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DEVAU, Retor, CLAUDE – Volume IV (1771-1800)

d. 14 April 1784 at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade (La Pérade, Que.)


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JOHNSTON, HUGH, businessman, politician, and jp; b. 4 Jan. 1756 in Morayshire, Scotland, son of William Johnston and Isabel Hepburn; m. first Ann Gilzean of Thornhill, Elgin, Scotland, and they had eight children, including Hugh*; m. secondly 1806 Margaret Thurburn of Banffshire, Scotland, and they had six children; d. 29 Nov. 1829 in Saint John, N.B.

Most sources repeat a local tradition that Hugh Johnston arrived in New Brunswick in 1784 or 1786 sailing his own vessel loaded with trade goods. Whatever the merits of this account, his rapid rise in the small provincial business community suggests that he was the offspring of a prosperous Scottish commercial family and that, like the Pagans and Rankins [see Robert Pagan; Alexander Rankin*], he came as agent for Scottish interests. Johnston may have spent a few years in Maugerville but he soon established himself as a Saint John merchant. In 1789 he acquired a perpetual lease on a choice water lot near the North Market Wharf in Saint John Harbour; subsequently he built a wharf and formed the slip that was to bear his name for the next century. From this centre he organized an extensive business network which for 30 years was to play an important role in the commercial life of the province.

The structure of his firm reflected the changes in his family circumstances. Hugh Johnston became Hugh Johnston and Son in the early 19th century, and eventually Hugh Johnston and Company as one son passed out of the firm to form Crookshank and Johnston and the elder Johnston brought John Richard Partelow* into the partnership. Johnston’s primary concern was the Caribbean market. His business centred on the supply of fish for slave consumption in the British West Indies. By 1796 he employed 11 vessels in the prosecution of this trade. Like most West Indies merchants Johnston engaged in a triangular commerce: he exchanged his fish and lumber for sugar and molasses, which were transported to Scotland and distilled into rum; much of the rum was brought back to Saint John, where most was sold on the regional market and the remainder exported to other North American centres. In addition, he was a significant importer and wholesaler of British hardware and dry goods.

Johnston was highly successful in these endeavours. By the early 19th century his was probably the most important New Brunswick firm engaged in the West Indies trade. In the post-1815 period his company exported more than 30,000 gallons of rum a year from New Brunswick to Quebec, and this figure would certainly represent only a fraction of the firm’s total rum imports: typically three-quarters of those imports would be sold on the local market. Unlike most New Brunswick merchants, Johnston remained in the West Indies trade long after it had been superseded by the British timber trade. The firm of Hugh Johnston and Company was dissolved on 5 May 1827, two years before the death of its principal partner.

Not surprisingly, given his commercial success, Johnston participated in most of the activities designed to enhance the commercial and financial well-being of the port of Saint John. One sign of his influence was his appointment as a port warden of the harbour from 1816 until his death. An even more obvious sign was his role in the creation of the Bank of New Brunswick. He was one of the original petitioners for the bank and in the 1820 act of incorporation was named a director. This was an enviable position, one denied to some of the most prominent merchants in the province, and provides a clear demonstration of his standing in society. Among Johnston’s other enthusiasms in later life was the new steamship technology. Although he was not among the two groups of entrepreneurs each of which in 1812 proposed to spend £2,000 on the building of a steamship and asked for a monopoly of the steam navigation of the Saint John River, Johnston was in correspondence with Robert Fulton in an effort to obtain advice on steamship construction. In 1816 he was one of the partners who built the General Smyth, which plied the river between Saint John and Fredericton. And shortly before his death he participated in the consortium which built the Saint John; she made the first steam crossing of the Bay of Fundy in 1827.

Johnston was a member of a Scottish circle in Saint John that included the most influential merchants in the province. Their earliest expression of community was the St Andrew’s Society, formed in 1798. Among its officers were William Pagan*, the city’s leading assemblyman, William Campbell, the long-time mayor and a member of the Council, and John Black, an important businessman. Johnston served as its president in 1813 and 1814. In common with other leading Presbyterian citizens of Saint John, Johnston found little difficulty in accommodating himself to the latitudinarianism of the loyalist Church of England establishment. He attended and held office in Trinity Church at various times between 1790 and 1814, and as late as 1815 he was one of the 36 New Brunswickers nominated for membership in the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. By the latter date, however, he had already made the decision to return to his original faith. In 1814 he, William Pagan, and five other prominent Scots were appointed a committee to erect a meeting-house “for the use of such of the inhabitants as are of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.” Johnston and Pagan were both members of the legislature and their efforts yielded a provincial grant of £250 toward construction. The group procured a building lot in 1815, and in 1816, with the aid of Mayor William Campbell, acquired the grant of a city lot to be used for the benefit of the church. The Scotch Kirk (St Andrew’s), the first Presbyterian church in New Brunswick, was completed in 1815. In the autumn of 1816 Johnston sailed to Scotland with authority from the new congregation to call a minister; his choice was the 26-year-old assistant minister at Aberdeen, George Burns.

It is difficult to assess the reasons for this late blooming Scottish nationalism. The Presbyterians of Saint John had not been numerous but they were prosperous. There had been many gentle gibes levelled at their niggardliness and their failure to maintain their own institutions. The Saint John experience was repeated over the next decade in virtually every town in the province as Scots abandoned their adopted episcopalianism and re-embraced the Church of Scotland. Like so many of his co-religionists Johnston was a freemason, and he was a founder of St John’s Lodge in 1802.

