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Nobody remembers Mary Ann Roberts. Should they? She never advanced the frontiers of science, passed important legislation, nor led an army. She did not author any great works. She probably couldn’t even write her own name. In fact, Mary Ann Roberts’ short life barely left a mark on history’s pages.
Much of her world – Halifax in the Napoleonic era – has likewise disappeared: the wharves teeming with labourers, the whipping post in the market square, the window-cracking thunder of gunnery practice.
Still, we retain some memories of this world. There is the Duke of Kent, for instance, and his architectural works: the Martello Tower, his rotunda on the Bedford Basin, and at the foot of Citadel Hill an iconic town clock. We judge these things to have value, and when they are threatened, as when fire consumed St. George’s Church in 1994, we muster the resources to restore them.
The standards of value applied in these cases always deserve scrutiny, for historical memory can be as consequential for societies as personal memories are for individuals. Of course, forgetting is as important as remembering, and so it is also worth considering what we choose to forget.
Halifax is an old and storied city, but it lacks a civic space dedicated to properly exploring and better understanding its past. This fact has been frequently lamented in the context of the Cornwallis statue debate, and the sense that something important is missing persists as the construction boom remakes the city’s fabric before our eyes.
Our situation in some ways mirrors circumstances at the end of the Second World War, when Haligonians bemoaned the absence of a proper public library in the provincial capital. They responded in 1951 by creating the Halifax Memorial Library, which functioned as both an educational centre and a monument to veterans.
The site chosen for the new library was practical, but more than a little ironic, given its memorial intent. Occupying a busy corner at Spring Garden Road and Grafton Street, it was accessible to patrons, but this Grafton Park property had formerly been a cemetery for the nearby poor house. The library’s construction must have disturbed countless unmarked graves, and the builders do not appear to have given this a second thought.
This is the same generation that, according to a 1958 Halifax Mail Star article, advocated paving over the neighbouring Old Burying Ground – now a national historic site – to provide parking spaces for downtown retailers. Sound far-fetched? This is precisely what happened across Grafton Street. Cars still park daily on top of the old Catholic cemetery next to St. Mary’s Basilica.
We recently learned that HRM is considering options for the future of the old Memorial Library site, and additional construction is likely. We should tread very carefully here, and consider a full range of options. This site is handy to the downtown, to local universities, and to the pedestrian traffic from cruise ships and hotels. Working within the existing footprint of the memorial library, Halifax might create a civic museum of history and archaeology on this historic property. As David Jones has suggested, we might also relocate our municipal archives to such a facility (the city’s records are currently stored in Burnside), placing important materials in the hands of our researchers and storytellers.
A heritage emphasis on the great and the good has left gaps in our collective memory, and we have forgotten too much. A centrally located civic museum and archives would help fill these spaces. Among the holdings, for example, one would find the list of “Paupers in the Poor House” dating to the early 19th century. Visitors would learn that, underneath the macro-historical struggle between the French and British empires, common people also fought daily for safety, food and shelter. Many found themselves incarcerated in the poor house on Spring Garden Road.
Mary Ann Roberts was among them. In fact, she was just seven years old when she was admitted, apparently alone, on March 28, 1805. Under “Cause of Admission,” the record indicates she was “scalded in different parts,” though whether her injuries were sustained by accident or by design is unstated. She died three days later and was most likely laid to rest in the cemetery where the Halifax Memorial Library now stands.
In time, according to historian Allan Marble, the remains of approximately 4,500 people were interred on this parcel of land. The cemetery remains unmarked and unacknowledged by official heritage, and now there is talk of turning it into a construction site once again. This implies that those buried within merit neither a claim to our memory nor a place in our city. And yet, in the archival document tabulating virtually all we know about Mary Ann Roberts, under the column titled “where belonging,” the record is clear: “Halifax.”
Jonathan Fowler teaches in the anthropology department at Saint Mary’s University, and would happily assist in the effort to establish a civic museum and research centre for Halifax.