FLETCHER, ROBERT, printer and merchant; fl. 1766–85.
Robert Fletcher’s early life is obscure. He was likely born in London, where he presumably followed the printing trade before coming to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the early summer of 1766. He brought with him a new printing press, as well as an extensive stock of books and stationery with which he immediately set up shop. Until this time Anthony Henry had enjoyed the monopoly of government printing, but he had incurred official displeasure by criticizing the Stamp Act of 1765. Fletcher may well have been invited and encouraged by some local officials to immigrate to Nova Scotia with the incentive of government patronage. On 15 Aug. 1766 he published the first issue of his newspaper, the Nova-Scotia Gazette, a semi-official weekly of four pages consisting of a single sheet in folio, the immediate successor to Henry’s Halifax Gazette.
Late in 1766 Fletcher printed his first edition of the Journal and votes of the House of Assembly for the province of Nova Scotia, for which he charged the government £18 16s. 4d. In the mean time he had secured the contract for printing the first revision of the laws of the province, the agreement being that he would furnish 200 copies for the sum of £180. The perpetual acts of the General Assemblies of his majesty’s province of Nova Scotia, known today as the Belcher edition because of the notes supplied by Chief Justice Jonathan Belcher, was compiled by John Duport and published by Fletcher on 13 May 1767.
Fletcher showed a definite aptitude for printing, but unfortunately his work appears to have been wholly restricted to government commitments, though he advertised printing of every kind “done in the most expeditious, neat and correct manner.” His orderly composition and layout stand in marked contrast with the crude and rather flamboyant style of Anthony Henry. Yet by 1770, because of financial reasons or loss of interest, he appears to have been willing to abandon the printing field to Henry, who had established a rival paper in 1769. The last issue of the Nova-Scotia Gazette having been published on 30 Aug. 1770, Fletcher sold his press to John Boyle of Boston and from then on devoted his interest exclusively to his bookstore, one of the first in Canada. He apparently felt no rancour towards Henry, however, for his merchandise was extensively advertised in the columns of the latter’s Nova-Scotia Gazette and the Weekly Chronicle during the next few years. Fletcher expanded his business to include general merchandise in 1772 and, from all indications, experienced frequent financial crises. In 1780 he planned to leave the province but did not do so; in January 1782 he went into bankruptcy and his` stock and household effects were sold at public auction. For the next three years, however, he continued to maintain a store, but no record of him remains after the autumn of 1785.
Though little is known of Fletcher’s personal life he apparently had some standing in the community, for he served as churchwarden at St Paul’s Anglican Church in 1775 and also acted as agent for absentee landowners. As a printer he had unquestionable ability; it is unfortunate that he abandoned his craft in favour of a less creative trade. His first revised edition of Nova Scotia statutes, a volume of some 200 pages, today may be regarded as the first official publication of any stature produced in Canada.
[As far as can be ascertained there are no original copies of Fletcher’s Nova-Scotia Gazette in Canada today. The Mass. Hist. Soc., Boston, and the New York Public Library have small collections of broken runs, but the major portion of the newspaper has disappeared. s.b.e.]
PANS, RG 1, 212, p.213. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal, October-November 1766, 47, 77. Nova-Scotia Gazette (Halifax), 26 Nov. 1767. Nova-Scotia Gazette and the Weekly Chronicle (Halifax), 7 May 1771; 1 Sept., 10 Nov. 1772; 26 Jan., 22 June, 28 Dec. 1773; 24 Oct. 1775; 23 May, 21 Nov. 1780; 8 May 1781; 22 Jan., 19 Feb., 9 July 1782; 24 Feb., 27 May 1783; 25 May 1784; 25 Jan., 4 Oct. 1785. Tremaine, Bibliography of Canadian imprints. R. V. Harris, The Church of Saint Paul in Halifax, Nova Scotia: 1749–1949 (Toronto, 1949). Isaiah Thomas, The history of printing in America, with a biography of printers, and an account of newspapers . . . (2nd ed., 2v., Albany, N.Y., 1874; repr. New York, 1972). J. J. Stewart, “Early journalism in Nova Scotia,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., VI (1888), 91–122.