Many of us know little about Madge Rose Robertson’s life before she married Alfred Tennyson Watt. I have read some articles on her childhood and education years, including the book“Madge Robertson Watt and the ACWW written by Linda M. Ambrose.
Madge was the eldest of two daughters born to Henry Robertson and Bethia Rose Robertson. She had a younger sister Katie. Mr. and Mrs. Robertson lived modestly, she filling the role of housewife and mother while he practiced law. Outside of these roles, he was quite active in the Masonic Lodge and she church groups.
Margaret did not care for her given name nor for any of a series of nicknames she went through, and finally settled on “Madge”. Others may have objected, but Madge was firm! She was a good student; attended church regularly and was intensely curious about almost everything. Her father encouraged her to be active, and she bicycled, swam, skated, played football with the local girls. Both of the Robertson girls enjoyed camping and the family often took part in a venture that a number of families were active in and camped out for as long as a week at a time. As a teenager she rebelled at the fashion dictates that considered long hair to be a beauty asset, she cut her hair and kept it that way for the rest of her life. She was her own person.
In 1887 Madge began her studies at the University of Toronto. She soon created her own niche – she became an emerging talent, writing for the campus newspaper The Varsity. Soon she was submitting articles to other publications, including Frank Leslie’s Weekly based in New York. Madge graduated with her Bachelor of Arts degree and concluded her Master’s Degree in 1891. She now was a qualified teacher – however, with the demands made of female teachers at that time, coupled with the low salaries, she soon quit teaching and turned full time to her writing. Madge spent a year in New York, writing short stories, humorous and sporting sketches and children’s stories for a number of publications.
In the spring of 1893 her mother was very ill. Madge returned from New York to Collingwood to help nurse her mother through this illness which claimed her life, she put her writing career on hold. Shortly after her mother’s passing, Madge marked her twenty-fifth birthday; before Christmas arrived, she had married Doctor Alfred T. Watt and they were on their way to British Columbia where he took over his father’s medical practice in Barkerville for a time before they moved on to Victoria.
The rest of the story of Madge Robertson Watt and her husband Dr. Alfred T. Watt is well known in Institute circles. His untimely death at a young age and the controversy that surrounded his passing made the prospect of continuing to live in Victoria untenable for Madge. So she packed up her sons and personal items, traveled to Collingwood for a visit with her family, and then boarded a ship bound for England.
You know the rest of the story. She lived to the age of 80, serving as the President of the Associated Country Women of the World for 14 years, stepping down about 18 months before her passing. She is buried in Montreal and a cairn was established there, by the Federated Women’s Institutes of Canada, as a memorial to her dedication and service.
Ruth Fenner, Provincial Historian, British Columbia Women’s Institute
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