Kingston Historical Society
P.O. Box 54
Kingston, Ontario

Donate Now Through!

Copyright (c)
Kingston Historical Society


Write On Kingston!

The World of Agnes Maule Machar (1837-1927)
Social Reform, Nation, Empire, Nature

Brian S. Osborne
Kingston, Ontario

Agnes Maule Machar was a child of the manse of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church. One of three children born to the Rev. John Machar and Mrs. J.M Machar, she was much influenced by her father who was renowned for his devotion to pastoral work and commitment to serving his congregation, and her mother who was equally Impressive formative force in her life. She emerges as one of the prominent women in Kingston's history.

Agnes Maule Machar's Strong Presbyterian social conscience was nurtured by her upbringing in a household where learning, intelligent discourse and Christian charity were a lived practice. Her connections with St. Andrew's Church and Queen's University ensured a constant interaction with professors, politicians, poets, novelists, political theorists, and religious leaders. The social circle during her years at the St. Andrew's manse was a rich one: Jogn A. Macdonald used her father's library, Olivia Mowat and Richard Cartwright were visitors, and she hosted such worthies as Canadian poet, Pauline Johnson, and famed British evolutionists, Alfred Russell Wallace. And then there was George Munroe Grant with whom she shared many common interests and affinities of outlook.

During Agnes Machar's formative and productive years, Kingston a centre of progressive thought, it had been argued that her emergence as "one of the most gifted intellectuals and social critics is late-nineteenth Canada" owed must to her lived-in world. 

Agnes Maule Machar may have been a prominent social activists at the local level, but she was also a multi-faceted woman. An accomplished artist, she painted portiatts of Exhibitions where, between 1859 and 1868, she won several prizes for pencil drawings, oil and water colour landscapes, and animal paintings. Furthermore, writing under the nom de plume, "Fidelis", she penned poetry, novels, histories, biographies, children's stories and made her mark in the realm of Canadian arts and letters. In 1887, one of her poems was rewarded the prize of best composition honouring Queen Victoria's Jubilee. In 1893, she was the only woman among thirteen Canadian authors said to have attained international recognition, and in 1903, she was elected Vice-President of the Canadian Soceity of Authors. Active in her own community, the early records of the young Kingston Historical Society refer to a meeting on 19 April 1904 at which a motion was passed unanimously, "To consider the advisability of publishing a History of Kingston". At a subsequent meeting of a committee charged to pursue this task, Agnes Machar offered to compile the desired history, an offer that was accepted as "no one member had sufficient leisure to understake the work". Four years later, her story of Old Kingston was published and dedicated to the memory of "The Good Men and True who Built Up Old Kingston; and To All Citizens of To-Day Who Follow Their Traditions and Example".

Agnes Machar was an ardent literary nationalist and her considerable literary productivity ensured her a platform to promote her vision of Canadian society and polity. Her declared mission was that of the public intellectual: "If there is something to be said for the right, a wrong to be redressed, or a warning word uttered, I think that we should always be ready with our pen."

Thus, prompted, Agnes Machar was a tireless advocate of causes that transcended ethereal Christianity and several major themes emerge: social justice; the power of nature; and British imperialism and Canadian patriotism.

Social Justice

Following in her mother's foot-steps, from 1859-1882, Agnes Maule Machar was in charge of the Widow's and Orphans' facility. Indeed, there seemed to be no limit to the causes to which she was committed. Her sense of responsibility for the needy continued even after her death and the bequests stipulated in her will represent an honour roll of her interests: The League of Nations; Kingston Poor Relief Association; Kingston Humane Society; Kingston General Hospital; Kingston Orphans' Home.

Issues such as this were but one part of Agnes Maule Machar's profound social conscience that prompted her to also challenge the abuses of contemporary capitalism and the associated pathologies of urbanism and industrial life. She was at the forefront of the campaign to apply a revitalised Christianity to a secularising world. No mere rhetorician or theorist, she focussed on the pragmatics of social reform and material progress: temperance, winter works programmes, houses of refuge for the "deserving poor," coffee-houses, reading rooms, gymnasia, all attracted her endorsement. Thus, in 1895, acting on behalf of the Kingston local of the National Council of Women, she petitioned Kingston City Council to undertake sewer construction, both to improve the health of the community and to provide employment for destitute workers.

