Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years from 1837 to 1901 during the height of British imperial power. She was a source of great pride and patriotism for women across the British Empire including the founders of the Victoria Guelph chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire or the I.O.D.E
“The organisation was extremely patriotic,” said IODE archivist Helen Brimmell. “Guelph was named after the royal family and our chapter took the name Victoria Guelph, which was Queen Victoria’s maiden name. There is no hyphen between Victoria and Guelph because it is her name.”
The I.O.D.E. was formed in 1900 and established chapters in communities across the country to help the wives and children of Canadian soldiers fighting for Britain in South Africa during the Boer War. When that war ended in 1902 the order focused more on local causes.
The Victoria Guelph chapter was the 142nd to register with the order and its members were, primarily, “unmarried” women. They adopted the motto “Right must prevail” and set the annual membership fee at 50 cents.
“The Guelph chapter was formed in 1909 and the first thing they did was raise money to build a fountain,” said Brimmell. “The fountain was opened in 1914 and named in honour of King Edward VII who had just passed away.”
Brimmell has done extensive research on the order and published an exhaustive history of its activities entitled IODE in Guelph 1909 - 1997 for the Guelph Historical Society.
The article recounts the early efforts to create the fountain.
“It was built in 1914, after the members had spent two years raising the money for it,” she wrote. “Constructed by the city's works department, it cost $1,200, and was designed by architect Mr. B. Lund who was drowned before the work actually started. The fountain sits on a stone and cement base and is topped by a charming four-gable shingled roof and a small spire.”
They erected it in a central location downtown where it could be easily seen and used by the public.
“The fountain was originally where the Cenotaph is now at the base of Wyndham Street,” said Brimmell. “They moved it to where it is now across from the library to make room for the war memorial in 1926.”
It remained a public drinking fountain at its present location, near the confluence of Yarmouth and Norfolk Streets, for many years.
“It isn’t a fountain anymore because the medical authorities began to think years ago that there was too much danger of exchanging germs with a public fountain,” said Brimmell. “So, they had to end the fountain part of it, but it was very popular in its day and it even had a dog drinking fountain at the bottom, which was also popular.”
Victoria Guelph chapter treasurer Marie Laidlaw recalls when it was a working fountain.
“I remember as a young girl going downtown to the movie theatre to the see the latest western or whatnot and stopping at the fountain for a drink of water,” she said. “We are very proud of that fountain.”
Laidlaw was the chapter regent in 1993 when the fountain was designated an important historical landmark.
“I was regent for three years,” she said. “I am 83 and I have been a member for more than 40 years. I tell people I have two passions in life, my husband and the IODE. Bill and I met in high school and have been married 63 years.”
Brimmell. who is a retired journalist, turned 99 in May. She moved to Guelph in 1954 and has been a member of the Victoria Guelph chapter since 1986.
“I was with Canadian Press for a long time and I covered the national and provincial IODE activities for them,” she said. “My husband, Dick Brimmell and I both worked for the Mercury so, I covered the local IODE and they were always asking me to join the chapter. So, I joined just after I retired. That was 33 years ago.”
By 1995 there were five chapters in Guelph with a combined membership of 181 women.
“This year in October we celebrated our 110th anniversary, which was a gala day,” said Brimmell. “We had a reception in the big room at Dublin Street Church and invited all the people connected with the chapter.”
Dublin Street Church is where they hold their regular meetings.
“We meet once a month on the first Tuesday of the month,” said Laidlaw. “There are only 17 of us left in the Victoria Guelph Chapter. There were five chapters in Guelph at one time and there are only two left.”
The other one is the Royal Wyndham chapter that was established in 1985.
The status and influence of women in Canadian society has changed significantly since the I.O.D.E was established. Women didn’t have the right to vote until 1922 and weren’t recognised as persons under the law until 1929. The I.O.D.E. provided opportunities for women to organize and exercise their influence in the community.
“It was a very strong influence on the city and did a great deal of work for it,” said Brimmell. “So much of what they did is now taken over by city officials, but they did an awful lot of good and still do.”
A good example of that was the chapter’s second big campaign in 1911, the creation of Royal City Park.
“They raised the money to remove the town dump on the bank of the Speed River that went from Gordon Street West and extended past Gow Bridge,” she said. “Then they raised the money to hire the landscape architect and the city was so appreciative that they asked the chapter to name the new park. Of course, the chapter being very patriotic named it Royal City Park.”
Throughout the years they have taken up countless causes including the support of veterans’ groups, promoting the arts and providing scholarships to high school students. They have also carried on their advocacy for women’s groups and causes.
“They pick up the pieces that have fallen through the cracks like helping the Women in Crisis, the Foodbank and Wyndham House,” said Brimmell. “These are not huge things, but they make a great difference."
Their contribution is recognized and respected by many.
“The IODE have been part of our story helping abused women and children in the community,” said Sly Castaldi, executive director for Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis. “They have been very supportive of Women in Crisis.”
Brimmell worries that the order might share the same fate as the fountain and become a neglected symbol of the past.
“The IODE like all of those charitable groups are quietly fading away,” she said. “It is sad but they are because no one else is picking these jobs up. However, we will keep on going as long as we can. We have 17 members left and we would be happy to have some new members join.”