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NEVINS, ARCHIBALD, merchant and shipowner; b. 1782 in County Kildare (Republic of Ireland), the second surviving son of Archibald Nevins and his second wife, Grace Penrose; m. Jane —,and they had four children; d. 21 Oct. 1812 in St John’s, Nfld.

Archibald Nevins was the fifth of 11 children, four of whom died while infants. He was the son of a substantial Quaker farmer, and his roots in his native county extended back to the early 18th century, when his great-grandfather moved from County Antrim in northern Ireland to Edenderry on the borders of west Kildare. In 1800 Archibald’s father died and his mother took her family to Waterford, where a number of her relatives resided. Before his death Archibald’s father had sublet part of his lands in King’s (Offaly) County and Kildare, and his widow now used this capital and income derived from other Nevins lands, amounting to several thousand pounds, to help establish Archibald’s elder brother, Thomas, in Waterford’s extensive overseas export trade, in which her brother Richard and Thomas’s uncle William Penrose had been prominent, the latter at least since the 1770s. The money allowed Thomas to rent right away one of the most desirable mercantile premises in Waterford, strategically located on the quay. This property had been held by his uncle Richard, and Thomas launched his career beside his cousins, the sons of William Penrose, who had succeeded their father as proprietors of the leading house in Waterford’s Newfoundland trade. In 1803 Archibald himself formed a mercantile partnership with another Waterford-based Quaker, George Newsom. This partnership was clearly unsuccessful and was dissolved in November of the same year. The following year Nevins moved to his mother’s home area near Arklow in County Wicklow and joined his uncle Thomas Penrose in the flour-milling trade. In 1805, with the assistance of family funds received from his brother Thomas, he moved to the south of County Carlow, where he invested in a tan-yard. These ventures also proved short-lived and he mortgaged or disposed of his interests in both places the next year.

Some time between 1806 and August 1808 Nevins moved to St John’s. There he began to ship cod, cod oil, timber, and other commodities to Thomas in Waterford, who by 1807 had been joined in business by their younger brothers Pim and Penrose. The available evidence does not make clear the nature of the relationship between Archibald and this family firm. Archibald may have been acting as an agent for the firm on a salary or commission, or he may have been acting independently, paying the partners a commission. It is most likely, however, that he shared in the profits with his brothers but was not legally part of the Nevins firm. The company employed at least one vessel, the Peggy, exclusively in the lucrative passenger and provisions trade between Waterford and St John’s. The Peggy had been plying this route since at least 1802, and under the Nevinses’ management made as many as four transatlantic trips a year, bringing out primarily salted pork and butter, bread, flour, porter, soap, candles, and other items, including salt from Thomas’s refinery for the curing of fish. These goods were consigned to Archibald, but the Nevinses also transported provisions for other St John’s merchants. Nevins not only acted as a wholesaler and retailer of provisions imported through his brothers, but he also sold on commission goods exported to Newfoundland by other Irish merchants. Although by no means a large-scale supplier, he offered a wide range of supplies at his premises, which were located at the west end of St John’s on the edge of the port’s central business district. Apart from the traditional Irish supplies, these included American beef and butter, rum and molasses from the West Indies, tea, coffee, sugar, and tobacco from British suppliers, wine, brandy, and gin from continental Europe, and a general assortment of shop merchandise.

From the outset the Nevinses were also involved in the passenger trade, transporting young men and sometimes families from Waterford to St John’s, where most of them were hired for a summer or more by planters in the rapidly expanding resident fishery. In April 1807, for example, the Peggy brought out 70 adults at £6 per person. Like all resident merchants or agents in the passenger trade, Archibald’s task was usually to direct these migrants or immigrants to their places of employment, to collect their fares in the fall after their wages had been paid, and to remit the resulting bills to his brothers in Waterford.

Apart from retailing goods, Nevins supplied merchants and fishermen outside St John’s, which was then emerging as the emporium for the island’s trade. In 1808 he bought a 30-year-old Newfoundland brig, the Success, which he registered in St John’s under his name, using it as a coaster and as a supplement to the Peggy in the transatlantic trade. In November 1809 the Success, just back from Waterford with provisions, sailed back again from Ferryland, south of St John’s, with cod, cod oil, and timber products for Archibald’s brothers, proceeded from Waterford to Liverpool for salt, and was back in St John’s by late May 1810. The vessel completed another round trip to Waterford before going to Burin on the south coast that fall for another cargo of cod and oil. Nevins was also engaged in the northern fisheries, selling goods to George Garland, a Poole merchant in Trinity, and supplying five boats to Irish fishermen operating out of Pitts Harbour at Chateau Bay in Labrador. Much of his trade was, however, confined to St John’s, and was particularly with the Scottish merchant community there and with Irish shopkeepers, publicans, artisans, and fishermen.

