Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Pioneers, Ploughs, and Politics: New Brunswick Planned Settlements

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The Rt. Rev. John Sweeny The Settlement Scheme

Colonial Saint John
By the mid-19th century, Saint John had developed from a bustling port to a thriving industrial centre where factories, mills, and other manufactories dotted the landscape. The city's population rose dramatically, from an estimated 5,000 in 1815 to about 38,000 in 1861, making it the third largest city in British North America. This rapid population growth was due largely to the arrival of more than 30,000 Irish immigrants. Although emigration from Ireland had been steady during the 1820s and 1830s, it increased dramatically in the 1840s because of disastrous potato famines. Only a portion of the arrivals stayed in Saint John, but enough to change the face of the community. By 1851 more than half the city's household heads were Irish.
Saint John expanded geographically outwards in the 1850s and 1860s, as the city's economy shifted increasingly from shipping and trade to domestic commerce and industrial production. This did little to relieve overcrowding in the city core where many new arrivals found lodgings along the waterfront and main thoroughfares. Some worked as longshoremen, day labourers, and mill hands, while others found employment in the nearby cotton mills, iron foundries, and small manufactories that produced shoes, furniture, carriages, tin and sheet-iron, and leather goods.*
The unwelcome by-products of these social and economic changes were crowded tenements, high rents, filthy streets, long working hours, low wages, and unhealthy working conditions. Bishop Sweeny deemed them harmful to the spiritual and material well-being of poor Irish families. In his view, a rural environment offered clean air, wholesome food, better housing, and fewer temptations.
* Much of the information in this section was drawn from Saint John : The Making of a Colonial Urban Community by T. W. Acheson, Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1985.