Recently I was walking by Laura Secord School where I attended kindergarten in 1958-1959 and I saw a sign erected in honour of Lillian Beynon Thomas. I had never heard of Lillian. I was curious. Who was she?
I discovered Lillian was one of Winnipeg’s first newspaperwomen and the page she was responsible for in the Winnipeg Free Press at the turn of the century was called Home Loving Hearts. Many of her readers were prairie farmwives who wrote to her about their lonely and often isolated lives. Some of them had been abused or abandoned by their husbands and many had no right to inherit their family homesteads if their husbands died. Lillian started advocating for them in the paper interspersing her opinions among the recipes, homemaking hints and fashion tips she featured on her page.
Lillian Beynon was a school teacher in Morden Manitoba in 1906 when John Dafoe the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press travelled through town. Lillian boldly asked him for a job. He gave her one writing a woman’s page for the paper.
Affectionately dubbed ‘Lilly Kate’ by her family, Lillian Beynon was born in 1874 in the city of Mississauga Ontario. When she was five years old she developed tuberculosis and it left her with a damaged hip which would make walking difficult for her for the rest of her life. Ten years later her family moved from Mississauga to a farm near Hartney, Manitoba.
Lillian went to Toronto to finish high school because with her weak hip she couldn’t have walked to the school in Hartney. She came back to Manitoba when her family settled in Winnipeg and Lillian became one of the first women to get a BA from the University of Manitoba.
In 1911 Lillian married Alfred Thomas who also wrote for the Winnipeg Free Press. He encouraged Lillian to become a part of the Manitoba Political Equality League in 1912 as they fought to get women the right to vote in Manitoba through a variety of tactics including a satirical play called A Women’s Parliament which was staged at the Walker Theatre in 1914. It was Lillian’s idea to stage the play and she had a role in the drama which helped achieve voting rights for Manitoba women in 1916.
Friendly and with a warm personality Lillian also started a literary club in Winnipeg and was an active member of the Canadian Women’s Press Club. When World War I broke out her husband Alfred was fired from the Winnipeg Free Press because he refused to support the conscription effort. The two of them moved to New York where Lillian did charity work and took writing courses.
Alfred got a job at the Winnipeg Tribune in 1922 so they moved back to Winnipeg and Lillian kept on writing this time successful plays and novels. She won a short story prize sponsored by Macleans Magazine for a piece she wrote called Five Cents for Luck. In 1961 when she died at age 86 she was trying her hand at writing episodes for television dramas.
I was happy I had made the effort to get to know Lillian Beynon Thomas. I was inspired by how she overcame the physical challenges she faced from the time she was a child to become a pioneer as a newspaperwoman and a suffragette and then as an author and playwright. She was always ready to try new things. What a legacy!
I’m glad Lillian Beynon Thomas is recognized on the grounds of the very first school I attended. I can only dream of leaving the kind of legacy she did!