STAIRS, WILLIAM MACHIN, merchant, banker, and politician; b. 21 Jan. 1789 at Halifax, N.S., youngest son of John Stairs and Joanna Stayner; m. in 1814 Margaret Wiseman, and they had three sons and six daughters; d. 28 Nov. 1865 at Halifax.
Shortly after William Machin Stairs’ birth, his father failed in business and, after being freed from debtors’ prison by friends, departed for Philadelphia where he obtained a post in the United States Customs Department. In 1793 Joanna Stairs died during a yellow fever epidemic, and her husband sent the five children back to Halifax to be cared for by their uncle, John Stayner. William never again saw his father, but his uncle, a tanner, treated him with consideration and gave him a basic education at the Halifax Grammar School. When seasickness abruptly ended a projected career at sea, William took employment as a clerk in the counting-house of a Scottish-born Halifax merchant, William Kidston.
On reaching maturity Stairs went into business for himself as a small-scale general merchant on the local waterfront. In 1813 he formed a partnership with Henry Austen, and the two appear to have done reasonably well during the boom years of the War of 1812. A postwar recession brought the firm to the brink of bankruptcy, however, and only the backing of their chief creditor, Kidston, now a Glasgow merchant-banker, kept Austen and Stairs out of debtors’ prison. Their partnership broke up about 1818, and for the next few years Stairs scrounged for business in relative obscurity. Spring and autumn found him advertising British manufactures and East Indian goods imported from Greenock, Scotland, and custom-house records indicate that by the early 1820s Stairs was involved in the shipment of timber from the Miramichi to Britain.
After a brief renewal of the connection with Austen about 1822–23, Stairs again struck out on his own and in 1824, encouraged by improving business conditions, bought Kidston’s old premises for £1,680. His family lived over the shop for the next nine years while Stairs built up a substantial business with the outports along Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast and the shores of the Gulf of St Lawrence. By 1827 he possessed his own private signal, a “white flag, pierced blue,” and his advertisements in the Halifax press offered, wholesale and retail, everything from black pepper to window glass. Although still a general merchant, by the late 1820s Stairs had begun to specialize in hardware, emphasizing such items as bolt and bar iron, ploughs, wire, sheet iron, and spikes.
Buoyed up by the continued economic expansion of the early 1830s, Stairs steadily enlarged the scope of his business. In Dartmouth he built facilities for storing timber, along with a paint and putty factory. As well, he ventured into shipbuilding. The success of these activities allowed Stairs to begin work on an impressive residence on Hollis St, then a prestigious address in Halifax. He also sent his eldest son, William James*, to Horton Academy for an education befitting the heir of an aspiring merchant gentleman.
Despite his accomplishments William Stairs lacked the wealth and family connections required to assure him a secure place within the ranks of the Halifax oligarchy. His identification with religious dissent, indicated by the decision to educate his son at a Baptist rather than Anglican institution, and subsequently confirmed by his desertion of the established Church of Scotland for the Free Church, rendered Stairs suspect in the eyes of the social establishment. His alienation did not become politically overt, however, until the mid 1830s when a business crisis, precipitated by squabbling among local bankers, threatened Stairs with commercial ruin. Personal insecurity and resentment against the machinations of vested interests combined to make Stairs one of the few supporters of reform within the Halifax merchant community. His commitment to change had its limits, however. He opposed abolition of debtor imprisonment and incorporation for Halifax on the grounds that both measures jeopardized property rights.
Joseph Howe* nevertheless valued Stairs as a personal friend and political ally and helped him win an assembly seat in 1841. Stairs began his legislative career as a supporter of the hybrid coalition of Tories and Reformers organized in 1840. When that coalition collapsed three years later, Stairs aligned himself with Howe and the more advanced Reformers who urged the establishment of one-party cabinet government on the British model. Although defeated in the 1843 general election because of infighting between Protestant and Roman Catholic Reformers in Halifax [see Doyle], Stairs remained politically active. He won election to the Halifax City Council in the late 1840s and served as mayor in 1847 and 1848. When the Liberal party came to power in 1848, Stairs was rewarded with a seat on the Legislative Council.
