Paper presented at a meeting of the East Hants Historical Society in Maitland Elementary School, Maitland, September, 1968.
Samuel Cunard – Citizen of Halifax
Louis W. Collins
When he stops to reflect on his earlier years, there are many memories that come flooding back to the mind of a man who grew up in Halifax in the years between the two world wars. Two of these might serve to introduce the subject of the sketch: the coal sold by S. Cunard and Company that warmed so many Halifax homes, and, secondly, that gallant old lady of the Cunard Line, the Aquitania, whose red funnels and rather prim profile were so familiar a sight as she lay docked at the South End Terminals.
Fuel, now chiefly oil, from S.Cunard and Company still heats Halifax homes but the regular visits of ships of the Cunard Line are fading into history. Occasionally shipping problems in foreign ports ports cause Cunarders to be diverted to Halifax but the port that saw the birth of this great shipping line now enjoys its regular service no longer. The name and personality of its energetic founder, once a favourite native son, is now beginning to fade from the minds of citizens in the town that was the scene of his birth.Even the physical evidence of the presence of the Cunard family is disappearing.
The house in which Sam Cunard was born in November 21st, 1787, although altered, is recorded as still standing on its site in the rear of 257 Brunswick Street, just north of Proctor’s Land as late as the First World War. This building has since disappeared and with it something of the memory of Sam’s father, quiet Abraham Cunard, the scholarly carpenter who built it. Cunard and Company’s large ironstone warehouse that stood at the entrance to Cunard’s wharf which jutted out into the waters of Halifax Harbour almost directly below the old home, was demolished in 1917 to make way for the new warehouses and piers.
Cunard’s Field, on Brunswick Street, to which young Sam must often have led the family cow, has long since disappeared and now is the site of public housing. Sam’s own town house stood on Brunswick Street just west of his parents’ home. It was later altered and inhabited by Sam’s son William, and still stands, but only as a shell of its former self and appears presently to be doomed by the Scotia Square development. Of William’s country estate in the south end of the city, only the gatekeeper’s lodge and the gateposts and some fencing remain to mark the entrance to the large estate that once extended from Robie Street to the shores of the North West Arm.
Thus, as time brings it's changes, it is therefore fitting that we once again recall at least the outline of this extraordinary story of human achievement which had this community and its environs as part of its setting.
I shall make no attempt tonight to conduct a scholarly investigation into the many varied details of the lives on the Cunards. In spite of the efforts of historians there are still a number of unanswered questions concerning the Cunard family, especially in connection with the association of Sam’s parents, Abraham and Margaret Cunard, with Rawdon Township. This community saw Abraham and Margaret set out on the sea of matrimony; it was also witness to their declining years and finally gathered them in death and placed them beneath the grass of the hilltop graveyard adjoining St. Paul’s Anglican Church.There, today, their dust lies unmarked beside a busy highway which carries much of the busy traffic of the age their favourite son did so much to usher in.
It will, then, be my objective tonight, to try to re-tell a once familiar story rather than develop an historical paper. I would have you judge my effort on that basis. I have not had time or opportunity since I received the kind invitation to speak to you to do any extensive research or to use original materials. I have therefore reviewed a number of essays and biographies, have borrowed shamelessly, and with this pilfered material, I shall try to weave my own brief and very preliminary version of the Cunard saga.
Sam Cunard was fortunate in many aspects of his life, but perhaps in nothing more so than in his choice of parents.
Margaret Murphy and Abraham Cunard were both children of Loyalist Americans who were prepared to sacrifice the prosperous lives they and their families had known in the American colonies in order that they might preserve their loyalty to the institutions that had molded them.
Abraham Cunard was descended from the Dutch Quakers who came to America in 1683 and settled in the new region called Pennsylvania. According to a family legend the father, Thomas Cunard and his sons turned up a bag of gold coins on their farm. With the money they were able to buy a ship at nearby Philadelphia and thus began the American shipping business that was to last for nearly one hundred years.
By the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775 the shipping business was in the hands of Robert Cunard and his son, Abraham. Robert was a loyalist and in 1703, like so many others who had supported Britain, was forced to flee with his family and some two hundred other loyalists, in a small ship. Among the other passengers was a Thomas Murphy and his family. Murphy had been a shipbuilder in Charleston, South Carolina, in prerevolutionary days and had built ships for Robert Cunard.
