LEWIS, MARTHA HAMM (Peters), teacher; b. 4 Oct. 1831 in Lewisville (Moncton), N.B., daughter of Felix Lewis and Martha Maria Shaw; m. 15 May 1856 Alexander Nevers Peters, most likely in Saint John, N.B.; d. 20 Nov. 1892 in Saint John.
Martha Hamm Lewis lost her father while she was still an infant. Little is known of her childhood, but presumably she, her mother, and five siblings were cared for by her grandfather, Ichabod Lewis, a loyalist from New York. She was educated at home by private tutors and reportedly attended a boarding-school, perhaps in Saint John. She is also said to have tutored young men who were studying at the Normal School in that city. In 1849 she applied for admission to the school herself.
At that time there were grammar schools in Saint John and Fredericton, as well as rudimentary schools scattered around the province. Most were being taught by men, even though in locales where girls’ schools did not exist children of both sexes were sometimes educated together. Normal schools were located in Fredericton and Saint John but no woman had yet enrolled in either. Martha Lewis’s request for admission to the Saint John Normal School was refused, allegedly on the grounds of custom and expediency. She persevered, however, and wrote to Sir Edmund Walker Head*. Head, the first civilian lieutenant governor of the province, was progressive and cultured. He ruled that she was not ineligible. An order in council was passed directing that Miss Lewis be admitted to the Normal School but she was warned that the Executive Council would not be responsible for any adverse effects of her decision.
The school had been established in the fall of 1848 at the solicitation of Edmund Hillyer Duval*, a headmaster in Saint John, and he was in charge of it. Fearing that the presence of a female student would disrupt its decorum, he imposed a number of conditions on her attendance. She was instructed to enter the classroom ten minutes before her male classmates, sit alone at the rear of the room, always wear a veil, curtsy to the teacher and exit from the room five minutes before the lecture ended, and leave the premises without speaking to any other students. She endured this routine for the first term without incident. In the second term, she was permitted a female companion who may have reduced her sense of alienation.
In 1850, having successfully completed her year, Martha Lewis was licensed to teach in the parish of Upham, not far from Saint John. Three years later she received her licence to teach in the city of Saint John. Nothing is known of her classes or schools. However, it may be surmised that in Saint John she taught the subjects which Duval had included in the curriculum of his own school: reading, writing, spelling, arithmetic, geography, grammar, English history, natural history, drawing, and singing. In 1856 she effectively retired from the profession when she married a cousin of Samuel Leonard Tilley, Alexander Nevers Peters, then a retail grocer and later the successful proprietor of one of Saint John’s well-known hotels, the Clifton House. Perhaps throughout the rest of her life she took pleasure in the thought that her year at the Normal School had helped to remove Duval’s prejudice against women teachers. In 1852, 49 of the 92 students were women. By the early 1860s a female division of the Normal School was functioning and a Miss Duval was on the staff.
Obituary notices a generation after Martha Hamm Lewis’s momentous achievement made no mention of the fact that she had been the first women to train in the province’s normal schools, but her pioneering spirit seems to have been passed on to at least one of her four daughters, Mabel P. Peters*, who founded the Canadian Playgrounds Association and was deeply involved in the women’s suffrage movement.
Fernhill Cemetery (Saint John, N.B.), Burial records. Saint John Regional Library, Misc. files, Lewis family file. St. John Daily Sun, 21 Nov. 1892. Saint John Globe, 1 April 1901. The St. John and Fredericton business directory, 1862 . . . (Saint John, 1862), 66. M. E. Clarke, “The Saint John Women’s Enfranchisement Association, 1894–1919” (ma thesis, Univ. of N.B., Fredericton, 1980), 96. K. F. C. MacNaughton, The development of the theory and practice of education in New Brunswick, 1784–1900: a study in historical background, ed. A. G. Bailey (Fredericton, 1947), 139–40. MacNutt, New Brunswick. Daily Telegraph and the Sun (Saint John), 1 Sept. 1914. M. L. H[anington], “Martha Hamm Lewis goes to normal school . . . ,” Educational Rev. (Saint John), October 1931: 7; repr. in Telegraph-Journal (Saint John), 6 Jan. 1962.