Freemasonry in Nova Scotia


On November 4, 1829, another significant date in the history of the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia, John Albro, in his new role as appointed Provincial Grand Master, and under a Patent issued April 2, by the Grand Master, His Royal Highness, the Duke of Sussex, convened the first session of the third Provincial Grand Lodge. At this communication the Patent was read, and Albro duly installed. Later, on St. John’s Day, December 27, he announced the names of his officers. Most of these are unknown to Masons of today, but one, Alexander Keith, claims attention. He began as a junior officer, but within a decade had succeeded Albro as leader of the Craft. Under the new order, as in the past, much of the routine business, especially between annual communications, was transacted by a Central Committee which met monthly.

When the third Provincial Grand Lodge was born, Freemasonry in the jurisdiction was in a state of apathy and inactivity. The discontent in the membership of the constituent lodges over the more rigid control and additional fees imposed by the United Grand Lodge of England after 1813 has been noted. The change from an elected to an appointed Provincial Grand Master provided a new grievance, as did the fees and a renumbering of the lodges in 1832. The anti-Masonic campaign that followed the disappearance of William Morgan had not yet abated. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising to find that even before 1829 many of the lodges which had been active in the post-loyalist period of Parr, Bulkeley, Wentworth, and Pyke had ceased to meet.1 When the third Provincial Grand Lodge came into being, there were but twenty lodges in the jurisdiction. Two of these, St. John’s and Albion, were in Saint John; one, St. George, was in Charlottetown; and the remaining seventeen were in Nova Scotia. Of the latter, six, St. Andrew’s, St. John’s, Union, Virgin, Royal Albion and Royal Standard were in Halifax; and eleven Temple of Guysborough, Hiram of Shelburne, St. George’s of Cornwallis, Sussex of Newport, Unity of Lunenburg, Fort Edward of Windsor, Moira of Rawdon, Colchester Union of Truro, Cumberland Harmony of Amherst, St. Mary’s of Digby and Rising Sun of Londonderry, were in rural communities. It was the rural lodges that suffered most in the age of depression. The lodges in Saint John and Charlottetown and four of the Halifax lodges, St. Andrew’s, St. John’s, Virgin, and Royal Standard, survived the troubled thirties, but of the eleven in the rural areas, only one, Unity of Lunenburg, continued to meet. This meant that of the seventeen lodges in l829, two in Halifax and ten in other parts of the province became casualties. Some were revived later and some reappeared under a new name.2 A depression in 1837, which was most serious in Anglo-Saxon countries, prevented any speedy recovery. In fact the change was not very noticeable until 1840. By that time John Albro was dead, and the Craft had a new leader, Alexander Keith. So much was he involved personally in the advance, that the period from 1840 to 1866 may well be called the Age of Keith.

Alexander Keith was born in Scotland in 1795. As a youth he moved to Sunderland in Northern England to learn the business of malting and brewing. While there he joined a Masonic Lodge, St. John’s No. 118, of that place. In 1817 at the age of twenty-two he settled in Halifax where the rest of his life was spent. He was first employed in the brewing firm of Charles Boggs. In 1820 he purchased the business and proceeded to expand it. He had extensive holdings on Lower Water Street, and built a fine residence, still known as Keith Hall on Hollis Street.3 He prospered financially and socially. He entered the field of public service and above all he was an eminent member of the Craft. In 1822 he joined the North British Society, and in 1831, served as its President. He was the chief of the city’s Highland Society.

In public life, Keith served both the City of Halifax and the Province of Nova Scotia. When the city was incorporated in 1840, he became a member of the first Council. Three years later he was elected Mayor. In 1849, he returned to the Council, and in 1853-54 had a second term as Mayor.4 During the second term as Mayor, he was appointed to the upper house of the Province, the Legislative Council, and sat in that body for thirty years, 1843-73. For six years, 1867-73, he presided over its deliberations. When the Dominion of Canada was formed in 1867, he was offered, along with other Legislative Councillors, a seat in the Senate, but declined the honour.

