Article by guest curator Stephanie Ann Warner
This spring, the Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum is sharing stories of the short-lived settlement on Vargas Island, as part of its exhibit Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War. We are fortunate to have access to the photographs and diaries of Mrs Helen Malon, who lived with her family on Vargas Island from 1912 - 1918.
Back: Violet Abraham, Ted Abraham, Eileen Abraham, Arthur Abraham, George Anderson
Front: Helen Malon, Pierre Malon, Yvonne Malon
Photograph taken summer 1913-1914. Photograph courtesy of Joan Nicholson.
A happy family gathers on a large verandah on Vargas Island in 1913 or 1914. Mrs Helen Malon -- centre of the photograph in the chair -- is surrounded by her children and her brother. The family had only recently reunited after years apart and would be separated once again by war. But in the meantime, let's learn a bit more Mrs Malon and especially about her Vargas Island house.
Mrs Malon was born Helen Anderson in 1863 in Gatacre, a suburb of Liverpool England. She was in the middle of a very large family that included older sister Maggie and youngest brother George, both who also lived on Vargas Island. In 1870, young Helen Anderson and the whole family set sail (by early steamship) for Canada, where her father Weir Anderson took a job in Toronto. The family rented a house, Rosedale Villa (the property is now the affluent Rosedale suburb). A newspaper advertisement from that time indicates that the villa had a large verandah. This point is important for Mrs Malon's later life on Vargas Island -- she really enjoyed spending time on her verandah! Weir Anderson died in 1878 and some of the family returned to England. In 1881, Helen, Maggie and George Anderson were living in St Leonards on Sea, an English seaside resort.
In 1883, Helen Anderson married Rev. Thomas Palmer Abraham from Suffolk. Abraham was a Cambridge graduate and a former lawyer with family connections to the Lord Chancellor of England, Richard Bethell. The Abrahams lived at the rectory in Risby Suffolk, a substantial Victorian house with a large garden. Rev. Abraham died suddenly of pneumonia in 1897. Helen was 34 years old and had 4 children: Arthur (12), Violet (11), Ted (10) and Eileen (21 months).
Rev. Abraham left his wife a good income for the rest of her life (not conditional on re-marriage). However, there was not enough money for Arthur and Ted Abraham to attend university or join the professions in England. In 1902, Arthur Abraham (17 years old) emigrated to New Zealand where he worked as a clerk in the offices of his well-to-do businessmen uncles. In 1904, Ted Abraham (also aged 17) emigrated and worked as a clerk. Ted later recalled that they didn't want to be dependent on the uncles, so they started farming.
In 1905, Helen Abraham married Jules-Ernest Malon, a University of Paris graduate and a French and German teacher. Monsieur Malon taught at British boy's boarding schools, where he developed a solid reputation as a "disciplinarian" (a positive feature in the age of "spare the rod and spoil the child!") The Malons lived in Normandy France, where Monsieur Malon had a thriving tutoring business. They had 2 children: Yvonne (born 1906) and Pierre (born 1907).
Violet Abraham and her mother Helen Malon outside their house in Normandy France.
Photograph taken between 1905-1910. Photograph courtesy of Joan Nicholson.
In 1910, Mrs Malon's health was not good -- probably headaches or "rheumatism" (aka arthritis).Monsieur Malon gave up his tutoring business and took a teaching job at Victoria College, St. Helier, Jersey located in the Channel Islands. Jersey was known for year-round good weather. A 1911 guidebook notes: “Jersey's greatest attraction is undoubtedly is delightful and equable climate. No place on the South coast of England can compare with it as a winter resort.” The family moved into a large house with a cook and a gardener. Mrs Malon and her family would have enjoyed the trips to the beach to "bathe".
Havre de Pas outdoor bathing pool an St. Helier Jersey.
Photograph taken in 2018 by Stephanie Warner.
