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Rumble Seat, A Victorian Childhood Remembered

By Helen Piddington

Review By Christopher Hanna

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 173 Spring 2012  | p. 152-53

Helen Piddington’s Rumble Seat, A Victorian Childhood Remembered is a collection of 117 brief reminiscences of the author’s childhood on southern Vancouver Island during the Depression and World War Two. Born in 1931, Piddington was the youngest of ten children born to Arthur Grosvenor Piddington, the wealthy only son of a Quebec City soap manufacturer, and Helen Mary De Tessier Piddington (née Porteous), a banker’s daughter. The Piddingtons had come to British Columbia in 1924 and settled in Esquimalt, a semi-rural municipality adjoining the city of Victoria, after buying Wychbury, a large residence designed by Victoria’s pre-eminent architect Samuel Maclure. Sitting on several acres of land, the house, with its tennis court, croquet lawn, stables, and horse paddock, would be Helen Piddington’s birthplace and childhood home.

Piddington’s reminiscences begin as her father’s failed investments (he was fleeced in a sheep ranch promotion and several other ventures) and the deepening Depression compelled the family to open a riding school behind Wychbury. Despite the loss of most of their servants, the Piddingtons’ dances, polo matches and tennis parties suggest a rather comfortable lifestyle was maintained for some time. Piddington’s recollections of her relationships with her parents, siblings, servants, friends, and others are interesting for their variety and the insights they provide into the multicultural society of southern Vancouver Island. Piddington also provides some sharp observations on family, friends, and members of the wider community, such as Emily Carr.

The Second World War saw the Piddingtons devastated by the deaths of two sons in military service. At the end of the war the family’s increasing poverty compelled them to sell their beloved Wychbury and retire to their vacation home on Shawnigan Lake, some 45 kms. north of Victoria, and some rural acreage near Victoria.

As an artistic youngest daughter in a large Victoria family sinking into the middle class, Piddington’s reminiscences must inevitably be compared to those classic memoirs of childhood in Victoria: Emily Carr’s The Book of Small and Growing Pains:  An Autobiography. Like Carr, Piddington’s reminiscences record a somewhat difficult family life and an enchantment, beginning in childhood, with the physical beauty of coastal British Columbia.  Unlike Carr, Piddington, who lives on Loughborough Inlet on British Columbia’s remote central coast, apparently lacked an Ira Dilworth to provide careful editorial attention to her manuscript.  One does not, for example, learn the name of the author’s father until chapter fifteen, despite many previous references to “Dad”, while her mother, having lost two sons in the war, is described not as a Silver Cross mother, but as a “Silver Threads” mother (233).  While Piddington thanks this reviewer for his research assistance, his contribution was limited and readers with some knowledge of the topics covered will find errors remain. 

This book will be of interest to residents of Greater Victoria and readers seeking reminiscences of childhood in early/mid-twentieth century Canada.

Readers outside the Victoria region will also gain an understanding of the physical environment that so entranced the Piddingtons, Emily Carr, and others.

Helen Piddington
Rumble Seat: A Victorian Childhood Remembered
Madiera Park: Harbour Publishing, 2010  cloth. $9.95