In 1932, Gwen Spencer Hethey was a 24-year-old blonde-haired, iron-willed woman headed to England to shoot some guns.
Bisley, known colloquially by the English village where it occurs, is a prestigious annual shooting competition that draws talent from around the world. In the 1930s, thousands of people would come out to watch, often including the prime minister and a number of government officials, said Dominion of Canada Rifle Association historian and former gold medalist Des Vamplew.
Spencer Hethey’s son, Robin Hethey, imagines when his mother showed up as one of few non-military competitors and even fewer female ones, she wouldn’t have been taken very seriously. But with only two years of shooting experience under her belt, Spencer Hethey quickly snagged top place for female competitors and top place in the non-military open class.
Gwen Spencer Hethey competed at Bisley in 1932 and again in 1938. (Courtesy of Robin Hethey)
“After her first week there, they’re saying ‘this little wee dolly is something to be looked upon with some reverence’ because she was making those military grizzlies look like turkeys,” Robin Hethey said with a proud chuckle.
Victoria born and a graduate of Oak Bay High, Spencer Hethey was a pioneer of female sharpshooters, Vamplew agreed.
“Whatever she got involved in, it didn’t take her long to dominate it,” he said.
She first picked up a gun in 1930 when her uncle, Major Fred Richardson, challenged her to come out to his newly formed James Island Rifle Club and give the sport a shot. According to newspaper records – of which there are many praising her talent – Spencer Hethey took to it like a duck to water.
She was the first woman to enter the provincial championships in 1930 and the first to win the B.C. Lieutenant Governor’s Final in 1936. In 1938, she returned to Bisley where she again placed well in the non-military competitions. The highlight though was attending the garden party at Buckingham Palace afterward where Spencer Hethey met the Queen and talked with her for over 10 minutes.
Spencer Hethey later told newspapers she was amazed at how well informed the Queen was about competitive rifle shooting.
That same summer, Spencer Hethey took part in Canada’s national competition, the Governor General’s Match, where she tied with two captains, but was demoted to fifth place since the first four had to go to military members.
Gwen Spencer Hethey with her two sons, Robin and Richard “Rickie” Hethey in Vancouver in 1945. (Courtesy of Robin Hethey)
Competitive shooting was put on hold during the Second World War and Spencer Hethey married and had two sons. She may have returned to the sport after the war, but in 1948 her husband died of a heart attack and she was left to support her family.
As a mother, she was wonderful, Robin Hethey, 80, recalls. She was kind, an avid listener and an exceptional cook. He remembers her working as a nutritionist and one newspaper clipping suggests she was part of the British Columbia Provincial Police for a time, although her son has no recollection of that.
In fact, he knew very little about his mother’s accomplishments until last October when his cousin Roy Davies was researching their family history and stumbled upon about 300 newspaper articles on Spencer Hethey.
“It was just this treasure trove,” Davies said. He remembers being a young child at family gatherings and hearing about his Aunt Gwen, the phenomenal rifle shot who went to Bisley, but had never known much else.
For Robin Hethey, reading through the old clippings gave some of his old memories new meaning.
At age 10, he and his eight-year-old brother Rickie would sometimes accompany their mother to the shooting range where she still liked to go for fun from time to time.
“When she walked onto the range, the fellows there would give a drop of the hat and bow their heads,” Robin Hethey said. He didn’t think much of it back then, but now he knows it was a sign of respect.
On the range she was a demon in her own desire to prove herself better than anybody else, Robin Hethey said, but off it she was quiet and humble.
“She never blew her own horn,” he said.
He also remembers a number of small scars on his mother’s right cheek, products of her rifle hammer grazing her skin as she released the trigger.
“The rifle was a part of her. It was an extent of her determination,” Robin Hethey said.
In 1962, at just 54 years old, Spencer Hethey died from cancer at the Royal Jubilee Hospital.
After discovering her accomplishments in October, Robin Hethey and Davies compiled a package and submitted it to the Greater Victoria Sports Hall of Fame. She will be inducted this fall.
“She was a killer,” Vamplew said. If her career hadn’t been cut short, who knows what she could have done.
Gwen Spencer Hethey, Vancouver, 1950. (Courtesy of Robin Hethey)
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