Notes on 39th Text for Reading Field: Acheson

Canadian History, Week 7


st john nb

George Neilson Smith, with John H. Buford, lithograph and watercolour, “View of the City of St. John, New Brunswick from Sandpoint, Carleton,” dated c.1848. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R9266-1655 Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana.


T.W. Acheson. Saint John: The making of a colonial urban community. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

T.W. Acheson studies the social process of urbanization by tracing the history of the British colonial city of St. John, New Brunswick, from its beginnings circa 1800 through its ‘golden age’ circa 1850-1860. He profiles the city’s political organization, culture, and class structure to argue that, over time, an initial sense of community structuring in St. John (a sense which owed much to an English urban model), eroded and reformed as merchants and producers with conflicting interests renegotiated its form (often mirroring trends observed in England). Acheson identifies the years between 1840 and 1853 as the period during which the ‘old order’ collapsed and demonstrates that the impetus for the changes were diverse and complex. They included:

  • changes in economic circumstances — the depression during the early 1840s was “crippling”
  • ideological trends — including evangelism
  • the introduction of new social and ethnic groups — for example unskilled Irish immigrants
  • and decisions made through external agencies — the imposition of the preference for colonial timber and its removal for instance.

Overall, Acheson finds that an artisanal presence grew and had a strong influence in major social and religious movements in the city of St. John — a circumstance that was in keeping with other urban centres during the colonial period.



st jon 2

William Hunt, with William S. Pendleton, hand-coloured lithograph, “The Northern and Eastern Panoramic View of St. John, N.B.,” dated c.1835. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1970-188-1222 W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana.


Acheson begins by describing political and economic institutions that the material and administrative life of the city was built upon. He notes that after the American Revolution St. John was chartered as a proprietorship, with a Common Council that was charged with protecting privately held property within its bounds, and protecting the welfare of property owners. The Common Council kept up a close relationship with the House of Assembly. Acheson notes that provincial and imperial responsibilities at the time were limited — partly due to their rudimentary state — and consequently the provision of vital services, “ranging from basic transportation facilities, through public safety, welfare, water supplies, and regulation of food supplies,” fell to the municipal government.[1]

By its charter, the city was set up as a corporation, with governing power akin to that found in 17th century British market towns. Freeholders and freemen made up the two fundamental categories of citizenship. The former were owners of real-estate who automatically possessed the political privileges of the latter — i.e. ‘the freedom’ — possessed by dint of having a stake in the community. Freemen gained the freedom of St. John in a variety of ways. Sometimes it was secured by virtue of a family history of tenure. After 1785, the freedom was specifically reserved for the offspring of freemen who had served an apprenticeship with one of the resident a merchants or masters. However, the freedom was often achieved (as in the case of the Loyalists for example), through payment of fees of office. The freedom divided the city into political and social groups, and marked the employable from the unemployable.

Acheson provides extended descriptions of two important social groups, the merchants (divided into the “lesser ranks” and the “great merchants”), and the artisans (among whom he argues there is evidence of an aristocracy), describing as well their relation to power within the city. While lesser merchants were more likely to act as aldermen, the opinions of great merchants were accorded the most respect in deciding critical issues.


st jon 3

View of St. John City and Harbour. Advertisement for Manchester, Robertson & Allison, Dry Goods Merchants,” dated 1890. Source: Library and Archives Canada, online MIKAN no. 2834404.


Acheson points out that the timber trade from 1815 to 1841 was of central importance to the economic development of the city, and credits the trade with directly leading to the founding of a shipbuilding industry. By 1840, he states, “trade in ships had come to play a vital role in the commerce of the port and province.”[2] Merchants were able to build the commercial and financial infrastructure necessary to maintain their success so long as mercantilist policies of colonial preference were in place. As Acheson puts it:

Economic life outside British mercantilism was unthinkable. Clearly any policy that worked to tie commercial benefit of the great merchants was of  benefit to the community. It was the general acceptance of this moral economy by society at large that provided the basis of the merchants’ authority.[3]

Ironically, Acheson suggests that the prosperity of the city contributed to a decline in the power of merchants, a power that their favored status had originally conferred. As tradesmen and their families were increasingly able to improve their lot, tradesmen’s deference to merchants became increasingly less apparent. When urban tradesmen became enamored with free trade, they also became convinced that “the enemy had in some way abused them for its own ends and that it was an enemy that felt itself to be masters of the society.”[4] For their part, merchants derided tradesmen who sought to organize politically as being guilty of ‘living above their station.’

This shift in the perceptions of power bases is traced in separate chapters in which Acheson stresses the importance of cultural factors in directing life in the city. He focuses particularly on ethnicity and religion — the influence of religion permeated most public issues — but as well supplies an analysis of ideas and approaches to:

  • temperance — a movement overwhelmingly concentrated among the urban artisans and mechanics
  • and education — gradually extended to all in the form of denominational schools.

The differing experiences of, and interactions between, natives (bluenoses) and newcomers is clear. Acheson cites Oscar Handlin to observe that “All migrants … bring an awareness of group identity to their new environment, but the use they make of that identity depends upon the reception they receive in the host community.”[5] The reception of the Irish serves as a case in point. Unusually large numbers of Irish Catholics arrived as a result of famine in Ireland. There were also Protestants among the arrivals, however, and issues such as the repeal of the act of Union led to violent confrontations. Shared traditions of ‘loyalty’ to the crown saw greater integration of Protestant Irish into the middle-to-upper echelons of the host community.

Acheson succeeds in bringing to light the complexity of past experience at the municipal level. He supplies convincing evidence that the study of cities within regions has much to contribute to understandings of Canada’s past.


Additional resources:

Jacques-Paul Couturier, revue, Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community, par T.W. Acheson, Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 42, no. 3 (1989): 441-443 [available online at érudit].

[1] T.W. Acheson, Saint John: The making of a colonial urban community (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 36.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 58.

[4] Ibid., 88.

[5] Ibid., 97.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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