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PIPES, WILLIAM THOMAS, lawyer, politician, and businessman; b. 15 April 1850 in Amherst, N.S., son of Jonathan B. Pipes and Caroline Fowler; m. 23 Nov. 1876 Ruth Eliza McElmon in Fort Lawrence, N.S., and they had three daughters; d. 7 Oct. 1909 in Boston.

Descended from Yorkshire Methodist and loyalist stock, William Thomas Pipes was educated at Amherst Academy, and he was admitted to the Nova Scotian bar in 1875. He entered politics three years later by contesting for the Liberals the federal seat of Cumberland against Charles Tupper*, its member since 1867. Facing impossible odds, he won his party’s plaudits for his forcefulness. His victory in Cumberland during the provincial election of 1882 had unexpected, even bizarre, consequences, the result of the fact that the successful Liberals were without a recognized leader. William Stevens Fielding*, who had unofficially directed the Liberal campaign as editor of the Halifax Morning Chronicle, could probably have had the leadership, but he refused because of his limited financial resources. Accordingly, construction of the cabinet was left to the caucus, where cabals abounded with their intrigues and jealousies. Not only did it name the three ministers with portfolio, but it also selected the “premier” (as the “leader of the government” was beginning to be known), an office unrecognized in law and hence unpaid. To almost everyone’s surprise it chose the 32-year-old Pipes, who had never sat in a legislature. In so doing it put him in an impossible situation by not according him a portfolio: in order to support his family, he needed to carry on a law practice in Amherst, while to conduct the business of government he required frequent, sometimes extended, stays in Halifax.

Fellow Liberal mha James A. Fraser called Pipes a “morose and distant man,” and indeed the premier established a genuine rapport with few members other than Fielding, whom he soon induced to become a minister without portfolio. Counterbalancing qualities, especially his extraordinary ability to marshal complex series of facts and reach conclusions difficult to challenge, let him get through the session of 1883 without trouble. None should think, he said, that the situation he inherited was “lovely, that we found the sky all sunshine.” Because the treasury was bare, the government’s program was slight and confined largely to those railways that required immediate attention. A major decision was not to proceed with the arrangements of the previous Conservative government of Simon Hugh Holmes*. Holmes, obsessed with railways and their mounting cost to the province, had concluded an agreement by which a syndicate formed by railway contractor and owner Edmund W. Plunkett would take over all the provincially owned railways. The terms were of immense complexity, and the precise payment to the province was in doubt; in addition, the financial soundness of the syndicate was suspect. Pipes was adamant about not dealing with a company which existed largely on paper and whose directors had subscribed none of their own money: “We have taken no precautions that we would not have deemed necessary if we had been transacting our own business.” A second decision was to borrow $2.46 million and, in effect, inaugurate a provincial debt, the purpose being to acquire from the federal government the Pictou branch of the Intercolonial Railway and to purchase and complete the privately owned Eastern Extension Railway from New Glasgow to the Strait of Canso. To Pipes the proposals would “open up new avenues of trade . . . and give a new impulse to [provincial] prosperity. Should we then stand trembling, bolting, fearing at this crisis in our country’s history?”

During the session Pipes’s personal problems manifested themselves in poignant fashion. Once he wrote to Fielding from Amherst that his wife was “very low” and nursing a child of six months whose cries disturbed her and impeded her recovery. But although he was “badly broken up,” he would come to Halifax if his presence was indispensable. Meanwhile Fielding was to get James Wilberforce Longley* or some other member of the government he thought best to assist him. That Pipes would rely on a minister without office testifies to the coolness of his relations with the ministers holding office.

In 1884 the government’s bill of fare was again meagre. After several trips to Ottawa, Pipes and Fielding decided that the federal government’s conditions for the transfer of the Pictou branch were unacceptable; proceeding with the transaction would be the same, said Pipes, as if “a quarter to half a million of dollars . . . were taken and thrown into the Strait of Canso.” Accordingly his government abandoned its railway proposals and sold its interest in the Eastern Extension to the federal government. When the opposition Halifax Morning Herald was critical of the financial arrangements, charging Pipes and Fielding with trying to “cram [a bad deal] down the throats of their supporters,” they replied that within the limits prescribed by Ottawa they could not have done better. Pipes even suggested that, for all practical purposes, the federal government had made the Eastern Extension part of the Intercolonial Railway and by implication had committed itself to railway building on Cape Breton Island, which the latter’s representatives had urged for some time.

Early in 1884 the Pipes government indicated that it would be making financial demands on Ottawa. Because the previous Conservative government had already cut expenditures to the bone, Pipes had managed to effect only small savings. Indeed, by balancing the budget through drastic cuts in services, the province had weakened its case for better financial terms of union with the rest of Canada, for which it had long been contending. Fraser beat the cabinet to the punch by presenting strongly worded resolutions demanding better terms and asking if Nova Scotia “should . . . always continue to truckle to the politicians at Ottawa,” unable to go to the queen’s “glorious throne [except] through the slums and pitfalls of Canadian politics.” At Pipes’s request Fraser withdrew his resolutions in order to permit a unanimous one, but its wording was so moderate that Fraser prophesied its failure.

