top of page

The start of chapter 2 of Pursuing Clara

Ernest J. Dick

2: Clara Sabean

Clara began life in the modest circumstances of rural Nova Scotia in the 1870s. Her mother, Abigail Jane Wade, was from Granville, which includes Port Wade on the Annapolis Basin. Her father, James/Joshua Manning Sabean, was from Port Lorne on the Bay of Fundy, though the Sabeans were often found in and around Clarence in the Annapolis Valley. The Wades were invariably enterprising folk whereas the Sabeans were hard-working quieter types.

   Jane and Manning were married on the 22nd of August, 1868 in Parker’s Cove Baptist Church, across the Annapolis River and the North Mountain from Annapolis Royal. Clara’s birth in October of 1870 was registered at Paradise or Wilmot, perhaps because the parents were living there at the time.

   The family never owned property (as far as I could tell) and by the 1881 census, the family was living in Granville Ferry, a short ferry ride from Annapolis Royal. Clara was 10, with older brother Frederick (11), younger brothers Minard (8) and Bud (2) and sister Nancy (4). Clara and her brothers attended school and Clara always reported that she could read and write on all census reports.

   Charlotte Perkins was born in 1878 in Annapolis Royal, making her eight years younger than Clara, and doubtless had nothing to do with Clara and her family in her early years. Charlotte’s family owned the leading accommodations in Annapolis: first the Queen Hotel across from Fort Anne and then the Hillsdale House on upper St. George Street. They were formidable members of the Church of England and prominent fixtures of Victorian Annapolis Royal, so Charlotte’s circle of activity and acquaintance would be distant from Clara’s.

   Charlotte was a great promoter of the history of her town, publishing, presenting and promoting our history from the 1920s through to the 1960s. Charlotte was always exceedingly fastidious in recounting the illustrious history of Annapolis Royal and her including Clara’s story is most curious. One would have expected that this very proper guardian of the past and future of Annapolis Royal might have ignored Clara Sabean and Clara Beckwith, as her performing in water was suspect in proper Victorian times. But then Charlotte Perkins would have paid more attention to Mrs. Stanley McInnis (widow of a Manitoba legislator and dentist) when Clara came back to Annapolis Royal to open a hotel in 1909.

   Charlotte’s stories and ‘romancing’ have inspired much of the heritage preservation and interpretation of Annapolis Royal over the years. However, George and most others active in our venerable historical societies tend to dismiss her. Charlotte was not considered a ‘proper historian’, despite the success of her book. The Romance of Old Annapolis Royal has been continuously available for almost one hundred years. It was reprinted in 1934, 1952, 1978, 1985, 1988, and 2013, with the most recent edition expressing discomfort with Charlotte’s “tenacious stereotypes”.

   Charlotte’s description of Clara’s early life is vivid, and maybe she did remember the young, enterprising Clara coming to the Queen Hotel, the Perkins family establishment on St. George Street in the heart of old Annapolis Royal. Charlotte would have been an impressionable eight years of age when Clara came by in a “tattered dress” and “bare feet” offering her marsh greens or begging at the age of 16.

   George pronounced both the “tattered dress” and the house on Academy Square evidence of Charlotte’s unreliability. The “tattered dress” he spotted as a Dickens cliché. Absolutely, Charlotte would have been reading Charles Dickens (and even seeking to emulate him), but she was also fastidious to a fault in her language, which was why she prefaced the “tattered dress” with “most likely”.

   George’s research of the deeds of Annapolis Royal confirmed that the Sabeans had never owned a house in Annapolis Royal. They always rented, which they certainly could have done on Ritchie Street, behind the Grange, the Ritchie family mansion. Also, Clara travelling on the regular ferry (a steam ferry, the ‘Joe Edwards’, from 1881) between the Granville and Annapolis shores would have been the obvious way for Clara to get to Annapolis with its hotels and commerce in the 1880s.

Annapolis Royal had been connected to the world by railway in 1869, the year before Clara was born. George considered Clara’s formative years, Annapolis’ ‘golden age’. It was the western terminus for the Windsor and Annapolis Railway, bringing visitors, goods and a building boom to Annapolis Royal. The steamers ‘Empress’, ‘Evangeline’ and ‘Hunter’ offered regular connections to New England. Weekly newspapers were begun and travelling entertainments came to ‘Fullerton’s’ and the ‘Academy of Music’.

   A 12-year old Clara certainly would have taken in the Dominion Day Grand Gala at the Old Garrison Grounds, in 1882 with music furnished by a band from Windsor, Nova Scotia—which arrived on a special excursion train. One wonders which of the “games, swings, Aunt Sally, archery, croquet, and lawn tennis” Clara might have tried out.

   That same year Clara would have been watching the Annapolis Rink under construction and might well have roller-skated there, if she could afford the five-cent entry fee. Clara undoubtedly would have watched the roller-skating race for boys under 15 a couple of years later. Perhaps that gave her a sense of, and taste for, public competition, which was exploding in New England in the 1880s and 1890s.

   Swimming at high tide in the Annapolis Basin would have been accessible to everyone—at least, anyone brave enough to negotiate the tides and temperatures. The world’s highest tides off the Bay of Fundy certainly make swimming here cold and hazardous, but a small beach had formed in the lee of the Queen’s Wharf. Braver locals and youngsters swam here and off ‘Big Rock’ in the French Basin.

   Swimming was unconventional and largely unacceptable for respectable society in the 19th century. Water carried disease, pollution and human waste, certainly everywhere in the industrial world. Clothing of the time was made of natural fibres that held water, and was designed to enhance or camouflage the human body—making swimming difficult, if not impossible. Certainly any wet fabric clinging to and exposing the human body was scandalous. Swimming was dangerous, unhealthy and unsightly! Most people couldn’t swim and 19th century newspapers regularly reported drownings.

   Ironically, and particularly for those living on the sea or earning their living on water, swimming remained uncommon well into the 20th century. George succeeded in never swimming after suffering full-immersion baptism in the Annapolis Basin at Lower Granville late one November. He considered that sufficient for a lifetime, and was happy to avoid swimming thereafter.

bottom of page