PRYOR, WILLIAM, merchant and banker; b. 16 March 1801 at Halifax, N.S., eldest son of William Pryor* and Mary Barbara Foss; m. in 1840 Johanna von Schwartz in Hamburg (German Federal Republic), and they had one son and four daughters; d. 8 June 1884 at Halifax.
The grandson of a New York loyalist of Anglican persuasion, William Pryor was born into a prominent Halifax merchant family. After receiving a rudimentary formal education, he entered the family business, serving his father first as a clerk and later as supercargo on vessels dispatched to foreign ports. In 1828 he became junior partner in the firm, which grew to include his two younger brothers as well as his brother-in-law. William Pryor and Sons pioneered in trade with Brazil and at its mid-Victorian height “carried on the largest mercantile business in Halifax.” In 1862 its Lower Water Street premises were valued at £16,000 and the firm dealt primarily in the exchange of British American fish and timber for Caribbean sugar, rum, and molasses. Although once active in the international carrying trade, by 1866 the firm owned but 419 tons of shipping.
When his father died in 1859, William as his eldest son succeeded to control of the family enterprises, which included a directorship in the Halifax Banking Company. The younger Pryor’s business career peaked in 1867 when he followed his father’s example by becoming president of this, Halifax’s oldest banking house. He had earlier succeeded his father as president of the Nova Scotia Marine Insurance Company and secured election to the presidency of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. As befitted a man of property, William Pryor Jr also served in such fashionable philanthropic capacities as vice-president of the Nova Scotia Bible Society and as director of the Colonial and Continental Church Society and the St Paul’s Alms House of Industry for Girls.
Despite a Tory political cast which expressed itself in his vigorous opposition to the coming of responsible government in the late 1840s, Pryor’s enthusiasm for railways eventually carried him into an alliance with Nova Scotia’s leading Reformer, Joseph Howe*. In 1854 the Liberal government of William Young appointed Pryor to the board charged with supervising construction of the province’s publicly financed railways. He retained the post until prompted to resign in 1858 in protest against the new Conservative administration’s dismissal of James R. Forman, the chief engineer of the government railway system. Pryor’s chairmanship of a Liberal nominating rally in Halifax a year later reiterated his lack of sympathy for Conservative politicians, and this alienation from Charles Tupper* may have contributed to Pryor’s decision to oppose confederation. Probably more persuasive in shaping his views towards confederation was the fact that, being a traditionalist in business matters, Pryor had eschewed investment in mining and manufacturing, and accordingly, was indifferent to arguments that colonial union would industrialize Nova Scotia.
William Pryor was one of the first victims of the decay which afflicted the economy of the Maritime provinces late in the 19th century. Rendered complacent by years of prosperity in the commission import-export business, Pryor’s firm found itself overextended in 1873 when an international business recession reduced consumer demand and froze commercial credit. By December Pryor was mortgaging his domestic real estate in an effort to secure additional working capital. The gambit failed, and in March 1875 William Pryor and Sons declared bankruptcy, with liabilities of $125,000 against assets of, at most, $70,000. Creditors were offered 40 cents on the dollar. A humiliated William Pryor resigned as president of the Halifax Banking Company and abandoned his prestigious Hollis Street residence. When he died intestate in 1884 he left an estate valued at $8,253.83, the bulk of which came from life insurance. His failure as a businessman, however, was not an isolated phenomenon, for he belonged to that host of Halifax merchants who could not cope with the passing of Nova Scotia’s “Golden Age.”
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), no.3246 (mfm. at PANS). Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 143, 195, 197 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, RG 1, 453; RG 35A, 4. N.S., House of Assembly, Debates and proc., 1855–58; Journal and proc., 1859; Statutes, 1866, c.90. Acadian Recorder, 1875, 1884. British Colonist (Halifax), 1858. Evening Express (Halifax), 1858–59. Halifax Morning Sun, 1858, 1862. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 1845–48, 1858–59. Morning Herald (Halifax), 1875, 1884. Novascotian, 1828, 1836, 1866–67, 1884. Royal Gazette (Halifax), 1875. Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1824–62. W. E. Boggs, The genealogical record of the Boggs family, the descendants of Ezekiel Boggs (Halifax, 1916)McAlpine’s Halifax city directory . . . (Halifax), 1869–85. Nova Scotia registry of shipping: with standard rules for construction and classification, comp. T. R. Dewolf (Halifax, 1866). J. W. Regan, Sketches and traditions of the Northwest Arm (illustrated) and with panoramic folder of the Arm (2nd ed., Halifax, 1909). V. Ross and Trigge, Hist. of Canadian Bank of Commerce, I.