Jessie Isabel Lawson
Jessie Isabel Lawson (“Jane Lane,” pseudonym) was a novelist, editor, writer, poet, and English and history teacher. She was born 29 September 1879 in Saint John, New Brunswick. She wrote two textbooks with Jean MacCallum Sweet: Our New Brunswick Story (1948) and This Is New Brunswick (1951). The two textbooks were used in New Brunswick public schools to teach children about the history of the province. She also wrote several articles on New Brunswick history and education for The Telegraph-Journal (Saint John), The Maritime Farmer and Cooperative Dairyman (Sussex), and The Family Herald and Weekly Star (Montreal). She was involved in education her whole life and her articles reflect her passion for teaching. Lawson’s article, “What Is Education?,” strongly articulates her view that education is essential, and that people must be conditioned to learn new things.
Lawson was the daughter of William Lawson, superintendent of the Globe printing company, and Julia Ellen (Cole) Lawson (New Brunswick Museum Archives n.pag.). She was raised in Saint John with her siblings John Hamilton, Gertrude Hamilton, Edward Fenety, Charles Murray, and Marjorie Ellen. Jessie was never married and had no children. She was an Anglican member of the Trinity Church.
As a young girl growing up in Saint John, Lawson was a top student. She completed her education in Saint John, graduating with honours from Victoria High School in 1895. She was awarded the Corporation Gold Medal upon graduation (Anon 18). She then studied English literature, Greek, and Latin with the help of a private tutor for two years, graduating from the Provincial Normal School in Fredericton as a teacher in 1899 (18). She travelled to England in 1909 to complete a summer course at Oxford University. In 1946, the University of New Brunswick awarded Lawson an honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree for her contributions to education in the province (18).
After Lawson completed her education, she taught English and history classes at Saint John High School from 1899–1913 (Canadian Biographies 216). She then opened the Witanstede Private School for Girls (day school) in Saint John in 1913 and operated it until it closed in 1922 so that she could assist the Junior Red Cross in NB (Anon 18). Lawson became the Provincial Director of the Junior Red Cross in 1924, a position she held until 1931. She was editor of their monthly bulletin, Our Newsletter.
She was an assistant editor of Champlain and the St. John: 1604–1954, a commemorative book celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Saint John River and harbour. With Eileen Cushing, she wrote Glimpses of Saint John (1956, pamphlet), a short history of Saint John. The pamphlet features adventure stories of James Simonds, James White, Richard Simonds, William Hazen, William Corbett, and Thatcher Sears. In 1941, Lawson and Sweet began their collaboration with the co-authored nature article, “Ask Doctor Mac,” which appeared in Macleans magazine.
Lawson’s interest in education continued when she became the owner and editor of The Educational Review, a monthly journal aimed at teachers in the Maritime provinces (Anon 18). Beginning in 1932, she contributed several articles to this monthly journal, such as “The Queen’s Jubilee and the Schools.” She maintained this position for ten years until the New Brunswick Teachers' Association took it over in 1942. She resumed teaching at Saint John High School in 1942 until she retired in 1946 (Canadian Biographies 216).
Lawson’s other primary interest was in helping organizations. She wanted to promote improvement and changes for her community. Over the years, she was president of the Saint John High School Alumnae, honorary life member of The New Brunswick Historical Society, and president of the New Brunswick Branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club. She also served as president of the Saint John Business and Professional Women’s Club, the Canadian Consumers' Association (NB Branch), and the Canadian Authors’ Association (NB Branch).
As chairman of the editorial board of The New Brunswick Historical Society in 1959, she edited Bulletin No. 15 of Collections of the New Brunswick Historical Society.
Critics were favourably disposed to Lawson’s books and articles. Charles Frederick Fraser’s review of This Is New Brunswick stated that the book was informative and easy to read. Fraser enjoyed Lawson's depictions of adventure through New Brunswick and appreciated the historical data about the province in the book. He called it a valuable souvenir for tourists, worthy of safe keeping in home libraries.
Lyn Harrington’s review of This Is New Brunswick cited the book as a key provincial travel guide, pointing to its snippets of legends and industry, and its information about provincial heritage. The book does not apologize, Harrington said, for being didactic in aiming to educate readers about New Brunswick.
Lawson passed away on 17 September 1961 at the Saint John General Hospital. She had been in the hospital for a week prior to her death. Her passion for writing and education are remembered in her home province, and her books and articles are still read today.
Shannon Billings, Winter 2010
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Primary Sources
Lawson, Jessie I. Collections of the New Brunswick Historical Society. Bulletin No. 15. Saint John, NB: Lingley Printing Co. Ltd., 1959.
---. “The Queen’s Jubilee and the Schools.” The Educational Review 11 (1897): 237.
---. “What Is Education?” Saturday Night (17 Apr. 1954): N. pag.
Lawson, Jessie I., and Eileen Cushing. Glimpses of Saint John. Saint John, NB: Lingley Printing Co. Ltd., 1956.
Lawson, Jessie I., and Jean MacCallum Sweet. “Ask Doctor Mac.” Macleans 54 (15 Jan. 1941): 44-45.
---. Our New Brunswick Story. Toronto, ON: The Canada Publishing Co. Ltd., 1948.
---. This Is New Brunswick. Toronto, ON: The Ryerson Press, 1951.
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Canadian Biographies: Artists and Authors. “Jessie Isabel Lawson.” [Ottawa]: Canadian Library Association 1 (1948): .
Fraser, Charles Frederick. Rev. of This Is New Brunswick. The Dalhousie Review 31.2 (Summer 1951): 25-26.
Harrington, Lyn. Rev. of This is New Brunswick. Canadian Geographical Journal 44 (June 1952): 12-13.
Hay, G.U. “School and College.” The Educational Review 13.4 (1899): 71-72.
---. “School and College.” The Educational Review 23 (1909): 35-37.
---. “Teachers’ Conventions.” The Educational Review 18 (1904): 120-122.
MacBeath, George. Champlain and the St. John: 1604–1954. Ed. Jessie I. Lawson, Wm. D.F. Smith, and William F. Ryan. Saint John, NB: The New Brunswick Historical Society, 1954.
“Miss Jessie I. Lawson Widely Mourned.” The Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, NB] 18 Sept. 1961: 18.
New Brunswick Museum Archives. “Lawson, Jessie I. (1879–1961) Fonds.” S 108A. 26 Oct. 2010
Rhodenizer, Vernon Blair. Canadian Literature in English. Montreal, PQ: Quality Press Ltd., 1965.