SKERRY, JOHN, businessman, philanthropist, and office holder; b. 1763, probably in October, in Ballyhale (Republic of Ireland), eldest son of Luke Skerry and Mary Larissy; m. first Bridget Shea (d. c. 1803), and they had one son and one daughter; m. secondly 28 May 1807 Maria Meagher in Halifax, and they had one daughter; d. 1 Sept. 1838 in Dartmouth, N.S.
John Skerry’s people were Roman Catholic tenant farmers. We know nothing of his life before he immigrated to Halifax in 1796 or 1797. Promptly after his arrival he was providing a ferry service between Halifax and Dartmouth, using two large scows to carry passengers, produce, and even animals. Each ferry, heavier than a long-boat, required a crew of two to operate its oars and a sail. In good weather the one-mile journey could be made in 30 to 40 minutes. There was no set schedule of departures. When enough fares had appeared, one of the crew would blow a conch-shell, cry “Over, over!” and set forth.
In 1807 Skerry expanded his operation by buying waterfront property in Dartmouth and erecting on it a hostelry, sometimes referred to as a hospital, and a wharf. At his inn Skerry kept a bar, rented accommodation to man and beast, and conducted what amounted to the town exchange. Passengers for the ferry put the four-penny fee into a cask set out at the inn. Using these funds, Skerry lent money and bought real estate. On occasion, “Skipper Skerry” allowed the poor to take coins from his casks. That he was never robbed is likely explained by his reputation for honesty and charity.
The War of 1812 gave Skerry another opportunity to demonstrate his charity. Some 2,000 black slaves fled to Halifax from the Chesapeake Bay area, and they were assigned land at Preston, near Dartmouth. Having “traded slavery under the flag of liberty for freedom under the flag of empire,” the refugees were in sore straits and needed help. Skerry responded by putting his inn at their disposal and storing their supplies. Between 1815 and 1818 he conveyed these newcomers, as well as the clergy and doctors who served them, back and forth on his ferries and made less than £100 for doing so.
It was around this time that Skerry began to experience competition from a new kind of ferry. In 1816 the Halifax Steam Boat Company started a service between Halifax and Dartmouth using a team-boat. This vessel, powered by a horse-driven paddle-wheel, was faster and more efficient than ferries that depended on sail and oar. Skerry and another operator protested to the House of Assembly concerning this threat to their livelihoods, but to no avail. Although he remained in business, Skerry foresaw that he could not prevail against “progress,” and in 1822 he agreed to sell his operation to the new competitor and become a director of the company. The terms of the agreement were so favourable that he was able to retire.
Skerry remained active in educational, religious, and charitable endeavours. He was a Dartmouth school trustee in 1820–21, and he sought for several years to have a lot granted for a Catholic church there. Although in favour of the idea, the lieutenant governor, Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay], felt the move was premature. Stating early in 1819 that he did not wish “to see at present any new establishment to take away from the highly respectable church” of Bishop Edmund Burke* in Halifax, he withheld his approval. In 1829 Skerry himself donated the required land. He had also been a member of the Charitable Irish Society from 1812, but resigned in 1832 when that society, for undisclosed motives, refused to give £10 towards the relief of workers building the Shubenacadie Canal [see Charles Rufus Fairbanks]. The skipper not only left the society, but gave the money out of his own pocket.
Skerry was not in tune with the reform movement of Laurence O’Connor Doyle* and Joseph Howe*, which arose in the 1830s. In 1836 he showed his support for the existing arrangements when he nominated a tory candidate for Halifax County. Skerry felt that progress could be made in ways other than by changing the political structure. In a letter to a nephew in Ireland he urged him to have his son educated. “Get your son to learn the grammar well,” he wrote, “too much writing and figures is no good without the grammar . . . . In [case?] your son may arrive in America without learning or trade he is no use.”
Skerry brought a number of his relatives out from Ireland and assisted them in becoming established in the New World, but he would have been distressed at their wrangling over his estate after he died. The litigation prevented the disbursal of his assets for over 15 years. In his will Skerry had asked for a plain and decent Christian burial devoid of ostentation, stating, “The cost of such useless trappings, I hope my dear wife will distribute amongst the poor for the good of my soul.” An obituary summed up his career: “By the pursuit of a successful industry he acquired competence and wealth and the poor often found from his Hospital the comforts of a home.”
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, S73 (mfm. at PANS). Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 38: f.50 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 9, no.42: 267; MG 15, 8–9; MG 20, 66; RG 5, P, 57; RG 36, chancery cases, no.1371. St Mary’s Roman Catholic Basilica (Halifax), St Peter’s Church [St Mary’s Cathedral], reg. of marriages, 28 May 1807 (mfm. at PANS). Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, 6 Sept. 1838. [T. B. Akins], History of Halifax City (Halifax, 1895; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1973). M. J. Katzmann, Mrs William Lawson, History of the townships of Dartmouth, Preston and Lawrencetown; Halifax County, N.S., ed. Harry Piers (Halifax, 1893; repr. Belleville, 1972). J. P. Martin, The story of Dartmouth (Dartmouth, N.S., 1957). J. M. and L. J. Payzant, Like a weaver’s shuttle: a history of the Halifax-Dartmouth ferries (Halifax, 1979). T. M. Punch, Some sons of Erin in Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1980); “A note on John Skerry, a Kilkenny emigrant to Canada,” Irish Ancestor ([Dublin]), 4 (1972): 86–89.