Keith’s public services have been shown here to indicate the wide range of his interests and abilities; but it is with Keith the Freemason that we are primarily concerned. A member of the Craft for fifty-seven years, he was a Grand Lodge officer for half a century and for more than half of that time a Grand Master, Provincial, District, and independent. He had the honour of being the first Grand Master after the union of the English and Scottish lodges in 1869.

Not long after he arrived in Halifax, Keith affiliated with Virgin Lodge, now No. 3, and for many years was its most distinguished son. Worshipful Master as early as 1823, he held the same office in 1830, 1834-37, and 1845. For eighteen years, 1824-1842 when he was not in the Chair, he served the Lodge as its efficient treasurer.

Provincial and District Grand Master,
Grand Lodge of England, 1840-1869

Provincial Grand Master, Grand Lodge of Scotland, 1848-1866
Grand Master of Masons in Nova Scotia, 1869-1873

Keith began his service to the Grand Lodge in 1825, when John Albro appointed him Senior Grand Deacon. Two years later he was Grand Marshal, and in 1828, Junior Grand Warden. With the formation of the third Provincial Grand Lodge in 1829, he was promoted to Senior Grand Warden. He filled this office with zeal and efficiency during the difficult years before 1837. In that year, he became Deputy Provincial Grand Master under the aging Albro, and by a carefully planned system of lodge visitations helped to bring about a much needed and long desired revival. Thus, when Albro died in 1839, Keith was his logical successor. The appointment was announced by the Duke of Sussex on September 24, 1840. On the following St. John’s Day he was duly installed. For the next three decades, he gave freely of his time, talents, and financial resources to Freemasonry.. His jurisdiction included the Maritime Provinces, and for a number of years after 1847, Newfoundland as well. His contributions to the Craft can be measured, at least in part, by the number of new lodges that were established after 1840, even more by the affection and support given him by the brethren. He held office longer than any other leader of the Fraternity, before or since his day. Three lodges in Nova Scotia: No. 16, at Bear River, No. 17, at Halifax, and No, 23 at Stellarton, and one in New Brunswick: Keith No. 23, Moncton, bear his name. He is also remembered by Keith Chapter, Rose Croix, Halifax, and Keith, Royal Arch Chapter, Truro.

Keith’s most active years as Provincial Grand Master of the English lodges 1840-65, Provincial Grand Master under the Grand Lodge of Scotland, 1848-66, and as District Grand Master of the English lodges 1865-69, spanned the middle of the 19th century. It was for the Craft in his jurisdiction a time of growth and prosperity. A forward movement was overdue after the “doldrums” of the twenties and thirties, but it was Keith who gave it purpose and direction, and above all, leadership. He kept the Brethren active and the Fraternity before the public. Not the least important of his achievements was to head both the English and Scottish lodges of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick for eighteen years, 1848-66, at a time when these bodies were aggressively founding new lodges and hence needed wise guidance to avoid covering the same territory. To understand what this involved, and the background for the formation of the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia in 1866, attention must now be given to the origin and expansion of the Scottish lodges in the jurisdiction.


It was in March 1826, a time of unrest and protest among the Craft in the Maritime Provinces, that a number of Masons of Scottish blood, including Charles Fife, William Strickland and Samuel Bell, members of Keith’s own lodge, Virgin, evidently annoyed at what they considered the unnecessarily severe restrictions of the United Grand Lodge of England decided to request the Grand Lodge of Scotland to grant a dispensation and charter for a new lodge in Halifax. They were undoubtedly aware that their petition, if granted, would be both an innovation and an invasion of territory hitherto the preserve of the Grand Lodge of England. There could be little doubt that John Albro and his associates would oppose the move and that was exactly what they did.

