STANFIELD, FRANK, industrialist, politician, and lieutenant governor; b. 24 April 1872 in Truro, N.S., second son of Charles Edward Stanfield and Lydia Dawson; m. there 4 June 1901 Sarah Emma Thomas, and they had five children, fourth among whom was Robert Lorne*; d. 25 Sept. 1931 in Halifax and was buried in Truro.
The name Stanfield’s Limited is synonymous with textile manufacturing in Canada, and it was Frank Stanfield who, during his more than three decades as a senior executive in the company, put the firm on the road to becoming a national leader in the industry. Stanfield was born two years after his father, a textile manufacturer from Bradford, Yorkshire, England, left Prince Edward Island and relocated his woollen mill in Nova Scotia. Charles Stanfield chose Truro, a railway hub and busy shire-town second in importance only to metropolitan Halifax as a commercial and transportation centre. What it lacked was an industrial base, a need which the Stanfield firm was to supply from that day to this.
After acquiring little beyond the minimum public schooling, Frank Stanfield went to work at age 14 in the family business as a factory boy. He proceeded to carry on an informal, accelerated apprenticeship as clerk, bookkeeper, and commercial traveller, which gave broad scope and free range to his restless energy, profound intelligence, and unbridled ambition. In 1896, at Charles Stanfield’s suggestion, Frank and his elder brother, John, bought the company with money they borrowed from their father at interest. Having decided to concentrate on high-quality underwear, they soon reorganized operations. Frank was the financial and marketing genius behind the enterprise, while John oversaw the manufacturing side. Incorporated as a joint-stock company in 1902, when it was capitalized at $300,000, the Truro Knitting Mills Company Limited was reincorporated as Stanfield’s Limited early in 1906 with John as president and Frank as vice-president and managing director. By then the new business model they had introduced – product specialization instead of diversification and vertical integration in preference to horizontal – had proved itself.
The new firm quickly expanded. The brothers were innovators, discovering early a method of making their combinations unshrinkable and later inventing a more convenient and versatile two-piece undergarment for men. Their firm benefited from two major events: the Klondike gold rush of 1897–98 and World War I, which broke out in 1914. Introduced to Stanfield’s underwear by gold seekers from the Maritimes, miners and prospectors in the Yukon found the warm woollen long johns indispensable and the company’s fame spread; the war would bring large contracts for military supplies such as blankets and cloth. To meet rising sales and reduce competition, Stanfield’s in 1911 took over Hewson Woollen Mills in Amherst, later renamed Amherst Woollen Mills. By 1920 Stanfield’s had 104 knitting and 200 sewing machines in Truro alone. That year the brothers were reported to have sales of $4,000,000 and some 5,000 dealers handling their products. Over time the firm would expand from menswear into women’s and children’s undergarments and from woollens into cottons and synthetics. In 1928 it was, according to the Journal of Commerce (Montreal), the “largest plant in Canada solely engaged in making knitted underwear.” By the mid 1930s the company would have distributing warehouses in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver.
In politics as in business, the brothers complemented each other, both becoming stalwarts of the Conservative Party, John in the federal arena and Frank in provincial affairs. Frank’s interest and involvement in partisan politics probably date from his association with the Conservative Thomas family. In the early 1890s, when mayor of Truro, David John Thomas, Stanfield’s future father-in-law, had been party to a constitutional cause célèbre relating to the privileges of the House of Assembly. The resulting lawsuit brought by Liberal premier William Stevens Fielding* culminated in 1896 in a decision by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Fielding’s favour. It is not too much to say that Stanfield’s lifelong partisanship was attributable to the influence of his wife and in-laws. His political career began in earnest in the autumn of 1907 when he acted as campaign manager for his brother John, who in the federal by-election for Colchester broke the monopoly on Ottawa seats that the Nova Scotia Liberals had obtained in the general election of 1904. From then on, John Stanfield would play little role in running Stanfield’s Limited, though he remained president until a reorganization of the firm took place in 1924. Frank then took over the senior position, which he would hold until his death.
In 1910–11 Frank Stanfield served a term as alderman on the town council of Truro. In the provincial election of 1911 he stood for Colchester County as a Conservative and, with his running mate, ousted Benjamin Franklin Pearson* and the other Liberal incumbent. The Liberals, successful overall in this contest, had been in power continuously since 1882 and under George Henry Murray* they looked invincible, as indeed they were for some years to come. Stanfield was re-elected in 1916 but did not reoffer in 1920. The family enterprise was expanding and so were his other business interests: in 1920 he founded the Acadia Trust Company, an investment trust, and he was, or would become, involved in a variety of firms that dealt in foodstuffs, pulp and paper, coal and steel, electricity, transportation, and insurance. The general election which he sat out saw the Conservatives reduced from 13 members to 3; Colchester County was lost and even the party leader, William Lorimer Hall, was defeated. Something had to be done if the party was to survive, let alone aspire to return to government.
