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COGSWELL, ISABELLA BINNEY, philanthropist; b. 6 July 1819 in Halifax, ninth child of Henry Hezekiah Cogswell* and Isabella Ellis; d. 6 Dec. 1874 in Halifax.
Isabella Cogswell’s parents were born in the Nova Scotia outports; the Cogswells had emigrated from New England in the 1760s and the Ellis family were immigrants from Ireland. Henry Cogswell, an attorney, was first president of the Halifax Banking Company, an mla, and member of the provincial Legislative Council. Isabella inherited her father’s business instincts and carried on numerous property transactions in Halifax after his death. She also inherited his broad humanitarianism which was reinforced by the evangelical influence of her brother William Cogswell, curate of St Paul’s Church. When her father’s death left her free of family responsibilities, Isabella, who never married, devoted the rest of her life to bettering the educational and living conditions of the Halifax poor.
In the 1850s Isabella began assisting at Sabbath services at the Ragged School for pauper children. In the early 1860s she organized a ladies’ committee to revive the faltering school; from it emerged, in 1863, the Halifax Protestant Industrial School, a home “for the reclamation of boys to the paths of industry and virtue.” She headed a group of women who provided religious instruction at the school, entertained the teachers and boys at her residence, “Jubilee,” and contributed financial aid, particularly for steam power in the workshop and for an endowment. She was also a founder and committee member of St Paul’s Alms House of Industry for Girls, to which she granted a bequest for the carrying on of its work. To aid Christian women of inadequate means, Isabella participated in the founding, operation, and endowment of a home for the aged. Tirelessly, she laboured for St Paul’s Parochial District Visiting Society and the Halifax branch of the Colonial Church Society which established Anglican schoolmasters and missionaries in Nova Scotia. With a bequest to Trinity, the free-pew church, and her assistance to interdenominational missions, she encouraged religious instruction for the poor. To aid them further, she endowed an orphans’ home and served as first president of the Women’s Christian Association.
Miss Cogswell’s wealth encouraged not only philanthropic activity but also commercial transactions. Property was the principal field of her investment, and in 20 years of substantial purchases and sales she demonstrated the same good business sense as her competitors. Her mortgage holdings, the customary instruments of her purchases, were valued in excess of $95,000 at the time of her death. But the main directing force in her life was her belief that the body was the home of the soul. Her most consuming efforts were devoted to the moral improvement of her fellow citizens – never ostentatiously, never condescendingly, but always persistently.
Halifax County Court of Probate, will of Isabella Binney Cogswell. Christian Messenger (Halifax), 9 Dec. 1874. Daily Acadian Recorder (Halifax), 7, 8, 9 Dec. 1874. PANS, Beech Street Mission, Report, 1882; Halifax branch of the Colonial and Continental Church Society, Reports, 1862–74; Halifax Protestant Industrial School, Reports, 1865–76; Halifax Ragged and Industrial Schools, Report, 1864; St Paul’s Alms House of Industry for Girls, Reports, 1868–75. Harris, Church of Saint Paul, 245–46. E. O. Jameson, The Cogswells in America (Boston, 1884), 388–89.