Mary Smith, Historic St.Marys
This week’s column marks the 254th birthday on Jan. 25 of Robbie Burns, the greatly loved Scots poet. The photograph shows John Gray with his Highland Dance class in St. Marys, circa 1910. (Most were girls but there are several little boys among his students.)
All things Scottish were very popular in the last years of the 19th century and the early 20th century, partly because of Queen Victoria’s enthusiasm for Scotland and Balmoral Castle, her Highland retreat, and because many people of Scots descent enjoyed keeping alive traditions such as Burns Night and St. Andrew’s Day.
Full Scots attire for children — kilt, plaid, vest, etc. — could be found in the Eaton’s catalogue and, for a few dollars, parents could kit out their sons and daughters and send them off to dance classes. In St. Marys, the teachers of choice were John Gray and his wife, Mary.
John Gray, the principal person in this photograph, was born in 1864, a few miles from Glasgow. Following school, he apprenticed to a grocer and worked in several locations as a clerk before deciding to emigrate to Canada in 1888. Arriving in Toronto, he answered an ad for A. Beattie & Co., a general store in St. Marys, and became a welcome addition to the staff.
Gray earned his living in retail all his working life but he had other strong interests, including Scottish dancing, a skill he perfected after coming to Canada. He entered many competitions, some in cities such as Toronto and Detroit, and frequently won prizes. He is wearing a number of his award medals in this photograph.
He was also something of an impresario, bringing many instrumental, vocal and comedy acts (including Scottish entertainers such as famous singer Jessie McLachlan) to the Opera House. He enjoyed providing these performers for local audiences and occasionally made a profit but as his obituary stated: “… oftener by far he went into the hole.”
Another interest was sports. He had been a good cricketer as a young man and, in later years, was an avid lawn bowler. He loved sports competitions and, in fact, died in June 1935 watching a ballgame at the Flats. His last words before collapsing into the arms of his friends: “That man is out at first.”
Mrs. Gray, formerly Mary Easson of Stratford, survived him by 15 years, continuing as a dancing teacher and a figure skater into her late 70s.