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Prairie Gentry

CANNINGTON MANOR PROVINCIAL HISTORIC PARK - The Beckton boys' place must have been quite a sight on the wild Canadian prairies of the 1890s.
b&w image of people on horseback
- courtesy Saskatchewan Archives Board
Didsbury is the backdrop in this photograph of some of Cannington's equestrian set.
"Didsbury", the ranch house Ernest, Billy and Bertie named after the wealthy Manchester suburb where they grew up, was a two-storey, 26-room mansion constructed of limestone and blue rolling stone. Beyond the gabled roof, bay windows and large verandah lay hand-carved fireplace mantles, Turkish carpets and gilt-framed oil paintings.

The foreman's residence and the 18-man bunkhouse were handsome quarters built of field stone.

Foxhounds from Isle of Wight stock occupied kennels near the mansion while the thoroughbreds lodged in stone stables that featured mahogany-lined stalls with brass nameplates. An excellent jockey and a head groom from the then-renowned Lincolnshire stables of Lord Yarborough helped furnish the well-appointed trophy room near the entrance to the Beckton stables.

Didsbury was nothing at all like the small, wood-frame or sod houses used by homesteaders trying to eke a living from a new land. But the Becktons were not typical homesteaders. They were descendants of two of the wealthiest families in northern England. And they were here not merely to homestead, but to participate in an ambitious effort to establish a Victorian English agricultural colony in Canada's sparsely populated Northwest.

The Becktons' paternal grandfather earned a fortune in textiles, the same industry in which their maternal grandfather, Matthew Curtis, became rich as an inventor and founder of one of the largest textile mills in Britain. Curtis, who also served three terms as lord mayor of Manchester, left his 18-, 19- and 20-year old grandsons a great deal of money when he died in 1887. The young men used a portion of their inheritance to buy 2,600 acres of land and to build Didsbury in a colony called Cannington Manor.

The humble home of Cannington
The humble home of Cannington "bachelor" Arthur Le Mesurier, who married and settled permanently in the vicinity.

Cannington Manor is located about 60 km (40 miles) south of Moosomin in what is now southeast Saskatchewan. It was established in 1882 by Capt. Edward Pierce, a vintner who came to Canada to build a new life after losing most of his assets in a bank failure in England. After establishing his large family in a log farmhouse, he advertised in Britain and among the expatriate English population of Canada his plan to develop an aristocratic community based on Victorian society and custom. Cannington's virtues, he proclaimed, were inexpensive living among English "gentlefolk" in a colony featuring many of the benefits and few of the drawbacks of upper-class life back home in England.

"With a few hundreds a year, (a gentleman) can lead and enjoy an English squire's existence of a century ago!", he wrote in one newspaper notice, according to Patrick Dunae's book Gentlemen Emigrants.

Pierce co-founded the Moose Mountain Trading Company and used it as an industrial development tool to assemble many of the commercial and service enterprises required for a successful community. He also launched an agricultural college to train wealthy young English bachelors who came to Cannington to learn farming. Ernest and Billy Beckton were drawn to the college after a short stay at an aristocratic community in Le Mars, Iowa. Their youngest brother Bertie (Herbert) joined them later.

By the mid 1890s, more than 200 people lived at Cannington Manor. They fell into three main groups: homesteaders and tradesmen, upper-class families and a group of young bachelors. The village provided them and neighbouring settlers with carpentry and blacksmith services, a hotel, general store, a dairy, a school/town hall, two cheese factories, a pork packing plant, a land titles office and a flour mill whose product earned the community a gold medal at the 1893 world's fair in Chicago. But it was the cultural and recreational life of its inhabitants that set Cannington Manor apart from the other utopian, religious and ethnic communities that sprung up on the Canadian prairies in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.

Rope making is one of several skills demonstrated on site
Rope making is one of several skills demonstrated on site.

Theatrical plays were performed at the town hall, where tiered curtains and coal-oil footlights added finish to the productions. The glee club and literary society were popular as pastimes, and members of the sketch club benefited from the presence of respected artists Mary Maltby and Inglis Sheldon-Williams, the latter an Oxford graduate whose landscapes and cavalry paintings drew international acclaim.

Pierce's agricultural college succeeded in attracting a good number of registrants, but failed in what it managed to accomplish with them. Many students were "remittance men", the bachelor sons of wealthy families who were unable or unwilling to land gainful employment in England and who lived on money sent them by their families. Most were more interested in fun than farming.

The Becktons had their own means, which no doubt contributed to their status as leading members of the bachelors, or "dudes", as some then called them. When eldest brother Ernest married and his brothers took homes of their own, Ernest added a new wing to Didsbury that served as a sporting hub for the bachelors. There, in the billiards room, his valets served drinks, ironed newspapers and cleaned guns for the guests.

Inside looking out of the reconstructed Maltby residence
Inside looking out of the reconstructed Maltby residence.

Tennis, hunting, cricket and football took up a good portion of the bachelors' lives during the fairer seasons. The Cannington football team joined members of a nearby club to form the Moosomin-Cannington Combines, who defeated a Winnipeg team of Mounties to win the 1891 western Canadian rugby championship. It's not clear whether Bertram Tennyson, Alfred Lord Tennyson's favorite nephew, was among the Combines who spent a night in the gaol after celebrations at the Winnipeg opera house got out of hand. But Bertram was one of the stars of the team.

Natives from the region became respected participants in the local horseracing events, although one can only imagine how members of Whitebear First Nation reacted when they witnessed their first foxhunt. Canningtonians conducted the hunts in "correct dress", including top boots, breeches and hunting coats.

Educational and recreational pursuits of the bachelors coexisted in something approaching a balance under Pierce's guidance (some called him autocratic and overbearing). When he died suddenly in 1888, however, conditions began to deteriorate. With Pierce gone, the bachelors spent increasingly more time drinking, carousing and chasing women, including some who were married.

All Saints Anglican Church, built in 1884, is still used today.
All Saints Anglican Church, built in 1884, is still used today.

By the mid 1890s, the colony's unprofitable industries, its lack of leadership and failure to achieve standing as an economic centre for the district combined with drought and low grain prices to bring it to the brink. When the Canadian Pacific Railway decided in 1900 to construct a regional branch line 10 km (6 miles) south of the village, rather than through it, the community's last hope for revitalization evaporated.

Cannington Manor survived for less than two decades. What remains here are a few restored or reconstructed buildings, and memories of one of the most curious and colourful experiments in the development of western Canada.

Cannington Manor historic park is open Wednesday through Monday from the May long weekend to Labour Day. Interpreters in period costume on site. Limited facilities include a picnic area, washrooms and drinking water. Small admission fee. For more information phone 306-577-2600. For more information on aristocratic colonies in North America, see Dunae's Gentlemen Emigrants and Doug Owram's Promise of Eden.

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