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McNabs History: Section 4

McNABS ISLAND, Halifax Co, Nova Scotia: An Historical Overview

Brian Kinsman / Parks and Recreation Division, NS Dept of Natural Resources: April '95

Go to Start | Contents | 4.1 Peter McNab I | 4.2 Peter McNab II | 4.3 James McNab | 4.4 Roderick Hugonin | 4.5 Captain Westcote Lyttleton | 4.6 Robert Cassels | 4.7 Peter McNab III

4.0 THE MCNAB FAMILY (1782-1934)

The McNab family's association with McNabs Island has spanned three centuries and has had a tremendous impact on the development and use of the island. Several McNabs in particular have played a prominent role in island affairs. Peter McNab I's purchase of the island in 1782 set the stage for the family's long involvement in the affairs of the island. His son, Peter II, later inherited the island and undertook numerous improvements. Ownership of much of the island then passed from Peter II to his sons, Peter McNab III and James McNab. By the 1860's, descendants of Peter III had begun to sell his land outside of the family. James McNab controlled most of the island, however, and transferred ownership of his property to three of his sons-in-law: Roderick Hugonin, Westcote Lyttleton and Robert Cassels. In 1867, however, Lyttleton's property had been sold to the Imperial Government and Hugonin's had been offered for sale. The McNabs family's last ties to the island ended in the early 1930s when Ellen McNab, daughter of Peter III, sold the few remaining acres of the family's land on the island shortly before her death.

4.1 Peter McNab I

On December 25, 1782, Peter McNab purchased the island from the Cornwallis family. Maugher Beach, still owned by Joshua Mauger, was acquired shortly afterward. McNab had prospered since first arriving in Halifax and was now a man of some wealth. In addition to paying the Cornwallis family l,000 sterling for the island, he was forced to pay Bulkely 313 for "improvements" the latter had made during the term of his lease. This was nothing more than polite robbery as Bulkely's improvements had consisted of little more than harvesting the best timber for his own profit. Interestingly, the latter amount represents exactly what Bulkely had paid for his lease sixteen years earlier.

Peter McNab made no secret of his feelings toward Bulkely. In a letter to Cornwallis, he writes:

... I can't but think sir that you'll agree with me, in concurring that Mr. Bulkely's conduct to have been very unjust in exacting from me the full sum he gave for the purchase of the lease 16 years ago, tho' he has during that time fulfilled not one condition of the lease ... but has done the island a great deal of damage, by the wood sold from off it.
The Cornwallis family, perhaps embarrassed about the matter, gave Peter permission to collect "whatever money is now due to us from rents in the island." McNab owned the whole island and was known locally as "Governor" McNab.

Little is known of McNab's background or when he arrived in Halifax. He has been variously described as a shoemaker, Royal Navy Lieutenant on the staff of Governor Cornwallis and a veteran of the British Army, having served in America during the Revolutionary War. He is purported to have settled in Halifax in 1754, 1758 or after the peace of 1763.

Interestingly, the later date is supported by an advertisement which appeared in the July 5, 1796, edition of the Royal Gazette. In the advertisement, Peter McNab advises the public that he is closing his business, and offers

... his most sincere thanks to the gentlemen of the navy and army, and the community at large, for the very flattering encouragement he has received from them during the thirty-three years he has followed his business in this [Halifax] place.
In time, Cornwallis Island became known as McNabs Island. The change of name appears to have been gradual, though, for of two maps of the island produced by the Royal Engineers about 1808, one lists the island as "McNabs Island" while the other still refers to it as "Cornwallis Island."

On the island Peter McNab built a stone cottage near the base of a hill at the head of McNabs Cove from where it commanded a fine view of Halifax Harbour and the cove. Margaret Cook, Peter's great-great-granddaughter, later described the cottage as:

a long low stone house ..., [with] a big pantry ..., the windows would be set deep ..., [with] high shallow mantel pieces ..., over the fireplace ..., the doors and banisters were of mahogany ... with the pretty moldings in the ceiling.
Peter McNab used this cottage as his country house, spending the winters in Halifax. Interestingly, though, Peter McNab's home opposite Grade Parade was advertised for sale in 1783, the year following his purchase of McNabs Island.

In 1781, Peter was listed as serving on a Grand Jury.

On several occasions in 1787, McNabs Island was visited by William Dyott, a sometime General in the British Army and Aide-de-camp to his Majesty King George III. On October 1 of that year Dyott journeyed to the island and later recorded:

It [McNabs Island] has been purchased within these few years by a Scotsman who is making use of his utmost endeavour to clear it. There are not more than twenty or thirty acres free from wood. What has been improved turns out very well.
Peter McNab died on November 3, 1799, and was buried in St. Paul's cemetery, Halifax. His wife, Susannah (Koun or Kuhn) died on May 7, 1822, and was buried with her husband.

4.2 Peter McNab II

In 1792, seven years before his death, Peter I gave McNabs Island to his eldest son, the Honourable Peter McNab, who was widely referred to as Peter the Second (Figure 5). Peter II had been sent by his father to the family's ancestral home in Scotland where he received his education. After further studies in England, Peter returned to Halifax where he quickly assumed a leading role in the business and social life of Halifax. In 1792, he married Joanna Culliton, the daughter of one of the island residents. Following her death in 1827, he married Mrs. Margaret Hopkins of Liverpool, Nova Scotia. Peter II later became a Colonel in the Militia and, in 1838, was appointed to the Legislative Council (the so-called Council-of-Twelve). His nephew-in-law, Joseph Howe, sat on the other side of the political fence and was widely known for his strong opposition to the Council.

Peter II made the island his home, living in his father's cottage. He raised sheep and cattle and he and his tenants cleared about one-half of the island for pasture and cultivation. The constant state of war with France, and the resulting large number of British military personnel in Halifax, enabled Peter II to obtain high prices for his produce. He, like his father, brought shepherds from Scotland to tend his sheep. In 1820, Peter II was a judge of cattle at a Fair and Cattle show held by the Agricultural Society on Camp Hill.

The census of 1827 indicates that Peter II's household on the island consisted of himself and four females. The females were most likely his twin daughters Mary Ann and Sophia Louisa (aged 20), his daughter Catherine (aged 17) and an unidentified fourth daughter. In that year his wife Joanna died at 61 years of age. His other children had all married by this time. He had three male servants and one female servant. It also appears that he had owned a residence at the corner of Pleasant and South Streets in Halifax. In 1832, he married Mrs. Margaret Hopkins of Liverpool, Nova Scotia.

4.3 James McNab

On the death of Peter II on June 1, 1847, the McNab house and a large part of the island went to his eldest son, James (Figure 6).

Born on November 30, 1792, he married Harriet King on December 9, 1815. James was a prominent merchant in Halifax. He operated as James McNab and Company until December, 1815, when the firm was dissolved. Three months later he and John E. Fairbanks announced the formation of Fairbanks and McNabs at the head of Fairbank's wharf, dealers in "Port and Maderia, Teas, Sugar, Coffee, Chocolate, Spices." Like his father and grandfather before him, James was destined to play a prominent role in provincial politics. In 1840 he was elected to represent Halifax in the Legislative Assembly and in 1848 was appointed to the Legislative Council. A supporter of Confederation, in 1867 he became Provincial Treasurer in the Blanchard administration. He resigned later that year with his colleagues following widespread opposition to Confederation by a majority of Nova Scotians.

The Novascotian of January 8, 1849, carried an advertisement, dated May 8, 1848, which offered McNabs Island for sale. It was signed by James McNab.

That Beautiful Property known as McNab's Island, situated at the entrance of Halifax Harbour, containing about 1400 ACRES, of which 3 to 400 acres are under Cultivation cuts about 120 tons of the best Upland Hay, and will keep to advantage, from 1,000 to 1,500 Sheep, for which it is particularly well adapted. The Homestead [original McNab residence], a comfortable Two Story House, contains five rooms, a Kitchen, and Pantry, on the first floor, six Rooms on the second floor, with a large frost proof Cellar under the whole; there are three large and commodious Barns with stabling for 15 to 20 head of Cattle, and room for 70 to 80 tons of Hay. At the North end of the Island, there is an excellent Two Story Stone Dwelling House [Peter III's home], with four Rooms, Pantry, and Hall in the first floor, with Kitchen, Dairy, Wash-house and Out Houses attached. There is also a large Dwelling House [formerly the Culliton home], in the South end of the Island, containing 8 rooms, with Cellars, &c. This building is partially out of repair, but, could be made comfortable at a small expense. There are various other small buildings on the Island, occupied by the present tenants.
The notice also claimed that about one-half of the island was covered with hardwood, that an abundance of fish could be found around the shores of the island and large quantities of ballast stone from the beaches were sold annually. Although the advertisement claims that "a good bargain may be expected," and 500 sheep "of the most approved breeds" were offered as a bonus, the property remained unsold for several years.

James McNab's interest in the island was subsequently divided among three of his sons-in-law (Figure 7). James died on October 16, 1871, and is buried at Camp Hill Cemetery. His wife, Harriet, passed away on October 15, 1878.

