Famous Scottish Canadians
Alexander Keith (1795-1873):
"As a Freemason, he was esteemed and beloved, securing the highest honours which the craft could bestow."
~ Alexander Keith's epitaph
Canada's legendary brew-master was born at Halkirk on the River Thurso, six miles from the town of Thurso in Caithness. After receiving a liberal education, Alexander was sent across the border to Sunderland by his father, a highly respected farmer and Chief of the Clan Keith. Seventeen years old, Keith was eager to learn the brewing and malting trade from his uncle in Sunderland, the seat of the industry in northern England. After five years of apprenticing, Keith immigrated to Canada in 1817, settling among other Scots people seeking better futures in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He went to work in the brewery of Charles Boggs, whom he bought out just three years after his arrival in the colony.
When Keith bought out Bogg in 1820, he began production of India Pale Ale, a beer specially created for British troops traveling to India, designed to stay fresh on the long voyage across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope. With so many British soldiers stationed in the garrison town, each with a one-gallon daily beer ration, it seemed like a profitable venture to produce India Pale Ale in Halifax.
The brewery thrived under Keith's management, producing strong ales, porter, ginger wine, table and spruce beer. It was so successful, in fact, that it outgrew its location within two years. In 1822, the same year Keith took his first wife, Sarah Ann Stalcup, he moved his brewery to a larger facility on Lower Water Street. As his business grew, so did his interest in Halifax's public life. His first prominent position within the community came in 1831 when his peers elected him president of the North British Society. So respected and natural in this role, he held the presidency until his death.
Sadly, Sarah Ann died in 1832, making Keith a widower before the age of forty. Without any children from his marriage, and eager to start a family, Keith remarried in 1833. Eliza Keith gave birth to six daughters and two sons, one of whom became a partner in the brewing firm in 1853.
The brewery had grown so sufficiently large by 1836 that Keith found it necessary to expand once again, this time building a new brewery on Hollis Street. His importance to the Halifax business community was made manifest the following year by his appointment as a director in the Bank of Nova Scotia. That year, Keith began to spread his influence throughout all aspects of civic life, also starting his service as director of the Halifax Fire Insurance Company. He employed those connections to found the Halifax Marine Insurance Association in 1838. Added to this business acumen was his promotion to director of the Halifax Gas, Light and Water Company, awarded in 1840. The diligent efforts he put forth for these companies were rewarded a few years later with an appointment to the Board of Management for the Colonial Life Insurance Company.
Public service was, at that time, a natural next step for businessmen so prominent in their communities. In 1841, Keith was elected as a Conservative to Halifax's first city council, and in 1843 was elected mayor. Later that year, Lieutenant-Governor H. E. Kendall appointed him to the Legislative Council. Still continuing to serve on the Halifax City Council, he was even selected as mayor again for the 1853-4 term.
Keith's achieved his most prominent positions in the 1860s. With a considerable sum of money collected from his positions within the various insurance and utility companies, he began construction on Keith Hall in 1863. Named for the seat of the chief of the Clan Keith in Aberdeenshire, Keith Hall was a Renaissance palazzo-style building featuring baroque adornments connected to the Hollis Street brewery by an underground tunnel. The next year, he ventured into a more influential provincial appointment as Director of the Provincial Parliament Building and Investment Society. In 1867, he declined a seat in the Senate to accept the presidency of the Legislative Council. Although he supported confederation, anti-confederates gradually secured control of the upper house, and he was unable to prevent the passage of an 1871 bill that stripped the cote from all federal officials in provincial elections.
Although Alexander Keith was a leading figure in Halifax's civic and business life, the city knew him best as a Freemason leader. Keith had joined the masons as an apprentice Sunderland, being inducted in the Lodge of St. John Number 118. Upon his arrival in Halifax, he sought fellowship and community in affiliation with Virgin Lodge Number 2. He served as its treasurer for almost twenty years between 1824 and 1843, interrupted only by a two-year gap from 1829-1831. After serving four years as Master of Virgin Lodge in the mid-1830s, Keith was chosen to become Provincial Grand Master for Nova Scotia in 1839 under the authority of the English Lodge. His jurisdiction was extended in 1846 to include New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. Following the union of the District Grand Lodge and the Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia in 1869, Keith was unanimously voted Grand Master; he was re-elected each year until his death in 1873.
Keith is buried at Camp Hill Cemetery, across from the Halifax Public Gardens. His birthday, 5 October, is often recognized by visitors who reverently place "Alexander Keith" beer bottles or beer caps around it.