Skip to content

HalifaxYesterday: Janet Kitz: Historian, Educator and Leading Authority on the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour (8 photos)

Were it not for decades of dedicated work by Janet Frame Kitz, an incalculable amount of knowledge concerning the Halifax Explosion would have been forever lost

Without question, were it not for the decades of concerted and dedicated work by Janet Frame Kitz (1930-2019), an incalculable amount of knowledge concerning many of the important aspects of the social history surrounding the 1917 explosion in Halifax Harbour would have been forever lost. Her diligent research and countless interviews with the survivors of the explosion remain especially vital. Many of these victims had never before spoken of their horrific experiences that day - not even to their families.(see Image 1 above)

Janet was born in Carnwath, Scotland to Elizabeth and Thomas Brownlee. She received her early education at Lanark Grammar School (founded in 1183) and went on to receive a teaching certificate from Jordanhill College in Glasgow. Over her twenty year career in education, she worked in the UK and the United States, and served as a British Red Cross Welfare Officer at Davos, Switzerland where she met her future husband, Leonard Kitz, a former Halifax mayor. Following their marriage in 1971, Janet emigrated to Canada and the couple took up residency in the South End of the city. While studying anthropology at Saint Mary’s University, and without any prior knowledge of the explosion before her arrival here, she began to take a keen interest in the event.

Janet credited her instructor, Dr. Harold McGee, Department of Anthropology at SMU, for providing the spark that ignited her lifelong interest in the disaster. She also held in high regard Marie Elwood, the curator of history at the Nova Scotia Museum, who had invited her in late November of 1981 to examine 187 cloth bags from the Chebucto Street mortuary. These artifacts had been stored in the basement of Province House since shortly after the explosion. At Elwood’s request, Janet painstakingly catalogued the myriad of unclaimed personal effects. The following year, she also participated in the cataloguing of nearly four tons of paperwork recovered from a long-forgotten vault in the basement of the Halifax Relief Commission's former office located on the corner of Young and Gottingen (Novalea Drive) Streets. Janet’s path was now set. During this period, she began to conduct her ongoing interviews with the survivors of the explosion and their families. Her intense fascination with the subject matter - people and their everyday lives, where they worked, and what happened to them - had become a full-time obsession.

In the 1980s, the amount of available written material about the disaster was limited. Notable works consisted of a six-page account by John Gammon, MBE, An Illustration by a Victim of the Halifax Explosion December 6th, 1917 published almost immediately afterwards; a short novel entitled A Romance of the Halifax Explosion by Lt. Col. Frank McKelvey Bell (1918); Heart throbs of the Halifax horror by Stanley K. Smith, a pictorial and textual account of the disaster also printed in 1918; Archibald MacMechan’s extensive collection of personal accounts by eyewitnesses as well as The Halifax Disaster, an unpublished manuscript; Catastrophe and Social Change: Based Upon a Social Study of the Halifax Disaster (1920), and a detailed piece in the Halifax Herald, “The Halifax Explosion - Fourteen Years After” (1932), authored by Dr. Samuel Prince; a popular novel by Hugh MacLennan, Barometer Rising was published in 1941.

However, the most ambitious book about the explosion was The Town That Died (1962) by British journalist Michael J. Bird, and although some of the dialogue and situations were constructed for dramatic effect, the majority of his research material consisted of interviews with survivors, numerous merchant mariners, and navy personnel who were in close proximity to the event on the water as well as naval documents, newspapers and records of the subsequent legal proceedings. Bird had collected a great deal of material from Great Britain, Norway and France for his book. (see Image 2 above)

In 1987, Janet, along with David Flemming, the director of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, created “A Moment In Time,” a temporary exhibit which eventually became a permanent fixture entitled “Halifax Wrecked” which Janet curated. In 1989, the culmination of years of diligent research resulted in the publication of Janet’s benchmark book Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery. Decades of repressed emotions and history unfolded within the pages through vivid stories recounted by survivors - accounts that likely would never have been known by the general public. The publication of Shattered City eventually made the name Janet Kitz familiar to explosion authors and researchers worldwide. (see Image 3 above)

In 1992, Janet followed up her first book with Survivors: Children of the Halifax Explosion. She was chair of the Point Pleasant Park Commission and worked with photographer Gary Castle on Point Pleasant Park: An Illustrated History in 1999, and collaborated with Dartmouth historian Joan Payzant (1925-2013) for Revisiting the Halifax Explosion in 2006.

