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FORRESTER, THOMAS, soldier, merchant, and politician; baptized 30 Aug. 1790 in Halifax, son of Alexander Forrester and Mary –  ; d. there 15 Nov. 1841.

Born into what appears to have been a lower-middle-class family, Thomas Forrester received the rudiments of a formal education at the Halifax Grammar School, and while still a youth entered the British army as a soldier. During the War of 1812 he served with the Royal Artillery in British North America. Returning to Halifax at war’s end, he entered the retail dry goods trade, specializing in the sale of genteel finery. A shrewd businessman, Forrester capitalized on the economic growth in Halifax during the 1820s and 1830s. His 1819 assessment rating of £300 had risen to £4,000 in 1841, by which time he could be counted among the richest of Haligonians. His property included a stone house and store on Barrington Street (described after his death as “one of the best edifices in Halifax”), urban real estate yielding an annual rent-roll of £350, more than 1,000 acres of land across the province, and £2,000 in corporate securities, including 20 shares in the Bank of Nova Scotia. As befitted a man of property, Forrester enjoyed a position of influence in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and won such honours as the presidency of the Nova Scotia Philanthropic Society. Thus within a few years Forrester had risen from obscurity to “handsome independence.” With his wife, Elizabeth Martin, whom he had married on 25 Feb. 1813, and their five children, he “surrounded himself with the evidences of prosperity.”

Material success did not, however, make Forrester a satisfied man. The post-war years also established him as an irascible trouble-maker. His letters to newspapers alleging an insurance fraud by certain leading local merchants resulted in 1825 in a conviction for libel and a fine of £100. Five years later, after a number of other clashes with the local gentry, Forrester consolidated his reputation by complaining that Halifax lawyers, judges, and officials had conspired to deny him justice in a debt action he had brought against a British army officer. Convinced that he had been victimized, Forrester petitioned Lieutenant Governor Sir Peregrine Maitland* for redress, and when rebuffed wrote directly to the Colonial Office, demanding vengeance. In the words of a contemporary, these were the actions of a man both “headstrong and intractable.” An outraged Maitland described Forrester as “one of those unfortunate persons who just approach the verge of insanity without being sufficiently disordered to have the protection which declared lunatics enjoy.” The attitude of local moneyed interests toward Forrester was demonstrated in 1832 when they decisively rejected his bid for election to the directorate of the Bank of Nova Scotia. Forrester’s troubles reflected the difficulty a non-conforming outsider faced in attempting to penetrate the ranks of the Halifax oligarchy. An absence of deference on his part ensured that he would be excluded from public office and official patronage, a situation that could only aggravate his antagonism toward those in authority.

What transformed personal grievance into public cause was the eruption of political protest across Nova Scotia during the 1830s. Forrester’s first involvement with public affairs came during the “Brandy Election” of 1830 when he backed Beamish Murdoch* in his unsuccessful attempt in Halifax Township to defeat the candidate of the oligarchy, Stephen Wastie Deblois. Over the next few years, Forrester became a stock figure at meetings called to protest high official salaries, devaluation of the province’s paper money, and related issues. After Joseph Howe* won acquittal in his famous 1835 trial for criminal libel, Forrester was one of the first to rally to him, seeing him as leader of an emerging reform movement. In 1836 the two stood on the reform ticket for election to the assembly and won, Forrester topping the poll in Halifax Township. Within the assembly, Forrester quickly emerged as a member of the radical wing of the amorphous reform caucus.

A man little given to abstract speculation, Forrester never defined his political principles in a systematic manner. He rarely participated in the protracted debates held to determine the precise meaning of responsible government. Instead, he concentrated on more tangible issues, such as the need for legislation that would better secure tradesmen against absconding debtors. In the promotion of one institutional innovation he assumed a leading role: the incorporation of Halifax as a city and the replacement of the appointed justices of the peace who administered civic affairs by elected officials. Using arguments that blended the self-interest of ratepayers with democratic idealism, Forrester insisted that this reform would create a municipal administration which would be honest, efficient, and cheap. The model for Halifax, he asserted, should. be Boston, a city ruled by the propertied middle class, where the civic administration could both tax the affluent and impose moral discipline on the “lower orders.”