Stairs’ enthusiasm for responsible government quickly faded once the new order established itself in power. Introduction of the spoils system offended Stairs’ sensibilities and as he later told his cousin, Thomas Allen Stayner, “Men trying to obtain Political power . . . do many shabby acts.” In 1851, fearing that Howe’s advocacy of government construction of railways would bankrupt Nova Scotia, Stairs protested by resigning from the upper house and at this point abandoned politics for the full-time pursuit of business.
During the 1840s Stairs had specialized in hardware and ship chandlery, doing enough business to warrant the purchase in 1844 of additional waterfront real estate valued at £2,500. As the firm expanded Stairs brought in two of his sons, William J. and John, the latter being replaced by a son-in-law, Robert Morrow, in 1854. Stairs also involved himself in a variety of corporate ventures, becoming a director of such enterprises as the Halifax Whaling Company, the Nova Scotia Electric Telegraph Company, the Union Marine Insurance Company, the Merchants’ Exchange, the Halifax-Dartmouth Steamboat Company, and the Inland Navigation Company (this company embodied an attempt to revive the Shubenacadie Canal). In 1856 he played a leading role in the establishment of the Union Bank of Halifax and served as its president until his death.
By the 1850s William Stairs enjoyed unquestioned prominence within Halifax’s commercial élite. His £4,000 mansion on Tobin St symbolized respectability acquired through material gain. Crippled by rheumatism, he travelled rarely and his correspondence suggests that old age made him increasingly intolerant and suspicious of change. The denominational quarrelling which erupted in Nova Scotia during the mid 1850s intensified Stairs’ dislike of Irish Roman Catholics, whom he denounced in his correspondence as “Devils incarnate” not fit for public office because of their alleged lack of moral scruples. Railways also aroused Stairs’ ire, and, influenced perhaps by his canal investments, he repeatedly denounced the scheme to build a line from Halifax to Quebec as “humbug,” which would result in increased debt, higher taxes, and more political corruption.
When the Civil War broke out, Stairs immediately identified with the South, reasoning that “the arrogance and boasting of the Northern People require humbling.” The crisis in British North American affairs occasioned by the South’s eventual military collapse failed to inspire Stairs with enthusiasm for colonial union. Britain would not abandon the colonies, he assured T. A. Stayner. Furthermore, “Nova Scotia is too well off to have any desire to be joined to Canada, her credit is good – Coal Mines and Gold Mines [are] opening in every direction.”
When William Stairs died, the local press praised him as a “highly esteemed resident” who had always displayed “liberality in character as a business man.” Though platitudinous, these comments indicate that the deceased’s career fitted the mid Victorian image of the ideal merchant whose success derived from industry and thrift. Stairs’ one failing lay in the area of philanthropy; his entire estate, valued at $248,000, went only to members of his family.
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), no.1330, will of William Machin Stairs (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 1, 880–84 (William Stairs papers, 1771–1865); RG 1, 229, no.23; 314, no.26; 451, census of Halifax, 1851; RG 31, Revenue papers, quarterly returns, Port of Halifax, 1810–30; H. G. Stairs, “The Stairs of Halifax” (typescript, 1962). [Charter of the Shubenacadie Canal Company with list of shareholders and act of incorporation (Halifax, 1826)]. N.S., General Assembly, Statutes, 1845–65; Legislative Council, Journal of the proc., 1848–51. Acadian Recorder, 28 May 1814, 29 Nov. 1865. Halifax Citizen, 28 Nov. 1865. Halifax Journal, 1816–31. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 28 Nov. 1865. Novascotian, 1826–65. Nova Scotia Royal Gazette (Halifax), 28 Oct. 1812, 1 Jan. 1815. Sun (Halifax), 23 Feb. 1848. Times (Halifax), 30 Nov. 1841, 14 Nov. 1843. Weekly Chronicle (Halifax), 21 June 1811. Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1824–65. Directory of N.S. MLAs. Halifax and its business: containing historical sketch and description of the city and its institutions . . . (Halifax, 1876). Halifax, N.S., business directory, for 1863 . . . , comp. Luke Hutchinson (Halifax, 1863). J. P. Martin, The story of Dartmouth (Dartmouth, N.S., 1957). W. J. Stairs, Family history, Stairs, Morrow; including letters, diaries, essays, poems, etc. (Halifax, 1906). C. St C. Stayner, “The Sandemanian loyalists,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., XXIX (1951), 62–123 .