STARR, JOHN LEANDER, merchant, insurance broker, and politician; b. 25 Oct. 1802 in Halifax, N.S., the eldest son of John Starr and Desiah Gore; d. 16 Aug. 1885 in New York City.
J. Leander Starr’s father came to Halifax from rural Nova Scotia as a blacksmith late in the 1790s. He prospered and at the end of the Napoleonic wars had risen to become a merchant and magistrate, with a seat on the chamber of commerce and command of a local militia regiment. Young Leander, after receiving a private education locally, entered the family import-export business in 1823 as junior partner, with a one-third share in the profits. That same year he married Maria Sophia Ratchford, daughter of a prominent Parrsboro merchant. She died in 1829 after the birth of three children. The following year Leander married Frances Throckmorton, daughter of a New York City notable. Similarly advantageous marriages by several of his brothers and sisters meant that, by the early 1830s, Leander Starr enjoyed close family ties with the colonial gentry of Charlottetown and Bermuda and with officers of admiralty rank in the Royal Navy. These connections both spurred and facilitated young Starr’s pursuit of status and respectability.
Meanwhile, Starr was faced with increasing business responsibilities. In 1827, shortly after being elected to the provincial assembly for Kings County, John Starr Sr died. Leander continued the family business, bringing in his brother William Joseph as junior partner. J. Leander Starr and Company engaged in timber speculation, shipbuilding, and general trade on a scale such as to assure it middling prominence on the Halifax waterfront. The late 1820s saw Leander attaining more and more of the social prestige he sought. He succeeded his father as a member of the chamber of commerce, as town magistrate, and as lieutenant-colonel of the Halifax militia. He was also elected to executive office in the Halifax Poor Man’s Friend Society, became vice-president of the Charitable Irish Society, and attained a leading position within Halifax’s emerging temperance movement – all before he had reached the age of 30.
J. Leander Starr’s budding career received a check in 1831 when an audit of the affairs of his father, who had died intestate, indicated debts exceeding assets by £1,282. The family firm was forced to disband and John Starr’s commercial property was auctioned off to pay his debts. Leander dissolved the partnership with his brother and began a second business career as one of the new profession of specialist insurance brokers and commission agents then emerging within the Halifax business community. Starr was successful because he secured agency rights for the majority of American marine, fire, and life insurance companies which were moving into the Maritimes during the 1830s. Aided by the presence of a cousin and a brother on the directorate of the Halifax Marine Insurance Association, Leander also became broker for that company. Building on this foundation, Starr emerged at the end of the 1830s as a member of Halifax’s entrepreneurial élite. In addition to being a director of the Bank of British North America, he was president of the Halifax Gas Light and Water Company, agent for a Halifax-to-New York packet service, a director of the Bay of Fundy Steam Navigation Company, and an executive of the Nova Scotia Whaling Company. He also owned shares in the Halifax and Dartmouth Steamboat Company, the Halifax Hotel Company, the Halifax Library, the Avon Bridge Company, the Western Stage Coach Company, and the Albion Fire Insurance Company of Halifax.
Ambition, as well as the stewardship obligations associated with genteel status, made Starr active in civic affairs through the 1830s. Besides serving as president of organizations such as the mechanics’ institute and the Nova Scotia Philanthropic Society, he was on the executive of the diocesan Church Society of the Church of England, the Nova Scotia Temperance Society, and the Halifax Horticultural Society, and further rose to the rank of master within the masonic order. Most significant of all, perhaps, was the increasing tendency for Starr to be named to the committees set up to organize the various picnics, regattas, and balls frequented by the garrison set. Affluence, generosity, polite manners, a graceful tongue, and literary flair expressed through the authorship of “small volumes” earned for Starr acceptance into the inner circle of Halifax’s social establishment. In the mid 1830s he was named aide-de-camp to Lieutenant Governor Sir Colin Campbell*, a post he retained under Campbell’s successor, Lord Falkland [Cary]. About the same time, Starr travelled abroad, where he gained access to Queen Victoria’s London court, dined with King Louis-Philippe of France, and had his portrait painted by a French artist.
