HILL, JOHN, businessman and jp; baptized 7 April 1754 in Topsham, England, son of Samuel Hill and Elizabeth Summerhill; m. there 19 April 1775 Margaret Ferguson, a widow, and they had at least three sons; d. 28 March 1841 in Exmouth, England, at age 87.
Little is known of John Hill’s background or early life. He apprenticed as an anchor-smith in his native Devon and by 1775 was in partnership with one David Sweetland, expanding into general commercial activity, buying and selling vessels, and transporting coal and iron. His first appearance in the North American trade was recorded in 1783, when he was listed as owner of the ships Diana and Peggy, both bound for Newfoundland with the cessation of hostilities. Although still in partnership with Sweetland, Hill had by this time moved to London (Eastcheap and later Rotherhithe), and by 1786 he was in business on his own as John Hill and Company. He soon became one of the major fishing merchants in the Ferryland district of Newfoundland, employing inshore fishermen, running one of the banking vessels in the area, and supplying sealers. He employed first John Barry and then John Baker as agents, but after 1797 he used John Rowe.
During the American Revolutionary War Hill had also become involved with St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, initially in partnership with Edward Lewis, mp, one of the original proprietors of the Island. By 1779 Hill had become a joint proprietor with Lewis of Lot 5, and the two began settling Lewis Town (Alberton South) on that lot in June 1788 by sending a master shipbuilder and several agents there. Hill also became involved in a commercial venture in Charlottetown and on the eastern end of the Island with merchants John Cambridge* and William Bowley. He first visited his North American operations in 1790, noting with pride the successful construction in that year on the Island of the schooner Industry, 41 tons, the earliest of many vessels he built there. The partnership with Cambridge and Bowley projected a large-scale triangular trade with the West Indies and Newfoundland in fish and timber, but soon ran afoul of the Byzantine politics on St John’s Island. Several of the partners’ vessels, including the Industry, were seized by zealous customs officials for alleged trading infractions, and Hill became convinced when he visited Charlottetown in the summer of 1790 that the administration of Lieutenant Governor Edmund Fanning* was as hostile to development by proprietors as Walter Patterson*’s had been. Hill returned to London to lead their opposition to the Fanning regime, and supported a petition calling for a remission of quitrent arrearages and a reduction of payments, along with an offer to use the money saved to convey “useful subjects” to the Island.
Before a full audience of proprietors in London on 27 Jan. 1791, Hill brought a draft address to the proprietors and merchants of London complaining of the actions of Fanning’s government. He spoke to the draft heatedly and at length. The result was a memorial of 19 June complaining against “almost all the officers of Government on that Island who by a Combination amongst themselves and their gross Misconduct of the Government have greatly retarded the Settlement obstructed and oppressed the commerce and discouraged the Fisheries of your Majesty’s said Island.” This “combination” was allegedly led by Fanning, Chief Justice Peter Stewart*, Attorney General Joseph Aplin*, and the collector of customs, William Townshend*. Hill was one of six proprietors, including Cambridge, to allow his name to stand on the complaint; the remaining proprietors dissociated themselves from it. Since all the complainants were known allies of the discredited Walter Patterson, the complaint was politically linked with the former administration. It proved impossible to document conspiracy or to find independent witnesses to attest to the memorial’s list of petty harassments and favouritism, and the administration of the Island was fully exonerated from all charges by the Privy Council in 1792.
The clumsy and premature attack freed Fanning’s government from subsequent and more easily substantiated charges of maladministration. The attack had other implications as well. The officials who had been charged sued Cambridge successfully for malicious prosecution in the Island’s Supreme Court, and Cambridge in turn sued Hill and Bowley for shares of the damages assessed. Initially unable to find a lawyer not involved in the affair, Hill lost his case and Cambridge ended up with his Island assets. Captain John MacDonald* of Glenaladale, a resident proprietor, reopened the case on Hill’s behalf in 1794, but the jury cast aside his new evidence and English legal opinions. Hill and Bowley appealed to the king in council, eventually overturning the judgements early in the next century. Hill maintained that he did not oppose the right of the complainants to sue, but did object to the case being heard in an Island court presided over by one of the complainants, Peter Stewart. To absentee proprietor James William Montgomery he added, none “who values his Character or Property will adventure amongst such unprincipled people, they have ruined every man who has hitherto attempted to Carry on business there.” Most proprietors, including Montgomery, refused to support Hill or to join his continued criticisms of the Fanning government, preferring to deal with it as best they could.
