The May Court Club of Ottawa has a proud history dating back to a sunny day on April 30, 1898, when Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor General, summoned 100 young ladies, daughters of the leading families of Ottawa, to a garden party at Rideau Hall. She appointed Ethel Hamilton, daughter of the Anglican Archbishop of Ottawa, as “May Queen” with seventeen councillors, and, in her speech, Lady Aberdeen told them that “… the solutions to all life’s difficulties … can be put in one word – SERVICE”.
Over the last many years the May Court Club of Ottawa has endeavoured to remain true to Lady Aberdeen’s vision, giving service, willingly and liberally, and financial support whenever it was possible.
“The May Court Club: One hundred years of community service”, published in celebration of the Club’s centenary, is available on request from the Club office.
Summary of the History of the May Court Club
- Lord Aberdeen was Governor General of Canada from 1893 to 1898.
- His wife, Lady Aberdeen, was a vigorous advocate for social reform during her 5 years in Canada, and she used her position and experience to advance her causes.
- She started much needed poverty relief organizations such as those she knew in Britain, and was instrumental in founding the National Council of Women, The Victorian Order of Nurses, and the Charity Organization Society in Ottawa.
- Volunteerism had to be an integral factor in the organizations that lady Aberdeen spearheaded.
- In 1898 she hosted an elaborate May Day Celebration that included the maiden daughters of Ottawa society among its guests. The event illustrated all the pleasures that May Day engenders, including the crowning of a May Day Queen and 12 counsellors named for a one year term. In her opening address, Lady Aberdeen planted a seed. She encouraged the young women to commit themselves to lives of service, both within their homes and in society.
- In October of that year, the first Ottawa May Day Queen called a meeting of her counsellors and other young women and proposed to form a club with the object of “according girls of leisure opportunities of improving their talents and characters, and of helping girls with less time at their disposal”. The idea was enthusiastically accepted and the May Court Club of Ottawa began. From the very beginning the focus was on community service to the needs of women, children and the disabled, be it through one-on-one service or fundraising for a specific cause.
- Membership eligibility began with those young women of leisure but progressed in 1908 to include married women.
- The early accomplishments of the May Court Club are impressive. Some highlights. In 1905 it equipped and maintained a children’s ward in both the Protestant General Hospital and the Water Street Hospital. That same year it also established a library at St. Luke’s Hospital that continued at the Civic Hospital up until 2019 when Covid-19 restrictions forced temporary closure.
- In 1908 Club members began assisting the Victorian Order of Nurses by visiting the sick, supplying nourishing food, making necessary hospital items and raising necessary funds.
- also in 1908, the Club opened the first free tuberculosis dispensary in Canada, providing free examinations , food, clothing, and family assistance to those affected.
- During WW 1, the Club continued its support for local medical needs. As well it contributed to the Red Cross war work. By the end of the war it was reported that 94,269 garments had been made and sent overseas by May Court Volunteers.
- In 1916 the Club opened The May Court Convalescent Home, which was operated in one form or another until 1997 when the provincial government changed its focus to long term care, and the facility was no longer viable. When it was officially closed, the Club accepted a co-venture proposal from The Hospice of All Saints and opened The Hospice at May Court in 1999. Since then it has become part of Hospice Care Ottawa, and its official name now is May Court Hospice. Every year May Court members vote to give May Court Hospice $100,000.00 towards its utilities, and its quarters in the May Court building are provided rent free.
- By the end of WW II the Club was supporting the work of 21 different Committees, some dating back to 1898.
- Throughout its history the Club has worked to raise funds in many ways. It has hosted grand balls, fetes, bazaars, puppet shows, literary evenings, and musical evenings. As well, it has supported Homes for the Holidays, a popular Hospice Ottawa fundraiser. The Club also solicited private donations as well .
- Today, the largest fundraiser is The Bargain Box, a thrift shop on Laurier Ave, which was begun in 1971. Until Covid-19 restrictions impacted its operations, it raised approximately $95,000.00 a year after expenses. Even with the restrictions, it raises almost $80,000 a year.
