Anna Leonowens, 1831 – 1915

Robert Harris, "Portrait of Anna H. Leonowens", 1905, Oil on canvas, Confederation Centre Art Gallery, CAG H-8889.

Anna & the Arts, Education and Rights

One does not have to be born in Nova Scotia to make a difference here. Anna Leonowens is one of many to demonstrate that.  

She was born Anna Edwards in India to British colonist parents of modest means. She came up with the last name Leonowens — and an embellished story about her background — after her husband (Thomas Leon Owens) died in 1858. Time and again as the years advanced, to make ends meet, Anna would re-invent herself in the Orient and Australia as an educator and travel writer.

She was already a celebrity when she moved to Halifax in 1878, thanks to her writing and lecturing about her adventures as a governess in the court of Siam (today's Thailand).  Her telling of that exotic story captivated people's interests, as it has done many times since in books, musicals and films like Anna and the King of Siam and The King and I.

Anna moved to Nova Scotia when the husband (Thomas Fyshe) of her daughter Avis became the general manager of the Bank of Nova Scotia. For the next nineteen years, though Anna continued to travel and write, Halifax was her base. She certainly left her mark, speaking and writing for improvements in women's education and for women's suffrage. To those ends, she helped found the local Council of Women. Then in 1887, to mark Queen Victoria's fifty years on the throne, Anna Leonowens played the leading role in founding the Victoria School of Art and Design. In 1925, that school was renamed the Nova Scotia College of Art (today's NSCAD University).

After nearly two decades in Halifax, Anna Leonowens followed her daughter and her family to Montreal. Her departure from Nova Scotia was greatly lamented.