Kirke, Lady Sara

Lady Sara Kirke (née Andrews), entrepreneur, wife of Sir David Kirke (b circa 1611 at Middlesex, England; d 1683 at Ferryland, Nfld). Lady Sara Kirke may have been the most successful woman entrepreneur in 17th century Canada and is an example of the importance of female entrepreneurship in the early days of Canada's economy.

Lady Sara Kirke came to the New World with her husband, Sir David KIRKE, who was appointed the first governor of Newfoundland in 1637. He expropriated FERRYLAND, which became known as the Pool Plantation, from George CALVERT, Lord Baltimore, under a patent for Newfoundland Plantations granted by Charles I in 1638. Although Sir Kirke made a success of the plantation, he also made many enemies among the fishing merchants and politically. In 1651 he was recalled to England on charges of withholding taxes and was imprisoned on a suit resulting from his seizure of Ferryland; he died in prison in 1654.

Lady Kirke managed the plantation during her husband's absences and inherited it upon his death. It was not unusual for women to be co-managers of family enterprises in the 17th century, nor was it unheard of for women to inherit, and then manage, large businesses. Under English common law, women's property rights belonged to 2 categories. The femme covert was completely dependent upon her husband, with her legal rights vested in him. Under dower rights, a widow had a legally guaranteed interest in one-third of her husband's estate upon which his creditors had no claim.

Although there is little documentation describing Lady Kirke's activities, what exists shows a woman who was a good business manager. When her husband died, he left a debt of £60,000, a significant amount at the time. Although there is no indication of whether or not she paid the debt, the fact of the debt suggests that she was not in a secure financial state when she assumed independent control of the plantation. However, she managed to keep the plantation going and expanded it.

Census figures from the 1660s and 70s show that Lady Kirke owned more stages, boats and cod liver oil vats, and employed more fishermen and processors, than almost all other English shore planters, including her sons. In 1675, only 5 per cent of planters owned 5 boats. The extended Kirke family at Ferryland had 17 boats with crews totalling 81 men. Lady Kirke operated 5 boats and a crew of 25. Her sons George, David and Phillip are listed in the census as well, but only Phillip owned as many boats.

The evidence of Lady Kirke's success as an entrepreneur does not rest solely on the number of boats she owned. She managed the plantation during a politically volatile period. When Charles II claimed the throne in 1660 upon the restoration of the monarchy, the ownership of Ferryland was in question. Lady Kirke petitioned the king, promising her loyalty, but Charles's legal officers favoured the claim of Cecil Calvert, the second Lord of Baltimore, who was ultimately granted administrative rights to the property. Although Calvert did not exercise his administrative rights or reclaim the plantation, Lady Kirke ran her enterprise under the threat that she would lose it, either administratively or as the result of raids by enemies of the English monarch. In fact, Pool Plantation was sacked and burned by the Dutch in 1673, after which Lady Kirke rebuilt her business to become one of the largest Avalon enterprises of the time.

See alsoFERRYLAND ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITE.