Alexander Kennedy Isbister
MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1955-56 season
The usual course of the development of a civilized community is an evolution. There is a continuous line running through its entire history. In Manitoba, however, an overwhelming flood of immigrants engulfed the original inhabitants. These new arrivals had little interest in the small earlier group and the story of its very real achievements was lost during the struggle of a people much more concerned with their present urgent problems. It is only within recent years that we have begun to delve into those earlier layers of our history so long buried by the detritus of years.
Alexander Kennedy Isbister was a great figure in the minds of the people of the Red River. He was by far the most distinguished alumnus of their schools. He was one of the early explorers of our Arctic regions. In England he was the recognized authority on all matters concerning the Hudson's Bay Territories. He was one of the best known and respected teachers in England. He wrote many books and published many scientific articles. He was the champion of the Red River Settlers and played some part in the acquisition of the West by Canada. He encouraged every movement for the development of the West which he still felt to be his real home even after an absence of over forty years. He left to the infant University of Manitoba a bequest without which that University would have been crippled in its early days and which was of tremendous value in its gradual growth.
All those great achievements were practically lost to memory. We have the Isbister Scholarships, but few who win them know the story of the man who gave them. There is one street in Winnipeg named after him-possibly the shortest street in the city. Isbister Place is simply the amputated tail of Ellice Avenue. There is the Isbister School, one of those doomed to early demolition. None of its past principals knew much about the man for whom it was named and there is no picture of him in the school.
Alexander Kennedy Isbister was born at Cumberland House in 1822. His father, Thomas Isbister, had come from the Orkneys as a laborer in either 1810 or 1812. The Hudson's Bay Record Society is doubtful on that date. The first record of him in the minutes is in 1824 when he was listed as a clerk at Cumberland House. That same title is repeated each year until 1829 when he is listed as a postmaster. That is a new category adopted that year. The postmaster was the non-commissioned officer of the fur trade. He was not regarded as a gentleman, and instances of any rising above that rank are very rare. A clerk would be in line for promotion to Chief Trader or Chief Factor and would have a salary of 100 pounds a year within a few years of his arrival, the postmaster might attain a salary of 60 pounds. That height was reached by Thomas Isbister in 1831. He was then postmaster at Fort Pelly. In succeeding years he was at Cumberland House, Nelson River, and Norway House. There in 1836 he was killed by a bull belonging to the post.  I checked the minutes very carefully to find what provision would be made for the family of a man killed in the service of the Company. There is no record. That may account in part for the opposition of young Isbister to the Company in later years.
According to records in the Hudson's Bay House here, Mary Kennedy, his mother, was born about 1807 at Cumberland House. However, the Red River census for 1846 gives her age then as 42, which would make her birth date 1804. That may be more correct. I cannot imagine any woman giving her age as greater than it actually was. Just to complicate matters, however, Dr. Bryce's paper at the time of Alexander's death in 1883 gives her age as 83 which would have her born in 1800. The record of her baptism in August, 1821 is in the Manitoba Department of Vital Statistics. Her father was Alexander Kennedy, later Chief Factor. The mother in the baptismal record is listed as an Indian woman, Agatha. Besides Mary there were a number of other children. Among these were: William Kennedy, the Arctic explorer, George Kennedy, Philip Kennedy, and Elizabeth Kennedy who married George Setter and who was the mother of Mrs. John Norquay.
Mary Kennedy and Thomas Isbister were married at Norway House on August 12th, 1821, by the Reverend John West, then on his way to York Factory.  They had at least the following children, Caroline who married Chief Trader Alexander Christie and who died in 1867,  Mary the wife of Roderick MacFarlane, the northern explorer, James who apparently was at Aberdeen University for a time, Roderick, and Emma who was living still unmarried with Alexander Isbister at the time of his death.
Young Alexander's first education was apparently obtained at St. Margaret's Hope at Ronaldshay in the Orkneys where sisters of his grandfather Alexander Kennedy lived. Here is an excerpt from a letter from the grandfather dated February 7, 1832, about five months before his death.
That letter was addressed to his two sons on the Red River, Alexander and Philip. The Kennedy property referred to is that where John McAllister lived across the road from St. Andrew's Church. Though Thomas Isbister never lived to retire to the Red River, his wife occupied the property for a while and Alexander Isbister disposed of it in his will. It is today known as Snug Harbour. In 1833 young Isbister was back at the Red River at that forerunner of St. John's School run by the Reverend Mr. Jones until 1837 when it was taken over by the Reverend John MacAllum. It is possible that the death of his grandfather, Alex ander Kennedy, ended his hopes for further education in Scotland at that time.
