A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
Chapter 15, The Growth Of Commercial Interests

In the earlier years, the business level for the merchants of Halifax very much depended on whether Britain, at any particular time, was at war, or not. For instance, in the 1760s, after the British military success at Louisbourg and Quebec, the merchants suffered on account of the reductions of the Halifax military garrison. The world was to know peace after the British and their allies put an end to the Napoleonic dream. The historical year of 1815 was to see the 23 year war with France come to an end and so did a short war with the Unites States. The economy of Nova Scotia, Halifax, during the years succeeding 1815, likely dipped, though not near as much as one might expect. The British military continued to treat Halifax as one of its major installations and a principal outpost in America. Also there was the genius of numerous Nova Scotians who took full advantage of the industrial inventions that came along, one after another, in a row, as the decades unfolded during the 1800s. At Halifax, the blossoming of commercial activity during the early to mid-19th century was greater than any other part of the budding country of Canada. G. F. Butler addressed this point in a speech to the Nova Scotia Historical Society, in 1938:

"The merchants analyzed the coal trade, the gypsum trade, and the currency of the province and made discerning recommendations. They secured bounties for the fisheries and founded a Society for the advancement of agriculture which diffused new life throughout the province. They formed banks, insurance and steam navigation companies as local enterprises and promoted communications and canals. Indeed there were few spheres in which the the merchants were not prominent. In municipal affairs, in the establishment of libraries, of a Mechanic's Institute, and a Poor Man's Friend Society as well as their private commercial endeavours, the names of such men as Samuel Cunard and Enos Collins appear again and again."1
While on the subject of the poor, here is how that class was dealt with at Halifax in the early part of the 19th century. First we hear from Murdoch:
"Votes were cast for the temporary relief of poor at Halifax. In September, 1817, finding that emigrants from Europe were frequently arriving at Halifax in a destitute condition ... [funds were placed] in the hands of Messrs. Michael Tobin and Samuel Cunard, two merchants of the town, for the purpose of helping these people ..." Public money, together with the charitable work of these two gentlemen, was also spent "to mitigate the sufferings of the poor in general." Tobin and Cunard established a "public soup house" dispersing as much as 100 gallons a day. "They attended constantly in person at the daily issues ..."2
And now from Akins:
"The condition of the transient poor of the town was very sad this winter {1820-1]. An organized system of relief known as the Poor Man's Friend Society, was instituted. The town was divided into wards, and three or four gentlemen volunteered in each ward to visit the poor throughout the winter months. A soup house was established, and other arrangements made to meet the objects intended. This society continued for about six or seven years. In 1824 Beamish Murdoch was its secretary. The following year William Young (the late Chief Justice) was acting secretary."3
In the Acadian Recorder, dated July 6th, 1831, we may read this:
"To speak of Halifax alone it is a matter of notoriety, that with but very few exceptions, every wharf from the Lumber yard to the Dockyard, has, within two or three years, been repaired, extended, or otherwise improved. New building have been raised or enlarged, or otherwise improved. Messrs. Cunard and ... Mr Collins' immense range of stores, which have been completed, and a costly stone store ... are among the most conspicuous of these commercial improvements. A sure criterion of the state of our trade may be gathered from this fact that for ten years past there has scarcely been a single commercial failure in the town of Halifax."4
Akins observed who the principal merchants were at Halifax as of 1817:
"Among the names of merchants who were carrying on business this year in Halifax we notice those of John Pryor, father of the late City Judge, Henry Pryor, William Strachan, White, Creighton & Co., Ironware Merchants, Wallace & Russell, Hardware and Wines, at the corner of Hollis and Prince Streets, now occupied by the Union Rank; Prescott & Calkin, Fruits, etc., in Granville Street; James Leishman & Co., Woolen Ware, lately from Glasgow; Hartshorne, Boggs & Co., Hardware, etc., at the old stand, corner of Granville and George Streets, and S. & W. DeBlois at the opposite corner. The firm of Hartshorne & Boggs existed for many years. The head of the firm, the Hon. Lawrence Hartshorne, retiring from business, the name was altered to Boggs & Hartshorne; the late Thomas Boggs became head of the business and Lawrence Hartshorne, Jr., afterwards County Treasurer, was junior partner. The business continued until the old corner building was taken down, about the year 184-, and replaced by the fine stone edifice erected by Mr. George E. Morton on the site."5
In referring to the year, 1820, Akins wrote that in "front of ... [the established] shops were ranges of apple and cake stalls kept by old women, where also gull eggs and lobsters boiled hard could be had by the fishermen and shallop men from the wharves. The red woolen night cap was generally worn in those days by the market fishermen and the people from the coasting vessels."6 Bell reminds us that shops back in those days were ones which carried bulk goods,
"... there were no such things in those days as ready-to-wear women's dresses, or mail order houses; nor that women's costumes at that date called for somewhat ampler yardage of materials than they have done in certain more recent periods. But the real reason for the monopolistic advantages enjoyed by Halifax merchants (which extended to much more than the dry-goods trade) derived mainly from the universal source of textile goods, and the usual source for almost all types of manufactures."7
The "universal source of textile goods," of course, was England, indeed, all manufactured goods at this period came from England. Bell continued:
"Supplies are not received constantly, in highly finished, packaged, trade-marked form, from some distributing centre, such as being landed from a Nova Scotia brig which has made a voyage specifically to supply this Halifax market. Even such things as silk hats are advertised as having just arrived from Simpson's of London, and as in process of being discharged from the Corsair. Obviously, too, in those days, the prudent man would not count too certainly on being able to drop in a shop and buy any article at any time (let alone telephone and order a standardized article to be delivered to him), but would watch for ship arrivals and buy ahead when supply was present and goods were fresh.
... once or twice per week, on specified days of the week, to the towns along the various routes through the province. A steamer runs weekly between Halifax and St. John, calling at Lunenburg, Liverpool, Shelburne, Yarmouth, Briar Island."
It was not likely that the streets of Halifax were anything like the streets of London, however, a flavor of what the Halifax streets might have looked like can be gained by turning to Paul Johnson.
"The streets, in the years up to 1830, were still full of people selling things - brushes, clothes horses, tables, chairs, footstools, fruit in season, hot gingerbread and potatoes from portable charcoal stoves, prints pinned inside an itinerant's umbrella. Scharf drew these things; the men who ground and mended knives and repaired furniture; and the countless street musicians, "vile yellow Italians," as the young, noise-hating Thomas Carlyle called them; ingenious one-man bands; a blind man who played the violin while working machinery to play a cello with his foot; a cripple who operated his band from a dogcart; and a man, carrying his baby on his back, playing his instruments and wearing as headgear a giant model ship."9
Johnson also wrote of the noise:
"The noise of iron-shot wheels banging over unevenly cobbled main streets was absolutely deafening, much louder than most traffic noise today, though it did sharply diminish at dark. Fallen or even dead horses were a familiar sight and the stench of horse manure was the most characteristic odor of an early 19th century city, with scores of waifs scrambling to gather the detritus into bags to earn a penny or two."10

NEXT: [Chapter 16, Money]


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Peter Landry