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PRYOR, WILLIAM, ship’s captain, businessman, and office holder; b. 1775 in New York City, son of Edward Pryor and Jane Vermilye; m. 19 March 1798 Mary Barbara Voss; d. 4 Sept. 1859 in Halifax.

The Pryors were a loyalist family that came to Halifax from New York in 1783. William’s grandfather arrived in America as a master carpenter but quickly and with considerable success turned to trade, as did his son Edward. William, the youngest of Edward’s three sons, followed his brothers into commerce, apprenticing during the 1790s as a ship’s captain in the West Indies trade. According to tradition, William spent part of his early career as a prisoner of the French on Guadeloupe and served at least briefly as captain of a Nova Scotia privateer. About 1800 he established premises on Water Street, from which he carried on general trade. The scale of his business remained modest at first, and he operated very much in the shadow of his elder brother John. He did well enough during the Napoleonic Wars, however, to be able in 1816 to spend £587 for land on Halifax’s Northwest Arm. Over succeeding years this property was developed into an estate of considerable elegance named Coburg.

Pryor’s rise to prominence came mainly after the War of 1812 and was occasioned in part by the deaths of his brother John in 1820 and of his father in 1831. Through inheritance and purchase he became the owner of extensive waterfront property, later known as the Dominion Wharf complex. The scale of his business is indicated by the permits issued by the local custom-house to authorize the re-export of goods brought into Halifax. In 1833, for instance, William Pryor and Company dispatched 41 vessels, mostly to adjacent ports within British North America; included in their cargoes were 33,294 gallons of rum and 2,911 hundredweight of sugar. Pryor was not a major shipowner, but between 1821 and 1856 he had shares in 25 vessels totalling 3,510 tons. He favoured the brig, a ship particularly suited to the West Indies and British American carrying trades. The firm’s vessels usually performed shuttle runs between Halifax and the ports of the other Maritime provinces but Pryor also participated in more speculative and far-flung ventures. For example, late in the 1820s his brig Rival proceeded from Halifax to Brazil, and thence to the Cape of Good Hope and St Helena before returning to Brazil. From there it sailed to Gibraltar, Leghorn (Italy), and Marseilles and then to Quebec and Cape Breton. Finally, two years after its departure, it returned to Halifax. Such employment, involving the purchase and resale of a wide range of cargo, earned Pryor profits as high as £2,000 per voyage. The risks of trade also involved the firm in losses but, on balance, Pryor derived a substantial income from shipping and general mercantile operations. In 1830 he further assured his fortunes by winning the contract to supply the Halifax garrison market with rum. As his activities expanded, Pryor brought his three sons and his son-in-law into the firm as partners.

Pryor’s shrewdest business decision had come in 1825, when he invested £5,000 to become one of the eight founding partners of the Halifax Banking Company. This initiative brought annual dividends of up to 20 per cent as well as membership in the inner circle of Halifax commerce. Pryor’s entrepreneurial prominence was also reflected in his membership on the executive of the Halifax Commercial Society through the period 1815–30. During the 1830s he was president of both the Halifax Fire Insurance Company and the Nova Scotia Marine Insurance Company. He also served as a director of the abortive Shubenacadie Canal Company and led the campaign to make Halifax a base for ocean whaling. In 1854, after long service as vice-president of the Halifax Banking Company, Pryor succeeded Henry Hezekiah Cogswell as president.

Pryor’s involvement in general community affairs, although relatively limited, was nevertheless tinged with controversy. For example, in 1826 he resigned as a churchwarden and member of St Paul’s after he and other leading laymen had been defeated by Bishop John Inglis* in a quarrel over who should be the new rector of the church [see John Thomas Twining]. Although never a magistrate, Pryor enjoyed the confidence of Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland and in 1831 was appointed to the newly created commission to supervise pilotage service at the port of Halifax. Office, property, and kinship ties made Pryor a member of the ruling oligarchy. Accordingly, he opposed the agitation for reform which emerged during the 1830s and 1840s. Although never a leading figure in the resistance to responsible government, he signed several petitions drawn up in protest against political change. A symbol of the old order, thanks mainly to his banking activities, he lost access to public office with the coming of reform [see Richard Tremaine] but retained his central position within the Halifax commercial élite.

Pryor left an estate valued at £39,000, most of it consisting of local real estate. Never active in organized philanthropy, he limited his bequests to family members. His three daughters, all advantageously married, received small annuities, while most of the wealth went to his three sons. The eldest, William*, carried on the family business and eventually succeeded to the presidency of the Halifax Banking Company. Thus William Pryor Sr can be regarded as a case study in the emergence of indigenous family capitalism within early 19th-century Halifax.

David A. Sutherland

BLHU, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 11: 240; 12: 745. Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.867; Wills, 4: f.315; 6: f.420; P92 (William Pryor) (mfm. at PANS). Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 22: f.346; 32: f.452; 37: f.431; 42: f.443 (mfm. at PANS). MHGA, Atlantic Canada Shipping Project, “Halifax shareholders’ file,” comp. E. [W.] Sager. PANS, RG 1, 244, no.103; 290, no.1; 311, no.63; 314, no.26; RG 5, P, 121, 20 Feb. 1830; RG 31-104, 12–14, Customs House permits, 1831–33. Acadian Recorder, 9 Dec. 1820, 15 Feb. 1823, 3 Sept. 1825, 22 Nov. 1828, 10 Sept. 1859. Journal (Halifax), 14 Aug. 1834. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 6–8 Sept. 1859. Novascotian, 16 March 1831, 25 Jan. 1832, 7 Jan. 1836, 30 Sept. 1850. Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1824–59. W. E. Boggs, The genealogical record of the Boggs family, the descendants of Ezekiel Boggs (Halifax, 1916), 81. [T. B. Akins], History of Halifax City (Halifax, 1895; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1973), 93. J. W. Regan, Sketches and traditions of the Northwest Arm (illustrated) and with panoramic folder of the Arm (2nd ed., Halifax, 1909), 14–16.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David A. Sutherland, “PRYOR, WILLIAM (1775-1859),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 20, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pryor_william_1775_1859_8E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pryor_william_1775_1859_8E.html
Author of Article: David A. Sutherland
Title of Article: PRYOR, WILLIAM (1775-1859)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1985
Year of revision: 1985
Access Date: September 20, 2014