Life in Canada was not very easy in the nineteenth century, if you were an intelligent and ambitious woman. Traditional social and family structures were confining, limiting a woman’s activities to a narrow range of interests: home, husband, children, church, etc. Elizabeth Bell was such a woman. Her parents, Robert and Catherine Bell, had left Strabane, Ireland, early in the century and settled on a farm off what is now Beach Road, south of Kemptville. Elizabeth was born there in 1841.
The family prospered, and Elizabeth attended a prestigious girls’ finishing school in the village of Kemptville, in a lovely stone house on the corner of Rideau and Main (now Clothier West), where she was taught all the cultural and practical skills it was felt necessary for a young lady to know in the 1850’s. Elizabeth’s brother, Robert, was already making a name for himself in the wider world, first of all as a successful surveyor, then as one of the owners of the Bytown and Prescott Railway which had arrived in Kemptville in 1854.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth had “made a good match”, when she met and married a young and up-and-coming doctor newly arrived in Kemptville, Dr. Charles Ferguson. The couple married just a few weeks after Elizabeth’s 21st birthday, and might have gone on to live the normal life of a country doctor and his wife. But there was more to Elizabeth’s ambition and talents than that. In 1874, when local Member of Parliament, Francis Jones, crossed the House and voted against Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservatives, Charles Ferguson was persuaded to run against him in the subsequent election. Not only did he win, but he remained M.P. for the riding for the next 22 years. In later years, he and Elizabeth bought the house where she had attended finishing school, making it a home in which her children grew up.
Charles does not seem to have been a natural politician, and never attained any important position in Parliament. Always a backbencher, he was a member of many Committees, but never chaired one. His greatest claim to fame as an M.P. was having the South Branch River dredged, to help the navigation of steamboats into Kemptville. Then, when the general election of 1891 was called, Charles failed to win the nomination for the Conservatives, and his political career seemed to have come to an inglorious end. However, it was at this point that Elizabeth showed that, perhaps, she had been the power behind Charles all the time.
The story was repeatedly told by her famous son, Premier G. Howard Ferguson, and appears in both of his biographies. When the voters turned up at the polls on election day, they found a sign posted prominently which read: “To the Conservatives of North Leeds and Grenville. I respectfully request your support for my old friend Dr. Charles Ferguson”. Charles won the seat again, defeating the official Conservative candidate. Sir John was furious when he heard that his name had been taken in vain, and demanded an explanation: significantly, it was Elizabeth who provided it. According to her, the signatory of the notice was a family friend, a local blacksmith who wanted to indicate his support for Charles. Any confusion about the name was hardly her fault, surely!
It had been said that Charles was quite happy not to run again in 1891, but it was also a well-known fact in Grenville that “although Dr. Ferguson was the MP, it was his wife who won the elections”.
Elizabeth was no stranger to political action or administration. She was deeply involved in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union [WCTU], a strong advocate for temperance and prohibition. It, like other Christian groups of the day, provided women with an equal position on committees and as officers, and gave them experience in chairing meetings, arguing policy and procedures, and speaking publicly on social issues. The confidence and expertise this engendered in women was a strong element in the burgeoning Women’s Suffrage movement that would begin to bear fruit shortly after Elizabeth’s death.
Elizabeth Ferguson, given the restraints and restrictions imposed on her by the society of her day, managed to help her husband in his representation of the people of this area in Parliament for 23 years, and then provide a village Councillor, Reeve, MPP, Minister of the Crown, Premier of the Province, and High Commissioner to London, with an upbringing and political education which ought to be acknowledged after so many years. From her home on Clothier Street, her influence reached out far beyond municipal boundaries. Elizabeth Bell Ferguson died on September 21, 1915, aged 74. She and Charles are buried in St. James’ Cemetery, next to their family home in Kemptville.