On the voyage north to Canada, Abraham Cunard fell in love with Thomas Murphy’s daughter. Abraham was a quiet, scholarly man of twenty-seven, who had learned the trade of carpentry in preparation for the exile he knew to be inevitable. Margaret Murphy was twenty-five, taller than Abraham, rather vivacious and given to changing moods, which may have accounted for the fact that she was still unmarried at an age when many women had established families.
The refugees were landed near the mouth of the Saint John River in what was to be known as New Brunswick. Grants of land were offered to them and Robert Cunard accepted a grant near Saint John. Thomas Murphy decided to settle on a large uncleared grant of land in the new loyalist settlement of Rawdon in Nova Scotia. The fact that Murphy is reported to have brought many slaves and field hands with him may, in part, account for his choice. Abraham Cunard decided to try his fortune in Halifax, where, in view of the sudden influx of refugees, housing was in short supply and the skills of a carpenter could be put to good use.
Thus, exactly one hundred years after the Cunard family had first set foot in America and long after they had become one of the most respected and wealthiest families of Philadelphia, they were forced to flee its shores and the comforts to which they had become accustomed and seek a new life in the pioneer settlements of the Maritime Provinces.
In Halifax Abraham, who had enjoyed a scholarly life with books and music, sought employment. Soon his knowledge of ships and their construction and his proficiency as a carpenter qualified him for the job of foreman artificer with the Royal Engineers in the government lumberyard. Here timbers from the King’s woods were trimmed and prepared for the use in the various departments of the army and navy.
Abraham selected a shore lot in the North Suburbs of the Town near the Naval Station. Here on this narrow strip of land running down to the water from a lane that was to be later known as Brunswick St. Abraham built a small two-story house with a gambrel roof and its gable end facing the shore line where later he and his sons would have their wharves.
Finally, when all was in readiness Abraham rode to the Murphy home in Rawdon and there he and Margaret were married.
The happy couple returned to Halifax where Margaret set about establishing a home under conditions quite unlike the luxury she had known as a girl. Abraham’s house was well-built and warm with the aid of one servant, an African slave from her father’s household she managed reasonably well.
Some of the rough edge of pioneer life in Halifax was taken off by participation in the social life of the town. Though now in reduced circumstances, Abraham and Margaret had belonged to Loyalist families of wealth and cultivation and they were received in the upper levels of the class conscious Halifax society that tried to ape that of faraway London.
Abraham was moderately successful in his business in the Lumberyard and eventually rose to a position of some importance. He also designed and built some houses as a private venture and on at least one occasion was responsible for some alterations to the interior of St. Paul’s Anglican Church, of which he and Margaret were parishioners.
In 1784 Mary, their first child, was born to Margaret and Abraham. Three years later Sam was born and he was followed by William, Susan, Edward, Joseph, John, Thomas and Henry in that order. The four youngest sons were born when Margaret was past forty and the care of this young family was later to exhaust her.
The children were very fond of their mother who has a more outgoing changeable nature than their quiet father.
Sam, the eldest son, was a bright, active and inquisitive lad who seemed destined to get on in life. He seemed to have inherited many of the qualities that distinguished his grandfather, Robert Cunard.
Sam grew up in an exciting age, when he was two the French Revolution began. Through his boyhood and early manhood England was at war first with the French Republic and then with Imperial France under Napoleon.
Sam was keenly alive to all that taking place around him in the bustling life of colonial Halifax, especially in the harbour: the French ships being brought in by privateers, the arrival of the Royal Mail packets, the departure of the Quaker whalemen from Dartmouth, a loss lamented by Abraham Cunard and the merchants of the town.
Other events impressed themselves on the receptive mind of the young lad. Sam was seven when Prince Edward came to command the fortress and inaugurated the golden age that was long remembered by Haligonians. When he was ten, the British frigate La Tribune ran aground at the harbour mouth with great loss of life and young Sam learned something of the fury of the sea.
The Cunard children were taught at home, although Sam and his brother Will did spend a few years at the Halifax Grammar School. Sam desired a practical education since he early felt that he was going to engage in business. It was this same practical preparation for life that he requested for his three youngest brothers when he later undertook the responsibility for their education.
Young Sam was rarely idle. He managed a succession of odd jobs and small sales of auctions, purchases that gradually and consistently put pennies into the woolen sock that Sam, like many of the merchants of the Town, carried as a purse.
By the time he was seventeen; Sam had left school and taken a job in his father’s office. Later, after he had learned the details of the lumberyard, Sam went to Boston and entered a ship broker’s office as the next step in the education planned for him by his father.
After three years in Boston, Sam returned to Halifax before his twenty-first birthday.
