By Dorothy Dobbie
In 1882, Englishman Percy Criddle arrived in Manitoba to take up homesteading. His unconventional lifestyle would not prevent many of his 13 children from creating an indelible mark on our history.
In 1882, Percy Criddle arrived in Winnipeg from England, en route to his newly acquired homestead at Aweme, near Wawanesa. He brought with him his nine children and the two women who bore them: his common law wife, Elise Vane, mother of five; and his legal wife, Alice Nicol, mother of four; along with little understanding of what it took to pioneer on the prairie.
As proof of his naiveté was his choice of land that harboured many wild roses, believing anecdotal intelligence that claimed this was a sign of fertility. Unfortunately for the family, wild roses will grow just about anywhere, even in the sandy soil of the area.
When he was studying in Germany, Percy had met and wooed Elise Harrer, a talented artist and daughter of an upper class German family. He brought her back to England on the promise of marriage, a promise he never got around to fulfilling. After fathering several children with Elise, he met and married Alice, an intellectual who was said to speak seven languages.
When Percy’s mother died, Percy decided to pull up stakes and emigrate to Canada. He told his first family that they could come along, but that they would have to stop calling him papa. He would now be Mr. Criddle to them and their names would be changed to Vane. They were to play the part of servants to Percy and his new wife. To support the story, the newly-named Vanes crossed in steerage while the Criddles travelled second class.
The family arrived too late to put in a crop that first year, indeed, too late to even build a house before winter set in. They lived through the first half of the bitter winter in a tent and eventually, a dug-out lean-to where Alice and her baby were moved. Two days after Christmas with the help of the neighbours, they were able to move into their first rudimentary, four-room log house.
Percy had a highly developed sense of himself and his entitlements. While he played the gentleman, insisting on early refinements to the homestead that included a tennis court and a skating rink (the grass had to be cut with scissors and the water for ice had to be drawn by hand from a well), he relied on his children as well as Elise, and even Alice in the early days, for their labour. He named his new home St. Albans, but it was many years before the structure could live up to such a pretension.
Throughout the years, Percy became part of the community, serving on the school board and holding musical evenings where he and the boys sang to a piano and later a harmonium that he managed to buy in spite of being perennially short of funds. The home became the centre of arts and learning. The boys were all accomplished sportsmen, famed for their expertise at golf and tennis. Talbot Criddle was the star golfer but he also had a keen interest in the natural world.
In 1884, Percy started recording the weather, a task soon taken over by the others in the family. His daughter Maida kept the records until 1960.
Today, the Criddle homestead is a Manitoba provincial heritage park, although its claim to fame did not come from Percy, but rather from his talented children of which four more were born to Alice after they came to Canada.
His son, Harry Vane, helped Norman, the eldest Criddle boy, develop the Criddle Mixture. This became the standard product used across the prairies for the next 30 years to deal with the scourge of grasshoppers.
Norman Criddle became famous as an entomologist working for the province; he was named provincial entomologist in 1919. At his death in 1933, the Canadian Entomologist magazine carried an obituary that said, “There is no doubt… that Criddle was the best informed field naturalist in the whole of Canada”. His work appeared in scientific journals. He was also a talented water colourist, drawing pictures of plants where they grew. Indeed, it was through his drawings that he came to the attention of the Dominion Department of Agriculture and he illustrated two books on prairie weeds and flowers.
Stuart Criddle became a grower of lilies. He was a taxidermist and mammologist among many other talents. Norman and Stuart also recorded migration data for what is now the North American Bird Phenology Program.
Evelyn Criddle collected insects, with a focus on tiger beetles, and worked with the province as a weed inspector.
During the winter months the boys carved cribbage boards and ornamental boxes, inlaying these beautiful pieces with mother of pearl from clam shells.
The Manitoba Museum has a large collection of Criddle artifacts, including an important seed collection of 700 species growing on the prairies back then.
Although Percy Criddle may have been a little above himself, his pretentions added much to the cultural and social life of the area, and the many accomplishments of his family are still having an impact today. Being unconventional does have its rewards.
In 1973, Percy’s granddaughter, Alma Criddle, wrote Criddle-de-Diddle-Ensis: A Biographical History of the Criddles of Aweme, Manitoba Pioneers of the 1880s, based on Percy’s journals.
In 2012, Oriole Vane Veldhuis the great-granddaughter of Elise Vane, wrote her own account of her great-grandmother’s life with Percy. For Elise. Unveiling the Forgotten Woman on the Criddle Homestead is an impeccably researched, although fictionalized, account from the other side of the story. It’s available from McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg.