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The First Mayor of Halifax - A pompous Gentleman


See Stephen Binney.

This is taken from East Coast Port (and other Tales told under the Old Town Clock) by William Borrett published in 1944. It gives a version of the row between Stephen Binney, the mayor, and Lord Falkland.

There is another version here.


This is the tale of Stephen Binney, first Mayor of Halifax, elected to that high office in 1841, an office which he apparently thought was superior to head of the Provincial Government.

Once again I must thank Dr. D. C. Harvey, Provincial Archivist, for material to make up the continuity of this tale, which I feel will be of special interest, in view of the fact that Halifax is approaching its two hundredth anniversary of its founding.

After nearly one hundred years of struggle for ancient and responsible government between the reformers and the local authorities, on April 19, 1841, the town of Halifax was incorporated as a City by an act of the Provincial Legislature. Though the struggle became acute after the trial of Howe in 1835, the movement for incorporation had begun with the grant of representative government to Nova Scotia in 1758 During the first session of our legislature a bill was introduced but was vetoed by the council of twelve as "Contrary to His Majesty's Instructions."

In these early days in our history the Imperial Government was very much concerned about the democratic organization and the tendencies of the Townships in New England, and insisted that the Governor and council of Nova Scotia should guard against the appearance of Democracy in the Province and maintain control through the careful selection of all officials. It was under such a system that Halifax was governed for almost the fist hundred years, although not without much protest from time to time, until finally in 1841, it was incorporated as a City to have its own elected municipal Government.

It is interesting to note that a combined celebration of the founding and incorporating of Halifax was held by the Nova Scotia Philanthropic Society on June 8 1841, only four days after the organizational meeting of the first City Council.

The Nova Scotia Philanthropic Society had been formed in 1834 as a tangible expression of that growing national consciousness which spurred Nova Scotians on to the achievement of responsible government for the whole province and of a charter of incorporation for the capital. Unable to find a Nova Scotian saint or national hero to honour, it inaugurated the custom of holding an annual picnic to commemorate the founding of Halifax. At that time, and for many years afterwards, Haligonians regarded June 8th as their natal day. It was not until 1860 that the late Dr Akins discovered, on having some dispatches of Governor Cornwallis copied in London, that the true date of the founding was June 21st.

In 1841 it decided to show its appreciation of the new honour that had been conferred upon Halifax by including divine service and a procession in its programme of festivities, with the City Council as guests of honour. Altogether it was to be a very colourful procession, and after following its route of march to the steps of Saint Paul's, and then to the ferry at Market Wharf, was to recognize both the founding and the incorporation by three hearty cheers for the future properity of the"Infant City" over the spot supposed to have received the first footsteps of its founders. They then, on the ferry crossed to Turtle Grove, Dartmouth. There athletic games occupied the time until four o'clock when the society and their guests, three hundred in all, sat down to dinner. "Numerous flags and banners helped to enclose the dining area, and had a very imposing effect amid the sylvan pillars."

The Hon I Leander Starr, President of the Society presided and proposed several toasts. Those to the Mayor, Aldermen, Common Council men and Recorder of the city were received with great enthusiasm.

At the approach of dusk, the company marshalled, and preceded by the band marched on board the attending steamer. The deck was occupied by parties engaged in Quadrilles, Contra Dances and Waltzes, while the boat proceeded down the harbour, round St George's Island and in to the wharf. The company again formed, the band struck up and an escort of some thousand persons waited on the Mayor to his residence. Three hearty cheers were followed by the thanks of His Worship, Mayor Stephen Binney, the first Mayor of Halifax. Similar honour and acknowledgment were given at the residence of the President of the Society, and the National Anthem by the band closed the proceedings of the day.

Observers of the general struggle for responsible government in Nova Scotia have noted that the most bitter opponents of that principle were among the first to offer themselves as confidantes, and thereby get control of the new civic government, and so look after their own interests, and maintain their old policy of social and political exclusiveness.

One of the chief offenders in this respect was Stephen Binney. the first Mayor of Halifax, who had been prominent in the official, business and financial clique in Halifax in those days. In exalting his office and himself, he clashed first with the Lieutenant-Governor Lord Falkland over an alleged slight to the Mayor's high office during the entertainment of the Prince de Joinville, and later with the Duke of Cornwall. The first incident led to a prolonged discussion in the newspapers of the day, and the latter led first to a public meeting of protest in Halifax and by various stages paved the way for theelection of a new mayor.

When the news reached Mayor Binney that the Prince de Joinville, son of Louis Pillippe, would visit Halifax during the week of September 6th, he went ahead with arrangements to welcome him as if the visit were to Halifax, rather than Nova Scotia, and to him, the Mayor, rather than to the Governor of the Province, the official representative of Her Majesty in Nova Scotia. At that time there were three imperial regiments in garrison besides detachments of imperial artillery and engineers, and several British warships in the harbour. It was obvious, therefore, that the Mayor's part in the O'Neill reception must be secondary to that of both the imperial and the provincial representatives; much to the Mayor's chagrin, that was how the ceremony of welcome was arranged.

On Monday, September 6, 1841, the Prince landed at Queen's Wharf at noon: and was received by the Commander of the Imperial Forces, the Governor's aided, and several military gentlemen, and was accompanied to His Excellency's carriages to the cheers of the citizens. After his visit to Government House he returned to the wharf, visited the Captain of the Winchester and received a salute.

On Tuesday evening the Prince and his suite attended a dinner at Government House, and another on Thursday evening, after which he was expected to visit the Regatta Ball in which the Mayor was especially interested.

It was over this second dinner and the Regatta Ball that the Mayor took offence. On that date Captain Grey, Lord Falkland's aide, invited the Mayor and Mrs. Binney to call at Government House on their way to the Ball to be presented to the Prince; but the Mayor declined the honour, refusing to be introduced to the Prince by the Lieutenant Governor in this way, andreminded the Governor's secretary that he was the Mayor of the Capital of the Government of Nova Scotia. He also reminded the secretary, that as Mayor of Halifax, he considered himself next in power and authority in this good city, to Lord Falkland himself and that the Governor might at least have invited him to his second dinner to the Prince, and not merely sent for him and his wife to come and look at the Prince for five minutes.

On receipt of the Mayor's note of refusal, Lord Falkland dismissed the Mayor from his staff, and that was the final insult in the Mayor's opinion. Though the Mayor and a delegation from the City Council presented an address to the Prince on Saturday, and he was invited to the Garrison Ball on the following Tuesday, he never forgave the social affront of ranking him below the members of the Provincial Government, and for weeks after the Prince had departed, the Tory newspapers kept up an attack on Lord Falkland and the Novascotian, which defended him against the Mayor's friends. In the course of the controversy, the Novascotian devoted several pages to the instruction of Mr. Binney in the etiquette of international courtesy.

The news of the birth of a son to Queen Victoria, on November 9, 1841, reached Halifax in the first week of December, and was received with great enthusiasm by all classes in the community. The Governor promptly celebrated the event by a brilliant ball, which was attended by the officers of the garrison, the members of the government and a select body of citizens, but the citizens in general wanted some vent to their patriotic feelings and looked to City Council to lead the way. The Mayor first proposed to give a subscription ball in Province House at two pounds a head, but on finding this proposal unpopular, and utterly inadequate, called a public meeting to discuss the matter. At the meeting considerable opposition was shown towards the exclusive nature of the first proposal, and The Council was urged to devise some means of expressing the loyalty and happiness of the poor as well as the rich. The Council then fixed the date of the celebration for December 23, decided that the various societies should march in procession, that a feast should be spread for the poor and subscriptions taken to release some of the debtors, that a ball be given for the more wealthy, and that an address from the Mayor and Council be laid at the foot of the throne by the Mayor himself, who planned to go to England soon on private business.

On the face of it, the latter looked harmless enough, but those who knew the inside story were convinced that the proposal to send the address by the Mayor instead of through the Lieutenant-Governor was merely a means of revenge for the Prince de Joinville affair. Consequently, the members of Lord Falkland's Government and other leading citizens of Halifax favourable to him, called a public meeting of protest. At this meeting a lively discussion took place, and the Mayor left the chair when sentiment turned against him. Finally, a resolution was passed to the effect that the address from the city should be presented to the Queen through Lord Falkland.

At a later meeting of the City Council, it was decided to save face for the Mayor by allowing him to carry the address to England, but that another address should be sent to Lord Falkland explaining the reason. Thus the Mayor finally had his way, but not without further heartburnings.

On the day of the celebration his conduct brought him still further criticism because, in an excess of zeal for the poor, he attempted to exercise the royal prerogative, and release not only the debtors whose claims had been settled, but the whole lot as well as all the criminals in the goal, including one who had been convicted by the Supreme Court and was awaiting sentence. Fortunately for him the sheriff, knowing that he was exceeding his authority, waited until his back was turned and quietly turned his key on the prisoners.

In commenting on this bravado, the editor of the Novascotian, wrote: "O'Connell has won from his countrymen the title of the great Liberator. There is this difference, however, that Dan did what he attempted, and the Mayor attempted what he couldnot do."

On January 3, 1842, Mayor Binney embarked for England with the address from the City of Halifax in his pocket. At the City Hall, Alderman Kenny acted as Mayor until the middle of March, when Binney's leave of absence having expired, his seat was declared vacant and Kenny was sworn in, as Mayor to complete the first Mayor's term; and Mayor Stephen Binney passed out of the picture. If ever there was a vain and pompous man with exalted ideas of the importance of his office, it was Stephen Binney, first Mayor of Halifax.

In the following October, the next elections for civic honours were held and Alderman Williamson was chosen Mayor. His election indicated that the forces sympathetic to the new form of city government had triumphed, and that henceforth more democratic policies would be followed in the City Council. He had led the petitioners for a charter of incorporation in 1823 and now, as the first citizen of Halifax, he was expected to represent their interests as a whole rather than exploit his position in the interest on the old clique; for the election contests had made it clear to all that Mr. Binney's whole career had been essentially anti-democratic, that his term of office had been characterized by extravagant display, well calculated to bring the new government into disrepute, and that the citizens of Halifax wanted no one in office who would attempt to "Nullify" the City Charter.