Rural suspicion of urban aggrandizement and élitist opposition to the “levelling” principle of election to municipal office delayed incorporation in the assembly and councils. A charter finally passed in 1841 but it outraged Forrester, since high property qualifications for electors and office holders ensured that the new administration would remain in the hands of the élite. This caution, and the generous pensions provided for retiring municipal officials, convinced Forrester that the charter amounted to a “triumph of toryism.”

By now Forrester was completely alienated from the moderate reformers. Howe had entered the coalition set up in 1840 under Lieutenant Governor Lord Falkland [Cary*] on the initiative of Governor Charles Edward Poulett Thomson but Forrester withheld his support, arguing that the new administration involved too many compromises. His militancy may in part have stemmed from resentment over having been snubbed during negotiations leading up to the establishment of the coalition. Forrester’s exclusion derived from his reputation for being irascible and erratic. Many remembered his behaviour during the financial crisis of 1837. When the panic had spread from Britain to Nova Scotia, the Halifax banks, alarmed by the prospect of runs on their cash reserves, had suspended the redemption of paper for metal. Merchants endorsed the decision but shopkeepers protested that they could not function without coinage. Possibly acting out of spite, Forrester came to the aid of Halifax retailers by launching a series of lawsuits against the Bank of Nova Scotia, claiming that its charter barred it from refusing to redeem in specie. The panic passed and payments resumed before the suits could be adjudicated, but Forrester’s championing of the common man convinced respectable society that he could not be trusted with power.

Despite the break with Howe, Forrester enjoyed sufficient popularity to retain his seat in the election of 1840. In the house he played the role of radical gadfly, denouncing the legislative program of the coalition government. He widened the gap separating him from the moderates by speaking in favour of repeal of the parliamentary union between Ireland and Britain. Poor health intervened, however, to end his political career. After an illness of several months, Forrester died late in 1841. An obituary written by Howe contained the rather grudging comment that Forrester “had many good qualities for which he did not always get credit.”

The chief significance of Thomas Forrester’s public life lies in the extent to which it illustrated the tension generated in Halifax by Nova Scotia’s “intellectual awakening.” The circulation of new wealth and fresh ideas in a maturing colonial society spawned demands for change which came to be embodied in Forrester. The most significant aspect of his campaign against oligarchy was the demand for Halifax’s incorporation. His ambition appeared in 1841 to have been defeated by hesitation on the part of moderates but within a decade of his death the restraints on middle-class municipal democracy had been swept aside, with the result that Halifax moved from the era of “merchantocracy” to that of “shopocracy.”

David A. Sutherland

Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, nos.1138–39 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, RG 1, 312, nos.63, 86; RG 32, 142, 25 Feb. 1813; RG 35A, 1–3. PRO, CO 217/151: 110; 217/152: 83 et seq.; 217/153: 227. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1838, app.75. Acadian Recorder, 29 Jan. 1825; 18 Sept. 1830; 5 Nov. 1836; 24 July 1837; 27 March, 12 June 1841. Halifax Journal, 20 Feb. 1837. Novascotian, 7, 28 June 1832; 23 Jan., 29 Dec. 1834; 11 June, 10–26 Nov. 1835; 8 Dec. 1836; 20 April 1837; 8 March 1838; 17 Oct. 1839; 9 April, 12 Nov. 1840; 18 Feb., 11 March, 29 April, 18 Nov. 1841. Times (Halifax), 16 Feb. 1841, 26 July 1842. Weekly Chronicle (Halifax), 21–28 Jan. 1825. Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1841. Directory of N.S. MLAs. History of the Bank of Nova Scotia, 1832–1900; together with copies of annual statements ([Toronto, 1900]).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David A. Sutherland, “FORRESTER, THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/forrester_thomas_7E.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/forrester_thomas_7E.html
Author of Article:   David A. Sutherland
Title of Article:   FORRESTER, THOMAS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   December 4, 2023