Hill returned to the attack in 1801 with a lengthy exposé of the Island submitted to the Colonial Office, obviously written with the assistance of MacDonald, whose prose style and nose for malicious gossip are evident on every page of the portraits of leading Islanders which comprise a large portion of the text. It was scornful of the character of virtually every member of the administration and legislature. One legislator was described as “so Addicted to drinking that when he gets a Cask of Spirits to his House, he lies drunk in his Bed until the Cask is exhausted and he leaves his Wife and Children to plough and work in the Fields,” and another as “presented by the Grand Jury for incestuous intercourse with his Daughter in law.” A leading official was said to “set all decencys at defiance, by resisting the payment of the Surgeon’s Bill for curing him and his wife of a Complaint he had communicated to her.” Despite the venom of the portraits, they generally ring true when compared with other evidence.
Given his understandably cynical attitude to Prince Edward Island it was hardly surprising that Hill turned his attention for the first years of the 19th century back to Newfoundland. In 1800 he was operating one banking vessel, two shallops, and one three-hand skiff, and was employing 18 fishermen and 7 shore men. He had a number of vessels crossing the Atlantic (including the John MacDonald and later the Lord Selkirk) and continued sealing ventures as well. He kept out of the island’s politics, allowing his agents to manage his affairs. Although like most fishing merchants he was constantly in the courts, he seems to have run into serious financial trouble there only around 1810, when his brig Devonshire, loaded with fish and oil, struck ice and was lost at sea. Hill had already gone into bankruptcy in England in 1807, but not until 1810 did he begin selling off his assets in the Newfoundland trade. By 1815 John Hill and Company was completely insolvent and, despite high cod prices, a forced sale of its assets brought credits of only seven shillings in the pound.
Hill had returned to Prince Edward Island in 1806, having won his Privy Council case around then. In that year he had a vessel built on the Island for the Newfoundland trade (the ill-fated Devonshire) and resumed business at Cascumpec. In 1810 he sought a blacksmith and cooper for the Island. He had begun corresponding in 1806 with lawyer James Bardin Palmer*, who served briefly as his agent and who later insisted that Hill’s openly expressed political views and aims dismayed him. Hill ultimately became one of the principal critics of Palmer, and gathered much of the evidence which the British government used to relieve Palmer of his offices in 1812. By 1814 he was fully back into the tangled politics of the Island, and was one of the major signatories to a proprietors’ petition calling for an end to the restriction on the original grants to settlement by foreign Protestants. The petition also insisted that attempts to force some proprietors to improve their property should not prevent others from “vesting their capital on the improvement of their lands. It is necessary that property should not only be secure but should be universally felt to be secure.”
Hill also opened a correspondence in 1814 with the recently arrived lieutenant governor, Charles Douglass Smith*, who appeared to concur with many of his strictures and criticisms of Island administration. Proprietors like Lord Selkirk [Douglas*] and Sir James Montgomery took Hill seriously. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars Hill was sole proprietor of lots 2 and 4–6, and held half of Lot 7, all on the underdeveloped western end of the Island. Despite his mercantile activity he was not an active improver, although he was prepared to rent land for 999 years to tenants while reserving timber, water, and trade rights and allowing the tenants rights only to the land itself. He apparently expected great deference from his tenants, most of whom were engaged in timbering operations, and one later observer recalled, “I distinctly remember that in his presence heads were uncovered, and every possible respect shown him.”
While Palmer was in England in 1813 to clear his name after he had been dismissed from public office, he was contacted by Hill’s creditors concerning the fraudulent concealment of assets by Hill at the time he went bankrupt in 1807. When Palmer returned to the Island and attempted to prove the allegations, Hill, in alarm, joined Attorney General William Johnston* to bring eight charges of professional and political misconduct against him. In the hearing at the Court of Chancery in 1816 Palmer denied that he had used “malicious artifice” to injure Hill’s character, but admitted that “he did zealously endeavour to expose and fairly substantiate facts relative to the said Hill’s bankruptcy” on the Island, including the result of a court action brought in England by Hill against William Spraggon (an Island timber merchant with whom Hill had had dealings) for “calling him a fraudulent bankrupt under which the jury gave one shilling damages.” As the Palmer affair suggests, Hill had continued to operate on Prince Edward Island as if the 1807 bankruptcy had never occurred, although he advertised his Island lands for sale in Newfoundland and London as “John Hill insolvent.” In 1818 the Lewis Town business of William Maddox Hill and Company (which Hill carried on in partnership with his son) was reorganized as John Hill and Son, and in London as Hill and Son.
