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Private Life

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Irene Comes to Canada


Irene Marryat, c. 1890Born into the well-connected family of Colonel Ernest Lindsay Marryat on January 9, 1868 at her grandfather's home in London, Irene Marryat might have been predicted to lead the life of a wealthy socialite. The Marryats were one of the oldest families in the country, her ancestors having come to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. Many of her father's relatives were prominent people, and her mother, Elizabeth Lynch, was the daughter of a prominent Irish family. With this background, no one could have predicted the role she would play in rural Alberta—as a founding member of the United Farm Women of Alberta (UFWA), and later as a provincial cabinet member.

When she was born, her father, Colonel Marryat of the Royal Engineers, was home on a brief leave from India. Much of Irene's childhood was spent living in England, but when she was 13, she and her family joined her father in India. At that time, he was appointed as Manager of the Bengal and North Western Railways, which was headquartered at a large military station in Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan).

Life in India was a grand adventure for Irene and her five siblings. Each had a pony, and Irene's was a much-loved little chestnut polo pony named "Medley." For entertainment, Irene and her sister Norah, together with a couple of girls their age, wrote and produced plays for the benefit of family and friends. Irene and her friends also published a little magazine of their own poems and "penny dreadfuls"—sensational novelettes—which they printed using soap tablets and purple ink. Outdoor sports and accompanying their father on inspection trips also helped fill their time. On one such trip, Irene saw the Taj Mahal, which made a never-to-be-forgotten impression on her.

When Irene was 16, Colonel Marryat retired, and the family returned to England, where her father rented a farm and bought a herd of cows to fulfill his life-long dream of farming. The farm was a dismal change from exotic India, and it was completely isolated—with no village, church, or even other young people in the area.

Heritage Trail: People and Places: Irene Parlby and the 'Persons Case'
Irene Marryat was raised to be the proper young English lady. But as historian Merrily Aubrey explains, she gladly left behind the stuffy tearooms of Victorian England when she married an Alberta rancher and Oxford scholar by the name of Walter Parlby. Listen Now

One of the highlights of this period was a Marryat family production of Oliver Goldsmith's famous play, She Stoops to Conquer. Although the Marryats had been producing "private theatricals" for years, this was their most ambitious project. Produced for the benefit of the Philanthropic Farm School for Boys—one Colonel's pet projects—the performance was well received. In fact, it was such a success that that they gave a repeat performance to an appreciative crowd at a neighboring town. A good sum of money was collected for the school to be put toward the rehabilitation of delinquent boys, and the play received a favourable write-up in a London theatrical paper.

At the age of 18, Irene had her traditional "coming out" in London, and although she enjoyed her active social life, she viewed it as "killing time as pleasantly as possible"—and thus, essentially without purpose. Her father noticed her unrest, and asked if she would like to attend University to study medicine.

At this time it was very unusual for women to attend university. Like so many other places in the public sphere, universities were thought of as men's rightful domain. That Colonel Marryat should suggest such a career indicates both his respect for her keen intellect, as well as his progressive attitude. While other young women only dreamed of having such an opportunity, Irene turned it down, she had no interest in a medical career.

The career she really wanted was one in acting, but at the time such a career was not considered appropriate or socially acceptable. Although she loved writing, and admired her great Uncle Frederick Marryat and his books, she never thought of writing as a career for herself—despite her youthful magazine venture. Mrs. Alice Westhead, wife of pioneer rancher, Alix, Alberta.

In 1896, the course of Irene's life was changed by a visit from Alix Westhead, a family friend from Rawalpindi days. Mrs. Westhead told tales of Canada's Northwest Territories and invited Irene to visit the Westhead ranch in the Buffalo Lake District—a relatively unknown and sparsely populated area. These tales captured Irene's imagination, and she enthusiastically accepted the invitation.

Heritage Trail: A Woman of the West—Part 1
Discusses Irene Parlby's early live in England and what brought her to India and later western Canada. Listen Now
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