TOWNSEND, WILLIAM H., merchant, banker, shipowner, and politician; b. 1812 in New York City, son of William and Lucinda Townsend; m. Sarah Gardner and had two children; d. 14 Oct. 1873 in Yarmouth, N.S.
Round Hill, Annapolis County, would awaken no great expectation in the soul of an ambitious young man, and when his more confident parents abandoned New York for that drowsy hamlet, the young William H. Townsend responded in storybook style and ran away from home in 1828. He chose Yarmouth, the second port in the sometime bustling commerce of Nova Scotia, as his adopted home, learned the wheelwright’s trade, and six years after his arrival opened his first ship-chandlery and hardware business there.
Between 1837 and 1870 he was a director or shareholder in the Yarmouth Marine Insurance Association, the Acadian Insurance Company, the Yarmouth Commercial Insurance Company, the Atlantic Insurance Company, and the Pacific Insurance Company. During the same period Townsend launched himself into shipping ventures on an increasingly large scale, until in 1855 he became a director of the Yarmouth Steam Navigation Company which launched Yarmouth’s first home-owned steamship. He became the first president of the Bank of Yarmouth in 1865 arid served as president of the Exchange Bank of Yarmouth in 1869. The base of his business ventures, however, remained the steady family trade in dry goods and hardware.
His first taste of politics as warden of the short-lived Yarmouth Township apparently whetted a latent appetite; after his defeat in 1858, following a year in office, he stood for the assembly as a Conservative, and sat in opposition to the Joseph Howe–William Young* ministry. Defeat in 1863 failed to eliminate him from the all-important confederation struggle. The sitting member resigned his seat in criticism of Charles Tupper*’s régime and, in 1866, Townsend was re-elected on the strength of a promise to bolt his party on the confederation issue.
His opposition speech was thus necessarily based on the injury dealt Yarmouth in the proposed union. He balked at rerouting trade to the west, at paying Canadian debts with high tariffs, and at the suggestion that the Intercolonial Railway would benefit any ports other than Saint John, N.B. Unlike most prominent “antis,” he was opposed not only to the Quebec scheme but to any union. The temper of Yarmouth was so roused that annexation was more to its liking, and Townsend so informed the house. Despite his disagreement with his party, he was not a supporter of the Liberals under William Annand* but a dissenting Tory, caught in the realignments on the hottest issue of his day.
Townsend was re-elected as an anti-confederate in the 1867 election, but by December 1868 he was convinced of the futility of further resistance to the John A. Macdonald*–Tupper machine. He wrote Howe urging him to take a federal post, and explaining his own reluctance to continue in opposition. Both men were old and tired and destined to die within months of one another. In 1872 Townsend’s health failed, and he resigned his seat. He was dead within a year.
He was a small historical figure, despite the fact that he walked and talked with the great men of Nova Scotia legend. He was an ordinary, laconic assemblyman of that peculiar Nova Scotia type, presenting his constituents’ petitions, performing his committee duties, distributing the local patronage, and leaving the oratory to others. But for the confederation agitation, he might have been forgotten outside his family and his community. As a voice of the shipping and merchant interest, and as one of the 19 who opposed Tupper’s union resolution in 1866, he became of more than usual significance.
PANS, Joseph Howe papers; William H. Townsend papers; “Yarmouth genealogy, 1761–1913,” compiled by G. S. Brown. Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 21 March 1959. Tribune (Yarmouth), 1863–64, 1866–67. Vanguard (Yarmouth), 2 Aug. 1967. Yarmouth Herald, 1859, 1863–67, 1872–73. Nova Scotia House of Assembly, Debates and proceedings, 1855–61, 1864–67. Directory of N.S. MLAs (Fergusson). G. S. Brown, Yarmouth, Nova Scotia: a sequel to Campbell’s history (Boston, 1888). J. R. Campbell, A history of the county of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia (Saint John, N.B., 1876). J. M. Lawson, Yarmouth past and present: a book of reminiscences (Yarmouth, N.S., 1902). K. G. Pryke, “Nova Scotia and confederation, 1864–1870,” unpublished