Wedding of young Fergus woman was social highlight for town in 1889

Last week’s column described the elaborate funeral of Mayor Tom Goldie of Guelph in 1892.

That ceremony was a huge event in the Royal City, and demonstrates the funerals of prominent people were important events in late Victorian society.

Almost as important were Victorian weddings. As with funerals, the amount of ritual and the size of the ceremonies were a reflection of the place and importance of those involved in their local society. Equally important, they were also an effort by the families involved to assert and advance their place in the eyes of their neighbours and townfolk.

An excellent example of a Victorian wedding in the upper ranks of local society was that of Madeline Pattison of Fergus on July 24, 1889. She was the youngest daughter of William Pattison of Fergus, who had been a St. Andrew Street storekeeper since the 1860s.

He began with a small general store, but by the 1880s he was one of the town’s major merchants, selling dry goods, clothing and groceries.

Madeline was only 19 at the time of the marriage. What made the wedding special was the groom, Thomas Edwin McLelan, who was 11 years her senior, and whose father was the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.

Though the name is largely forgotten today, the McLelan name was well known in the 1880s. The groom’s father, A.W. McLelan, had done well in Nova Scotia’s shipbuilding industry, and afterwards as the operator of a shipping company, and then as a politician.

In the mid-1860s he had been member of the anti-Confederation faction in Nova Scotia. Later he was elected as a Member of Parliament, and served in several cabinet posts during the 1880s in the John A. Macdonald government, including a term as finance minister. In 1888, tired of the pressures of Ottawa, he retired as an MP. Macdonald appointed him Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. The McLelans were reputedly quite wealthy, but were very secretive about their own affairs.

Tom McLelan had two brothers and a sister. How he became acquainted with Madeline Pattison is not known, but it is possible the families had known one another for some time.

In any case, Madeline, who seems to have been a very attractive young lady, was one of popular “young belles” of Fergus, and was very popular among her peers in Fergus and Guelph social circles. Perhaps conscious of her family’s place amongst the commercial elite of Fergus, she took great care in her appearance and her clothing, and carefully developed her charm and manners. There was, apparently, some resentment that she rejected all the young men of Fergus. Others congratulated her on marrying into one of the prominent families of the Dominion.

In the days leading up to Madeline’s wedding on July 24, 1889, Fergus people came to regard the event as a public celebration. The evening before the ceremony, a group of men erected a triumphal arch over St. Andrew Street. It was a co-operative effort by members of the lawn tennis and snowshoe clubs, both of which claimed Madeline as a member. Not to be left out, a few members of the lacrosse and toboggan groups pitched in to help.

The next morning the town’s ceremonial cannon, cast at the Beatty foundry for use on ceremonial occasions, boomed out a salute. Most of the stores in Fergus closed for the day.

As was usual for that time, the ceremony took place at the home of the bride, rather than at church, as would become the usual practice in the 20th century. The ceremony commenced at about 11am.

Mabel Black, daughter of another merchant family, served as bridesmaid, and Jim Pattison, the bride’s brother, as best man. Rev. J.B. Mullan of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church officiated. Curiously, none of the McLelans from Nova Scotia seem to have come west for the wedding.

The Pattisons laid on an ample and fancy lunch for the wedding party and the guests who crowded the Pattison residence. Shortly before 3pm the wedding party, accompanied by many of the guests, stepped into carriages for a slow drive to the Grand Trunk station to meet the afternoon southbound train. Hundreds of people had gathered in front of the house. Others lined the streets, and more milled around at the station to catch a last glimpse of the couple. Madeline and Thomas waved to their friends as the train started, bound for Toronto.

The following morning the newlyweds boarded one of the steamers that, in those days, ran on a leisurely schedule from Toronto through the Thousand Islands to Montreal. From there they went on to Boston and New York before heading north to Halifax.

The young couple lived with Tom’s father at Government House in Halifax while awaiting the completion of their own house in Truro that fall.

A.W. McLelan did not live to the end of his term as Nova Scotia’s Governor General. He died on June 26, 1890, two months before the birth of Madeline’s only child, Stella. Madeline and Thomas McLelan remained in Truro for a few years, where his family had various business interests. The couple later moved to St. Joseph’s Island in Lake Huron.

Thomas eventually developed mental problems. The family committed him to Guelph’s Homewood Sanitarium, where he died on April 28, 1912, at the age of 53. His cause of death was recorded as apoplexy.

The daughter, Stella, did not enjoy robust health. She contracted tuberculosis in her teens, and died in 1913, at the age of 23. She was buried in Belsyde Cemetery in Fergus, where her father already rested.

Madeline remarried in 1915 to Rev. C.H. E. Smith, an Anglican minister in Hamilton. Rev. Smith served for a few years in Acton, and then at St. Mark’s Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The village had not yet become a tourist magnet, and was a somewhat sleepy place that served the nearby farming community.

Nevertheless, the town suited the couple. Rev. Smith spent the rest of his career there, and then remained for his retirement. Madeline took an active role in the community. She served as president of the Ladies Parish Guild for several years. She was also active with the Red Cross, was the founder of the local IODE chapter, and its president or 25 years.

Madeline died on Aug. 26, 1958, a grand old lady of 89. It was her wish to be buried in Fergus, near her first husband and daughter.

Her return to Fergus was much in contrast to her departure after her first marriage 69 years earlier. The body arrived on the morning train from Hamilton on Aug. 30. There was no funeral in Fergus, only a brief committal service at Belsyde at 2pm.

In contrast to her wedding day, which rated a long column on the front page of the News Record, there was no account of the service in the newspaper, though a week earlier, editor Hugh Templin had devoted a couple of inches to announce her death.

The girl who had been the “belle of the town” five decades earlier was virtually unknown in her home town at her death.


Stephen Thorning