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Through Their Eyes

April 2009 - October 2009


The growth of Niagara-on-the-Lake required the resourcefulness, survival tactics and perseverance of women.  To tell their stories, we need to read old sources with a new eye, viewing history from a different perspective. Women’s lives were shaped by their class, ethnicity, race, religion and age. Although little is known about a majority of the women in the town and township, this exhibition explores the influence and impact of a few of Niagara’s women.

Working Women

Many women were required to work in some capacity. The women of Niagara held jobs such as dress maker, milliner, tavern keeper, hotel owner or teacher. Most of these were unmarried women or widows who needed to keep businesses going for their family to survive.  Many were waiting until their sons grew up and their daughters married. We know that many women also worked as servants in homes or sewed and made clothing to help out with their family income.

Women and War

When crisis occurred in the world, women took a very active role.  During the War of 1812, the women of Niagara were left to care for themselves and their families through American and British occupation of the community and during the burning of the towns of St. Davids and Niagara.  During World War I & II, the community was a centre of patriotism and global support.   The women of Niagara stepped to the front by supporting soldiers training in Niagara, by working on the surrounding farms and also by providing support to those suffering overseas.

A Greater Cause

IODE photoThe identification of those with greater needs than themselves led to the rise of organizations that exist to help others.  Many women in town found their calling through the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, the Women’s Institute or temperance societies.  These organizations created community bonds between women, but also addressed the issues of the poor at home and abroad, the welfare of others and patriotism.  It was through these organizations that women were able to tackle the issues that were important to them.  

Respect & Responsibility

A number of women lost their husbands and were forced to keep up their family business.  Widows are frequently listed as proprietors of inns, taverns, stores and other businesses.  Some women, upon losing their husbands, did everything they could to keep up the family home, raise their children and maintain their status in the community.   Marriage was the best opportunity for women to ensure economic survival and respectability.  The same can be said for men, as marriage provided them with status and respect.


The six Ansley sisters (Elizabeth, Kate, Nora, Del, Gladys and Olga) were warned by doctors and the men in their family that it wouldn’t work but they went ahead.  In 1920, the sisters, two of whom were teachers and two nurses, opened a residential school for the mentally challenged which lasted for 52 years.  They had no models to follow but simply focused on the principle that a home atmosphere could encourage mental and social development.  Most of the students had IQs under 50 and many had physical disabilities.  A typical day included schoolwork in the morning with recreation and outings in the afternoon.  The school, known as Oakley (currently the Riverbend Inn) closed in 1972 when just two of the sisters were still alive.

Caroline Newbold was one when her father died and seven years old when placed in the Liverpool Workhouse.  In 1870, she was sent to Canada by Maria Rye, the social reformer, who operated a resettlement house called “Our Western Home” in Niagara’s former courthouse.  Miss Rye, between 1869 and 1895, brought more than 4,000 children to Niagara where they were schooled and trained before being placed with families.  Caroline was placed with the Walker family near Grimsby.  Unfortunately, at age 14, Caroline contracted typhoid fever and died; her grave is in the Western Home plot in St. Mark’s Cemetery.

Hannah Hamilton

Hannah Hamilton (1797-1888) Hannah was born in Niagara, the daughter of Hannah and William Jarvis, Upper Canada’s first Secretary and Registrar.  At age 19, she married Alexander Hamilton, son of Queenston’s extremely wealthy businessman and landowner Robert Hamilton.  Alexander built Willowbank, the Greek Revival mansion which still stands, in the mid-1830s.  His untimely death in 1839 left Hannah penniless with eleven children to provide for.  She turned to sewing, earning 2 shillings, 6 pence per shirt while her mother and daughters did the housework and cared for the vegetable garden, fruit trees, and poultry.  With the occasional financial aid of her family, Hannah was able to pay off her husband’s debts and remain at Willowbank until her death at 91.

Janet Carnochan

Janet Carnochan (1839-1926) Janet was a teacher on both the elementary and high school levels in Niagara-on-the-Lake for 39 years.  She is best remembered for her efforts to preserve the history of the town, a task to which she devoted a countless amount of time and for which she served as an inspiration to others.  In 1895, she helped form the Niagara Historical Society and served as its president for the next 30 years. Janet was the major force behind the construction of Memorial Hall, the first building in Ontario built as a museum.  She wrote several books and numerous articles about Niagara’s history and volunteered in the community and the province in many capacities.

Elizabeth Ascher (1869-1941) Elizabeth was a Niagara journalist who wrote articles for papers in St. Catharines, Buffalo, and Toronto.  During the first world war, she took an interest in and cared for the soldiers of the National Polish Army, many of whom while training at Camp Niagara contracted the Spanish Flu in 1918; 25 soldiers died and are buried in the St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery.  Over the next few years, Elizabeth spearheaded the local effort to collect money, clothing and hospital supplies which were sent to villages in Poland.  Elizabeth Ascher was rewarded for her relief work by being invested into the Order of Polonia Restituta, the equivalent of a knighthood, in 1922.

Katharina Haideen Paffard (1823-1883): Born in Missolonghi, Greece, Katharina was kidnapped at age 3 by the Ottoman Turks during their battle for that city.  The British Consul in Egypt purchased her from a Turkish woman and sent her to England where she was adopted.  Not remembering her original name, she chose Haideen, her Turkish name, as her last name.  In England, she met and married Frederick Paffard, brother of pharmacist and later Mayor Henry Paffard.  After emigrating to Niagara, they lived on Queen Street in what is now the Charles Inn.

Elizabeth Kerr (1762-1794): Elizabeth was born in 1762 in the Mohawk Valley of New York, the daughter of Sir William Johnson and Molly Brant, sister of Six Nations chief Joseph Brant.  Elizabeth married Dr. Robert Kerr, a surgeon with the King’s Royal Regiment and later, with the Indian Department.  Elizabeth was described by a visitor to Niagara as a genteel entertainer and “the best dancer I have ever seen.” Lamentably, she died she died at age 32, leaving five small children.

Fanny Ross Rowley (d. 1913): Fanny was the granddaughter of early Black settler William Riley and the stepdaughter of a Niagara barber.  She married Samuel B. Rowley, a wealthy white businessman, in 1886.  He built what is today the Romance Gallery on King Street as their home.  Well integrated into the community, Fanny bought and sold property in Niagara in her own name. 

® Image: View of Fort George, Oil on canvass, C. Kreighoff 1823