CAMBRIDGE, JOHN, land agent and businessman; b. 13 Dec. 1748 in England; m. 16 Jan. 1775 Mary Winchester, and they had ten children, only four of whom reached maturity; d. 26 Dec. 1831 in Bristol, England.
Before his arrival on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island in 1784, John Cambridge remains a shadowy figure in historical records. A Privy Council report of 1791 identifies him as being “formerly an obscure chairmaker in St. Martin’s Lane” but there are indications that as early as 1777 he was associated with a group of merchants who planned to trade with and promote settlement on St John’s Island. One of this group was the Quaker colonizer Robert Clark* and it may have been the religious link that brought the two men together. Cambridge was known on the Island as a Quaker, and he refused to take oaths in court on religious principles. Nevertheless, he was not connected with the Society of Friends. Indeed, he wrote in 1793 that although “in full belief of Friends principles” he was not “united to the Society.” It is probable that he became a member after returning to England, for he was buried a Quaker.
Cambridge was named Clark’s agent in 1783 and took up the appointment the following spring when he came out with his family to the Island. He was called upon in 1786 to defend his employer’s interests against the Island establishment following an attempt to confirm Governor Walter Patterson*’s seizure in 1781 of part of Clark’s property for non-payment of quitrents. In doing so Cambridge alienated some Island officials; the alienation was later to develop into bitterness and litigation.
John Cambridge was not content to act simply as Clark’s agent. In 1785, with the backing of merchants in London, including his brother-in-law William Winchester, he began commercial activities of his own. He acquired property in the Murray Harbour district in the southeast part of the Island and four years later was able to report that he had built two large brigs, both of which were on trading voyages, one to the West Indies and the other to Portugal. The shipping registers indicate that he was also the owner of a number of smaller vessels. These craft, mostly schooners, kept up a trade with Newfoundland. He built a large sawmill at Murray Harbour and had houses there and in Charlottetown.
By 1788 Cambridge had formed a partnership with William Bowley, another Island resident. Bowley had purchased debts owed by Clark, and Cambridge in turn had a large bill for his wages and expenses as Clark’s agent. Together they sued Clark and the court case, begun in 1789, developed into protracted litigation, with countersuits and appeals dragging the matter out until the end of the century. Even before the conclusion of the court battle Cambridge was able to gain control of Clark’s assets and land, establishing himself as a substantial merchant.
His relations with members of the colonial administration were not good, however. He had supported Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning* against the doomed Patterson faction on Fanning’s arrival in 1786 but this support, predicated on a quick resolution of the problem caused by Patterson’s illegal expropriations, did not last long. Of lesser officials Cambridge became excessively intolerant. He was a strong-willed individual who, when he considered himself slighted, took full measures to obtain what he considered justice. In 1787 he carried a complaint against Isaac Swan, a petty Patterson supporter, to the governor and Council; in another incident two years later he was able to persuade that body to dismiss high sheriff Walter Berry for irregularities. He was less successful when he brought charges against the attorney general, Joseph Aplin* – a poor move, since Aplin was usually successful in the courts whatever the law. As a sharp merchant Cambridge was especially conscious of any apparent favour extended to his competitors and, when he learned that collector of customs William Townshend* was allowing use of the Îles de la Madeleine for the evasion of customs duties, he was quick to publicize the fact. In doing so he precipitated a struggle because Townshend retaliated by seizing several of Cambridge and Bowley’s vessels for smuggling. The latter case dragged on for three years with Cambridge complaining that he could not obtain justice in the Island courts. It was not until 1791 that the case was settled, but by then Cambridge’s complaints had been broadened to include almost the entire government of the colony.
In concert with John Hill*, another Island merchant, Cambridge and Bowley in 1791 brought charges of malfeasance before the Privy Council in London against Townshend, Fanning, Aplin, and Chief Justice Peter Stewart*. Cambridge carried the complaints to England in a petition that he persuaded a number of the Island’s absentee proprietors to sign. The general charge was that the officials had formed an illegal combination to rule the Island and oppress all who opposed them. A collection of lesser grievances, some going back to Patterson’s time, included partiality in the courts, election irregularities, and petty harassment. Hill later stated that in presenting the charges Cambridge spent time on the politics of the colony and none on the facts of the case. Much of Cambridge’s difficulty arose because 12 of the 18 signatories, including Bowley, withdrew their names before the charges were presented. Cambridge and Hill were the only resident proprietors whose names appeared on the document and both seemed prosperous in spite of their lack of favour with the officials. The shaky presentation was rebutted by Fanning’s personal emissary, Robert Gray, and the case was dismissed the following year.
