Between 1862 and 1870, four steam-powered ships travelled from England to Victoria packed with women and girls. The girls found themselves on board for a range of reasons, but overwhelmingly it was to escape a life without options. They were orphans, unmarried working girls or gentlewomen so old (in their mid- to late-20s, perhaps) that they were considered spinsters. They were escaping desperate poverty or hopeless circumstances at home in London to take a chance on whatever might be on the other side of the ocean. What was on the other side, waiting for them: men, thousands of them, many here for the Gold Rush.
They called it The Wife Experiment.
The largest of these so-called “Bride Ships” was the Tynemouth, which left Dartmouth, England, in September, 1862, with 60 women and girls as young as 12 on board. The ship arrived in Victoria 99 days later. The women aboard were considered cargo, tracked as an “invoice” and referred to as “living freight” to serve as a marital collaboration between the two countries. The ratio of men to women in B.C. was very high and, in England, they had the opposite problem. The vessels were sponsored by a Church of England charity.
“I’m always so shocked that I didn’t know about it,” says Tracy McMenemy, a multidisciplinary artist who is based in West Vancouver. “Even talking to you right now, we’re both [wondering]: How did we not know?”
McMenemy learned of this history during months of research, after being asked to create artwork around the theme of women at sea for the Vancouver Maritime Museum. The resulting exhibition, The Girls Are Coming!, opens this weekend, in conjunction with International Women’s Day.
“It did start off as a horrifying story [as I thought about] the fragility of the girls, but the more I worked with materials and the more it progressed along, it became really, really hopeful, and I started to feel the strength of them,” McMenemy says.
In 20 works, all created for this show, McMenemy uses maritime tools and materials – in particular, a falling-apart vintage sail that also worked as a central metaphor for the exhibition: The material is beautiful but visibly damaged; fragile, yet strong. For all it’s been through, it still exists, full of holes – but whole. Many of the works were created with fumage – images created by smoke from a candle or kerosene lamp. "Painting with smoke,” McMenemy calls it. “The candle becomes a paintbrush.”
The installation Life Saver sits in the middle of the gallery: eight Styrofoam mannequins covered in sailcloth, in a circle facing each other, with a single hand rising up from the middle. “I was crying when I was doing it,” McMenemy says during the show’s installation. She pictured girls in a circle, maybe holding hands, playing or supporting each other. “They were so young.” The mannequins are installed on a plinth with a mirrored surface so that when the viewer looks down at them, they see themselves in the mix.
The installation The Girls Are Coming!, which feels like the centrepiece of this exhibition, is created with a vintage wedding dress, puffed out over its crinolines and installed high on the wall against the sail, looking somewhat alive but ghostly, haunting but beautiful.
In Tynemouth, a single-channel video loop, the typewritten names of the 60 girls from Catherine A. Abington to Florence M.B. Wilson (a passenger list was found recently at the bottom of a box in the legislative building, then sent to the B.C. Archives) are projected onto a large piece of draped sailcloth, along with footage of the West Coast waves lapping the shore, shot by McMenemy with her iPhone. A soundtrack plays softly: Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, written a few years before this voyage, and the click-click-click of a typewriter (or, as I heard it, the tick-tick-tick of a clock).
This is not a story about romance and happy endings. To begin with, these women and girls endured subhuman conditions. They were kept below deck – away from the male crew members – soot-covered and suffocating in the poor air, with no fresh food and lack of sanitation. When they arrived, they were transferred onto another ship and were marched down the gangplank in pairs, as hundreds of men watched. After months without bathing, the women were made to wash outdoors, in front of the legislative building. “It must have been so humiliating,” McMenemy says.
Beyond the personal horrors, there is also the political motivation of this endeavour.
“I think they just wanted some white girls who would populate the province. They said it was all about social change, but I think it was really about social control,” McMenemy says. “It’s colonization. It’s a dark subject.”
The final work in the exhibition, Drop Me A Line, was created with a pair of vintage wooden doors; portraits of women in profile are fumaged onto the oval windows. One of the doors has a mail slot, and visitors are invited to drop a note about a woman they admire, who inspires them.
McMenemy plans to read these notes for a performance piece toward the end of the exhibition. “The idea is to connect the past to the present.”
The Girls Are Coming! is at the Vancouver Maritime Museum until June 16. Tracy McMenemy’s performance art piece is scheduled for June 13 at 7:30 p.m.