People with English ancestry form the second largest share of Nova Scotia’s population, after the Scots. The English are seldom considered as a distinct ethnic group, however, due to the differences in time and circumstance under which they arrived in the province. For example, the New England Planters and American Loyalists called themselves ‘English’ but came here after generations of living in what is now the United States.
Halifax was founded in 1749, predominantly by English settlers recruited from metropolitan London. Although most of them soon drifted away, a few families remained. Names such as Creighton, Elliott, Sibley (early chair-makers in Colchester County), Staples and Stevens are among the oldest-settled English families in the province.
Strategically perched on the eastern edge of North America, Nova Scotia has a long military history, and from its earliest days Halifax was a garrison city with a naval dockyard. Over the years, thousands of English officers, soldiers, sailors, shipwrights, riggers, caulkers and boatmen did a tour of duty there – and then chose to remain behind when their regiments, work units or vessels moved on.
Also, every time a war involving North America ended, the British Army had to be reduced and Nova Scotia became home to many discharged officers and men. This happened, for example, in 1763 after the Seven Years’ War, again in 1783 after the American Revolution, and in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Era.
Many British regiments were raised in Scotland or Ireland, so these veterans were not necessarily ‘English’. In the early days, soldiers discharged in Nova Scotia were often given land in new communities planned specifically for them, including Rawdon, New Ross, East and West Dalhousie.
In the early 1770s, hundreds of Yorkshire people immigrated to Nova Scotia, citing high rents, rising prices and hopes for a better livelihood as their reasons for leaving England. Some sailed directly to Fort Lawrence at the Isthmus of Chignecto, a few went to Granville near Annapolis Royal, and others landed at Halifax, walked to the Minas Basin and boarded schooners for Parrsboro and beyond.
Yorkshire family names include Black, Bulmer and Chapman, Coates, Donkin and Dobson, Oxley, Ripley and Trueman.
Traders and fishers from the English Channel Islands, especially Jersey, were active in Nova Scotia from the earliest days. Janvrin, LeVisconte and Martel were common family names along Cape Breton’s south coast, where they were sometimes mistakenly identified as ‘English’. A group of Welsh immigrants settling in Shelburne County about 1820 have often been labelled likewise in the years since.
From time to time in early Nova Scotia, wealthy English landholders tried to establish Old World estates on their large, undeveloped tracts of land. Their tenants were invariably lured away by the easy availability of freehold property and the example of successful nearby farmers.
Today, if you drive from Truro to Halifax on Highway 2, you will pass an attractive rural church at Oakfield – the only remaining building from the estate of General John Laurie, who devoted money and effort to settle Devonshire farm families on his property near Grand Lake in the late 1860s. They scattered quickly, but a few, such as the Emmetts, remained in the province.
English immigrants to Nova Scotia also include ‘Home Children’ – orphans and neglected youth rescued from the poverty of industrial England by organizations such as Dr. Bernardo’s, and then sent out to populate the British Empire. In Nova Scotia, agencies such as the Middlemore Home at Fairview, just outside Halifax, accepted children from 1869 to the 1930s. Some of the later arrivals are still alive, and it is estimated that one Canadian in a dozen is descended from a Home Child.
‘War Brides’ are the most recent example of English immigration to Nova Scotia. These women married Canadian servicemen stationed overseas during World War Two. After the war, thousands of these brides, often with infants and young children in tow, crossed the North Atlantic by liner to begin new lives in Canada. Most joined their husbands elsewhere in the country, but others scattered to communities around Nova Scotia.
So….when Nova Scotians talk today about ‘English’ family roots, they might be referring to early Halifax settlers, army, navy or dockyard veterans, Yorkshiremen, New England Planters, American Loyalists, Home Children, War Brides – or indeed, to almost anyone who came here from England, Wales, the Channel Islands, or elsewhere in the old British colonies. As long as the family came from England, long ago or more recently, they’re ‘English’ – what a rich mixture wrapped up in one word!