Nor did she confine herself to the local. Several of her novels, and especially Roland Graeme, Knight, bruited abroad her radical views and proposed initiatives that went to the heart of contemporary problems through a social gospel. Her fictive constructions were really elaborations of her non-fiction concerns and constituted concrete representations of such abstract radical thought as Henry George's "Single Tax." Her attacks upon the circumstances of female labour were decades ahead of her time and she unabashedly spoke out in favour of the tenets of a "Christian socialism." Indeed, Agnes Maule Machar's Christianity was at the core of her drive to achieve a reformed social order and a transformed, but not displaced, capitalist society.

Loyalty: Empire and Nation

As with her contemporaries, George Munro Grant, George R. Parkin, and Andrew Macphail, Agnes Machar's ideas of political loyalties also accommodated a sense of moral mission. Her advocacy of a Canadian national identity always emphasized connections to the Mother Country, and Canada's place within the British Empire. She was an ardent literary nationalism whose allusions to iconic historical figures and events, and celebrations of the sublime beauties of the landscape were blatant emotional prompts for a patriotic love of a Christian Canada. And her view of national unity was an inclusive one. French-Canada's story was also part of the Canadian national chronicle. She argued for tolerance for Louis Riel and the redress of abuses levelled against French-Canadians. Paradoxically, she did not find this inconsistent with an advocacy of an Anglo-Saxon world-wide mission in which the United States would stand with the British Empire. Nevertheless, in all of this, a love for Canada was to the fore. Her prize-winning poem on the occasion of Queen Victoria's jubilee, entitled Our Canadian Fatherland, was an unequivocal statement of her view:

Let CANADA our watchword be,
While lesser names we know no more;
One nation spread from sea to sea,
And fused by love from shore to shore;
From sea to sea, from strand to strand,
Spreads our Canadian Fatherland!


Not only was Nature central to Agnes Machar's "patriotic landscape," Canada's natural world was the source of individual and social strength. A constant theme in her oeuvre was a melding of theology and transcendentalism whereby the Divine Creator's works and the qualities of love, justice, and harmony were revealed through the beauties of the natural world. Thus, several of Agnes Maule Machar's poems -- Drifting among the Thousand Islands, The Happy Islands, September among the Thousand Islands, and The Cliff to the Islands -- focussed on the Upper St. Lawrence and the Thousand Islands as a place of restoration and communion with Nature.

And it was not only in her manuscripts and canvasses that Miss Machar advanced her ideas about Nature. A plaque at her summer home near the Thousand Islands in Gananoque, reads "Ferncliffe Protection Sanctuary, estab. 1857." It was here that she spent much of her time reflecting on her views of the world and seeking tranquillity and inspiration. Locals recall that people were free to roam through the surrounding woodlands but were not allowed to pick flowers. Ahead of her time, such conservationist preferences prompted her to campaign for the prohibition of the use of birds' plumage in women's hats and the promotion of wilderness parks.

AMM's Legacy

What emerges from all of this is that Agnes Maule Machar is one of the major, if much neglected, commentators on Canadian society in the late C19 and early C20. Like fellow-Kingstonian, Grant, she was another Presbyterian who attained national stature as a social evangelist and nation-builder, her long and full life spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Her novels, poems, and essays reflect several contemporary themes at the core of an evolving Canadian consciousness: the place of Canada in the British Empire; a romantic engagement with the Canadian environment; an advocacy of an emerging nativist sensitivity. Located at the centre of a growing intellectual nationalism, the work of Agnes Maule Machar merits further attention as part of the "Canadian Movement." Certainly, she made a contribution to an emerging Canadian identity.

A century after Agnes Maule Machar's so-active role in the public places and minds of Kingston and Canada, several material reminders of her presence are imprinted in Kingston's landscape. First, of course, there is her grave-site in Cataraqui Cemetery. Located close to the obelisk commemorating her father and mother, her headstone reads, Agnes Maule Machar, "Fidelis" (1836-1927), "Only the heart that can bear the burden shall share the joy of the victor's rest." It lies within a metre of the grave of Matilda Speers, "Tilly," her "faithful friend and helper."

Second, there is Machar House, a ten-bedroom structure at 164 Earl Street, which, according to the terms of her will, was established as "a home for old ladies past earning their own livelihood and without means or with insufficient means for their maintenance."

