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MOTTON, ROBERT, lawyer, magistrate, judge, and politician; baptized 28 Oct. 1832 in Halifax, son of Robert Motton, a metal worker from Devon, England, and Eleanor Moore; m. first 22 July 1856 Rachel Flemming in Halifax, and they had one daughter, who died in infancy; m. secondly there 29 Aug. 1861 Maggie Coleman, and they had two sons; d. 24 Aug. 1898 in Providence, R.I., and was buried in Camp Hill Cemetery, Halifax.

Following his education at Halifax Grammar School, Robert Motton studied law with Peter Lynch and was called to the Nova Scotia bar as an attorney in 1853 and as a barrister the following year. While an apprentice lawyer, he dabbled in journalism. Various “tit-bits of scandal and mischief’ which he contributed to William Archibald Penney’s Morning Journal in 1854 embroiled him in a petty and cantankerous exchange with John Henry Crosskill*, editor of the British North American, for whom he had previously written.

Motton opened his first law office on Hopis Street in Halifax shortly after becoming a barrister in December 1854. In 1861 he was suspended from the bar of the Supreme Court for malpractice in a civil suit. Forced to confine his activities to the lower courts and to an agency for the collection of debts, he became a familiar figure in the police (criminal) and city (civil and more senior criminal) courts in Halifax. After a successful application for readmission to the bar in 1864, he went on to build up an impressive practice largely as a defence lawyer. He was also employed frequently by the government in crown cases and was made queen’s counsel in 1876. A short while later he was appointed stipendiary magistrate and recorder for the town of Dartmouth, where he resided until he resumed private practice in 1879.

The 1880s were extremely busy for Motton. His work included the major share of the defence of Joseph Nick Thibault, accused of murder in 1880. In this especially hopeless case, prosecuted by Attorney General John Sparrow David Thompson, Motton based his defence, unsuccessfully, on the irrationality of the alleged crime. In 1882 he became one of two legal advisers to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty, the major prosecuting body in the magistrate’s court as it brought to trial those accused of abusing women, children, seamen, and animals. A year later he took over as sole counsel. Other legal responsibilities included substituting for Halifax’s first stipendiary magistrate (Henry Pryor), assisting the coroner at the investigation of the Halifax poorhouse fire of 1882, acting as prosecuting solicitor for the board of commissioners established under the federal liquor law of 1883 (the McCarthy Act) until the act was declared ultra vires in 1885, and serving as counsel to the legislative investigation into the management of the City and Provincial Hospital in 1886. Motton’s legal career culminated in his appointment as Pryor’s successor as stipendiary magistrate for the city of Halifax in 1886, an appointment without term and the only judgeship in the gift of the provincial government paid for by the city.

Motton’s political activities in the 1870s and 1880s suggest that he was also ambitious for elected office. Apparently at first a supporter of confederation, he later changed sides and joined the anti-confederates. He remained a supporter of the anti-confederate government led by Liberal William Annand* until 1873, when a by-election in Halifax County, necessitated by the death of William Garvie*, resulted in the formation of a splinter group. Opposed to the manner in which the Liberals had nominated their candidate for the seat, because, according to his rivals, he wanted the nomination himself, Motton emerged as leader of the short-lived faction calling itself the Young Nova Scotia Party. He contested the seat against Liberal John Taylor on a platform that included abolition of the Legislative Council, reduction of the number of mhas, reform of the grant system for road building, and the application of savings realized by these measures to improving the quality of education. The issues, however, became buried in the personal invective that characterized the short campaign. The contest seemed to be a clash between old and young, rich merchant-politicians and aspiring new men, government leader Annand and neophyte Motton. After winning only 30 per cent of the vote, Motton tried unsuccessfully to have Taylor disqualified. None the less, Motton soon returned permanently to the Liberal fold.

Motton’s other political activities centred on municipal government in Halifax. Always in the forefront of progressive local issues, he was elected in 1880 to a three-year term as an alderman for Ward 3, which encompassed both the commercial and administrative heart of the city and its low-life district. He failed, however, to win election as a school board commissioner in 1880 or as mayor the following year. While an alderman, he served as chairman of the laws and privileges committee for three years and of the police committee for two. An advocate of economy and efficiency in municipal government, Motton took a hard line on financial matters except where they pertained to support for such new industries as a dry dock and a cotton factory, enterprises which he endorsed whole-heartedly.