At sixteen he entered the Hudson's Bay Company service. A letter from Governor Simpson to Alexander Christie at Red River, dated London, February 20, 1838 advises:
An extract from the Norway House Journal, July 19, 1838 states:
Similar extracts from the Cumberland House, the Chipewyan and the Fort Resolution Journals trace his course to the Mackenzie River. There for 1839 and 1840 he is noted in the minutes as being, "Assistant Postmaster at Fort Simpson." In 1840 the Fort Good Hope Journal states on June 2nd: "We had the pleasure of Mr. Chief Trader Murdoch McPherson and Mr. Isbister's arrival from Fort Simpson with three boats." 
And on June 10th also from the Fort Good Hope Journal:
Until the following spring young Isbister (he was only 18 at the time) was at Peel River, the post later called Fort McPherson. This was for many decades the post of the Hudson's Bay Company farthest north. While there he did some exploring. In the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, Volume Fifteenth, (1845), there is an article from his pen entitled, "Some Account of the Peel River N. America." The following quotation is from that article: "On the 25th May, 1840, I left Fort Simpson, with the intention of joining Mr. Bell at Fort Hope, where I found everything in readiness for our immediate departure. On the 3rd June we left Fort Good Hope in two boats, and by rapid travelling arrived at Peel River about noon on the 6th. An aft wind soon after rising, we proceeded at a rapid rate up the river, and encamped about thirty miles from its mouth. This being the spot selected for the site of the establishment, we encamped."
The article later describes his explorations during the next winter and spring. He also used his explorations as the basis for papers read before the British Association for the Advancement of Science. 
By this time he apparently had had enough of Hudson's Bay Company life. As apprentice postmaster he would probably always be in a subordinate position. It would not be surprising if that rankled a bit. It is not always easy for an intelligent man to work under others of less capacity. His salary was probably about twenty pounds a year and by the end of five years might have risen to forty pounds. At any rate a letter from Sir George Simpson to John Lee Lewes at Fort Simpson, dated Red River Settlement, June 28, 1841 states:
Young Isbister was apparently not be to tempted by the wonderful prospect of rising to sixty pounds a year for we find this general letter from John Lee Lewes, dated July 22, 1841, Portage la Loche:
This last quotation from the Archives of the Hudson's Bay Company tells when he said his final goodbye to the land of his birth.
Log of the Prince Rupert (D. J. Herd, Commander) Lying in Five Fathom Hole near York Factory 1842, September 13.
Later that fall he was registered as a student at King's College Aberdeen. A letter in the author's possession states he was in attendance at that University for the years 1842-1843 and 1843-1844. Another letter from the University of Edinburgh states he was in attendance there during the session 1844-1845 only and that he was admitted to the degree of Master of Arts from that University on 3rd March, 1858. He also obtained his LL.B. from the University of London in 1864. In the British Government paper, Parliamentary Papers, 1849, no. 227, there are copies of certificates from his professors indicating he had attended classes in Chemistry, Mathematics, Natural History, Logic, Metaphysics, Latin and Greek and won prizes in Mathematics and Chemistry.
He turned to teaching for a living. In 1849 he was a master in the East Islington Proprietary School and in 1851, headmaster. In 1855 he was at the Jews' College and in 1858 he was chosen as first Headmaster of the Stationer's Company's School. In 1851 he also became a member of the College of Preceptors in London. At that time this was practically the only training school for teachers in England. It also set examinations and marked the papers for English-speaking students all over the world. For example, until relatively recently, the High School examinations in Newfoundland were set by the College of Preceptors. Alexander Isbister became a member of the council, Editor of its organ the Educational Times (Now the Times Educational Supplement), and in 1872 Dean of the College. This latter position he held until his death.
The following quotation is from a letter from the Secretary of that College:
It is not to be thought that any schoolmaster even one as hard working as Alexander Isbister could become at all wealthy by the practice of his profession. He turned to the writing of text books and his output of these was astonishing in both number and variety. Longmans Green and Co. Limited, London, England supplied the following list of books written by him and published by them:
That is a total of 21 books of an amazing variety. He had taken all knowledge to be his province.
During his forty-one years away from the Red River he never lost contact with it. In 1857 during the sittings of the Select Committee on the Hudson's Bay Company he was asked whether he had been in close communication with any of the settlers in that locality since he was last there. His answer was:
On the first of April 1879, 37 years after he left the Red River, he wrote to his uncle William Kennedy thus:
His interest in the West and his opposition to the Company lasted over many years. A letter dated May 17, 1849 from McKenzie at Fort William to McTavish at York Factory states:
That trouble started on the Red River. Under the inspiration of the Reverend George Belcourt of White Horse Plains, nearly 1000 signatures were obtained to a petition in 1846 which was not presented to the British Government until 1847 by a deputation headed by Alexander Isbister. Peter Garrioch's Journal from the Red River on May 28th, 1846 states:
This petition stated that the Company impoverished the natives for their own profit, that it was not spending money for the advancement of Christianity, that it seized furs sold to other countries, that it introduced liquor and was not responsible to the people. The trusted representative of the petitioners was Alexander Kennedy Isbister then 25 years old. The petition with accompanying documents is quoted in Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers, 1849, no. 227. You will notice the date, 1849. It took the British Government two years to refer the whole matter to the Hudson's Bay Co., and find from it that everything was very rosy in the Red River Settlement. A. K. Isbister wrote to Lord John Russell on the 30th of September 1849, thus:
This was chased around with such communications as the following dated 22nd October:
Finally it came to this. The subject could only be brought up by petition and the petitioners would have to pay all expenses. A. K. Isbister was at the beginning of his career and the whole matter had to be dropped.
