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Discovering a city builder

A Halifax Magazine writer looks back into her family tree to discover how things have changed (and stayed the same) in Halifax’s government

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It was the 1880s, and Halifax was booming. The Nova Scotia Cotton Manufacturing Company opened in 1882. In 1887, Anne Leonowens founded the Victorian School of Art and Design (now NSACD University). Haligonians elected James Crosskill Mackintosh mayor in 1884; he served until 1887.

And on September 9, 1884, my ancestor George Rent took the oath to serve as alderman of Ward 1 in Halifax.

I first heard about Rent from Garry Shutlak, senior reference archivist at the Nova Scotia Archives. I was writing a story about the provincial archives itself when Shutlak asked if I was a descendent. Shutlak wrote a piece about Rent and his home on South Park Street for the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia’s newsletter.

Rent was a successful businessman. He owned an appliance store on Barrington Street in what is now the Gordon and Keith Building. There, he sold ice-cream freezers, kitchen furniture, stoves, ranges, and other appliances. He also operated a plumbing and tinsmith business. Rent’s house still stands on South Park Street, across from the parking lot at the Victoria General.

I contacted the Genealogical Association of Nova Scotia to find a genealogist who could help research my connection to Rent. Douglas Cochrane, a researcher with 30 years experience, replied. He made this his career after getting hooked on genealogy while researching his own family.

All we had to start with were my father’s and grandfather’s names. Eventually, he found our connection: the alderman was my first cousin, four generations removed.

Cochrane spent about 40 hours researching my family’s history back to the city’s founding, and Rent’s time on council. Cochrane scoured four years of minutes at the municipal archives in Burnside.

During his time as an alderman, Rent had a near perfect attendance record. He also served as a justice of the peace, a commissioner of the Board of Works, a commissioner of the Board for Point Pleasant Park, a fire warden, and was an honourary member of the Union Protection Company. In 1885, the city appointed him Commissioner for the Schools of the City of Halifax.

Much of the matters discussed at council meetings involved the city’s daily operations. There was talk of ensuring the library had enough funds to survive “for all people, for all time.” Petitioners asked for water supply on various streets around the city. Council discussed hiring policemen and health inspectors. Meetings of the Sanitary Committee discussed filling the role of janitor at the smallpox hospital at Rockhead Farm in the North End.

Other notes detailed votes in favour of merchants on Brunswick Street moving wares that obstructed passersby. During a September 1887 meeting, council discussed installing electric lights in the city.

On February 10, 1885, the Committee of Public Accounts discussed a report regarding the purchase of a steam fire engine for the city, and the sale of engine houses and properties. Later that month, on the agenda was the amalgamation of wards. A report from a special committee suggested that Wards 3 and 4 be amalgamated. Nine aldermen voted against the amalgamation, while three, including Rent, voted for it.

On September 23, 1884, Rent was one of nine aldermen who agreed that council should appoint a committee to examine what kind of dry dock Halifax needed. At that time, dry docks in Quebec and Esquimalt built naval ships. According to council minutes, the request for such a committee came directly from Ottawa’s Minster of Public Works, and the federal Minister of Railways and Canals, Sir Charles Tupper, best known as the former premier of Nova Scotia who later became prime minister. Workers built the Halifax Graving Dock (now Irving Shipyard) in 1889.

During Rent’s time on council, aldermen talked about matters at Rockhead, the city prison. During a meeting on August 18, 1885, council discussed purchasing a horse and van to transport inmates from lockup to the prison and vice versa. December 8, 1885, they discussed the poor state of the building. The minutes detail about $900 spent on repairs for the structure and fire escape installation. Later that month, Rent and other aldermen recommended giving inmates the usual Christmas dinner. On March 2, 1886, Council received a Report of the Committee on City Prison. It discussed an account given by a prisoner who escaped with the help of a former guard.

In 1886, council appointed a committee regarding a new city hall. Workers constructed city hall between 1888 and 1890 on property that previously housed Dalhousie University.

On April 5, 1887, the president of the Women’s Temperance Union presented a petition demanding women’s suffrage at civic elections. Rent moved to refer the petition to the Committee of Laws and Privileges to have a bill prepared, which would then be sent to the legislature. Eventually, widows and “spinsters” received the civic vote.

Later that year, council discussed an amendment to open to the press the meetings of the City Board of Works and all council committees. That amendment didn’t go through. Eight aldermen voted against it, while only three, including Rent, voted for it.

According to Cochrane’s notes, Rent was still on council in February 1888. We aren’t sure when, or why, he left. He died in 1897 at the age of 52. According to Shutlak’s article, his family lived in the South Park Street house until 1907. Since then, it’s served as a boarding house for staff at the former Halifax Infirmary and a guesthouse.

Thanks to Cochrane’s research, I’ve learned that my family history is more intertwined with Halifax’s than I’d realized. He took on all the research of my family tree and poured over council records. In his 25-page report, he traced my family back to the founding of the city.

The first Rent in Halifax was named Rund. Adam Rund arrived in 1750 on the Alderney, the second ship of immigrants brought to the area by founder Edward Cornwallis. Rund was likely from Switzerland and worked in the Halifax militia. He was one of the many Foreign Protestants from France, Germany, and Switzerland, who came to the province to help populate the area after the Expulsion of the Acadians.

We are not sure how or why the name changed from Rund to Rent. Rund was probably Rundl, says Cochrane, as many early settlers were of low literacy, spelling their names phonetically. Based on his research, it appears the named changed to Rent around Alderman George Rent’s time.

Cochrane’s extensive research connected my family to a rich history in the city. For years, I drove past the Rent house on South Park Street and didn’t know an ancestor built it. I lived around the corner from it for a brief time in my 20s.

Cochrane enjoys the discoveries he finds when researching a family’s history. “I got to know that person very well,” he says of his research on Rent.

His genealogy career started in 1991, after he researched his own family history. That led to researching his wife’s family, too. “It is contagious,” he says. “Once you’re bitten, you can’t stop. You have to know.”

Cochrane says many people come to him after learning about some aspect of their family. They often want to know about their family’s coat of arms, clan badge, First Nations history, and so on. But for many, he says the search represents something larger.

“For people, in order to know where they are going in life, they want to know where they come from,” he says. “They want to have a connection with the past. And they want to have a sense of belonging.”

For resources, Cochrane uses the Nova Scotia Archives, the Halifax Municipal Archives, the Vital Statistics Division of Service Nova Scotia, and the Halifax Central Library.

“Just about everything I need to research a family in Nova Scotia is in that library,” he says.
Genealogists help each other too, in what Cochrane calls “random acts of genealogical kindness…. We like to share and help each other out because if we don’t, who will?” he says.

“We have people from all over the world in Nova Scotia,” Cochrane says. “It’s a very diverse province. We just don’t draw that out and bring it to the forefront like we should. When you’re a genealogist, it’s amazing what nationalities you find in Nova Scotia that we never talk about.”

But Cochrane says his job is about more than finding and detailing the information on records he searches. “I want to give them something they didn’t know… I want to find that little gem they didn’t expect,” he says.

And he certainly succeeded in his search of my ancestry and connection to the city.

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