Family Secret Outed

My assigned topic for the after dinner talk was ‘My Family Secret’. We had kept it more than a hundred years so well, that my generation didn’t know what we were ashamed about before I began researching. It was a risk. What would I discover? The citizens of Brandon knew the story from the Criddle’s upper side and this gathering of genealogists asked me to share with them what my research uncovered. Some brush my research aside, too unbelievable and contradictory to the accepted historical accounts. I was amazed,  however, at Mr. Dodds’ astute summation of my book and talk.

Here is his article from their newsletter, The New Leaf

The New Leaf’, 26th edition, newsletter of the South West Branch of the Manitoba Genealogical Society published in Brandon, MB, June, 2015. Submitted by Jack Dodds.

‘Family Secrets’

Oriole was the guest speaker at the South West Branch workshop supper on April 18th, 2015 at Knox United Church in Brandon. Her book is creative non-fiction using the fiction elements of setting and characterization to create a story flow that takes you into Elise’s mind as her dreams of being a landowner and establishing a future for her children in the new land seems to be constantly shifting out of reach. (Over many years Oriole kept her office uncomfortably cold and her feet freezing as she researched and wrote, just to help identify with Elise’s character. From analyzing Elise’s letters she learned Elise was an introvert and would talk very little, especially in her situation. (Therefore her thoughts were the only way for an author to reveal her character.)

Elise was a talented young woman from Heidelberg engaged to a young English music student in 1863 Percy Criddle. Percy’s mother refused permission for them to marry as she could not support a family and he had no means to do so. He returned to England but visited Elise at Christmas and other occasions until 1866, when he stayed for an extended six-week holiday. That Christmas her family expected him to do the ‘honourable thing’ and marry Elise. Germans required a groom to have parental permission, a profession or job and dwelling, so Percy promised to marry Elise in London.

Although no marriage record has been located, they had five children by 1874 when he married Alice Nicol, a deceased lawyer’s daughter. (Alice was an orphan living with her aunt and uncle and she had a small legacy. Percy went through that within 4 years.) Both women registered Percy Criddle as the father of sons the following spring. Using his wife’s legacy Percy decided to emigrate to Canada in 1882. Following Elise’s willingness to assist Mrs. Criddle with her four young children, she became the Criddle’s servant. The writing was on the wall when Percy, his new wife and family travelled intermediate class on the boat while Elise and her children travelled below in steerage. He then instructed Elise and her children that they would no longer be known as Criddles, but as Vanes, a name he had chosen for them.

Original letters, diaries, documents, and research in Canada, Germany, and England are the foundation for this compelling story. As I have said many times in the past, history is often written by victors, politicians, writers and others who present a biased and sometimes erroneous twist to a story that through errors, omissions, or outright untruths spin a tale that often blurs the realities of the times. This book seeks to correct some of the misconceptions about the Criddle Vane History.

The Percy Criddle diaries are lauded as a textbook story of pioneer life and times. His recordings of temperatures, flora and fauna and experiences have been widely accepted as a great adventure. His writings are found in the Manitoba Archives and until recently the Criddle Homestead was preserved for posterity. After many incidents of vandalism, the house was torched by vandals in 2014. The Criddle/Vane Homestead Park is still a heritage site—only the Criddle house is gone.)

Percy Criddle had an unaccomplished past. Four years before Percy’s birth in 1840 his mother’s brother Chaloner Alabaster and wife died of TB, leaving the three young boys, Charles 7, Henry 4, and Chaloner 1 ½. Percy’s parents were named to administrate their lucrative straw hat business until the sons came of age. Within a short time Henry Criddle had sold the business.

The cousins attended school. By 1858 when Percy’s father died, the money was spent. But the three industrious lads were already on their own: Charles, a clergyman in New Zealand: Henry in Siam, and Chaloner in China in the employ of the British Consular service. All sent money home to help their impoverished auntie and young Percy. Chaloner sent 100 pounds per annum. Then Charles died of TB leaving a widow and two children. Henry fell on hard times in 1878. Chaloner married in 1875 and with a family could not spare 1/3 of his income for Percy, who he said should at the age of 38 be self-supporting. This severed their relationship. Percy, Alice, their children and his mother had to move into a small cottage on the Tulk estate 1878/79. After Alice’s money was gone Percy’s mother supported them by selling commissioned children’s portraits.

Percy Criddle was not the brilliant, adventurous, self-made man that he pretended to be. Percy had a dark side that leaves the reader of this book with a whole new perspective on his life. He was largely supported by his family in England and took money from Elise’s family in Germany at every opportunity. He regularly farmed out Elise’s children to work for wages that he then used for his own entertainment and wants.

In many ways he was a failure. His lack of pioneering skills, foresight and common sense created terrible hardships for his family. He had young children working like adults, putting up flagpoles and building a tennis court as more important tasks were delayed. He took every opportunity to socialize with neighbours when invited, rarely taking anyone with him and came home chirping about how he had entertained everyone with his musical ability and winning games. His family were sometimes hungry to the point of weakness but he made sure his needs were met before anyone else.

In desperation he often had to call on local people for help in building and farming, but thought of most Canadians as below him and had a low opinion of Canadians in general who he dismissed as ignorant, bigoted, conceited, liars, utterly lacking in taste, and so on. His attitude of superiority and bigotry precluded him from following the advice of experienced Canadian farmers and caused many years of crop failures and hardships for his family.

By today’s standards he would have been guilty of horrible animal abuse as well as child and spousal abuse. He treated Elise as a slave, falsifying documents to receive money from her family and treating her with severe indignities. He falsified her name, stole her dignity, worked her to the bones and rarely let her off the farm unless it was to sign documents or vote as he dictated at school board meetings.

Eventually Elise’s dream of owning her own land seemed to be supported by Percy, but immediately upon receiving title, she was coerced into mortgaging her land for a loan so Percy could pay off his debts.

In spite of having no degrees to display, he considered himself to be quite an expert in music, medicine and an academic unrivaled in his district. He became Justice of the Peace, School Board Chair and bullied his way into local politics and opposed anything and anyone that did not agree with his way of thinking.

In spite of his own misgivings, his children who had been worked like adults turned out to be more or less successful.

This book is well researched and stimulates readers to become emotionally attached to Elise Vane and her family as we become revolted by the antics of Percy Criddle and his attitude of entitlement. His self-centered, bigoted, and unfeeling ways and posturing cannot help but arouse emotions in readers of sympathy for Elise and her children.

This feeling of entitlement was very common among the English land owners of those times and figured prominently in many other stories, most of which are not examined and documented as this one is.

Oriole Vane Veldhuis has consummated her promise to her father and unravelled the mystery and misconceptions of Elise’s life with the Criddles; a daunting task well done, which hopefully will bring peaceful rest “For Elise”.