Abraham had finally retired from the lumberyard and had built a wharf at the foot of Cunard’s Hill. He then ordered a small schooner from young Tom Murphy, Margaret's brother. With the schooner, named The Margaret, Abraham and his son, established a small coastal trading business between Halifax and nearby ports. A privateer’s prize, the Nancy, was purchased at auction and (became) the second ship of the little fleet. With young Will Cunard in command she traded with the settlements along the Miramichi River in New Brunswick.
Abraham Cunard developed the firm of A. Cunard & Son slowly and cautiously. Soon his health began to fail. Both Abraham and Margaret were stunned in 1811 by the sudden death of yellow fever of their eldest daughter Mary, her husband and baby daughter Margaret in Bridgetown, Barbados.
Sam now took active command of the business although Abraham remained as nominal head of the firm.
The War of 1812 broke out and the firm of A. Cunard and Son was one of the few given permission to fly a neutral flag and continue to trade in American water. As a result the firm prospered and began to engage in transatlantic trade. Sam Cunard was fast becoming a respected young business man on the way up.
Firmly established as a business man, Sam now needed only the rounding out of his domestic life to complete the scene.In the winter of 1815, this happy event came about when Sam, at twenty-seven, married the young lady of his choice, pretty twenty year old Susan Duffus, daughter of William Duffus, a prominent merchant of Halifax.
Sam now established his home in a four storey house he had built on Brunswick Street immediately next to his parents’ house. The little cottage in which Sam had been born, now converted to a servants’ quarters stood in the yard at the rear of Sam’s house. From the upper windows of his house, Sam could look down upon the Cunard warehouse and its busy wharf.
In August, 1815 news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo reached Halifax, some forty-six days after the battle. With the peace, Sam looked for new ways to extend his business and make it pay. The Cunard firm now entered upon a new venture with which the name was long to be associated. Sam went to England and obtained from the British Post Office Authority a contract to carry the mail to and from Bermuda once a month. Inaugurated in the Autumn of 1815 this was to give Bermuda the most reliable mail delivery in the colonies. In 1816 the contract was amended to include mail delivery to Boston as well as Bermuda.
Following the conclusion of the wars that had brought prosperity to Halifax, slack times and outright poverty became common. Sam Cunard was now called upon to assume new civic responsibilities. With an older Merchant, Michael Tobin, he was requested to organize soup kitchens for the hungry poor by the governor’s lady, the Countess of Dalhousie. This was the beginning of a life-long friendship with the Dalhousies.
Sam now became very much a part of the social life of the town. Enterprising merchant, colonel of Militia, member of the exclusive Sun Fire Company, Sam had become one of the leading citizens of his native town. Yet he still sought new fields to conquer.
One of his dreams revolved around the establishment of a Halifax based whaling fleet that would outstrip those of New Bedford and Nantucket. Between 1817 and 1820 Sam’s whale ships made three unsuccessful voyages, and the venture was postponed.
Sam’s family was growing during these years. Like his father Sam, was to have nine children, Edward the oldest being born December 31, 1815.
Time was bringing in other changes. In 1820 Abraham and Margaret Cunard retired to the Murphy farm in Rawdon, which Margaret had inherited from her father.A prosperous farming community had now replaced the pioneer community that Margaret had known when Thomas Murphy had taken up his land grant some thirty-seven years earlier. One writer states that “The farm was in a little valley sheltered behind low hills.”
It was here in the drier country air that the family hoped Margaret’s failing health might improve, even if her longing for her old home in South Caroline could not be cured. Abraham's age and delicate health no longer permitted him to supervise the operations on the farm. Will, the sea captain, now gave up the sea, took over the management of the farm with the assistance of his young brother Henry, now sixteen. Under their management, the farm apparently prospered, for it is recorded that Lord Dalhousie, once stopped over for a few days while touring the district. He apparently admired the livestock among which there were sheep that were descendants of a ram Lord Dalhousie had brought from his Midlothian estate in Scotland.
A recent biographer of Sam Cunard records that Abraham spent these last years laying out flower gardens for Margaret. She was destined to enjoy them only for two brief summers before she died in late December, 1821. Some two years later Abraham was laid to rest beside her in the graveyard of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Rawdon. A certain touching and melancholy air still clings to the story of the last years of this faithful couple as their wedded life came to a close in the community where it had it’s beginning.
Following Abraham’s death, the name of the family business was changed to S. Cunard & Co. and the business re-organized with Edward and Joseph as Sam’s partners. Sam, now head of the firm in fact, soon began to plan new vigorous activities. The Cunard blue pennant with its white star now flew over some thirty ships.