On learning what Fife and his colleagues were doing, Albro called a special session of the Provincial Grand Lodge which met on November 29. Here a resolution was adopted which stated that, while there was no desire to oppose any action for the sake of opposition or to adopt an unfriendly attitude, it should be understood that the Provincial grand Lodge “possesses the exclusive power of granting warrants within this jurisdiction, which comprises the Provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and the Islands of Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, and that all Masonic Bodies assembling within the said Jurisdiction are amenable to it, and that members composing the same must obey all orders and directions, providing they are not contrary to the Ancient Landmarks of the Order” From this it followed that those who were acting contrary to the resolution, were guilty of “an act highly disrespectful in itself” and “prejudicial to the best interests of Masonry in this Province.”5

Although this resolution reached the authorities in Edinburgh, they disregarded it and proceeded to grant a charter dated February 5, 1827, for Thistle Lodge No. 393 under the registry of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. It was signed by the Grand Master, Thomas, Earl of Kinnoul and named the four major officers, Charles Fife, Worshipful Master; William Strickland, Deputy Master; George Stirling, Senior Warden; and Samuel Bell, Junior Warden.6 By this action one more product of Old Scotland came to the New.

It was soon abundantly clear that Fife and his associates, as members of the Craft in the jurisdiction, did not wish to have Thistle Lodge born in isolation, but as a member of the Masonic Fraternity. With this in mind, they requested permission to hold their communications in Masons Hall, for which privilege they were prepared to pay a reasonable rent. When the request was peremptorily refused, they held their meetings in St. Andrew’s Hall on Gottingen Street which stood opposite the present Casino Theatre. This soon became the headquarters for other lodges under the Grand Lodge of Scotland. the initial success of Thistle Lodge made the Masonic leaders in Edinburgh anxious to establish other lodges in British North America. Thus in 1834, one James law, was given authority over all Scottish lodges in North America, which at the time had little meaning. Two later appointments, however, at least showed determination, and in the end achievement. In 1842, a well known political figure in Upper Canada, Sir Allan MacNab, was appointed Provincial Grand Master under the Grand Lodge of Scotland for the Province of Canada which had been created by a union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1840-41. This was followed in 1843 by a similar appointment, that of John Leander Starr for the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland.

John Leander Starr was a fourth generation Planter whose ancestor, Major Samuel Starr, settled at Starr’s Point in the County of Kings. His father, John Starr, at one time represented Kings County in the Provincial Legislature. John Leander Starr settled in Halifax where he became a merchant and insurance broker. In 1841 he was appointed to the Legislative Council of the Province. He was a man of literary tastes and in his spare time did some writing and painting.

Before his appointment by the Grand Lodge of Scotland, Starr had served as Junior Grand Warden under Keith. He resigned this office, and for five years devoted himself to his new duties. In that time, 1843-48, two new lodges were established: Acadia in Dartmouth, 1844, and Burns in Halifax, 1848. progress was not easy, as brethren of the English lodges were opposed, and at least once urged the Grand Lodge in London to insist to the sister organization in Edinburgh that Starr’s commission be revoked and that he and his associates cease from their activities.

A diplomat and a shrewd judge of men and events, Alexander Keith did not favour open hostility to Starr and his Provincial Grand Lodge. As an alternative, he suggested good will and even cooperation. As early as 1838, while he was still Deputy under Albro, he supported the sending of an invitation to Thistle Lodge to join their brethren of the English lodges to celebrate the coronation of the young Queen Victoria. This fraternal mingling was so successful that it was continued. Among other activities, Scottish Masons assisted, along with the rest of the Craft, in the annual observance of St. John the Baptist Day, and the members of the English lodges reciprocated on St. Andrew’s Day, November 30. In this way, the Craft was prepared for the union which came some years later.

In 1848, John Leander Starr resigned his office as Provincial Grand Master under the Grand Lodge of Scotland and moved to the United States. Before he left the Province, he took the unprecedented, and in the opinion of some, inadvisable step of recommending to his superiors in Scotland that Alexander Keith be appointed to succeed him. Did he admire Keith so much that he considered him able “to ride two horses”, or did he hope and expect that the sage and experienced head of the English lodges could and would promote a union of the two groups? These are difficult questions to answer. We do know, however, that union was achieved.

