Taking total abstinence to Ottawa
Eliza Taylor was entertaining her good friend Miss Sarah Geary on April 5, 1839 when the windows to her father’s house exploded.
Shattered glass tore through the rooms of the Cooks Cove, Guysborough County, home cutting the faces of both young women.
An hour later gunshots also rang out in the shiretown of nearby Guysborough, breaking windows and terrorizing the family of E. I. Cunningham.
It was a war in Guysborough, not for land, but for the heart of the community.
Eliza’s father, Wentworth Taylor, was a magistrate and leader of the newly formed Total Abstinence movement. E.I. Cunningham’s home was targeted because he rented a room to the government clerk responsible for doling out fines for the illegal sale of liquor.
Like any war, its legions marched under banners.
Three banners — each of them three square metres — were painstakingly stitched together by women of the movement with expensive silk purchased with their own funds.
“Temperance, we love the cause,” reads the “ladies banner” in gold letters against a background of white silk.
“It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing.”
The banner the women made for the movement’s men warns those not marching with their husbands, “The eyes of all are upon you.”
There was a boy’s banner too, but it has been lost.
And now the 188-year-old totems of a long forgotten struggle are falling victim to time and, according to the Guysborough Historical Society, institutional disrespect.
“Although you are eligible and have met our criteria for acceptance of projects, we are unable to accept your request, because of commitments to current treatment projects that are waiting to be completed, as well as new commitments to treatment projects that attained a higher criteria ranking,” reads the third rejection the society has received from the Canadian Conservation Institute.
The society, which along with the banners, is housed in the courthouse that was built just four years after the infamous shootings.
President Jamie Grant and Mark Haynes, the vice president, have been waging a rather persistent campaign to have the banners preserved — seeking help first from the Nova Scotia Museum and then (repeatedly) from the federally funded Canadian Conservation Institute.
Rather than musket balls, their struggle sees the exchange of polite emails and detailed application forms.
But their patience is wearing thin.
“British Columbia and Alberta weren’t even around in the 1830s, so my question is ‘What are these other priorities?’” said Haynes.
“We’re not even looking for money right now. We’re just looking for them to help us figure out what needs to be done to preserve them and we will go from there. But we keep getting brushed off.”
The men’s banner that hangs behind the judge’s bench is coming apart from its own weight.
They’re afraid the disturbance caused by taking it down would further damage it.
The “ladies banner” is in worse shape — faded from too much sun and dilapidated, they keep it rolled up away from the eyes of those who could appreciate it.
To Grant and Haynes, the banners are important not just because they are the oldest extent artifacts known of an early 19th century movement that swept both the British Empire and its former American colonies but also because they represent a complex struggle of class, religion, economy and ethnicity waged in the microcosm of one community.
“A little context is important here,” said Grant.
Prior to the 1830 founding of Guysborough’s Total Abstinence league, the loyalist Protestant community received an influx of Roman Catholic Newfoundlanders of Irish descent.
The newcomers, mainly young men, had been part of the 4,000-man fleet of fishermen that came from all over to pillage the mackerel fishery of nearby
The Newfoundlanders, with their lilting Irish accents and old school religion, were both a boon to the economy and a cultural threat when they chose not to go home.
“They brought the demon drink with them,” said Haynes.
“Now, now, now,” cautioned Grant.
“The Irish are unfairly blamed for much. Though there likely weren’t too many choir boys among them.”
The area’s economy was recovering from a global depression that had followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The availability of hard currency had not kept pace with economic development.
And so rum became the currency with which the local merchants paid the unruly newcomers.
“They were going up against the merchant class,” explained Grant.
“They” were the descendents of 1,100 Protestant New Englanders loyal to the British monarchy who considered Guysborough their own — having had a 60 year head start on the Roman Catholic Newfoundlanders.
In an order that spoke to their values, upon their arrival in Guysborough the loyalists had first built a courthouse complete with stocks and whipping post, then a church and then a school.
It was the community’s women who pioneered the Total Abstinence league in Guysborough — creating their banners the same year that 45 licences were granted to the merchants of Sidney County (now Antigonish and Guysborough counties) to sell liquor.
Interestingly, the pledge taken by members of Total Abstinence was to not drink more than two “glasses of spirits” a day.
“There was no definition of the size of the glasses,” said Haynes.
“And beer, cider and wine were fine.”
Their real effort was to campaign against the issuing of liquor licences to merchants, to see illegal alcohol peddlers harshly fined and to enforce a strict moral code upon civic behavior.
They also held parades, speeches, picnics and organized a Band of Hope.
They passed motions, including this gem from a meeting of the male members of Total Abstinence as they organized a march: “Be it resolved that the ladies who are members of the society be respectfully requested to honor the procession with their presence, as their absence on that important occasion will, in the opinion of this meeting, be extremely injurious to the interest of the society.”
As for the violence, it all came to a head one scary night. The perpetrators were never found despite an offer of 100 pounds for information leading to an arrest from the province’s then lieutenant governor Colin Campbell.
“All that was incidentally ascertained was … that it had been planned by persons favorable to liquor selling and in retaliation for fines imposed for illegal traffic,” wrote Harriett Hart in her 1877 book A History of Guysborough County.
That’s right — 10 years after Canada was founded, Guysborough had a history book written about it.
“I spent 25 years researching just how old this community is,” said Haynes.
And in the basement of the Guysborough Historical society they feel keenly the snub of bureaucrats in that young Upper Canadian town, Ottawa.
“Let’s put it this way — Confederation was imposed upon us and we were forced to join Canada, which was Ontario and Quebec,” said Grant.
“Is Canada still Ontario and Quebec? If this was an Ontarian historical artifact would it have been rejected three times?”
Jamie Grant and Mark Haynes, of the Guysborough Historical Society, sit in front of one of two large silk Total Abstinence banners made by women in 1830. The society is campaigning to have them better preserved.