BLACK, WILLIAM ANDERSON, businessman and politician; b. 9 Oct. 1847 in Windsor, N.S., eldest child and only son of Samuel Gay Black and Sophia Wright; great-grandson of William Black* and Benjamin Etter*; great-nephew of Martin Gay Black*; m. 14 Jan. 1875 Anne Bell (1848–1924), granddaughter of Hugh Bell*, in Halifax, and they had two sons and three daughters, of whom one son and two daughters lived to adulthood; d. there 1 Sept. 1934.
Though born and raised in Windsor, William Anderson Black was a scion of Halifax’s Methodist mercantile plutocracy. He was named for his grandfather William Anderson Black, who, like his brothers Martin Gay and Samuel, was a leading local businessman. After obtaining his early education at the public school in Windsor, William proceeded to Acacia Villa School [see Sir Robert Laird Borden], an exclusive college-preparatory institution in Lower Horton that offered, according to historian Arthur Wentworth Hamilton Eaton, “a practical business education to those who desire it.” Black next attended Mount Allison Wesleyan Academy in Sackville, N.B., and then returned to Windsor, where he spent two years at King’s Collegiate School.
Around 1865 Black received a bequest from his rich-as-Croesus paternal grandfather that enabled him to move to Halifax, which for more than 50 years had been the centre of the family’s mercantile operations. Tradition has it that he walked the 40 miles from Windsor to the capital, where he became a clerk at Black Brothers and Company, the hardware store and ship chandlery co-founded by his namesake. “At that time,” he would later recall, “there were but three firms carrying on ship chandlery and hardware business combined in the city of Halifax, namely, Stairs, Son, & Morrow [see William James Stairs*], Edward Albro & Co. and Black Bros. & Co.”
The shipping industry’s ever-growing demand for supplies and equipment helped firms such as these recover from the depression of the 1870s. On 1 July 1875, by which time he was running the ship-chandlery department of Black Brothers, Black went into partnership with Robert Pickford, whose Halifax chandlery was then renamed Pickford and Black. Beginning in the 1880s, Pickford and Black expanded beyond marine outfitting, and eventually the company owned and operated a fleet of vessels that carried passengers, goods, and mail between ports on the east coast of Canada and to Newfoundland and the British West Indies. The firm also did business as a shipping agent, a marine-insurance underwriter, and a customs and ship broker; its clients included Lloyd’s of London and Thomas Cook and Son. Continually diversifying and expanding, the company applied vertical integration to adapt rapidly to changes in both the business climate and seafaring technology, especially the transition from sail to steam. Though Black, seven years younger than Pickford, was the junior partner, it was his vision and energy that dominated and drove the firm. Pickford and Black became an iconic business and brand; its flag, with “P & B” set inside a white diamond on a black background, was instantly recognizable.
In the 1890s Black, whose conservative attitudes were bred in the bone, made the first of his two excursions into public life. Since he had no political experience and hated giving speeches, his decision to stand in the provincial election of 1894 is difficult to explain. The Liberals had been in office for 12 years under William Thomas Pipes* and his successor, William Stevens Fielding*, and they were not thought to be in any danger in Halifax County, the solidly Liberal triple constituency that Black was contesting even though Fielding, who held a seat there, was a long-time friend. Although the Liberals again won the province on 15 March 1894, the Conservatives gained three seats; one was in Halifax County, where Fielding was re-elected by a reduced margin and Black edged out the Roman Catholic speaker of the house, Michael Joseph Power*. Political scientist James Murray Beck*, while acknowledging that Black was held in “general respect,” attributes his victory primarily to a reaction against the intervention of Catholic archbishop Cornelius O’Brien* in the politics of education in the city of Halifax. Black, a devout Methodist, was apparently drafted as a Protestant champion to resist this so-called papal aggression. His principal achievement was getting elected; he spoke little in the House of Assembly and did not run again in 1897, when the Liberals reclaimed his seat.
Black and his business flourished in the late 1890s. According to family historian Winthrop Pickard Bell (Black’s nephew by marriage), during the Klondike gold rush Black and his family lived for a time in Vancouver, where he managed the Pickford and Black steamers that had been sent from the east coast around Cape Horn to ply between British Columbia and Alaska. In March 1900 the firm entered into an agreement with the government of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier* to inaugurate a steamship service between Canada and the British West Indies. This line, established by federal charter, would be known as the Pickford and Black Steamship Company Limited. When the imperial royal commission on trade relations between Canada and the West Indies visited Halifax in October 1909, Black was among those witnesses who gave evidence at length.
By now Black had become a leading member of eastern Canada’s business elite. Around this time he served as president of both the Halifax Board of Trade and the Board of Trade of the Maritime Provinces, as well as president, and later chair of the board, of Eastern Trust (a company founded in 1893 by his friend and associate John Fitzwilliam Stairs*). His base of operations remained Pickford and Black, of which he became chair and president in 1911, when his partner retired and the firm was incorporated as a joint-stock company, Pickford and Black Limited. In the latter part of his career Black was most prominently associated with financial services. In 1921 he joined the very exclusive club of men who directed the Royal Bank of Canada by taking the place of elite Halifax lawyer Tecumseh Sherman Rogers on its board. The following year he helped found Maritime Life Assurance, Nova Scotia’s first modern life-insurance company, of which he was also president. In 1924 he would succeed Samuel Manners Brookfield* as president of Eastern Canada Savings and Loan.
