The secrets of the Grant safe

January 29, 2013

If you’d walked past 150 Elgin Street, Ottawa, one morning this past summer, you’d have seen four men hoisting a 600-kilogram safe through a basement window and then attaching it to a crane, which in turn deposited the safe on a flatbed truck. But this was no heist: it was the Canadian Museum of Civilization picking up a donation.

The safe was manufactured in the late 19thor early 20th century by Toronto Safe Works. It was likely owned by the remarkable man who built the house in 1875 and lived there with his family until his death in 1920, Sir James Alexander Grant, politician and personal physician to Sir John A. MacDonald and to Canada’s first eight governors general. He became Sir James in 1887 when Queen Victoria knighted him for successfully treating her fourth daughter, Princess Louise, after a sleighing accident. Princess Louise was the wife of the Marquess of Lorne, Canada’s Governor General from 1878 to 1883.

A man of many accomplishments

Born in Inverness, Scotland, in 1831, Grant was a baby when his parents emigrated to Canada in 1832, settling in Glengarry near Ottawa. After graduating from Queen’s and McGill, he practiced medicine in Ottawa for all of his professional life, becoming an M.D. in 1854. He published scholarly articles in British and American medical journals and was elected president of the Canadian Medical Association in 1872.

He was also a prominent Conservative Party politician, representing Russell, an electoral district in eastern Ontario near Ottawa, in the House of Commons from 1867 to 1874, and Ottawa itself from 1893 to 1896. As well as his medical articles, he also wrote for natural history and geology periodicals; he was a member of the Geological Society of England.

So what was in the safe?

What did Sir James feel the need to keep secure in his 600-kilogram safe? When the current owner acquired the building and its contents, the safe was locked. She hired locksmiths to drill a hole in the side of the safe to listen for when the lock mechanism clicked as it was turned, each click representing a number in the combination. On the final click, the locksmith pulled open the safe door, revealing… nothing.

 “It would have been interesting if there’d been documents in there,” says Stacey Barker, Assistant Curator at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. “But the safe itself is important because it’s associated with a man who figured so prominently in Canadian history.”