Missing Person: Grace Hamilton Hatheway

By: David Frank

Mark Blagrave’s recent novel Lay Figures (Halifax: Nimbus, 2020) takes us back into the world of the artists and writers of the late 1930s and early 1940s in Saint John, New Brunswick. The pages are populated by people who resemble Miller Brittain, Jack Humphrey, Ted Campbell, Kay Smith, P.K. Page and others, although the author assures us he has written a work of fiction and is not portraying particular individuals. I do not propose here to compare the invented story of the novel to historical studies of this creative moment in regional history. That context has been superbly illuminated by the historian Kirk Niergarth, among others whose work Blagrave acknowledges.[i]

But in reading this novel, I was reminded of a lesser-known Saint John figure who had a small connection to this cultural moment. Born in 1885, she belonged to a slightly older generation. Moreover, her link would be limited by her long absence from the city as well as her premature death in 1936.

My interest in Grace Hamilton Hatheway originated with her parents, Frank and Ella Hatheway, two of the leading figures in social reform circles in early twentieth-century Saint John. You can read about them on the website of the Frank and Ella Hatheway Labour Exhibit Centre. As Suzanne Morton has noted, the Hatheways were “at the centre of a small but active reform community that contained virtually all the main currents of reform sweeping across the continent”.[ii]

Grace was the second of their two daughters, born in Saint John in the summer of 1885. Both Miriam and Grace, less than two years apart in age, graduated from Saint John High School. Morton notes that one of their neighbours and classmates was Jane Wisdom, who went on to McGill University and became one of the first generation of professional social workers. During college vacations, Jane was a volunteer at the kindergarten for the children of working mothers that was established by the Hatheways. It seems likely the Hatheway sisters participated in similar activities.

As young adults, Miriam and Grace were both members of the Saint John Women’s Enfranchisement Association. Their mother and father had been founding members in 1894 and lived to see the achievement of votes for women twenty-five years later in 1919. In a list of members compiled by Mary Clarke, Grace is identified as a social worker, which again suggests that she was involved in carrying on her parents’ multifaceted work within the community.[iii]

In 1907, Grace left Saint John and enrolled at Oberlin College, in Ohio. Oberlin was founded in 1833 and known as the first American college to open its door to both women and men, and to African-Americans. Grace was considered a fine piano player and registered as a music student before deciding to focus on economics and psychology. She graduated with a B.A. in 1911. The all-too-brief biographical notes that are available state that she became a social worker and researcher in Philadelphia – she was living there at the time of her father’s death in 1923 – but little more is known about this phase in her life.[iv]

We do know that Grace retained an interest in public affairs. She was particularly disturbed by the American entry into the Great War. In May 1917 she wrote to the university president at Oberlin to protest her alma mater’s support for military training for students: “It seems to me incredible that Oberlin . . . can be running with the crowd after the war drums and I hope you will let me know that it is not so. If Oberlin has taken the military stand, will you tell me how it justifies that stand in the light of its enthusiasm for Christianity and Christ’s teaching. I cannot understand.”[v]

After the war, Grace was a researcher at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. She also studied for a Master’s degree at Bryn Mawr College, where her field was described as “industry and labour”. Later, she lived in New York and Washington, D.C. and undertook research, writing and editorial work for several publications, including Arts and Decoration, The Century Magazine and The Nation’s Business. She was also an associate editor for an upscale magazine called Country Life. Several lively articles under one of her pseudonyms highlighted new interests available to the adventurous (and well-heeled) modern woman, such as the latest in telephones, photography and aviation.[vi]

Grace returned to Saint John from time to time, including at the time of her mother’s death in 1931. Shortly afterwards, she and her sister travelled by steamer to Digby Neck. There they spent time exploring the countryside and sharing in what Grace described as the “joys of society, solitude, scenery”. Miriam took pictures, and Grace wrote a magazine article, a little in the spirit of her father’s writings on his rural rambles.[vii]

The next year Grace published a travel book (under another one of her pseudonyms, Helen Gay). Break Your Lease! Luxury Abroad on a Slim Purse is a journey of discovery, from the Channel Islands to Normandy and the Basque country, through the south of France and then on to North Africa, the Canary Islands and back to North America by way of the Caribbean. In the course of her travels, the author is alert to the excesses of modern tourism and feels more at home in small towns and villages than in big cities or famous resorts. As the title suggests, there is attention to the prices of foods, rentals and services – there are even shopping lists – making this a kind of forerunner to the “Europe on $5 a day” books a generation later.

