Atkinson’s wife was the conscience of The Star
By Carol Goar, Toronto Star columnist
He was 25, the rising star of the newsroom, a reserved young man who could make even the most routine story come alive. She was 23, the newly hired women’s editor, a pioneering female journalist whose quiet demeanour masked a fierce determination. Sparks flew.
Over the course of their 39-year marriage, Joseph Atkinson and Elmina Elliott transformed The Evening Star from the smallest and weakest of Toronto’s six dailies into the country’s most successful newspaper.
Much is known about the legendary publisher and editor whose principles still guide The Star. Less is known about his remarkable wife, described by her contemporaries as “Joe Atkinson’s conscience.”
Elmina Susannah Elliott was born the same year as Canada: 1867. She grew up on her grandfather’s farm north of Oakville and attended Oakville High School. By the age of 20, she had already had several articles published in Saturday Night.
Like most female writers from the Victorian era, she used a pen name. Elliott, in fact, had three aliases: Madge Merton, Clip Carew and Frances Burton Clare. It was as Madge Merton that she achieved her greatest fame, filling an entire page of The Star every Saturday with stories and advice for women.
Sadly, there is no record of how she broke into one of the most impenetrable male bastions of her day. But it was an extraordinary accomplishment. In the late 19th century, women couldn’t vote, couldn’t run for public office and seldom worked for a living. The only two professions open to independent-minded ladies were nursing and teaching.
But Elliott’s writing so impressed Edmund Sheppard, the founder of Saturday Night, that he brought her to Toronto as his society editor. Three years later, she moved to The Globe, as women’s editor.
It was there that she met Atkinson, who had been lured away from The World, a competing daily, with a promise that he would soon be sent to the Ontario Legislature as a political writer.
Atkinson’s biographer Ross Harkness describes Elliott as “a woman of exceptional intellect, great determination and a somewhat austere cast of character.”
But her own writings suggest that behind her prim exterior lay a love-struck young woman. She included this poem in one of her columns in 1891:
Here a man, stern-browed and weary
Bends him o’er the printed page
“There’s no time,” he said “for gladness,
Life is naught but care and sadness,
I’ll not marry, ‘tis but madness
In this age”
On the page, then, Cupid traces
Willful, darling little sage
Maiden’s face with brown eyes tender
And the stern heart makes surrender,
Ah, love’s king, work but pretender,
In this age
Atkinson and Elliott married on Easter Monday in 1892 on a platform erected for a Salvation Army rally. The partnership lasted till her death in 1931.
Although the couple had two children – Ruth and young Joe – their mother continued her newspaper work for most of her life.
Five years after their marriage, the Atkinsons pulled up stakes and moved to Montreal, where he became managing editor of The Herald. She ensured that the paper had a well-edited, progressive women’s page.
It was a time of great fulfillment in their lives. The Herald was a feisty Liberal newspaper. Atkinson’s reputation was growing. And the country was expanding under Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, whom Atkinson knew and respected.
It was also a time of change for women. By the end of the century, a handful had broken into the newspaper business.
There was Kathleen Blake Coleman – known to readers simply as “Kit” – at The Toronto Daily Mail, who disguised herself as a man, travelled to England and wrote heart-rending columns about Charles Dickens’ London.
There was Sara Jeanette Duncan – known as “Garth Grafton” – who went around the world with a female companion, writing commentary for The Globe, the Montreal Star, and the New York World.
And there was Cora Hind, who wrote with no byline in The Winnipeg Free Press for 20 years until she proved herself so competent that John Dafoe named her commercial and agricultural editor.
Elliott was less flamboyant than these groundbreakers. But her influence was every bit as great. She was a feminist, a suffragette, a voice of the downtrodden and a role model for young women who wanted to earn a living and make a difference.
In 1899, the Atkinsons had to make a pivotal choice. Joseph had been offered the highest-paying position in the newspaper business: managing editor of the Montreal Star, the country’s largest daily. At the same time, a group of investors in Toronto invited him to return to the city and try to turn the struggling Evening Star into a popular Liberal newspaper.
Risking their own financial well-being, they picked Toronto. Years later, a Star reporter wrote “when the great chance came to Mr. Atkinson, he was in a position to seize it with the full support of a wife who understood every phase and detail of the fascinating enterprise.”
Atkinson set about revamping the anemic paper with a fresh layout, strong editorials and more sports news. Elliott revolutionized the women’s page.
Gone were dull household hints and stiff reports on society gatherings. She wrote breezy columns on everything from the issues of the day to the frustrations of child-rearing. She offered advice to correspondents, passed on recipes and told amusing stories. “Madge Merton’s page” was illustrated with a pen-and-ink drawing of a woman at leisure in a wicker chair, engrossed in a newspaper.
But being Madge Merton was only part of her role. Elliott was also her husband’s most trusted adviser and business partner. In the evenings, in their modest rented home on Huron St., the couple would spread The Star out on the floor, measuring the ads to keep track of the paper’s cash intake.
One of their daughter Ruth’s most enduring memories was the answer her mother would give when Atkinson was wrestling with a difficult decision. “What is the kind thing to do, Joe?”
Atkinson always gave his wife credit for shaping The Star’s editorial policy. “I found she was way in advance of me in her realization of the importance of social services and also of the obligation of the state to its people.”
The two shared many views. They were liberal-minded, sympathetic to organized labour, in favour of greater rights for women and concerned about the poor, especially children.
But they did part company on a few issues. He wanted to boost circulation by carrying comics in the newly launched Star Weekly. She strenuously opposed the plan. “My dear,” Atkinson is alleged to have said, “I am not running a Sunday school paper.”
“I rather wish you were,” she replied.
Elliott was more generous than her husband as far as employees’ wages were concerned. At her insistence, The Star began giving employees an annual Christmas bonus. At staff picnics or social events, she would often call over an employee and urge Atkinson to give that person a raise.
After her death, the raises became less frequent and Atkinson became richer and more reclusive. He outlived his wife by 17 years.
Elliott died at 64, after a lengthy illness. The funeral was held at the couple’s stately home in Forest Hill. Hundreds of Star employees attended. According to reporter R. E. Knowles, who covered the event, Atkinson hid his emotions. He wrote of the “strong, self-possessed and ascendant figure” who greeted employees cordially and “concealed even from our eyes the life-wound beneath the armour.”
She was buried close to her birthplace, in Oakville Cemetery.
Elliot was very much a woman of her time. She was a vigorous advocate of temperance, an admirer of Queen Victoria and a trained elocutionist.
But she made her mark in a man’s world – one that has lasted to this day.