Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community


314 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-8020-2586-2





Reviewed by Richard Wilbur

Randall White is the author of Voice of Region: On the Long Journey to
Senate Reform in Canada, Too Good to Be True: Toronto in the 1920s, and
Global Spin: Probing the Globalization Debate.


This book was next to impossible to read, because of the parsimony of its publishers; the binding was so tight and the inner margins so narrow that holding the pages open for any length of time was a tiring experience.

This is a shame, for the study is a tribute to modern scholarship, one that will enhance Acheson’s solid reputation as the foremost historian presently writing on Maritime themes. His detailed and readable account of the transition of Saint John from “a small stagnant mercantile town” to a thriving city and port in the 1850s is based on an exhaustive use of all available local sources, which he has placed in the larger context of international socioeconomic developments.

Rather than a straight chronological approach beginning in 1815 and running through 249 pages, Acheson provides distinctive chapter themes, each one covering the 1815-1850 time-frame. The resulting repetition is more than offset by the complete picture that finally emerges.

While reflecting modern historians’ attention to social, statistical, and economic material, Acheson doesn’t neglect the political theme that dominated the works of his mentor and the previous generation’s foremost historian on New Brunswick, W.S. MacNutt. With equal clarity and greater detail, Acheson tells how the merchant class remained all-powerful even as the artisans’ influence rose steadily.

Then as now, most of the critical decisions affecting Saint John came from external agencies and governments. Nowhere in the period under review was this more evident than in the several broad movements of reform, notably the evangelical, temperance, educational, and political. “The old way proved to be particularly resilient,” writes Acheson, “and it was only when faced with the urban catastrophes of group violence and massive fire damage that the structures of community were fundamentally altered.”

This study should lay to rest the excessive emphasis heretofore given to the Loyalist influence. Although Acheson calls his final chapter “The People of a Loyalist City,” his scholarship shows the Irish to be the more dominant force. In his analysis of the 1851 census, Acheson notes that 60 percent of the household heads were Irish even though 80 percent of the high status professions were either English or Scots. Regardless of the theme or movement, the Irish element figured prominently — sometimes predominantly, even though this “city in flux” followed an English urban model.

It is hoped that Acheson will stay with this important topic and go on to write about the development of Saint John (and, in a real sense, New Brunswick) from the 1850s into the twentieth century. In this volume, commemorating the bicentennial of Canada’s first city to be incorporated, Acheson has established a high standard both for his own future work and for others studying our urban history.


Acheson, T.W., “Saint John: The Making of a Colonial Urban Community,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 24, 2024,