THEAKSTON, MAJOR, printer, journalist, and city missionary; b. 15 June 1833 in London, England, eldest of the six children of Major Paylor Theakston and Sophia Matilda Wood; m. 25 Dec. 1858 Emily Horn (d. 1909), and they had seven sons and one daughter; d. 11 Dec. 1917 as a result of injuries sustained in the Halifax explosion of 6 December.
A printer by trade, Major Theakston in 1848 became a Methodist and a church worker in his native London. He later served as a slum visitor in east London, where he “saw that drink was the prime cause of the poverty, wretchedness and sin of the city.” According to his own account, he and Emily decided to emigrate to British North America in 1863 with several other families in order to establish a Christian temperance settlement, an ambition which did not survive the crossing. In fact, they may have been assisted immigrants in a scheme concocted by Joseph Howe* and organized and financed by English philanthropist Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts. The Theakstons were joined the following year by Major’s parents and siblings. Although most of the family settled in Halifax, Theakston went to Canning, N.S., where after a short stint in a shipyard he returned to printing, first as an employee of newspaperman Harold Albert Borden and then in 1865 as proprietor of the King’s County Advertiser. In 1866 he moved to Wolfville and began with his brother William the Acadian and a general printing business. The paper, which took an unpopular pro-confederate stance, folded in 1870.
In June of that year Theakston became the Wesleyan lay city missionary in Halifax, a position which also enabled him actively to pursue his passion for the temperance cause and his concern for the working poor. He helped establish three new mission churches. The mission collapsed for lack of funds in 1877, by which time Theakston had opened a printing establishment adjacent to his Agricola Street residence where he trained two sons in the trade. Three other sons also became printers. During 1879 and 1880 Theakston was proprietor and editor of the Alliance Journal: and Temperance Advocate, the Sons of Temperance weekly.
In 1881 he left printing to his sons and became missionary of the South Brunswick Street Mission, which had become the focus of Methodist city mission work in 1878 after Edward Jost, a prominent baker, willed to the Methodists the mission chapel he had had built as an interdenominational venture. In 1889 Theakston became the missionary with the local Seamen’s Friend Society. His final employment was as missionary of the North End City Mission, beginning in 1893.
Although his contribution to printing and journalism was significant, Theakston is best remembered as city missionary par excellence. In the 1870s he engaged in largely spiritual work centred on domiciliary visits, prayer meetings, temperance meetings, and the child-focused activities of Sunday schools and temperance bands of hope. Since the inner-city missions were served by others, his work was confined mainly to the suburbs. His duties in the city centre in the 1880s provided more scope for social work as he came in contact with the underclass and the chronically poor. In the old north end of the city in the 1894s issues of class were compounded by those of race. The mission brought him into close contact with the local black community, some members of which responded favourably to its annual gardening competitions, Sunday schools, and meetings to promote temperance, domestic economy, and recreation. It also served as a source of material welfare and occasional holidays in the country for the poorest mission folk.
Child rescue was another aspect of North End City Mission work. Like the institutions for orphaned, neglected, and delinquent children, the mission specialized in placing children in rural foster homes. Although an interest in establishing a day nursery never went beyond a short-lived kindergarten, the mission became the scene of school breakfasts provided by the Halifax Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. Theakston also became well known for his attempt to humanize gruelling relief work sponsored by this association during winters of severe unemployment before World War I. On the spot with coffee and rolls on cold mornings, he tried to raise the spirits of the men who slaved at stone-breaking for a pittance. All along the mission boasted a model of charity organization in which investigating the needs of the poor, avoiding duplication of effort with other relief agencies, and providing employment were assiduously pursued.
