HILDRITH, ISAAC, builder and surveyor; b. 1741 in Ellerton-upon-Swale (Ellerton, North Yorkshire), England; m. Ann Wood, also of Ellerton-upon-Swale; d. 16 Sept. 1807 in Shelburne, N.S.
After emigrating to Norfolk, Va, in 1770 Isaac Hildrith pursued various occupations. Established as a small storekeeper and house carpenter, he was also employed as a surveyor, preparing reports on a survey of the James River Falls and, in 1774, on canal proposals for the North and Elizabeth river systems. When the revolution broke out in 1775 he rejected solicitations from the rebels and joined the forces of Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, serving first as a surveyor and builder of military fortifications, and later as lieutenant commanding a company engaged in the defence of the Great Bridge Fort near Norfolk.
Hildrith lost all his property when Norfolk fell to the rebels in January 1776. Resigning his commission on 5 August, he returned to England the following month to reside in his birthplace of Ellerton-upon-Swale. From here he submitted to the Treasury in 1778 the first of several petitions requesting financial recompense for losses suffered in service to the crown. Although the government decided to defer its consideration of this petition, Hildrith tried again in July 1781 and was awarded £100 and passage for himself and family back to America, where he hoped to retrieve his Virginia property. Soon afterwards the Hildrith family moved to Charleston, S.C., and they remained there until the city was evacuated by British troops in December 1782. They then travelled to Kingston, Jamaica, and later, in June and July 1783, to Shelburne, N.S., via New York. In Shelburne, Hildrith obtained a land grant of 360 acres and established himself in reasonable comfort; he was variously described as merchant, farmer, and associate with Aaron White in the firm of Hildrith and White, carpenters.
Hildrith’s importance in Nova Scotia’s history is based on his activities as the so-called architect of two public buildings, the first being Christ Church, Shelburne. However, in this, as in the later case of Government House, Halifax, it would be more accurate to describe Hildrith as the master builder since there is no evidence of original design work on his part. In May 1788 the vestries of the Anglican parishes of St Patrick and St George, Shelburne, purchased a lot for the building of a church [see George Panton]. Although the estimate of £620 submitted by Hildrith and White was the higher, the firm’s design for the building was accepted as “superior in Strength, Convenience and Beauty.” A plain rectangular clapboard building, 65 by 42 feet, containing 82 pews, with galleries around three sides and a small cupola for a bell over the front end, the church mirrored the New England design of the period. Divine service was held for the first time in the new building on 25 Dec. 1789.
The picture of Hildrith’s activities is sketchy, but it is none the less a fairly typical reflection of the Nova Scotian loyalist who, by juggling a variety of occupations and by taking advantage of every opportunity to exercise a talent, re-established his position and acquired a modest competence. After 1797 Hildrith travelled frequently to Halifax, a city that offered greater scope for his surveying and building skills, and some time around 1802 he took up permanent residence there. His first assignment in Halifax was the preparation, in partnership with Theophilus Chamberlain*, of a report on a projected Shubenacadie canal. In July 1797 the Council agreed to a House of Assembly resolution that a committee be appointed “to procure a fit person to make a survey of the water and ground between Shubenacadie River and Halifax Harbour” and to report on the cost of a canal between Minas Basin and Halifax. The Hildrith–Chamberlain report recommended such an inland navigation system and presented an estimate of approximately £24,000 for the project. The commissioners recommended the construction of a canal; the assembly studied a resolution in June 1798 that a committee be established to petition for the incorporation of a canal construction company; and Lieutenant Governor Sir John Wentworth promised his support for such a petition, naming a company chaired by Andrew Belcher*. However, the 1798 legislative session ended with no further action on the proposal. The Shubenacadie canal question was not taken up again until 1814, with construction finally begun in 1826.
Meanwhile, on 23 June 1797 the assembly resolved upon the construction both of a “public building for the Accommodation of the General Assembly, Supreme Court, and Court of the Admiralty and public Offices,” and of a new residence for the lieutenant governor. A lot was purchased to meet the first objective, but the pressure of executive complaint over the condition of the current Government House effected a change of plans: in July 1799 the assembly announced that “whereas the present Government House is in so ruinous a condition as to be unfit for the residence of the Governor or Commander in Chief of the Province, it becomes more immediately necessary to proceed to the Erection of a House suitable for his reception and Accommodation.” The assembly voted £6,900 to cover the costs. The allocation was later increased to £10,500, in return for increased grants to the provincial road system, but as costs continued to mount Government House became a bone of contention between the assembly and the lieutenant governor, contributing to the acrimony of legislative proceedings during the last years of the Wentworth administration.
Hildrith worked for seven years on Government House, assisted by John Henderson as chief mason. In a contemporary newspaper account of the laying of the cornerstone Hildrith is identified as “architect,” a designation reappearing in other sources; but it is likely that this title was applied loosely, meaning the official charged with the interpretation of plans. There has been a tradition that the Scottish architects Robert and James Adam designed the building; however, certain significant characteristics of the Adam style are lacking, and the claim is countered by the likelier supposition that use was made of one of the various books of English architectural designs then circulating in the United States and British North America. Government House is built on simple lines, a three-storey central section with two-storey wings, reflecting some classical influence, constructed solidly of Nova Scotian free-stone and other local materials. Lieutenant Governor Wentworth’s successor, Sir George Prevost, thought it a far grander building than the state of the province warranted.
On 31 Dec. 1806 Hildrith resigned his position, with Government House still not completed in all details. In 1803 he and John Henderson had been granted house lots in the north suburbs of Halifax. Further appreciation of his efforts was shown on 23 Jan. 1807, when the assembly voted £50 “as a testimonial of the favourable opinion entertained by the legislature of his ability, integrity, diligence, and zeal.” On 16 September of the same year Hildrith died in Shelburne and was buried in Christ Church cemetery. The inscription on his tombstone summed up his life and character with a simplicity characteristic of the works he left behind – “a loyal subject, an able architect, and an honest man.”
Christ Church (Shelburne, N.S.), cemetery, gravestone of Isaac Hildrith. PANS, MG 4, 140 (photocopy); MG 24, 43; 72, no.10; RG 1, 303; RG 5, A, 6–14; GP, 1; S, 8: c.1, c.9, c.12; RG 20A, 12A, 1785, no.81. PRO, AO 13, bundle 24: 262–64; bundle 31: 50–52 (copies at PAC). Shelburne County Court of Probate (Shelburne), no.279, will and estate of Isaac Hildrith, proved 5 Feb. 1808. Shelburne County Museum (Shelburne), Christ Church, Shelburne, vestry book, 1788–1908; burial reg., 1783–1813 (mfm. at PANS). J. S. Martell, “Government House,” PANS Bull. (Halifax), 1 (1937–39), no.4. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1792–98. Colonial Churchman (Liverpool, N.S.), 1 Dec. 1836. Royal Gazette and the Nova-Scotia Advertiser, 16 Sept. 1800. Sabine, Biog. sketches of loyalists, vol.2: 530. Akins, Hist. of Halifax City. J. S. Martell, The romance of Government House (Halifax, 1939). C. B. Fergusson, “Isaac Hildrith (c.1741–1807), architect of Government House, Halifax,” Dalhousie Rev., 50 (1970–71): 510–16. Marion Robertson, “Isaac Hildrith: a Shelburne loyalist,” Nova Scotia Museums Quarterly (Halifax), 1 (1970), no.2: 18–21.