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my grandmother Ada Nayler Butwell Forsyth

by Pat Staton | January 24, 2000

Ada Nayler was born in the village of Penge in Surrey, England, January 12, 1868. She was the youngest child of James Nayler and Eliza Harris. Her father was a brick maker. When she was three years old, her family emigrated to Canada. They were among thousands of immigrants from England, Ireland, Scotland and Europe who endured terrible hardships on cross Atlantic voyages. The Naylers settled in Madoc, near Belleville, Ontario.

The family’s first home was a log cabin similar to the cabin the well known pioneer, Susannah Moodie, described in Roughing It In The Bush.

Ada attended school only until Grade 4 when her father died. All the children had to leave school to help support the family, so Ada was apprenticed as a maidservant to a local family. Eliza Nayler took comfort that her youngest child was nearby and would be well fed. Ada’s work included cleaning fireplaces, carrying firewood, cleaning boots, sweeping and dusting, feeding the chickens and helping with laundry.

This was Ada’s life until 1888, when she and her sister Eliza were married in a double wedding ceremony to Richard and Mark Butwell, the sons of another brickmaker. The couples moved to Toronto, where Ada’s father-in-law, Henry Butwell, had opened a brickyard near Clinton and Bloor.

Ada was considered a great beauty as a girl and received a number of marriage proposals. Just before her wedding, one of the disappointed young men, John Forsyth, called to her across the crowded main street that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. One day she would be his wife “no matter how long I have to wait!”

For the next 30 years, Ada cooked, cleaned, and sewed for her family. She had four children who survived: Laura 1892, Arthur 1894, Ross 1896 and Doris 1908. In addition to child care, housework, the care of chickens, two dairy cows and a horse, she prepared a hot noon meal six days a week for the five men who worked in the brickyard. Ada also made butter which she sold to the T. Eaton Company. Every Saturday afternoon, she hitched up the horse and buggy for the drive to the Eaton store in downtown Toronto. There she sold her butter to Mr. Timothy Eaton. When Ada was an old woman, she liked to tell her grandchildren that Mr. Eaton always said she made the best butter and he always gave her the best price. The money she earned from butter and eggs provided the only cash income the family could depend on. In return for working 11 hours a day in his father's brickyard, Ada's father was given a rent-free house, a horse, chickens and occasional cash payments. Ada’s tremendous workload was taken for granted in her day. When the 1891 census was taken, Ada was asked if she worked. She said “No.” Her occupation is listed in the census as “housewife.”

Henry, the family patriarch, died in 1921 leaving his brickyard, construction business and real-estate holdings equally divided among his ten children. His death was followed by years of family struggles for control, which led to lawsuits and decline into near-bankruptcy. Ada’s husband, who eventually assumed responsibility for the brickyard, had no education (he could not read), no head for business, and preferred spending his time at John Duck’s Tavern in Humber Bay with his cronies. His accidental death on a fishing trip in 1933, around the time the business failed, left Ada at 65 with almost nothing except the large brick family home on Lakeshore Boulevard. She survived by renting out the second floor bedrooms and keeping a garden. Her children helped when they could, but they had their own young families to support.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the large house on the lake was filled on weekends and summer holidays with her seven grandchildren. We swam and played on the beach in the summer. Rainy days and winter Sundays found us up in the attic ransacking trunks and boxes for costumes for the dramatic productions we created. An old, hand-cranked victrola provided background music, not always strictly in keeping with the blood curdling themes of our plays.

The sale of the house in the mid-1940s allowed Ada to retire in comfort to a small bungalow not far from her oldest daughter and a short walk to church. One day, Ada answered a knock on her front door. John Forsyth stood on the porch holding a large bouquet of red roses. He had married and had a family, he told her, and his wife had died exactly one year earlier. He had come to keep his promise. Ada and John eloped to Niagara Falls and telephoned the news of their marriage. Her sons were horrified and called it a scandal; her daughters were pleased for her. Ada and John had only a few years together, but those years were filled with love and companionship.

more to consider

Ada was apprenticed as a maidservant to a local family when she was about nine years old. That was not unusual. It took years of lobbying for laws that set minimum ages for employment. Child labour and the treatment of the girl-child around the world are gaining media attention and activism in Canada. Our own history teaches us that such things have to be made to change and stop – they do not change or stop on their own.

resources for this story


  • Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada, by ANNA JAMESON, McClelland and Stewart, ISBN: 0771099622 | 1990
  • Roughing it in the Bush, by SUSANNA MOODIE, McClelland and Stewart, ISBN: 0771099754 | 1989
  • The Backwoods of Canada, by CATHERINE PARR TRAILL, McCLelland and Stewart, ISBN: 0771099770 | 1989
  • Your Loving Anna, by LOUIS TIVY, University of Toronto Press, ISBN: 0802019277 | 1972
  • Sisters in the Wilderness:The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, by CHARLOTTE GRAY, Viking, ISBN: 0670881686 | 1999
  • Our Grandmothers, Ourselves: Reflections of Canadian Women, by GINA VALLE, ed., Raincoast Books, ISBN: 1551922703 | 1999
  • The Eatons, by ROD McQUEEN, Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited, ISBN: 0773731202, especially chapter 1, Timothy:The Governor | 1998


from the National Film Board of Canada:

  • First Winter (0181-018)
  • Just a Lady (0180-095)

On the NFB website, see CinéRoute, the NFB’s online film library. Schools, universities, public libraries, community organizations and individuals can access the NFB’s vast collection online.

This feature was first published on's predecessor site CoolWomen.


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