SHIRREFF, JENNIE GRAHL HUNTER (baptized Jane Campbell Hunter) (Eddy), nurse, businesswoman, and philanthropist; b. 14 Feb. 1863 in Chatham, N.B., daughter of John Shirreff, a merchant, and Henrietta Grahl; m. 27 June 1894 Ezra Butler Eddy* in Halifax; they had no children; d. 9 Aug. 1921 in Hull, Que.
Jennie Shirreff did what many young women looking for gainful employment did in the 1880s, she took up nursing. Her mother was from Boston, the family probably had trade connections there, and in 1889 Jennie went to Brookline (a Boston suburb) to train. In 1892 she came to work at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax as an rn.
It is not known how she met E. B. Eddy. There is a story that when his first wife died in 1893, she went to Hull as his housekeeper, another that she went as companion to Eddy’s daughter. A likely explanation is that they met in Halifax, where there was a branch of his lumber and paper company. They were married there in 1894, in the home of J. W. Fraser, a Presbyterian minister, with a wedding breakfast for 25 guests at the Halifax Hotel. She of course moved to Hull with her 66-year-old husband. She was a bright, shrewd woman though it is doubtful whether he relied on her for business advice since initially she knew little of finance. Eddy’s great preoccupation, to keep his firm intact, became her aim too. She consulted her lawyer friend from Chatham days, Richard Bedford Bennett, who had moved to Calgary in 1897 but seems to have been known to Eddy before his death in 1906.
By then the only living descendant was a young grandson. Under Eddy’s will the core of his estate went into a trust, effective until 1916. On reaching his majority the grandson was to receive 250 shares in the company provided he change his name to Eddy, which he did. Jennie Shirreff Eddy abandoned her dower rights under Quebec law in return for 1,259 shares. It seems to have been Eddy’s hope that his grandson would take an interest in the business, but by 1916 it was clear he would not, so, on Bennett’s advice, Jennie bought out the grandson, thus becoming the majority shareholder. The tenacity of her grasp of the firm was revealed by Eddy lawyer Thomas Patrick Foran, who recorded a meeting about 1919 at which representatives of an American firm made a generous offer for 51 per cent of the stock. She cut them off by saying she intended to keep the Eddy company and name going.
During these years the Quebec government was unhappy over Eddy’s will. He had left almost nothing to Catholic institutions in Hull, where his business was located and though he had been its mayor. The eleemosynary institutions he favoured were Protestant and on the Ottawa side. Quebec, in consequence, was prepared to be tough about inheritance tax, but the estate was asset rich and cash thin, and when the government presented a bill for $700,000, Mrs Eddy was taken aback. Beginning in 1908 Bennett became even more important to her in the negotiations over a reasonable settlement. What emerged was a set of instalments. Quebec, however, was not the only interested party. Mrs Eddy lived in the Roxborough Apartments in Ottawa (in a fashion that suggested a life of poverty). When the Ontario government came after her for income tax, she became cross and bought Dunara, Lieutenant-General James Howden MacBrien*’s house in Hull. She moved there in February 1921.
Bennett had tried to draw her away from her penurious style of living, to get her to spend her money pleasurably. The first venture, from which she would derive great satisfaction, was funding a new women’s residence for Dalhousie University in Halifax. She knew something of Dalhousie: the Victoria hospital was about a block away, she had developed a considerable respect for the university, and Bennett, a graduate, was on its board of governors. On 20 May 1920 Mrs Eddy offered Dalhousie $300,000 for the residence, a gesture that ranked at the time, along with the donations of Lillian Frances Treble [Massey*] of Toronto, as one of the largest donations to a university in Canada by a woman. There were terms: the residence was to be called Shirreff Hall, it would be non-denominational (Jennie herself was Presbyterian), and she wanted to approve the architect’s plans. In October she came to Halifax, met the female students, and threw a theatre party for all the students, in the midst of which they formally thanked her. In her gracious response, she said she had chosen Dalhousie “because it was the outstanding university of the Maritime Provinces.” And she had a philosophy for Shirreff Hall: she did not want a Spartan barracks – she had seen enough as a nurse – but rather a residence with some semblance to the girls’ own homes, to round out, as it were, the intellectual training given by the university. She even overruled the architect, Frank Darling of Toronto, insisting on fireplaces in the public rooms (she knew something of Halifax winters), study rooms on the upper floors, and more light for the library. What emerged was a place that everyone admired, though one Cape Breton girl said in 1923 that it was too rich for her blood.
As the residence was being built in 1921, Jennie Shirreff Eddy was taken ill and underwent surgery at the Ottawa General on 17 February. Whatever her ailment, she was there until June, peritonitis developed, and she died at home in August. Her funeral was attended by representatives of the Ottawa Association for the Blind, various St Andrew’s societies, and the Eddy company, including president George Henry Millen; her body was taken to Chatham for interment.
Her will comprehended assets that had increased substantially since E. B. Eddy’s death; the estate was valued at more than $3.8 million. Her majority shares went to Bennett and her brother, Joseph Thompson (Harry) Shirreff, then the company’s vice-president. McGill University in Montreal was given $200,000 for a chair in industrial chemistry. There was a long argument with Quebec over inheritance tax that turned on the worth of each of her shares. Bennett described Quebec’s valuation of $1,600 as “little short of iniquitous”; they settled on $1,000. A warmer legacy existed in Dalhousie’s Shirreff Hall and in the memories of those who had known its donor. It is significant that Sturgis Salmon Cushman, a senior manager in the Eddy company, thought highly of her. His granddaughter at age 10 met her and later remembered being impressed with the stylish lady who had spoken to her so pleasantly.
[There do not seem to be any Jennie Shirreff papers, but at one time there must have been an extensive correspondence with R. B. Bennett. Although his papers at the Univ. of N.B. Library, Arch., and Special Coll. Dept. (Fredericton), have nothing directly from her, there is information on her in accession nos. 543891, 561564, 580188, 580213, 580553, 581439–67, 581773, 582209, 582295 (also on mfm. at NA, MG 26, K). Before she died she may have asked Bennett to destroy her letters, possibly because of the slanderous rumour that Bennett’s sister Mildred was his daughter by Jennie Shirreff. Bennett would have prosecuted but such prosecutions were very difficult since they needed proof of utterance. He explained in 1935 that in 1889, when Mildred was born, he had not even met Jennie Shirreff. The author is grateful to Evelyn Lucy Wilkinson of Ottawa, the granddaughter of Sturgis Salmon Cushman, a senior manager in the Eddy company, for her recollections. p.b.w.]
Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 29 June 1894, 10 Aug. 1921.
Ottawa Citizen, 10, 12, 17 Aug. 1921.
J. H. Gray, R. B. Bennett: the Calgary years (Toronto, 1991).
Vital statistics from N.B. newspapers (Johnson), 17, no.2881; 69, no.856.
P. B. Waite, The lives of Dalhousie University (2v., Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1994–98)