With little experience in the Newfoundland trade, Nevins probably attempted to expand his trade too rapidly. Between 1 Nov. 1810 and 27 March 1811 a number of St John’s merchants and dealers used bills of exchange amounting to £1,760 drawn by Nevins on his brothers in Waterford in order to reimburse a Waterford merchant for provisions. No doubt because Archibald was drawing bills too liberally, payment was refused by Thomas Nevins and the bills were returned. Extensive litigation ensued between the trustees of Archibald’s insolvent estate, the Nevins brothers in Waterford, and the various creditors and debtors in St John’s. Archibald’s insolvency was, however, due to more than a prodigal drawing of bills; like most merchants he had problems collecting debts from his customers. Writs issued by him, and later by the trustees, amounted to over £2,700, compared to £2,900 worth of debts against Nevins and later the insolvent estate. The court proceedings on the insolvency had not been concluded when Archibald died tragically on 21 Oct. 1812. While attempting to aid another man in trouble on board a ship in St John’s harbour, he fell from the main deck to the lower hold and fractured his skull. The Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser reported that he had been a kind and affectionate husband and parent and that he left a disconsolate wife and four helpless children. The family home was assigned to the trustees of the estate and Archibald’s widow and children left Newfoundland. His younger brother Robert moved to St John’s and re-established the trade with Thomas in Waterford until one of the fires of 1817 destroyed their stores on Water Street. Thomas Nevins then withdrew from the Newfoundland passenger and provisions trade and focused instead on the growing emigrant traffic from Waterford’s hinterland to the North American mainland, especially to the port of Quebec, and the concomitant timber-exporting business. He was one of the few Waterford merchants to adapt successfully his Newfoundland operations to the circumstances of trade with the mainland.

Archibald Nevins was of no importance politically, and his commercial career can hardly be considered a success. His activities are, however, important in the context of the period. Since at least the mid 18th century the Quaker merchants in Waterford had been important suppliers of provisions, on a commission basis, to West Country merchants engaged in the Newfoundland cod fishery. As in most other parts of the British Isles the Quaker merchant community in Waterford was a closely knit group which confined their mercantile associations as much as possible to immediate members of the family, close relatives, or fellow members of the Society of Friends. The typical trading arrangement involved a father and one or two sons or a combination of two or more brothers. Marriage was an important mechanism in the creation of such partnerships, the property and capital from marriage settlements frequently forming the basis for the establishment of mercantile trade. The Nevins family epitomized these patterns, but departed from Waterford Quaker trading tradition with Archibald’s departure for St John’s. Apart from one other family, there is no evidence of other Irish Quaker merchants taking up residence in Newfoundland despite their substantial trade with the island. The Nevinses were also unusual in operating their own ships; the other Waterford Quakers preferred to sell directly to English houses, whose ships called each spring to collect the goods at Waterford’s quay. This attempt by the Nevinses towards vertical integration of the trade came in a period of transition when the old migratory fishery was being supplanted by a resident one. The intensive shipping of supplies and passengers (the vast majority of the latter now emigrants and not migratory fishermen) on the outbound voyages between Waterford and St John’s was an adaptation to the rapidly changing conditions of the Newfoundland cod fishery during the Napoleonic Wars. A number of other Waterford merchants, almost all Catholic and mainly small-scale, attempted to develop similar operations, as did some of the St John’s – based merchants. Most were, however, obliterated by the uncertain nature of the fish trade during and after the Napoleonic Wars.

John Mannion

Maritime Hist. Group Arch., Richard Fogarty, Waterford, ledger, 1 Nov. 1810–1 Nov. 1813. PANL, GN 2/1, 19; GN 5/1/A/1-1816, minute-books, 29 July, 16 Sept.; GN 5/2/A/1-1812, minute-books: 66–67. Phoenix Assurance Company Ltd. (London), Jenkin Jones, report to Matthew Wilson on St John’s, 6 June 1809 (photocopy at PANL). Registry of Deeds (Dublin), items 345911, 363453, 371338, 376379, 377468, 386821, 389420, 393844. Religious Soc. of Friends Hist. Library (Dublin), Nevins pedigree, comp. T. H. Webb; Waterford Meeting, reg. Reg. of shipping, 1802–10. Ramsey’s Waterford Chronicle (Waterford, Republic of Ire.), 21 Aug., 9 Dec. 1817. Royal Gazette (St John’s), 16 Aug. 1810; 13 June 1811; 2, 16 Jan., 22 Oct., 19 Nov. 1812; 15 April, 15 July 1813. Waterford Mirror (Waterford), 27 Nov. 1803; 23 March 1804; 26 March, 21 Dec. 1806; 28 April, 13 July, 15 Aug., 31 Dec. 1807; 24 April, 11 July, 23 Aug. 1808; 18 Jan. 1810.

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Cite This Article

John Mannion, “NEVINS, ARCHIBALD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 7, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/nevins_archibald_5E.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/nevins_archibald_5E.html
Author of Article:   John Mannion
Title of Article:   NEVINS, ARCHIBALD
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   December 7, 2023