While Theakston performed a tremendous amount of spiritual and social work single-handed and did most of the fund-raising for the mission, he was not without assistance. A board of management of prominent laymen and clergymen oversaw the activities and finances of the mission, and Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian clergymen often performed services and administered sacraments in its building. Theological students and members of the Dalhousie University Young Men’s Christian Association acted as volunteers, as did young people’s groups from many of the city’s Protestant churches. Key patrons contributed time, money, and advice, and the indispensable ladies’ auxiliary, formed in 1902, organized instructive meetings for mothers. Important support also came from members of Theakston’s family, who served as Sunday-school teachers, visitors, convenors, speakers, and musicians. His fifth son, George Wesley Theakston, became assistant missionary and succeeded him. In a tribute shortly before Major Theakston’s accidental death, the Acadian Recorder noted that “his deeply sympathetic nature, his earnest religious convictions, his patience and amiability, his ready humor and wonderful activity have combined to make his chosen life work a great success. Needy ones of all classes and all creeds have felt his helping hand, and in the days before charitable and humane work was organized and financed as it is now, Mr. Theakston’s labors and responsibilities were almost beyond belief.”
Dalhousie Univ. Arch. (Halifax), MS 1, Dalhousie Univ. Young Men’s Christian Assoc., reports, 1893–1903. Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.4109 (mfm. at PANS). NA, RG 31, C1, 1891, 1901, Halifax (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 9, 365: 37; MG 20, 557; 1016, no.23; MG 100, 237, nos.14–15. Private arch., Judith Fingard (Halifax), Collection of tapes, letters, and diaries of Evelyn Theakston Van Beek, daughter of George Wesley Theakston. Acadian (Wolfville, N.S.), 16 Jan. 1869. Acadian Recorder, 9 Oct. 1897; 27 Sept. 1901; 7 Jan., 17 Sept. 1902; 10 Sept. 1904; 7 Dec. 1905; 15 June 1915; 15 June, 12 Dec. 1917. Alliance Journal: and Temperance Advocate (Halifax), 26 Dec. 1878; 9, 30 Jan. 1879; 5, 12 Feb., 24 June, 4 Sept., 30 Nov., 4, 11, 25 Dec. 1880. Evening Mail (Halifax), 29 Jan., 11 Oct. 1904; 20 July, 25 Aug., 15 Sept. 1905; 16 June, 31 July, 26 Dec. 1908; 15 Jan., 14 April 1909; 12, 18, 23 Nov. 1910; 1, 10 Feb. 1911. King’s County Advertiser (Canning, N.S.), 18 March 1865. Mail-Star (Halifax), 13 Aug. 1958. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 6 July, 31 Aug., 8 Dec. 1870; 25 Dec. 1876; 14 Feb. 1877; 8 July 1879; 14 Sept., 25 Dec. 1882; 27 Feb., 3 March 1885; 17 Sept. 1886; 21 Feb. 1899. Morning Herald (Halifax), 24 Jan. 1885, 11 July 1889, continued as Halifax Herald, 14, 30 Nov., 12 Dec. 1892; 25 Nov. 1893; 4 Dec. 1896; 16 Dec. 1898. Novascotian (Halifax), 2 March 1863. Provincial Wesleyan (Halifax), 22 Feb. 1871, 6 March 1872, 12 March 1873, 2 Feb. 1874, continued as Wesleyan (Halifax), 22 Jan. 1876, 7 July 1877, 1 July 1881. Watchman (Halifax), 6 Jan. 1881. P. R. Blakeley, Glimpses of Halifax, 1867–1900 (Halifax, 1949; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1973). Directory, Halifax, 1871/72–1917. Judith Fingard, “City missions and social welfare in the Maritimes” (paper presented at the Atlantic Canada Studies Conference, 1983); The dark side of life in Victorian Halifax (Porter’s Lake, N.S., 1989); “The North End City Mission: building use in the old north end” (paper read before the Royal Nova Scotia Hist. Soc., 1991); “Race and respectability in Victorian Halifax,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth Hist. (London), 20 (1991–92): 169–95. North End City Mission, Report (Halifax), 1895/96–1911/12, 1914–17. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1864, app.24.