Ishbel Hamilton-Gordon, wife of Lord Aberdeen, Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, was (and still is) known to be a great humanitarian and philanthropist. In the United Kingdom (UK), Lady Aberdeen had been president of the Women’s Liberal Foundation, an organization that was part of the Liberal Party in the UK and promoted women’s suffrage (which you can learn more about in our Suffragette postcard collection and from our rare books). She also founded the Onward and Upward Association which sought to improve the education and lives of servant girls across the UK. “She founded, inspired, or supported such societies as the National Home Reading Union, the League For The Provision of Seats For Shop Assistants, the Parents’ National Education Union, the Homes for Working Girls, the Mission to Costermongers[,] and half a dozen others. She had been seen, to the horror of her acquaintances, parading the Strand by night urging prostitutes to come in for a cup of tea at her Rescue Mission” (Schull 19, “Lady Aberdeen: Stormy Petrel in Government House” (WA 18, file 3)).
In 1893, Lord Aberdeen became the Governor General of Canada, prompting the couple to move from the UK. The Aberdeens arrived in Quebec with the mindset of becoming a part of the country and its society. Within the first year, they had not only improved their knowledge of French, but they had also travelled all across Canada. In British Columbia, Lady Aberdeen had catalyzed the formation of the Local Council of Women in Victoria. Here, in 1897, she founded the Victorian Order of Nurses as a gift from the National Council of Women for the 60th jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign. Ishbel also became heavily involved in politics, making new friends, such as Wilfrid Laurier (as seen in the picture above), whom she agreed with in liberal policies. She was not one to hold her tongue about the issues important to her, giving her an interesting reputation in Canadian politics, as can be seen on the first page of an article written in 1964 (images below). In fact, she was the first woman to speak in the Senate Chamber. In 1897, the same year that the Aberdeens finally departed Canada, Queen’s University had given an honorary degree to Ishbel, the first woman in Canada to receive one. Interestingly, she is also known for having introduced to Canada the golden retriever, a breed allegedly developed by her father Lord Tweedmouth.
Lady Aberdeen: Stormy Petrel In Government House
Wherever she went, she stirred up controversy, and her five years in Ottawa were no exception
By Joseph Schull
Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks Hamilton Gordon arrived at Quebec City on Sept. 17, 1893, to be greeted by "my dear Sir John Thompson", who was Prime Minister and head of a Conservative party that had ruled Canada for 15 years. She left on Nov. 12, 1898, with the Conservative party in ruins, a Liberal regime, in power, and "carrying away one of those dear little red Quebec berlots [sleighs] as a gift from Sir Wilfrid and Lady Laurier."
Officially the change in political complexion had nothing to do with her. Unofficially it was altogether congenial and she was damned by almost every Tory in the country for having helped bring it about. She was equally damned and correspondingly blessed for other important changes, not the least of which was the emergence of Canadian women as a force in political life. She had lived in Rideau Hall through five stormy years with a picture of Gladstone hanging in every room. She was the wife of John Hamilton Gordon, the Earl of Aberdeen, seventh Governor-General, and according to John T. Saywell, who edited her voluminous journals, "while both the law and convention of the constitution are silent on the point, Lady Aberdeen might well be graced with the title of Governess-General."