Highlights of the May Court Club’s Accomplishments
For some of the highlights of the May Court Club’s history, please look at one or more of the following:
• In 1908 the May Court Club opened the first Tuberculosis Dispensary in Canada (indeed the fourth of its kind in the world);
• in 1910, 574 patients were provided with 4,000 quarts of milk, 380 dozen eggs, medicine and warm clothing ;
• in 1924 the May Court Club bought a chest X-ray machine for the Clinic;
• by 1928 over 1500 patients were seen annually;
• and the May Court Committee continued to operate the dispensary and clinic until 1966 when these were transferred to the City of Ottawa after 58 years of voluntary and financial service by the May Court Club.
The May Court Convalescent Home for Women
• the first Convalescent Home for women was opened at 199 O’Connor Street in Ottawa on December 8, 1916 by the Duchess of Devonshire, wife of the Governor General;
• in November 1920, Sir George and Lady Perley donated a large home and property at 270 Cooper Street to be used as a combination convalescent home and Club rooms;
• in 1959, having outgrown its Cooper Street facility, the Club purchased a 2 ½ acre property on Cameron Avenue and, thanks to a positive response from a massive public appeal, was able to build a one storey annex to house its convalescent home;
• a bequest in 1982 from the former Elizabeth Residence, following their fire, enabled the Club to add a ten bed addition to the home which allowed it to accommodate 50 patients at any one time;
• Ontario government regulations which did not recognise short term care and required that the Convalescent Home comply with long term care regulations, at unreasonable expense, resulted in the decision of the May Court Club to close the Convalescent Home in 1997, after 81 years of service to the community;
• since 1999 the May Court Convalescent Home has been home to the May Court Hospice.
• in the late 1970’s the Club established its Palliative Care Committee at the Riverside Hospital, part of the first Palliative Care Service in Ottawa;
• volunteers provided support for the professionals;
• funding for three Palliative care nurses was provided by the Club for three years;
• when the Palliative Care Unit was incorporated into the hospital on a permanent basis, Club funding was no longer required but the Club continued to fund post-graduate education programs for nurses in the unit and to provide volunteer support;
• the Palliative Care Committee was disbanded in 1999, but the Club continues to support palliative care in the city through its involvement with Hospice Care Ottawa and particularly the May Court Hospice to which it provides rent-free accommodation and a yearly monetary grant for expenses.
• In the early years community service focused largely on work at the Protestant Hospital, the Water Street Hospital and St. Luke’s Hospital with emphasis on the needs of women and children;
• During World War I the Club worked with the Red Cross rolling bandages, knitting socks and helping women who were undergoing hardship because of their husbands’ service overseas. Later work with the Red Cross involved many years of volunteering at Blood Donor Clinics. To learn more about the Club’s present commitment to the community, please go to our Community Projects page.
• the first May Court Club fundraiser was an exhibition of handicrafts in December 1898 which was proud to deposit $8.72 to the Club’s coffers!;
• this was followed in 1910 by the May Court Club Vaudeville whose $1200 profit went to furnishing a new children’s ward at the Water Street Hospital;
• while craft sales continued, and continue, to be part of fund-raising, balls became the main source of fundraising for many years;
• the first May Court Ball was held on New Year’s Eve 1906 in the Old Racquet building on Metcalfe Street and raised $675;
• over the years the May Court Ball became the social event of the season, attended by Governors General, many diplomatic guests and prominent members of Ottawa society;
• the 50’s and 60’s were the days of lavish balls with elaborate cabarets, impressive guest lists and they provided much needed funds for the Club;
• other spectacular fundraisers included concerts at the National Arts Centre featuring Arthur Fiedler, and Moe Koffman and André Gagnon;
• from 1991 until 2008 the Club held an annual Christmas event at the Rideau Centre. Fantasy Trees and Treasures featured a raffle of decorated Christmas trees and treasures such as Christmas wreaths and hand-embroidered stockings;
• in 1992, the May Court Designer Showcase, the first of its kind in Ottawa, was made possible by contributions from the city’s foremost interior designers and landscape architects in the refurbishment of the Chelsea Club on Metcalfe Street, an event which involved all May Court members and was a huge financial success, and
• the Bargain Box which, since 1971 has continued to be a vital source of income for the Club. Volunteers cheerfully sort, price and sell clothing and household items, all of which are donated and gratefully received.