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Gilberts: Chatham’s Jean Forsyth was one of Canada’s early divas

Last week we recounted the important role played by the Forsyth family in the establishment of Chatham in the 1830s.

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Last week, we recounted the important role played by the Forsyth family in the establishment of Chatham in the 1830s.

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But it is Jean Forsyth, the daughter of pioneers Daniel and Winifred Forsyth, who we want to take a look at this week. Jean was truly a remarkable lady.

At about the same time that Chatham was incorporated as a village in 1851, the Forsyth family received an unexpected gift in the form of a baby girl. Their last child had been born and died shortly afterward in 1846, and the couple were told not to expect any more children. So right from birth, this young girl was a special child.

Jean received her early education at a public school run by a Ms. Pratt on Colborne Street and, although we do not know what her grades were in other subject areas, we do know that Jean was extraordinarily gifted when it came to all forms of music. Even as a child, she was taken to local communities in Kent County to sing at churches.

Although there is not a record of where Jean received her schooling after elementary school, the fact remains that, with her father being quite well off from his highly sought-after position as tax assessor and collector, Jean’s schooling was meant to give her the makings of a lady.

She quickly became a much sought-after singer in concert tours in London, Kingston, Guelph, Detroit, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago.

All of this exposure suddenly led to her being offered the job as soprano soloist in the choir at Winnipeg’s Grace C

Winnipeg was a prosperous and growing town of 10,000 people when Jean Forsyth arrived in August 1893, and music was very much a part of their cultural growth. Her superb musical ability and genial manner soon attracted the attention of the “who’s who” in Winnipeg and she quickly became part of the elite of the city’s society.

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Only six months after arriving in Winnipeg, Jean became a central figure in the campaign to create a chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and, by 1894, the Humane Society of Winnipeg was firmly established with Jean being a key member on the board of directors.

At the same time, the Winnipeg Conservatory of Music was established with Jean Forsyth as a major proponent of this organization and subsequently employed her as a vocal teacher. The role of a vocal teacher was one she embraced early in her career and one she pursued throughout her life with a great deal of success.

By 1898, Jean was being hailed by music critics in the Winnipeg Free Press as “a vocalist that is excelled by no one in this city.”

Her fame spread so far afield that, in 1898, she was offered a paid choir position “in one of the largest churches in New York.” Jean, never one to back down from any challenge, took the position and stayed in New York as a soloist and teacher for a little less than two years when she returned once again to Winnipeg.

By the time of her return in 1899, Jean Forsyth was firmly established as a noted soprano, excellent vocal teacher, animal activist and socialite. She was seen at almost every social event, whether it be at Government House or a small euchre party.

Nearing age 50 in 1901, Jean resigned her position that had brought her to Winnipeg in the first place as soloist at Grace United Church and decided to concentrate on teaching vocal music.

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Upon her retirement from her soloist career, she was described in the local newspaper as being “the most capable and reliable church singer in the history of Winnipeg.”

However, Jean Forsyth was not content to go quietly into the “retirement home” and bask in her many past glories. In 1907, at age 56, she again moved. This time, the move took her to Edmonton, which, with a population of 15,000, had been made capital of the new province of Alberta.

It was here that Jean took on new roles in life that were to take her in unexplored territories and possibly formed for her the most exciting and prosperous times in her career.

More about that next week when we continue the follow the life of one of Canada’s most famous early divas and a young lady from Chatham.

The Gilberts are award-winning historians with a passion for telling the stories of C-K’s fascinating past.

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