“Another perfect day which I spent on the verandah." – Mrs Helen Malon’s diary, February 18 1916
One of many happy pre-war summer days on a Vargas Island verandah -- Helen Malon sits in her big chair with youngest son Pierre on her knee. Her youngest daughter Yvonne stands beside her with Helen’s brother Uncle George Anderson. Helen’s children by her first marriage stand behind: Violet, Ted, Eileen and Arthur Abraham. The family had only recently reunited after years apart and would be separated once again by war.
In the spring of 2019, Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Museum presented an exhibit “Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War”. Mrs Malon was a key character in this exhibit. We are fortunate to have access to the diaries of Mrs Helen Malon, who lived with her family on Vargas Island from 1912-1918. Photographs and diary entries are courtesy of Mrs Malon’s grand-daughter Joan Nicholson.
"We have gone to a primitive life and no mistake, but I think we shall like it alright." – Mrs Helen Malon’s diary, July 18 1912.
In June 1912, Mrs Malon set sail from Liverpool, England. She was 49 years old and twice-widowed. She was travelling with her adult children Violet and Eileen Abraham and "the babies" Yvonne (6) and Pierre (4 years and 10 months). Mrs Malon was en route for Vargas Island in Clayoquot Sound where she planned to start a new life.
Mrs Malon was born Helen Anderson in 1863 in Gatacre (outside Liverpool) into a large well-to-do family of a solicitor, but soon experienced international adventure. In 1870, she sailed to Toronto, where her father Weir Anderson had a new job as the Commissioner of the Trust and Loan Company of Canada. The Andersons (including Margaret and George, who would later live on Vargas Island) spent several years in Canada. By 1881, Helen’s father had died, they had returned to England and were living in a genteel seaside resort, St. Leonard’s on Sea.
In 1883, Helen Anderson became a vicar’s wife, when she married Reverend Thomas Palmer Abraham, and moved to a small village in Suffolk. (Later, she would call the water in front of her Vargas Island home “Suffolk Bay”). Rev. and Mrs Abraham had four children: Arthur, Violet, Ted and Eileen. In March 1897, Rev. Abraham came home from a church service feeling ill. He was soon dead of pneumonia. Helen and her young family (Eileen was less than 2 years old), had to leave their home, though were well provided for by Rev. Abraham’s generous will.
Arthur and Ted Abraham in Suffolk, late 1880s.
In 1902 Arthur Abraham, then 17 years old, emigrated to New Zealand to become a clerk in his well-to-do Abraham uncles’ firms. In 1904, his brother Ted also emigrated there (Their aunt Margaret Anderson Pietzcker and uncle George Anderson were also living in New Zealand). It would be several years before Helen would see her sons again. In 1905, Helen re-married. Her new husband Jules-Ernst Malon was a French and German teacher at boys’ schools. Monsieur and Madame Malon moved to Caen, France, where Yvonne and Pierre were born.
Violet Abraham and Helen Malon, Caen France, 1909.
Eileen Abraham, Yvonne Malon and Pierre Malon and their mother Helen Malon in late 1912.
Helen’s health was not ideal – she had migraines and rheumatism – and in 1910, Monsieur Malon decided to move the family to the warm climate of St. Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands. J.E. Malon took a teaching job at the boy’s school Victoria College. The family had a nice year amongst the palm trees and tropical flowers – then disaster struck! In October 1911, J.E. Malon had taken a few days off teaching because he was feeling unwell. He appeared to recover and took his young children for a walk, but came home and collapsed, unconscious. A few hours later, he had died of a brain aneurysm.
Meanwhile, Helen’s sons Arthur and Ted Abraham had left New Zealand. By spring-summer 1911, they and their Uncle George Anderson had taken out pre-emptions of land on Vargas Island. The “boys” were so enthusiastic in their letters to their mother, that she decided (perhaps rashly, given the recent loss of her husband?) to join them!
"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 Helen Malon’s diary, July 18 1912.
Mrs Malon’s journey to the west coast included iceberg sightings in the north Atlantic (a few months after Titanic sinking!), a dusty and scorching train ride across the country, a sea-sick-making boat ride up the west coast and a layover at the “queer” Clayoquot Hotel. At last, Mrs Malon arrived on Vargas Island. She was rather shocked at what she found -- Arthur and Ted hadn't told her about the living arrangements!
But she decided to make the best of it. 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 and Marilyn 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 shack. Here is her description of the shack: "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 Malon's diaries pick up again in January 1916, when her recently widowed sister Margaret Pietzcker had just emigrated from New Zealand to join the family. Over the next couple of years, the sisters spent a lot time together, walking, gardening and especially trying to get their chickens to lay eggs!
Mrs Malon had a cozy house, but she spent most of her time outdoors, especially on the verandah that looked down to the beach, water and the mountains. She often mentions the verandah in her diary. 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.
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 (the first image in this article) is the only image we have of the family together. In August 1914, war was declared, and Arthur and Ted Abraham immediately left Vargas Island to join up. (George Anderson later enlisted too). In early August 1914, Arthur Abraham wrote to his mother: "You won't probably see us back now till the end of the war."
Mrs Malon did not see Arthur back on Vargas Island. Captain Arthur Thomas Abraham, Manchester Regiment, was killed in action at Ypres on October 22 1917. Ted Abraham and George Anderson survived the war and returned to Vargas Island after the war (Ted’s “war bride” Dorothy wrote about her experiences in “Lone Cone”). Mrs Malon left Vargas Island in summer 1918 and moved to Saanich so that Yvonne and Pierre could attend public school. She returned to her big house and verandah for holidays, but in December 1921, Mrs Malon, Pierre and Yvonne and her widowed daughter Eileen Garrard left BC. They spent the next 7 years on the Isle of Wight and on Jersey. This is the last photograph we have of Mrs Malon, taken in spring 1922 on the Isle of Wight.
Mrs Malon returned to BC in 1928 and moved to Victoria, where she died in 1936. Mrs Malon transferred the Vargas Island 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. The house was eventually abandoned and fell apart. It was burned down in the 1960s-70s and Neil Buckle built his house on the previous house's cement foundation.
Story researched and written by Stephanie Ann Warner, guest curator of “Vargas Island Ranchers at Home and at War” (spring 2019). Thank you to Joan Nicholson for sharing Malon and Abraham family mementos and photographs. Other resources include the Suffolk Records Office, Victoria College archives and Jersey Public Library.