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Sir John A. Macdonald’s Granddaughter

by Lillian Gibbons

Manitoba Pageant, January 1959, Volume 4, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

If you can give a paper on a historical family, with descendants nodding approval in front of you, and everybody else chuckling too, you’ve done a good job on your research.

When George P. Macleod, Q.C. spoke on Sir Hugh John Macdonald at the Manitoba Historical Society in April, 1958, Sir Hugh’s daughter, Mrs. Isabella Mary Gainsford and her son, Hugh Gainsford, sat smiling at him from the second row. Mrs. Gainsford, age eighty, was the first on her feet, thanking him for “that wonderful write-up. You’ve brought back so many little things.”

Her father, Winnipeg lawyer and magistrate, was the only surviving son of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister.

Sir Hugh John Macdonald
Source: Archives of Manitoba

“Daisy” (Mrs. Gainsford’s pet name) saw a lot of her famous grandfather when she was a little girl. After her mother died when she was a toddler, she stayed with her grandparents. Sir John called her “Puss.” When he’d come to his home called Earnscliffe, at the end of a hard day in Parliament she’d see he was tired and remark on it: “Yes, but it’s all for Canada, Puss,” he’d reply brightly.

When he died in 1891 she was thirteen. “I remember the people took all the red geraniums from the flower beds on our lawns. They wanted to have something that had been his — geraniums were his favourite flowers.”

Daisy got her pet name from playing in a field of daisies. “I had golden hair — Somebody said, ‘She looks like one of the daisies.’

Her mother was Jean Murray of Toronto. Her father almost got the famous name John A. The first son of Sir John was called John Alexander. When he died, and the second baby was born, some wanted to name him John Alexander but it was considered bad luck, so he was christened Hugh John, in Kingston in 1850.

After his first wife’s death, Hugh John married Gertrude Vankoughnet of Toronto. We all came together to Winnipeg, said Mrs. Gainsford.

It was Hugh John’s love of soldiering that brought him first to Winnipeg; he came as a youth of twenty, a volunteer with the Wolseley Expedition. He arrived in the pouring rain, August 24, 1870, only to find Louis Kiel gone. After his red tunic with the silver buttons had dried out, in a few days he returned to Toronto. With a law degree, and experience gained in his father’s office, he came back to Winnipeg to start a new career in 1882.

Three years later, rebellion broke out in Saskatchewan and Hugh John donned a red coat again. This time he was a Captain, thirty-five years old. It was the letters, postcards and telegrams he sent to 83 Kennedy Street, Winnipeg, to Dear Gertie, the kids and the Canon, that Mr. MacLeod read with such ardour to the Manitoba Historical Society.

Gertie he called by his favourite pet name, Little fellow. She was to take care of herself, go on a summer holiday, get out of the heat of Winnipeg, and not worry about him—except to leave somebody who could cook for him. The kids were Daisy and the new baby, Jack; the tooth he cut was big news to Father, even in the midst of twenty-eight mile marches with sore, moccasined feet. The Canon was a nephew of Bishop Robert Machray, the husband of Gertrude’s sister Beatrice.

Daisy is now eight years old. Get one of the Nuns to teach her. She is by no means a stupid child, Father wrote in a P.S.

It was to the Nuns at old St. Mary’s Academy that Daisy (Isabella Mary Macdonald) was sent to school. Later she went to a convent near Montreal where instruction was in French and English. Finally she went to Brighton, England, to a finishing school for two years, when she was seventeen. My grandmother, known as Lady Macdonald of Earnscliffe, was living in England. She was a widow then with a daughter Agnes from a previous marriage. We were like sisters. Grandmother took us travelling to Switzerland and Italy. I loved it.

Mrs. Gainsford now lives with her son Hugh and his family in Winnipeg.

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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