By October 1792 word of the outcome had reached the Island and Cambridge’s troubles began in earnest. The notice from London was made public and his support and credibility sank. He was summoned before the House of Assembly to explain allegations he had made concerning members of that body, and after an investigation the house ordered that “the false and malicious words . . . be burnt under the gallows by the sergeant-at-arms.” The same year suits totalling £55,000 were launched against him and Bowley by the four officials on charges of malicious prosecution. Cambridge attempted to have the suits tried in Nova Scotia owing to the partiality of the Island courts. He received the lieutenant governor’s permission to do so, but he was unable to raise the necessary securities in case the decision should go against him. The trials were therefore held on the Island before judges who had a financial interest in the outcome. After verdicts were found for Aplin and Townshend in 1793, Cambridge agreed to settle out of court for Fanning’s and Stewart’s expenses. Total damages recovered amounted to £2,480, and Cambridge later reported that with his own expenses the complaints to London had cost him more that £10,000. He was forced to spend a short time in jail before he could convince the four officials of his ability to pay.
Because making the settlement would quickly exhaust Cambridge’s assets, the officials, who were more interested in payment than in revenge, agreed to assist him in recovering funds from Hill and Bowley. The latter were each asked to contribute one-third of the settlement, and when they refused legal action was brought against them. In 1793 suits prepared by Aplin were successful and resulted in executions against their property on the Island. Within days the property of Hill, who was absent from the Island, and the valuable Greenwich estate, belonging to Bowley and his children, were sold at auction by the sheriff and passed into Cambridge’s hands; Bowley himself was forced to flee under cover of darkness to avoid imprisonment. Attempts at appeal were refused by the courts and the governor in council in 1794, and Bowley was forced to appeal to the king in council in 1796 to have the case reopened on the Island. Hill, too, had to bring an action in London against his former associate and was successful, but before he could move against Cambridge the latter’s assets were placed in the hands of a trustee. Hill appears to have given up at this point but Bowley’s action was not settled for almost 50 years. In length and complexity the case Bowley v. Cambridge rivalled the celebrated Jarndyce case in Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak house, which was ended only when the total assets of the estate were swallowed up in legal fees.
Cambridge’s legal problems were exacerbated by business reverses. In 1794 he lost the support of his backers in England and his few remaining assets were seized by creditors. His schooner Endeavour was taken that year by the French on a voyage to the West Indies and he was left with no capital to rebuild his business. The loss of his London backers was the low point of his career. Faced with a report that even William Winchester, his brother-in-law, had joined the creditors, he considered leaving the colony and going to the United States. However, on learning that Winchester had stood by him and that it had been the other partners who had taken the action, he and his wife resolved to stay on the Island. The lieutenant governor and principal officers gave him encouragement. In a letter to Alexander Ellice*, a Montreal merchant for whom Cambridge was agent, he reported that “the People in the Island in General are much attached to us, and lament our failure, and hope we shall get into business again.” That he was able to do so was the result of a fortunate precaution. It appears that Cambridge had placed his affairs in the hands of a trustee “as the property of a bankrupt,” but he may not have declared bankruptcy. At any rate the move was sufficient to relieve the pressure on his finances and he was able to begin again. He kept the secure base at Murray Harbour and returned to the shipping of lumber and livestock to Newfoundland.
The key factor in Cambridge’s ability to rebuild lay in the fact that he retained control of several large parcels of property, much of which he had obtained through lawsuits. He seems to have made an effort to bring settlers to his lands and thereby avoid the attacks of those who would escheat for non-payment of quitrents. With this base he was able to continue efforts at settlement and the lumber trade. His mills processed timber from his own land which he then sent to Newfoundland in his own ships. By 1801 he had won back the contract to supply the garrison with fuel and had a new vessel on the ways, the first in ten years. It was launched the following year and Cambridge wrote to his wife that the ship, after proceeding to Liverpool with a timber cargo, was to sail to Ireland for a load of Irish Protestants “in order to preserve our lands from forfeiture.” Perhaps it was the renewed threat of escheat that prompted him in 1805 to sign with Charles Worrell* and William Townshend a memorial to Lieutenant Governor Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres citing the efforts of himself and other proprietors, including John MacDonald* of Glenaladale and Lord Selkirk [Douglas*], in settling people on their lands and contributing to the Island’s prosperity. In 1806 Cambridge was commended by the assembly for his efforts in this regard.
