Molasses cookies and knitted bandages…

This blog is one of two profiling the life of women during war, and the service of veteran Marion Leane Smith Walls. The first blog War, Women and Warcake.

The My Mother’s Cookbook recipe for Molasses Cookies, the rolled out version, demonstrates the skill of home cooks to ‘make do’. The recipe is an older style which dates back beyond its contributor Marguerite Stillwell, to her mother Bertha Blanch Barton Stillwell.

New Brunswick munition workers, at McAvity’s, St John. Photo courtesy of the PANB image #P149/11

Molasses has been a staple in Atlantic Canadian and New England Kitchens since ships from the West Indies began arriving to collect timber bound for Europe in the earliest days of British colonial settlement1. Cheap molasses had little or no market in Europe but filled the needs of settlers to the colonies. The trade soon grew to include fish from Atlantic Canada shipped to the West Indies as a cheap source of protein to feed slave and indentured sugar and cocoa plantations workers. It is small wonder molasses and salted /smoked fish maintain a presence in the diet of both Atlantic Canada and Caribbean nations such as The Dominican Republic, Trinidad & Tobago and Haiti, among others even today.

Women stringing herring to cure, Grand Manan c. 1945 Photo courtesy of the PANB Image # P93-CH/204

Growing up in the rural farming community of The Range, Waterbourgh Parish, Queens County, New Brunswick, Bertha Barton Stillwell’s diet was comprised in large part by dried salted meat, fish, beans, buckwheat and molasses. As other foods like sugar and wheat became more affordable, there is every likelihood Bertha’s family table still saw a pitcher of molasses and many a meal ended with bread and molasses.

Rural New Brunswick at Doaktown c.1890 Photo courtesy of the Our Miramichi Heritage Family FB site.

The dawn of the 20th century saw many rural Canadians choosing a life different than those of their parents. Limited economic opportunities, over crowding, poverty and the promise of an easier path saw many choosing to relocate to larger centers. Out migration was motivated by need in many cases, but not all, some families chose to leave, drawn by the promise of a modern life2.

Fredericton Junction, NB Train station c. 1915 Photo courtesy of PANB Image number P55-8

Bertha and her husband Thomas’ decision to move from their family farm to Fredericton might well have been motivated by the lure of town life and the modern conveniences it provided. Certainly, they were successful, Thomas found work in the Hartt Shoe factory working his way up to Foreman by 1921, they rented a home in North Devon (a neighbourhood of Fredericton’s Northside). Eventually the Thomas and Bertha would purchase a home in an upscale neighbourhood on Fredericton’s south side. Despite the resources they had, life presented challenges the First and second Wars, Influenza Pandemic, the Great Depression impacted everyone.

Hartt Boot and Shoe Company factory c. 1940, Photo courtesy of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick Image Number P194-466

During the First War, women at home did everything they could for the war effort, the Canadian wing of the Red Cross3 together with their church and community auxiliaries provided the vehicle. The Red Cross had established it’s self during the Boar War as an organization able to provide the necessities of life to those impacted by war, soldiers, and civilians.

Canadian Women’s Motor Ambulance c. 1940 Photo courtesy of the PANB Image # P249/25

Bertha, a young mother, would have volunteered her time knitting bandages and comfort items; scarves, mittens as well as contributing to care packages being sent to POWs and those recovering from wounds and injuries in United Kingdom hospitals and convalescent homes. The Red Cross provided the organizational and logistical supports necessary to deliver the efforts of Canadian women in to the hands of those who needed it, loved ones and strangers.

Train station Newcastle, NB awaiting a troop train. c1918 Photo courtesy of the Our Miramichi Heritage Family FB site.

At the beginning of the World War 1, Bertha found herself depending upon the old skills and techniques she’s once considered outdated. As some of the products she’d once depended upon in her modern city home became scarce, she would revisit old ingredients, old recipes and old habits. Even the old habit of collecting fat and bones became popular again, not for making soap but for use in munitions.

Nursing Sister assists a wounded soldier aboard an British Ambulance Train in France c. 1916

In her role as Nursing Sister on the Hospital trains4 in Northern France and Italy, Marion Smith Walls saw first hand the devastation war produced. She also saw the practical ways the Red Cross aided those suffering its effects. Marion would have used more than a few of those home knitted bandages to bind the wounds of her patients and seen the expressions of joy on the face of young soldiers receiving a care package from home. It is not in the least surprising that at the out break of the second World War Marion, with the aid of the Canadian Red Cross began to develop a similar program in her adopted home of Trinidad and Tobago.

