Alexander Keith

Hon. Alexander Keith Ruler of the Craft in Nova Scotia … 1839 – 1873

Alexander Keith

Alexander Keith was born to Donald Keith and Christina Brims on October 5, 1795, at Falkirk on the River Thurso, six miles from the town of Thurso in Caithnesshire, Scotland . The cradle in which he was rocked in his earliest days is still preserved in Keith’s Hall, Halifax. His Father was a highly respected farmer and Chief of the Clan Keith. After receiving a liberal education he proceeded, in 1812 at the age of seventeen, to Sunderland, England, then the center of the brewing trade in Northern England, where he was placed under the instruction of his uncle to learn the brewing and malting business. At that time there were four large breweries and eight smaller ones in the town of Sunderland. He seems to have also had experience in both London and Edinburgh.

Five years later, when Keith migrated to Halifax, he became sole brewer and business manager for Charles Boggs, who carried on business on Argyle Street on a property assessed to Lawrence Pender. In 1820, Mr. Keith purchased the growing business from Mr. Boggs and continued it on his own account. In the Acadian Recorder, July 7, 1821, appeared the following advertisement: “Alexander Keith begs leave to inform his friends and the public in general, that he has commenced the brewing business in the house lately occupied by Mr. L. Pender, Argyle Street, opposite Dalhousie College, where he intends to brew strong ales, porter, ginger wine, table and spruce beer; and hopes by strict attention to his business, added to his long experience in the above line both in London and Edinburgh, and also in this town, to merit a share of the public patronage and support.” In 1822 Keith moved his brewery and premises to larger facilities on its present site on Lower Water Street, where a large stone building was erected occupying several acres. The site had been previously owned by Wm. Storey & Son, well-known merchants of that period and the joint owners of a brewery operated by Lydiard and Storey near the same site. Later this building was replaced by solid and substantial granite buildings with extensive vaults and cellars and in 1836 he again expanded, building a new brewery on Hollis Street. About 1835, Mr. Keith built a double house on Hollis Street, north of the present Keith Hall and lived in the north end of it until the latter was completed.

In those days it was the custom to make a ceremony of laying the corner stone of a new home and in the files of a Halifax paper published on that year, we find the announcement that, “the corner stone of a new residence of the Hon. Alexander Keith on Hollis Street, was laid by that gentleman in the presence of some of his friends with appropriate ceremony, after which the workmen, and others were entertained with a repast.” Again, on the completion of the new home, Mr. Keith gave a sumptuous dinner to all the workmen engaged in its construction. From this house he built an underground passage to the great granite brewery on Water Street. It began almost two storied underground from the Hollis Street level and ran in the level, under the garden. This passage is still in use by the present owners. In 1863 he began the erection of Keith Hall, built of Wallace stone. Keith Hall, is in the Renaissance style, with baroque adornments, pillars of no particular style, and a mansard roof. This peculiar combination of styles resulted from the fact that the designs were probably derived from books with plans of buildings in Great Britain and the United States. Keith Hall was sold to the Halifax Council of the Knights of Columbus about 1912, but was resold in 1949 to A. Keith & Son Ltd and is now owned and occupied by Oland’s Brewery.

On 17 Dec. 1822 Alexander Keith married Sarah Ann Stalcup, who died in 1832. On 30 Sept. 1833 he married Eliza Keith; they had six daughters and two sons. In 1853, Mr. Keith’s son, Donald G. Keith, was admitted to partnership and the name “Alexander Keith & Son” adopted, which name has been retained until the present time. Mr. Donald Keith died in 1886 without issue and his three sisters continued the business. Alexander Keith’s appointment as director of the Bank of Nova Scotia in 1837 along with William Blowers Bliss is an indication of his importance in the Halifax business community. Beginning in 1837, he also served as a director, at various dates, of the Halifax Fire Insurance Company. In 1838 he helped found the Halifax Marine Insurance Association, and in the 1840’s he was on the board of management of the Colonial Life Assurance Company. He was also director of the Halifax Gas, Light, and Water Company, incorporated in 1840, and in 1844 helped incorporate the Halifax Water Company, becoming a director in 1856. By 1864 Keith was a director of the Provincial Permanent Building and Investment Society. At the time of his death his estate was evaluated at $251,000.

Keith’s interest in utilities and insurance was but part of his general involvement in the public life of Halifax. He was unsuccessful in the general election of 1840 when he stood as a Conservative candidate for the town of Halifax but was elected to the first city council in 1841. In 1842 he served as a commissioner of public property and for several years acted as Commissioner in the Court of Common Pleas for the Town of Halifax prior to its incorporation as a city. In 1845 Alexander Keith was elected mayor of Halifax. He continued as a member of council until he again served as mayor, by election, in 1853 and 1854. In December 1843 he was appointed to the Legislative Council and in June 1867 he accepted the appointment of president of the council, declining a seat in the Canadian Senate. As a supporter of confederation and president of the council, he was helped at first by the fact that on 1 July 1867 Charles Tupper had filled several seats in the upper house with unknown confederates. Although the premier, William Annand, appointed to the upper house in November 1867, had complete control of the lower house, he did not dare introduce a resolution into the upper chamber in 1868 calling for repeal of union. The anti-confederates gradually secured control of the upper house, however, and Keith was unable to prevent passage, in 1871, of a particularly flagrant bill which took the vote from all federal officials in provincial elections. It was perhaps a commentary on Keith that he was not actively involved at this time with the Conservative party organization which was run by such party stalwarts as Philip C. Hill and James MacDonald. As a Major in the Militia and a Justice of the Peace, the Hon. Mr. Keith was ever ready to serve his Queen and Country. Throughout his career Keith was connected with several charitable and fraternal societies. He served as President of the North British Society from 1831 and as Chief of the Highland Society from 1868 until his death on the 14 Dec. 1873 in Halifax, NS. In 1838 he was connected with the Halifax Mechanics Library and in the early 1840s with the Nova Scotia Auxiliary Colonial Society.

