COLLIER, JOHN, military officer, member of the Nova Scotia Council, judge in the Court of Vice-Admiralty, justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia; b. in England; d. 14 April 1769 at Falmouth, Nova Scotia.
The founding of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1749 provided John Collier with an opportunity to launch a new career. He was then a retired army captain, and it is known that he was a protégé of the Earl of Halifax. According to Governor Edward Cornwallis*, Collier “belonged to the better sort of inhabitants,” and thus was marked for appointment to office in the colony. On 18 July 1749 he was named a justice of the peace and on 27 Jan. 1752 was appointed to the Nova Scotia Council. He was given the key post of judge of the Court of Vice-Admiralty on 12 April 1753, succeeding Benjamin Green*.
Collier’s outstanding contribution to the development of early Nova Scotia was made in the latter role. Particularly during the Seven Years’ War the Court of Vice-Admiralty played an important part in the administration of justice in the colony. Collier, the presiding judge during this period, steadfastly refused to be swayed by local pressure. His unequivocal stand on judicial matters explains in part his unpopularity with Governor Charles Lawrence, who attempted on more than one occasion to tamper with decisions of the court. In August 1756, for example, Collier dealt with a petition concerning the French ship Equito, captured by a British squadron off Louisbourg, and declared it a lawful prize as it had been taken after the declaration of war that spring; Lawrence ordered him to halt proceedings but Collier refused and eventually had his way. In April 1757 he ruled that a Dutch ship, Patience, captured by the Halifax-based privateer Musketto, was not a prize of war. Soon after he upheld a charge by five seamen of the Patience claiming “extreme cruelty and theft of goods” by the captain and crew of the Musketto, and ordered that restitution be made and damages paid to the Dutch owners.
In his capacity as a member of the Nova Scotia Council, Collier also opposed Lawrence. With fellow councillor Charles Morris* and Robert Grant – a Scottish merchant and later himself a councillor – Collier launched a complaint in January 1758 with the imperial authorities concerning the alleged dictatorial behaviour of Governor Lawrence. In a letter to his patron the Earl of Halifax, Collier suggested that the inhabitants of Halifax were “sufficiently alarmed . . . [that] in six months we shall see this province wholly under military government.” Although an early advocate of representative government Collier also found himself at odds late in 1758 with the first Nova Scotia House of Assembly when, under the leadership of George Suckling, it requested that he furnish a schedule of fees for the Court of Vice-Admiralty. Collier’s refusal on the ground that he held the office of judge through an imperial commission and consequently was not answerable to the assembly earned him a formal rebuke by the lower house. The incident was the first example of a financial dispute between the council and the assembly.
Collier possessed a strong personality and was a man of consistent views, qualities which stood him in good stead as judge of the Court of Vice-Admiralty, but also help to explain his running battle on the council with Chief Justice Jonathan Belcher*, lieutenant governor from 1761 to 1763 and a man of equally firm views. Collier worked against Belcher and followed the familiar pattern of petitioning imperial authorities regarding the “Unsteady and Irresolute Kind of Conduct (which indeed tinctures the whole of the Lt Governor’s administration).” After June 1764, when Collier was appointed an assistant justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia with Charles Morris, he continued to disagree with Belcher, but their disputes were of a more personal nature, arising from the latter’s unwillingness to share responsibility with his fellow judges.
Collier played a prominent part in the civic life of early Halifax. He was named a trustee of St Paul’s church in 1759 and acted on a commission to allocate government grants to the church. He was also a captain in the militia and served on the board of trustees which established and maintained the Halifax Common.
In July 1768 he attended council for the last time. He died intestate the following April – probably a bachelor. He had acquired considerable land in the Falmouth area, but the entire estate was ordered sold to meet accumulated debts.
PAC, MG 11, Nova Scotia A, 62, pp.51–52; 69, pp.174–91; 91, pp.218–52; MG 18, F20. PANS, RG 1, 164/2, pp.277, 302–4; 206; 215; 216; 492; 493. Nova Scotia Chronicle and Weekly Advertiser, 18 April, 10 May 1769. Brebner, Neutral Yankees. R. V. Harris, The Church of Saint Paul in Halifax, Nova Scotia: 1749–1949 (Toronto, 1949). T. B. Akins, “History of Halifax City,” N.S. Hist. Soc. Coll., VIII (1895). D. G. L. Fraser, “The origin and function of the Court of Vice-Admiralty in Halifax 1749–1759,” N.S. Hist. Soc. Coll., XXXIII (1961), 57–80.