Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A behind-the-scenes hero

Remembering one of our finest civil servants

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History remembers very few civil servants from a city's formative years. With the exception of perhaps a colourful fire or police chief, the accolades for city-building are reserved mainly for the politicians and businessmen of the day.

Today is the anniversary of the birth of an unsung hero of Winnipeg's early years. Henry "Harry" Kirk was born in Woodcote, Oxford, England on December 29, 1842. At the age of 30, he, along with wife Annie and their two sons, packed up and came to Red River via the Dawson Trail.

The Kirks settled on a homestead but within months suffered a terrible tragedy. In the winter of 1873, Kirk was stranded outside during a severe winter storm and lost all of his fingers and part of one hand to frostbite.

A pioneer family headed by someone who could not work with his hands should have expected to spend their lives relying on charity. For reasons or connections unknown, in July 1874 the relief committee of the fledgling City of Winnipeg recommended Kirk be hired as one of the city's first 10 civil servants. He became the "city messenger," which would have been a hectic position as Winnipeg's first city hall had not yet been constructed and offices were scattered around town.

In March 1876, Winnipeg's first city hall opened at King Street at William Avenue and the Kirk family moved into a small suite there. As he was on-site all the time, Kirk's duties expanded to include caretaker of city hall and the police station, a cleaner at the Market Building, school board messenger, security guard and groundskeeper.

Not long after the city's bell was installed in the Market Building in 1877, the role of bell ringer went to Kirk. He ensured 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. That city bell is now located in the bell tower on Selkirk Avenue.

Living at that first city hall was not a treat. In 1880, he requested his family be allowed to move off-site as the building's numerous structural faults made their quarters "extremely unhealthy." Space was found in the neighbouring Market Building.

When the "gingerbread" city hall opened in 1886, Kirk continued with his duties but in a building and grounds many times the size of the old one. His salary was increased to $900 per year and his family, which now consisted of five children, moved into an apartment in the basement.

Kirk was a hard worker and appreciated by council. In 1877, one of the first large events inside that first city hall was a benefit supper and concert in his honour. He was also included in group photos of the first city councils and police departments.

The media also had a soft spot for the man. He often got brief mentions in the papers for some of the "above and beyond" duties he performed. For instance, he tended a vegetable garden on the city hall 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 vicious dog fight on the building's lawn.

Perhaps out of respect, none of the newspaper items printed while he was employed by the city -- even those about the benefit concert --mentioned his disability.

It might seem as if Kirk wouldn't have time for a personal life but he was a member of the International Order of Foresters, a life member of the St. George's Society and a volunteer at many public school events. Kirk was also a bird fancier, known especially for breeding canaries which he sold from his city hall apartment.

When Kirk turned 50, his years of hard work and living in less-than-stellar conditions began to catch up with him. He wrote to council to say his workload had reached 18 hours a day and he required help. A messenger boy was hired to take some duties off his hands.

In 1895, his doctor ordered him to move out of the damp, cold city hall basement due to failing health. Council couldn't accommodate the request as there was no additional space available in the building.

Three years later Kirk announced he was retiring. He was the city's longest-serving civil servant with 28 years of service and was awarded a pension of $25 per month. He and Annie moved to a home at 318 Notre Dame Avenue where he continued to raise and sell canaries.

Kirk's health continued to fail and in his last months he suffered from partial paralysis. He died in Portage la Prairie of a stroke on March 8, 1903, at the age of 61. His funeral took place at his Winnipeg home and was attended by a number of prominent citizens and city officials.

Both Kirk and wife Annie, who died in 1926, are buried in St. John's Cemetery in Winnipeg.


Christian Cassidy writes about local history at his blog West End Dumplings

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2013 A1

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