NELSON, EDWIN G., bookseller and stationer, author, and composer of patriotic songs; b. c. 1848 in Saint John, N.B., son of Valentine H. Nelson and Margaret Rodger (Roger); m. Isabel K. Armstrong, and they had two sons and two daughters; d. 19 Jan. 1904 in Montreal and was buried in Fernhill Cemetery, Saint John.
Edwin G. Nelson’s father was a poet and bookseller in Saint John, and it was there that Edwin began work as a young boy and developed his interest in literature; he was also employed by booksellers Thomas H. Hall and William K. Crawford. Using on occasion the pen-name Edwin St. John or E.S.J., he began to write short articles, stories, and poems for local publications, including works for Stewart’s Literary Quarterly Magazine [see George Stewart]. During the 1870s Nelson moved to Prince Edward Island and established himself as an importer and repairer of sewing machines, acting as agent for Wanzer sewing machines [see Richard Mott Wanzer*]. He continued to write for his own interest and for newspapers on the Island and in Saint John.
Shortly after the fire of 1877 in Saint John he returned there and set up as a bookseller and stationer on King Street. He subsequently moved to the corner of Charlotte and King streets and maintained this place of business until his death in 1904. The firm of E. G. Nelson and Company became a central meeting-place for those in the city interested in literary works. “His shop was a favorite place of resort for reading men,” commented the author of his obituary in the St. John Daily Sun, “as he was probably a better authority on books and authors than any other book dealer in this part of Canada.” It was also the resort of those imbued with the spirit of Canadian patriotism and British imperialism. “He would not keep or sell certain publications which he found offensively anti-British,” the same writer noted. “He always gave the preference, so far as he could influence trade, to British books over those from the United States, and exerted a large and continuous influence in eliminating from Sunday school libraries literature which exalted United States institutions and patriots and was unfriendly or offensive to loyal British sentiment.” In November 1888 Nelson was one of the founders of the Saint John branch of the Imperial Federation League in Canada, serving as its secretary, and he also sat on the executive of the national organization. When this body affiliated with the British Empire League in 1896, he became secretary of the New Brunswick branch. Much of his time was spent in working for imperial federation and in writing articles on the movement.
Nelson also wrote several patriotic songs which became well known throughout the country. One of the most popular was “My own Canadian home.” This poem had musical settings by Thomas Morley and E. Cadwallader, but it was the setting by Saint John musician Morley McLaughlin, published in 1890, which gained widespread popularity. Reprinted on several occasions, this version reportedly sold over 1.5 million copies by 1896 and was much used in schools and by military bands in Canada and abroad. In 1967 it was adopted as the official song of the city of Saint John. “Raise the flag!”, with words and music by Nelson, was written for George Taylor Denison* of Toronto. The poem was used as the title for a book of patriotic verse compiled by Denison which featured works by many Canadian writers, including Nelson. Both compositions were published in several song collections for Canadian schools, such as those compiled by Alexander Thom Cringan* in Ontario. Other pieces by Nelson include “Up with the Union Jack” and “Canada, land of the free.” Nelson’s patriotic verses with simple musical settings express his preoccupation with the promotion of loyalty to country and empire:
Raise the Flag! Who dare assail it,
Guarded by the Empire’s might?
Raise the Flag of our Dominion
Stand for Country, God, and Right!
[Edwin G. Nelson has often been listed in bibliographies as the compiler of “Raise the flag” and other patriotic Canadian songs and poems (Toronto, 1891). The correspondence between him and George Taylor Denison in NA, MG 29, E29 makes it clear, however, that Denison compiled the collection.
In addition to the sources cited below, the biography is based on material obtained by the author at a Nelson family auction, including a scrapbook kept by Nelson, and letters from Denison, Sir Samuel Leonard Tilley*, and others, as well as the author’s personal collection of newspaper clippings (many undated), and an interview with Edith Armstrong Nelson Davis of Saint John, N.B., a daughter of the subject. n.f.v.]
Fernhill Cemetery (Saint John), Burial records and tombstone inscriptions. PANB, RS71, 1904, E. G. Nelson; RS315, Al, 13, no.368. Saint John Regional Library, Vert. files, “My own Canadian home”; E. G. Nelson. St. John Daily Sun, 21 Jan. 1904: 8. H. A. Cody, ‘“My own Canadian home,”’ Maclean’s (Toronto), 26 (May–October 1913), no.4: 52–56. Encyclopedia of music in Canada (Kallmann et al.). Vital statistics from N.B. newspapers, 1837–38 (Johnson).