Martha Black, centre, joined her husband George, left, and son Lyman overseas during World War I, although she remained in London for the duration of the conflict. During this time, she traveled throughout England and spoke about her beloved Yukon at least two hundred times to enthusiastic audiences. (Doug and Diane Black/Submitted)

History Hunter: Martha Black was an ambassador for the Yukon

Michael and Kathy Gates

In her autobiography titled My Seventy Years, Martha Black, the Yukon’s MP from 1935 to 1940, stated that she gave four hundred, mostly illustrated lectures while she was in England during World War I. This work, she wrote, led to her being elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London, England, July 18, 1917.

That’s not entirely correct, although the essence of her statement is true. Mrs. Black arrived in England with her husband, George, along with 1,500 Canadian volunteers in the Canadian expeditionary Force, in February of 1917. She was elected a fellow June 18, 1917, rather than in July. My wife, Kathy, wrote the Royal Geographical Society in 2016 for clarification on why she was elected. In response, the RGS, stated that the nomination was based upon the following accomplishments:

She “Made a collection of Yukon flora for the Government displayed at Seattle Exposition, which was divided, part sent to Ottawa, part to McGill College, Toronto. Under contract with CP Railway Co for one year to make collection of British Columbia mountain flora. With husband she made several exploring trips in interior of Yukon lakes rivers mountains and glaciers, by Canoe and dog teams. Mrs. Black has written for publication articles on the flora of the Yukon and B.C. as well as on the bird life of Yukon.”

Given the above information, and the fact that the vast majority of Martha’s lectures in England followed her election to the society, these lectures were clearly not one of the factors contributing to her honour. In her personal scrapbook from the war, the number of lectures cited was “over 200.” By the time she published her autobiography in 1938 that number, like the proverbial fisherman’s tale, had grown to 400.

In late January of 1917, when she boarded the SS Canada and sailed for England, she took with her a large and weighty selection of glass lantern slides depicting various views of the Yukon. Some were taken by her husband, while others were commercial images that she had purchased from local photographers. Over 300 of these glass lantern slides have survived and are now in the Yukon Archives.

She settled into a small apartment in London while George and his fellow Yukoners trained at Witley Camp, in southern England in preparation for battle. She volunteered her services for the war effort, and kept busy, at first volunteering in the Prisoner-of-War Department, doing volunteer canteen work, sewing for the Red Cross, administering the Yukon Comfort Fund and visiting wounded Yukoners in hospital. She kept up a regular correspondence with the Yukon newspapers, and tried writing articles for magazines. When this failed her, she kept busy darning socks.

Among these duties, she was called upon frequently to give illustrated talks about her beloved Yukon. “I particularly enjoyed talking about the Yukon,” she reported in her biography, “I averaged a daily talk for months, to audiences which numbered fifty to seven hundred.”

She spoke enthusiastically about the Yukon, selecting from a number of topics, depending upon the audience she was addressing: “The Yukon: The Goldfield of Canada,” “The Wonders of the Yukon, “A Trip to the Klondyke,” “War Work near the Arctic Circle,” “The Romance of Canada’s Goldfields” and finally, “The Klondike of the Past.”

One of her first lectures, “War Work near the Arctic Circle,” was delivered to the United Empire Circle in May of 1917. Only a month later, Martha was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

She kept up a hectic pace: she spoke to the British Columbia and Yukon Church Aid Society at the Church House, Westminster July 11, 1917. More talks followed: The Women’s Institute in London, St. Mark’s Hall, Reading, Berkshire, one to the Liverpool Geographical Society, and another to The United Wards Club of the City of London. She was eventually presented to King George V at Buckingham Palace, who asked her several questions about her lecture work.

She lectured for the Geographical Society, and for the YMCA. Once, in the Seven Oaks district, of Kent, she spoke twice in one evening, at 6:30 and then again at 8:30. On another occasion while in Liverpool, she spoke at noon to the Dockers, then in the afternoon at the YMCA Building, and in the evening at a large hospital. That, she reported, “was too much!”

The most taxing of her lecture tours was a three-week tour through Wales, where she spoke at a different venue each night. “It meant catching trains at all hours to all places, carrying heavy boxes of slides and clothes, blocks on end in all kinds of weather and all kinds of accommodation. Nearly every night,” she later recalled, “I slept in a different town and in a different home. I was billeted out to a retired builder, an itinerant Baptist minister, a publican, a head school master, a restaurant keeper, and several mine managers and institute managers.”

Her typical talks covered a broad variety of topics. Frequently, she referred to her participation in the Klondike gold rush, noting that during her years in the Yukon, she had lived in everything from the humblest of log cabins (where she gave birth to her third son, Lyman) to the governor’s mansion. She talked about the importance of the gold rush in forming the destiny of the Yukon.

Martha made a point of emphasizing the modern facilities that could be found in Dawson City, to reassure her listeners that the Yukon was not some primitive frontier society. She spoke proudly of the hospitals and the schools. She spoke about the mining, describing the various techniques from the hand-mining of the gold rush, to the industrial scale dredge and hydraulic mining that came in later years.

Martha talked of transportation in the Yukon, from riverboats to dog mushing to the tragic demise of the “Lost Patrol” in 1909. She mentioned the Mounted Police. She spoke with pride about the agricultural production of the Yukon, and the abundance of growth stimulated by the never-ending summer daylight. She mentioned the abundance of wildlife in the Yukon, and showed numerous slides of Yukon wildflowers, which were one of her favourite topics.

Above all else, she spoke about the patriotic activities of the Yukon, from the fund raising of community groups, Joe Boyle’s machine gun battery, the high degree of donations in support of the war effort, making it clear that Yukoners were proud British subjects, willing to do their part in defense of the British Empire. She inserted quotations from famous authors, her favourites being from the words of the Yukon Bard, Robert Service.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, through her persistent writing, her frequent lectures, her prominent position in Yukon society, and later her role as the Yukon’s member of parliament, she played a significant role in shaping the territorial identity as part of Canada, and more broadly, as part of the British Empire.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net.

Kathy Jones-Gates is an independent historical researcher who is writing a biography of George and Martha Black.

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