In 1857 he appeared before the Select Committee on the Hudson's Bay Territories on two occasions and gave his evidence urging the development of the West:
This enquiry of 1857 and A. K. Isbister's evidence before the committee impressed the representatives from Canada and let 12 years later to the taking over of the West.
The two great events bringing the West into prominence were in 1849 and in 1857. However Alexander Kennedy Isbister was always interested when the development of British North America came under discussion. In 1871 at the General Court of the Hudson's Bay Company, the question of the claim of the country officers for a portion of the amount paid by Canada for the surrender of Rupert's Land came up for discussion. Shareholder A. K. Isbister at once took the part of the Chief Traders and Chief Factors although he realized that any payment would mean a smaller income on his investment. Quoting from the Reflections of Inkyo on the Great Company:
His interest in the cause of education in the West went back long before the time when he made his large contribution to the University of Manitoba. In the Life of Archbishop Machray we find the following on page 230:
That was the Bishop's visit in 1871-1872. And again on page 308:
It was but natural that he became the leading authority on all matters affecting British North America. The following is from a letter to his uncle William Kennedy dated Dec. 18, 1856:
On the 29th October, 1856, Lady Franklin wrote to him to solicit his influence in keeping the idea alive that Sir John had reached Behring Strait. 
There are occasional articles in his paper, The Educational Times, on the Hudson's Bay Territories. One of these articles suggests that the West be developed as a penal colony. The opinions regarding penal colonies in that day were rather different from those held today.
Early in 1883 he may have felt that the end of a varied and useful life was at hand for his will is dated January 3rd of that year. His death occurred the following May 28th. There was some reference to his death in the papers of the time but when the contents of his will became known the columns overflowed. There is a certified copy of the will in the Surrogate Court at Winnipeg. Some parts of this will should be known to all who are interested in education in Manitoba. The value of the estate is recorded as £25,753,6s,2d.
After some minor bequests to immediate members of his family it reads:
The will also gives to the College of Preceptors the copyright of his various books to set up a prize fund for that College.
At once when the contents of the will were known there was high praise for the generous donor. This is from one editorial in the Free Press:
Later on July 26th, 1883 the Free Press also had this to say:
Of course wills proverbially have never been entirely satisfactory to legatees or would-be legatees. I have read somewhere that some of the relatives were disappointed that so much of the money had gone to an institution. There was a letter to the Free Press from James Houston, M.A. of Portage la Prairie, dated July 30:
But just what was given and what happened to it through the years? First the books. 4958 came to the University in 1885. I found in the University Library these books stamped "Isbister Library" - The College Euclid, The Elements of Euclid (2 copies) also some bound volumes of the Educational Times. That is about all. There was a fire in the McIntyre Block in 1898 and that finished the larger part of the Isbister Library. The money he gave lasted a little longer. That which he gave to the College of Preceptors is still serving its purpose. Here is an extract from a letter to them asking for information regarding that fund:
At the time of the bequest in 1883, its value was estimated at £13,000. In the Historical Notes of the University of Manitoba published in 1918 the following statement is made:
It is difficult to determine the exact amount distributed to students from the Isbister trust fund but there was a total of $103,496.05 so distributed between 1894 and 1917. In 1908 a travelling scholarship of $600 was set up to be given in alternate years. In 1917 the winner of this scholarship was Antoine D'Eschambault, an honoured member of the Historical Society.
In 1914 tragedy struck. It was found that the funds of the Land Board had disappeared. There was nothing left in this fund as in so many other Manitoba church and educational funds. Since that time the Isbister scholarships are given from a fund given annually by the Province of Manitoba. This provides for the same amount as was given when the dollar value was much greater so the real value now of these scholarships is about half that when these scholarships were first set up.
There were other prizes which have been mentioned previously in this paper. In the Free Press of August 14, 1883 there is this note:
"Below is the roll of honour in the examinations for the Isbister prizes for 1883 which have just been closed. (These were given during his life)
The record of these prizes has been lost. These were for elementary schools, not for entrance to University. The prizes once given by St. John's School are no longer in existence and neither the librarian of the Department of Education nor the Librarian of St. John's Ravenscourt knows anything about them.
What we have done with the generous gift of Alexander Kennedy Isbister does not lessen the greatness of the giver. He lived a full life; his main thought being service to his generation and help for the generations still to come. He is worthy of our remembrance and worthy of our honour.
Bibliography, Alexander K. Isbister
Page revised: 8 December 2013