4.4 Roderick Hugonin

In January of 1851, Roderick Hugonin married Harriet McNab, the youngest daughter of James McNab. On February 20, 1852, Hugonin acquired a portion of Peter II's estate on McNabs Island. A subsequent purchase from James McNab in 1854 gave him ownership of approximately 135 acres which stretched through the centre of the island from McNabs Cove to Eastern Passage. About 1855, Hugonin built a large, Georgian-style, house on his property (Figures 8 and 9). The hill immediately behind Hugonin's house commanded a magnificent view of Halifax and the harbour (Figure 10).

Hugonin had served with the 38th Regiment in which he held a commission as lieutenant. He had served not only in Nova Scotia, but also Gibraltar, the West Indies and in Nicaragua where he was engaged in active service. Widely regarded as one of the best sportsmen in the colony, Hugonin was described as being of "splendid physique, herculean strength and powerful frame."

In late May of 1865, Hugonin sailed for England, never to return. The death of two sons, James and Roderick, at an early age may have contributed to his decision to leave the island. Both children are buried in the McNab Cemetery on the island.

"A great variety" of household furniture belonging to Hugonin was sold without reserve at the Mason Hall on May 26, shortly before his departure on the next Steamer for England.

In 1869, four years after Hugonin's departure, his property was advertised for sale. The Halifax Daily Reporter and Times described the estate as:

... comprising about 130 acres of Arable Pasture and Woodland, good Dwelling House, 15 rooms with a 50 foot frontage, and having a depth of eighty feet, large frost-proof cellars, capital Farm Buildings,three Cottages, Icehouse and Outhouses; also Wharf and Boathouse. There is a never-ending supply of spring water close to the house.
Apparently the property was not sold at that time, for in 1873 a notice of sale appeared in the Acadian Recorder for the "Hugonin Farm - McNabs Island." In offering the Hugonin property for sale, the advertisement played on the growing popularity of McNabs Island with picnickers.

McNabs Island: This favorite locality for summer excursions is likely to be adopted as the resort of persons wishing to remove their families from the dust and heat of the town during the hot weather.... Go everybody and buy a lot on the Hugonin farm on Saturday.
A plan of subdivision indicates that the property was to be subdivided into at least sixty lots, with water lots commanding a premium price. Despite the claim that "the property must and will be sold if possible without regard to its real value," only a few lots were sold and the bulk of the estate remained intact.

James Findlay, caretaker of the Hugonin estate, purchased two lots in 1873 or 1874 and an additional two lots in 1887. Shortly after acquiring the first lots Findlay erected a fine home on them, the remains of which stand today. On this property Findlay also operated a pleasure ground. The three cottages referred to in the 1869 advertisement most likely included a caretakers residence and the two buildings shown to the right of James Findlay's house in an 1885 photograph (Figure 11). Some of these buildings were formerly part of the Innes farm.

In March of 1885, Frederick Perrin purchased the Hugonin house and some adjoining land. The house had been vacant for most of the twenty years since the departure of Hugonin in 1865. Perrin subsequently purchased two more parcels of land from Hugonin later that year and, in total, it appears that Perrin acquired the entire Hugonin estate with the exception of four small lots which had previously been acquired by Findlay.

Perrin introduced many exotic species of trees and shrubs around the estate. In 1948 the Hugonin home mysteriously burned and in the following year John Lynch purchased the property from the estate of Fred Perrin.

4.5 Captain Westcote Lyttleton

Captain Westcote Whitechurch Lewis Lyttleton served with Her Majesty's 64th Regiment of Foot. In October, 1840, he arrived with his regiment in Halifax where he was to be stationed until 1843. While there he met Joanna McNab, the eldest daughter of James McNab. They were married in 1842 by Rev. Dr. Twining, Garrison Chaplain. In August, 1843, the 64th Regiment was transferred to England.

Upon retirement from the military in 1849, Lyttleton and his family returned to Halifax. On an 1853 map of Maugher Beach there is a notation on some adjoining land which reads "Head land of McNabs Island, now rented by W. Lyttleton, Esq." In 1855 he purchased the southern portion of the island (approximately 300 acres) from his father-in-law and occupied the original McNab homestead, at least on a seasonal basis (Figure 12). A.F. Church, in his 1865 map of Halifax County, lists "Capt. Littleton [sic]" as residing on both McNabs Island and South Street, Halifax. Lyttleton was an amateur topographic artist and in 1862 exhibited at the International Exhibition in London, England.

In 1867, Captain Lyttleton sold his property at the southern end of McNabs Island to the British War Department and moved to New Zealand. A number of factors encouraged Lyttleton to leave the island, but none were more important than the loss of his house on the island in a fire in December of 1866, and the fear of a cholera epidemic which gripped Halifax during the summer of 1866.

