LEWIS, WILLIAM, printer and journalist; b. in Kent, England; m. Elizabeth –, who died June 1782; fl.1777–87.
Except that he had emigrated to New York province by 1777, little definite is known of William Lewis’ early life. Possibly he served his apprenticeship in the colony under James Robertson, a prominent royalist newspaperman. Lewis fell afoul of the Americans for his pro-British printing activities at Albany, where Robertson owned the Albany Gazette, and in 1777 he was arrested by the New York committee of public safety. He was released in Kingston, N.Y., that October to “remain in the Service of Mr [John] Holt Printer.” Some time after that he must have eluded his overseers and made his way to New York City, for on Friday, 3 Sept. 1779, he and Samuel Horner began publication of the New-York Mercury; or, General Advertiser, thereby filling the only gap in the week when a British paper was not printed. In 1783 John Ryan* joined Lewis as a partner and together they continued publishing the Mercury until 15 August, by which time the American revolution was over and the evacuation of New York all but complete.
Arriving in Nova Scotia as a captain in a loyalist company, Lewis was granted a lot on Prince William Street in Parrtown (Saint John, N.B.). Since he began publishing almost immediately, Lewis unquestionably had taken the Mercury press with him. On 12 Dec. 1783, with Ryan still a partner, he issued a four-page journal, the Royal St. John’s Gazette, and Nova-Scotia Intelligencer, the first paper to be published in what is now New Brunswick. Lewis and Ryan advertised themselves as “Printers to His Majesty’s Loyal Settlement of St. John’s River, Nova Scotia, at the Printing and Post Office . . . King St., where all manner of Printing Work is performed with Accuracy and Despatch.” Official printing was the essential source of income for the Gazette, but they published non-government matter as well, including almanacs and books.
The Gazette’s news section contained international, regional, and local items, and there were attempts at literature and humour. The doggerel of Charles Loosley either amused or annoyed readers in Saint John by unmasking “The clamorous faction and the party wars,/The noisy tavern, and the scenes of riot.” Conditions there were chaotic during the first few years, and Lewis, who thrived on the inflammatory rhetoric of the American revolution, lost no opportunity to expose the misfortunes and sufferings of the loyalists between 1783 and 1785. He lashed out at the incompetence and unfairness of the officials and demanded a “second Spanish Inquisition” for the land agents who “The choicest tracts for some reserv’d,/Whilst their betters must be starv’d.” The creation of the separate colony of New Brunswick in 1784 solved few problems and in July the Gazette offered by subscription “An accurate history of the settlement of His Majesty’s exiled loyalists,” a book, no doubt to be written by Lewis, which promised to reveal the “unparalled neglect, or willful fraud” perpetrated on “distressed soldiers and poor refugees.” “Rank or station” would provide no shield from the attack. The book never did appear.
Even though the government was displeased with Lewis and Ryan, it was compelled to use their services because they were the only printers in the province. The contract for printing the charter of the city of Saint John in 1785, for example, went to the Gazette, but by then the authorities had had enough. Christopher Sower, a former competitor of Lewis in New York, was appointed king’s printer on 8 April 1785, and he arrived from London with his press in time for New Brunswick’s first elections that November. Lewis and Ryan, forced to change the name of their paper to the Saint John Gazette and Weekly Advertiser when Sower claimed the title the Royal Gazette and the New Brunswick Advertiser for himself, flayed the officials who had given preferential treatment to one who had not suffered through the colony’s first two years. The elections provided the opportunity for attacks on the establishment, and Lewis and Ryan, now freemen of the new city, were especially active in securing the defeat of the government candidates. Governor Thomas Carleton*, who would not tolerate such opposition, used the excuse of an election riot to arrest a number of the government’s leading critics, including Lewis and Ryan. He also had the elections of unacceptable candidates overturned.
Bound over to the Supreme Court in May 1786, and charged with “criminal libel,” Lewis and Ryan pleaded guilty, throwing themselves at the mercy of the court. Each was fined £20 and required to deposit £50 security as a guarantee of good behaviour for six months. Authoritarianism, not freedom of the press, held sway then and for another half century.
On 21 March 1786 Lewis had dissolved his partnership with Ryan, who retained the business and eventually replaced Sower as king’s printer. Lewis had been unable to accept the conventions of a non-revolutionary society. He apparently departed from Saint John in 1786 or 1787, leaving no record of his destination.
N.B. Museum (Saint John), W. F. Ganong coll., papers relating to the Saint John election, 1785–86. N.Y. Hist. Soc., Minutes of the committee and of the first commission for detecting and defeating conspiracies in the state of New York, December 11, 1776–September 23, 1778 . . . (2v., New York, 1924–25). Rivington’s New York newspaper; excerpts from a loyalist press, 1773–1783, comp. Kenneth Scott (New York, 1973). Royal Gazette and the New Brunswick Advertiser (Saint John, N.B.), 21 March 1786, 2 May 1787. Royal St. John’s Gazette, and Nova-Scotia Intelligencer (Saint John, N.B.), 29 Jan., 9 Sept. 1784. J. R. Harper, Historical directory of New Brunswick newspapers (Fredericton, 1961). W. H. Kesterton, A history of journalism in Canada (Toronto, 1967). Sidney Kobre, The development of the colonial newspaper (Pittsburgh, Pa., 1944; repr. Gloucester, Mass., 1960). J. W. Lawrence, The judges of New Brunswick and their times, ed. A. A. Stockton [and W. O. Raymond] ([Saint John, N.B., 1907]). MacNutt, New Brunswick. E. C. Wright, The loyalists of New Brunswick (Fredericton, 1955). J. R. Harper, “Christopher Sower, king’s printer and loyalist,” N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., no. 14 (1955), 67–109. D. R. Jack, “Early journalism in New Brunswick,” Acadiensis (Saint John, N. B.), VIII (1908), 250–65. W. O. Raymond, “Elias Hardy, councillor-at-law,” N.B. Hist. Soc., Coll., IV (1919–28), no.10, 57–66.
© 1979–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
C. M. Wallace, “LEWIS, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lewis_william_4E.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:
|Author of Article:||C. M. Wallace|
|Title of Article:||LEWIS, WILLIAM|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1979|
|Year of revision:||1979|
|Access Date:||March 28, 2023|