Nova Scotia Archives

A Nova Scotian Observer at the Burning of Washington, August 1814

Nova Scotia Archives, Phyllis R. Blakeley fonds, MG 1 vol. 3002 file 13

The following draft text was prepared by Dr. Phyllis R. Blakeley ca.1973, for proposed inclusion in Volume IX of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976). The item was subsequently withdrawn from final publication, in favour of other more significant historical figures warranting inclusion in the volume.

Who was John Fox?

Fox, John, Surgeon, born 23 May 1793 at Cornwallis, Kings County, NS and died 9 September 1866 at North East Harbour, Shelburne County, NS from diabetes. He was the son of Cornelius Fox (born in County Cork, Ireland, 1745 — died in Cornwallis, Kings County, NS on 29 August 1815) who had emigrated to Nova Scotia as a schoolmaster for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and his second wife Olive, (1763-1856), daughter of Benjamin and Mary (Elderkin) Cleveland.

He was married at New Glasgow, NS, 2 June 1843 to Agnes, daughter of James and Mary (Ritchie) Barry of West River, Pictou County, by the Rev. Charles Elliott, Rector of St. James’ Parish, Pictou, and had several children.

Educated at school in which his father taught, at the age of seventeen he went to Ireland to study medicine, and in 1810 and 1811 he attended the “Theatre of Anatomy”, Peter Street, Dublin; and in 1812 and 1813 he studied in London where one of his instructors was Sir Anthony Carlisle, of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Dr. John Fox was appointed assistant surgeon in the British Navy on 11 April 1813 and first appears on the muster roll of HMS Majestic on 11 May 1813. In 1814 the Majestic was on blockade service off the American coast at Cape Cod, followed the escaped US frigate Constitution to Madeira, captured the French ship La Terpischore and was stationed briefly at Bermuda and at Halifax. In August the Majestic joined the squadron of Admiral Sir Alexander Cochran in Chesapeake Bay for the attack by the British forces commanded by Major-General Robert Ross on Washington on August 24th when the Capitol and a large part of the city were burned. In a letter to his father, Dr. Fox describes how it took the fleet of 45 to sail a whole day to come up the Patuxent River and said that the advance guard of the 85th and some wounded were on the Majestic.

After his discharge from the Navy at the end of the war, he returned to London and spent a year at Middlesex Hospital specializing in midwifery. By 1818 he was practicing medicine at Argyle, and then removed to Barrington, and in 1829-1930 was at Horton (Wolfville), then at Shelburne, New Glasgow (1841-1846), Guysborough (1846-1951), Halifax (1852-53), Windsor (1854-1857?), Bridgetown and then returned to the Barrington district to be close to old friends. He was an enthusiastic Freemason and was secretary of Albion Lodge, A.F. & A.M. New Glasgow, 1842 to 1846.

Although Dr. Fox was a charter member of the Nova Scotia Medical Society in 1854, he did not attend meetings. He was surgeon to the Shelburne County Militia and in May 1824, Dr. John Fox, then a resident of Barrington, was protesting to the General Sessions for Shelburne County about a mill dam without a slope for fish to go up and down the river.

In 1830 John Fox, Surgeon, applied to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly for £7.10 compensation for attending Mrs. William Jennings, wife of a private in the 52nd Regiment of Foot which was removing from Annapolis to Halifax, and on the journey Mrs. Jennings had broken her leg and had to remain at Jonathan Graham’s Inn for a month.

Dr. Fox was recognized as a good surgeon for his time, but it was long before antiseptic surgery and anaesthesia came late in his professional life. Dr. George Snyder of Shelburne is reported as having said that Fox had forgotten more than he (Snyder) ever knew. While at Barrington, his practice covered most of western Shelburne County with an occasional visit to Shelburne. His charges for house calls varied from half a crown to three pounds depending on the distance he had to travel. While teeth were extracted for half a crown and an inoculation for small pox was five shillings. He rode fifteen miles to care for five children stricken with scarlet fever, bringing not only medicines but groceries in his saddlebag for the needy family. Sometimes he was paid in goods, not cash — a ton of English hay credited at three pounds, a quintal of fish at ten shillings and two gallons of Demerara rum at the same rate.

In a newspaper advertisement shortly after his removal to Halifax in 1852 he stated that he had had an “extensive and successful practice in the Navy and on shore of about forty years, in the practice of Medicine, Surgery and Midwifery. He is familiar with all modern improvements in those branches — among which are the simple and successful treatment of Dyspepsia... and the destruction of Cancer without the knife if applied to in season... the poor and destitute shall always have his advice and assistance gratuitous”.

Long remembered for his surgical skill and for his kindness to widowed and orphaned, and for refusing fees from the poor, it is not surprising that Dr. Fox left an estate valued at less than five hundred dollars, including $20.75 for medical books and $36.00 for surgical instruments and $10.90 for medicine.


Edwin Crowell, A History of Barrington Township and Vicinity... (n.p., n.d.) 318-321

Arthur Wentworth Hamilton Eaton, The History of Kings County, NS (Salem, MA, 1910), 666-668

J. Mackay Hitsman, The INCREDIBLE War of 1812 (Toronto, 1965)

William James, A full and Correct account of the chief NAVAL OCCURRENCES of the late War between Great Britain and the United States of America... 1817

K.A. MacKenzie, M.D., “Doctor John Fox, 1793-1866”, Nova Scotia Medical Bulletin, Volume XXXIII, No.8, August 1954, pp. 302-303

MG 4 no. 18 — Cornwallis Township Book

MG 9 no. 188 p. 31 — undated newspaper clipping entitled “Earlier Doctors of New Glasgow”

MG 20 no. 181 — Minutes of the Halifax Medical Society, 1853-1861 and Nova Scotia Medical Society 1861-1868, pp. 2, 12, 18, 22, 25

RG 5 Series P vol. 42 — Assembly Petitions Misc. B, 1837 petition of John Fox, Surgeon

RG6 Series P vol. 80 — Assembly Petitions Poor Relief, 1830 petition of John Fox

File — Dr. A. Jamieson, Shelburne, ... Letters to John Fox, Surgeon, 1818-1821

Churches: Cornwallis, Kings County, NS — St. John’s Anglican Church, Record of Marriages, Baptisms and Burials from 24 August 1783...

Letters of Dr. John Fox to his parents, 9 March 1814; 10 April 1814 and 5 September 1814 in the possession of his great-grandson, Dr. C. M. Harlow of Halifax, NS

Reminiscences of Mrs. M. E. Harlow, daughter of Dr. John Fox, in the possession of Dr. C. M. Harlow of Halifax

Shelburne County Court of Probate, inventory of estate of John Fox, North East Harbour, 12 January 1867

Information from Mr. Edwin T. Bliss, Halifax, NS

Information from Mrs. Donald Robertson, Shelburne, NS

PRO Admiralty: Ships Musters of HMS Majestic (AMD 37/4037)

British Colonist (Halifax, NS), 7 September 1852

The Provincial Wesleyan (Halifax, NS), 26 September 1866, p. 3, col. 4

Shelburne Coast Guard, 13 April 1967, “History and Folklore of Shelburne County” by Marion Robertson, no. 49



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