Before the union became a reality in 1866, there were a number of years of stress and strain, not only between the English and Scottish lodges, but within the Scottish lodges themselves. This story need not be told in detail, but a few general facts are essential. The first concerns Thistle Lodge, where internal dissentions led one or more members to purloin the regalia, with the final result that the charter was revoked and a new charter issued to the faithful of Thistle, as Keith Lodge, now No. 17, G.R.N.S. Then in 1851, Acadia Lodge, which had been founded in Dartmouth, moved to Halifax. Here again, there was dissention which ended in division and the founding of a new lodge, Athole. This left the Acadia Lodge so weak that in 1854 it ceased to meet. To complete the story, it should be added that in 1866 when the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia was in the process of formation, the members of Athole divided as to the wisdom of the step. For a time there we two Athole lodges; one within, and one outside, the new independent Grand Lodge. Finally when the English lodges joined the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia in 1869, the opposing Athole gave up its independent attitude and resuming the original name, Acadia, became a member of the family. Acadia is now No. 14 and Athole No. 15, G.R.N.S.

In addition to the four lodges already mentioned, Keith (Thistle) Burns, Acadia, and Athole, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Scotland while led by Alexander Keith, 1846-66, chartered a number of other lodges. These were confined, for the most part, to the South coast, the Eastern shore, Cape Breton, and to a more limited degree, New Brunswick. As might be expected, Keith sought to prevent, particularly in the rural areas, the formation of lodges that would compete for territory and members. The Scottish lodges established between 1848 and 1866 were Royal Albert, North Sydney, 1857; Concord, Barrington, later Clarke’s Harbour, 1860; Albert, Shelburne, 1862; Scotia, Yarmouth, 1863; Queens, Sherbrooke 1864;; St Mark’s, Baddeck, 1865; and Acadia, Bridgewater, 1866. All are now active members of the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia. Three other lodges, Virgin, renamed Davis, of Wilmot, Ophir, of Tangier, and Eldorado, of Wine Harbour, are not in existence. The first lasted only seven years, 1863-70; the second for four years, 1866-70; and the third after a longer period merged with Queen’s Lodge, 1930.

In New Brunswick there were but three lodges of Scottish origin: St. Andrew’s in Fredericton, 1852; St. Andrew’s at Richibucto, 1856; and St. John’s at Bathurst, 1861. These, like their counterparts in Nova Scotia, joined later, with other lodges, to form an independent Grand Lodge. There were no Scottish lodges in Prince Edward Island.


It must not be supposed that while the Scottish lodges were being chartered in Nova Scotia, the brethren of the English Lodges were inactive. Keith was their leader before he had succeeded Starr as head of the Provincial Grand Lodge of Scotland. After all, the Scottish lodges numbered only eleven; there were many more than this in the Provincial Grand Lodge of England. In addition to those in existence before 1840, in the Keith era, fourteen new lodges were formed before 1866, and three inactive lodges were revived. between 1866 and 1869, three more were added, making a total of twenty for the twenty-nine years. With some of these, Keith was personally associated; for others, he gave only his authority and the prestige of his office. Sixteen of the twenty are active members of the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia at the present time, namely: Royal Sussex, Halifax, 1841; St. Andrew’s, Sydney, revived 1841; Zetland, Liverpool, 1847; Hiram, Yarmouth, 1848; New Caledonia, Pictou, revived 1849; The Keith, Hillsboro, now Bear River, 185l; Acadia, Pugwash, 1853; St. George’s, now in Wolfville, revived 1858; Keith, Albion Mines, now Stellarton, 1860; Welsford, Windsor, Scotia, Canning, Block House, Cow Bay, now Port Morien, 1865; The Tyrian Youth, Glace Bay, 1867; and Rothsay, Bridgetown 1868. Four other lodges, Union in Halifax, 1855, Westport on Briar Island, Digby County, 1861, Widow’s Friend, Weymouth, 1861, and Cobequid, Truro, 1867, are no longer active, but they have been succeeded by others in or near the same communities.

In his capacity as leader of the Craft, Keith was ever ready to bring Freemasonry to the attention of the public. An early opportunity came in 1841, when he was requested to lay the cornerstone for a new Penitentiary which was being built on the shores of the North West Arm. He performed the ceremony in an impressive manner in the presence of a large concourse of people. Later during the year 1843, he went to Charlottetown where he laid the cornerstone for the new Colonial Building which was to become an historical landmark. It was here, twenty-one years later, that the Fathers of Confederation met to discuss a union of the Provinces.