After this disastrous election a Halifax-based group of Conservative financiers and lawyers known as the “royal family” began to coalesce around Stanfield – the “strong silent man,” as he was known. The group’s designation evoked its association with both the Royal Bank of Canada and the Royal Securities Corporation. In May 1924 Stanfield became president of the Nova Scotia Liberal-Conservative Association and devoted himself wholeheartedly to the task of rebuilding the party. Its organization was in disarray and, to make matters worse, four months later its house leader, Howard William Corning, died prematurely. Stanfield found himself “de facto head,” in Arthur Meighen*’s words, of the provincial Conservative Party. Since a general election had to be held by July 1925 at the latest, it was imperative that the issue of leadership be addressed immediately and resolved satisfactorily.
The seatless W. L. Hall had been confirmed as leader at a convention held in 1922, but he had been unwise enough to have accepted a patronage appointment from the Liberal government. He did not enjoy the confidence of either the Halifax power brokers or the big businessmen such as Stanfield whose money was needed to orchestrate the Conservatives’ resurgence; Stanfield, in his capacity as president of the party association, did not hesitate to procure Hall’s resignation. Edgar Nelson Rhodes*, an underemployed former mp, was swiftly recruited and made Hall’s successor in May 1925. Rhodes presided over the Conservatives’ massive election victory the following month, but credit for this triumphant reversal of fortune belongs mainly to Frank Stanfield, who deployed his personal wealth and organizational skills to the maximum and to maximum effect.
Stanfield was again returned to the legislature for Colchester in June 1925. Though he might have had any cabinet post he wanted, he could scarcely have commanded more power than he was already wielding behind the scenes. He immediately gave up the party presidency, which by convention was never held by a sitting mla, but he remained heavily involved in the Conservative association, to which he devoted more time and attention than to legislative business. In December 1928 he would serve as chair of the committee of the association that recommended appointment of a provincial organizer for the party. Otherwise, “the government’s most prominent backbencher,” as political scientist James Murray Beck* has called him, was content to exercise a persuasive influence in determining policy. Among the new ideas that had his support were provincial control of liquor sales and indirect investment by government in industry, the latter concept not fully realized until Premier Robert Lorne Stanfield founded Industrial Estates Limited in 1957.
Stanfield was re-elected in October 1928 in a completely gratuitous and premature provincial election which the government barely survived. He hoped that Rhodes would learn and apply the lessons of near-defeat – a premier who lacked political judgement was a liability – but he was disappointed in this aspiration. He therefore began to look for a more influential role for himself elsewhere, in May 1930 becoming federal campaign manager in Nova Scotia. July’s general election saw the Conservatives take 10 of the 14 ridings, though Colchester’s sitting Conservative mp was ousted – a cruel blow for Stanfield, who had had to spend most of his time in Halifax. In August, when Premier Rhodes resigned in order to take up his position as minister of fisheries in Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett*’s new cabinet, Stanfield seems to have played no role in, nor would he have approved, Rhodes’s selection of red Tory Gordon Sidney Harrington* as his successor.
Just after the Conservatives were restored to power in Ottawa, the five-year term of the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia came to an end. There was no question of the incumbent, James Cranswick Tory, a former provincial Liberal cabinet minister, being reappointed. A suitable and interested Conservative had to be found. By early September 1930 it was common knowledge that Frank Stanfield would be Nova Scotia’s next viceroy, his brother John having declined the honour. Such an elevation was unheard of for a backbencher, government or opposition, and can be explained only by Stanfield’s immense influence and prestige, as well as by his desire to leave the legislature without reflecting on either the current administration or the governing party. Nevertheless, his departure implied a lack of confidence in the leadership, whose ineptitude had nearly cost the Conservatives their grand victory of 1925. That Stanfield would accept such a post, in which he was robbed of all power, surprised many both within the party and without. But Stanfield did not view the lieutenant governorship as the end of his career, as most politicians did; rather he saw it as a temporary and strategic withdrawal from affairs, after which he would take a more active role in business and possibly also resume political life.
Though scarcely a rags-to-riches tale, Stanfield’s rise from shop floor to Government House pleased and flattered him. He conferred new dignity and importance on the position merely by accepting it. That a man of his stature would exchange power for status helped alter public perceptions of the office of lieutenant governor as something potentially more significant than a boneyard for retired or defeated ministers of the same political stripe as the ruling party in Ottawa. Stanfield was sworn into office on 2 Dec. 1930 with all the pomp and circumstance that the viceroyalty could command.