Thus when Motton assumed his judicial position in 1886, he was both an able trial lawyer and a thwarted politician. During his eight years on the bench, social reformers were waging war against liquor, prostitution, and family violence. These concerns greatly preoccupied the police court presided over by Motton. (He was also judge of the city civil court.) A Methodist active in such movements as temperance, social purity, and sabbatarianism, Judge Motton readily displayed his social biases in court. When five women appeared before him charged with being “inmates of a house of prostitution” after a police raid in 1887 on the Stone Jug, a tavern on south Brunswick Street in Halifax’s “tenderloin” district, Motton sentenced them to jail for four months without the usual option of a fine, demonstrating that, in the words of the Morning Herald, he was “making the law a terror to evil doers” and not allowing “notorious offenders to escape with a nominal penalty.” Violators of the sabbath, from Seventh-day Adventists to streetcar operators and shopkeepers, were similarly chastised. Drunkards, who comprised the majority of the offenders in his court, were treated more leniently because Motton, an outspoken prohibitionist, blamed the vendor rather than the drinker for the misuse of alcohol. When the drunkard’s bad habits affected his family, however, Motton was more severe. He told a federal commission on the liquor traffic in 1892 that he especially deplored “cases of wife-beating; cases of neglecting wife and family; cases of persons who injuriously misspend their time by spending money and time in liquor which ought to go to their families.” Yet he firmly believed that the laws must reflect community standards. “A licence law, or any law, is not of much value until public opinion breathes into it the breath of life.”

In the 1880s and early 1890s Motton was well known and in demand throughout the province as a public speaker. He gave lectures on current affairs, moral questions, and his own legal experiences to a wide variety of audiences. In 1894, realizing that he was losing his grip as a magistrate because of ill health, Motton retired on a pension and moved to the United States in the hope of recuperating. Both during his lifetime and on his death in 1898, he received many tributes from the people of Halifax. Newspapers stated that “as a jury lawyer, he had few if any equals,” as a lecturer he ranked “second to none,” and as a magistrate he gave “unremitting attention” to his duties.

Judith Fingard

PANS, Churches, St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (Halifax), records of Grafton Street Wesleyan Methodist Church (Halifax), reg. of marriages, 22 July 1856 (mfm.); St George’s Anglican Church (Halifax), reg. of baptisms, 28 Oct. 1832 (mfm.); Places, Halifax, council minutes, 1880–83 (mfm.); MG 20, 516, nos.3, 6; 519, no.1: 98, 120; RG 1, 203A, 9 Sept. 1882; 203H, 12 May 1886; RG 32, M, 190, no.38; RG 35-102, ser.33, no.C.1; RG 39, HX, J, 76; M, 2, bar applications, no.25; RG 42, HX, D, 26–36. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1894, no.21, minutes of evidence taken in Nova Scotia, 61–70; Royal commission on labour and capital, Report, Evidence – Nova Scotia, 186–88. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1873. Acadian Recorder, 2, 9, 23 May, 13 June, 31 Oct., 7 Nov. 1868; 15 May 1869; 22 June 1880; 25 Aug. 1898. British North American (Halifax), 31 July, 4 Aug. 1854. Halifax Daily Echo, 27, 29 Aug. 1898. Halifax Evening Reporter and Daily and Tri-Weekly Times, 8–20 Feb. 1873. Halifax Herald, 21 Feb., 2, 6–7 June, 11, 20, 25 Sept., 2 Oct. 1894; 25 Aug. 1898. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 8–20 Feb. 1873; 1, 4 March 1879; 2–9 Dec. 1880; 7 July, 3, 12 Oct., 3, 13 Nov., 19 Dec. 1882; 28 April, 3, 21 July, 8, 22 Aug. 1883; 15 Feb., 22 May, 26 June, 5 Aug., 10 Oct., 1 Nov., 16 Dec. 1884; 11 Feb., 18 May, 28 Nov., 16 Dec. 1885; 1 Jan., 8 Feb., 31 March, 15, 19, 29 April, 6, 14, 27 May, 20 Sept., 21 Dec. 1886; 23 July, 5 Aug., 4, 9–10 Nov. 1887; 2, 7 Jan., 8 Feb., 9–10 March 1888; 25 Aug. 1898. Morning Herald (Halifax), 19 Nov., 4–10 Dec. 1880; 8, 27 Jan., 9 March, 10, 20, 29 June 1887; 6 Feb., 17 May 1888; 22, 31 Jan., 27 Feb. 1889; 30 Jan., 7 April, 10 June 1891. Morning Journal (Halifax), 2 Aug. 1854, 7 March 1855. Novascotian, 24 Nov. 1856; 28 June, 6 Sept. 1858; 2 Sept. 1861. Presbyterian Witness, and Evangelical Advocate, 23 Feb. 1895. Belcher’s farmer’s almanack, 1854–70. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), 2: 783–84. Halifax directory, 1869–95. Waite, Man from Halifax.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Judith Fingard, “MOTTON, ROBERT,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 10, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/motton_robert_12E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/motton_robert_12E.html
Author of Article:   Judith Fingard
Title of Article:   MOTTON, ROBERT
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   June 10, 2023