Although Pipes had got through the session of 1884 comfortably, his financial, family, and personal problems remained. Lieutenant Governor Matthew Henry Richey found him highly reticent, even with his own ministers with portfolio. The latter had objected to his appointing Fielding to the Executive Council without consulting them and had resisted attempts to confer ministerial offices with emolument on himself or Fielding. In May 1884 Pipes put several hypothetical questions to Richey. When he enquired if his resignation would mean the dissolution of the ministry, Richey replied in the affirmative. Asked whether he would accept Pipes’s recommendation of a successor, Richey said that he would if the ministry appeared to be acting together and possessed a majority in the assembly.

On 14 July Pipes presented his resignation and on his advice Fielding was appointed to succeed him. A debate followed on the applicability of British practices to Nova Scotia. A letter-writer in the Herald argued that the lieutenant governor was bound to follow the advice of a majority of the Executive Council, not that of a so-called premier. Some executive councillors engaged in a “sort of protest,” telling Richey that the resignation of the leader of the government did not dissolve the ministry since the lieutenant governor’s pre-confederation commissions required him to act on the advice of his Executive Council, and the British North America Act provided that the council would be the same as it was before. However, Richey clearly regarded the Pipes ministry as having been dissolved.

An apocryphal account relates that when Fielding asked Pipes who was to succeed him, he was referred to 2 Sam. 12:7. “And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man.” In reconstructing the ministry, Fielding had the same difficulties with the “troublesome fellows” in the caucus as had Pipes. After two weeks he managed to get the provincial secretaryship for himself, but not the attorney generalship for Pipes. Yet the latter congratulated him for teaching the difficult members something of a lesson and added that if they did not support Fielding in his ministerial election in Halifax he would “swear like a pirate at them and tell them they must put you in at all hazards. I can do it. They want none of Pipes ‘ruffianism.’”

Pipes was faithful in attendance at the legislature in 1885. He was at pains not to embarrass Fielding, especially in his reaction to Fraser’s forthright resolution for repeal of the BNA Act. Stressing that he had always favoured confederation, he pointed out that “repeal was never mooted” at the last election, that not a single constituent had raised the subject with him, and that if anyone was to propose it, the Nova Scotian mps should. Nevertheless, he supported Fielding’s amendment that if Nova Scotia did not receive relief promptly it would have to consider the possibility of repeal. To him it was the best way to shelve the question and end “this exhibition of tinkling cymbals and sounding brass in this vain and fruitless chase after the delusive phantom of repeal.”

Because Ottawa did not respond, Fielding proceeded with his own repeal resolution in 1886. Pipes simply declared that if repeal was obtained the only way to get the benefits of reciprocity with the United States which everyone seemed to want would be through commercial union or annexation. He replied to charges of disloyalty that Nova Scotia would be “less apt, as a small country with an insignificant trade, to get reciprocity [after repeal] than if we remained as we were.” Fielding carried his resolutions by 15 to 6, the minority including Pipes, and later in 1886 easily won a provincial election in which repeal was a major issue.

Although Pipes did not run in that election, probably because he opposed repeal, he was induced to contest Cumberland federally in 1887. Initially his opponent was not Tupper, but the latter’s recall from England to bolster the Conservatives in Nova Scotia led to a second confrontation between the two. Pipes’s vigorous advocacy of reciprocity and his condemnation of extravagance and corruption did not lead to victory, but his strenuous battle with Tupper made the old guard of the Liberal party regard him with a kind of hero worship. Perhaps because he was not a politician at heart, he did not contest another election for almost two decades. He was, as a New Glasgow newspaper noted, possessed of “an almost unaccountable distaste” for seeking votes, and “the wiles of the canvasser were unknown to him.” Instead he served from 1887 as a judge of probate in Cumberland County and concentrated on building up a financial competence. Fortunately for him, Cumberland County was in a part of the province that benefited from the National Policy, and he became a shareholder and sometimes a director in most of Amherst’s industries as well as in lumber properties throughout the province.

But he did not lose his connection with either Fielding or the Liberal party. Late in 1887 an embarrassed Fielding sought a loan of $1,000 from him on the security of a life insurance policy. Apparently Pipes could not oblige since Fielding made similar entreaties elsewhere. Over lunch in 1891 Fielding wondered if Pipes would fill a vacancy in the Legislative Council; by letter Pipes replied that he would be “at your service . . . if it would be best all around” but that he was not making an application, only giving an answer. He did not get the appointment.