Victory Parade Float with young girls c. 1919 Photo courtesy of the PANB Image # P140-156

In November of 1924, Marion and her husband Victor Walls made the voyage to San Fernando, Trinidad. Victor had been appointed as Principal at the long standing Presbyterian education mission at Naparima College5. The College, a residential school had been founded in 1894 by Dr. Kenneth Grant a fellow Atlantic Canadian, friend and mentor of Victor’s. Naparima served the educational needs of the male children of indentured Indian sugar, and chocolate plantation workers.

Nursing Sister Marion Leane Smith c.1918 Photo courtesy of the Australian War image #P01651.001

During their first 15 years in Trinidad and Tobago, Marion and Victor continued to build on the school’s success, and infrastructure. Marion established a school infirmary and assured nutritious and sufficient meals for students. She began educational programs on first aid and nursing, established the country’s first Nurses council and wrote text books on first aid and nursing in tropical climates. Marion was a nurse, she did what she knew to do, and that which needed doing. At the onset of World War 2, Marion and Victor mobilized, using the resources and network they had established at Naps, to begin Trinidad and Tobago’s contribution to the war effort.

Not only had Marion and Victor established themselves as excellent school and community leaders, they found themselves in the heart of the community’s very white elite, whites comprised only 3% of the population but controlled 99% of the political and business power. When Lady Young, the Australian born wife of the Governor Young decided to establish a Red Cross Committee both Marion and Victor agreed to be members. Marion and Victor realized the value a powerful figurehead would bring to the program, they placed their full support and resources behind the new organization.

Sadly, Lady Young’s leadership of the committee was fraught with conflict, some of which which grew to include accusations of racism during a spat with another high profile community member. Despite the dissension and the specific challenge of being the only ‘non white’ on the committee Marion faced, she managed to do her part. The committee and its work continued apparently in large part because of the hours of dedicated service of Marion Walls, the first Commandant of the Red Cross in Trinidad and Tobago. Marion Smith Walls was awarded the Distinguished War Service Medal for founding the Red Cross in Trinidad and Tobago and for her contributions to nursing and community development.

World War 2 in Canada saw an immediate upswing in support for the Red Cross, as the familiar programs from the first war were revisited with renewed vigor. The Canadian government played a far more active role, promoting nutrition guidance, encouraging Canadian’s to eat ‘patriotic foods’, teaming up with the Red Cross to engage Canadians in the cause. City dwellers dug up what ever land they had, backyard or front lawn to grow food, and create Victory Gardens. Young women worked in farm fields and became factory workers. Bertha, now in her sixties, drew on her old fashioned skill set, guiding and encouraging, as she watched her children and Grandchildren rediscover the value of the tried and true.

Formal food rationing programs began in January 1942, with sugar first, it would be followed by tea, coffee, butter and finally meat. This traditional recipe includes warm tea, a rationed commodity…waste not, want not!

My Mother’s Cookbooks rolled out Molasses Cookies

1 cup brown sugar
1 cup shortening
1 cup molasses
1 egg at room temperature
1 cup warm tea
5 cups sifted flour
1 tsp salt
3 tsp ground ginger
3 tsp soda
3 tsp baking powder
1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees F
2. In a mixing bowl cream sugar and shortening, add molasses, well beaten egg and tea;
2. In a second bowl sift flour and other dry ingredients together;
3. Add the dry ingredients to first bowl and mix to combine; set aside to rest for 10 minutes;
4. Roll out thick (1/2 inch /15 mm) and cut into cookies;
5. Bake 12 -14 minutes or until done.

About the contributor of this recipe…

Marguerite Bertha Stillwell born 1916, the youngest child of Bertha and Thomas, grew up in North Devon. After high school, Marguerite trained as a secretary, eventually working in government where she served as secretary to various provincial government leaders. The last number of years before retirement, Marguerite served as Executive Secretary to Premier Richard Hatfield.