Alexander Keith made a notable contribution to the development of Freemasonry in New Brunswick. The story of the Craft north of the Bay of Fundy belongs to the Grand Lodge of that Province and has been told by a New Brunswick Mason7 For twenty-seven years, however, the Province was Masonically under Provincial Grand Master Keith, and he did not neglect it. These were years of phenomenal growth. From 1840 to 1867, fourteen new lodges were constituted. These later formed the backbone of the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick8 . They covered the Province from Saint John in the south to Woodstock, Chatham, and Newcastle in the north; and from Shediac and Moncton to the American border at St. Stephen and Milltown.

In New Brunswick, as in Nova Scotia, the Provincial Grand Master was much in demand as a public speaker. Beginning in 1847 he visited New Brunswick, especially Saint John, many times. In that year, he laid the cornerstone for a new Provincial Asylum, an occasion which was graced by the presence of the Lieutenant-Governor, Sir William Colebrook. His chief concern, however, was to create an organization that would keep pace with the rapidly growing number of lodges. Thus in 1854 he journeyed to Saint John to discuss with the leaders in that area the desirability of establishing a Deputy Provincial Grand Lodge with a Deputy Provincial Grand Master responsible to him. The plan was adopted and Alexander Balloch became Deputy Provincial Grand Master. Keith Proceeded to install him and to consecrate a new temple. A Church Service and a Masonic ball completed an unusual and busy day. Once more a Lieutenant-Governor honoured the occasion with his presence, this time, Hon. H. T. Manners-Sutton.

The Deputy Provincial Grand Lodge was but a step on the road to a separate Provincial Grand Lodge, and ultimately to an independent Grand Lodge. The first move was made in 1859 when Keith recommended to his superior, the Earl of Zetland, Grand Master, that New Brunswick be made a Provincial Grand Lodge with Balloch as Provincial Grand Master9. Once more Keith went to Saint John, this time to install Balloch in his new office. Balloch continued in office until 1866 when his health failed. His successor was his former Deputy, Robert Thomson Clinch, who was installed in September 1866. He was later a Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick. Because of the change made by the Grand Lodge of England the previous year, Clinch’s actual title was District Grand Master. When the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick was formed, 1867-68, Clinch remained as an officer of the old regime. The honour of being the first Grand Master, therefore, went to B. Lester Peters.


Two important developments which took place in the Nova Scotia Provincial Grand Lodge before 1866 were: the incorporation of the Provincial Grand Lodge and the creation of an independent Benevolent Fund. In both of these Alexander Keith played a prominent part.

Incorporation took place when Keith, with James Foreman, Deputy provincial Grand Master, Archibald Scott, Henry Twining, and others, together with their successors, became a body corporate under Chapter 78 of the Provincial Statutes of 1863, with power to hold real estate up to a value of $20,000. Hereafter all properties and funds belonging to the Provincial Grand Lodge were vested in the corporation.

At the union of the Ancients and Moderns in 1813, the Grand lodge of England granted the overseas lodges the privilege of sharing in a common Fund of Benevolence. The local need, however, was far greater than this fund could supply, and distant administration was unsatisfactory. Under Keith’s vigorous leadership a Benevolent Fund was created for the jurisdiction. Its success exceeded expectations. It was one cause for rejoicing when the Craft decided to observe the Silver Jubilee of Keith’s appointment as Provincial Grand Master.

The Silver Jubilee of December 1865 was a unique and festive occasion. In sincere and grateful recognition of his long and distinguished service, his brethren presented him with an address and a gift. The address stressed his devotion to duty and his achievements:

“The present state of Masonry in the Province exhibits a striking contrast to that which existed at the time your assumed your important functions; while the records of the Craft in 1840 exhibited but six lodges holding warrants from the Grand Lodge of England, they now show twenty-two warranted lodges in efficient working order and dispensations for the formation of two new lodges have been granted during the year.