Joseph Cunard was sent to manage the firm’s timber business on the Miramichi and in time became one of the most impetuous, flamboyant characters in New Brunswick history.
Sam’s restless mind now turned to other profitable interests. By persistence and daring Sam out witted such astute local merchants and traders as the Hon. Enos Collins and obtained the local contract for tea from the Honourable East India Company in London. While in London Sam learned about the development of a company controlling mines in Nova Scotia, later to be known as the General Mining Association, which eventually led him to provide another branch of the Cunard enterprises, a branch that continues, at least in name to this very day as S. Cunard & Co., fuel merchants.
In Halifax, Sam became a partner in a group of Master merchant moneylenders who in 1825 established the Halifax Banking Company, a private bank and the first bank in Nova Scotia.
The Cunard brothers, Sam, Joe and Edward became interested in steamships and became leading shareholders in the Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company, a company ahead of its time, although many, like the young newspaperman Joseph Howe were extolling the virtues of the steamship.
Sam Cunard next invested in the Shubenacadie Canal Company, another venture that had much to recommend it but failed from inexperience of its promoters.
So many successes fell to Sam’s credit that his failures did not greatly change his career.He was again to invest in the Whaling industry in the Halifax Whaling Company, about the same time he became agent for the General Mining Association, a very rich prize indeed.
Sam now was constantly on the move supervising all aspects of the Company’s operations. Yet he still found time and energy to assume his share of civic duties in his home town, committee member of the Poor Society, Public Library, Mechanics Institute, maintaining his interest in fire protection and acting as commissioner of light houses.
While Sam was busy with his commercial enterprises and his civic duties, his wife Susan was devoted to the home and their growing young family. On January 23, 1828, Elisabeth their ninth child was born. Their oldest child, Ned was twelve. Ten days after the birth of Elisabeth, Susan died.
Although Sam received the immediate support and wholehearted sympathy of the many Cunard and Duffus relations, it is recorded that for some years following the death of his young wife, one of the most touching scenes in Halifax was the sight of Sam Cunard and his motherless brood of children sitting together in a pew during Sunday service at St. George’s Church on Brunswick Street.
After caring for his four children and assuring himself of their welfare, Sam resumed his business activities often taking some of the children with him on his trips.
In 1830 he was appointed to the Council and was entitled to write himself down as the Honourable Samuel Cunard.
The pattern of Sam’s life was now generally set. Enterprising, determined to succeed and to make money, conservative in taste and in politics, one who accepted his position in a class-conscious society, Sam Cunard managed to combine the many of the best qualities of the astute businessman and the gentleman.
The remaining thirty-five years of Samuel Cunard’s life have become part of the story of the Industrial Revolution. They represent, in a very real sense, a public and well known chapter in the story of the triumph of the steam engine on the great oceans of the world.
The story began when the Quebec and Halifax Steam Navigation Company which had been formed in 1825 and in which the three Cunard brothers, Sam, Joe and Edward were principal shareholders, decided to inaugurate a steam service between Halifax and Quebec.To this end the Company commissioned the building of the 160 foot steamer Royal William, an event which Joseph Howe hoped would restore the reputation of Halifax as a Colonial seaport.
The success of the Royal William convinced Sam that, as he said, “Steamers, properly built and manned, might start and arrive at their destinations with the punctuality of railway trains on land.”
Thus convinced, Sam began to add steamships to his own fleet in Maritime coastal service.
A cholera outbreak forced the quarantining of the Royal William and the enforced idleness bankrupted the company. It was decided to sell the Royal William in England. On August 18, 1833 she sailed from Pictou and reached the Isle of Wight in seventeen days. Her successful crossing under steam convinced Cunard that transatlantic steamship service was feasible but it was to be five years before it would become a reality.
In January 1838, Sam Cunard, his brother Joe and son William sailed for England. When they reached England they found 3 huge wooden side-wheeler steamships were under construction in a race to get a steamship westward across the Atlantic from Britain. The owners of one of these ships, realizing their ship would not be ready in time chartered the Sirius, built to run between London and Cork, and April 23, 1838, anchored in the Hudson River much to the astonishment of thousands of New Yorkers who rushed to the waterfront to see this strange and wonderful steam vessel. Later in the day a second arrived, the Great Western, to compound the excitement.
Joseph Howe later saw the Sirius from his mail packet the Tyrian while on his first trip to England and became a convert to steam. Howe and Thomas Chandler Haliburton were later to investigate the building of steamships in England and Howe discussed his conclusions with Cunard.