It was the timber trade that brought Cambridge fortune, and this prosperity he shared with the rest of the colony. Initially the trade was part of the Gulf of St Lawrence commerce and most cargoes went to Newfoundland. Shipping to Britain was too expensive and there was often a long search for a return cargo. From 1803 until 1807 only about two cargoes a year went across the Atlantic from the Island as a whole. The situation began to change in 1807 when the Napoleonic blockade of ports on the Baltic Sea opened the British North American timber trade. The Island was well suited to fill the demand: because it had many small harbours where trees grew close to the water’s edge, timber could be easily moved and loaded. In 1808, 41 vessels left the Island with shipments for Britain and the following year the number swelled to 78 despite what Cambridge termed “an uncommon bad season” with timber left behind because of deep snow. The trade brought manpower shortages to the colony and high prices. Oxen, usually raised for food, were employed in the woods and the provisioning of ships left food scarce. Sales to Newfoundland fell off dramatically.
Ships were a necessary element of the Cambridge operation and John lost no time building and acquiring them. From 1808 there was rarely a year when a new Cambridge vessel did not appear on the register and often there were several. When the timber trade stabilized after 1817 Cambridge remained successful by entering a new form of commerce, later followed by James Yeo*, which combined the exporting of timber with the building and marketing of vessels. In 1824 four ships were registered and twice that number in the following year. Many of these vessels were large, fully rigged ships in excess of 300 tons; the Cambridge (536 tons), launched in 1826, was one of the largest built on the Island. In his will, made in 1829, Cambridge instructed his sons that he had “found the most effectual way of getting my debts remitted . . . to be by building a ship annually and by loading her with timber” and disposing of both in the United Kingdom. Family correspondence reveals that in spite of prosperity the firm was never far from a financial crisis as dependence on credit was a necessary part of long-distance trade.
Other operations of the Cambridge firm also seemed to do well. In 1808 he boasted that his mill at Murray Harbour was perhaps the first in North America equipped with an 18-unit gang saw cutting 7,000 feet of deals a day. A new venture was the construction of a brewery at the Bird Island (Wrights) Creek mills near Charlottetown. Unfortunately it was not a success, in part because food shortages had raised the price of barley on the Island.
In 1808 Cambridge, whose family figured in all his business affairs, formed a partnership with his son Lemuel and his son-in-law George Wright*, son of Thomas Wright*, the surveyor general. Wright did not have the business sense of other members of the Cambridge family and the partnership was dissolved in 1813 when John took his other son, Artemas, into the company, now termed Cambridge and Sons. In the next few years control of the firm passed more and more to the sons, who were described by Lieutenant Governor Charles Douglass Smith* as “very fine young men & of the very best reputation.”
With some stability in business and his sons in charge of the Island operation, Cambridge, at the urging of his wife, who had run the business whenever her husband was in England, decided to conduct the British end of the firm’s transatlantic commerce. He apparently moved to Bristol in 1814 and did not return to the Island in his later years. By the time of his departure he seems to have made his peace with the colonial administration. He was nominated high sheriff in 1809 but declined, citing his Quaker beliefs, and his son Lemuel served instead. By 1813 he was noted as being an intimate friend of Chief Justice Cæsar Colclough.
When he died in 1831 at age 83 Cambridge held 102,000 acres on the Island, almost one-tenth of the total. In addition he and his family owned extensive mills, shipbuilding facilities, and stores, and the Cambridge estate was the home of at least 5,000 people, many of whom were tenants. There is no doubt that Cambridge was the greatest Island landowner of his day but his empire, like many others, was built on credit. The lands had been heavily mortgaged to provide capital for shipbuilding and expansion. Seven years after Cambridge’s death Samuel Cunard* and others purchased the mortgage for £12,000 sterling and in 1841 gained possession of the entire estate. In the same year the Island’s Court of Chancery finally decided Bowley v. Cambridge. After twice reaching the king in council, and following the death of both litigants, the case was resolved when the court divided Bowley’s estate equally between the claimants.
John Cambridge was hardly a typical merchant of his time. His religious beliefs in great measure governed his actions even in commercial dealings. After losing the case brought by the four government officials he wrote in 1793, “It has been my diligent study to keep a Continual Void of offence towards God first and to give no just grounds of offence towards my fellow men.” Yet he was a sharp merchant who used the courts as a weapon against all who dared oppose him, including attorneys who failed to win his cases. He exhibited tenacity in the face of odds that caused others to give up and return to England. The reports we have of him are mostly assessments made by his enemies and they exhibit a bitterness coming from close and protracted conflict. However, when his own letters and his actions are examined, Cambridge emerges as a man of principle in a society which had little regard for that quality.
