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BRYMER, ALEXANDER, agent, merchant, office holder, politician, jp, and militia officer; b. c. 1745 in Scotland, possibly in Dundee; m. 11 Jan. 1796 Harriet Dobson, née Parr, in Preston, Lancashire, England, and they had three sons; d. 27 Aug. 1822 in Ramsgate, England.

The pre-Halifax career of Alexander Brymer remains a little obscure. He emigrated to North America probably as a young man, and entered business as a merchant in Boston. From at least 1772 he was the agent, first in Boston, then in Halifax, for the London merchants Robert Grant and William Brymer, who held the navy victualling contract for North America. Grant had been a member of the Nova Scotia Council; Brymer (Alexander’s uncle) was a wealthy and influential businessman who had been involved in North American commerce from soon after the fall of Quebec [see Daniel Bayne*]. On 2 Dec. 1775 Alexander was nominated agent to Grant and Brymer. He had been doing business in Halifax as early as 1771, but did not finally leave Boston until shortly before its evacuation by British forces in March 1776. He could not have delayed his departure much longer: he was being mentioned by name in rebel newspapers and had signed a loyal address to Governor Thomas Gage* in October 1775. He was proscribed by the Banishment Act of Massachusetts in 1778. At some time Brymer had been appointed co-agent for the disposal of vessels captured or impounded by the Royal Navy, a position he seems to have retained after arriving in Halifax. He must have been comparatively wealthy when he settled there, for in 1776 and 1777 his property was assessed at the third highest value in the town.

To be the agent for prizes condemned in the Vice-Admiralty Court was to participate in war profiteering at its potentially most lucrative. Of the 39 letters of agency registered at the court in Halifax between 1776 and 1781, 18 were held either by Brymer alone or by him in partnership. Brymer not only represented naval officers and privateersmen in court; he also owned at least one privateer himself, the 40-ton schooner Halifax Bob, a letter of marque for which was issued on 29 Jan. 1779. From February to May of that year Halifax Bob cruised in the West Indies, returning “with richly laden prizes.” Halifax Bob was itself a prize; Brymer no doubt had been the agent for its condemnation and had purchased the vessel when it went to the auction block.

Brymer’s first place of business in Halifax was the navy victualling office. In 1779, however, he acquired the valuable estate of the merchant Thomas Saul*. The property consisted of a wharf, storehouses, and a residence so striking that it had been nicknamed “Saul’s Folly” (and became known as “Brymer’s Palace”). The mansion stood at the corner of Hollis and Upper Water streets, and for many years after Brymer’s departure was the premises of the Jerusalem Coffee House or Tavern. In the next decade or so Brymer expanded what had been Saul’s holdings to accommodate the increasing volume of his overseas trade.

The American war had not yet ended when Brymer began to make his presence felt in the political life of Nova Scotia. In 1781 some friends in London had obtained a recommendation from Lord North, the leader of the government, that he be appointed to the Council. Brymer in due course received the appointment, a vacancy having occurred with the death of Charles Morris* late that year, and he was sworn in on 26 March 1782. He also collected nine commissions as justice of the peace for seven different counties, and was likewise custos rotulorum for Hants County. In 1791 and 1792 he served on a committee of the Council which supervised the embarkation of the free blacks for Sierra Leone [see Thomas Peters*; David George*]. Deputy paymaster general to the forces from about late 1791, he was appointed revenue commissioner and auditor of public accounts in 1793 and commissioner in charge of a fund for building roads and bridges in 1797.

In 1787 Brymer had leased the 2,400-acre estate of Winckworth Tonge* in Windsor Township, and five years later he succeeded Tonge as colonel of the Hants County militia. When in the autumn of 1793 Lieutenant Governor John Wentworth* summoned the county militias to Halifax to repel an expected French attack, a quota from Brymer’s regiment marched among them. Writing to the home secretary on 9 November, Wentworth praised Brymer’s “excellent example of attachment and zeal to His Majesty’s service.”

