Saturday, 9 September 2017

Put Your Hands Together For Biddy Bonnycastle

Photo courtesy Hilary Bruun

Born May 17, 1912 in Toronto, Ontario, Millicent Veronica Allen Clarke was the daughter of
Charles and Miranda (Allen) Clarke. Her father was a well-respected leather and sheepskin manufacturer who sold jackets to the military that were used in World War I. He worked with his brothers at the family company Clarke & Co. Her mother, according to her son Angus, was a "strong, dominant and determined" woman who devoted considerable time to various local charities and social groups.

Sadly, Veronica's uncle Alfred was a victim of the S.S. Lusitania tragedy in 1915 and her father died of a heart attack when she was only six years old. Her mother sold her interests in the family business, raising enough money to ensure her daughters had food on the table, a roof over their heads and a decent education.

Photo courtesy City Of Toronto Archives

Veronica grew up in Forest Hills with her mother and older sisters Jocelyn, Katherine and Aldyth. She was educated at Bishop Strachan School and at a finishing school in England. As a young woman, she had two loves - ballet and figure skating. Though a talented dancer, when she was presented with the choice between continuing dance lessons or focusing entirely on her efforts at the Toronto Skating Club, skating won out.

John Machado, Veronica Clarke, Margaret Henry and Stewart Reburn. Photo courtesy Hilary Bruun.

A year after her sister Jocelyn - a talented opera singer - tragically passed away at the age of twenty nine of ulcerative colitis, Veronica made her debut at the Canadian Championships at the age of fifteen, teaming up with Stewart Reburn to finish third in the senior pairs competition. The following year, she claimed the medal in the junior women's competition and won the Canadian fours title with Reburn, John Machado and Margaret Henry.


Photo courtesy Hilary Bruun

Over the following decade, Veronica would go on to win an incredible seventeen more medals at the Canadian Championships, including two more fours titles and two more pairs titles with her second partner Ralph McCreath. She even won the Tenstep and Fourteenstep, skating with McCreath and Jack Eastwood.


Veronica Clarke and Ralph McCreath. Photo courtesy Hilary Bruun.

Veronica's biggest accomplishment came at the 1937 North American Championships in Boston, where she finished second in the women's event to Maribel Vinson-Owen... and then went on to defeat her and partner George 'Geddy' Hill in the pairs event. Though Veronica was an exceptional skater who received training from legendary coaches Gustave Lussi and Werner Rittberger, she skated much of her career in the shadow of her training mates Constance Wilson and Cecil Smith. However, at five foot seven, she was a striking figure on the ice that was in high demand to skate in carnivals throughout Canada and the United States. When she travelled to England at one point to train, the National Skating Association even went so far as to state they were "frightfully delighted" to have her perform.

Letter courtesy Hilary Bruun

The Figure Skating Department of the Amateur Skating Association of Canada actually named Veronica to the 1936 Winter Olympic team, but since so many skaters from the Toronto Skating Club had been selected to compete in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the club circulated a letter informing the skaters that not everyone's travel expenses would be covered. It wouldn't have mattered anyway. Veronica's mother forbid her from attending the Games in Nazi Germany, stating it was "an unsafe environment". Based on some of the stories told of the experiences of the British contingent at those Games, Veronica's mother's fears weren't unfounded. Around the same time, the family home on Russell Hill Road was burglarized and all of Veronica's major competition trophies were stolen. Her daughter Hilary recalled, "These trophies were never found and presumably melted down and sold. This was a huge disappointment to Mom and she was devastated I am told."

Photo courtesy Hilary Bruun

Veronica retired from competitive figure skating shortly before she married Charles Humphrey Bonnycastle on June 29, 1938. Throughout her skating career, she'd been known in skating circles by the nickname 'Biddy', given to her by her grandmother because she was the youngest. So, in marriage, Veronica Clarke became known to friends by the catchy name Biddy Bonnycastle.

Veronica's husband was soon appointed as the headmaster of Rothesay Collegiate School in New Brunswick and soon the happy couple welcomed a daughter, Hilary, and a son, Angus. Veronica skated recreationally on both an outdoor pond and a covered rink at the university regularly, often wearing a favourite buckskin jacket that a friend of her father had given her as a gift on a trip out West. Locals, who'd never seen a 'fancy' skater of her calibre before, were amazed. She tried giving lessons to skaters in Rothesay and Saint John, but found the New Brunswick skating scene to be a bit behind the times and slow to change.

Veronica, Charles, Angus and Hilary Bonnycastle. Photo courtesy Angus Bonnycastle.

Quoted in an oral history interview on file at the Rothesay Living Museum, Veronica reminisced, "Before I got married I did nothing but skate. I mean I did get educated. I went to the Bishop Strachan School School and I managed to squeak through there but my heart was in skating and I skated all over the place. I was sent out to Vancouver once with a group of five. I took part in all the Canadian Championships and the highlight of my career was when I went down to Boston to compete against the Americans and I came second in the singles and I won the pairs with my partner, Ralph McCreath. So we were North American champions. Really, then I got married and I am afraid my career was nearly over at that point, although I did skate. A Saint John policeman came to me and said would you go and skate at the Forum for us and I said yes. The policeman said if you skate for us we will treat you right and I couldn’t resist that."

Photo courtesy Hilary Bruun

Inspired by her late uncle Reverend Robert W. Allen, Veronica devoted much of her life to church and charitable work. She served as President of her local branch of the Red Cross, the Anglican Women's Church Organization, Kennebecasis Garden Club, Riverside Golf and Country Club, played golf and enjoyed music, flowers and reading. However, figure skating remained a lifelong passion. Well into her older years, she watched the sport on television religiously with family friend Rory Grant, often commenting about how drastically the sport had changed since she'd competed. She was so upset about the elimination of compulsory figures that she wrote a letter to the "Telegraph-Journal".

Veronica's daughter Hilary went to great lengths to arrange a touching meeting between her mother and Ralph McCreath when they were both seniors. Hilary recalled, "I was very nervous about it because I thought maybe it would be dead silence. They just sort of looked at each other. It was so long ago! She must have been late seventies or eighties when I did this. They were sort of shy and then they finally began to chatter about the old days and we just sat there looking at them sort of spellbound because they were working... communicating together. Finally, we left the room and let them talk because we felt they didn't need us looking at them."

Sadly, Veronica passed away on July 27, 1999 in Saint John, New Brunswick at the age of eighty seven. Though she won twenty medals at the Canadian Championships and a North American title, she has yet to be honoured posthumously with an induction into the Skate Canada Hall Of Fame... or given much recognition at all for that matter. As is the case far too often in the skating world, certain skaters are fêted for their accomplishments while others are historically ignored. The fact that Veronica has fallen into the latter category is nothing short of unfortunate.

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