PURVIS, NANCY, merchant and schoolteacher; b. c. 1790; d. 9 April 1839 in Bridgetown, N.S.
Nothing is known about the place of Nancy Purvis’s birth, the names of her parents, or her childhood. At some point she married James Purvis, a customs employee in Halifax, whose origins are also unknown. He died intestate on 15 April 1830 at the age of 57, leaving Nancy with three daughters under age. In June, undoubtedly because of the financial hardships imposed by her husband’s death, she began a millinery and haberdashery business from her residence opposite Government House. This venture evidently was short-lived, since it was not advertised after September. The next year, a notice appeared in the Novascotian, or Colonial Herald in which Mrs Purvis announced that with the assistance of her daughters she proposed to open a school for young ladies in Halifax “on the following Terms, viz: For Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Grammar, Geography, plain and Fancy Needle work 30s. per Quarter. Young Children, who may require to be taught only Reading and plain Work, 20s. French and Music, if required, by competent Masters, on the usual terms.” Whether the proposed school was successful or not is uncertain, since the notice ran until January 1832. By 1834 Mrs Purvis and her daughters had changed residence and had embarked once more upon an educational program for young women. The daughters stated in the Novascotian of 18 September that their school was now open for the reception of pupils, “to whose minds and manners the most scrupulous attention will be paid.” No further mention was made of this institution, and it is not known if the school was a new one or a continuation of the previous one.
By 1836 Mrs Purvis and her daughters had moved to Bridgetown. There they apparently began operation of a ladies’ seminary, whose initial establishment was said to have been due largely to the enterprise of John Quirk*, a local hotel-keeper, and other concerned citizens who wished to give their daughters more advantages in education. The school is believed to have been situated in a house built by the Reverend William Elder, across the street from the public school or academy. One of the Purvis daughters in fact taught at the academy, commencing on 11 May 1836 “at ten shillings per quarter” and continuing at least until 1840.
The “Purvis School,” as it was often called, was said to have been a model of its kind, and served the need for more advanced education of women in the Bridgetown area. The institution was apparently discontinued after three years, however, at the death of Mrs Purvis on 9 April 1839. It was undoubtedly its closing and the region’s generally inadequate educational facilities that prompted Bridgetown residents to petition the House of Assembly in 1840 for a grant towards the establishment of an academy or superior school for the higher branches of education. The petition noted that the inhabitants were unable from their own resources either to secure or to continue the services of individuals “deemed efficient to teach these branches.”
Nancy Purvis and her daughters provided educational opportunities of a sort in an age when the needs of young women and girls were very much neglected. From the 18th century to the middle part of the 19th, schools for girls of the upper and middle classes tended, like theirs, to be private boarding-schools in homes and residences. Large centres of population such as Halifax featured numerous and often sporadic endeavours of this kind by individuals (frequently widows and their daughters) [see Ann Cuthbert Rae*]. In general the curriculum of these schools emphasized drawing-room accomplishments and social etiquette rather than academic subjects. The aim, as one contemporary schoolmistress put it, was “to form the manners of the ladies . . . , that they may become the graceful and elegant insignia of opulent and well disciplined minds.”
Other schoolteachers of the 1830s made a greater contribution to the education of young women in Nova Scotia, but Nancy Purvis and her daughters are of note because their lives reflected the enterprise of women forced to support themselves financially upon the deaths of husbands or fathers. Not all women of this age were uninvolved in business or, as Alexis de Tocqueville believed, were confined to the “narrow circle of domestic concerns and tasks.”
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, P94 (James Purvis) (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 4, 2, reg. of burials in Bridgetown and Wilmot: 4 (typescript); RG 1, 449: 15. Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, 1830–39. Elizabeth Ruggles Coward, Bridgetown, Nova Scotia: its history to 1900 ([Bridgetown], 1955).