professional and literary contacts, he was encouraged by his teachers Alfred Cort Haddon, W. H. R. Rivers, and William Ridgeway to pursue a career in anthropology and by Edward Sapir to conduct field work with the Bella Coola Indians on Canada’s west coast. McIlwraith taught at Yale University and at the University of Toronto, before becoming the first Head of U of T’s newly created Department of Anthropology in 1936. The plural in the title of this chapter is justified by reference to Philip Child (see above) and by cross-reference to the family’s amateur scientists.
Chapter Four: the Entrepreneurs will look at Helen Adair (“Nellie”) Holt (1860-1950), née McIlwraith, sister of Jean and daughter of Thomas I. Nellie married John Henderson Holt (b?-1915), co-owner with his cousin George Richard Renfrew of the Holt-Renfrew department store. At the time of their marriage, the company was undergoing impressive growth. The family papers contain diaries kept by both Holts that document travel in pursuit of company business and leisure. The more imposing presence in this chapter is Andrew McIlwraith II (1844-1932), an engineer, shipowner and partner in the mercantile firm McIlwraith, McEachern & Co of London, the first to transport frozen meat and butter successfully from Australia to the United Kingdom, and an instrumental figure in the reorganization of the Tokyo tramways. Like virtually all of the McIlwraiths, he was connected to some of the most prominent individuals of his time, in his case Joseph Paxton and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Chapter Five: The Politicians will look at Andrew’s brothers, (Sir) Thomas McIlwraith (1835-1900) and John (1828-1902), although both were also entrepreneurs. John established a thriving plumbing business, and he worked on the introduction of a new water supply system in Melbourne. He was elected to Melbourne’s city council, and became mayor and magistrate. His standing was such that he was appointed Victorian Commissioner at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Trained as a civil engineer at the University of Glasgow, Thomas followed John to Australia, making a name for himself on the railways, becoming an influential three-time Governor of Queensland, and leading a colourful personal life. Both brothers maintained strong connections to Scotland, and both were greatly admired in their native Ayr.