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Publication: Globe and Mail, The add link
Issue: 20 October 2007, page S10
Web Link: link


Arctic pioneer married famous explorer on strength of a telegram

In 1938, she dropped everything and sailed north to wed a man she scarcely knew. Her honeymoon with the 'Lone Wolf of the Arctic' was spent mapping Baffin Island


Special to The Globe and Mail; Globe and Mail archives

October 20, 2007

OTTAWA -- When Ella Manning told her family and friends she was pulling up stakes and moving to the North to marry Arctic explorer Tom Manning, everyone tried to convince her not to go.

Seven decades ago, in the 1930s, well-brought-up ladies just didn't do something so adventurous and outrageous. Determined to go her own way and do exactly as she pleased, Mrs. Manning didn't care what anyone thought. She was 32 and felt she was meant to share Mr. Manning's life in the Arctic, and that's all there was to it.

His marriage proposal was a bit unconventional, to say the least. There was no courtship or declaration of undying love on bended knee. Instead, in April, 1938, she found a telegram waiting for her at her Montreal home. "If you wish to join me at Cape Dorset this summer for two years I shall be pleased. Think well. Fools rush in. I shall not be able to receive a reply. Tom Manning."

Mr. Manning, an ornithologist and explorer known as the "Lone Wolf of the Arctic," had asked an Inuit man to take his offer to the nearest radio transmitter. That took three months, but she eventually received it.

That was all the adventurous Ella, known as Jackie or Jenny to her friends, needed to start making plans. She had met Mr. Manning in 1935, and not seen him since, but she was content. Thoughts of buying a wedding dress and trousseau never entered her head. Her belongings, including a stock of toothbrushes, filled just half of a small kit bag, she wrote in her 1943 book, Igloo for the Night.

Packing was the easy part. After that, she had to convince the Hudson's Bay Company to assign her a berth on one of its ships, the Nascopie, due to sail from Montreal in early July on its annual journey to HBC posts. That was the hard part because various officials, amazed at her request, seemed to enjoy giving her the runaround on "general principles," she wrote.

"No white woman had ever gone to the Arctic to live away from the posts; it was madness to try and keep up with the travels and share the hard life of the man who had asked me to go. So they made excuses: Mr. Manning had not been heard of for a long time, and they didn't know where he had gone."

One unidentified HBC official was even worried that Mrs. Manning would not be able to replenish her makeup. "What will you do for fresh supplies of face powder, nail polish and cosmetics generally?"

Mrs. Manning put him in his place with a characteristic, no-nonsense answer: "No one is going to know if I powder my nose or not. And, as for nail polish, I think its lack will be no great hardship."

As for her family and friends, they "shook their heads gravely, and pondered to themselves - I'm sure they did - the improbability of my ultimate survival among the terrifying perils and hardships of an unknown land."

In the end, she sailed on the Nascopie on July 8, 1938. Sixteen days later, on July 24, she reached Cape Dorset. The wedding ceremony was conducted on board by the Bishop of the Arctic, Archibald Fleming. The best man was the son of Lord Tweedsmuir, then governor-general, who was a passenger. The ring came from a copper engine fitting. "My old Harris tweed suit took the place of satin and lace," wrote Mrs. Manning. "I couldn't find my one-and-only pair of gloves. There were no flowers and music."

For a honeymoon, she helped her husband to continue his task of mapping the west coast of Baffin Island, and gathering bird specimens for museums down south. A larger-than-life figure who spoke sparingly, Mr. Manning begun exploring the north in 1932, when he was just 21.

Now he had a partner in his new wife. Travelling in her husband's tiny boat, the Polecat, and later by dog sled, Mrs. Manning quickly learned to do without the perks of civilization she'd been used to. "Goodbye to clean white sheets," she wrote ruefully. She wore a shirt, breeches and a duffle dicky, a parka-like garment. Outer pants were made of seal or bear skin. Boots were sealskin.

Their epic journey was a perilous one. "The country where we proposed to live was unknown to us, but also to the native who accompanied us. We expected to be at least 300 miles from the nearest HBC post, and the supplies we were taking with us would have to last, with few additions, for over a year. There were no natives within 250 miles of us in any direction. All of this I accepted without a qualm."

The tiny Polecat was crammed with supplies: Flour, butter, jam, milk, tobacco, pemmican and about 800 litres of fuel. Also on board were seven dogs to pull the sled, and four puppies. More puppies were born later.

Mrs. Manning quickly learned the many skills needed to survive in the Arctic, where the temperature in winter can dip to -40 and the weather can turn treacherous in a heartbeat. It took her seven attempts, but she finally made a pair of fur mittens. She learned how to keep a blubber lamp - essential to produce heat and light in an igloo or tent - burning, and how to make bannock, a dietary staple.

She often went for a walk at midday to escape the "smell and squalling and general offensiveness of the tent," accompanied by a black-and-white puppy named Mephistopheles "who looked uncommonly like a little devil and who loved me and nobody else."

Looking around her, Mrs. Manning was struck by the grandeur of the North. "Everywhere was silence except for the cracking of the ice with the rise and fall of the tide. Occasionally, although no hostile sound broke the eternal frozen emptiness, I felt that I was being watched. Doubtless I was, but it was not the eyes of hare or fox that I sensed. I felt a Presence, something was observing, coldly judicial."

It was easy to let her imagination run riot, she wrote. "There was such supreme, desolate, foreign indifference towards my own puny insignificance; the longer I remained in the north, the more I realized how little the north cared for my life or death. I was not of any importance. Nowhere was there a shelter for the night, unless it was built with our hands; never was there food or warmth unless secured through our own unremitting efforts. There was no rest from the struggle to keep body and soul together."

It was a long way from her Nova Scotia childhood. After growing up on a farm, she attended Dalhousie University in Halifax and graduated with a degree in history and Latin in 1930. After that, she moved to Montreal and worked as a nurse and as a teacher.

Along the way, she met the dour but charismatic Mr. Manning and something clicked. Their meeting turned out to be a singular experience, in more ways than one. After joining him at Cape Dorset, they spent almost two years together while surveying, and seldom encountered another human being. Finally, her husband had a disturbing dream, wrote Mrs. Manning in Igloo for the Night, and that impelled them to return south by dog sled to Cape Dorset. They arrived on Jan. 2, 1940, to be told that the Second World War had begun.

Eager to participate in the war effort, Mr. Manning continued around the Foxe Basin on a journey by boat and dog team that covered 3,200 kilometres and lasted just over a year. When they arrived at Churchill, Man., to take a train south, he met a United States Air Force officer who asked whether the story he had heard about Mr. Manning's killing a polar bear with a boning knife was true. Mr. Manning replied, "It was not a very big bear."

He subsequently enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy and helped direct the building of Arctic airfields and worked on developing cold-weather clothing.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Manning spent most of the war in Ottawa. When peace returned she went back to the North while he, under the auspices of the Geodetic Survey of Canada, established ground control points for an RCAF aerial photographic survey. A Summer on Hudson Bay, Mrs. Manning's account of the undertaking, was published in 1949.

In the late 1960s, the Mannings separated but never divorced. Mrs. Manning remained on good terms with her husband until his death in 1998, and spent her remaining years in Ottawa.


Ella Wallace Jackson Manning was born Oct. 26, 1906, in Mill Village, near Shubenacadie, N.S. She died of congestive heart failure in Ottawa on Sept. 25, a month short of her 101st birthday. Her husband predeceased her.