Alexander Brymer was a pillar of the North British Society of Halifax, which was for all practical purposes a Scottish mercantile brotherhood. He entered the society in 1777, was elected moderator in 1778, 1779, and 1780, and president in 1790, and purchased its first life membership in 1783. He belonged, moreover, to a “literary coterie” of members who met regularly to read and discuss papers on learned subjects. Prince Edward* Augustus himself used to attend these symposia. Brymer was also a loyal supporter of St Paul’s Church. He served as churchwarden with Gregory Townsend from 1793 to 1797; in the former year he had had a vestry built at his own expense. When Brymer and Townsend retired, the congregation resolved unanimously that they be thanked for their “prudent and judicious arrangement of the funds . . . , [by which they] discharged a heavy debt.”

Brymer retired to England in 1801, presumably because his uncle William had died in September 1800; he was the principal beneficiary of the estate. He attended his last Council meeting on 16 April 1801 and left ten days or so later, having been entrusted with the dispatches and accounts of Wentworth, who described him in a letter about the same time as “a Gentleman of great distinction and carefulness.” Brymer resided first in London and then in Bath. He held 100-year leases on seven houses in Bedford Square in London, and had the gift of the living of Charlton Mackrell in Somerset. He invested substantially in consols and also owned some East India Company stock. His youngest son was high sheriff of Dorset in 1865.

Alexander Brymer was already a councillor by the time the influx of his fellow loyalists into Nova Scotia began in 1783. He became one of the inner circle of Governor John Parr*, whose widowed daughter he married, and his relations with Parr’s successor, the quixotic Wentworth, were those of mutual respect and loyalty if not friendship. Appropriately, his successor on the Council was William Forsyth*, a Scottish merchant hardly less eminent than himself.

According to Simeon Perkins*, Brymer was “Very Clever & Genteel.” His philanthropy, moreover, was legendary: Beamish Murdoch* tells in A History of Nova-Scotia, or Acadie the story of his interceding with a relentless creditor on behalf of the aged and impecunious Winckworth Tonge. Judge Alexander Croke* held him responsible for the success of Andrew Belcher*, Brymer having taken the young son of a former chief justice into his office. There is, however, a contradictory oral tradition, apparently deriving from some satirical verse no longer extant, according to which Brymer was “really a hard, grasping man.” But the memory of him was still green in the 1860s when Murdoch composed this eulogy of him: “It is not always that the prudence and industry that elevate the commercial man to wealth are united with honor, humanity and generosity, as was the case with Mr. Brymer; but the instances where they are found in combination, merit permanent honor and distinction.”

J. B. Cahill

Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 15: f.89; 16: f.203 et seq. (mfm. at PANS). PANS, MG 1, 250, docs.31–34; RG 1, 169; 171: 33, 136; 172: 51; 411, doc.7; 499. PRO, CO 217/37: 290; 217/55: 196; 217/64: 288; CO 218/25: 171; PROB 11/1662/508. John Clarkson, Clarkson’s mission to America, 1791–1792, ed. and intro. C. B. Fergusson (Halifax, 1971). Naval documents of the American revolution, ed. W. B. Clarke and W. J. Morgan (8v. to date, Washington, 1964– ), 1–3. Perkins, Diary, 1766–80 (Innis); 1780–89 (Harvey and Fergusson);1790–96 (Fergusson); 1797–1803 (Fergusson). Annals, North British Society, Halifax, Nova Scotia, with portraits and biographical notes, 1768–1903, comp. J. S. Macdonald ([3rd ed.], Halifax, 1905), 24, 27. [Although Macdonald’s work is the traditional account of Brymer’s life and career, it is based largely on hearsay and contains several demonstrable factual errors.  j.b.c.] Murdoch, Hist. of N.S., 3: 204–5.

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Cite This Article

J. B. Cahill, “BRYMER, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brymer_alexander_6E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/brymer_alexander_6E.html
Author of Article:   J. B. Cahill
Title of Article:   BRYMER, ALEXANDER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   September 29, 2023