Uncovering the Rutherford Maid: Gender, Class, and Representation in Living History

Julia Stanski

I discovered Lillian Rose Adkins on September 27, 2023. Although I hadn’t known her name, I’d been searching for this woman for at least five years. Others had been looking for much longer. She’s been dead for more than half a century, but Lillian might be the key to a representational puzzle that has obscured her—and women like her—for far too long.

I’m a Master’s student in Canadian women’s history at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, as well as a living history interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park (FEP). This site represents Edmonton in four different eras. In the 1905 section, a prize building is Rutherford 1, the house where Alexander Rutherford (the first Premier of Alberta) lived from 1895 to 1911 with his wife, Mattie, and their children, Cecil and Hazel. At FEP, costumed historical interpreters animate each building, and at Rutherford 1, interpreters frequently play the roles and discuss the lives of the four Rutherfords.

But since 2002, a fifth character has joined them: the Rutherford maid.

Created by then-supervisor Heather Kerr, this character represents the live-in maid employed by the Rutherford family. In a trim black-and-white uniform, the women who play this role tell visitors about the house, the Rutherford family, and the conditions of Edwardian domestic service. Playing this role in 2018 inspired my current thesis research on the representation of Edwardian domestic servants in living history museums.

Alexander, Mattie, Cecil, and Hazel Rutherford’s lives are interpreted in detail. Their names and stories are shared with thousands of visitors every summer. But this character has never been more than simply “the Rutherford maid.” In 2002, no evidence was available on the individual women who worked for the Rutherford family in this house. While unfortunate, this is hardly surprising; domestic servants on the prairies in this period, after all, were typically single, young, working-class, immigrant women, whose lives were not judged worthy of documentation. So the interpreters who have played the Rutherford maid have created plausible fictional characters to fill the void.

Author (right) with a fellow Rutherford maid at Fort Edmonton Park, August 2018.

Over the years, Rutherford 1 has been tended by such characters as Amelia, Minnie, Kate, and Elsie. In one sense, this revolving door of maids accurately represents the high turnover rate in domestic service jobs in 1905 Edmonton. But it also means that the real women who worked in this house have been erased from its history, while their employers’ lives have been carefully preserved and consistently celebrated. Representing a maid allows FEP and its interpreters to diversify the historical narratives that the museum shares, promoting discussion of working-class history, gender, and domestic labour. But the absence of evidence on the lives of the real Rutherford maids and hence their necessary fictionalization means that the museum perpetrates the idea that domestic servants were insignificant and replaceable, less important than the white upper-class families for whom they worked. This role was a placeholder: “a maid,” never mind which one.

As part of my research into FEP’s representation of the Rutherford maid, I attempted to access the archives of Rutherford 2. This mansion housed the Rutherford family from 1911 until Alexander’s death in 1941. It is known to hold oral histories from former maids who worked there during the 1920s and 1930s. After a year of unanswered inquiries, I finally gained access to these records in September 2023 when a colleague began working there. Among the oral histories of later maids, I found a crude document written in pen and ink. It claimed to record the name and a few biographical fragments of a maid who had worked at Rutherford 1. Apparently someone’s granddaughters volunteered this information to an interpreter while visiting FEP in 1988. But neither the granddaughters nor the interpreter who scrawled these notes were named. It appears that no one followed up on this information.

Despite the uncertainty, this was the closest we’d ever come to identifying a Rutherford 1 maid and I was thrilled. Early searches into the name, recorded as “Lillian Rose Aitkins,” yielded no results, but by searching spelling variations in the Edmonton census of 1911, I turned up a “Lillian Adkins.” This young woman was 25, born in England, and recorded as the servant of the Rutherford family. At last!

Now that I had a name, further research was possible. With the assistance of Raven Smyth at the Provincial Archives of Alberta, I assembled a picture of Lillian’s life. She was born in Oxfordshire, England in 1885 and was the seventh of twelve children of a stonemason. Her family immigrated to what became Alberta in three groups between 1903 and 1906. 20-year-old Lillian arrived in April 1906; by July 1906 she was working for the Malone family in Strathcona (the same area where the Rutherfords lived, which was later amalgamated with Edmonton). In June 1911, the census captured her working for the Rutherford family. In November 1912, Lillian married Arthur Stanley, an English farmer living in Westlock. The couple eventually had five children and twelve grandchildren.[1] I even located several photographs of Lillian in her later years.

