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GILPIN, EDWIN, mining engineer, inspector of mines, and author; b. 28 Oct. 1850 in Halifax, eldest son of Edwin Gilpin and Amelia McKay Haliburton; m. 29 June 1875 Florence Ellen Johnstone in Stellarton, N.S., and they had one son and two daughters; d. 10 July 1907 in Halifax.

Edwin Gilpin was born into a distinguished Nova Scotian family. He was the grandson of author Thomas Chandler Haliburton*, the son of a prominent Anglican clergyman, and the great-nephew of natural scientist John Bernard Gilpin*. Edwin attended the Halifax Grammar School, where his father, the school’s headmaster, tutored him for entrance to King’s College in Windsor. He received his ba from King’s in 1871 and then took a special course there in mining, geology, and chemistry, from which he graduated with an ma two years later. He next pursued practical training by serving an apprenticeship as an official at the Albion Mines in Pictou County and by travels through the mining districts of Great Britain.

From 1873 Gilpin was a leading member of the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science, for which he wrote some 26 papers, primarily on mineralogy and geology. Although more a publicist of mineral resources than a researcher, he was elected fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1874. He was soon also made a member of the prestigious North of England Institute of Mining Engineers, solidifying contacts which would last throughout his lifetime and which typified the bias of most leading men within Nova Scotia coalmining towards British management and engineering methods. In 1882 Gilpin became a founding member of the Royal Society of Canada. He joined the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers when it was formed in 1887 and the Mining Society of Nova Scotia in 1892. A commitment to technical training was reflected in his appointment as part-time instructor in the Halifax Technological Institute during its brief life from 1878 to 1880 and as lecturer in the School of Mining and Metallurgy at Dalhousie University in 1901.

It was as Nova Scotia’s inspector of mines, a position to which Gilpin was appointed in 1879, and as deputy commissioner of public works and mines from 1886, that he had his greatest impact. His early publications had proved useful in securing the position of inspector, as had his education, distinguished family background, and superb contacts within Nova Scotia’s scientific and mining élites. Eleven colliery managers and such scientific luminaries as Henry How* of King’s, George Lawson* of Dalhousie, and Alfred Richard Cecil Selwyn of the Geological Survey of Canada wrote testimonials on his behalf. One of his more important functions as inspector was to make the province’s mineral resources more widely known to investors. Drawing on his practical knowledge and his contacts throughout the industry, Gilpin became a confidant of mining men and an important adviser on mine engineering and geology. His best-known publication, The mines and mineral lands of Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1880), designed to attract capital to the province, is an excellent reflection of the emphasis on what has been termed “resource inventory” in Canadian science.

In 1873 Gilpin’s predecessor as inspector of mines, Henry Skeffington Poole*, had ushered in the first mine safety regulations in Canada, but had declined to implement their most crucial provisions by refusing to prosecute mining companies. It was Gilpin who instituted the first program of enforcement. He soon began championing major amendments to the regulations to improve ventilation in collieries. Although the initiative for most subsequent regulations lay with the colliers’ union, the Provincial Workmen’s Association, Gilpin played a vital role in mine safety not only through enforcement of regulations but also through back-room negotiations within government and with powerful mine managers. A judicious mix of diplomacy and determination helped, but only to a degree. In 1881 major changes in regulations permitted the appointment of deputy inspectors, essential to the regular scrutiny of mining operations. Only two years later did pressure from Gilpin and the PWA finally secure the appointment of two deputies.

The 1881 regulations also introduced requirements that colliery officials be licensed through examination. Colliers hoped that these provisions would improve safety, inhibit the importation of foreigners for the positions, and enable ordinary workmen to rise through the ranks. By 1885 colliers were the only source of new recruits. In a rare example of cooperation, Gilpin, the union, and the provincial board of certificate examiners (composed entirely of mine managers) pressed government to institute mining schools to educate workmen in the technical knowledge required to pass certificate examinations. In 1889 a system of local schools, staffed principally by colliery officials, was established. Elsewhere in North America similar schools did not develop for at least 20 years. They became familiar institutions in the province’s coalmining communities and would be an important impetus in the creation of a wider program of technical schooling in Nova Scotia in 1907. Throughout the process Gilpin, although personally favouring a more élitist system of education with a higher scientific content, served as a lobbyist for workers’ training.

