The view from Harriet’s window

The following is a submitted article on Harriet Dobbs Cartwright, looking at her role as one of the Kingston area’s earliest feminists. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Kingstonist.

The Cartwright house on King Street provides a window to the Kingston of 1833; it also offers us a glimpse through the eyes of one of our community’s forgotten heroes.  

Cartwright House at 191 King Street East. Photo by David McCallum.

Harriet Dobbs Cartwright came to Kingston from Ireland in June 1833, the bride of Reverend Robert David Cartwright, assistant minister of St. George’s Cathedral, and offspring of the notoriously conservative and anti-democratic Family Compact. 

Harriet faithfully kept in touch with her family in Ireland through letters and, occasionally, sketches of her new home. Her correspondence presents us with a perspective on the thriving town, and at the same time, an understanding of a woman’s personal life at this time.

During her first winter in Kingston, Harriet wrote: “…I seldom stay in the house all day as I do not mind frost or snow, and we have had scarcely any rain since the winter commenced. People here say that it is because it is my first winter here, that I do not think the cold greater than at home. I am half inclined to attribute the difference of opinion to the very comfortable degree of warmth that most houses are kept within. There is a good deal of building generally going on here, for which we have excellent materials, as the soil is for a considerable extent, but thinly spread over the limestone, which affords abundance of beautiful grey stone of the best quality. A new bank is just completed and John’s house nearly so. There is also a fine large hospital in progress in the neighbourhood, and a penitentiary. These and many smaller in the town affords a good deal of employment besides improving the town. There has been a female benevolent hospital in operation for some time, which will give place to the larger one next year…” (2)

Harriet joined the Female Benevolent Society (FBS), a Protestant group of women who, since 1820, had been providing, in an abandoned blockhouse, the only hospital care for the poor in Kingston. In 1834, Harriet also began schooling children of the poor.  She raised funds for these activities through sewing parties and by selling some of her drawings. (1)

Harriet was well aware that her activities in public life were considered, according to the standards of the time – “which portrayed ‘Victorian’ middle-class women as weak and passive”(4) – as stepping out of her station. She describes the temperance activities of the FBS: “[T]he ladies of the Female Benevolent Society – encouraged perhaps by the example of our American neighbours in holding female political meetings – ventured so far out of place as to get up a petition to the magistrates to diminish the licenses and look after the unlicensed dram shops abounding in every quarter… It seems to have had some effect.” (2)

Harriet directly confronted insinuations from family members that she was transgressing Victorian norms: “When I speak thus with real regret that I have in no wise given cause to the apprehensions that seem to have arisen at home, that I may be doing too much and neglecting home duties, I do not wish to be misunderstood, with regard to the latter, any more than to other occupations. I am not at all disposed to deny the supremacy of a household and family, nor am I in the least disposed to advocate the intrusion of females upon the spheres of action not belonging to their station, but I know, both by myself and by others, much time is squandered on frivolous and vain pursuits or in ‘shapeless idlings’ that might well be redeemed for more useful occupations, without the least infringing on home duties; and this I do not regret and earnestly desire, that I might be enabled to act more consistently in the future, that the expectations and apprehensions of friends at home, may not sound to me so like a bitter mockery of my indolence and neglect.” (2)

Harriet curtailed her charitable work on the birth of her first child, Conway, and further so with the declining health of her husband. When Conway died at age fourteen months, Harriet expressed her grief in poetry:

…I miss thee My Baby! as lonely I tread

Where so often to and fro, I have trodden with thee

Whilst gently supporting, that languishing head

That in weakness reclined, was e’en dearer to me. (2)

It is apparent that Harriet Dobbs Cartwright was a woman who felt compelled to express herself – through art, through poetry, through public action. After the death of her husband in 1843, Harriet returned to charitable works. The Female Benevolent Society set up the Widows’ and Orphans’ Friends Society. This organization aimed to help fatherless families and orphaned children in Upper Canada following the devastating typhus epidemic of 1847. Cartwright served as the secretary for this charity for 31 years. She also became active in caring for imprisoned women in the penitentiary in Kingston where her brother, Rev. Francis William Dobbs was the chaplain. (6) 

Harriet Dobbs Cartwright 
Cartwright Family Papers, Queen’s University Archives.

Susan Jill MacMicken states that Mrs. Harriet Cartwright evaded the confinement of the Victorian feminine role “by utilizing the opportunities provided by Evangelical religion to take a position within the public arena.”(5) Harriet Dobbs was a woman of vitality, inspired with a religious fervor, who despite being a member of the Kingston conservative establishment, was intent on improving her community in ways not encouraged by society at large. In an era when land-owning males controlled the levers of power, and laissez-faire social policy held sway, Harriet Dobbs Cartwright and other evangelical women helped shape Kingston into a more compassionate, humane society. “Though relatively little has been written on this remarkable woman, her impact on Kingston is undeniable, and her exhaustive work with the sick, widowed, orphaned and imprisoned set a precedent for social work undertaken by middle-class Victorian women.” (6)

Sketch by Harriet Dobbs Cartwright, 1833. A view to the south along King Street from the R.D. Cartwright house. Watercolour over pencil. The buildings that are identified are Molson’s at the end of the street, in the middle ground at the right is a frame house belonging to Capt. H. Earl. and the building in the left foreground appears to be Kingston’s first school house. Queen’s University Archives.
The view from the same window of modern day King Street East. Photo by David McCallum.

The view from Harriet’s bedroom window, shown above in black and white, was sketched as a postcard of her new life in a new land for family members across the ocean. “I have just finished views of our house, of our opposite neighbours, and of Kingston and the lake from our upper windows, which will, I hope, give you a pretty good idea of the neighbourhood.”(2) This sketch, made in 1833, also serves as a postcard of another time and place sent by Harriet across the years to us.

Written and researched by David McCallum, local filmmaker.

Thanks to Lynn and Laurie for the view from Harriet’s window.”

  1. Margaret Angus, “A Gentlewoman in Early Kingston”, in Historic Kingston #4, 1955
  2. Harriet Dobbs Cartwright, Letterbook,  Queen’s University Archives.
  3. Margaret Angus, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
  4. M. Jeanne Peterson, Family, Love and Work in the Lives of Victorian Women.   Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989 
  5. MacMicken, Susan Jill, To Honour and Serve Him: The Early Life of Harriet Dobbs Cartwright. Unpublished MA history thesis, Queen’s University, 1994 Rebecca O’Reilly, “Profiles of Irish-Canadians, Harriet Dobbs Cartwright”, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 30, No.2, Fall, 2004

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