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Lady Lynn Bagnall (Madge Edgar)

by Margare Edgar Benitz | February 12, 2004

Madge Edgar was born in Scotland in 1898, and came to Canada in 1913 with her family. They settled in Edmonton, Alberta. After graduating from school, she worked as a secretary, which was one of the three fields open to women; the others being nursing and teaching. In 1920, she went to Chicago, and then to New York, hoping to expand her career horizons. She worked for the courts in Chicago, and eventually tried modeling with Bonwit Teller, and acting with the help of Ruth Gordon, but returned home to Canada in 1923 when her mother died.

Her court experience helped her find work with Newton Rowell, a prominent lawyer and retired politician. Rowell, a man of severe Christian principles, scrupulously followed, encouraged Madge to expand her horizons though, as she said, “I was not his kind of woman.” They forged a working relationship that allowed Madge to expand into broader responsibilities, including researching and travelling through Canada and abroad. With Rowell, Madge’s world grew, embracing politics, travel and international affairs.

She shared an apartment with two women. They were all aware that the men they might have married probably died in World War One. To live a full life, they knew it was essential to excel in their fields. Incomes and opportunities available for men were denied women. They were determined to prove themselves.

Under Newton’s aegis, Madge became involved with:

  • the union of three Protestant churches, now the United Church
  • the development of the protocol for the “Pacific Settlement of International Disputes” (now known as the Geneva Protocol) for the League of Nations
  • the establishment of an External Affairs Department, which Canada did not have, and Rowell urged for
  • the distillery scandal in 1925, with Madge using research and detective skills, along with her understanding of accounting practices
  • the development of a Canadian communication service, which became the Canadian Broadcast Corporation

In 1928, Nellie McClung and the Fabulous Five approached Rowell, requesting that he argue the Persons Case. The government, in 1887, passed an act entitled Cattle and Women and Children, which indicated that women were not persons and could not hold seats in the Senate. The decision was upheld by the Supreme Court. Rowell argued the case to the Privy Council in Britain, aware, as Madge was, that if he failed, the future of women in Canada would be drastically altered.

Canada was less than 60 years old, and Rowell and Madge were aware that they were working on the building blocks that would form this nation.

Madge travelled as Newton’s assistant to Turkey for a conference on International Trade. In 1930, she travelled to Japan. With typical thoroughness, on her own time, she learned basic Japanese beforehand. In Japan, Rowell heard, with jubilation, that he had won the Persons Case.

The seven years she worked with Rowell saw her abilities, and interests, expand exponentially.

In June, 1930, she married (Major) Alan (“Mike”) Turnbull, M.C. It was a happy but short marriage. “Mike,” a World War One veteran, three times wounded, died in 1933 due to complications of being gassed at Ypres.

In 1934, Madge married John Bagnall. He renamed her Lynn. John was involved with the tin industry, and they lived an idyllic life in cosmopolitan Singapore from 1934–1942. An accomplished hostess, Lynn entertained frequently and widely with her husband. John was knighted in 1936. In 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese. The governor ordered Lynn to leave three days before the surrender. She arrived safely in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Leaving later, John’s boat was sunk, but, after walking through the islands, he arrived weeks later.

They began again in Johannesburg, South Africa. Skills developed previously helped immensely. John bought tin for munitions, principally in Ruanda, Tanganyika, and the Belgium Congo. Madge recorded all trips starting in 1943.

They took these trips by trains through Zimbabwe, on stern wheeler boats down the Congo, by motor to Tanganyika. Food was often execrable and “facilities” missing or minimal. Near the Kyera Tin Minews at Mbarara, they bought East African shillings to purchase tin from individuals in small quantities. Often, the car held 20,000 East African shillings. The weight made it sway dangerously.

At night, lions often roared outside their windows. Gouge marks under the piano in one house spoke of a leopard taking the family dog during the daylight hours.

Often, she was the first white woman seen in decades. Lynn hoped she “kept up my side.”

In 1944, she nearly died of TseTse Fly Fever.

In 1946, she returned to Canada for an overdue family visit.

In 1947, assessing each place from a business aspect, they explored New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania. A strike complicated their plans, so, always up for a challenge, they signed on as crew at a shilling per month. In 1948, they travelled to Brazil and Argentina. Out of habit, she learned Spanish.

In 1949, John indicated speaking French could be beneficial. She was 51 when she enrolled in the school at Tours, which trained diplomats, immersing herself until she became fluent.

Although she had no children, she never forgot her nieces and nephews, writing and sending gifts from exotic locales, always encouraging them to expand their abilities and their worlds.

In the late 1950s, John died. Lynn returned to be near family in Canada, dying in Victoria in 1984.

resource for this story

N.W. Rowell, Ontario Nationalist, by MARGARET PRANG, University of Toronto Press | 1975

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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