“To the strenuous exertions of yourself in conjunction with your principle Grand Lodge officers, was due the establishment of a local fund of Benevolence by which the monies which had been previously contributed to the Grand Lodge of England was dispensed in Masonic Charities throughout the Province; and it must be gratifying to you, Right Worshipful jSir, as to every Mason, to know that this Fund, notwithstanding the numerous calls upon it, has attained to very respectable proportions, &400 being invested at interest, and a considerable balance being at the credit of the Grand Lodge for charitable purposes.10

As a tangible token of their appreciation, the brethren presented their Provincial Grand Master with a silver epergne or candelabrum, with three branches for lights, and a group of finely modelled figures emblematic of Faith, Hope, and Charity, on a triangular base, under a palm tree, bearing a centre cut glass dish, and weighing two hundred ounces. On it were the following words:

“Presented by the Freemasons of Nova Scotia, to the Right Worshipful, the Honourable Alexander Keith, Provincial Grand Master, on his having presided over English Masonry in the Province for a quarter of a century. Halifax, 27 December, A.L. 186511

Accompanying the gift was a wish that the recipient, his wife, and family, might have many happy returns of the “the present festive season.” Keith expressed his sincere thanks for the honour accorded him, gave due credit to his officers for what had been accomplished, and spoke with understandable pride of the Benevolent Fund. It would be needed, he declared, for future cases of distress, and it would cheer the widow and fatherless, who had no other means of support.

Since Keith was the head of the Scottish, as well as the English lodges, the former requested, and were granted, the privilege of having a part in the Jubilee. They did so by presenting their leader with a laudatory address.

Keith’s Silver Jubilee was in a sense the end of an era. He was now three score and ten years of age, and might well have claimed the privilege of retiring. But in some ways the best was yet to be. He was given eight years more of life and died as it were “in harness”, In the eight years, he continued as District Grand Master of the English lodges, 1866-69, saw his Scottish Lodges form the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia, and for more than four years he was Grand Master after the union of the English lodges with the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia.


Examples of lodges that were erased before 1829 are: Cornwallis, Halifax, 102; Royal Navy, Halifax, 1804; Chester, 1809; Hibernia, Liverpool, 1817; Wentworth, Yarmouth, 1818; Regent, Dorchester, now Antigonish, 1823; Musquodoboit 1826; and the second lodge at Annapolis Royal, 1827.
Examples: St. Mary’s in later years operated under a Scottish Warrant. It is the ancestor of King Solomon Lodge No. 54, G.R.N.S. Cumberland Harmony had a later existence as McGowan Lodge under the Grand Lodge of Ireland. The present lodge is Acacia, No. 8, G.R.N.S. Amherst.
Keith Hall was built of Wallace stone. Completed in 1863, it later passed out of the hands of the Keith family. For some years it was the property of the Halifax Council, Knights of Columbus. Since 1949 it has been owned by the firm of A. Keith & Son, and is now their head office.
R. V. Harris, Hon. Alexander Keith, 1957. Before Halifax was incorporated, Keith served s Commissioner of the Court of Common Pleas. After the incorporation of the city he was successively Councillor, Alderman, and Mayor.
Grand Lodge Archives, Halifax.
R. V. Harris, Thistle-Keith Lodge, 1827-1957.
W. F. Bunting, History of Freemasonry in New Brunswick.
The New Brunswick lodges formed in the Keith era were: Sussex at Dorchester, 1840; St. Mark’s at St. Andrew’s, 1845; Solomon’s at Fredericton, 1846; Carleton Union at Carleton, 1846; Median at Clifton, 1847; Union at Milltown, 185l; St. George at St. George, 1854; Corinthian at Hampton, 1854; Keith at Moncton 1853; Alley at Upper Mills, 1855; Howard at Hillsborough, 1855; Northumberland at Newcastle, 1857; Miramichi at Chatham, 1859; Salisbury at Salisbury, 1860; Zetland at Shediac, 1861; Zion at Sussex, 1863; and New Brunswick at Saint John, 1866. Most of these joined the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick, 1867-68.
There were in New Brunswick five lodges under the Grand Lodge of Ireland: Hibernia, St. Andrews; Portland, Saint John; Sussex, St. Stephen; and Leinster, Saint John. They were formed between 1830-1860. Two, Hibernia of Saint John and Sussex of St. Stephen, joined the Grand Lodge of New Brunswick. The other two were erased prior to 1867.
Grand Lodge Archives.