In a jaunty style, Grace writes about travel as an opportunity for “international patriotism” and an “adventure in human acquaintance”. There are also occasional comments on class, race and the status of women. The most direct note of social criticism is in reference to Algiers, where the distress and poverty reminded her of the inequalities in North America: “For the same chaos that produces excess and suffering in our Christian world operates here too, where everyone prays so hard. Some day, centuries hence, people will read with incredulous horror about our civilization with its contrasts in possessions and our belief in the reasonableness of such contrasts – just as we now read for instance of insane persons who were punished as criminals, and men who were thrown to the lions for sport”.[viii]

By 1934, Grace was living in Toronto. At least one small piece of her journalism can be located, a review of a celebrated novel by an Austrian social democratic writer by the name of Rudolf Brunngraber. The book impressed her as an innovative fiction whose author captured the desperation of the modern world and the turmoil of its victims: “Having spread the whole amazing web of the twentieth century before our eyes, he points out to us how little our hero Karl (the average citizen of anywhere) is aware of the fabric in which he is enmeshed. . . . The reader may forget the facts recited, but he will never be released from the memory of the victim. Karl never understood his world, nor will the intelligent reader blame him”.[ix]

The following year Grace took up residence on King Street in Saint John and was, according to the Telegraph-Journal, “happily renewing old friendships”. One of those acquaintances was the painter Jack Humphrey, a somewhat younger contemporary who had spent much of the 1920s developing his skill as an artist in Boston, New York and Europe. He returned to Saint John in the early years of the Great Depression, and Grace continued to promote his work to influential figures (among them Arthur Lismer), recommended books, and encouraged him to apply for fellowships. She also shared her thoughts on the artist’s need for both introspection and companionship: “even in St. John, there are some that give you what you want, aren’t there? One may be as hungry for friends – the real exchange of friends – in Paris or New York, as in a little place. It is the finding them that matters, and the effort to reach them”.[x]

One source tells us that Grace had returned to Saint John “because of ill health”. There are no details, but she had run out of steam. Her body was found on the beach at Seaside Park in West Saint John. The coroner pronounced her death a suicide. Only 50 years old at the time, Grace was remembered as “one of the most cultured and gifted of the daughters of this city”, one who “had attained distinction in the literary field and was a keen student of social problems”.[xi] These were talents and interests she was said to have inherited directly from her mother and father. She is buried alongside them at Fern Hill.

From their father and mother’s estates, Grace and her sister had inherited various assets, principally the ownership of the shares in the family wholesale business. In a will prepared only a few days before her death, Grace provided bequests to friends as well as to the Children’s Aid Society and the Protestant Orphans’ Home. These included $1,000 for Humphrey, funds that would enable him to travel to Mexico in 1938 to study art.[xii]

At some point during her time in the United States, it appears that Grace wrote a biography of Ellen Spencer Mussey (1850-1936). A woman of her mother’s generation, Mussey was a pioneer in the legal profession in the United States. Her roots were in Ohio, and she attended grammar school at Oberlin before the premature deaths of her mother and father. She entered the practice of law by working with her lawyer husband and taking over when he died. She was not able to gain admission to law schools but after multiple appeals qualified for the bar by oral exam. Together with Emma Gillett, in 1898 Mussey founded the Washington College of Law, now part of American University, to open doors for women’s legal education.[xiii] The book was published in 1937, but most of the manuscript seems to have been written much earlier. One reviewer described the biography as “a living tribute to the perseverance, sincerity and courage of the women of Mrs. Mussey’s day” and wrote that “the author portrays the life of those days with an informality and simplicity that leaves the reader with a feeling of awe and earnestness.” A reviewer in the National Women Lawyers Journal commented, “It belongs on every feminist bookshelf.”[xiv]

The book was also a posthumous publication for Grace Hatheway, appearing the year after her own death. Had Grace survived, it is tempting to speculate that the supportive cultural context described in Lay Figures – and hopefully imagined in her letter to Humphrey a few years earlier – might have encouraged her to pursue other projects. Perhaps she might have written about her own mother and father and their part in an historic era of progressive social reform.

Nonetheless, Grace Hatheway’s story suggests some of the energy, interests and talent of a generation of professional women who came of age in the early twentieth century and sought out opportunities in a widening world.[xv] Like the people in Lay Figures, Grace’s story reminds us that Saint John belonged to a social and cultural network that extended well beyond her home city.


David Frank is a professor emeritus in History at the University of New Brunswick. A former editor of the journal Acadiensis, he has published widely on Canadian history, including a Biography of Labour Leader, J.B. McLachlan, and A History of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour. 


[i] Kirk Niergarth, The Dignity of Every Human Being: New Brunswick Artists and Canadian Culture between the Great Depression and the Cold War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015).

[ii] Suzanne Morton, Wisdom, Justice, and Charity: Canadian Social Welfare through the Life of Jane B. Wisdom, 1884-1975 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), pp. 27-29.

[iii] Mary Eileen Clarke, “The Saint John Women’s Enfranchisement Association, 1894-1919” (M.A. thesis, University of New Brunswick, 1979), p. 156. Miriam was identified as an artist and remained a stalwart in the arts and heritage community in Saint John for many years.

[iv] Telegraph-Journal, 22 June 1936. I have also benefited from a short summary of her life provided by the Archives Office at Oberl