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FOREMAN, JAMES, businessman, judge, justice of the peace, politician, and philanthropist; b. 21 Dec. 1763 in Coldstream, Scotland, son of John Foreman; m. 1791 Mary Gardner, and they had seven daughters and six sons; d. 25 Oct. 1854 in Halifax.

James Foreman’s career originated in the close commercial linkage between London and Nova Scotia late in the 18th century. Little is known of his family background other than the fact that his father was a merchant in Coldstream; presumably James found in trade his best opportunity for advancement. He apparently had connections to draw upon since, on coming to London, he obtained employment with a leading firm in the colonial trade, the house of Brook Watson*. Watson dominated the export trade to Nova Scotia, ranked as creditor and confidant of most Halifax merchants, and had the ear of the imperial government on British North American affairs. In a move designed to consolidate his position in the Nova Scotian trade, he sent Foreman and another young Scot, George Grassie, to Halifax in 1789. There they established the firm of Foreman and Grassie, which functioned as a branch operation for Watson, receiving consignments from Britain, supervising the distribution of goods throughout Halifax’s hinterland, and engaging in the various colonial staples trades. During the protracted hostilities with France, Foreman and Grassie acted as agent for several Royal Navy vessels in the sale of captured enemy and neutral ships. By the first decade of the 19th century the firm had established itself as the second largest importer on the Halifax waterfront, surpassed only by William Forsyth*’s company. The partners acknowledged their prominence by making very generous donations to local philanthropic campaigns, and in 1801 Foreman joined several other notables in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish what might have been British North America’s first chartered bank.

Foreman’s association with Grassie (and apparently also with Watson’s surviving partners) ended in 1812. Foreman continued in trade, taking in his friend Thomas Leonard as partner, and over the next few years Foreman and Company ranked as one of Halifax’s leading merchant houses. In 1814, for example, it imported British dry goods valued at £26,312, along with 61,246 gallons of wine and spirits. The firm’s Long Wharf premises on Water Street had an assessed value in 1819 of £4,500, considerably more than the rating for George Grassie and Company. Foreman’s commercial success was such that he could retire the following year, his future assured by an annual rental income of from £400 to £500 derived from land holdings in both Halifax and Scotland. Foreman had contributed only marginally to institutional development within Halifax business. He served as a director of the Halifax Fire Insurance Company and, in 1819, joined with Michael Wallace* and others to defeat incorporation of a local bank. This action, which contradicted his earlier advocacy of a bank, grew out of factional rivalries within the Halifax merchant community. Although all might endorse the principle of institutionalized banking, divisions appeared when the discussion turned to the creation of a chartered monopoly. The disagreement, combined with rural suspicion of urban moneyed interests, meant that Nova Scotia would not acquire its first chartered bank until 1832.

Community affairs occupied a fair proportion of Foreman’s time. He had joined the North British Society in 1790 and served three terms as president. In the realm of philanthropy he belonged to the Halifax Humane Society, helped Walter Bromley* provide education for the poor, and served as director of the Nova Scotia Bible Society. In 1810 he was commissioned a justice of the peace and a justice of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas for Halifax County. He came forward as a candidate for the House of Assembly from Halifax County in 1820 but then withdrew in favour of Simon Bradstreet Robie. With this exception, his involvement in politics was confined to the municipal level. He held several offices within Halifax’s civic administration, most notably serving as chairman of the board of magistrates from 1828 to 1835. Shortly before resigning as a magistrate, Foreman joined with Richard Tremain to bring Joseph Howe* to trial for having allegedly libelled the municipal authorities. This confrontation eventually led to the granting of corporate city status to Halifax in 1841, a reform vigorously opposed by Foreman and most of his business peers.

In retirement Foreman established himself as a respected eccentric. He read extensively, delighting in French and Spanish novels, and would spend days poring over mathematical puzzles. Well into old age he took a daily sea-bath, even when that necessitated breaking through the harbour ice. Foreman also attracted comment by changing his clothes two or three times a day and by going on fasts of bread and water for weeks at a time. He enjoyed company, was a good host, and sang a Scottish folk ballad only hours before his death.

Foreman left a considerable estate: the Halifax portion alone had a value of £10,000. Bequests went to his two surviving brothers in Scotland as well as to his wife and a combination of eight children and grandchildren. The principal beneficiary was his eldest son, James, the first cashier (general manager) at the Bank of Nova Scotia.

David A. Sutherland

GRO (Edinburgh), Coldstream, reg. of births and baptisms, 4 Jan. 1764. Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.560 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, RG 1, 140: f.319; 173: f.169; 175: f.113; 252, no.3; 314, no.26; RG 31-104, 9, 1814. Glimpses of Nova Scotia, 1807–24, as seen through the eyes of two Halifax merchants, a Wilmot clergyman and the clerk of the assembly of Nova Scotia, ed. C. B. Fergusson (Halifax, 1957), ii. Journal (Halifax), 15 May, 25 Dec. 1820. Novascotian, 5 Jan. 1832, 6 Nov, 1854. Nova-Scotia Royal Gazette, 21 May 1806; 1 Sept. 1807; 6 Jan., 11 Aug. 1813; 12 Oct. 1814. Royal Gazette and the Nova-Scotia Advertiser (Halifax), 5 May, 29 Sept. 1795. Annals, North British Society, Halifax, Nova Scotia, with portraits and biographical notes, 1768–1903, comp. J. S. Macdonald ([3rd ed.], Halifax, 1905), 14, 150. Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1824–54. Halifax almanack, 1819. Beamish Murdoch, A history of Nova-Scotia, or Acadie (3v., Halifax, 1865–67), 3: 205.

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Cite This Article

David A. Sutherland, “FOREMAN, JAMES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/foreman_james_8E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/foreman_james_8E.html
Author of Article:   David A. Sutherland
Title of Article:   FOREMAN, JAMES
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   September 26, 2023