Hill constantly travelled between the Island and London on his vessels. Despite an irregular residency he was appointed a justice of the peace in 1820. Disaster struck later that year. John Hill and Son’s stores in Lewis Town were broken into and robbed, the thieves setting fire to the warehouse to cover their tracks. The losses were reported to exceed £8,000. Although he was not initially suspected, one of Hill’s own employees, a recent immigrant from England named James Christie, was soon arrested as an accomplice in the crime. Christie confessed, absolving his family from involvement and blaming his actions on “the powerful temptation of the devil.” He was quickly tried, convicted, and executed in March 1821, the case being front-page news in the local papers for weeks. But punishing the perpetrator did little for Hill’s financial situation. John Hill and Son did not long survive the fire; the partnership was dissolved in July 1821 and was replaced by a firm conducted by William Maddox Hill and Samuel Smith Hill under the name Hill Brothers.
John Hill appears to have retired from active business in 1821, although he continued to travel between England and the Island. He spent the remaining years of along life in Devon staying one step ahead of his creditors and attempting to salvage some of his Island property from the bankruptcy of 1807. Despite his insolvency he was involved in proprietorial politics until 1835, when he leased his lands to Thomas Burnard Chanter*. With John Stewart* he helped to lead the campaign in Britain for the dismissal of Lieutenant Governor Smith in 1824 and participated in the one against the Land Assessment Act of 1833, which heavily taxed Island lands and provided for forfeiture and sale of lots if assessments were not honoured [see Sir Aretas William Young*]. Hill and other proprietors insisted that the tax was an escheat in disguise, passed by an assembly where low property qualifications denied proprietors and their agents a proper voice. In a private letter to the colonial secretary, Hill commented that this “British constitution in miniature is the damnd’st bore upon earth.” It was his valedictory pronouncement upon an island in which he had been embroiled for half a century.
Hill’s career is illuminating in two respects. It indicates some of the obstacles to success with which transatlantic merchants had to deal, explaining why few of them survived with their fortunes intact. It also suggests the importance of close mercantile links, hitherto largely unrecognized, between Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Geneal. Soc. (Salt Lake City, Utah), International geneal. index, Topsham, Devon, Eng., reg. of baptisms, 5 July 1748, 7 April 1754; reg. of marriages, 20 Jan. 1745, 19 April 1775. GRO (London), Death certificate, John Hill, 28 March 1841. Hunt, Roope & Co. (London), Robert Newman & Co., letter-books, November 1793. PAC, MG 23, E5, 2. PANL, GN 5/1, Ferryland, 25 Sept. 1786, 24 Nov. 1791, 8 Nov. 1794. PAPEI, Acc. 2702, Smith–Alley coll., “Minutes of the Proceedings of the Proprietors of St. John’s Island, June 17, 1790–January 27, 1791”; Acc. 2810/171; Acc. 2849/143, 2849/158; RG 6, Court of Chancery, box 1, “Report of Committee of Council for Hearing Appeals from Plantations on Petition of William Bowley to Privy Council, heard 6 March 1799.” P.E.I. Museum, File information concerning John Hill. PRO, CO 226/16: 151, 364; 226/17: 213 et seq.; 226/30: 177–86; 226/50: 222–32, 249 (mfm. at PAPEI); CO 231/2, 29 June 1808. SRO, GD293/2/78/25–27. G.B., Privy Council, Report of the right honourable the lords of the committee of his majesty’s most honourable Privy Council, of certain complaints against Lieutenant Governor Fanning, and other officers of his majesty’s government in the Island of’ St. John ([London, 1792]). Colonial Herald, and Prince Edward Island Advertiser (Charlottetown), 8 May 1841. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal, 3 July 1818. Prince Edward Island Gazette, 8 May 1818; 22 May, 7, 25 Nov. 1820; 20 Jan., 16, 31 March, 23 July 1821. Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, May, July 1810; December 1815. Sherborne Mercury or the Weekly Magazine (Sherborne, Eng.), 10 Feb. 1783. Trewman’s Exeter Flying-Post, or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser (Exeter, Eng.), 20 June, 16 Sept. 1775; 14 March, 16 May 1777; 27 Aug. 1779. The register of shipping (London), 1800–10. Canada’s smallest province: a history of P.E.I., ed. F. W. P. Bolger ([Charlottetown, 1973]). Basil Greenhill and Ann Giffard, Westcountrymen in Prince Edward’s Isle: a fragment of the great migration (Newton Abbot, Eng., and [Toronto], 1967; repr. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1975). Esther Moore, “A study of the settlement of Ferryland” (undergraduate research paper, Memorial Univ. of Nfld., St John’s, 1972; copy at MHA), 16. Pioneer (Alberton, P.E.I.), 7 Feb. 1877.
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Cite This Article
J. M. Bumsted, “HILL, JOHN (d. 1841),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hill_john_1841_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||J. M. Bumsted|
|Title of Article:||HILL, JOHN (d. 1841)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||March 29, 2023|