Ancestors Out of Context

This is one of my favorite pictures from The Family Archives. It looks to have been taken when my grandmother Velma was in high school, at the age of perhaps thirteen or fourteen. Although the photograph is obviously posed, I now know from my research that her posing with a book was not at all a photographer’s (or a parent’s) affectation. Posing with a book at her fingertips would have been a true reflection of who she was. Funny, though–I remember her cooking for us, cleaning (although she first shooed us out of the house), and arranging wild flowers for the table–but I never actually saw her sitting and reading a book that I can recall.

Along similar lines, when I discovered her name listed in the Nova Scotia provincial records1 as having passed her each of her high school examinations, it gave me the strangest little thrill to see someone I had known in only one context, as my grandmother, in a completely different context.












I’m reminded of E.M. Forester’s explanation in Aspects of the Novel of the difference between flat and round characters:

In their purest form, [flat characters] are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve toward the round.

. . . .

The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. 2

I suppose this must be the family history paradox. We want to know more about our ancestors because of their connection to us. Yet at the same time, we want to take our close ancestors out of their immediate context (i.e., their relation to us) so that we can know them as fully-realized, three-dimensional people, rather than flat characters defined only by their relation to us.

1Journal of education: being the semi-annual supplement to the report of the superintendent of education for Nova Scotia, 3rd ser., VIII, no. 3 (April 1915): 93.

2E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (London: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1927), 67, 78.

A Nice Surprise from the Colchester Historeum Archives!

I mentioned in my last post that the archivist I had contacted at the Colchester Historeum e-mailed me information from my grandmother Velma Moore’s high school yearbook that I didn’t know, including scans of the relevant pages. Here is what she sent me:


This was my first e-mail inquiry to an archivist, and I was thrilled with the result!

I learned that Velma graduated at the top of her class and was awarded a bursary to help with her educational expenses when she entered Dalhousie University the following school year. In addition, I now have the title of her high school yearbook, as well as the names and faces for some of the teachers she would have had.

I’ve included the complete page of the last scan to provide some of the historical context for Velma’s high school years and also to call attention to the sacrifice of Raymond Fulton, who left high school at the end of Grade XI to fight in the Great War, where he lost his life due to illness. Velma would have been sensitive to reports of casualties, as her brother Fred (Fred Lawrence Moore, 1894-1971) was serving in the Army overseas at the time.1

I recently learned from a blog I’ve been following (Janice Brown’s Cow Hampshire: New Hampshire’s History Blog) that a significant number of soldiers and nurses died of influenza and pneumonia while serving overseas in the First World War. For some reason, this has made a big impression on me, although I’m not quite sure why. War fatalities resulting from respiratory illness just seem like adding insult to injury–as if getting shot, gassed, or blown up weren’t bad enough.

1Katharine Brown Gauffreau, “The Ancestry and Life of Velma Jane Moore Brown” (unpublished manuscript, December 2013), 25.

In Search of Velma Brown [Moore]’s Education: Common School

Kerosene Lamp from Economy Point Homestead

In my last post about my grandmother Velma Moore’s education, I noted that I had e-mailed the archivist at the Colchester Historeum in Truro, Nova Scotia to ask whether the school registration records held  in their archives included Velma’s common school enrollments (Grades I-VIII). I was hoping to learn which school she had actually attended so that I could identify the Economy  information from the provincial inspector’s reports that would have been relevant to her education.

The archivist send me a gracious response the very next day. Unfortunately, the only school registration records held by the Historeum are for Upper Economy from 1934-1952.1 There was scant information about the Economy schools in general, just this:

It would appear from this excerpt that in all likelihood Velma attended common school in Central Economy. However, at this point, I don’t think any additional insight is to be gained by burrowing further down this particular rabbit hole, so I’ll close the common school chapter on Velma’s education with information from the provincial reports that I expect would have had some influence on her early education.

