Globetrotter: The adventurous Effie McQuarrie

Just in Time local history series

By Ian McKechnie

Effie McQuarrie (seated on swing) enjoys a picnic in New Zealand, circa 1924. Courtesy Jane McQuarrie.

Five years ago in these pages the Advocate profiled half a dozen local women who made their mark in a variety of fields, but whose stories were too often excluded from official histories of the region.

This month we’ll revisit one of those women – Effie McQuarrie, who 100 years ago found herself on the opposite side of the world imparting lessons to the students of Anderson’s Bay Public School in Dunedin, New Zealand. Effie was on teaching exchange, and her 12 months in that country stood out as a highlight in her long career as an educator that had its roots here in Kawartha Lakes.

New Zealand had yet to formally become a self-governing dominion within the British Empire when Euphemia “Effie” McQuarrie was born on April 13, 1885, the sixth of eight siblings. As a little girl attending the S.S. No. 2 schoolhouse in Argyle (and later at Lindsay Collegiate Institute), Effie would have been well-acquainted with maps in which the “British dominions beyond the seas” were coloured a bright red. Her curiosity about the wider world undoubtedly began in the classrooms of her youth, and Effie soon set her sights on becoming a teacher.

At 19 years old, Effie took up a teaching job at the old one-room schoolhouse in Norland. After a little more than a year, she had moved on to S.S. No. 2 in Bexley and by 1909 was teaching in Dunsford. Effie remained here for a year and a half, winning the hearts of her pupils. “While we have not always shown appreciation of your forbearance and work by our conduct and application to our studies,” read an address presented by Effie’s students on the occasion of her departure from Dunsford, “we shall always realize that all your work has been for our upbuilding and good.”

Seeking to further her professional qualifications, Effie entered the Peterborough Normal School in 1911. Upon the completion of her coursework, she secured a position at the East City Public School in the Ashburnham neighbourhood of Peterborough. “It is a primary room, the salary good, and I think I will have a good time,” Effie wrote to her older sister, Tena – before confiding that she wasn’t sure that she would get through her Normal School exams. “I have to study for it would be dreadful if I didn’t get through after getting a place like that,” Effie told her sister worriedly.

But get through her exams Effie did and remained on the teaching staff at East City through the end of 1912, when she moved to Toronto and took up a job at the McCaul Public School.

A decade after her arrival in Toronto, Effie signed up to participate in a teaching exchange program that would see her and four other Toronto-area teachers travel to New Zealand in 1923-1924.

As Dr. Benjamin Bryce, an historian at the University of British Columbia, notes in his paper Citizens of Empire: Education and Teacher Exchanges in Canada and the Commonwealth, 1910–40, these teaching exchanges were designed in a large part to cultivate and reinforce imperial citizenship. “The intention of the teacher exchanges was to send a small group of citizens of empire from one part of the British world to another,” Bryce writes. “Teachers who spent a year abroad returned to their classrooms with new perspectives on their own country and on the empire.” According to Bryce, most of the teachers who undertook these exchanges were women.

While it is difficult to ascertain just what Effie McQuarrie thought about the idea of making students become “better citizens of empire,” there can be no question that she relished the adventure abroad. Effie and her fellow teachers made stops in Hawaii and Fiji en route to New Zealand and had a rollicking good time travelling through California en route back to Canada in 1924.

The well-travelled Effie McQuarrie poses on the Ambassador Bridge later in life. Courtesy Patty McKechnie.

In 1928, Effie began teaching Grade 7 at the King Edward Public School in downtown Toronto, and remained here through her retirement in 1947. She was an incredibly popular teacher, praised by one school inspector for her skill in “bringing real human interest into the tasks done day by day.”

Effie spent her retirement years living in Langstaff, Ontario, with her youngest brother John, a veteran of the First World War. Here, an indefatigably-energetic Effie entertained with her delectable Scotch teas (a square made from butter, brown sugar, and oats) and a dessert called blueberry grunt (a recipe in which one of Effie’s instructions apparently called for bakers to “beat the hell out of it”).

Visits with her extended family in Lindsay and area were always enjoyed by younger generations. “Aunt Ef was always a very proper lady,” remembers great-niece Roz MacQuarrie. “She was impeccably dressed and spoke well in a quiet tone of voice. She was a person worth listening to. Maybe that’s why she was such a successful teacher. She and Uncle John would sit together on the settee in Grandpa’s living room and watch the chaos around them at Christmas.”

Effie finally relocated to Lindsay in the summer of 1967 and died on Aug. 9 of that year, aged 82. Surrounded by most of her clan, Effie’s simple headstone in the Argyle Cemetery belies the remarkable and adventurous life she lived.

Effie McQuarrie is the author’s great-grandaunt.

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