CANNON, JOHN, master mason, architect, businessman, militia officer, and politician; b. c. 1783 in St John’s, fourth son of Edward Cannon*, master mason, and Helena Murphy; d. 19 Feb. 1833 at Quebec.
John Cannon’s parents were Irish Catholics who had immigrated to Newfoundland by 1774; his father worked thereafter as a master mason on the fortifications and government buildings in St John’s. During the war between Great Britain and France that broke out in 1793 the youthful John was a volunteer alongside his father.
In 1795 Edward established his family at Quebec, where he launched himself once more in the building trade, securing several major masonry contracts, including the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (1799–1804), the Union Hotel (1805), and an addition to the parish church at Baie-Saint-Paul (1804–5). Edward engaged three sons, Ambrose (until his death in 1804), Laurence, and John (from 1800), as paid apprentices. In 1808 he formed the partnership of Edward Cannon and Sons with John and Laurence. This move was perhaps prompted by the securing that year of an important government contract for the masonry work on a new prison to be built on Rue Saint-Stanislas (1808–14) under the supervision of architect François Baillairgé. By 1809 John had become the effective head of the firm as his father, who was about 70, gradually withdrew from business. Under John, in 1810 the company built a house for Nicolas-François Mailhot (who a year later fitted it up for a hotel) and in 1813 another for the carpenter and joiner Charles Marié. Beginning in 1814 the Cannons undertook full-scale speculation with a purchase of vacant lands on Rue Saint-Louis, where they intended to erect two large houses for resale. One house was under construction when the family partnership dissolved after the deaths of Edward in 1814 and of Laurence the following year.
John carried on alone as a master mason, rapidly expanding his practice to become a contractor of masonry works. Indeed by 1825 he was calling himself an “architect and builder,” although there is no indication that he had undergone any professional training. He participated in a number of major projects both for clients and on his own behalf. These included a building at the Hôpital Général from designs by his friend Baillairgé (1818), all the plaster-work for the interior of Notre-Dame cathedral, again with Baillairgé (1820–21), houses for rental on property he owned on Rue Saint-Denis (1822–23; 1831) and masonry work for St Patrick’s Church, designed by architect Thomas Baillairgé* (1831–32).
Cannon’s practice was not an easy one, for he was frequently challenged in and out of court on the quality of his workmanship and on money matters. The plaster-work in Notre-Dame was discoloured; a house built for rental was in such an unfinished state that the tenant, Joseph Bouchette*, surveyor general of Lower Canada, took Cannon to arbitration; and plasterers and fellow Irishmen James Sharp (who had apprenticed with Cannon) and Michael Quigley successfully sued him for unpaid work at the Albion Hotel and his houses on Saint-Denis.
Cannon’s persistent financial difficulties stemmed in part from the burden imposed upon him by the will of his mother, who had died in 1821, in part from the failure of clients such as Philippe-Joseph Aubert* de Gaspé to pay for their houses, but chiefly from his own property speculations. Most notable was the case of the Albion Hotel. In 1824 he purchased at sheriff’s sale a property on Rue du Palais, paying the hefty sum of £3,000, which he raised through loans and mortgages. After fitting up the house and two wings as a hotel, he rented it to innkeeper Thomas Payne in December 1825. Cannon never recovered his investment.
Cannon was moderately active in the social and institutional life of Quebec. In 1813 he was an ensign in Quebec’s 3rd Militia Battalion, and he rose to the rank of lieutenant by 1824. A contributor to the Quebec Fire Society since at least 1809, he was elected its president for the year 1818. From 1822 he was frequently weekly director of the Quebec Savings Bank. He was considered an expert in agriculture and was occasionally called upon to attend competitions held by the Agriculture Society, of which he was a committee member in 1823.
