SILVER, WILLIAM CHAMBERLAIN, merchant and philanthropist; b. 3 Dec. 1814 in Preston, N.S., eldest son of William Nyren Silver and his first wife, Elizabeth Ann Chamberlain, daughter of Theophilus Chamberlain*; m. 2 Sept. 1840, in Halifax, Margaret Ann Etter, daughter of Benjamin Etter*, and they had 13 children; d. 23 Feb. 1903 in Halifax.
William Chamberlain Silver’s father, the son of an Anglican cleric, left his home in Hampshire, England, as a youth to become an apprentice with a London silk mercer. Drawn overseas by the bustle of war, he settled at Halifax in 1805 and later went into business as a dry-goods retailer. His firm apparently collapsed during the economic dislocation which followed the Napoleonic Wars but Silver persisted and, in the early 1830s, reappeared as a shopkeeper. Young William began working as a clerk for his father and in 1840 was admitted as a partner. Reorganized in the 1840s as W. and C. Silver when William’s brother Charles joined the partnership, the firm grew into a leading Halifax wholesaler. In 1868 it was said to be worth $200,000, and the principals drew praise from the Halifax correspondent of R. G. Dun and Company for being “respected & reliab[le] people whose credit is never questioned.” At the same time, however, the reporter observed that the business “is not managed with much ability or energy.”
That criticism probably related to William Silver’s zeal for involvement in community affairs. He first displayed this tendency early in the 1830s when he became a founding member of Halifax’s pioneer temperance organization, the Halifax Temperance Society. His commitment to temperance proved a lasting one and led a half-century later to his election as grand worthy patriarch of the Sons of Temperance. Silver had other enthusiasms, in particular the Church of England. In the 1860s, after the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel withdrew its financial subsidies from Nova Scotia, Silver volunteered to tour the province on a money-raising campaign. Successful in setting up the Church Endowment Fund, he became its long-term chairman. In addition, he served on the executives of the Church of England Institute, the British American Book and Tract Society, and the Nova Scotia Bible Society. Related activities included his participation in the establishment of St Luke’s Church as a cathedral, his promotion of Sunday schools, and his leadership in the establishment of the Anglican synod of Nova Scotia [see Hibbert Binney*].
Silver also became active in education. For example, in 1878, as president of the Halifax School Association, he played the major role in the founding of the city’s first public high school. Although largely self-taught, he possessed considerable intellectual curiosity, which he exhibited by becoming an original member and later an executive officer of the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science. Silver sent three of his sons to King’s College and became a governor of the college as well as a long-time vice-president of its alumni association. Many other institutions benefited from Silver’s belief in stewardship. During the last quarter of the 19th century he held a variety of offices: president of the Western Halifax Agricultural Association, the School for the Blind, the Halifax Visiting Dispensary, and the St George’s Society, vice-president of the Halifax Library and the Young Men’s Christian Association, and director of the Halifax Infants’ Home. Such involvement made him easily the most active philanthropist in Halifax.
Silver was also concerned with the more material aspects of “progress.” For example, he acted as president of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce for 11 years, and in that capacity spoke out with “rugged eloquence” for such things as lower railway freight rates and improved docking facilities in Halifax Harbour. In politics, he pursued a seemingly erratic course. Initially a conservative who was dubious about the wisdom of responsible government, Silver supported the populist Joseph Howe* when the latter came out against confederation. In 1869, however, he broke with the anti-confederate die-hards such as George Murray* to support acceptance of “better terms” within the union. Four years later he repudiated the Conservative party when Sir John A. Macdonald*’s government became embroiled in the Pacific Scandal. Although an ardent free trader who saw Macdonald’s National Policy as threatening the ruination of Nova Scotia, in the 1880s Silver became a champion of imperial federation, a cause many Liberals viewed with suspicion. Running through these shifts of position was a consistent thread of anglophile sentiment.
By the end of the 19th century, Silver had come to be regarded as an icon of respectability and generosity. In large measure the image was justified, but Silver’s philanthropic spirit had its limits. His will directed that the bulk of his estate, valued at over $130,000, should go to members of the family.
Baker Library, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 11: 245; 12: 648, 796 (mfm. at NA). Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Estate papers, nos.1066, 1743, 5728. Acadian Recorder, 24 Feb. 1903. Daily Echo (Halifax), 24 Feb. 1903. Evening Mail (Halifax), 24 Feb. 1903. Halifax Herald, 24 June 1897. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 30 Aug. 1878, 4 Dec. 1880, 5 June 1888. David Allison and C. E. Tuck, History of Nova Scotia (3v., Halifax, 1916), 3: 39–43. Almanac, Belcher’s, 1850–1900. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.2. Halifax and its business: containing historical sketch, and description of the city and its institutions . . . (Halifax, 1876), 133–34.