His support was important in securing an additional major piece of safety legislation in 1891. Evidence had been accumulating during the 1870s and 1880s that the cause of the more disastrous mine explosions was not only the explosive methane gas exuded from coal, called firedamp, but also the fine coal-dust found throughout most collieries. Combined with firedamp, the dust created a lethal mix, even when the levels of gas present were too low to be easily detected. Firedamp explosions tended to be localized, but a coal-dust catastrophe could engulf much of a mine, as it had in the Vale Colliery explosion of February 1885. Some scientific authorities believed that the use of gunpowder to mine the coal was a primary means by which the coal-dust was ignited. Gilpin had long campaigned for restricted use of powder, but mine managers had been sceptical of the coal-dust theory. Then in February 1891 a tragic explosion occurred at the Springhill mines, causing the death of 125 men and boys [see Henry Swift*]. Close study of the site and sympathetic recommendations from a coroner’s jury provided Gilpin with the evidence he needed to press successfully for regulations restricting use of gunpowder in dangerous mines. Considered “drastic measures,” they helped set precedents in gunpowder legislation internationally.

Edwin Gilpin’s experiences as inspector of mines were not always entirely happy. The work was onerous, especially after he became deputy commissioner of public works and mines, responsible inter alia for mining leases, exploration licences, and the collection of mining returns and royalties. As a public official in a sensitive post, he was occasionally the butt of criticism. In the early eighties, some workmen had initially become suspicious when he appeared reluctant to investigate mine fatalities and when his inquiries were seemingly always undertaken in the offices of the coal company with none “save the inspector and officials” learning the outcome. Gilpin did not always escape the biases of his class in assessing the actions of mining companies. Furthermore, mine regulations and threats of prosecution had only a limited impact on the death toll in mines. Yet when Gilpin died in 1907, his passing was widely lamented. He was respected as a conscientious, honourable man who had made a material difference to the safety of mining in Nova Scotia and the exploitation of its mineral resources.

Donald Macleod

Edwin Gilpin is the author of numerous reports and articles on mineralogy and geology. A listing of nearly 100 items appears in Science and technology biblio. (Richardson and MacDonald); partial bibliographies are also found in CIHM Reg.; the author’s doctoral dissertation (cited below), pp.611, 618–19; and RSC Trans., 1st ser., 12 (1894), proc.: 37–38. Although few of these papers report research, one exception is his “Notes on the Nova Scotia gold veins,” RSC Trans., 1st ser., 6 (1888), sect.iv: 63–70.

PANS, RG 7, 97; RG 21, A, 8a, 14, 34; RG 32, WB, 81: 131, no.92. Trades and Labour Journal (Springhill, N.S.; Stellarton, N.S.), 2 Nov. 1881, 28 March 1883, 20 May 1885. The Canadian whos who (London and Toronto, 1910). Eaton, Hist. of Kings County, 673, 679. Donald Macleod, “Colliers, colliery safety and workplace control: the Nova Scotian experience, 1873 to 1910,” CHA Hist. papers, 1983: 226–53; “Miners, mining men and mining reform: changing the technology of Nova Scotian gold mines and collieries, 1858 to 1910” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1981), esp. c.5; “Practicality ascendant: the origins and establishment of technical education in Nova Scotia,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 15 (1985–86), no.2: 53–92. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1880–1907, app. (annual reports on mines); 1891, app.6 (report on the Springhill disaster). Nova Scotian Institute of Science, Proc. and Trans. (Halifax), 12 (1907–8): xxxi–xxxiv. Suzanne Zeller, Inventing Canada: early Victorian science and the idea of a transcontinental union (Toronto, 1987).

General Bibliography


Donald Macleod, “GILPIN, EDWIN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gilpin_edwin_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gilpin_edwin_13E.html
Author of Article: Donald Macleod
Title of Article: GILPIN, EDWIN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: February 27, 2017