A personal friend of the Irish-born lieutenant governor of Lower Canada, Sir Francis Nathaniel Burton, Cannon apparently became interested in politics in the early 1820s and seems to have acquired some popularity by openly opposing a project, begun in 1822, for the union of Upper and Lower Canada. In 1824 he was elected to the House of Assembly of Lower Canada for the constituency of Hampshire, a largely Canadian county. According to the newspaper Le Canadien, Cannon’s principal base of support was “in the parish of Pointe aux Trembles [Neuville], where there is a very considerable stone trade,” and where the notary and seigneurial agent François-Xavier Larue* campaigned on his behalf. His election was contested on the grounds that he had bribed some voters, threatened others with suits for debts, and opened “Houses of Public Entertainment.” On St Patrick’s Day 1826, in a sitting that lasted from early afternoon until 2:00 a.m., the assembly concluded that the Irishman had indeed furnished liquor to voters. His election was voided and he was expelled from the assembly. According to Louis-Joseph Papineau*, “although his expenditures were petty in comparison with the wrong committed in other elections, the House has given a just example of severity by nipping the evil in the bud.” Larue ran in Cannon’s place in a by-election held in March and April and was elected. Cannon himself was again returned for Hampshire in the elections of 1827; he sat until September 1830. In the assembly he proved to be an independent, while leaning towards the Canadian party. In December 1831 he was appointed by Lord Aylmer [Whitworth-Aylmer*] a trustee for the erection of the Marine Hospital at Quebec, and in February 1832 he twice acted as a property valuation expert commissioned by government.
Cannon played an important role in the social and religious organization of the Irish Catholics at Quebec. In 1817 he signed a petition to the bishop of Quebec, Joseph-Octave Plessis, requesting an English-language priest for the city, and seven years later he provided Simon Lawlor with the sacerdotal title, or financial guarantee against indebtedness, required of ecclesiastics before they could receive ordination. By October 1827 he was vice-president of a committee formed to ask Plessis’s successor, Bernard-Claude Panet, for permission to build a church for English-speaking Catholics at Quebec. He was among five delegates who carried out arduous negotiations on the subject with the fabrique of Notre-Dame cathedral and was probably instrumental in having the Reverend Patrick McMahon* brought back to Quebec in 1828 to minister for the most part to the Irish Catholics. By 1831 Cannon had become president of the building committee. However, it was not until 7 July 1833, some five months after his death, that the first mass was celebrated in the new St Patrick’s Church. In 1829 he had been elected president of a newly formed branch of the Society of the Friends of Ireland in Quebec, and in 1832 he was vice-president of the Quebec Mechanic’s Institute, founded in 1830 to improve the skills of labourers and tradesmen, particularly English-speaking, most of whom were Irish.
On 9 Feb. 1808 Cannon had married Angèle Grihaut, dit Larivière, daughter of a Quebec tinsmith; they had four sons and one daughter. After Angèle’s death, on 13 Feb. 1827 Cannon married Archange Baby, widow of Ralph Ross Lewen, town major of Quebec; no children from this marriage survived infancy. Cannon maintained a comfortable residence in Upper Town, first on Rue Buade and later on Rue Sainte-Geneviève. His interests were varied if his library of more than 280 volumes is any guide; it included architectural pattern books as well as histories, biographies, travel books, dictionaries, religious treatises, and poetry. His children were well educated; his daughter attended the Ursulines’ school and three sons joined the professional class as a notary, a lawyer, and a priest.
Cannon died on 19 Feb. 1833 and was buried three days later in Sainte-Anne’s chapel, Notre-Dame cathedral; those who signed his burial act (there were nearly as many Canadians as British) included Provincial Secretary Dominick Daly*, publisher and politician John Neilson*, educator Joseph-François Perrault*, judge Edward Bowen*, and lawyer William King McCord*. Although at his death Cannon held title to nine urban and five rural properties (including township lands in Lower Canada that his father had acquired at the turn of the century), he died a bankrupt, owing some £12,000 to a long list of creditors, of whom the most important were the executive councillor John Hale*, to whom he owed £1,400, the estates of François Baby* and Pierre de Sales* Laterrière, the Montreal Bank, and the Quebec Bank. More than £4,000 was known to be owed to Cannon, £1,500 by Aubert de Gaspé, and “Considerable Sums as arrears of Constituted Rents [life annuities]” were also thought due to his estate. However his heirs, finding the situation hopeless, signed the succession over to the creditors as being “more onerous than profitable.”
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