Women who shaped Halifax

History records a lot about the men who built this city, but little about the women who worked at their side


nos Collins, Joseph Howe, and Alexander Keith are names most Nova Scotians recognize. But what about the wives of those men: Eliza and Sarah Ann Keith, Margaret Collins, and Susan Ann Howe?
“A historical trend we see is that it was important men who were deemed worthy of study, and their historical records preserved,” says Claire Halstead, a post-doctoral research fellow in the history department at Saint Mary’s University. “By focusing on important men, such as politicians, women were often omitted.”
Or, in the case of Susan Ann Howe, glossed over.

Catherine Susan Ann Howe, née McNab

Born May 12,1807 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Catherine Susan Ann McNab went by her middle name of Susan, or Susy Anny to her husband.
In 1817, the McNab family (including her father Captain John McNab, mother Eleanor, and brother James), moved to McNab’s Island in the Halifax Harbour. At the time, her uncle Peter McNab II owned the island. She stayed there until her marriage, as the book, The Haligonians: 100 fascinating lives from the Halifax region said it “took the charms of Joseph Howe to get her off the island.”
An in-demand bachelor in his day, Howe would often row to the island attempting to woo Susan and win her family’s affection. This took work, as the family worried about Susan’s welfare if she married him. This changed once Howe bought newspapers The Acadian and the Novascotian.
Following this purchase (according to the biography Joseph Howe Volume I: Conservative Reformer, 1804–1848), John McNab wrote to his future son in law, proclaiming him a “young man of the strictest honour and principle which I feel more contented than if he possessed wealth.”
Joseph and Susan married on Feb. 2, 1828 at St. Paul’s.
Along with raising the couple’s 10 children (several of which died as children) Susan also played a big part in the Novascotian’s success. At the time, female editors were rare. While her husband travelled around the province to spread word about his paper, Susan was often behind the editors’ desk, earning her the second nickname “Little Editor.”
“It is important then, that if we want to focus on [one of these women], that we research and emphasize her own merits and hard work as a woman rather than simply as someone’s wife,” says Halstead about the study of historic women. “It may be the context in which she lived, but there are many lenses.”
Historical records show Susan worried about her husband and his political activities; she preferred to stay out of the spotlight, but supported him nonetheless. He, in turn, seemed to dote on her and often wrote her letters. During one attempt at public office, Howe didn’t receive a single vote, but, since the day was wife’s birthday, he referred to it in one letter as a “a lucky day for me in all the concerns of life.”
The worries her family had prior to her marriage were well founded, as money troubles plagued the couple. Howe didn’t always leave Susan with much money when he travelled. In 1851, when her husband was away, she applied three times in a month for financial assistance in the sum of £18.
When Howe died in 1873, Susan was destitute; she had to rely on the government and her children for help.
In 1885, the Nova Scotia government granted her a $500 pension. In her note to Provincial Secretary W.S. Fielding, she thanked the government for the “kind thought” and assured him “the welfare of Nova Scotia was from early manhood, very dear to the heart of my husband.”
On July 5, 1890 Susan died “in perfect peace,” at the age of 84, according to her obituary in the July 7 Halifax Morning Herald. She is buried alongside her husband at Camp Hill.

Sarah Ann Keith, née Stalcup and Eliza Keith

While records of Susan Ann Howe are few and far between, there are even fewer for Sarah Ann and Eliza Keith.
Halstead says this is probably because, like many other women, their lives were connected more to the private sphere or the home. At the time, a husband’s role was often more public due to business and political ventures.
“Because their husbands were deemed more important for the history books, this neglects the importance of their relationship and also, my guess, would be that [they] performed some form of societal work that someone of her social standing would have been expected to do,” says Halstead.
In 1822, future Halifax mayor Alexander Keith was a 27-year-old embarking on a series of adventures. He moved his brewing business from Argyle Street to Lower Water Street and, on Dec. 17 married 26-year-old Sarah Ann Stalcup (her maiden name is sometimes spelled Stalkup). From their marriage bond, it appears she wasn’t employed prior to their wedding, as her job is listed as spinster and his as brewer.
That is pretty much all that is known about the first Mrs. Keith, besides the fact they didn’t have any children and she died 10 years into their marriage at age 36. Her obituary in the Aug. 24, 1832 Acadian Recorder said her death was due to a “painful illness.” She is buried at the Old Burying Ground on Barrington Street.
Eliza was born between 1812 and 1815. First cousin to the famous brewer, they married in 1833, about a year after Sarah Ann’s death. They had nine children together. The Life and Times of Alexander Keith: Nova Scotia’s Brewmaster, says Eliza would have managed Keith Hall, while her husband ran the brewery. She would have overseen servants, raised the children, and accompanied her husband to social events.
This is something that Halstead says was common at the time. Women were often relegated to at-home tasks and duties, so the house defined their lives. Meanwhile, business and political achievements defined their husbands.
Following Keith’s death in 1873, he willed that Keith Hall and its belongings couldn’t be sold until Eliza passed away.
Eliza died on Dec. 27, 1895 at age 81, according to the monument in Camp Hill Cemetery, where she rests alongside her husband. Nova Scotia Vital Statistics says she died at age 83. Vital Statistics lists her job at the time of a death as “lady” and the cause of death as “general debility.” General debility is a catch-all term for physical weakness that can lead to other health problems, such as pain or memory loss.

Margaret Collins, née Hailburton

Margaret Collins follows this trend of being a personal-life footnote in someone else’s story.
On June 27, 1825 Halifax businessman and banker, 51-year-old Enos Collins married Margaret Haliburton at St. Paul’s Church. Margaret, then 25, was the oldest daughter of Judge and Chief Justice of Nova Scotia Brenton Haliburton. According to Canadian Encyclopedia, people considered Collins one of the richest men in Canada at the time.
The couple settled into Collins’ home (Gorsebrook) and had nine children. As with Eliza and Sarah Ann, history records little about Margaret’s life; she would have had duties that fitted her upper-class status, like overseeing the household. In Canada’s Entrepreneurs: From the Fur Trade to the 1929 Stock Market Crash, the writer says the couple “entertained the governor and other leaders of the community.”
Margaret died in July 1868 at about 68 years of age. Her obituary in the July 3 British Colonist doesn’t give many details of her death or birth year, simply referring to her as Collins’s wife and Haliburton’s daughter.
Collins himself died in 1871 and the couple is buried at Camp Hill.
While historic records of these women can’t be updated, Halstead says a gap in history is now recognized.
“We’re getting better at it since the turn [toward marginalized groups and people] in historical studies, which placed an emphasis on women’s history and studying the important roles and contributions of women in the past,” she says.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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