In early October 1911, Monsieur Malon hadn't been feeling well and had taken a few days off school. But now he was feeling well enough now to take his regular Sunday morning walk with Yvonne and Pierre. That afternoon, Monsieur Malon fell down in an "apoplectic fit" and did not regain consciousness. He died 2 days later. His death certificate says "brain hemorrhage"(probably a stroke or an aneurysm). So, another husband gone! What would Mrs Malon do? She could have stayed on Jersey or gone to the Isle of Wight where here mother and sisters led a genteel life in the garden at "Ivy Lodge". But instead, Mrs Malon decided to go to a wilderness island!
At the same time as the family tragedy on Jersey, Mrs Malon's sons Arthur and Ted Abraham and her brother George Anderson were living on Vargas Island. Farming in New Zealand obviously hadn't worked out, though a family story goes that the brothers were both involved with the same girl and one of them had to leave town! The "boys" and "Nunkey" (as Mrs Malon called them) had various adventures while trying to clear the west coast rainforest. (Ted even cut his foot badly and had to spend several weeks lying in a tent!). But the boys loved their new life and must have really sold their mother on coming out to Vargas Island.
So, on June 14 1912, Mrs Malon set sail from Liverpool England. She was 49 years old and was travelling with her children Violet Abraham (26), Eileen Abraham (17) and the "babies" Yvonne (6) and Pierre (4 years and 10 months). A month later -- after a steamship voyage, a visit to Toronto, a long train journey through the Prairies and Rockies, a boat to Nanaimo, a train to Alberni and a boat to Clayoquot Sound -- Mrs Malon arrived on the west coast. After an initial shock at her new surroundings she soon embraced her new life and wrote in her diary: "We have gone to a primitive life and no mistake, but I think we shall like it alright."
Eileen Abraham, Yvonne Malon and Pierre Malon and their mother Helen Malon on Vargas Island in late 1912, early 1913. Photograph courtesy of Joan Nicholson.
Mrs Malon arrived on Vargas Island on Thursday July 18 1912. Arthur and Ted hadn't told her about the living arrangements! "It was a shock to our feelings to find no house only a shack but it is luckily quite roomy and we shall manage quite well until the rainy weather comes, but must have a house then."
Mrs Malon purchased 2 acres of land from Frank Garrard and Pierre Alexis Hovelaque at a location she called "Suffolk Bay" (now known as Buckle Bay). More recently, this location has been the site of Neil Buckle's home, the Vargas Island Inn and the Cedar Coast Field Station. Arthur, Ted and George started to clear the land, and Mrs Malon arranged with a local contractor, Billy Hilton, to build the house. But there was bad news: "Monday October 7 1912 - Had a blow, Hilton came to say he could not build the house until next year. Horrid nuisance."
Mrs Malon was compelled to spend the fall and winter in the roomy shack. This is what the shack was like: "There is one large room, kitchen dining room etc with a good large stove and two smaller rooms, one for Violet and Eileen and the other for me and the two babies....It is airy, as there are many cracks in the wall and floor but it has advantages, as when sweeping all the dust disappears through the spaces in the floor to the ground beneath." But Mrs Malon got some home improvements! On Wednesday October 2 1912, Arthur made a door, and put it up, "much to our joy and comfort." On Saturday November 9 1912, George and Arthur put down the linoleum "which makes a great difference to the shack."
In winter 1913, there was some progress with the new house: "Sunday February 9 1913 - Hilton came over with patterns of wall paper." But maybe not as much progress as she wanted: "Saturday March 22 1913 - Hilton came last night to ask for more money which I am not going to give him." Finally the house was near completion: "Friday April 18 1913 -- Ted took Pierre and me to see the new house...Hilton has made good progress with the house. Gave him cheque for $45."
The house was completed in spring 1913. This photograph below shows the house as it looked when first built -- notice all the stumps surrounding it! A few years later, stumps would be cleared and Mrs Malon would have a large and productive garden.
Mrs Helen Malon's house on Vargas Island.
Photo taken circa 1913.
Photo courtesy of Joan Nicholson.