Cunard warmed to the idea after he had reviewed it carefully. A determining factor was the desire of the British government to improve the mail service and at the same time to have steamships available in case of war. Cunard decided to seek financing from Halifax for an Ocean Steam Packet Company but failed to convince local merchants that a steamship service could become a reality.
In England, Sir Edward Parry, new Comptroller of Steam Machinery and Packet Service, whom Sam Cunard had known in Halifax many years earlier as Lieutenant Parry, had advised a Scottish shipowner George Burns that the Admiralty was considering turning the mail service over to a private steamship company. Burns was not interested. Following this overture, the following notice later appeared in the London Times:
“Steam vessels required for conveying Her Majesty’s Mails and Dispatches between England and Halifax, N.S., and also between England, Halifax and New York.”
Details followed. This issue of the Times reached Halifax two weeks after the tender time limit was up but the die was cast.Sam Cunard left at once for England, his canny Nova Scotian shipowner’s sense telling him that he might yet have a chance of winning the contract if he promised reliable, regular, year round service.
Although two companies had already tendered, Parry informed Cunard that Admiralty was interested in Cunard’s proposal.Cunard looked round for a ship builder.
By March 18, 1839 Sam had signed an agreement with the great Scottish Marine Engineer Robert Napier for three large steamships, who realized that the building of these Atlantic steamers could make or break him.
On May 4, Cunard’s contract with the Admiralty was signed and the search for capitol began.Sam was a good salesman and the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company was formed, a company whose name was soon shortened to Mr. Cunard’s Company or briefly Cunard’s.
In the beginning the western terminus was to have been Halifax but the contract was amended and Boston became the terminus much to the disappointment of Haligonians.
Finally in February, 1840 the first of Cunard's steamers the Britannia, was launched on the Clyde. It was the Unicorn, however, that first brought the new pennant of the British and North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company into Halifax. On July 4th 1840, Britannia sailed and reached Halifax twelve and a half days later. A new era had begun.
Sam now spent less that half the year in Halifax. His son William and his cousin John Morrow managed the affairs of S. Cunard and Company. Sam became more and more the British merchant prince with a fine house in the West end of London.
By 1848 Cunard ships were running to New York and the conquest of steam over sail had reached the turning point.
At this high point in his career, Sam undertook the debts of his brother, Joe, whose little empire in New Brunswick had collapsed.It was typical of Sam that he would this save the Cunard honour.
By 1849 the first American steamships offered competition to the Cunard Line. However, the American search for (speed) and luxury while attractive in the beginning did not stand in the long run in competition with the Cunard reputation for reliability, safety and service.
William Cunard and Laura, daughter of Judge Haliburton were married in December, 1851 and Sam turned over his Brunswick Street house to them. In England Sam took a ten-year lease on Bush Hill House, a country place on the Old North Road some eight miles north of London. This became a gathering place for numerous children and grandchildren.
As he had earlier promised, Cunard turned over his steamships fully equipped to transport troops to the Crimean War of 1854. His contribution to the war was duly noted but it was not until March, 1859 that an official announcement was published in Whitehall, which read in part:
“The Queen has been pleased to direct letters patent to be passed under the Great Seal, granting the dignity of Baronet of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland into Samuel Cunard of Bush Hill….”
Sam Cunard of Halifax had become Sir Samuel Cunard of Bush Hill. The new knight took as his motto “By perseverance”. Congratulations reached Bush Hill from both sides of the Atlantic.
Sir Samuel finally retired in 1863 at the age of seventy-six. In the summer of 1864 he made his last trip home to Halifax, where he stayed with William and Laura at Oaklands, their estate on the North West Arm. However, he spent a few days at the old home on Brunswick Street that he had built for Susan Duffus fifty-years earlier.
Sir Samuel was tired after his journey and his health began to fail. The sudden death of his brother Joe, in January 1865, struck a blow from which Sam never recovered. Finally, after some days spent in dreaming about his boyhood and reliving his crowded, busy years, Samuel Cunard died clear in mind and at peace, April 28th, 1865.
Among Materials consulted were the following:
Kay Grant, Samuel Cunard
(Mrs J H Grant, Jan Williard penname, RR3 Kleinberg ONT)
Collections of The Nova Scotia Historical Society, Vol. VIII, XVI, XIX
Thomas Raddall, Halifax Warden of the North
Doubleday & Company, 1965
William Coates Borrett, Down to the Sea Again
Imperial Publishing Company, 1947
Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forests, Index Sheet 64
H. W. Hopkins, City Atlas of Halifax, 1878