Third, there is Gananoque's "Machar's Woods." At a July 1937 meeting of Gananoque Town Council, it was resolved that "in recognition of the many diverse contributions made by Miss Machar to the town, the small park at the town's west end commonly known as The Bluffs shall be officially named in future, "The Agnes Machar Park."

Finally, Agnes Maule Machar left her mark in Kingston's City Hall. To the right of the entrance to "Memorial Hall" and its twelve stained-glass windows is one dedicated to those who served and died at Sanctuary Wood in June 1916. Donated by Hugh C. Nickle, it represents not a martial scene of masculine heroism in battle but a domestic scene of mother, wife, and children. However, the accompanying verse composed by Agnes Maule Machar is an uncompromising and inspirational patriotic statement:

Long may our Great Britain stand
The bulwark of the free,
But Canada, our own dear land,
Our first love is for thee.

On her death in 1927, the congregation of St. Andrew's mourned the loss of a literary figure, social reformer, nationalist, and conservationist. Rev. John Stephen presided at the funeral of the oldest member of his church, and many of Kingston's prominent citizens gathered to pay their last respects to one "whose loss to the city in which she lived her long and useful life is realized with deep regret." The newspaper report of the event also alluded to the tribute from Ottawa Arts and Letters Club to one who, "for many years has occupied a high place in Canadian literature and who in both her prose and verse has done much to foster in Canadians lofty ideals and a noble patriotism." Her parents, John and Margaret Machar, would have been proud.


To place Agnes Maul Machar in a socio-political context see Constance Backhouse, Petticoats and Prejudice: Women and Law in Nineteenth Century Canada, Toronto: Osgood Society/Women's Press, 1991; Ramsay Cooke, The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian English Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985; John W. Grant, A Profusion of Spires: Religion in Nineteenth Century Ontario, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988; N.E.S. Griffiths, The Splendid Vision: Centennial History of the National Council of Women in Canada, 1893-1993, Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1993; A.B. McKillop, A Disciplined Intelligence: Critical Enquiry and Canadian Thought in the Victorian Era, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1979; Heather Murray, Come, Bright Improvement: The Literary Societies of Nineteenth Century Ontario, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002; Veronica Strong-Boag, The Parliament of Women: The National Council of Women of Canada, 1893-1929, Ottawa: National Museum of Man Mercury Series, History Division, No. 18, 1976; William Westfall, Two Worlds: The Protestant Culture of Nineteenth Century Ontario, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's Press, 1989.

For more biographical detail for Agnes Machar, see the following: Ruth C. Brouwer, The Between Age Christianity of Agnes Machar, Canadian Historical Review, Vol. LXV, No. 3, 1984, 347-70; Ruth C. Brouwer, Moral Nationalism: The Case of Agnes Maule Machar, Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, 90-108; Janice A. Fiamengo, Even in this Canada of Ours': Suffering, Sympathy and Social Justice in Late-Victorian Social Reform Discourse, Ph.D. Thesis, University of British Columbia, 1996; Patsy Fleming, The Remarkable Miss Machar, The Whig-Standard Magazine, 20 June 1992, 5-8; Carol Gerson, Three Writers of Victorian Canada: Rosanna Leprohon/James De Mille/Agnes Maule Machar, in Robert Lecker et al. (Eds.) Canadian Writers and their Works: Fiction Series, Vol. 1, Downsview: ECW, 1983, 195-248; Dianne M. Hallman, Religion and Gender in the Writing and Work of Agnes Maule Machar, Ph.D Thesis, University of Toronto, 1994; Christine Hemelin, Profile 2: Agnes Maule Machar, Profile Kingston: Commemorative Issue, 12 January, 2000, 18; Leonard Vandervaart, Ideas in the Fiction of Victorian Canada: James de Mille, Agnes Maule Machar, and Robert Barr, Ph.D. Thesis, 1989.

The Machar literary works discussed here are: Lucy Raymond or the The Children's Watchword, Toronto: James Campbell, 1871; Spring Birds, The Canadian Monthly, Vol. 11, 1872; Roland Graeme, Knight: A Novel of our Time, Montreal: W.M. Drysdale, 1892; Our Canadian Fatherland Lays of the 'True North' and Other Canadian Poems, Toronto: Copp Clark, 1902; The Story of Old Kingston, Toronto: The Musson Book Company, 1908. For more on Machar as an artist see J. Russell Harper, Early Painters and Engravers in Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970.

Kingston Historical Society, est. 1893