Lillian in 1958 (seated, second from left) with her husband Arthur (seated, second from right) and four of her children. From Lois Kinniard and Rosa Sherwin, “Treasured Memories: The Stanley Story,” in 80 Years of Progress (Westlock: Westlock History Book Committee, 1984), 772.

This discovery meant that, after twenty years of searching and substituting fictional characters, the interpreters of FEP and Rutherford 1 could finally tell the story of a real Rutherford maid. While Lillian Adkins was likely only one of multiple women who held this position at Rutherford 1, she was no longer invisible in the Rutherfords’ story.

Generations of (largely male) academic historians, public historians, and maybe even the Rutherford family themselves, decided that, as a maid, Lillian didn’t matter. Biographers of Alexander Rutherford researched and recorded countless details about the great man himself, even down to the names of his pet dogs.[2] But the names of the young women who lived in his home, cooked his meals, and changed his sheets? They were disregarded and lost. They performed domestic labour in the private sphere of the home—work that is still undervalued today—so their contributions and lives had been dismissed and ignored. But their stories form part of the tapestry of Edwardian life in Edmonton just as surely as the lives of wealthy male politicians do. Understanding the experiences of these working women provides a more balanced and accurate picture of both gender and labour in a period often associated with elegant ladies of leisure.

Despite the much-vaunted “social turn” of history scholarship in the 1960s, women’s histories and working-class histories continue to be marginalized in academia as well as in the worlds of public and living history. In 2002, Kerr worked towards improving the representation of working women at FEP by conceiving of the Rutherford maid character; it is telling, however, that in the intervening twenty years, no one appears to have looked up the Rutherfords in the census to identify the female labourers who shared their home. The museum’s representation of a generic fictional maid character in contrast to interpreters’ careful knowledge of the real names, dates, interests, and importance of the Rutherford family gives the impression that this woman was nowhere near significant as the family that employed her.

But armed with this long-missing information, perhaps the interpreter assigned to play “the Rutherford maid” at FEP next summer could do more than that. She could play Lillian Adkins, a woman as real and as worthy of remembrance as Hazel Rutherford. In interpreting the life of this working-class female immigrant, her circumstances and choices and connections to world events, FEP could affirm that Lillian and other women like her mattered just as much as men like Alexander. Her portrayal could bring new insights to the image of 1905 Edmonton that the museum creates and provoke visitors into thinking about other groups who have been ignored by traditional histories.

However, during my research into Lillian’s life I made another, less thrilling discovery. While the census identifying her as the Rutherfords’ servant was taken in June of 1911, the Rutherford family relocated to their second home in February of 1911. This building does not engage in living history portrayals of the family or any of their maids. And officially, Rutherford 1 focuses on the family during the time they lived in their first home. That four-month gap meant I could not definitively prove that Lillian had worked in the first house and should be portrayed at Rutherford 1 in place of the generic “Rutherford maid.” It’s very likely that she was working for the Rutherfords before their move in February 1911, as they probably wouldn’t have chosen to change staff while moving house, but the 1911 census is no longer the smoking gun I once believed it was.

While I continue my research into Lillian’s Rutherford connection, this roadblock does not reduce the importance of learning about Lillian’s life. It means that this discovery may not yet have the immediate, tangible effect on the representation of “the Rutherford maid” at FEP that I had hoped for, but this process serves as an important reminder that our discipline’s legacy—literally hundreds of years’ worth of historical work centered on upper-class white males—continues to exercise a very real power in public history today. Unless academic historians and living history museums actively resist these fossilized narratives through new research and representations, lives like Lillian’s will continue to be obscured and relegated to superficial fictionalizations like “the Rutherford maid.”


Julia Stanski is a settler scholar and second-year MA student at the University of Alberta. Her research centers on western Canadian women’s history in the Victorian and Edwardian periods.


[1] Biographical information sourced from Ancestry.ca and Lois Kinniard and Rosa Sherwin, “Treasured Memories: The Stanley Story,” in 80 Years of Progress (Westlock: Westlock History Book Committee, 1984), 771-773.

[2] Douglas R. Babcock, Alexander Cameron Rutherford: A Gentleman of Strathcona (Edmonton: Friends of Rutherford House, 1989), 111.

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