Frank Stanfield’s last service to Stanfield’s Limited had been to travel to Montreal late in November 1930 to supervise the opening of the company’s new office. His eldest son, Frank Thomas, followed him as president of the firm, and his brother John succeeded as president of Acadia Trust, Frank Sr becoming chair of the executive committee. As a mark of respect from the party which he had brought from some 40 years’ wandering in the political wilderness to majority government, Stanfield’s seat in the House of Assembly was not filled in a by-election. In January 1931 he accepted appointment to the board of the Royal Bank of Canada, perhaps the only instance in modern Canadian history of a sitting lieutenant governor’s becoming director of a major bank and a striking tribute to the high esteem in which he was held by the nation’s business community.
Frank Stanfield expected to live a long life but, diabetic and overweight as he was, it was not to be. Late photographs of him suggest an unhealthy man older than his 59 years. In terms of official duties, Stanfield was able to accomplish little more than open the new Public Archives of Nova Scotia building in January; read the speech from the throne at the start of the legislative session in February; greet the new governor general, the Earl of Bessborough [Ponsonby*], on his arrival in Canada in April; and, in August, unveil the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada’s plaque at Kennington Cove, honouring the landing in Cape Breton of Brigadier James Wolfe* in June 1758, the initial step in Major-General Jeffery Amherst*’s assault on Louisbourg. In September 1931, after returning late to the capital from a day spent in Truro, which he regularly visited to inspect the company plant, Stanfield died in his sleep of a massive heart attack. He was given a state funeral, the cabinet serving as pall-bearers. A new appointee had to be found quickly so that the government could continue to function; within two weeks Halifax corporate lawyer Walter Harold Covert, a close business and political associate of Stanfield’s, had been chosen to succeed him.
Despite a relatively short career, Frank Stanfield was one of Atlantic Canada’s biggest and most successful businessmen. As an executive, manager, promoter, entrepreneur, and investor, he was intuitively acute and in practice both clear-headed and hard-nosed. He is nevertheless historically most important for having revived Nova Scotia’s moribund Conservative Party. This role was one which, by strange coincidence, would be reprised a generation later by his son Robert, just 17 when his father died. Frank Stanfield was more éminence grise than politician; his involvement in partisanship, though initially driven by family considerations, developed into an avowed interest in the public good. He saw government as a board of directors, responsible for sound financial stewardship to the electorate as shareholders in “Nova Scotia Incorporated.” He also believed that Conservative policies were best suited to Nova Scotia. His life ended suddenly before he could see his achievement undone by a renascent Liberal Party under the leadership of Angus Lewis Macdonald*. It was left to Robert Stanfield to resume and perfect his father’s work. Frank Stanfield’s widow (an outgoing woman whose warmth and compassion made her “a natural politician, perhaps the only one in the family,” according to journalist Geoffrey Stevens) survived him by nearly 32 years, living to see their son become leader of the provincial Conservative Party in 1948 and, in 1956, premier of Nova Scotia.
Extant papers of Frank Stanfield and records of Stanfield’s Limited during his career are privately held. Among the former is a scrapbook of countrywide news cuttings documenting Stanfield’s appointment as lieutenant governor and his death. The author extends most grateful thanks to F. Thomas Stanfield, grandson of Frank Stanfield and president of Stanfield’s Limited, for his interest and assistance.
Other primary sources include: Univ. of N.B. Library, Arch. Special Coll. (Fredericton), MG H 96; Colchester County Registry of Probate (Truro, N.S.), no.3701; and LAC, R14423-0-6. The following serials were consulted: Acadian Recorder (Halifax), Canadian Textile Journal (St‑Laurent [Montreal]), Citizen (Truro), Colchester Sun (Truro), Commercial News (Halifax), Evening Echo (Halifax), Evening Mail (Halifax), Halifax Chronicle, Halifax Daily Star, Halifax Herald, Industrial Canada (Toronto), Maritime Merchant (Halifax), Truro Citizen-Sun, and Truro Daily News.
Peter Aucoin, “The Conservative leader in Nova Scotia: selection and position in a minority party” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, 1966). J. L. Colvin, “The sons of the man who made the business,” Maclean’s, 1 Sept. 1920: 32–34. E. R. Forbes, “The rise and fall of the Conservative Party in the provincial politics of Nova Scotia, 1922–33” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., 1967). Journal of Commerce (Montreal), 7 July 1928: 10. Anthony MacKenzie, “The rise and fall of the Farmer-Labor Party in Nova Scotia” (ma thesis, Dalhousie Univ., 1969). Royal Gazette Extraordinary (Halifax), 25 Sept. 1931. Geoffrey Stevens, Stanfield (Toronto, 1973).
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Cite This Article
Barry Cahill, “STANFIELD, FRANK,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 23, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/stanfield_frank_16E.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:
|Author of Article:||Barry Cahill|
|Title of Article:||STANFIELD, FRANK|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2018|
|Year of revision:||2018|
|Access Date:||March 23, 2023|