Born 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.
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
||Discusses Irene Parlby's early
live in England and what brought her to India and
later western Canada. Listen Now