For nearly half a century, Janet enjoyed sharing her knowledge with the general public through speaking engagements, and was a key contributor to many explosion and other community projects. She had an important role as a founding member of the committee responsible for the construction of the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bells monument to the disaster. The tower came to fruition in 1985 as an inspired structure designed by architect Keith L. Graham, and is situated at Fort Needham Park in the North End. In 2002, Janet, former mayor Edmund Morris, and Dr. Colin Howell, the executive director of the Gorsebrook Research Institute, and others developed the Halifax Explosion Book of Remembrance - containing the names of those who lost their lives in the disaster - which is on permanent display at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. She belonged to the Women's Auxiliary of the Isaac Walton Killam Hospital for Children, and was on the board of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (see Images 4, 5 and 6 above)

Janet was made a Fellow of the Nova Scotia Historical Society, named a Paul Harris Fellow and received of Canada 125 Medal. She was the recipient of an honorary doctorate of letters from St. Mary's University in 2004. In 2018, she received the Order of Nova Scotia, and the Meritorious Service Medal the following year for her life achievements. To my knowledge, Janet kept very much to herself while conducting research for her 2014 biography Andrew Cobb: Architect and Artist (Nimbus). She had long disliked the notion of using a computer and always wrote out her copious notes in longhand, to the point where she developed a serious case of carpal tunnel syndrome requiring a cast. (see Image 7 above)

In 2010, I was rummaging through some old books at a downtown store and found a hard copy of Shattered City in near mint condition. Janet had originally signed this particular copy in 1989 with only a date, which just happened to be my birthday. I quickly snapped it up. By this time, we were already acquainted and had spent several afternoons at her home conversing about the explosion. On one occasion, I brought along my fortunate find and asked if she would sign it again - but to me this time. She was quite amused at the coincidence regarding the date and kindly obliged. She signed her name, added a new date and a note wishing me the best success in my work.

During my research of the numerous legal proceedings for my book, Scapegoat, Janet kindly lent me her rare volume on the appeal and cross-appeal testimony before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, for as long as I required it. Years before, this invaluable book would have been thrown out had it not been saved by Donald J. Morrison, QC, who then gave it to Janet. After the publication of my book, she called to offer her congratulations and to say how much she enjoyed reading it. Her taking the time to call was a gracious gesture and will always mean a lot to me.

The photograph of Janet and I was taken at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in 2017. Janet Kitz and her never-ending enthusiasm for the work are greatly missed by all who knew her. (see Image 8 above)

Sources: Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery (1989, Nimbus Publishing); Saint Mary’s University Archives; various newspaper articles.

CBC national news story (11 December 1982) regarding the discovery of the Halifax Relief Commission vault: https://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/new-archival-discovery-of-the-halifax-relief-commission

The oral histories consisting of recorded accounts by survivors and their families, transcripts, photographs and slides are contained within the Janet Kitz Collection housed at the Nova Scotia Archives.

A downloadable Halifax Explosion powerpoint presentation by Janet Kitz:
https://www.slideserve.com/valentino/slide-show-courtesy-of-janet-kitz

The names listed in the Halifax Explosion Book of Remembrance can be accessed in a searchable online database at the following Nova Scotia Archives URL:
https://archives.novascotia.ca/remembrance/

Rogers Sports & Media
6080 Young Street Halifax, NS, B3K 5L2
© 2006-2021 Rogers Sports & Media. All rights reserved.