CORNISH, ELLEN GERTRUDE (Knights) (she signed most of her literary work Gertrude Cornish Knight), author, journalist, and pageant producer; b. 11 Jan. 1877 in Sandwich (Windsor), Ont., youngest of the five children of John Cornish and Louisa Overton; m. 27 April 1898 Frederick Thomas Knights in Winnipeg, and they had two sons and one daughter; d. 11 Jan. 1933 in Windsor and was buried in Riverside Cemetery, Port Arthur (Thunder Bay), Ont.
In 1882 Ellen Gertrude Cornish’s father, John, a bailiff at Sandwich, relocated his family to Winnipeg, where his brother, the controversial Francis Evans Cornish*, had been the first mayor. John would serve as city bailiff for several years. As early as 1884–85, Gertie and her brother Francis (Frank) Evans were attracting special mention for their recitations at the Baptist Sunday school and at children’s socials sponsored by the Blue Ribbon Society, a branch of the Gospel Temperance Movement. She went on to recite at gatherings of the Loyal Temperance Legion, the children’s branch of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and, as a young woman, at the Royal Templars of Temperance, Progress Council No.2, where her future husband, Frederick Knights, would play a guitar selection on one occasion in 1895. By 1892 Gertie was composing her own verse and dialogues for social and temperance fund-raising concerts. Sixteen of her best compositions were made available as a booklet by the Trades and Labor Council in 1894. Her work earned a commendation from Lieutenant Governor Sir John Christian Schultz*. The autobiographical story “Betty, or winning him over” reflects aspects of Gertrude’s childhood. It recounts the tale of Betty, a girl who moves from Walkerville (Windsor), Ont., to Winnipeg. Her father becomes “a slave to strong drink,” reducing his prosperous household to poverty. A Sunday-school teacher encourages her to give a recitation for the Christmas festival, which brings her great pleasure. If this account is based on the author’s early years, it explains much about Gertrude’s passion for temperance, and for writing poems and plays in which young people might find solace.
About five years after marrying Fred Knights, who was a locomotive foreman for the Canadian Northern Railway, Gertrude, with her husband and their children, moved to Dauphin and later to Edmonton. In July 1908 Fred was transferred to Port Arthur, a rapidly growing grain and freight trans-shipment port. Gertrude volunteered as a Sunday-school teacher and leader of the youth mission band at Trinity Methodist Church. By 1909 she was training boys and girls in recitations and drills for the medal contests of the West Algoma branch of the WCTU. She became superintendent of juvenile medal contests a year later, and subsequently the branch’s recording secretary and president. She was also an influential founding member of the West Algoma Equal Suffrage Association and the local chapter of the Women’s Canadian Club.
From late 1910 until April 1911 Gertrude, using the pseudonym Miss Helper, edited the women’s page for Port Arthur’s Daily News. This employment brought her into the Twin Cities branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club [see Catherine Ferguson*; Katherine Angelina Hughes*], the locus of the Lakehead’s literary women, and led to her creation of a Saturday children’s column, which she signed Mrs F. or Mrs F. S. Knight and which ran from January 1911 until June 1914. Both features gave her a means for advancing her views on parenting, especially the raising of boys, and they were the primary outlet for her poetry, which she mostly signed Gertrude Cornish Knight, the pen name she used exclusively after August 1911.
Immersed from childhood in Victorian school and temperance concerts, Gertrude wrote verses intended for recitations. They are typically little stories or lessons, primarily moral, religious, or elegiac; for example, “The children’s friend,” written in 1911, eulogizes Winnipeg politician and judge Thomas Mayne Daly*. Other topics are motherhood, babies, nature, Easter, and light-hearted subjects such as Santa Claus. Although Gertrude was sentimental about infants and youngsters, older children, particularly boys, were exhorted to make the right choices, to develop individuality and self-reliance, and to face the harshness of life – “to carry your load yourself,” as she urged in a 1913 poem. What distinguishes her from some of her contemporaries, such as Edith Sarah Groves [Lelean], is her overtly didactic and evangelical Christian messages.
