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Then & Now: Remembering the years Canada’s most famous female journalist lived in Copper Cliff

Kit Coleman was a popular reporter at a time when women were discouraged from having careers of their own and from 1899 to 1901, she called Copper Cliff home

Sudbury's stories are filled with fascinating characters such as Kit Coleman, who at the turn of the last century, was one of Canada's most famous journalists.

Kathleen Blake Watkins "Kit" Coleman lived in Copper Cliff from 1899 to 1901. Starting in January 2001, Northern Life published a serialized historical novel about the pioneering Canadian journalist.*

Every Sunday for almost two years, Mick Lowe, who had a long association with the newspaper, contributed a chapter from Kit: A Novel of 1901.

Coleman's story is an interesting one. The fiery redhead who spoke with an Irish lilt was a remarkable woman, a journalist and war correspondent at a time when most married women with children did not work.

There were only about 50 female journalists in Canada in 1900 and they wrote mostly lifestyle stories about fashion, food, social events and housekeeping. Editors didn't think women were interested in more serious news.

Not Coleman. She was a correspondent for The Toronto Mail during the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. She went to London in 1897 to report on Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

In 1898, Coleman was the first woman to receive accreditation from the American government to cover the Spanish-American War in Cuba. Her articles about the human suffering caused by the war made her reputation as a journalist.

She was born Catherine Ferguson in Castleblakeney, Ireland, in 1856. Her parents were Catholic middle-class farmers who ensured their daughter was well-educated. She studied the classics and music, and could speak French and Spanish.

But her parents' progressiveness ended there. When she was 20, they arranged a marriage for the young woman, who preferred to be called Kathleen, to Thomas Willis, a much older wealthy landowner. 

When he died, she moved to London, and then immigrated to Canada in 1884. She listed herself on the ship's register as single and eight years younger. 

While working in Toronto as governess, she met and married Edward Watkins, a flashy Irish travelling salesman. They moved to Winnipeg and had two children. But the marriage was unhappy and she moved back to Toronto with her children. 

To support her family, she cleaned houses and began writing for Saturday Night Magazine and a column, The Toronto Daily Mail and signed them with the pen name "Kit."

(The Mail merged with The Empire newspaper in 1895 and in 1936 became The Globe and Mail.)

In 1889, the newspaper gave her a column, Women’s Kingdom, which ran an unprecedented  6,000 to 7,000 words. She wrote a long essay and a section of short newsworthy items. There was also a correspondence section where she gave advice on everything from love to stain removal.

Women's Kingdom was one of the newspaper's most popular columns and read by women and men. One of its fans was Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier.

She married her third husband, Dr. Theobald Coleman, in 1898.  He was hired by the Canadian Copper Company on a three-year contract and the couple moved to Copper Cliff in 1899.

Coleman called her new home "Canadian Siberia,"  bleak, primitive and isolating, but she continued to write for The Mail.  She sent her handwritten columns with the "mail wagon," which delivered them to the CP telegraph office in Sudbury for transmission to Toronto. 

"Everyone works hard, hard. There is none of the poetry of life in the Black Country where men delve in mines, blast rocks and delve in mines, blast rocks, and labour at the smelting works and other hard toll," Coleman wrote in her Women's Kingdom column, Feb. 9, 1901.

"Commerce finds her great war with nature, devastating everything on top of the earth that they may draw vast wealth and riches from the deep breast of the old earth. It is all labour and money, two excellent things, the first especially."

In February 1901, there was a smallpox epidemic in Copper Cliff. She assisted her husband on his house calls and wrote a series of articles about the suffering and living conditions she found. 

The Colemans both urged the town officials to order a quarantine, which they eventually did.

Her husband's employer was not happy about negative coverage about the "Black Country " in Canada's largest circulation newspaper. His contract was not extended or he may have been let go. The Colemans moved to Hamilton where the doctor opened a private practice. 

In 1904, Coleman helped establish the Canadian Women's Press Club and was its first president. 

Two years later, she was in New York City covering the high profile trial of playboy Harry Thaw on trial for the murder of architect Stanford White. Thaw's wife, model and actress Evelyn Nesbitt, had been seduced by White when she was 16. Coleman and the four other women covering the trial were dubbed “sob sisters."

Remembered as an early advocate for women, for the right to vote and the right to equal pay, Coleman wrote about politics, business, science and religion. Her relationship with her conservative editors was often rocky with disputes over editorial freedom, and she quit the newspaper in 1910 after being denied a raise.

Coleman started syndicating “Kit’s Column” to newspapers across Canada, charging $5 per article.

When approached to run for Parliament, she said she was hopeless at lying and stealing and had to say no.

Coleman died of pneumonia in 1915 at the age of 59. She is buried in a Hamilton cemetery under a Celtic cross.

Journalist and novelist Mick Lowe died April 17, 2021. He never finished his novel about Kit. He was unable to attract a book publisher and moved on to other projects. By his own admission in Quill  & Quire, May 2014, he may have let the facts get in the way of a good story. 

Vicki Gilhula is a freelance writer and a former editor of Northern Life and Sudbury Living. Then and Now is made possible by our Community Leaders Program

*"Historical novel has as its setting a period of history and that attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity to historical fact." (www.britiannca.com)

Sources
The Canadians: Kit Coleman, Great North Productions, History Television, 2001
The Pioneering Kit Coleman, by Lauren Der, Ryerson Review of Journalism, Spring 2018
Kit: A Novel of 1901 by Mick Lowe, Northern Life, 2001, 2002 
Sudbury 1883 - 2008, The Story of Our Times, Laurentian Publishing, 2008