Keith was perhaps best known to the Halifax public as a leader of the Freemasons. He was brought to light in the year 1816 in Sunderland in the Lodge of St. John No. 118, Registry of England and on his arrival in Halifax affiliated in Virgin Lodge No. 2, R.E. In 1819 exalted to the Holy Royal Arch Degree in Royal Union Chapter R.E. in which chapter from 1827 till 1859 he alternately filled the offices of Z.H. and I with much zeal, knowledge and honour and was subsequently appointed Grand Superintendent of R.A. Masonry for Nova Scotia, under English authority, which high office he continued to hold until the formation of the Supreme Grand R.A. Chapter of the Province of Nova Scotia, over which body he was unanimously elected and installed as the M.E. Grand High Priest. In Chivalric Masonry our distinguished Brother was also very prominent, and it was said that the Nova Scotia Encampment owed its prosperity, if not its very existence, to his untiring zeal and assiduity in the furtherance of its interests. Sir Knight Keith held the important position of M.E. Grand High Priest He was Treasurer of Virgin Lodge from 1824 thru 1829 and again from 1831 thru 1843 as well as Master of Virgin Lodge from 1834 thru 1838 and served as Master again in 1845. In 1839, after having for many years held the office of Deputy Provincial Grand Master, he was, on the death of the late R.W. Bro. John Albro, unanimously chosen to become Provincial Grand Master for Nova Scotia and in 1846 his jurisdiction was extended to the Province of New Brunswick and the Islands of Prince Edward and Newfoundland. In 1843 the Grand Lodge of Scotland also appointed R.W. Bro. Keith Provincial Grand Master over the Scottish Lodges in the Maritimes. Following the union of the District Grand Lodge and the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia in 1869 he was elected Grand Master by an unanimous vote and re-elected in each of the following years, serving until his death in 1873.

Tradition says that during the Civil War in the United States (1861 – 1865), many Halifax families were much more interested in the success of the South than of the North. While many a young man from the city and from other parts of the province served in the Union armies, for adventure’s sake, a considerable number were engaged in a blockade running to southern ports. Business interests in the capital city were closely associated with the South, perhaps because of the intimate link of the the latter with Britain due to the similarity of upper class customs based upon many retainers and large estates. It is a tradition that the Hon. Alexander Keith on more than one occasion assisted southern raiders, captured off this port, to escape when they were being landed with a guard at one of the docks along the waterfront. By sheer impertinence, as a paper of the day called it, he stood before the guard while the men leaped into a boat and were rowed across the harbor to escape near Dartmouth. The newspaper discussed the event in such general terms that it is impossible at this latter date to piece them together, apparently taking it for granted that the whole town knew the circumstances. The following illustrates in some detail how our neighbor to the south viewed such actions. Alexander Keith a Spy? Excerpt from a High Ranking US Navy Officer writing to A Senator in the United States “My Lord, A very painful frustration has been produced by the appearance on the coast of the Northern United States of the Confederate Cruiser called the “Tallahassee”. This vessel is reported to have been out of Hatteras, North Carolina, about the 1st of this month. She showed herself off the New York harbor on the 11th of August. In the days which followed she is believed to have destroyed fifty four federal vessels. Her arrival at Halifax was reported to the United States Authorities yesterday by telegraph. The newspapers of today publish a telegram from Halifax, dated yesterday, stating that the “Tallahassee” was coaling there from a vessel alongside and would probably sail again in the night. It is added in the telegram, that she was formerly the blockade runner “Atlanta”, which had made three trips into Wilmington. The appearance of this vessel and the havoc made by her have caused a load and almost universal outcries against the inefficiency of the Navy Department; nor have accusations and approaches against England been spared. Mr. Leward spoke to me on the subject yesterday He observed that the effect which might be produced upon the feelings of the people of the United States towards Great Britain was a matter for very serious Consideration. Reports had, he said, reached the Government, that the “Tallahassee” had taken her armament on board at Bermuda. He had not however any positive information on this point, and he hoped that he should be spared the necessary of making a complaint respecting it to Her majesty’s Government He would not however conceal the uneasiness with which he had learned that the “Tallahassee” had put into Halifax nor the apprehensions which he entertained, that she might receive supplies there. Mr. Leward then reminded me of a paper which he had put into my hand some months ago, with reference to the affair of the “Chesapeake”, and which purported to be the decipher of a letter from a Confederate Agent to Mr. A Keith, respecting the seizure of the “Chesapeake”, and respecting a shipment of a thousand muskets to Halifax. A copy of this paper was transmitted to your Lordship with the dispatch No. 913 of the 21 December last. Mr. Leward went on yesterday to say that the United States Government had discovered that this Mr. A Keith who was a Merchant at Halifax, had recently written to New York to order a compass, which was no doubt intended for the “Tallahassee”, and three thousand Barrels of Pork. Mr. Leward begged me to inform the Lt. Gov. of NS by telegraph of this discovery……………..” This begs the Question, was our Grand Master a Confederate Agent?

Bibliography: History of the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia – Reginald V. Harris, PGM, Nova Scotia Biography of Alexander Keith – K. G. Pyke