FILLIS, JOHN, businessman and office-holder; b. c. 1724 in Boston, Massachusetts, son of John Fillis; d. 16 July 1792 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The son of a prosperous carter in Boston, John Fillis came to Nova Scotia around 1751. Apparently possessed of considerable capital, he founded a thriving shipping business in Halifax, and at the outbreak of the American revolution he had a branch in Boston. Payment of a guinea a month for the support of the poor had enabled Fillis to obtain a licence to sell liquor in Halifax, and in 1752 he established a distillery. He and Joshua Mauger enjoyed a monopoly of the wholesale rum trade in the province and frequently acted together to protect their common interest. In 1767, for example, when Governor Lord William Campbell supported a bill to lower the impost and raise the excise duty on spirits, Fillis and Mauger’s agent, John Butler, protested to the Board of Trade and were supported in London by Mauger and other British merchants interested in Nova Scotia. Campbell was soon ordered to restore the old rate of duty. The demand for rum resulting from the large-scale immigration to the province from Europe, Great Britain, and New England in the three decades after the founding of Halifax meant wealth for both Fillis and Mauger. Like many Nova Scotians Fillis invested heavily in land, and he came to own properties in Halifax, Grand Pré, Cornwallis, Horton (Wolfville region), Granville, and what is now Bridgetown. At the time of his death his estate was valued at nearly £30,000.
Fillis’ high standing in the community won him a seat in the first House of Assembly in 1758. Ten years later he succeeded Benjamin Gerrish as a member for Halifax County, a seat he held until 1770. In the fifth assembly (1770–85) he replaced Richard Gibbons as the representative for Barrington Township, and in 1784 he was offered the position of speaker, an honour he refused. From 1785 until his death he represented Halifax Township. He seems to have played an active role in the Halifax community. He was appointed a justice of the peace in 1771 and was a prominent member of Mather’s (St Matthew’s) Church.
The increasingly strained relations between Britain and the American colonies in the 1760s and 1770s created a dilemma for Fillis as for many other New Englanders in Nova Scotia. In the summer of 1774 the Council recommended that Fillis and William Smith, a fellow merchant and jp, be stripped of their offices for having protested the landing of East India Company tea in Halifax. The two men were also linked to another rebellious act, the burning of some hay intended for the British forces at Boston. Stories of their revolutionary tendencies were circulated by rebels in New England and eventually reached the ears of Lieutenant-General Thomas Gage. Alarmed, Fillis and Smith appealed to the assembly in June 1775 to clear their names, and a resolution attesting to their loyalty was passed by the house that month. Partly to regain his position in the province Fillis became a leader in the assembly’s successful campaign in 1775–76 to have Governor Francis Legge removed. The fact that Fillis had been named a defaulter by the committee appointed by Legge to examine the provincial accounts may also explain his activities against the governor.
A dissenter, landowner, merchant, and politician, Fillis was one of the most vigorous of the New England transplants that rooted themselves so firmly in Nova Scotian soil. He was twice married: first to Elizabeth Stoddard on 24 Dec. 1747 in Boston, and secondly to Sarah Cleveland, née Rudduck, on 19 Oct. 1756 in Halifax. He seems to have had ten children, four of whom probably died young. His son John became a substantial merchant in Halifax.
PANS, ms file, Fillis family docs.; MG 9, nos. 1, 4, 109. PRO, CO 217/22. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Halifax), Registers of baptisms, burials, and marriages. Royal Gazette and the Nova-Scotia Advertiser (Halifax), 17 July 1792. Directory of N.S. MLAs. Brebner, Neutral Yankees. Acadian Recorder (Halifax), 29 May 1926. “A merchant of the early days of Halifax . . . ,” Maritime Merchant (Halifax), XLIV (1935–36), no. 19, 49, 86. J. F. Smith, “John Fillis, MLA,” Nova Scotia Hist. Quarterly (Halifax), 1 (1971), 307–23. Yarmouth Herald (Yarmouth, N.S.), 8 May 1928.