TREMAIN, RICHARD, merchant, miller, militia officer, justice of the peace, and office holder; b. 20 June 1774 in New York City, son of Jonathan Tremain* and Abigail Stout; m. 1801 Mary Boggs in Halifax, and they had seven daughters and five sons; d. there 30 July 1854.
Richard Tremain’s father emigrated in 1760 from England to New York City, where he built up a successful mercantile business. Having fled to Quebec as a loyalist refugee in 1783, he moved on to Halifax in 1786. There he resumed trading, which he complemented by investment in flour milling, fishing, land, and coal mining. The family, through its close association with Lieutenant Governor Sir John Wentworth* and other leading loyalist families, enjoyed a secure place within the local oligarchy.
Richard, the second son, probably served a commercial apprenticeship under his father. In 1801, immediately after his marriage to a daughter of another prominent loyalist family, he formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, Charles Boggs, to operate a general store and brewery. Finding trade more profitable than brewing, Tremain concentrated on the import-export operations connected with the store and in 1814 he landed £24,929 worth of European dry goods, along with 19,744 gallons of molasses and 919 hundredweight of brown sugar. Much of his business involved the purchase of prize goods for later sale in the United States, a lucrative enterprise at the height of the War of 1812. The partnership with Boggs had ended in 1813, having been replaced by one with Richard’s younger brother, James, and a family friend, Robert Hartshorne. That association in turn ended in 1821, after which Tremain proceeded on his own. Through the 1820s he continued as a Halifax general merchant, but increasingly the focus of his business activity came to be a Dartmouth flour-mill and bakehouse originally owned by his father and Lawrence Hartshorne* and taken over by himself and his brother James in 1815. The success of this venture owed much to Tremain’s having won an exclusive contract to supply flour to the local garrison market. Revisions to British tariff policy in 1826, which had the effect of throwing the Halifax market open to American flour, may have prompted Tremain’s decision to sell the Dartmouth property to the Shubenacadie Canal Company in 1831 for £6,700. Thereafter Tremain withdrew from active business, his income apparently being that of a rentier.
Thus by the mid 1830s Tremain had the status of a gentleman able to live in considerable comfort at Oakland, his estate in Halifax’s south suburbs. He enjoyed community recognition through his service as president of the chamber of commerce, churchwarden of St Paul’s, chairman of the Halifax firewards, lieutenant-colonel in the local militia, and director of the Nova Scotia Bible Society. Moreover, he had served as a magistrate since 1810, was commissioner of the house of correction from 1825 to 1831, and was deputy chairman and treasurer of the poor-house commission from 1826 to 1830. The various offices to which Tremain had been appointed should have been a source of prestige and influence, but they became instead the means of his subjection to public vilification, in an incident which simultaneously launched Joseph Howe* on his campaign for responsible government.
The episode occurred during the mid 1830s, at a time of business recession and rising taxes. The board of magistrates which presided over Halifax’s internal affairs aroused increasing ire among ratepayers by refusing to account for public expenditure and by ignoring calls from the grand jury for the reform of its financial administration. Public dissatisfaction led to the publication in January 1835 of a letter in Howe’s newspaper the Novascotian or Colonial Herald, wherein the anonymous author accused the magistrates of being arrogant, incompetent, and corrupt. Singled out for particular criticism were those magistrates who also served as commissioners of the poor-house. They, it was alleged, employed the institutionalized poor as unpaid servants and fed them with inferior flour purchased at high prices from stores owned by the commissioners. This practice, which could be variously interpreted as either illegal or simply indiscreet, immediately became the focus of a major confrontation between Howe and the champions of oligarchy.
Tremain, who had already experienced a number of attacks on his role within the Halifax administration, assumed that he was the prime target of Howe’s anonymous correspondent. In self-defence he maintained that although he had sold flour and meal to the poor-house while serving on the commission of that institution, all sales had proceeded through open bidding, with prices being controlled by competition. Moreover, other commissioners had done the same. To suggest that anything illegal or even immoral had been done, Tremain insisted, was to engage in a “malicious” attack on those who served as stewards of the community. Public criticism of this kind aroused Tremain’s fighting spirit. He had a reputation for belligerency that went back to the War of 1812, when he had joined a press-gang riot to rescue local sailors from the Royal Navy. As recently as 1832 he had been indicted for assault after quarrelling with a fellow magistrate. Accordingly, it was in character for Tremain to initiate the magisterial demand that Howe be tried for criminal libel.
Tremain’s zeal in defending his honour precipitated a major crisis in Halifax. Several members of the gentry, including Howe’s father, had become convinced of the need for reform in order to conciliate the aroused mass of ratepayers. Taking advantage of these cross-currents within the élite and of public dissatisfaction, Howe turned his libel trial into a forum for renewed rhetorical attack on the deficiencies of magisterial rule. Acquitted by a sympathetic jury, Howe launched into a political career which climaxed some 13 years later with the achievement of responsible government in Nova Scotia. Tremain was left to plead his innocence in letters to Lieutenant Governor Sir Colin Campbell* and to the editor of the Halifax Journal. Admitting himself to be humiliated, he warned that the incident had grave implications, stating that “if public men are to seek the approval of Editors of Newspapers, instead of the Government from whence their authority is derived, soon will they become the master power, and great & small must court their countenance.”
Several of the magistrates responded to Howe’s victory by resigning, but Tremain refused to capitulate. Although purged from the poor-house commission, he stayed on as a justice of the peace. The post lost most of its power in 1841, however, when the administration of Halifax was taken from the justices in the Court of Quarter Sessions and turned over to an elected city council. Tremain’s final defeat came in 1849 when the newly victorious reform party cancelled his magisterial commission. Meanwhile his personal affairs appear to have suffered considerable decline. The bankruptcy of his brother John in the mid 1830s and the related loss of £800 had undermined his financial security. Then, in 1848, his house at Oakland burned. Tremain’s death six years later drew no more response than a two-line obituary notice in the Halifax Church Times.
Richard Tremain is best seen as an embodiment of the old régime in Nova Scotia. He was not so much corrupt as conventional, discharging his offices of public trust by the norms of the pre-reform era. He achieved notoriety essentially because the standards by which he had been brought up had become obsolete. Rather than adapt, he resisted, and thereby assured the destruction of his public career.
Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 35: f.681; 38: f.275; 42: f.422; 43: f.19; 50: f.342; 54: f.186; 59: f.43; 61: f.192 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, RG 1, 149, 23 March 1835; 150: f.19; 226: ff.90, 117; 248: f.79; 411, no.130; 412, nos.137–39; RG 5, P, 120, 21 Jan. 1824; RG 13, 25; RG 31-104, 9, 1814. PRO, CO 217/203: 323. Acadian Recorder, 17 March 1821, 18 Feb. 1826. Church Times (Halifax), 5 Aug. 1854. Journal (Halifax), 6, 20–27 April 1835. Novascotian, 12 Jan. 1832, 8 May 1834, 1 Jan. 1835, 19 June 1842. Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette, 4 June 1801, 7 Jan. 1802, 21 July 1813, 5 Oct. 1814, 15 Jan. 1820. Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1824–54. W. E. Boggs, The genealogical record of the Boggs family, the descendants of Ezekiel Boggs (Halifax, 1916), 17, 82. Halifax almanack, 1819. C. T. Harrington, A general history of the Harrington, DeWolfe and Tremaine families, with a genealogical record of 1643 to 1938 (Newton, Mass., 1938), 79–80. J. M. and L. J. Payzant, Like a weaver’s shuttle: a history of the Halifax–Dartmouth ferries (Halifax, 1979), 11–19.