SMITH, RICHARD, mining engineer and administrator, industrialist, and politician; b. 30 Jan. 1783 at Tipton, Staffordshire, England, son of Thomas Smith and Mary Morris; d. 21 July 1868 near Lichfield, Staffordshire.
Son of a south Staffordshire coal operator, Richard Smith studied at the Royal School of Mines and was knowledgeable about coal mines “from my youth upwards.” On 12 June 1811 he married Elizabeth Fereday, daughter of Samuel Fereday, an important Black Country coal and iron master. Smith’s future dimmed, however, when he and Fereday suffered financial disaster in the collapse of the coal and iron boom at the end of the Napoleonic wars. An experienced practical expert on coal mining by this time, Smith re-established himself in London, and also managed coal operations in Wales and Portugal during this period.
In 1826 George IV by royal prerogative gave his brother, the Duke of York, a 60-year lease on all the unworked mineral resources in Nova Scotia and the duke sublet the rights to his creditors, the London jewellers Rundell, Bridge, and Rundell. On the advice of the British cabinet the General Mining Association, the jewellery firm’s mining arm, hired Richard Smith to establish their coal mining operations in Nova Scotia.
On his arrival at Pictou in the early summer of 1827 Smith settled his large colony of men and machinery at a site seven miles up the East River which he named Albion Mines (now Stellarton) where small-scale coal operations had existed for about 20 years. The nearby leaseholders agreed to sell to the GMA, and under Smith’s supervision brickworks, buildings, wharves, coke ovens, a sawmill, and a foundry were built, and track was laid for a horse-drawn railway. Though Smith found the gas in the ground “abundant, almost beyond precedent, and the water exceedingly troublesome,” by September the GMA’s first coal was raised from a newly opened, 212-ft pit. On 7 December a 20-horsepower steam engine, probably the first in Canada, started to pump water and hoist coal at the mine; its 75-ft stack became a local landmark. Equally ostentatious was Smith’s impressive brick mansion, Mount Rundell, on a landscaped estate overlooking the industrial operations. Soon a steady stream of visitors viewed the curiosities of the coal mines and enjoyed the gay social life led by the GMA envoy and his wife at Mount Rundell.
In 1830 Smith turned to the important coal resources of Cape Breton Island, where GMA activities had been supervised since 1826 by the young mining engineer Richard Brown, later a chief agent for the GMA. Here too, after some confusion over the terms of the company’s grant, the GMA had taken over the existing lease from small-scale operators, completing its monopoly of the colony’s coal resources. A growing community of men, machinery, and buildings was established at Sydney Mines, where coal had been mined since 1785. Under the supervision of Smith and Brown a new shaft was sunk on the main seam there and steam-powered engines installed, but progress was delayed for two years by problems with the pumping machinery and heavy water flow in the mine. Smaller mines were also opened at Bridgeport and Little Bras d’Or. By 1833 more than 900 men were employed by the GMA in Nova Scotia and coal production had tripled to more than 50,000 tons.
Smith had also plunged energetically into the political life of the colony. On behalf of the GMA he lobbied the assembly for a special clause to specify the GMA’s mineral rights in all land grants, resisted the idea of an export tax on coal favoured by some assemblymen, secured stricter patrol of coal smuggling on the Cape Breton coast, demanded stiff punishment of alleged arsonists when a fire erupted at Albion Mines in 1832, and generally safeguarded the company’s interests. The GMA’s liberal outlay of capital won local acclaim, as did Smith’s personal skill and energy in developing the coal operations. However, Smith also met growing criticism of the monopoly control and generous lease provisions the GMA enjoyed. Indeed Smith’s insistence on strict enforcement of these tarnished his image as a benefactor of the colony. The assembly frowned most on the low rents and royalties, for the coal mines promised to be a major source of colonial revenue. By 1837 Reformers like Joseph Howe* had become staunch opponents of the GMA, but only in 1857 were mineral rights finally repatriated and the GMA’s monopoly restricted.
