Sun, May 23, 2004
Beck maligned as unsuitable suitor
By James Reaney
No beautiful young London bride-to-be ever received a chillier blast of discouragement from a beloved uncle than Lady Beck.
The great horsewoman, philanthropist, singer and society leader was still the teenaged Lilian Ottaway of Hamilton when word of her whirlwind courtship with London businessperson Adam Beck reached her English relatives in the spring of 1898.
Lilian had been under the care of her English aunt and uncle -- Ada Louisa Bridge and Sir John Bridge of London, England, and Headley Grove in Surrey -- for most of her life. Her father, English barrister Cuthbert J.
Ottaway, had died before she was born in 1878. Lilian's young mother, Marion Stinson of Hamilton, had returned to Steeltown and remarried in the 1880s.
In 1896, Lilian rejoined her mother, now married to lawyer Peter Crerar, and their children at Hamilton. Shortly after, she met Beck at a Hamilton horse show. Beck was more than 20 years older than Lilian. He was soon to become the driving force behind Ontario Hydro and was already a leading business and sporting figure.
Romantic electricity sizzled. Marriage plans and a move to London were in the offing. As a tribute to Lilian's upbringing, Beck would have the London mansion where they were to live renamed Headley. (It was demolished more than 10 years ago).
The Bridges were not amused by the engagement. In mid-March, Aunt Ada wrote a whining letter to her "dear Lily" about Adam Beck, whoever he was, being too old for her. Ada also made a slight about Crerar.
Even colder than Aunt Ada's response was the icicle fired off by Sir John, a Bow Street magistrate. His letter is dated March 16, 1898, from Police Court, Bow Street in London, England.
After getting a few niceties out of the way, Sir John rumbled away: "I do not think I ought to approve of any husband of whom I know nothing and of whom I do not believe that your father would have approved if he had been now alive. I never heard of Mr. Adam Beck until (a female relative of Lilian's) came over last autumn, when she spoke of him as a man who was very obliging in finding horses. I now hear of him as betrothed to yourself and that he is 40 years of age," Sir John wrote.
The Bridges' letters have surfaced as part of a private collection in the London region. The collection includes letters and other material once in the possession of the Becks' daughter, Marion Auria Beck, who died in 1944.
Long out of sight, these letters and other material may wind up in a public institution through their owners' generosity. I was allowed to use the material as the basis for a recent talk about Lady Beck at the London and Middlesex Historical Society.
Sir John's letter stood out as the least friendly bit of writing in the bunch. If his verdict on Adam Beck is an example of any reflection of his courtroom manner, pity the poor souls hoping for mercy before him.
"I am sure that if your father were alive, he would make the age a great objection, for in
10 years' time, you will be the most perfect age of womanhood, while he will be a comparatively old man. This is certainly not desirable; and it ought most carefully to be considered," Bridge pointed out, not entirely unreasonably.
Then the judge started another rant, just because Beck -- like Lilian herself -- was a horse fancier and great rider.
"I also hear that he is much given to racing. This last prevents a man from being much at home and should be considered by you before it is too late. I have not heard from your mother; but your letter does not look as if she were much pleased. Last spring you said that you were certainly coming over this spring; it is a great disappointment that you are not coming, but this cannot be helped," the judge continued.
As another letter in the collection shows, the judge didn't have any evidence for saying Lilian's mother was not pleased. A touching letter from Marion Stinson Crerar to Lilian shows Beck had impressed the bride-to-be's mother.
Sir John saved his worst for last. "After you marry the income of your property will be paid to you, except the #500 a year payable to your mother. I hope that this consideration is in no way influencing you or him," is how his unpleasantness concluded.
"Yours very affectionately," the judge signed off. Hah!
Did Lilian flinch at this rebuke? The collection that included this gem does not yield a response. But my bet is she just jumped right over it, the way she guided the Becks' great horses to triumph so many times. She went ahead with her plans and the marriage was a happy one.
The judge's chill and ill will certainly had no effect on the wedding at Hamilton's Christ Church Cathedral. The Free Press account of the spectacular Sept. 7, 1898, nuptials is thick with references to lilies for the bride's nickname of Lily.
The Free Press coverage also includes details of the gifts.
The bride's stepfather and mother gave a solid silver tray.
The bride's young Crerar brothers gave the couple a china tea set hand-painted with lilies of the valley. Lady Bridge gave jewelry.
Big-hearted Sir John sent a cheque.