In December 1921 Black almost became lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, but Conservative prime minister Arthur Meighen*, who hoped to win the general election of 6 December and planned to make the appointment after the campaign, was defeated by the Liberals under William Lyon Mackenzie King*. In November 1923 Black returned to political life after an absence of 26 years when the resignation of Alexander Kenneth Maclean*, the senior Liberal mp for Halifax, necessitated a by-election. At the meeting of the local Conservative association on 14 November, Black initially declined the invitation to stand but changed his mind because no one else stepped forward. Although some influential Conservatives doubted the wisdom of fielding a candidate, Meighen insisted that the by-election be contested. Halifax was regarded as safe Liberal territory: in a by-election held there a year earlier for the other of its two seats, the Conservatives had lost by nearly 4,000 votes. On 5 Dec. 1923 Black, who spent his own money on the campaign, surprisingly polled almost 2,000 votes more than his Liberal rival, merchant George Alfred Redmond. This victory made news; it prompted editorials in papers across the country and was mentioned as far afield as London. Prime Minister King, who had visited Halifax to deliver a speech on Redmond’s behalf, was chagrined by this serious loss of face for his party, which had carried every seat in Nova Scotia just two years earlier.
The outcome of the by-election is easy to explain: the Liberals had enlisted a weak candidate, and the Conservatives had run a strong one. Although it is generally assumed that the key to Black’s victory was regional disaffection and protest, the Maritime Rights movement, then in full flower, had little or nothing to do with the result, which was less a partisan Conservative success than a personal triumph for Black. In fact, he was such an eminence in the city that he would probably have won regardless of which party he had represented.
Black’s maiden speech in the House of Commons on 18 March 1924 caused a stir. Casting himself as the member for the Maritimes, he asserted that he would oppose the policies of his own leader and party if they harmed the economic welfare of the region. He was an active parliamentarian. Issues of political economy were the order of the day, and having spent more than half a century in business, he was on familiar ground when he addressed them. Aside from perhaps Sir Robert Borden, no Conservative mp had ever so engaged the hearts and minds of Halifax voters, who would return Black in the general elections of 1925 (by almost 8,000 votes), 1926, and 1930.
In June 1926 the Liberals were facing defeat in the house over a scandal in the Department of Customs and Excise [see Jacques Bureau], and when Governor General Lord Byng refused King’s request for an early dissolution of parliament, King abruptly resigned as prime minister. Meighen hastily formed a government on 29 June, and Black, who could hardly have been left out of the cabinet, was named one of six acting ministers, along with Hugh Guthrie, Sir George Halsey Perley, Sir Henry Lumley Drayton*, Robert James Manion*, and Henry Herbert Stevens*. The representative of Nova Scotia, Black was initially assigned the Department of Marine and Fisheries and then was moved on 13 July to the permanent post of Railways and Canals. He had hoped and expected to remain in charge of Marine and Fisheries, an area in which he was far more knowledgeable and experienced, but that responsibility went to Esioff-Léon Patenaude*. Black did realize the importance of being given Railways and Canals; not since Henry Robert Emmerson* (1904–7) had a Maritime mp held the job on a full-time basis. Black favoured Halifax over Saint John as the eastern terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway and was on excellent terms with CPR president Sir Edward Wentworth Beatty*, but he was not in office long enough to have any impact in his new portfolio. The Conservatives were defeated in the general election of 14 Sept. 1926, and Meighen, who lost his seat, soon relinquished the party leadership.
Black became a prominent figure on the opposition front bench and spoke often, especially to railway issues. When the Tories returned to power in 1930, the new prime minister, Richard Bedford Bennett*, passed over 82-year-old Black for a cabinet position. Instead, Edgar Nelson Rhodes* became Nova Scotia’s representative in cabinet, and Black’s old portfolio, railways and canals, went to Manion. Denied ministerial office, Black was eager to retire to the Senate, but his overtures to Bennett were unsuccessful. Although he suffered a stroke that prevented him from attending the 1934 parliamentary session, his iron constitution kept him alive until 1 September, a month shy of his 87th birthday. At the time of his victory in 1923 he had been the oldest person to be elected to the House of Commons for the first time, and by 1934 he was the oldest sitting member in Canadian parliamentary history, a record that would last into the early 21st century.
Although he enjoyed great electoral success – he won his federal seat four times in less than a decade – William Anderson Black was an unlikely politician because of his lack of partisanship. A conservative by patrimony rather than by principle, he cared more about the economic consequences of government policy than he did about which party was in office. His nearly 70 years in business, during which he was a participating witness to the gradual transition from mercantile to industrial to corporate capitalism, gave him a perspective that was as broad and deep as it was long. Beginning as a retailer, Black developed into an entrepreneur and ended his career as a financier. Sadly, Pickford and Black Limited, which outclassed and outlasted most of its regional competitors, passed out of the Black family less than two years after his death. His son Walter Allan, who succeeded him as president, died prematurely in 1936, and control of the company was transferred to a syndicate headed by industrialist Ralph Pickard Bell*, Anne Black’s nephew. The firm would eventually be acquired by F. K. Warren Limited, a marine agency that was still conducting some of its business under the Pickford and Black brand in the first years of the 21st century.
