A kindly sympathetic heart
Part 1 of a series on Charlotte Nicholls, who used her wealth to help others in Peterborough
Peterborough has been home to many high-profile women. Many carved their reputations as writers, of which we might note Frances Stewart, Catharine Parr Traill, and Margaret Laurence. Others earned fame as artists, of whom Katherine Wallis was an outstanding example during the early 20th century. Many were social activists, many getting their training in the Peterborough Protestant Home beginning in the 1860s and lasting to the current century. Of these, the leading lights were Louise Wallis, Helen Haultain, Jane Gifford Hall, Charlotte Nicholls and Margaret McWilliams.
Charlotte Nicholls (1817-1893), best known as Peterborough’s most generous benefactor and philanthropist, was also a social activist. During her lifetime she was actively supporting the Peterborough Protestant Home, St. Andrew’s Church, the YMCA and the Nicholls’ Hospital.
Charlotte Nicholls was born in the County Cavan, Ireland, and came to New York with her older brother, John F. Jackson (b. 1814), who was from the 1840s to the 1870s a saddler or harness maker in Madrid, New York, in St. Lawrence county. His wife was Lucinda (or Lorinda), was born in New York state around 1818.
Her brother’s son, Benjamin A. Jackson (1842-1896), was one of the heirs of the Nicholls estate. Benjamin’s brother, Robert D., showed up in the census for 1860. Both brothers were described as saddlers, like their father, and Benjamin remained a saddler or harness maker into the 1880s in Madrid.
Benjamin was appointed a lifetime trustee, but only lived six years longer than his aunt, dying Oct. 29, 1896 in Peterborough after suffering a stroke that caused paralysis from which he never recovered. He was a native of Madison, N.Y., and was survived by his widow, Susan M., aged 37. According to the obituary in the Peterborough Examiner, his only public position was as a trustee of the Nicholls estate, but “The kindly presence of the deceased will be greatly missed in his large circle of friends.”
Charlotte Nicholls lived for several years in New York City, and for many years she lived with the mother of Robert Nicholls, a prominent merchant in Peterborough, whom she married in 1847. She moved to Peterborough in 1843, and about 10 years later the couple moved into the Greek Revival house on Rubidge Street, which was built for Peregrine Maitland Grover around 1847 and used by the Corinthian Lodge for a few years between 1849 and 1853. The Nicholls added two wings on the house which occupied a small city block between St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church (a cathedral after 1882) and St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.
The Review obituary noted, “She was a lady though who did not take selfish enjoyment out of her vast riches, but with a hand of benevolence and charity scattered her kindnesses here and there, and many a poor family will miss the loss of a kindly sympathetic heart and liberal hand, and will ever cherish the memory of their benefactor. All these little acts of kindness did not see the light of day or come to the public gaze, but they were prompted by the same spirit that inspired her to more munificent deeds. These are familiar to all our citizens, and will serve to keep green the memory of the departed.”
In the 1885 report of the Peterborough Protestant Home, Jane Gifford Hall reported, “The Committee of the Peterborough Protestant Home in presenting their annual report, desire to thank the Most High for his great goodness to this institution during the past year. In April, when our finances were in anything but a flourishing condition, Mrs. Nicholls very generously sent the handsome donation of $500, one amongst the other noble acts she is doing for our town. This enabled the Committee to get repairs and improvements made around the premises, as the sheds, etc. were fast falling into a state of dilapidation, also a verandah was put up on the side facing the railway for the comfort of the inmates.”
The Peterborough Protestant Home began as an outdoor relief service in 1862. Women of the town had pointed out the need as many people faced poverty in Peterborough every bit as important as the hardships of the British cotton mills, to which local support had been generous. Poverty in Peterborough was exacerbated by the winter, and by men who left their families for the season or forever. By 1869, it was providing indoor relief in a home; its second home was the old brewery on Stewart Street, just around the corner from Hutchison House. The Midland Railway line, dubbed the “Missing Link” was built in 1882, and in its first mile ran along the creek, later known as Jackson Creek, next to Hutchison House and behind the Peterborough Protestant Home.
Charlotte Nicholls was elected vice-president at the second meeting of the Relief Society in 1862, a position that she held for several years. Her husband, Robert Nicholls, offered in 1862 to supply the society with some goods at cost and to receive and store produce and other articles in his facilities, which included a large stone warehouse still visible behind the Bank of Montreal.
In June 1865, the minutes recorded that, “Mrs. Jenkinson was called to appear before the Committee to give her consent to committing her child to the care of the Ladies Committee of the Home, and to agree to sign a document to that effect, with which arrangement she was well pleased. Mrs. Nicholls & Mrs. Kirkpatrick appointed to call on Mrs. Hill, and assure her, by shewing her the afore named paper, that the mother would not interfere in any way with the child, but that Mrs. Hill could retain her, as bound to her by the Ladies’ Committee, until 18 years of age, with the understanding that Mrs. Hill do bring her up in a Christian manner and keep in her mind a remembrance of her mother.”
The ladies’ committee acted as visitors, much like later social workers, who monitored those in their blocks who might be of need and could be helped by the society. The society, for example, authorized visitor Charlotte Nicholls to spend 50 cents to help a Mrs. Wilson and as well to procure firewood for her.
Peterborough had no hospital before 1883. There had been immigration sheds at Hospital Point in 1847, but mostly people felt that hospitals were only for soldiers or the poor. People needing short term help could come to the Protestant Poor Home or the county jail. In one very sad case, a young lad working at a local hotel was burned by an accident with the lamps which he was lighting. The Protestant Home served as a hospice where he died. He had the assistance of several visitors and doctors.
The Protestant Home received $20,000 from Charlotte Nicholls’ will, and in 1912 it was a major factor in rebuilding a new building, meant to meet modern standards of hygiene, on Anson Street.
In 1883, Charlotte Nicholls purchased Moira Hall to be used as a hospital and by 1886 set in motion the plans for a much larger and up-to-date facility with the best of equipment. This was the 15th hospital in Ontario, and a precursor for a dramatic change in attitudes toward hospitals; they were now seen, not as harbingers of death, but as places that saved lives. The larger hospital opened in January 1890, just months before her death.
The Nicholls Hospital on Argyle Street near George continued to expand; the endowment given in Charlotte Nicholls’ last will and testament lasted until the 1930s. After becoming a municipal hospital, Nicholls Hospital was replaced in 1950 with the new Peterborough Civic Hospital in the west end which lasted into the current century when replaced by the Peterborough Regional Health Centre.
Elwood H. Jones, the archivist at Trent Valley Archives, can be reached at elwood@ trentvalleyarchives.com
A view of the old Nicholls Hospital from George Street near Hilliard. (Trent Valley Archives, Electric City Collection, F50 2.062)
Aerial view, 1919, of the north end of Peterborough. The Nicholls Hospital is at bottom left; the Peterborough Protestant Home is centre and the Isolation Hospital is upper left. The Peterborough Protestant Home at this location was made possible by the bequest of Charlotte Nicholls; the former home had been on Stewart Street north of Brock. (TVA, Electric City Collection, F50, 2.254)
Robert and Charlotte Nicholls in front of their home at 415 Rubidge Street, now the Masonic Temple. (Trent Valley Archives)
Nurses at Moira Hall, the first Nicholls Hospital, 1885. (Trent Valley Archives, Electric City Collection, F50 2.061)
Nicholls Hospital, 1905 (Trent Valley Archives, Soden booklet)