COOK, WILLIAM FRANCIS, merchant, shipbuilder, and office-holder; b. 4 Feb. 1796 at or near Guysborough, N.S., third child of Benjamin Cook and Philomela Hull; m. first, on 5 May 1822, Eliza Cunningham (d. 1850), and they had eight children; m. secondly, in the mid 1850s, Caroline Brown, and they had one child; d. 8 April 1862 at Canso, N.S.
Apparently Francis Cook was apprenticed to Thomas Cutler*, a Guysborough merchant, in whose service he was brought up and in whose firm he eventually became a partner. In 1816, likely through Cutler’s influence, he was made clerk of licence by the Court of Sessions; he also served as gauger, as hog reeve, and as an inspector and culler of dry and pickled fish. In 1822 Cook left R. M. Cutler and Company and established his own business in Guysborough. He dealt in general merchandise, and he likely purchased the fish he shipped to Halifax whence it was reshipped by larger firms to the West Indies. He may even have shipped directly to the West Indies himself. He also owned seines and engaged directly in the fishery. Between 1836 and 1849 his shipyards launched a number of brigs, schooners, and barques.
Francis Cook served as a vestryman in Christ Church (Church of England), Guysborough, from April 1822 to March 1823. However in 1823 he was listed as a teacher in the newly formed Methodist Sunday School, and in 1830 he and his wife were among the seven original founding families of the “Society of People called Methodists” in Guysborough. In 1837 Cook was appointed justice of the peace, in 1838 judge of common pleas, and in 1840 assistant judge of the Inferior Court and Sessions of the Peace. He served as a trustee of Guysborough Academy in 1848 and was an officer of the local temperance society, being president in the 1848–49 term.
For many years his business flourished and by 1842 Cook paid the fourth highest assessment in Guysborough County. In the late 1840s, however, Cook had serious financial difficulties, being unable to repay loans chiefly from Halifax merchants. With outstanding mortgages of about £1,000, his business was placed in the hands of assignees early in 1850 and in 1851 his Guysborough operation was sold by the sheriff for debts. In 1850, following his wife’s death, Cook moved to Canso where he re-established as a merchant. In May the Court of Sessions appointed him the weigher of flour and meal for Canso and in 1853 he became a commissioner for giving relief to insolvent debtors and for taking affidavits to hold to bail. By the late 1850s he was again in the fishery, maintaining a boat and employing four men. He also had the small subsistence farm that most Nova Scotians, regardless of their station, found convenient, if not necessary.
A relatively minor figure in a community decreasing in importance, Francis Cook is nevertheless interesting as a typical middleman in the Nova Scotia fishery. The business of shipping fish was a risky one, and it made or destroyed the fortunes of hundreds of Nova Scotian entrepreneurs.
Christ Church (Anglican) (Guysborough, N.S.), records (mfm. at PANS). Guysborough County Registry Office (Guysborough, N.S.), deeds. Guysborough United Church (Guysborough, N.S.), records (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 20, no.98; RG 1, 175, 449; RG 12, census of Nova Scotia, 1860–61; RG 34–311, P1–P4, 1785–1879. Eastern Chronicle (Pictou, N.S.), 1862. Provincial Wesleyan (Halifax), 1862. Royal Gazette (Halifax), 1851. Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1824–62. H. C. Hart, History of the county of Guysborough (2nd ed., [Windsor, N.S., 1895]). A. C. Jost, Guysborough sketches and essays (Guysborough, N.S., 1950).