COWDELL, THOMAS DANIEL, merchant, Methodist lay preacher, author, and music teacher; b. 2 Oct. 1769 in London, son of Samuel Cowdell; d. 25 or 26 March 1833, possibly in Halifax.
Thomas Daniel Cowdell was born of an Irish mother and an English father who was a professional soldier. He grew up in London and there converted to Methodism in 1784. In 1789 he came to Halifax and subsequently married a Scots girl, Margaret, who bore him four sons and four daughters. During his time in Halifax he ran a small shop on Duke Street near the Theatre Royal, selling sweets, miscellaneous goods, and “Oddities.” But though he was a shopkeeper by profession, his real interests lay in religion, poetry, and music.
While a member of the Methodist congregation in Halifax, Cowdell rose to the positions of class leader and lay preacher. He is remembered, however, less for his church work than for his quarrel with the Reverend William Black, the resident minister in Halifax from 1786 and founder of the Methodist movement in the Maritimes. From the spring of 1802 until early 1803, Cowdell took the lead in an attack on Black. Ostensibly, the problem was Black’s failure to follow certain Methodist rules, particularly that requiring circuit preachers to change circuits every two years. But the main irritant seems to have been Black’s desire to tear down the existing preacher’s house in Halifax, which was almost paid for, and to build a new, larger residence. On 22 March 1802 seven of the Halifax class leaders expressed their dissatisfaction to Black in a letter. All except Cowdell quickly withdrew from the dispute. But Cowdell continued to press the matter and ultimately lost his “class papers” for “vulgar preaching and railing.” His wife was also ejected from the congregation because it was supposed “she was the principal author of the letter.” None the less, Cowdell turned up briefly as a lay preacher in Prince Edward Island between December 1805 and June 1806. His controversial career in the church perhaps accounts for the hostile attitude of Thomas Watson Smith, the historian of Maritime Methodism. Smith, describing Cowdell as a man whose “broad shoulders and short legs made him a frequent subject of remark,” claimed that the preacher became “a prey to intemperate habits, which brought him to thorough degradation.” No evidence has been found to substantiate this charge.
Cowdell’s business affairs seem never to have gone particularly well. He was continually plagued with financial problems, and in December 1808, upon hearing that his maternal uncle had died, he decided to journey to Dublin to claim an inheritance. The trip lasted almost three years, during which Cowdell visited England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. But the object of the journey – the expected inheritance –appears to have eluded him. In order to support himself while abroad, he wrote and published a book of verse entitled A poetical journal of a tour from British North America to England, Wales & Ireland . . . , which was published in Dublin in 1809. Another version of this book was printed as The Nova Scotia minstrel, written while on a tour from North America to Great Britain and Ireland . . . in London in March 1811 to raise money for his return to Halifax.
Back in Halifax, Cowdell again turned to shopkeeping, but in addition opened a school for teaching “vocal music.” He had long had a local reputation as an excellent violoncello player and had participated in Halifax concerts. While abroad, he apparently had added the study of voice to his musical interests; his singing voice was described as a “fine bass.” However, Cowdell did not remain long in Halifax. In March 1815 his house and shop were sold at auction and he planned “to leave the Province as early as possible.” A book entitled A poetical account of the American campaigns of 1812 and 1813 . . . , published anonymously at Halifax in September 1815 under the signature of An Acadian, has been attributed to Cowdell. There is, however, no conclusive evidence of his authorship.
In 1815 Cowdell returned to Ireland, where two years later he once again printed, with further revisions, The Nova Scotia minstrel. After nine years abroad, he turned up in Saint John, N.B., in October 1824 to visit his children. They apparently had been left there with friends or relatives when Cowdell went to Dublin in 1815. In early 1825 he travelled to Halifax, where he published in 1826 a pamphlet entitled An awful fact, or narrative of the most extraordinary instance of supernatural vision; or, the appearance of a late wife to her husband, in Halifax. Nothing is known of Cowdell from 1825 until his death in 1833. One story, probably apocryphal, has it that on his deathbed Cowdell remarked to a Methodist minister attending him, “I weep, because I cannot weep.”
Cowdell’s significance in early 19th-century Maritime life rests on his poetical accomplishments. He claimed that his book of poetry was “the first Fruit of a distant Colony offered to its Parent Isle.” Although not strictly accurate in his claim to precedence, he was in fact the first Maritime poet to publish and circulate a volume of verse in the British Isles. But he was certainly not the first Maritime poet, nor even the first published poet from that area. Indeed, in the history of Maritime poetry Cowdell belongs to a transitional period, coming after such poets as Henry Alline*, Jacob Bailey*, and Jonathan Odell*, whose works form the core of the 18th-century phase of Maritime verse. Together with the writings of poets such as Oliver Goldsmith* and the young Joseph Howe*, Cowdell’s verse at times looks back to the 18th century and at times forward to the sentimental attitudes and lyric forms that dominate Maritime verse from the 1830s to the 1860s. This dichotomy is strikingly demonstrated in the differences between the 1809, 1811, and 1817 editions of his poetry. Aside from two lyrics, the 1809 edition is wholly comprised of relatively long descriptive and narrative verse, patterned on 18th-century models. In the 1811 edition, however, 24 songs and lyrics are introduced into the text at various points. The 1817 edition has more than 40 lyrics. Not only does Cowdell experiment in these lyrics with newer metric patterns, but their tone and spirit differ from his descriptive-narrative verse. In spite of some rewriting, the didactic objectivity of the descriptive-narrative sections contrasts sharply with the personalized, sentimental response to subject displayed in the lyrics.
It is difficult to estimate to what extent Cowdell recognized the dichotomy in his verse. As a poet, he never seriously attempted to reconcile this dichotomy in his aesthetic response to reality. Nor did he grow beyond it artistically; but then, he was one of the first in Maritime poetry to reflect it.
An advertisement for Thomas Daniel Cowdell’s 1826 pamphlet appeared in the Acadian Recorder, 11 March 1826, but no copies of it are now known to exist. In addition to the works discussed in this biography, he is the author of a number of poems published in local newspapers, including an untitled verse advertisement for his Halifax shop which appeared in the Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette on 15 July 1812; “The occasional address at the late concert for the benefit of the poor . . . ,” Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette, 28 April 1813; and “An acrostic sonnet” and “The good ship Waterloo,” both in the New-Brunswick Courier, 4 Dec. 1824.
The uncertainty over Cowdell’s exact death date is due to the fact that it is given as 25 March in an obituary in the New-Brunswick Courier, 6 April 1833, and as 26 March in the Novascotian, or Colonial Herald’s obituary of 28 March 1833.
UCC-M, “Address to Mr. William Black, Methodist preacher, Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the subject of deviating from the minutes of the British Methodist Conference; by Thomas Roby, class leader in Halifax and signed by other leaders; with notes illustrative of the subject by Thomas Daniel Cowdell . . .” (Halifax, 1802; mfm. at PANS). A checklist of Canadian literature and background materials, 1628–1960, comp. R. E. Watters (2nd ed., Toronto, 1972). R. J. Long, Nova Scotia authors and their work: a bibliography of the province (East Orange, N.J., 1918). J. T. Mellish, Outlines of the history of Methodism in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island . . . (Charlottetown, 1888). T. W. Smith, History of the Methodist Church within the territories embraced in the late conference of Eastern British America . . . (2v., Halifax, 1877–90).