The Grand Old Man of Nova Scotia, as Black was affectionately and respectfully known, left an estate worth just under $500,000, mostly in the form of securities. Winthrop Bell wrote an engaging pen portrait of his “Uncle Will,” who “took an active interest in politics.… He was a man of great energy who liked to have his own way in anything, but it was natural to him to be genial, and he could be an excellent host. He was a powerfully-built man, and one withered, or partly withered, hand and arm never seemed seriously to impede his activities.” Bell, a professor of philosophy, would have appreciated the fact that Black, whose shadow had never darkened the door of academe, not only served on the board of governors of Dalhousie University from August 1920 until his death, but also provided the endowment for the William A. Black Chair in Commerce, “with special reference to seaborne commerce.” This act of philanthropy, which has since provided generations of business students with educational opportunities that might not otherwise have been available to them, has proved to be Black’s most tangible legacy.
William Anderson Black’s portrait, painted in 1923 by British watercolourist Phyllis Ethel Chipperfield, is in the Art Gallery of N.S., in Halifax. Photocopies and microfilm copies of Black’s few extant personal papers are preserved in the William Anderson Black fonds (MG 1, vol.138; mfm. 10,081) at the NSA, which also holds the Pickford & Black Ltd. fonds (MG 3, vols.1561–1718; MG 7, vols.43–55).
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, no.13555. LAC, R6113-0-X; R14423-0-6. NSA, MG 9, vol.321, Fleming Blanchard McCurdy scrapbook. Univ. of N.B. Library, Arch. & Special Coll. (Fredericton), MG H96 (Richard Bedford Bennett fonds). Acadian Recorder (Halifax), 1875–1930. Daily Echo (Halifax), 1894–1919. Evening Echo (Halifax), 1920–27. Evening Mail (Halifax), 1879–1930. Gazette (Montreal), 1923–34. Halifax Chronicle, 1894–1934. Halifax Daily Star, 1927–34. Halifax Herald, 1875–1934. Halifax Mail, 1930–34. Montreal Daily Star, 1923–34. Montreal Standard, 1923–34. Ottawa Journal, 1923–34. “Triumphed after many trials,” Maritime Merchant (Halifax), 13 Sept. 1934: 21. Wesleyan (Halifax), 1875–1925. J. M. Beck, Politics of Nova Scotia (2v., Tantallon, N.S., 1985–88), 1. W. P. Bell, A genealogical study (Sackville, N.B., 1962). Busy East of Canada (Sackville), 1910–33. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1924–33; Journals, 1924–33. Canadian annual rev., 1923–34. A. W. H. Eaton, The history of Kings County, Nova Scotia … (Salem, Mass., 1910; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1972). E. R. Forbes, The Maritime rights movement, 1919–1927: a study in Canadian regionalism (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1979). G.B., Parl., Agreement between the Canadian government and Messrs. Pickford and Black … (London, 1900); Agreements between the Canadian government and Messrs. Pickford and Black … (London, 1906); Royal commission on trade relations between Canada and the West Indies, Minutes of evidence taken in Canada, and appendices (London, 1910). L. A. Glassford, Reaction and reform: the politics of the Conservative Party under R. B. Bennett, 1927–1938 (Toronto, 1992). Historical record of the posterity of William Black …, comp. Cyrus Black and L. W. Black ([rev. ed.], Sackville, ). Kari Levitt and Alister McIntyre, Canada – West Indies economic relations ([Montreal, 1967]). J. R. MacNicol, National Liberal-Conservative convention held at Winnipeg, Manitoba, October 10th to 12th, 1927 (Toronto, 1930). Maritime Advocate and Busy East (Sackville), 1933–34. N.S., House of Assembly, Debates and proc., 1895–97; Journal and proc., 1895–97. Harry Piers and D. C. Mackay, Master goldsmiths and silversmiths of Nova Scotia and their marks, ed. U. B. Thomson and A. M. Strachan (Halifax, 1948). A. B. Robertson, “John Wesley’s Nova Scotia businessmen: Halifax Methodist merchants, 1815–1855” (phd thesis, Queen’s Univ., Kingston, 1990). E. R. Sager, with G. E. Panting, Maritime capital: the shipping industry in Atlantic Canada, 1820–1914 (Montreal, 1990). D. A. Sutherland, “The merchants of Halifax, 1815–1850: a commercial class in pursuit of metropolitan status” (phd thesis, Univ. of Toronto, 1975). J. H. Thompson and Allen Seager, Canada, 1922–1939: decades of discord (Toronto, 1985). W. J. E. Williams, Ralph Pickard Bell: a biography (Lockeport, N.S., 2000).