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A Real Companion and Friend:
The diary of William Lyon Mackenzie King

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Behind the Diary

A King's Who's Who Biographies

Isabel Grace Mackenzie King (1843-1917)

Isabel Grace Mackenzie King, ca. 1900


Isabel Grace Mackenzie King, ca. 1900

Isabel Grace Mackenzie King was a daughter of William Lyon Mackenzie and the mother of Mackenzie King. She and her husband John King had four children: Bella, Willie (Mackenzie King), Jennie and Max. Mackenzie King and his mother were very close. After he became established in Ottawa, she visited him frequently, and she shared his enthusiasm for Kingsmere. She revelled in his professional and political success, and he idolized her, even after her death. This painting hangs at Laurier House.

Isabel Grace Mackenzie, the mother of Mackenzie King, was the thirteenth and youngest child of William Lyon Mackenzie and his wife, Isabel Baxter Mackenzie. Isabel Grace was born in New York while the family was in exile after the Rebellion of 1837. During this time, the family suffered a great deal of hardship and poverty. In 1849, an amnesty was issued, and the next year the Mackenzie family returned to Toronto. W.L. Mackenzie again entered into politics, but the family financial situation remained difficult, and became even more so after his death in 1861.

Isabel Grace was an attractive, intelligent and outgoing young woman. In 1872, she married John King, a lawyer from Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario. The couple settled in Berlin. They had four children: Isabel Christina Grace, called Bella, born on November 15, 1873; William Lyon Mackenzie King, known to the family as Willie, but to history as Mackenzie King, born on December 17, 1874; Janet Lindsey, called Jennie, born on August 27, 1876; and Dougall Macdougall, called Max, born on November 11, 1878. As the family expanded, they moved into various homes; Woodside, where they lived for seven years, was their favourite. In 1893, John King accepted a part-time lectureship at Osgoode Hall and the family moved to Toronto, where Willie was already attending university. Throughout their lives the Kings were barely able to make ends meet and Isabel continued to live in the state of genteel poverty in which she had grown up.

Once Mackenzie King was established in Ottawa, his parents, particularly his mother, visited him often, and they made trips to Kingsmere during the summer months. The King family also became increasingly dependent on the elder son for financial support. Willie idolized his mother and commissioned a number of photographs and portraits of her. On one of her visits, he wrote: "Mother arrived on Wednesday by day train. When I came into my room after returning from Govt. House, she was sitting there with her hair about her shoulders. It was like some beautiful fountain of pure & living water playing & overflowing in the centre of a green wood. Anything more lovely than her face and presence I have never known." (Diary, November 10-26, 1909, p. 34)

After the deaths of her daughter Bella in 1915 and her husband John in 1916, Isabel visited Max and Jennie, but spent most of her time with Willie. In January 1917, she suffered a stroke and, after that, her health steadily declined. She stayed with Willie at his Roxborough apartment in Ottawa, and he made all the necessary arrangements for her care. In the summer, they moved to Kingsmere; in September, they returned to town.

While King was campaigning for the 1917 federal election, Jennie came to stay with their mother. In the election, held on December 17, 1917, the Union Government defeated the Liberals, and King was personally defeated in North York. The next day, King phoned Isabel and Jennie at the Roxborough apartment. When Isabel learned that Willie had lost the election, she expressed sympathy and wished him better luck next time. Later that day, she died.

This was a very sad time for Mackenzie King. First he lost the election on his birthday, and then his mother, whom he had cared for so attentively, died while he was away.

There is a gap in the diary from December 2, 1917 to February 1, 1918. But after that, King almost always mentioned the anniversaries of his mother's birthday (February 6) and her death (December 18) in his diary. "This is dear mother's birthday. How well I remember every incident of a year ago. Her brave fight to beat back the waves of death, the trial of my faith and its supreme reward.... I thanked God anew for her precious life, the most Christ-like and beautiful I have ever known." (Diary, February 6, 1918)

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