Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Harry Kirk: Winnipeg pioneer and city hall's "Mr. Everything"

Henry "Harry Kirk"

History remembers a limited number of prominent people, mostly men, from a city's formative years. They are businessmen, elected officials, perhaps a colourful police chief or fire chief, the odd labour leader and man of the cloth. For their work many had buildings, streets or other places named after them and, if you look hard enough, you might even find a mention of them in a history pamphlet.

There are thousands of others whose contributions were just as valuable but will never have anything named for them or appear in any history book. This is the story of one of those people.

Henry "Harry" Kirk was born in Woodcote, Oxford, England on December 29, 1842. In 1872 he, wife Annie, (born Annie Evans on January 7, 1840 in Midlesex England), and their two sons picked up and came to Red River arriving via the Dawson Trail.

The Kirks set up on a homestead but within months suffered a tragedy. In the winter of 1873 Harry got stuck outside during a severe winter storm and lost all of his fingers and part of one hand to frostbite.

This was both a personal and financial tragedy. A pioneer who could not work with his hands would likely spend his life relying on charity. For reasons and connections unknown, in July 1874 the Relief Committee of the fledgling City of Winnipeg council recommended that Kirk be hired as one of the city's first ten civil servants.

City Hall I, built 1885-86, (Heritage Winnipeg)

Harry Kirk became the "City Messenger" which would have been a hectic position as Winnipeg's first city hall had not yet been constructed and budding city services and officials were scattered in temporary locations around town.

In March 1876 the first city hall opened at King Street and William Avenue and the Kirk family got a small apartment inside. His role expanded to include caretaker of city hall and the police station, a cleaner at the market building, school board messenger and, by virtue of the fact that he was always on-site, security guard.

In 1878 Kirk was also given the role of city bell ringer. He was to ensure that it rang every day at noon, at 15 minutes before store closing time, at 15 minutes before school started, when firemen had to be summoned, and on special occasions as directed. (At the time the bell was located in the Market Building, today it is on Selkirk Avenue.)

In 1880 Kirk requested that his family be allowed to move out of city hall as the building's numerous structural faults made their quarters "extremely unhealthy." It appears that they were moved to the Market Building.

City Hall II, built 1883-86, (Heritage Winnipeg)

When the new "Gingerbread" city hall opened in 1886 he carried on as messenger, city hall caretaker and most of his other duties but with a building and grounds many times the size of the old one. In exchange, Harry's salary was raised to $900 per year and the family, now consisting of five children, moved into a small suite in the basement.

July 12, 1888, Manitoba Free Press

Harry was a hard worker and appreciated by council and the media. He often had brief mentions in the paper for some of the "above and beyond" things that he did. For instance, he tended a vegetable garden on the property, made a cover for the building's piano that was being damaged by winter frost and once teamed up with the police chief to break up a dog fight on the building's front lawn.

In 1892, however, poor Harry wrote to city council to say that his workload had reached 18 hours a day and that he required help. A messenger boy was hired to take those duties off his hands.

January 29, 1894, Winnipeg Tribune

It may seem as if Harry had no personal life, but he did.

The Kirk family consisted of three sons and two daughters: Harry Jr.; Herbert; Albert; Mrs. Dr. Linklater (first name likely Emily); and Ellen Sophia (who married James McMillan in 1902).

Harry was a canary fancier, often importing birds from Chicago and breeding them at city hall for sale. He was also a member of the I.O.F., a life-member of the St. George's Society and a volunteer at many school events.

In 1895 Kirk, believed to be the city's longest serving civil servant at the time, was under doctors orders to move out of the damp, cold city hall basement due to failing health. The city rejected the request as there was no additional space available in the building.

May 27, 1898, The Voice

In 1898 Harry and Annie Kirk retired to a home at 318 Notre Dame Avenue where he continued to raise his canaries.

Harry, however, was in poor health and in his last years months was suffering from paralysis. He died in Portage la Prairie of a stroke on on March 8, 1903 at the age of 61. His funeral, which took place at his home, was attended by a number of prominent citizens, Alderman Harvey represented the City of Winnipeg.

On March 28, 1926 Annie Kirk died in Middlechurch, Manitoba.

Both are buried in St. John's Cemetery.


October 3, 1876, Manitoba Free Press

During his time working for the city until after his death, neither newspaper mentioned that he was disabled. In fact, I did not realize this until after I finished my initial research on him.

One advertisement that I found suddenly made sense. It was for a benefit supper held for Kirk in October 1876, two years after he began working for the city.

 Winnipeg's first city council (source)

As one of the city's original ten employees, he can be found in photos of the inaugural Winnipeg city council. He was also included in early police department portraits.


Winnipeg's City Halls MHS
The Emergent City City of Winnipeg Archives
Winnipeg in 1874 (Part 2) Bruce Cherney
First City Hall and Civic Market Bruce Cherney

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