Early Life and Family
Ishbel Marie Marjoribanks (pronounced “Marshbanks”) was the fifth of the seven children born to Sir Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks and Isabella Weir Hogg. The Marjoribanks family were prominent Scottish landowners who claimed descent from King Robert the Bruce of Scotland and made their fortune in banking and finance. Sir Dudley became a partner in a prosperous brewing business and served as a Liberal member of parliament from 1853 to 1868 and from 1874 to 1880. The Hoggs were wealthy Irish merchants (of Scottish descent) and evangelical Protestant social reformers. Ishbel’s maternal uncle Quintin “Piggy” Hogg founded schools for poor children and advocated for the emigration of underprivileged families, publicizing the economic opportunities available in Canada and other colonies.
Ishbel spent her childhood in London and at the Marjoribanks estate in Invernesshire. She received her early education from tutors and governesses at home. In her early teens, she attended the Educational Institute of London in the company of her governess and then was tutored in English literature by John Miller Dow Meiklejohn, who became the first professor of Education at the University of St. Andrews. Meiklejohn suggested to Ishbel’s father that she attend the newly-founded Girton College for women at Cambridge University, but her father would not hear of it; she was expected to make her social debut and marry instead.
Ishbel married John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, Earl of Aberdeen in 1877. Lord Aberdeen shared his new wife’s commitment to social reform, and Lady Aberdeen had earlier described her desire to marry him as “the one dream of my life.” The couple divided their time between London and Aberdeenshire in Scotland. They had five children, four of whom survived to adulthood.
Lady Aberdeen developed an interest in social reform and emigration to the British Empire (see Commonwealth). She established the Onward and Upward Association, which provided opportunities for domestic servants to take correspondence courses. In 1883, she became president of the Aberdeen Ladies’ Union, which helped working-class women in the cities and sponsored young women emigrating to Canada. A staunch Liberal and admirer of British Prime Minister William Gladstone, she became head of the Women’s Liberal Federation, which supported women’s suffrage (see Women’s Suffrage in Canada).
Travels in Canada
Lord and Lady Aberdeen first visited Canada in 1890. During her time there, and again in 1891, Lady Aberdeen met with emigrants sponsored by the Aberdeen Ladies’ Union, many of whom worked on isolated Prairie homesteads. The isolation of these settlements inspired her to found the Lady Aberdeen Association for Distribution of Literature to Settlers in the West, which sent books and magazines to Prairie households.
Lord Aberdeen was appointed governor general of Canada in 1893 and arrived in Québec City with Lady Aberdeen the following year. The Montreal Daily Witness newspaper observed, “Lady Aberdeen has much more prominence than the average wife of a Governor-General, and in fact, much more is written about her and her work than about his Lordship.”
As representatives of the Crown in Canada, Lord and Lady Aberdeen aspired to engage with Canadians in all provinces. They explained in their joint memoir, We Twa, “We had fixed on a plan whereby we were to endeavour not only to entertain at Government House, Ottawa and at the Citadel, Quebec, where official residences were provided for the Governor General, but we were to find a suitable house in each of the Provincial capitals for a few weeks, during the course of our term of office. By this means, we hoped to get in touch with the people.” Lord and Lady Aberdeen became known for breaking down social barriers through their interaction with both English- and French-speaking communities and people from a variety of cultural and economic backgrounds.
Lady Aberdeen received an honorary degree from Queen’s University in 1897, the first woman to receive such a degree in Canada. She recorded in her journal, “The ceremony was a decided ordeal and I simply quaked.” The students sang “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and chanted “What’s the matter with Lady Aberdeen? She’s all right, you bet!”
In 1898, Lady Aberdeen became the first woman to make a speech in the House of Commons, when she thanked the Members of Parliament for a gift of Royal Doulton china painted by 16 artists from the Women’s Art Association. The Globenewspaper reported that the speech “was grand as a piece of oratory, and her voice was simply thrilling. She brought tears to the eyes of all who were around her. I never saw an audience so captivated by a woman.”
Lady Aberdeen has been credited with introducing the golden retriever to Canada, a breed of dog first developed by her father (see Dog).
National Council of Women of Canada
In 1893, Lady Aberdeen founded the National Council of Women of Canada (NCWC), a non-partisan federation of women’s organizations (see Women’s Movements in Canada). As she explains in her memoirs, “In those days, the women of the different provinces knew very little about each other and each other’s work. It is wonderful how natural prejudices melted away just by meeting and working for common causes, and obtaining success by united effort.” In contrast to the United States, where the Council of Women initially included women’s suffrage among its priorities, the Canadian council emphasized social reform and only advocated women’s suffrage as an official policy in 1910.
Victorian Order of Nurses and Cottage Hospitals
Lady Aberdeen played a key role in the establishment of the Victorian Order of Nurses, which was established in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. After the 1896 meeting of the NCWC, Lady Aberdeen wrote of situations “where young mothers and children had died, whilst husbands and fathers were travelling many weary miles for the medical and nursing aid which might have saved them.” The new order was intended to provide visiting nursing services and “cottage hospitals” in isolated areas. Lady Aberdeen had the support of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, but faced opposition from the predominantly male medical establishment. She made use of her social connections — including an endorsement from Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing — to ensure the success of the new organization.
Lady Aberdeen’s efforts on behalf of Canadian women were praised by supporters of women’s suffrage and women who entered into professions previously restricted to men.
Similar to Lady Dufferin, Lady Aberdeen made use of her political contacts and access to the House of Commons to gather information for her husband, who was expected to remain above party politics. Still, the partisanship of Lord and Lady Aberdeen attracted controversy in Canada. The couple were staunch liberals and Lady Aberdeen hung portraits of British Prime Minister William Gladstone at Rideau Hall. They developed a close working relationship with Sir Wilfrid Laurier, but were often critical of policies put forward by Conservative politicians.
Lady Aberdeen was especially critical of Sir Charles Tupper and favoured the appointment of Mackenzie Bowell as prime minister after the death of John Thompson in 1894. The support of Lord and Lady Aberdeen was instrumental to Bowell’s tenure as prime minister, which came to an end when a number of ministers resigned over what they saw as Bowell’s overall incompetence in dealing with the issue of restoring separate schools (see Manitoba Schools Question). The press accused the Aberdeens of partisanship and refusing to be guided by Canadian ministers. Lord Aberdeen’s term as governor general ended in 1898.
From 1905 until 1915, Lord Aberdeen served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Lady Aberdeen continued her program of social reform in Ireland, becoming active in efforts to improve children’s health and to prevent the spread of tuberculosis. Though well regarded during her time in Ireland, her connections to the British establishment made her unpopular with Irish nationalists in the early-20th century. The couple became Marquess and Marchioness of Aberdeen and Temair in 1916.
Lady Aberdeen identified with Canada and Canadians for the rest of her life, stating a few years before her death from a heart attack in 1939, “I have been a Canadian for many years. I shall always be a Canadian.” Lady Aberdeen’s Canadian diaries and her memoirs, written jointly with Lord Aberdeen, have been published.