Nellie McClung Collection
Nellie Letitia Mooney was born on October 20, 1873 in Chatsworth, Ontario, a small village in Grey County, just south of Owen Sound. She was the daughter of John Mooney from Tipperary, Ireland, and his wife, Letitia McCurdy of Dundee, Scotland. As the youngest of six children, Nellie had an idyllic childhood on the family farm before moving with her family to Manitoba at the age of seven. Although best known for her accomplishments in the women's suffrage movement, Nellie McClung first achieved renown through her fiction writing.
We are fortunate to have, in The Nellie McClung collection at Grey Roots, all sixteen of her published works, including the first, Sowing Seeds in Danny, published in 1908, which became an immediate best seller with over 100,000 copies sold. Several works of collected short stories, the first and second volumes of her autobiography, Clearing in the West and The Stream Runs Fast as well as her non-fiction works are in the collection. In addition, the collection contains several biographies, newspaper clippings, personal letters, magazine articles, memorabilia and items related to the dedication and re-dedication of the cairn, honouring her life, erected in Chatsworth in 1957. The books were lovingly collected over several years by Viola Bothwell and donated to the Archives in 2008.
Nellie describes her early life on the farm near Chatsworth in the first three chapters of Clearing in the West"We lived a mile from Chatsworth, on the Garafraxa Road, in a stony part of the county of Grey. The stones lay over our farm like flocks of sheep." Her description of the farm and its activities paints a colourful, though perhaps romanticized, picture of a loving family making the best of the harsh conditions in rural Ontario at the end of the 19th century. "The house was of dressed timbers, cut from our own logs, and the outside was white-washed … the white house under the red maples with bright sumac trees in front, threw back the sunshine in a dazzle that made me wink my eyes, but I loved to look at it. There was something about it that satisfied me. It was so sure and safe." (1)
Nellie's mother was the disciplinarian in the home, a reflection of her Scottish Presbyterian background. Her father was a fun-loving Irishman who listened to Nellie's precocious imitations of her pious aunts when they came for tea, and laughed, as she remembered, 'til the tears ran down his face. This was the beginning of the wit and talent for mimicry which would serve her well later in life when she came up against strong resistance to her goals of political reform for women. About her earliest home she further states "My memory of our old house is somewhat shadowy, but I know that smoked hams hung from the rafters in the kitchen, and from one corner were suspended brown festoons of dried apples. .. the walls of all the rooms were whitewashed and only the big log beams that held up the ceiling were left in their natural state. "(2)
Life was very difficult on the poor land of their Grey County farm, however, and hearing reports of large tracts of land available in Manitoba, the family decided their future lay further west. Nellie's mother, in particular, worried about providing for her children's futures as the possibility of her sons ending up as hired hands on other men's farms was very real. In May of 1880 the family set off for their new life on a homestead in the Souris Valley of Manitoba.
Nellie did not attend school until the age of ten, as there was no school available close by their homestead. She ran wild on the prairie, helping to herd the cattle, riding broncos and learning about pioneer life for those four years. When she was able to attend school, she excelled and was teaching by the age of sixteen. After teaching for five years, she married Robert W. McClung, the son of a woman she'd met as a member of the WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union). In that organization were sewn the seeds of Nellie's political activism.
(1), (2) Clearing in the West by Nellie McClung 1935, Thomas Allen