Gertrude’s passion for providing wholesome ways to engage children led her to create stage productions that would embody in song and story the patriotic and moral themes she believed were important. They were pastiches, with elements found in pageants, melodramas, and comedies. The newspapers characterized these plays as cantatas or operettas because they contained so much music for the marches and drills, as well as the occasional popular tune, hymn, and patriotic song during which the audience could join in. She developed the themes and tableaux, wrote the dialogue, and selected the recitations and songs, some of which she composed. The casts, mostly girls, featured children of all ages, including her own, and a few adults in allegorical roles such as Civilization or John Bull.
Her first and most successful show, “The courtship of Miss Canada,” premiered at Trinity Methodist Church on New Year’s Eve 1912 with more than 70 performers. Through the agency of the Canadian Circulation Company of Toronto, it was produced in over 20 Canadian towns and cities between 1913 and 1917, often with the sponsorship of the local Methodist church or the WCTU. The heroine chooses Christ and the Cross, whereas in Mrs Groves’s secular play The wooing of Miss Canada (Toronto, 1917), she chooses Jack Canuck. “War time in song and story,” which appeared in 1914, enjoyed similar success across Canada. The Dawson Daily News (1915) praised it for “ringing with patriotism and palpitating with good cheer.” The two works netted $10,000 for patriotic and church purposes, not counting what Gertrude received in royalties. The allegorical play “The new empire” followed in 1916. For Christmas she created three plays between 1913 and 1921: in the first Santa Claus is placed on trial; in the second he exhorts children to sacrifice their gifts for the nation’s soldiers; and in the third Mother Nature is wooed by Jack Frost and Father Christmas. In 1918, two years after the imposition of the unpopular Ontario Temperance Act by Premier William Howard Hearst*, Gertrude composed “The hour before the dawn,” in which Squire John Bull must decide between his maid, Temperance, and his valet, Booze.
In her war poems, as well as the patriotic and recruiting lyrics that she wrote in collaboration with local music teachers, young men are expected to do their duty, and parents are expected to bear the sacrifice and loss that war inevitably brings. Such was the message of “It’s the price we pay,” about the death of airman Stanley Wallace Rosevear*. Gertrude’s best patriotic poems, such as “Canada to England,” make stirring recitations, but the worst, like “The slackers,” are jingoistic and unfeeling.
Gertrude’s husband was transferred to the isolated railway town of Sioux Lookout in 1920, and for the next 13 years she led a peripatetic life. She often shuttled between Port Arthur and Los Angeles, where her son Frederick Gordon moved in 1923. Although repulsed by California’s secularism, she would spend approximately six years there as her heart condition worsened; ironically, it was the place she had rejected in her widely printed 1915 poem “Old Ontario is good enough for me,” in response to a booklet touting the state’s many charms. She continued to write verse and plays for children both there and during her visits to Port Arthur. In the summer of 1932 she travelled to Windsor for an extended stay with her brother Frank. There she died of heart failure on her birthday.
Ellen Gertrude Cornish’s literary work bears testimony to her conviction that the woman who “rocks the cradle” is “man’s own equal in heart and brain and mind” and, as a mother, holds in her hands the fate of her land. She made this case in “The cradle and the ballot” and again in “The woman at home,” which contains these lines:
It is she who is ever shaping
The nations yet to be
And in her tender influence lies
A people’s destiny.
A creative voice for maternal feminism, evangelical Christianity and temperance, and English Canadian nationalism, she advanced these ideals in an amusing, cheerful, rhythmic way that appealed to children and adults across Canada. Her field of action was Port Arthur, not Flanders fields, her arms the pen and the stage.
The official birth registration for Ellen Gertrude Cornish (AO, RG 80-2-0-92, no.4520) states that she was born on 4 Jan. 1874; her birth was registered 24 Jan. 1877. The year 1874 must be a clerical error since her brother Francis Evans’s birth was registered 1 Feb. 1874 (AO, RG 80-2-0-52, no.1407), which is less than a month later. (The birth entry immediately preceding Cornish’s bears the date 22 Nov. 1874; it is possible that the clerk copied the year 1874 in error.) According to her daughter, May, she died on her birthday; her death registration (AO, RG 80-8-0-1423, no.14492) records 11 Jan. 1877 as her date of birth.
