Publication16 March 2023
Born Dublin, Ireland 1717. Died Halifax, Canada, 1800.
Author: Eamonn McKee
There have been many famous Anglo-Irish figures in Canada’s history including Guy and Thomas Carleton, Richard Uniacke, Arthur Wellesley, Charles Monck and Lord and Lady Dufferin. Yet few have had such an influence on the development of a singular Province as that of Richard Bulkeley had on Nova Scotia. Few have been so thoroughly lost to the mists of time.
If any place can be said to be the product of one man, Halifax and Nova Scotia owe what they are to Dubliner Richard Bulkeley. The history of colonial enterprises in North America is littered with failures. Endowed with prodigious energy, organizational brilliance, integrity, charm and redoubtable diplomatic skills, Bulkeley ensured that Halifax would be a success and he Nova Scotia’s most respected administrator from its founding expedition in 1749 to his death in 1800.
Bulkeley was the second son of Lawrence and Elizabeth (née Freke) whose families had generations previously secured positions and lands in the conquest of Ireland. Like so many non-inheriting Anglo-Irish sons, he chose a career in the British military. Fluency in French and German suggest active service in Europe. He became aide-de-camp to his friend Edward Cornwallis in 1749. Cornwallis had been charged with organizing an expedition to establish a fort at the natural harbour of Chebucto, to be named Halifax, along with civil government and “the better peopling and settling of the said province,” in the words of the London Gazette advertisement. It was either that or allow the French do so, as they very nearly had done in 1746, in the great see-sawing for control of North America between the rival empires.
Cornwallis’s aide and right hand man “was a young army bachelor like himself, Richard Bulkeley, tall, handsome, Irish, wealthy, a former king’s messenger and captain of the dragoons whose equipment for the wilderness included a valet, a groom, a butler, three blood horses and a vast amount of baggage”, as Raddall wrote in his history of Halifax. Others left, but Bulkeley stayed, “somehow enchanted with this wild country and the raw new town.” On stony soil, amidst hostile Indigenous and warring French, brutal winters and widespread disease, the new town of Halifax and the fortified harbour materialized.
Bulkeley’s energy and talents saw him promoted to Director of Public Works by October. He lost little time in starting a family, marrying Mary Rous the summer after his arrival. The marriage produced four sons. In a time when political disfavour, rivalry, disease and death could end a promising career, Bulkeley’s rise was happily inexorable. Provincial Secretary by 1758, he served thirteen successive Lieutenant Governors because they found his knowledge and skills indispensable. Bulkeley helped organize peace with the Mi’kmaq and the ceremonial burying of the hatchet in 1761 ending 75 years of hostilities. Clerk of the Council in 1763, in 1775 Bulkeley started a twenty-five year career as judge of the Court of Admiralty. With his first wife now dead, Bulkeley married Mary Burgess in 1776. In the tumult of the American War of Independence, Bulkeley was appointed Brigadier-General of the provincial militia in 1780.
With the end of the War in 1783, the pace of change in the colonies quickened. John Parr, also from Dublin, became Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. Parr and Bulkeley faced the challenge of settling thousands of demobilized soldiers and British loyalists fleeing the American republic. Notes the DCB, “Parr and Bulkeley sometimes worked 20 hours a day. The secretary’s letter-book contains correspondence about rations and tools for the loyalists, surveying, and land grants, as well as material about the separation from Nova Scotia of the new provinces of New Brunswick, St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, and Cape Breton.” All the while, Bulkeley entertained on a grand scale with celebrations diplomatically spread across New Year’s Eve, St Patrick’s Day and St George’s Day.
Manifestly for reasons of race, a different approach was taken with the arrival of the 3,500 black loyalists in Nova Scotia. Denied the three-year provisions allowed white loyalists, denied also sufficient land grants, they were compelled to work. What Bulkeley made of this disgrace we do not know, but he applied his usual efficiency for the disembarkation of some 1,200 black loyalists who had agreed to emigrate to Sierra Leone in 1791.
Bulkeley’s energy and creativity extended well beyond his public duties. He was co-founder and President of the Charitable Irish Society of Halifax, a font of much benevolent work for centuries and still active today. Bulkeley was a devoted Mason and succeeded Parr as Grand Master by 1791. A vestryman and sometime organist at St Paul’s, he promoted journalism, chess, art, and horse racing, including the importation of horses from Ireland.
Bulkeley earned the title ‘founder of Province’ in his obituary thanks to his contribution to the development of Halifax and Nova Scotia over half a century of bustling activity. The resilience of his career spoke to his unfailing integrity which earned him the respect and love of all classes across Nova Scotia. Bulkeley’s role proved to be an enduringly valuable one for Britain militarily. Halifax became the ‘Warden of the North’ and ‘sentry box to the St Lawrence’, the key naval base protecting Britain’s transatlantic connection to its most valuable colony strategically. Wellington understood this and invested in its facilities.
Bulkeley did leave one tangible legacy. He built as his home Carleton house, named in honour of his friend Guy, with stones from the old French fort at Louisburg, Cape Breton. Fittingly for a man of legendary hospitality, Bulkeley’s former home is today a hotel.
Dictionary of Canadian Biography on Richard Bulkeley: for more on the fate of the black loyalists of Nova Scotia, see the entry on Thomas Peters.
Dictionary of Irish Biography, RIA; for the Bulkeleys in Ireland, see entries on Lancelot and Sir Richard Bulkeley.
Halifax, Warden of the North, Thomas H. Raddell, (McClelland and Stewart, 1971).