The Ladies’ Society of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen was recognized as an auxiliary of the Brotherhood at its second biennial convention in 1890. The Ladies’ Society was organized “for the purpose of rendering assistance, encouraging the Brotherhood … in its good work, extending the hand of Charity, helping each other in time of need, and elevating our social and intellectual standing. It is also the aim of the Society to cultivate a spirit of harmony, to promote sociability, and to draw into friendly and affectionate relationship the lady members of the families of the Brotherhood.”
Charity Lodge No. 37 (Lady Firemen) was founded in St. Thomas in 1899. There were similar organizations of Lady Engineers, Lady Trainmen, and Lady Conductors. By 1966, at 203 members, it was the ninth largest in North America, ahead of that of Knoxville, Tennessee, and the largest in Canada. The fifth largest was that of the then thriving city of Buffalo, which had 229 members. The size of the lodge in relation to the population of St. Thomas, testifies to the significance of railway employment locally.
For many years Charity Lodge No. 37 met at the Engineer’s building (Masonic Lodge), but lost all of their records in a fire there in 1951. One of the objectives of the Lodge was to raise money and this was accomplished though bazaars, teas, garden parties, picnics, coffee breaks and other activities.
St. Thomas hosted the first Ontario convention in 1925. In that same year, courtesy of the Michigan Central, it was arranged that three trains run non-stop from the Detroit convention to Niagara Falls, travelling 214 miles in 203 minutes. Train crews worked for free.
Ethel Bowlby served as vice-president, president and past president (1966-1970) and maintained records of her years of commitment to this organization in the form of scrap books, entering speeches and minutes, newspaper clippings, tourist information from the various cities that she visited in the course of her work, corsages, and greeting cards. She so impressed the grand president of the Ladies Societies, that, in 1969, she was appointed an instructor for Canadian lodges with duties of providing training in lodge work – balloting, initiation of candidates, installation of officers, draping and undraping the charter, transfer of members, making and passing motions, and appointing and investigating committees.
Membership in the Lady Firemen broadened the life experience of many St. Thomas and area women who might otherwise have remained isolated, providing the opportunity for the development of public speaking, social organization, financial, meeting and writing skills. Lodge work took women across North America to attend conventions, facilitating good Canadian/American relations.