The “dear old landladies of yesteryear”
“A landlady is a parallelogram – that is, an oblong and angular figure, which cannot be described, but which is equal to anything.”
Boarding House Geometry, Stephen Leacock
In my student days at Queen’s two types of students took part in the annual boarding house trek to find a place to live during the academic year: “lodgers” (rooms only) and “grubbers” or “mealers” (meals only).
Hank Armstrong, Sc’49, my dear friend, was a rarity. He was both a “lodger” and a “mealer”. At our 50th Reunion in 1999, he and I visited Mrs. MacVicar’s old boarding house, which was at 183 University Avenue, and we mounted a plaque there on behalf of her hundreds of students to whom she provided food and shelter in her 30 years of keeping a student boarding house. Prof. Harold Harkness, BSc’13, BA’15, Head of Physics, lived right next door, at 181 University Avenue, and I regularly walked with him to classes.
Another old friend, William McDowell, Arts’46, MDiv’50, recently told me that his father, Sam McDowell, MD’22, a Queen’s medical student at the time, remembered this astounding tale: Looking the dining room window at his boarding house one day at lunch, he saw a surprising sight. “There’s a guy out there pulling a toboggan with an old trunk on top.”
“Oh, that’s toboggan Bill,” another of the diners said. “At the beginning of every month he goes out to try to find a cheaper boarding-house so he can save another dollar.”
In my first year at Queen’s I became a “lodger” at the home of Mrs. Gummer, 149 Collingwood Street. I was the first student she ever took in. Her husband, Dr. C. F. Gummer, happened to be my professor in Math II. He amazed us on our first day by writing theorems on the blackboard with both hands in opposite directions. He had a full library in his bedroom and he and I often sat in there discussing great books.
One afternoon after a football game Mrs. Gummer announced, “Now boys, tonight I’m off to play bridge with the ladies. I’ll be back at 11 o’clock tonight, now take good care of the house.” As she went out, a gang of my pals came in the back door. The boys had a great time tinkling her piano and playing Dr. Gummer’s accordion, as I strummed my ukulele. These were relatively innocent times. We sang and danced until we were surprised to hear Mrs. Gummer at the door at 10:30 p.m., a half hour early. When I rushed to let her in, I fumbled with the lock and called out at the same time, “Sorry Mrs. G., I’m having a hard time unlocking this door.” I finally got it open just as the last of my buddies scrambled out the back door.
I roomed at Mrs. Gummer’s house, but I ate meals at Mrs. Greene’s house at 120 Beverly Street. The other grubbers, were a great bunch of guys; a few them were veterans who recounted their wartime experiences for us. Once a month we took our dear landladies out for dinner on Sunday to the Roy York Café or the Queen’s Tea Room.
Dear Margaret Austin, who lived at the corner of Union Street and University Avenue (where Dunning Hall is now located), was the unofficial “dean of the Queen’s landladies.” She was rather eccentric and held forth at “Club A,” as he house was called.
According to Queen’s, Queen’s, Queen’s by longtime Review editor Herb Hamilton, BA’31, LLD’75, a young freshman once approached Miss A., who offered him his choice of several rooms in her house.“Do you drink?” she asked him.
“No, Miss A.” said the freshman.
“Would you be bringing girls up to your room?”
”No, Miss A.”
“Then I think you should look elsewhere,” she told him. “You wouldn’t like it here.”
When Queen’s began building men’s residences in the 1950s, that ended nearly 100 years of the boarding-houses of yore and generations of memories. Gone, but not forgotten.
And so I say to all you dear landladies, wherever you may be, “When the roll is called up yonder, your boys will be there.” To that, Robbie Burns might add, “Lang may your lum reek” (“Long may your chimney smoke.”)