In contrast to many of his peers Johnston was not a man of public affairs. Given his status and wealth it was both expected and appropriate that he should occupy positions of honour and responsibilitet he did not undertake those responsibilities until well into middle age. Though most men of his class held the office of magistrate by 1800, Johnston did not assume that normal distinction until 1818. His first entry into public life occurred in 1802, when he won election to the House of Assembly as one of the four members for the constituency of Saint John County and City. He entered the legislature as a member of the populist group led by James Glenie*. The group, formed in the mid 1790s, was a coalition of various social, economic, and religious interests which had been largely excluded from the loyalist establishment. By insisting on the assembly’s right to designate to whom the money raised by taxes should be paid, these dissidents had brought the political process to a standstill between 1795 and 1799 [see Glenie]. Although a compromise had been achieved and Lieutenant Governor Thomas Carleton* was able to gain effective control of the assembly, by 1802 the populists again dominated the house. After a controversy over the appointment of the clerk of the assembly [see Samuel Denny Street; Dugald Campbell*], Carleton dissolved the legislature, counting on the loyalty cry to secure him a majority in the province at large.

The gamble succeeded. Johnston arrived in the assembly as one of only eight populists, or reformers as historian James Hannay* referred to them. The core of the group consisted of the Scots Presbyterians: Glenie from Sunbury, Robert Pagan from Charlotte, and William Pagan and Johnston from Saint John. Depending on the issue they could count on the support of four or five other members from Charlotte and Saint John. During the first session of the house Johnston, his compatriots, and four others unsuccessfully opposed a motion that the clerk of assembly should be appointed by the crown. This defeat was only the beginning of a series of disappointments for the group. A number of contested elections – usually between populists and government supporters – were brought before the house. Ward Chipman’s petition to invalidate Edward Sands’s election in Saint John was upheld over Johnston’s opposition. The petition of the populist Peter Fraser* to unseat his opponent in York was fruitless, as was that of Samuel Denny Street in Sunbury. The final humiliation for the group was the reappointment of William and Thomas Knox as provincial agents in London. They had previously been dismissed by the assembly for refusing to present a petition to the king’s ministers protesting the lieutenant governor’s position in the constitutional debates of 1795–98.

The bitterness of that first session did not persist. Carleton left for England in October 1803 and Glenie left in 1805. The new provincial administrator, Gabriel George Ludlow*, was not prepared to prolong the debates and until his death in 1808 the assembly rarely met and even more rarely discussed contentious issues of principle. After 1808 animosities revived somewhat. Re-elected to the assembly in 1809, 1816, and 1819, Johnston found himself in the opposition on most issues. On questions not involving constitutional prerogatives, he generally supported low duties, economy in government, and protection of property. Thus he opposed the 1813 imposition of an additional tariff on rum to aid in the prosecution of the war, voted against a resolution of solicitude for the 104th Foot, opposed a motion to pay the cost of sleds for the 8th Foot’s march to Quebec, rejected attempts of the Council to amend the militia bill, supported the bill to regulate the trade in plaster of Paris, and opposed the 1816 bill to regulate assessments in the province. On constitutional issues Johnston remained a parliament man. In 1816, arguing that it was unnecessary in time of peace, he and the Pagan brothers, and John Ward* and Stephen Humbert* from Saint John, alone opposed a resolution to continue wartime revenue bills for an additional year. Two years later the same group was defeated in its opposition to a meeting between the assembly and the Council to negotiate an appropriation bill for the public service. Johnston declined to contest the 1820 election. He may have continued to hold his appointment as a magistrate of Saint John County until his death.

Johnston died at his residence on the evening of 29 Nov. 1829 following a severe and lingering illness. He provided his wife with an annuity worth £100 a year to be paid so long as she remained his widow, and the sum of £200 and one-room’s furniture to allow her to acquire lodgings. The remainder of his large estate was equally divided among his surviving three sons and four daughters.

T. W. Acheson

PANB, MC 1156; RG 2, RS8, appointments and commissions; RG 4, RS24, S21-P5, S24-P17; RG 7, RS71, 1829, Hugh Johnston. N.B., House of Assembly, Journal, 1803–18. Schedule of the real estate belonging to the mayor, aldermen and commonalty of the city of Saint John . . . January, 1842 (Saint John, N.B., 1849; copy at PANB). New-Brunswick Courier, 28 Jan. 1815; 8 April, 9 June 1827; 5 Dec. 1829. W. F. Bunting, History of St. John’s Lodge, F. & A.M. of Saint John, New Brunswick . . . (Saint John, 1895). Hannay, Hist. of N.B. D. R. Jack, History of Saint Andrew’s Church, Saint John, N.B. (Saint John, 1913). I. A. Jack, History of St. Andrew’s Society of St. John, N.B., Canada, 1798 to 1903 (Saint John, 1903). Macmillan, “New men in action,” Canadian business hist. (Macmillan), 44–103. MacNutt, New Brunswick.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

T. W. Acheson, “JOHNSTON, HUGH (1756-1829),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 14, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnston_hugh_1756_1829_6E.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/johnston_hugh_1756_1829_6E.html
Author of Article:   T. W. Acheson
Title of Article:   JOHNSTON, HUGH (1756-1829)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   April 14, 2024