ESSON, JOHN, merchant and politician; baptized 6 Nov. 1804 in Aberdeen, Scotland, first child of Charles Esson, millwright, and Elizabeth Whyte; m. 10 Jan. 1836 Harriet Ann Leonard, and they had 11 children; d. 4 March 1863 in Halifax, N.S.
Emigrating from Scotland, John Esson joined his stepbrother Charles and his uncle Adam in Halifax about 1823. From his uncle he learned the grocery trade, and by the mid 1830s had set up his own store. In 1847 his assistant, Robert Boak Jr, became his partner in John Esson and Company, a domestic wholesale grocery firm, and in 1854 the two men, with John Taylor, formed a second company, Esson, Boak, and Company, to carry on trade in the West Indies. In the latter year, James Parker became an associate in John Esson and Company, but five years later Esson sold his share in this firm to his son William and to Alexander Stephen. In 1863 the senior partner’s continuing interest in Esson, Boak, and Company was valued at $200,000. By the mid 1850s Esson’s financial acumen had been recognized by his appointment to directorships in such organizations as the Bank of Nova Scotia, the Indisputable Life Policy Company, the Union Marine Insurance Company of Nova Scotia, and the Halifax Fire Insurance Company. He was president of the latter from 1858 to 1863. Although his financial interests encompassed a diversity of firms, his principal investments were in property, county mortgages, banks, and development enterprises.
During this period Esson also established himself as a concerned townsman. Active in the North British Society after 1832, he became its president in 1847. He served on the committee of management of the Halifax Mechanics’ Institute in 1840 and acted as a fire warden from 1841 to 1849. An original subscriber to the British North American Association, he sat on its committees for the advancement of Nova Scotian interests in manufacturing and the fisheries. Later he was president of the Halifax Agricultural Society. His various civic appointments in the 1850s, such as governor of the Poor’s Asylum and commissioner of the cemetery, were routine and responsible rather than controversial.
Only after his election as an mha, however, did Esson become fully a public figure. Quietly active in the Reform party by 1840, Esson was elected in 1851 to the Halifax County seat left vacant by Joseph Howe*’s transfer of his candidacy to Cumberland. Frequently Esson headed the Halifax poll in subsequent elections. After the reorganization of districts in 1859, Esson sat until his death for the eastern division of the county. He was a regular though not unswerving adherent of the Liberal government, steadfastly supporting such party priorities as Howe’s railway policy but rarely debating in the assembly upon principal issues. He did speak, however, on behalf of municipal autonomy and was a staunch defender of the authority of the corporation of Halifax. Moreover, he sought to promote the particular needs and interests not only of his business colleagues but also of his poorer constituents by regularly bringing before the assembly such issues as railway damages and road allowances. His view of the temperance movement might best be described as pragmatic; although his business included the sale of rum, he willingly presented his constituents’ petitions favouring prohibition. His most important position within the house was his long-standing membership, including the chairmanship from 1856 to 1863, of the public accounts committee: In the latter year, he declined an appointment to the Executive Council. A contemporary observer of the assembly found Esson “very quiet, but not inscrutable,” and Howe observed that “not many men had ever passed from the halls of legislation, leaving behind them so few enemies, and so many personal friends.”
General Register Office (Edinburgh), Register of births and baptisms for the parishes in Aberdeen, 1 Aug. 1795, 22 Nov. 1799, 6 Nov. 1804. Halifax County Court House (Halifax), registry of deeds, index, 1749–1865. Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), no.1127, estate of John Esson. PAC, MG 24, 1329, 3, pp.684–87; 8, pp.491–92. PANS, MG 3, 154; RG 35, A, 1–3, Halifax assessments, 1817–41, and road tax records. St Matthew’s Presbyterian Church (Halifax), no.47a, burials, p.66, no.48, marriages, p.347; baptisms, various pages (mfm. at PANS). Constitution and bye laws of the British North American Association, organized at Halifax, Nova Scotia, 18th Feb., A.D., 1851 (Halifax, 1851). Acadian Recorder, 31 July 1841; 7 June, 26 July 1856; 7 March 1863. Morning Herald and Commercial Advertiser (Halifax), 23, 30 Oct. 1840. Novascotian, 8 Jan. 1855, 4 April 1859, 9 March 1863. Sun (Halifax), 1 Jan. 1847, 6 March 1863. Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1837–63. Directory of N.S. MLAs. Halifax and its business: containing historical sketch, and description of the city and its institutions . . . (Halifax, 1876). J. S. Macdonald, Annals, North British Society, Halifax, Nova Scotia, with portraits and biographical notes, 1768–1903 (Halifax, 1905).