To begin with, I can only hope that the following strongly-worded passage from Colchester West school inspector Inglis Craig’s 1904 report to the Nova Scotia superintendent of schools about conditions in some of the poorer rural schools in unincorporated towns had no bearing on Velma’s early education:

In these times, it should be unnecessary for a school official to keep a watchful eye upon the sanitary condition of the great majority of school-houses, outbuildings and grounds. But there are still cases in which the filth is disgusting, especially in the outbuilding. Moral instruction within the school-room, under such conditions, is more than neutralized by the influence of the foul and mind-polluting surroundings.

Certificates of medical men are received every year by the score declaring that this or that school was closed on account of an epidemic of diphtheria or scarlet fever.2

Working backwards from the year of Velma’s high school graduation in 1915,3 she entered Grade I in 1902. The subjects she would have been taught in Grades I-VIII include the following (taking into account that the source of this information is from 1914):4

Common school pupils were required to pass a standard provincial “terminal exam” to be admitted to a dedicated high school, such as Colchester County Academy,5 which Velma subsequently attended. High school pupils were then required to pass standard provincial exams to advance to the next grade level.6 These provincial exams also played a role in teacher licensing:

  • Grade IX provincial exam:  Class D License
  • Grade X provincial exam:   Class C License
  • Grade XI provincial exam:  Class B License
  • Grade XII provincial exam: Class A Licenses7

For the 1903-1904 school year, when Velma would have been in Grade III, 32% of the teachers employed in Colchester West held a Class D license, 32% held of Class C license, 19% held a Class B license, and 17% held a Class A license.8

Small wonder, then, that unqualified teachers in the rural schools were a continual concern for inspector Craig:

This year [1904-1905], twenty such favors [provisional teaching licenses] have been asked for, and many were granted. If the experiments are not more fortunate than last year, it bodes ill for education in this part of the province. In the winnowing process of examination for teachers, many enter the profession who have not the qualifications, natural or acquired. What will befall the profession if licenses have to be issued promiscuously to mere boys and girls?9

Based on Velma’s subsequent secondary and university education, I suspect that she was able to overcome any disadvantages posed by attending common school in rural, unincorporated Economy by applying herself to her lessons, taking the encouragement of her parents Baxter and Martha to heart, and doing a lot of reading on her own. The Economy farmhouse did not have electricity until after my mother was born, so in the winter months Velma would have read by the light of a kerosene lamp. I have one of those lamps on my fireplace mantle.

Learning about the common schools in rural Nova Scotia when Velma attended leaves me feeling a special kinship to her that I never knew we had when she was alive. I too overcame the disadvantages of rural elementary schools with the encouragement of my parents and a lot of reading on my own.

1Nan Harvey, “Re: Archival Inquiry: Velma Jane Moore,” e-mail message to author, September 18, 2017.

2Nova Scotia, Annual report of the Superintendent of Education for Nova Scotia, for the year ended July 31st, 1904, 1903-04 ed. (Halifax, Nova Scotia: McAlpine Publishing Co., 1904): 124.

3Journal of education: being the semi-annual supplement to the report of the superintendent of education for Nova Scotia, 3rd ser., VIII, no. 3 (April 1915): 93.

4A. H. MacKay, “Monograph on the Curricula of the Public Schools of Nova Scotia,” in Imperial Education Conference (Halifax, N.S.: Commissioner Public Works and Mines, King’s Printer, 1914), 9.

5MacKay, Monograph on Curricula, 1914, 18.

6George E. Foster, Minister of Trade and Commerce, K.C.M.G., M.P., comp., The Canada Yearbook: 1916/1917 (Ottawa, Ontario: J. de L. Tache, Printer to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty, 1917), 125.

7Foster, Canada Yearbook, 1917, 125-126.

8Nova Scotia, Annual report, 1904, 4.

9Nova Scotia, Annual report of the Superintendent of Education for Nova Scotia, for the year ended July 31st, 1905, 1904-05 ed. (Halifax, Nova Scotia: McAlpine Publishing Co., 1906): 116-117.