As his status rose, Starr adopted the life-style of the Halifax oligarchy. He had replaced Methodism by membership in the Church of England and in 1840 he purchased a palatial residence in Halifax’s south end, valued at more than £3,000. He proceeded to fill the house with mahogany and rosewood furniture, a pianoforte, a 430-volume library, Sèvres vases, French porcelain, oil paintings, silver flatware (including service for 26), along with other accoutrements of genteel living. Significantly, despite his advocacy of temperance, Starr maintained a wine cellar stocked with over 600 bottles of madeira, port, sherry, champagne, hock, burgundy, and other wines. Extravagance on this scale, while it jeopardized his solvency, assured Starr of the prominence in which he apparently delighted.
In politics, Starr cultivated a modest Whiggery, which distinguished him from the ultra tories such as Enos Collins*, Henry Hezekiah Cogswell*, and Samuel Cunard* who dominated the Halifax gentry. In the 1826 provincial election he backed the reform-tinged candidacy of Beamish Murdoch*, and four years later ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for Halifax County, using rhetoric critical of the existing provincial oligarchy. Running again in 1836, Starr made his reform values explicit to the point of denouncing the General Mining Association’s monopoly control of the province’s coal resources, demanding a separation of the Executive and Legislative councils, and urging the liberalization of Halifax’s non-elective and merchant-dominated municipal administration. His credibility as a reformer drew strength from the fact that he had been one of those Halifax magistrates to cooperate with Joseph Howe* when court action ensued as a result of the latter’s attempt in 1835 to bring certain local officials to account for alleged corruption and incompetence. In the heated political climate of the 1830s, however, genteel Whiggery inspired more scepticism than enthusiasm. Starr was accused of pursuing “personal aggrandizement,” and William Gossip of the anti-Reform Halifax Times commented: “I should as soon suspect him of being a Radical as I would the Editor of the Novascotian [Howe] of being a Tory.” Pressured into withdrawal of his candidacy in 1836, Starr nevertheless remained an attractive political commodity in the eyes of British officialdom. In 1840, as part of an effort to defeat responsible government through liberalization of the provincial oligarchy, Starr gained appointment to the Legislative Council. A year later, after provincial legislation established a democratic municipal government in Halifax, Starr was elected alderman and narrowly missed being selected as the city’s first mayor.
Starr’s career had reached its apex in 1841, but it now abruptly collapsed. Having accumulated large debts, most of them probably deriving from the pursuit of genteel living, Starr found himself hard pressed when a sharp commercial recession hit the Halifax economy that autumn. In October, shortly after the business failure of his brother William, Leander was obliged to assign all his property to local creditors. The absence of formal bankruptcy legislation in Nova Scotia created doubt as to whether Starr was legally obliged to resign his public offices, particularly his seat in the Legislative Council, but a letter from the colonial secretary, Lord Stanley, reinforced the pressure applied by his colleagues to overcome his hesitancy. By February 1842 he had relinquished all his honorific positions in the community. The deepest humiliation was the public auction of his recently acquired mansion and all its elegant furnishings.
Yet the crisis of 1841 did not impoverish Leander Starr, nor did it end his business career. Complicated legal manoeuvres enabled him to transfer to relatives that portion of his father’s estate which he had held in trust. Moreover, he managed to retain the bulk of his insurance agencies. His success in preserving a semblance of respectability is indicated by his being selected a masonic provincial grand master after 1841. Nevertheless, Starr’s career was in eclipse at a time when the uncertainties of the provincial economy made it difficult to recoup one’s losses. In 1844 restlessness, combined with his being dismissed as broker for the Halifax Marine Insurance Association after having contracted to serve as agent for a competing Boston company, prompted Starr to leave Nova Scotia. He moved to New York City, where he continued in business as an insurance broker for the next 20 years. In the United States Starr maintained his literary interests, and in 1864 translated Fernán Caballero’s novel, La gaviota (The sea gull).
J. Leander Starr died in New York City in 1885. His meteoric career illustrates the risks run by a colonial in attempting to gain acceptance into the officer-dominated élite of garrison society in Halifax.
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), no.S140 (estate of John Starr) (mfm. at PANS). Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 69: ff.55–57; 70: ff.527–31 (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 9, no. 225, sect.1, “The Halifax gas story, 1840–1953”; MG 20, 66–67; 180;