BREMNER, BENJAMIN ARMITAGE, businessman and historian; b. 20 March 1851 in Charlottetown, eighth of the nine children of John Samuel Bremner, a printer, and Sarah Beer; m. 24 Sept. 1879 Mary Jane Webster in Marie, P.E.I., and they had three daughters; d. 29 Dec. 1938 in Charlottetown.
Specifics about the life of Benjamin Bremner are scarce, a matter of considerable irony since he is best remembered as the author of three local histories. A lifelong resident of Charlottetown, he came from prominent lineage. Most notable, on the paternal side, were his uncles William Bremner, a customs broker, and George Richard Goodman, a member of the Island’s Executive and Legislative councils and a controller of customs and surveyor of shipping. On his mother’s side, during the last half of the 19th century, were six city councillors, one mayor of Charlottetown (Henry Beer), and two members of Prince Edward Island’s House of Assembly (Henry and George Beer).
Some personal details can be gleaned from Bremner’s histories. His education began at the “infant school” in St Paul’s Anglican Church, the church he attended as a youth, but he does not say if it proceeded further. Vocationally, he and his elder brothers, George (1840–1909) and William Henry (1841–91), followed in their father’s footsteps and entered the printing trade. In 1866 Benjamin was working in George’s Excelsior Printing Office, which published works by poet Elizabeth Newell Lockerby* and the Reverend Matthew Richey*. William had his own imprint. By the mid 1870s the brothers had formed Bremner Brothers, a stationery, book, and printing outfit at 44 Queen Street. Among the publications of this well-known operation were Donald McDonald*’s The plan of salvation (1874), Duncan Campbell*’s History of Prince Edward Island (1875), Cornelius O’Brien*’s Philosophy of the Bible vindicated (1876), and an edition of British historian Edith Thompson’s History of England (1878). After withdrawing from the business in the latter part of the century, Benjamin became a travelling salesman with Carter and Company Limited, which specialized in books and seeds. Named a partner in 1902, he retained the position until his retirement around 1927.
Within the Charlottetown community, Bremner was a leading member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, first in St Lawrence Lodge No.8 and later in Wildey Lodge No.27. He was elected to the positions of grand master in 1884 and grand representative to the Sovereign Grand Lodge for 1883–84 and 1888–91. His leadership was instrumental in the formation of the Grand Encampment of the Maritime Provinces, which took place on 9 Aug. 1892. He also held memberships in the masonic order and First Methodist Church (later Trinity United).
Following Bremner’s retirement and the death of his wife from heart failure on 31 Oct. 1926, his life took a new course. A witness to dramatic change during his lifetime, including Prince Edward Island’s transformation from colony to province, the resolution of its land question [see George Coles*], and the introduction of such modern amenities as indoor plumbing, automobiles, and radio, he began writing down recollections of the Island of his youth. Initially serialized in the Charlottetown Guardian, his vignettes were published as Memories of long ago (1930). In its preface he noted that “these articles have been written as a pastime – mostly from memory, without drawing on the imagination for adornment of a subject, nor ascribing to them literary merit.” His frequent resort to the popular verse of “Island Poet Laureate” John LePage* and others enhanced the appeal of his writings. Through all of his 39 sketches, which were equal parts character study, reminiscence of significant events, and description of places, the tone was overwhelmingly sentimental, and Bremner was not averse to lamenting aspects of contemporary society. In a selection about theatrical productions, for instance, he noted his regret that “I do not think we hear as many good vocalists now … as we did twenty-five years ago,” and, in comparison with the abundance of “musical comedies” mounted then, there “does not appear to be the desire or the ambition to attain to this work nowadays.” He attributed the decline to the popularity of movies, in particular the recently introduced “talkies,” and the wider choice in entertainment made possible by the use of automobiles. Such nostalgia was partnered with a conservationist overtone in one other sketch, where he complained of the overfishing responsible for the decreasing quantity of trout in Island streams.
In his eighties, Bremner released two more historical booklets, An Island scrapbook (1932) and Tales of Abegweit (Prince Edward Island) (1936), both of which followed the anecdotal model of Memories and reprinted accounts from other sources. Although his writing lacks the scholastic merit that academic readers yearn for, it retains an important position in the province’s historiography. Published at a time when little was being written about the Island’s past – Alexander Bannerman Warburton*, Daniel Cobb Harvey*, and Joseph-Henri Blanchard were among the few other producing historians – Bremner’s rich descriptions of people, events, and locations provide an important glimpse into late-19th- and early-20th-century life in the province.
After maintaining an active lifestyle until his final days, Bremner passed away on 29 Dec. 1938. At the time of his death the local press noted that he had been nearing completion of a fourth volume of history, but it was never published. He was survived by his daughters, Maud Lilian, Edith Louise, and Hazel.
Benjamin Armitage Bremner is the author of Memories of long ago, being a series of sketches pertaining to Charlottetown in the past (Charlottetown, 1930), An Island scrapbook … (Charlottetown, 1932), and Tales of Abegweit (Prince Edward Island) … (Charlottetown, 1936).
PARO, P.E.I. Geneal. Soc. coll., family files, Bremner family file. Charlottetown Guardian, 1 Nov. 1926, 30 Dec. 1938. Fulton Underhay, “The descendants of John Webster and Catherine Sanderson”: www.islandregister.com/jwebster.html (consulted 31 Oct. 2012). J. F. Whear, “Oddfellowship,” in Past and present of Prince Edward Island …, ed. D. A. MacKinnon and A. B. Warburton (Charlottetown, ), 194.