An exchange in 1894–95 cast even more light upon the relations between the two. Outraged because the Liberals had not contested a by-election in Cumberland, Pipes called on Fielding and others to be “leaders in deed as in name” and not be “as dumb as oysters.” With “equal candour and plainness” Fielding replied that Pipes should not expect to satisfy his political conscience by doing nothing but growl at friends who spent time, effort, and money for their party; a man of Pipes’s talents should not be content to be a lance-corporal and a “mutinous” one at that. Unrepentant, Pipes reiterated that resolutions, speeches, and desultory fights could not win elections. But why should he give advice to Fielding? “You know all. Nothing to learn. O happy man.” Stung by the charge that he was mutinous, Pipes asked if it was mutinous to attack those who would throw away electoral success on “the phantom of repeal.” Fielding responded that the term applied to none of Pipes’s specific acts but to his continual “growling and grumbling.” “Do not be content with fault-finding. . . . Let [other Liberals] feel that you are with them.”

The death of Pipes’s wife in 1894 affected him for months, but because his children were now grown at least the family and financial impediments to active politics were no longer present. On the invitation of George Henry Murray*, Fielding’s successor as premier, he became government leader in the Legislative Council and a member of the Executive Council in January 1898. For nine years he was the government’s spokesman in the upper house and chairman of the committee on government bills, where he displayed his expertise in legal matters to the full. Despite his reputation he was almost always conciliatory. Only after the Legislative Council’s president, Robert Boak, and most members denied even first reading to a government bill for the abolition of the council did he give them a piece of his mind. Most of them, on appointment, had pledged themselves to abolition, but now relied on the opinion of distinguished lawyers that while the pledges existed they could not make an independent judgement on the subject. Pipes called their position “illogical and untenable . . . with one breath [they] said the pledges were void, and with the next stated they were not bound by them, and not free agents.”

Pipes owed his next change in political status to Fielding, who never ceased to have a soft spot for the man who had recommended him as premier. In 1904 Fielding, by then the federal minister of finance, suggested to Murray a complex series of federal and provincial appointments, including that of Pipes to the ministerial position of commissioner of public works and mines for Nova Scotia. Internal party disagreements prevented his assumption of the office until 1905, and he did not enter the assembly until after the election of 1906. In March 1907 he made his final move, to the more senior positions of attorney general and commissioner of crown lands. As a minister with portfolio, he demonstrated the fairness which invariably characterized his acts and only occasionally displayed brusqueness.

To the premier he proved the greatest of assets. Undoubtedly he played a major role in two positive initiatives of the usually conservative Murray government. He piloted through the assembly a bill for an independent audit of public accounts, which the government had previously opposed. He also introduced, piloted, and perhaps even drafted a bill to establish a public utilities board, the first of its kind in Canada. As attorney general he claimed to have put on the statute book the strongest temperance bill yet enacted in Nova Scotia, but conceded the near-impossibility of preventing liquor being shipped from wet to dry counties.

As commissioner of crown lands Pipes had to meet headlong Charles Smith Wilcox, a persistent critic of the department. In 1908 he sought to refute Wilcox’s notion that the preservation of the forests could be “brought about by law as effectively as it could be by the education of the people.” The next year he denied Wilcox’s charges that he had delayed a promised survey of the province’s forests, pointing out the preliminary steps already taken. After the session he went on two trips, largely in connection with the survey. On the second he died suddenly in Boston of a heart attack or stroke.

The normally reticent George Murray declared Pipes to have been “more than a colleague,” in fact, “my personal companion” for many years. A man of dual characteristics, he often appeared gruff and abrupt, but when he wished, no one could be more pleasing. Not a practical politician, not a flashy orator, no courter of popularity, he nevertheless had political success. The Amherst Daily News praised “his fine physique, his magnetic presence, his convincing and forcible manner of speaking,” combined with material that was “logical and full of meat” and that always won the attention of listeners. His excellent mind provided the underpinning for legal expertise of the highest order. Of irreproachable public and private character, he never had his integrity questioned.

J. Murray Beck

[Considerable information on William Thomas Pipes appears in my study Politics of N.S. Some additional material may be found in [C.] B. Fergusson, Hon. WSFielding (2v., Windsor, N.S., 1970–71), 1. The main primary source for his career is the Debates and proc. of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly for 1883–86 and 1907–9; also useful are the Debates and proc. of the Legislative Council for 1898–1906, the Journal and proc. of the House of Assembly for 1883–86 and 1898–1909, and the Statutes for the same years. Important manuscript sources include some letters in the Macdonald papers at NA, MG 26, A, 117; the Fielding papers at PANS, MG 2, 490 and 503; and, in particular, a file of correspondence between Pipes and Fielding at PANS, MG 100, 208. Relevant issues of the Halifax Morning Chronicle, the Morning Herald, and its successor, the Halifax Herald, have been used for the entire Pipes period, as were the stories and editorials at the time of his death in the Daily News (Amherst, N.S.), esp. 8 Oct. 1909, and the Eastern Chronicle, esp. 12 Oct. 1909.  j.m.b.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. Murray Beck, “PIPES, WILLIAM THOMAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/pipes_william_thomas_13E.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/pipes_william_thomas_13E.html
Author of Article:   J. Murray Beck
Title of Article:   PIPES, WILLIAM THOMAS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   December 4, 2023