Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Principled Man: a look at Halifax Titanic victim, George Wright

the 100th Titaniversary is almost upon us, and halifax is in a bit of a tizzy. or at least we journalists are. today, i bring you the story of the lone haligonian who died on the titanic - and how his death bolstered the women's suffrage movement. this is from the current edition of Bedford/Southender magazine.

as a bonus, i'll start with a letter wright wrote to the new york times:

To the Editor of The New York Times:
Of late we see accounts both in the United States and Canada calling attention to how profane and bad language is increasing among the boys. The truth of this cannot be denied by any one who happens to come in contact with the groups of boys who congregate in public places and on the streets. This is really a sad state of affairs, as if such a low and demoralizing habit is to be allowed to continue and become a fixed one among the coming youths, it cannot do otherwise than eventually lead us to become a very irreverent and disrespectful race. Blasphemous and other degrading language has become very common, not only among the lower classes, but also among those in the higher walks of life. It has been stated that the schools might assist greatly in checking this evil among the children. But I do not think they can accomplish very much without profanity being discontinued by the older people and by their parents in their homes. 
Halifax, N. S., June 26, 1909

tomorrow, i will bring you Dark Tourism from Halifax magazine.

A Principled Man: a look at Halifax Titanic victim, George Wright
Posted on March 29, 2012 Jon Tattrie

By Jon Tattrie
The sinking of RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, killed 1,517 people, but the strange events leading up to one of those deaths helped promote social justice in Halifax.

Sandra MacLennan shows a visitor around stately George Wright House on the corner of Young Avenue and Inglis Street. Sunlight filters through its bay windows on a warm spring day. The original fireplaces, an ornament on the banister and the bell system to ring servants remain from Wright’s day. The layout of the house is largely unaltered.

The Halifax Local Council of Women owns the building and rents several units, as well the grand dining room used for book launches and small wedding parties.
“In George’s time, this was a much-used area, as it is in our time,” she says of the cozy sunroom overlooking Young Avenue. “It’s quite stunning.”

Wright was born to farmers in Wright’s Cove on the Bedford Basin in 1849. As a young man he travelled the world working for a shipping company and compiled a list of businesses. He had the bright idea that would change his life at the U.S. Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.

“What George Wright did is he created the internet on paper. He travelled the world for 20-some years creating Wright’s Business Directory. It allowed people to do what we now do on the internet,” says MacLennan, president of the women’s council.

The foot-thick directory connected businesspeople around the world. It was a vital resource and it made him wealthy. In 1901, the fifth edition came out (you can see a copy at the Dartmouth Heritage Museum) and he retired.

“When he came home, he wanted to give back to the city,” MacLennan says. “He wanted to bring Halifax into the mainstream.”

Wright built his retirement home on Young Avenue. He also developed the St Paul’s Building on Barrington Street – formerly the home of JW Doull’s bookstore – and the Marble Wright Building (1672 Barrington St.). He was a famously principled man and advocated on behalf of the poor.

He put his ideas into practice by building Wright’s Court – now called Wright Avenue. The small street off Morris overlooks Holy Cross Cemetery and was deliberately constructed so homes of the “working poor” and the wealthy shared space.

Wright was also particularly concerned with the bad influence of obscene and blasphemous language on young men. He wrote a letter published in the New York Times in 1909, which sparked an editorial agreement from the paper.

Few people know Wright as well as Garry Shutlak, senior reference archivist at the Nova Scotia Archive. Not only is he known as “Mr Titanic,” but he also lives in Wright’s house. Shutlak explains that Wright built such a large house so that his brother and sister could stay with their families when they visited Halifax.

“It is not a particularly feminine house. The design of the stained glass shows he was interested in ducks and birds – well yes, he shot ducks and he shot birds, and he fished like crazy,” Shutlak says.

Wright was also a superb yachtsman – the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron still races for the George Wright Cup.

Wright wintered in southern Europe and northern Africa. At first, it was for work – he travelled the world at least four times – but after retiring it was for pleasure, which is why he was sailing home in the spring of 1912. He already had a ticket with friends when he spotted an advertisement for the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Ever the adventurer, he changed his ticket.

He saw his lawyer in London to update his will before departing. Shutlak says it was common precaution before an ocean-crossing trip. He did not marry and had no children, so he left his estate to family and good causes – including his home to the council of women. He was last seen getting into a taxi bound for the train station in London.

“His moral code matched the Local Council of Women’s,” says MacLennan. “The work he was doing was the same as the work they were doing.”

The council went on to play an important role in winning women the vote, and today offers bursaries and scholarships to students. Some of Wright’s spirit lingers in his den – now the office of NDP MLA Leonard Preyra.

It is not known what happened to Wright on the Titanic. None of the survivors remembered seeing him and his body was not found. He was known as a heavy sleeper and may have slept through the whole thing – or at least until it was too late. He does have a grave marker at Christ Church Dartmouth.

The 100 year anniversary of Titanic also marks 100 years that the council has been in the house. “We’re having a reception on the 15th to remember George and appreciate what he did for us, and celebrate 100 years in the house,” MacLennan says.
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