Mrs Malon's diaries pick up again in January 1916 and now give us a good idea of what her house was like. The house had room to operate the "Vargas Island Post Office" as well as a "school room". Yvonne and Pierre Malon were home-schooled by their sister Violet. The house had a kitchen with a new stove from Eatons' mail order catalogue. The house had indoor plumping, which seems to have been installed in 1916. "February 2 1916 -- finished pipes from bath and sink. A great blessing." Though at times the plumbing acted up. She relied on her neighbour P.A.H. (Hovelaque) to do plumbing repairs. "September 22 1917 -- P.A.H. fixed bath pipe which was stopped up."
Mrs Malon had a cozy house, but she spent most of her time outdoors in the garden or on the verandah that looked down to the beach, water and the mountains. She often mentions the verandah in her diary. This quote says it all: Friday February 18 1916 -- "Another perfect day which I spent on the verandah."
Mrs Malon enjoyed "picnics" (the term she used for outdoor meals). What better place than on the large verandah? It seems she could spend all day eating outside. On Thursday May 11 1916, Mrs Malon "got up at 6 am and had breakfast on the verandah." On Saturday March 10 1917, she "had dinner on the verandah yesterday and today, tea also." Mrs Malon was often on the verandah in her "big chair", looking out at the view and writing letters. Sitting on the verandah would be a good inspiration! This postcard below was sent from Yvonne Malon to Harold Monks in the late 1920s. The image was probably taken from the Malon property and is a similar view to what Mrs Malon would see from the verandah.
Panoramic from Vargas Island. Photograph taken in 1912-1928.
Image courtesy of Harold Monks collection.
During the early 20th century the "fresh air movement" was popular. People tried to get as much fresh air to avoid wide-spread tuberculosis. It was very common for houses of this time period to have "sleeping porches" so that people (especially children) could breathe in fresh air. Mrs Malon and the family used their verandah as a large sleeping porch. On Thursday June 14 1917, she wrote: "Children are going to sleep out on the verandah for the first time this year." On Sunday April 21 1918, "Pierre slept on the verandah by himself." A few months later, on Saturday June 1 1918, Yvonne celebrated her 12th birthday with a girls' sleepover party! Mrs Malon wrote: "Evelyn Garrard, Kitty Hopkins and Lily Sloman came over in the afternoon and brought their bags. We all put them to sleep on the verandah."
It's clear that the family enjoyed celebrating birthdays -- Mrs Malon and Violet were always making cakes! -- and they must have had many birthday meals on the verandah. On Saturday July 1 1916, Eileen's 21st birthday, the Garrards and Mrs Riley and Agnes Riley came over to spend the day. "Had all sorts of games on the verandah."
Happy days and times! The photograph of Mrs Malon and her family on the verandah is the only image we have of the family together. They had been re-united for only two years before war was declared. Arthur and Ted Abraham and George Anderson left Vargas Island. Arthur Abraham wrote to his mother: "You won't probably see us back now till the end of the war."
By the end of the war, Helen Malon's son Arthur Abraham had died and she was now living in a rented house in Saanich so her younger children could go to public school. Mrs Malon occasionally returned to Vargas Island for holidays, but in December 1921, she took Eileen, Yvonne and Pierre back to England and Jersey. They returned to Canada in the late 1920s.
Mrs Malon transferred her house to her son Pierre, who "batched" there in the early 1930s. His daughter Joan Nicholson recalled visiting the house as a very small girl and remembered a big fireplace. Mrs Malon's house is no longer standing but we understand that Neil Buckle built his house on the previous house's cement foundation.
Next time, in our feature Gardening on Vargas Island Past and Present, we will visit Mrs Malon's garden during the war years and visit the modern day gardeners on Vargas Island. Stay tuned!
Mrs Malon's identity card photo taken in Isle of Wight in 1922.
Image courtesy of Joan Nicholson.
Thank you to Mrs Malon's grand-daughter Joan Nicholson for sharing the following items:
Helen Malon's diary
Letters of recommendation for Jules-Ernest Malon
Arthur Abraham's letter to Helen Malon, August 1914
Other records consulted include:
Thomas Palmer Abraham's will, Suffolk Records Office
Interview with Ted Abraham, BC Museum and Archives, recorded by Bob Bossin in 1978.
England and Channel Islands Censuses
Victoria College records containing Mr Malon's obituary