Bitterness peaked in 1832 when Smith contested a new assembly seat in Cape Breton County against William Young*, an ally of the nascent Reform group [see Doyle]. On the hustings the contest between “monopolist” and “patriot” was violent: at Sydney, Smith’s supporters armed themselves with bludgeons, and in the rural sectors Young’s backers seized the polls. Young was declared elected, but on Smith’s request the assembly investigated his charges of intimidation and irregularities, unseated Young, and installed Smith. The latter served part of the 1833 and 1834 sessions, but returned to England in May 1834.
On his departure Smith probably had few regrets. He had disliked the rigours of life in Nova Scotia. Aggressive and overbearing, Smith left behind “some enemies as well as some friends,” according to the Novascotian, and even Joseph Smith, who succeeded his uncle at the mines, thought it wise to rename one of the company’s steamboats, then known as the Richard Smith. Yet Smith also took with him many tributes. The Halifax Mechanics’ Institute voted him an honorary member; and Howe noted that Smith had “in very trying and difficult circumstances displayed intelligence, activity and a copiousness of scientific resource, very rarely combined in the same individual – and that have seldom, if ever, been witnessed in Nova Scotia.”
In England Smith resumed his career as one of the “professional gentlemen” who supervised domestic industrial expansion. From 1836 to 1864 he managed the Earl of Dudley’s coal, iron, and limestone holdings near Birmingham, developing an extensive network of mines, canals, railways, and ironworks. In 1857 he opened the Round Oak Ironworks, a model enterprise which earned an international reputation. He also served for a time as justice of the peace and as deputy lord lieutenant for Staffordshire. He retired at about the age of 81.
On the whole the record of Smith’s stint in Nova Scotia was a laudable one. He left the coal industry with a production capacity far ahead of demand: despite Smith’s efforts and to the disappointment of the GMA, Nova Scotia coal made slow headway in American markets. Smith claimed to have started coal mining on an “enlarged and scientific footing,” and in this way inaugurated the industrial revolution in Nova Scotia. For this achievement, though, Smith must share the credit with his able deputies, mining engineers Joseph Smith at Albion Mines and Richard Brown at Sydney Mines, and with the hundreds of nameless “Miners, Colliers, Engineers and Mechanics” also dispatched by the GMA. Without the Duke of York and his jewellers, Nova Scotia might have supplied the capital and entrepreneurship to develop the coal mines, a project Samuel Cunard had in mind before the arrival of the GMA. But the colony could not supply men with the practical experience and knowledge of Smith and his subordinates.
PANS, MG 1, 89 (S. G. W. Archibald papers, correspondence, 1813–35); 151–59 (Richard Brown papers, documents, 1859–1914); RG 1, 194–96; 458–64; RG 5, R, 18, 1833; RG 21, A, 2–3; M, 17–20. PRO, CO 217/146–57. Richard Brown, The coal fields and coal trade of the island of Cape Breton (London, 1871; repr. Stellarton, N.S., 1899). G.B., Parl., House of Commons paper, 1835, V, 603, pp.1–360, Report from the select committee on accidents in mines, together with the minutes of evidence, and index, pp.223–36, 249–52. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1824–36, 1857–58. Acadian Recorder, 1827–34. Colonial Patriot (Pictou, N.S.), 1827–34. Mechanic and Farmer (Pictou, N.S.), 1839. Novascotian, 1827–34. Pictou Observer (Pictou, N.S.), 1831–34. Times (London), 1825–34, 1868. Directory of N.S. MLAs. J. M. Cameron, The Pictonian colliers (Halifax, 1974). C. O. Macdonald, The coal and iron industries of Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1909). George Patterson, A history of the county of Pictou, Nova Scotia (Montreal, 1877). R. P. Fereday, “The career of Richard Smith,” Acorn [house magazine of Round Oak Steel Works Limited, Brierley Hill, West Midlands, Eng.], 1966–67. H. B. Jefferson, “Mount Rundell, Stellarton, and the Albion Railway of 1839,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., XXXIV (1963), 79–120. J. S. Martell, “Early coal mining in Nova Scotia,” Dal. Rev., XXV (1945–46), 156–72.
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Cite This Article
David Frank, “SMITH, RICHARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smith_richard_9E.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:||David Frank|
|Title of Article:||SMITH, RICHARD|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1976|
|Year of revision:||1976|
|Access Date:||June 4, 2023|