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BULMER, JOHN THOMAS, lawyer, librarian, bibliophile, and social reformer; b. 1845 or 1846 in Nappan, N.S., son of Thomas Bulmer and Mary Jane Ripley Lowther; m. 3 July 1877 Eleanor Jane McHeffey in Annapolis County, N.S., and they had five sons, two of whom died in childhood; d. 9 Feb. 1901 in Halifax.

Born to a farming family of modest means near Amherst, N.S., John Thomas Bulmer descended from one of the Yorkshire Methodist families which had helped to settle Cumberland County in the 18th century. He graduated from Amherst Academy and in 1871 proceeded to Halifax, where he spent four years articled to lawyer Howard Maclean (McLean); a fellow clerk was John James Stewart. Bulmer participated in a discussion group, the Halifax Law Society [see Robert Sedgewick], and was called to the bar on 21 July 1875. He would practise law in Halifax for the rest of his life, achieving a considerable reputation as counsel for defendants in criminal trials; he served this clientele primarily because of his sympathy for the underdog. An energetic exponent of enhanced professional standards, he was the prime mover behind an attempt to create a Canadian bar association in 1896. The association held three annual meetings and then became moribund, not to revive until 1914, when it assumed its present form. Bulmer had observed in 1896 that the state of legal education elsewhere in Canada was below that in Nova Scotia, and that “it was not much use trying to raise the standard in Nova Scotia with the low averages about us.” Needless to say, his Bluenose chauvinism failed to galvanize the dominion bar.

A formidable autodidact, Bulmer had from his youth an obsession with books and libraries. It took him on frequent rambles to central Canada and particularly to New England, where he worshipped at the feet of the librarians of Harvard and Yale. An enthusiastic promoter of efficient, scientific librarianship, he constantly lamented the low state of the profession in Canada. In 1876 he tried to create a Canadian library association, 70 years ahead of the eventual establishment of such an organization. His special interest was the collection and preservation of all works dealing with or published in the Maritime provinces and Newfoundland. Bulmer served as recording secretary and librarian of the Nova Scotia Historical Society (founded largely on his initiative in January 1878) and edited the first volume of its Collections (1878). Concern about the deteriorating state of the Legislative Library resulted in his appointment as provincial librarian in the summer of 1879. He found a library of some 6,000 volumes, many of dubious value, and would leave behind him one of over 25,000 volumes, including many rare books and an invaluable array of old Nova Scotian periodicals. According to some accounts, he had created the second or third largest library in the dominion by 1882. This feat was achieved without cost, all items being procured by donation or exchange. The prodigious rate of acquisitions necessitated the hiring of a cataloguing assistant. In 1882 the position was given to a patronage appointee whom Bulmer considered incompetent, and he resigned in protest.

When the Dalhousie law school opened its doors in 1883 [see Robert Sedgewick], Bulmer was the logical choice as librarian. Once again he deployed his remarkable collecting skills to create a very respectable library, the envy of other Dalhousie students. Finances rather than politics resulted in the termination of his position after one year, but he presumably continued to act as librarian while studying law in 1884 and 1885. (The law school would not have a full-time paid librarian again until the 1950s.) In 1884 Bulmer sought the position of librarian of the dominion parliament library following the death of Alpheus Todd*. He was passed over in favour of fellow Haligonian Martin Joseph Griffin*, whose appointment he thought would lead to “library suicide.”

Devoted as Bulmer was to his two professions, he found time for a third which was perhaps the most important to him, that of social reformer. Initially a fairly partisan Conservative, he grew estranged from the traditional parties during the 1880s. He was passionately attached to the temperance cause, and ran as a prohibition candidate in the 1887 federal election, contesting Cumberland against William Thomas Pipes and Sir Charles Tupper*. Defeated, in 1888 he founded a weekly magazine, the Canadian Voice (Halifax), to promote his agenda. Through the Voice he advocated compulsory prohibition as the main plank in a platform of radical reforms which included female suffrage, equal pay for men and women in different but “equally menial” jobs, and a fairer distribution of wealth; at his death he was described by one newspaper as a “zealous exponent of socialistic principles.” After black children had been barred from Halifax public schools in 1876, Bulmer was active in the campaign which succeeded in reversing this decision in 1884. He aided the black community in other matters [see Jane Bruce] and gave encouragement and assistance to James Robinson Johnston*, Nova Scotia’s first black lawyer. For many of his contemporaries, such concerns grew out of the Social Gospel movement, but Bulmer seems not to have been particularly religious. Law, rather than religion, was the means by which his social vision was to be implemented.

Bulmer tasted failure more often than success in his enterprises, but he remained undaunted. Some observers attributed his chequered career to flaws of character such as impatience, egotism, and insensitivity. His friends, among them Sir John Sparrow David Thompson*, saw the virtues of his vices – his subversive wit, breezy eloquence, and endearing brashness; they even coined the adjective “Bulmeresque” to describe a certain extravagance in manner. The historian is tempted to judge more harshly the faults in Bulmer’s society than in his personality and to admire his perseverance in the face of recurring defeat and indifference. Although many of his preoccupations have become those of the late 20th century, to contemporaries he seemed a Nova Scotian Don Quixote.

Philip Girard

John Thomas Bulmer published a pamphlet, Testimonials of John TBulmer (Halifax, 1882), on the occasion of his resignation as provincial librarian.

Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.5417 (mfm. at PANS). NA, MG 26, A: 2059–69, 37533–71 ; D: 3393, 16319. PANS, MG 1, 1504, nos.17, 61–62. Daily News (Amherst, N.S.), 11 Feb. 1901. Halifax Herald, 11 Feb. 1901. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 21 Jan. 1899, 11 Feb. 1901. A. G. Archibald and R. C. Weldon, The inaugural addresses, &c., delivered at the opening of the law school in connection with Dalhousie University . . . (Halifax, 1884). Canada Law Journal, 32 (1896): 533, 551. Canadian Bar Assoc., Report of the proc. (Toronto), 1896–98. Philip Girard, “‘His whole life was one of continual warfare’: John Thomas Bulmer, lawyer, librarian and social reformer,” Dalhousie Law Journal (Halifax), 13 (1990): 376–405. D. C. Harvey, “The contribution of the Nova Scotia Historical Society to the Legislative Library,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 26 (1945): 115–30. Legal News (Montreal), 19 (1896): 290–91, 296–300. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1881, 1883, 1892 (annual reports of the librarian). Benjamin Russell, “John Thomas Bulmer,” Dalhousie Rev., 9 (1929–30): 68–78. Waite, Man from Halifax, 123–24. John Willis, A history of Dalhousie law school (Toronto, 1979), 32.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Philip Girard, “BULMER, JOHN THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 21, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bulmer_john_thomas_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bulmer_john_thomas_13E.html
Author of Article: Philip Girard
Title of Article: BULMER, JOHN THOMAS
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: October 21, 2014