[John Cambridge is the author of A description of the Island of St. John, in the Gulf of St. Laurence, North America . . . by a person many years resident there (London, [1798?]) (see PRO, T 1/4144: 17–26); a copy of a subsequent edition, A description of Prince Edward Island . . . by a person many years resident there (London, 1805), is available at PANS.
Few of Cambridge’s business papers survive, but those that do throw valuable light on business operations in the early nineteenth century. The PAPEI possesses two letter-books covering the period 1793–1801 and 1808–9, at Acc. 2984/4 and RG 6, Supreme Court, case papers, 1808–9, respectively. The former provides details of Cambridge’s struggle with the colonial officers and the ensuing court battles; the latter is extremely useful for details of the timber trade on Prince Edward Island. A letter-book of Cambridge’s wife, Mary, covering the period 1811–12 is found on pp.17–114 of a collection of Charles Wright papers owned by Mrs J. T. McIntyre of Calgary; photocopies are available at PAC, MG 24, B133. Additional letters from Cambridge to Alexander Ellice are found in the Ellice papers at the NLS, Dept. of mss, mss 15113–26, available on microfilm at the PAC, MG 24, A2.
Cambridge’s affairs appear frequently in Colonial Office correspondence, with the following references being most useful: PRO, CO 226/9: 176; 226/10: 29, 135–37, 234, 238, 252–93; 226/11: 17; 226/12: 12, 27; 226/13: 21–45, 207, 218–19, 280–82, 377–78; 226/14; 226/15: 172; 226/16: 186 et seq., 248; 226/17: 107–48; 226/18: 162–206; 226/19: 72–74, 204 et seq., 233, 347, 352; 226/20: 106–8, 142; 226/21: 110; 226/23: 65–74; 226/27: 78–83; 226/28: 53, 220–22; 226/29: 67–71, 115; 226/30: 177–80; 226/34: 391–99; 226/39: 49–54, 260, 416–22; 226/42: 132; 226/47: 166. Minutes of the Island’s Executive Council, found in PAPEI, RG 5, have references to Cambridge on the following dates: 12 April 1787; 15 Dec. 1788; 12, 16, 19–20, 23–24 March, 6, 27 April, 5 May 1789; 26 April, 17 July 1790; 7, 30 Oct. 1792; 23 Feb. 1793; 25 Oct. 1796; 6 Aug. 1799.
Details of ship ownership by members of the Cambridge family are found in PAC, RG 42, E1, 1658; PAPEI, RG 9, 2; and the Prince Edward Island Register, 3 Jan. 1826, 16 Jan. 1827, 29 Jan. 1828, 13 Jan. 1829, and 9 Feb. 1830. A significant amount of information concerning Cambridge is found in the Prince Edward Island court records (PAPEI, RG 6), which were examined for the entire period. This source is especially detailed for Bowley v. Cambridge, 1793–1841 (RG 6, Court of Chancery papers, box 1). Material regarding the Privy Council appeals in the case is at PRO, PC 1/64/B.30; 1/65/B.33, 35, and 38; and 1/66/B.40. These collections shed much light on Cambridge’s litigious nature. Information concerning his land holdings is scattered throughout PAPEI, RG 16, land registry records. Cambridge’s will is located in the Estates Division of the Supreme Court of P.E.I. (Charlottetown), liber 2: f.198.
Secondary sources which proved useful include: Canada’s smallest prov. (Bolger), pp.37–94; Warburton, Hist. of P.E.I., 255–65; and W. S. MacNutt, “Fanning’s regime on Prince Edward Island,” Acadiensis (Fredericton), 1 (1971–72), no.1: 37–53. h.t.h.]
PAPEI, Acc. 2984/4, Cambridge to [Flowden?], 28 Sept. 1793; Cambridge to B [William Winchester], [c. 1793]; Cambridge to Alexander Ellice, 26 Nov. 1794; RG 3, journals, 18 Dec. 1806; RG 6, Supreme Court, case papers, 1789, Cambridge, Bowley & Co. v. Clark; 1790, Townshend v. the Adventure; 1790, Townshend v. the Elizabeth; minutes; RG 16, land registry records, conveyance reg., liber 8: f.94; liber 49: f.203. Private arch., George Wright (Charlottetown), Cambridge family Bible. Bristol Gazette, and Public Advertiser (Bristol, Eng.), 29 Dec. 1831. Bristol Mirror, 31 Dec. 1831. Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal, 31 Dec. 1831. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 28 Feb. 1832.
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Cite This Article
H. T. Holman, “CAMBRIDGE, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 5, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cambridge_john_6E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||H. T. Holman|
|Title of Article:||CAMBRIDGE, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||June 5, 2023|