The subject signed most of her literary work Gertrude Cornish Knight. Early in her career she used Mrs F. or Mrs F. S. Knight for one of her columns and a few of her poems. It is unknown why she dropped the “s” from Knights in her pen names and why she sometimes used the initial “S” since neither she nor her husband had a middle name beginning with that letter. She was the author of 16 juvenile poems published in booklet form in 1894 by the newspaper of the Trades and Labor Council, Peoples Voice (Winnipeg), and about 174 poems (121 signed, 53 unsigned or unverifiable), written between 1909 and 1931. Most of the poems appeared in the Daily News and News-Chronicle published in Port Arthur (Thunder Bay), Ont.; 117 were collected by the Knights family and compiled in a typewritten anthology. Copies of the family anthology and the author’s anthology of newspaper poems are in the subject file at the DCB. Future research may uncover more of her verse in the publications of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and elsewhere.
“When Emmaline Pankhurst dies” was published in The poetry of the Canadian people, ed. N. B. Davis (2v., Toronto, 1976–78), 2 (1900–1950); it originally appeared in Woman’s Century (Toronto), the official organ of the National Council of Women of Canada, probably in June 1913. Other poems mentioned in the biography published in the Daily News are: “The children’s friend,” 30 June 1911; “The woman at home,” 12 Sept. 1912; “Canada to England,” 3 Aug. 1914; and “Old Ontario is good enough for me,” 22 Dec. 1915. “The slackers,” 18 May 1916, and “It’s the price we pay,” 29 April 1918, were published in the News-Chronicle. The poem “The cradle and the ballot,” dated 1911, is included in the anthology compiled by the Knights family. Her story “Betty, or winning him over,” was published in several instalments (the exact number is unknown) in the Daily News, beginning with the issue of 3 Feb. 1912.
Three published patriotic songs, for which she wrote the lyrics, have survived and copies are at LAC: in collaboration with A. J. Barrie, We’ve all got someone at the front: patriotic song (Winnipeg and Toronto, 1915); in collaboration with J. H. Horn, Keep step with Johnny Canuck: a recruiting song (Winnipeg and Toronto, 1915); and in collaboration with Allan Hare, Good luck to Johnny Canuck: song (Toronto, 1916). Her stage works were not published and no scripts are extant. They include: “The courtship of Miss Canada” (first produced in 1912); “The trial of Santa Claus” (1913); “War time in song and story” (1914); “Santa Claus in war time” (1915); “The new empire, or a pageant of modern times” (1916); “The hour before the dawn” (1918); “Mother Nature’s wooing” (1921); and “The master flag” (1922). Known playlets are: “The minister’s bride” (first produced in 1915); “Just a bunch of girls” (1917); “Servants of the flag” (1917); “The snowman’s wedding” (1920); “Disciples of the fine arts” (1923); and “The newly rich pack and missionary box” (1928).
AO, RG 80-2-0-39, no.16828. LAC, R233-36-4, Man., dist. Winnipeg (City) (10), subdist. Ward 5 (E): 4–5; R233-37-6, Man., dist. Winnipeg (City) (12), subdist. Ward 4 (D): 3. Man., Dept. of Justice, Vital statistics agency (Winnipeg), no.1898-001946; no.1900-002048. Border Cities Star (Windsor, Ont.), 12 Jan. 1933. Campbellford Weekly Herald (Campbellford, Ont.), 24 Feb. 1916. Canadian Courier (Toronto), 6 May 1916: 20. Daily News, 1908–16. Dawson Daily News (Dawson City, Y.T.), 31 Dec. 1915. Manitoba Free Press, 1882–98. News-Chronicle, 1916–33. S. A. Cook, “Through sunshine and shadow”: the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, evangelicalism, and reform in Ontario, 1874–1930 (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1995), chap.4. F. B. Scollie, “Wartime in song and story: Gertrude Cornish Knight, motherhood and patriotism, 1910–1921,” Thunder Bay Hist. Museum Soc., Papers and Records, 24 (1996): 12–32.
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Cite This Article
Frederick Brent Scollie, “CORNISH, ELLEN GERTRUDE (Knights) ,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 27, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cornish_ellen_gertrude_16E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Frederick Brent Scollie|
|Title of Article:||CORNISH, ELLEN GERTRUDE (Knights)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2018|
|Year of revision:||2018|
|Access Date:||March 27, 2023|