Clara Dennis | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Clara Dennis

Clarissa Archibald Dennis, travel writer, photographer, motorist (born 24 November 1881 in Truro, NS; died 16 February 1958 in Halifax, NS). Beginning around 1930, Clara Dennis spent a decade travelling across Nova Scotia by car. She was one of the first travel writers from Nova Scotia to write about the province. Her books and photographs documented the people and places in the far corners of the area.

Clara Dennis

Family and Education

Clara Dennis was born into a prominent Nova Scotia family in 1881. Her mother, Agnes Dennis, was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for her decades-long work with community organizations such as the Halifax Victorian Order of Nurses and the Halifax Local Council of Women. Her father, William Dennis, was a senator and newspaper owner.

Dennis graduated from Mount Allison Ladies’ College (now a part of Mount Allison University) in 1903. She also studied at Dalhousie University and Halifax Business College. In her early career, Dennis worked as a stenographer and for her father’s newspaper, the Halifax Herald.

First World War

During the First World War, Clara Dennis drove throughout Nova Scotia as part of a recruiting tour. In the later years of the war, Dennis worked with the Red Cross Society. She welcomed home over 1,000 men who had been held as prisoners of war.

A resident of Halifax, Dennis was present during the Halifax Explosion. On 6 December 1917, a relief supplies ship and munitions ship collided in the harbour. The ensuing explosion killed almost 2,000 people, wounded 9,000 and displaced 25,000 people from their homes. With her car, Dennis spent almost 24 hours straight transporting wounded and displaced people from the blast area to safety. Recounting her experience, Dennis said: “Never can I forget the heartrending sights of that time, when I turned our car into a rescue car and drove all day long and far into the blackness of a lightless night through the glass-swept, nail-strewn streets of this stricken city.” She later detailed the explosion and its devastation in her book Down in Nova Scotia (1934).

Connie Fougere

Exploring Nova Scotia

Beginning around 1930, Clara Dennis set out in her car to explore Nova Scotia. She spent about a decade travelling around the province. The construction of new roads allowed Dennis easier access to remote areas. Roads like these were also part of an increase in automobile tourism in Canada. Communities that were previously only accessible by foot, horse or boat were now connected to the rest of the province. In some cases, Dennis drove along roads that hadn’t been completed. She was able to visit places that the majority of travellers hadn’t yet seen, such as the Highlands of Cape Breton. While it was not uncommon for women to drive at the time, Dennis was one of the first women to travel extensively throughout the province on her own.

Travel Writing

Clara Dennis detailed her travels in three books: Down in Nova Scotia (1934), More About Nova Scotia (1937) and Cape Breton Over (1942). Her travel writing was also published in magazines and newspapers. She was one of the first people from Nova Scotia to write about travelling in the province. Through her writing, Dennis’ love for her home province was evident.

“Canada’s children, the Nova Scotians! Could you tell them if you met them in a far-off land?…Yes, I think I could recognize a Nova Scotian. Thy speech betrayeth thee. Though they wander far, and many hold responsible positions in various parts of the earth, their hearts turn betimes with longing to that little segment of a continent on the edge of an ocean with the Latin appellation, Nova Scotia.”
─ Clara Dennis

Her books detailed her journey, community by community, describing the sights she saw along the way. She transcribed interviews and oral histories with locals that detailed the past and present of the province. Dennis described historical events, consulting and quoting archival documents as needed. Her work also recorded Mi’kmaq stories and traditions.

During her travels, Dennis took almost 3,000 photographs. The pictures documented the people and places of a rapidly changing Nova Scotia. Many were also published alongside her travel writing.

Ship Building at Lunenburg

Community Involvement

Clara Dennis was a member of several community and philanthropic organizations, including the National Council of Women, Christian Endeavour Society, the Red Cross Society, the Women’s Local Council of Halifax, St. Andrew’s Missionary, the Distressed Seamen’s Committee, and the Business and Professional Women’s Club. She served on the executive of the Canadians Authors’ Association, the Canadian Women’s Press Club, and the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society.


In 1938, Clara Dennis became the first person to receive an honorary Doctor of Literature and the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Mount Allison University. Dennis was made an honorary member of Dalhousie University’s Dawson Geological Club.

Further Reading

External Links