Doreen Ashburnham and Tony Farrar made headlines around the world when they fought off a cougar attack in 1916 at Lake Cowichan. (submitted)

T.W. Paterson column: Lake Cowichan cougar attack recalls children’s heroism of 1916

Both Doreen and Tony had been seriously mauled and would bear their scars for life

Both Doreen and Tony had been seriously mauled and would bear their scars for life, Tony having been almost scalped and requiring 72 stitches.

NEWS ITEM: Lake Cowichan mother Chelsea Bromley is being proclaimed a hero after she saved her seven-year-old son Zachary from the jaws of a young cougar last week. One of two siblings hunting together, both animals were described as being very emaciated after they were tracked down and killed.

Zachary is expected to make a full recovery from claw and puncture marks on the back of his head and neck and one of his arms…

His miraculous escape recalls another cougar attack, this one a century old, which occurred in the Cowichan Lake area. That attack made world headlines and heroes of the British Commonwealth of its two young protagonists.

It was on Saturday, Sept. 23, 1916, when Doreen Ashburnham and Tony Farrar were walking down a forest trail, bridles in hand, to their pastured ponies. Suddenly a cougar pounced on 11-year-old Doreen from behind, knocking her to the ground. Tony, just eight, flailed at the cat with his bridle, causing it to release her and to rise on its hind legs to meet their combined assault with their fists.

Tony was first to go down; as the cougar tore at his scalp with its claws, Doreen jumped onto its back, trying to pull its head back and gouging at one of its eyes before thrusting her arm into its mouth.

Astride the enraged animal’s back, her right arm clenched between its teeth, she yelled for Tony to flee. Somehow she managed to free herself after looping her pony’s snuffle around its head, effectively muzzling it. As the cat frantically tried to tear itself loose, Doreen joined Tony in flight.

The cougar was subsequently tracked, treed and shot. Examination showed it to have been old, undernourished and visually impaired.

Both children had been seriously mauled and would bear their scars for life, Tony having been almost scalped and requiring 72 stitches.

B.C.’s Chief Justice Gordon Hunter, who’d been staying at Cowichan Lake, declared that he would nominate them for the Royal Albert Medal for Heroism, the British Commonwealth’s highest award for non-military gallantry. News reports stated that Doreen and Tony would also be nominated in the U.S. for Carnegie medals after former president Theodore Roosevelt “congratulated British Columbia for having two such heroic youngsters”.

Five months after their terrifying adventure, His Majesty King George V approved the awarding of the Royal Albert Medal of the Second Class to both youngsters. Their case had been presented in London by the Royal Humane Society and ex-premier Sir Richard McBride.

Doreen went to live in the States, married and had a colourful — some have said fanciful — career. She claimed to have been presented as a debutante to King George V, taught to play polo by Will Rogers, competed internationally as a show jumper, and served as a civilian transport pilot during the Second World War before marrying a university professor.

Upon graduating from Brentwood College where he was a star athlete, Tony Farrar served in the 16th Canadian Scottish Regiment then transferred to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. At Manitoba’s Camp Hughes, in July 1930, the 22-year-old Lieut. Anthony J.L. Farrer made newspaper headlines for the second and last time. During a firing practice on the rifle range he was struck in the head by a bullet (reputedly discharged after the order to cease firing) and killed.

Hundreds attended his funeral, conducted with full military honours, at St. Paul’s Garrison Church. The Victoria Colonist, in the purplish prose of the day, expressed the sentiments of many: “…He has been cut off in the flower of his youth, but he has left memories to his generation of devotion, courage and sportsmanship that are well worthy of emulation.”

He had been married for less than a year.

Every other year, Doreen attended ceremonies held in London for recipients of the George Cross which had replaced the Albert Medal originally awarded to her and Tony, and for which she had exchanged her Albert by invitation in 1974.

Thus it is that Doreen Ashburnham’s name is listed in the Register of the George Cross, which is “aimed at recognizing the valour of civilians and service personnel…for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger”.

Attached to a dark blue ribbon, the medal consists of a plain silver cross with a circular medallion in the centre, surrounded by the words, “For Gallantry.”

In 2000, some 84 years after her fateful encounter with a starving cougar, Doreen Ashburnham was posthumously acknowledged as the GC’s youngest recipient when her medal went on the auction block.

But not Tony Farrar who was just eight years old — three years younger — when awarded his Royal Albert Medal. This, because his family hadn’t exchanged the Albert for a George Cross. When her daughter placed Doreen’s famous medal up for auction, a brief news account didn’t even mention Tony by name.

So goes history. For Doreen Ashburnham-Ruffner, formal recognition and, of all things, her own website.

For Lieut. Tony Farrar, three years Doreen’s junior, every bit as brave and truly the Commonwealth’s youngest recognized hero, a tragically short carer as an army officer and a forgotten grave in Esquimalt’s postcard-perfect Veterans’ Cemetery.

To this week’s cougar victim, Zachary Bromley, best wishes for a full and rapid recovery. It will be interesting to see if mom Chelsea is nominated for a heroism award after her deja vu performance of wrestling barehanded with a cougar.

Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?

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