Marguerite never married, choosing to live with her family until her father’s death. In the 1960’s Marguerite purchased a new home in a neighbourhood bordering the Universities, her elder brother Percy made his home with her until his death. I know Marguerite made these cookies, back in the early 1980’s she shared this recipe with me after she’d made a batch for our shared nephew, Chris. I have every confidence Bertha was smiling down at her daughter sharing old fashioned molasses cookies with her Great Grandson.

Bertha Blanch Barton Stillwell

Bertha was born 3 May 1876, The Range, Waterborough Parish, Queen county, NB. Her parents Mary Jane Flower and John William Barton were descendants of Loyalists settlers to Queens county.

Bertha and Thomas Stillwell had 7 children, sons: Cleveland, Percey and Ernest, daughters: Velma, Gladys, Doris and Marguerite.

Marion Elizabeth Smith

Marion Elizabeth Smith was born in Liverpool, New South Wales, Australia on 12 Mar 1892. Her parents George Smith and Elizabeth Leane Smith welcomed Marion to their family of two. When Marion was two years old her parents took their growing family first to England then to Canada, finally settling in Fredericton Junction, New Brunswick.

Marion Elizabeth C.1913

George Smith was a native of Hambledon, Hampshire, England and Elizabeth Leane Smith was born in Liverpool, Australia to William Leane and Lucy Walker Leane. It is with out doubt Elizabeth’s parentage through her Mother Lucy, was a major part of the family’s decision to leave Australia.

Elizabeth Leane Smith and George W. Smith c.1910

The Dharug peoples traditional lands are in what is now known as New South Wales, in the immediate area of Sydney, Australia. All Aboriginal nations in Australia have been negatively impacted by European settlement, but none more than those of the south including the Dharug clan.

The traditional way of life of the Dharug was hunting and gathering, lacking the necessary ‘farming’ relationship to the land to be viewed by European settlers as owners. Disease, violence, displacement and famine during and after colonization decimated first nations clans, including the Dharug. The social and political environment for a couple of mixed race was characterized by discrimination and violence. These conditions experienced first hand by Marion’s mother Elizabeth would have impacted the family’s decision to relocate.

William Leane and Lucy Walker Leane – Marion’s Grandparents. c. 1890

Mixed race children like Elizabeth were caught between two worlds, never really being fully a part of either. The decision to leave Britain after several years and the arrival of several more children was also very likely driven by opportunity for their family. The legacy of Elizabeth’s Mother Lucy’s Dharug heritage would follow the family, particularly Marion, as she and Victor set out on their lives together as Presbyterian missionaries in the West Indies.

There is little doubt had the Smith family remained in Australia, Marion would never have been able to complete school and train as a nurse. Australia’s only known Aboriginal woman to serve during the first world war, Marion Elizabeth Smith would not have been.

Explanations and Resources:

1. Triangular trade is the pattern of trade established by the European empires, where raw materials from the colonies were transported to Europe for processing and manufacturing. The slave trade, where Africans from West Africa were transported to the West Indies to toil in the sugar plantations, was key to triangular trade. The end of slavery did not end the lucrative trade. Trinidad and Tobago, a nation of two islands in the former British West Indies, was home to both sugar and cocoa plantations. Depending first on the labour of African slaves, by the mid 19th century, indentured servants from the Indian sub continent joined former slaves, toiling in the islands’ plantations.

2. Between 1900 – 1911 a full 25% of the population of Queens County New Brunswick moved out of the county. A prosperous farming area, the out migration has been explored by academics who have determined many of the migrants were seeking a modern life, feelings of isolation and being left behind encouraging families to move.

3. The history of the Canadian Red Cross:

4. Ambulance Trains – or mobile hospitals, saw service in conflicts before 1900, and would continue service through both World Wars. The trains were staffed by 3 medical officers, 3 nursing sisters and a large number of orderlies. Ambulance trains could transport as many as 500 wounded. The trains contained not only stretcher wards but operating theaters.
5. Naparima College Naparima College (informally known as Naps) is a public secondary school for boys in Trinidad and Tobago. Located in San Fernando, the school was founded in 1894 but received official recognition in 1900. It was established by Dr. Kenneth J. Grant, a Canadian Presbyterian missionary working among the Indian population in Trinidad. The school was one of the first to educate Indo-Trinidadians and played an important and crucial role in the development of an Indo-Trinidadian and Tobagonian professional class. Naparima is derived from the Arawak word (A) naparima, meaning ‘large water’, or from Nabarima, Warao for ‘Father of the waves’.


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