Lyttleton died at Keswick, England, on August 9, 1886, and his wife Joanna died on June 22, 1908. A deed listing the surviving children of Lyttleton lists their deceased father as a former sheep farmer at Rokeby, District of Cantibury, New Zealand. One of Lyttleton's descendants, G.B. Lancaster, wrote the novel "Grand Parade," a story based on the McNab family.

A second map completed in 1865 map shows two buildings at the southern end of McNabs Cove. The larger of the two is the original McNab house, at this time occupied by Captain Lyttleton and his family. The other is the cottage occupied by Old Peter Wamboldt.

Another map, completed in 1867, provides detailed information on the southern portion of the island (Figure 13). The map, compiled by an Engineer with the British Army, shows the extent of land purchased from Captain Lyttleton by the British War Department.

This map identifies numerous cleared areas in the vicinity of McNabs Cove. "Stone Wall Field," "Brow Hill Field," "Cabbage Garden Field," "Little Island Field" and "Cunningham's Field" attest to the extensive role of agriculture in this portion of McNabs Island. A cottage and barn stand near Cunningham's Field and Peter Wamboldt's cottage is shown near Brow Hill Field. The map also indicates the location of McNabs Cemetery, several barns, and a wharf near the McNab homestead. The homestead itself, however, is not shown on account of it being destroyed by fire several months earlier.

In the vicinity of Finlay Cove a wharf and boat house are shown. Although constructed by Hugonin, they are referred to as "Findlay's Wharf," indicating that they had been acquired by James Findlay shortly after the departure of Hugonin. Remains of the wharf are evident to this day.

Of particular interest on the map of 1867 is the burial ground situated on Hugonin Point, opposite Findlays' Wharf. This site remains as mute evidence to the tragic cholera epidemic.

4.6 Robert Cassels

At the time of his 1838 marriage to Mary McNab, second daughter of James McNab, Robert Cassels was Manager of the Bank of British North America, Mirimichi. He purchased two parcels of land totalling 364 acres on the eastern side of the island in partnership with Captain Lyttleton. Prior to Lyttleton moving to New Zealand, Robert Cassels purchased his brother-in-law's interest in the two parcels of land which they jointly owned.

On November 25, 1878, Allan Cassels bought out his father's interests in the island. For several years he leased portions of his property on McNabs Island to Byron Newcombe, a dairyman from Eastern Passage.Allan's brother was The Honourable Sir Walter Gibson Pringle Cassels, Chief Justice of the Exchequer Court of Canada. Their sister Margaret, along with her husband A.H.Cook, were the authors of an interesting letter to Allan's daughter, Chelsea, which describes the history of McNabs Island.

4.7 Peter McNab III

Peter McNab III was a brother of James and, in 1832, had acquired the northwestern portion of the island from his father. This property contained approximately 120 acres.

The census of 1827 listed Peter III as a Presbyterian farmer with a household consisting of one male and four females. There were also four servants, three male and one female. Two female members of his household would have been his first wife, Rhoda and three year old daughter Ellen. One birth, that of Charles Edward McNab, was recorded in Peter III's household for the year ending October 1, 1827.

Peter McNab III had built a two-story stone house in the early 1830's on property in the northwestern part of the island (Figure 14). He had tried unsuccessfully to sell his property in 1848 by amalgamating it with the lands being sold by his brother, James. Failing this, in 1850 Peter III advertised 100 lots for sale.

Although some may have been purchased, the vast majority remained unsold. Peter III died in 1856 and by 1862 his widow and second wife, Annie, had begun to sell portions of the property. The first to purchase land from Mrs. McNab was the British War Department who initially acquired 10 acres near Ives Cove. In 1865, construction of Fort Ives began on this property.

In 1872, Lewis Kirby purchased the remainder of the Peter McNab III estate, with the exception of the homestead and three acres of surrounding land. Kirby subdivided the property into 49 lots and advertised them for sale. Several lots were purchased but much of the property remained unsold. A few year later the Imperial Government acquired the remainder of the western shore from Kirby for military purposes and in 1899 construction of Fort Hugonin began on the southern tip of this property.

Another purchaser of land from Kirby was Charles Woolnough. Shortly after his purchase of land on McNabs Island, Woolnough established his popular leisure ground there.

Following the death of Annie, ownership of the McNab cottage fell to Ellen McNab, daughter of Peter III. The cottage, which had apparently been damaged by fire some years before, was sold to Matthew Lynch about 1931. Lynch, one of the island's lighthouse keepers, razed the building soon after purchasing it and constructed the "Lynch" house which now stands in its place, just south of the Conrad house. The death of Ellen McNab in 1934 ended the long association between McNabs Island and the McNab family.

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This Internet version of McNabs Island: An Historical Overview is provided by the Federation of Nova Scotia Naturalists (FNSN) as a contribution to the park planning process.